Trafford creates history as England Under-21s show Southgate how to become European champions

Jason Soutar
James Trafford during a pre-match warm-up.
James Trafford during a pre-match warm-up.

James Trafford for £19m? That is peanuts, mate. England Under-21s are European champions, with the majority of the praise going to Burnley’s new goalkeeper, unless Manchester City increase their demands after his exploits at this summer’s tournament.

You could say England Under-21s’ win in the final of the 2023 U21 European Championships gives the senior squad the opportunity to complete a Treble of continental tournament wins, but this is all about the Young Lions, who did everything required to win a final against Spain to join England Women as champions of the continent.

England Under-21s went into Saturday’s final against Spain with a single player who has senior experience at international level. That man is Emile Smith Rowe, who has not played for Gareth Southgate’s side since March 2022. The Spanish side had three full internationals in their starting XI, as well as Gabri Veiga – who everyone and their dog wants to sign – on the bench. It did not look like Lee Carsley’s men were the team with less experience in their 1-0 final victory.

The game started off at a fast pace, which is everything you want from a final, but something you rarely see from a final. Both teams were pressing high, with Spain doing more on that front in the opening five minutes than Israel did in 90 minutes against England in their semi-final.

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Anthony Gordon looked extremely dangerous in the opening 20 minutes as Spain grew into the game and began to control more of the ball. Everything England did in the final third came through Newcastle United’s £45million man, with Cole Palmer also causing problems on the right flank.

England U21s celebrate their goal against Spain U21s.

And it was Palmer who influenced the only goal of the game. Manchester City’s Treble winner was fouled on the edge of the box by his club teammate Sergio Gomez before stepping up to take the free-kick.

His left-footed strike was goal-bound but would have been saved by Arnau Tenas, only for it to hit Curtis Jones in the back as he crouched over trying to avoid the ball. Thankfully for the Young Lions, he did not avoid it, and that innocuous deflection was the difference on the day, on paper anyway.

After the goal, which came right before half-time, it was all about England showing know-how and not letting the occasion and Spain’s dark arts get on top of them. They did well to keep their heads and didn’t decide to drop deep until the last 15 minutes of the match; in that time, Spain were mainly limited to crossing the ball into the box, which did not work.

It was always going to be hard to say Curtis Jones was the hero of the day considering how the goal went in, and England didn’t really have a hero to salute until the 99th-f**king-minute.

Abel Ruiz won himself a penalty in stoppage time after Levi Colwill left one in on him. It was one of those when the player fouled probably could have stayed on their feet, but the contact was there, so the penalty was awarded after a VAR check and on-field review.

Ruiz stepped up, only to see his spot-kick denied by Burnley-bound Trafford, who dived to his right to save, before stopping a rebound with his foot and watching a third shot go over the bar.

With those saves, Trafford preserved his clean sheet, which was his sixth of the tournament, in as many games by the way. Zero goals conceded all summer is an outstanding accomplishment and it is his accomplishment. No team has kept clean sheets all the way through an Under-21 tournament to lift the trophy before (we are not counting Spain in 1998 who only played three games), and Trafford deserves his flowers.

Although the Manchester City shot-stopper had a superb tournament and is the hero of the final, England’s defensive record is also thanks to the back four of James Garner, Max Aarons, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and the brilliant Levi Colwill, who Mauricio Pochettino quite rightly wants in his Chelsea starting XI for the upcoming season.

Out of all the players in this squad, we have no doubts that Colwill is the most likely to go to Euro 2024 with Gareth Southgate and his players, but Trafford is certainly one to watch and although £19m was initially seen as a silly fee to pay for someone with no professional experience above the third tier of England football, one tournament has fully justified it.

And on that note, this is all about the Under-21s and not Southgate and his players, but the England boss might have learned a thing or two from how to set a team up for a final. If he did, there is a good chance we could witness a famous Treble. Can the U21s, Women, and Men all be European champions at the same time? Well, why the hell not?