There are a lot of ‘Under’ England teams from 21 down to aged three. Well, almost. What is the point of them over and above just playing competitive football for the sake of it? Plenty of players represent England at all levels but England’s senior team’s fortunes have been remarkably consistent, regardless of this. It’s not as though we notice a rise and fall of the senior side’s fortunes in relation to the success or otherwise of the ‘Under’ sides. Is there an over-arching philosophy to England? The FA would have us believe there is.
The Under-18s have just lost to Russia, guided to this defeat by a man called Neil Dewsnip who said it was great experience for the lads. At every level, you’ll see interviews with the coaches that talk about the kids getting great experience, implying or outright stating that this will set them in good stead for their career. There are certainly youth or, as they’re often called now, ‘development’ international games all the time, but how do these great learning adventures play out for these kids’ careers? Is it making them better players?
Is Nathaniel Chalobah, or indeed anyone, set to be a better footballer having worked with Gareth Southgate, a man whose managerial experience amounts to three years managing Middlesbrough to relegation with a 29% win ratio – albeit at a time of financial restraint. Does he qualify for the job because of that, or because he’s a nice chap, is articulate and appears modern to the people who run the FA? Can we expect, in three years’ time, the senior side to be made up of people who all played at Under-21 level? It’s not happened so far and frankly, given the quality of the U-21 players, I doubt it will in the future on anything other than an occasional basis. Will Southgate be the next England manager? Is he also in training for the big gig? Is the Under-21s really a stepping stone?
There is often talk of how the development teams are all part of some seamless process to bring players through to the highest level, as though there is A Plan. But is there really? England don’t play one way at all levels and inculcate that method of play from an early age. And we’re so short of excellent players that no matter what age you are, if you’ve had half-a-dozen good games for your club, you’ll be fast-tracked to full international anyway, regardless. A lot seem to slog away at these ‘under’ levels, whilst not even getting first-team football at their club. I wouldn’t wait with bated breath for many of the current Under-21s to be making huge waves at international level, if the performances at the current tournament are anything to go by. Some look to have great potential, but that’s all it is. At some point potential has to grow into something more definite and significant.
Obviously, being selected to represent your country is a personal achievement for those concerned and that is, in and of itself, a perfectly justifiable reason to have so many junior levels, but clearly it’s supposed to be part of a greater long-term plan to identify the country’s finest talent and turn England into a side that can compete for honours at senior level. Certainly, were you to ask any of the coaches, that’s what they’d say, as though it is basically a long ladder which you climb to the top. But is it just window-dressing? 31 years ago we won the Under-21 Euros but it didn’t help the senior side achieve success, while clearly there are better examples around Europe which we are now, in theory, trying to follow.
The England Under-17s actually won the 2014 Euro Championships, so the next couple of years should reveal to what degree junior level achievements indicate the depth of English talent. Will it contribute to full international success or even to English talent being more prominent at clubs?
For example, Joe Gomez has just signed for Liverpool. He was a defender for England at the successful under-17 tournament, is now in the Under 19s and has played in many England development squads. If he’s going to be a full international, the next couple of seasons will be crucial. If he becomes a regular starter in a successful Liverpool defence, he may become a full international but if he doesn’t and, rather than risk playing him, they buy an established international (which often happens) and leave Joe to play in the League Cup, then maybe all those years in the Unders will come to nothing. He’ll get shipped out to a lower-league side and all those development squads will be a distant memory as the sleet pelts into his face on a Tuesday night in Carlisle. If having successful development sides doesn’t put more Englishmen into more top clubs’ first teams and doesn’t provide us with a successful international side, then we’re within our rights to ask what is going on.
A lot do fall by the wayside. If you look at players who were in development squads right up to Under-21s a few years ago, most of them just drifted down the leagues or simply didn’t break into the highest level. Mark Noble represented his country at every level, but will never be a full international now. Did those years playing England improve him or did they just fuel a sense that he was better than he was? There are so many levels to the development structure that dozens of players could call themselves an England representative, so inevitably a lot will turn out to not make the grade, but is that because they were not good enough to progress or is it because they’ve not been coached properly, or are those two things indivisible?
Is there any evidence that being selected for development squads and playing in tournaments from the age of 15 onwards is producing better England full international players capable of beating the best of the best? Not yet there isn’t. Hopefully that’ll change but as you watch the Under-21 side having just three shots on target and struggling to beat Sweden, it’s tempting to think it won’t.