Only in English football could hope, the last thing to die, be dismissed as a negative. So wounded have we been by failure – eventual, systematic, agonising and total – that hope is something to be mistrusted, feared even. Hope is not the spark of potential success but the inevitable precursor to disappointment.
Ask any Italian, Spaniard or German what hope means to them in football, and would any of them frown, scoff and tell you darkly that “it’s the hope that kills you”? I can’t help thinking that they wouldn’t. This is a distinctly English disease.
It’s difficult to define exactly when this allergy to belief really kicked in. It wasn’t after Italia ‘90, because we believed in 1996 when Baddiel and Skinner told us to and the country sang along in agreement. It wasn’t after Euro ‘96, because when Michael Owen scored against Argentina in 1998 we certainly held hope. It wasn’t after World Cup ’98, because when we took the lead against Brazil in 2002 there was positivity. Even in 2006, the response to penalty defeat to Portugal was wholly positive. ‘The lads played their hearts out, and hats off to them for that,’ the top reply on the BBC’s match report read. Now they would have to disable the comments section.
Perhaps it was after Euro 2012, the last time England played at a level at least approaching acceptable in a major tournament and the third time in four that England had lost on penalties. Maybe Andrea Pirlo’s Panenka didn’t just crush Joe Hart but persuaded fans to close their hearts for business, like someone walking away from the person they desperately love but patently aren’t compatible with.
Or, as is more likely and far less melodramatic, this is a drip feed divorce more than a clean break. In his book Fifty Years Of Hurt, Henry Winter dissects England’s slump from world champions to also-rans, spreading blame far and wide as well as appropriately focusing it on certain key targets. The book chronologically charts our journey from pride to lamentation, and it is this constant cycle without change that wears down supporters. As England plodded or stumbled in and out of major tournaments, we learnt that apathy was the appropriate defence against pain. Only when you care can you be hurt.
It was in December 2014 that ‘England DNA’ was announced at St George’s Park in Burton. The initiative was introduced by director of elite development Dan Ashworth, head of player and coach development Matt Crocker and then-England Under-21 coach Gareth Southgate. Aimed at England’s youth teams from U-15s through to Men’s Under-21s and Women’s Under-23s, the ultimate aim of England DNA was to create winning England teams.
Two-and-a-half years later, it is difficult to doubt the progress achieved in the performance of England’s under-age teams. Judging that as a direct result of the DNA initiative is hard to prove and therefore requires a leap of faith, but those present on that day deserve at least their fair share of the credit. We are quick to blame those in Wembley’s corridors of power when England teams – youth and senior – fail. For that criticism to stick, we must also praise when appropriate.
In May, England’s Under-17 team came within a few seconds of winning the European Championship before eventually losing on penalties to Spain, only the second time in six years that they have reached the semi-finals. The squad contained players such as Jadon Sancho, George McEachran, Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi who have progressed through the academies of Chelsea and Manchester City. Sancho was named the tournament’s best player.
In June, England retained the Toulon tournament trophy after beating Ivory Coast on penalties in the final, and David Brooks of Sheffield United was named Player of the Tournament. If the quality of teams in France was lessened by the crossover with the U-20 World Cup, England upset the odds to win that competition for the first time in their history too. New Liverpool signing Dominic Solanke was named as Player of the Tournament, completing a clean sweep for England, but Ovie Ejaria, Ademola Lookman, Josh Onomah and Ainsley Maitland-Niles also impressed.
On Tuesday, England Under-21s play a European Championship semi-final for the first time since 2009 when they meet Germany in Tychy. Germany are favourites to win the match, and England may be without Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Redmond, but just as striking as England’s progress in Poland is the list of eligible players not present for various reasons: Marcus Rashford, Patrick Roberts, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Dele Alli, Harry Winks, John Stones, Raheem Sterling, Izzy Brown, Tom Davies, Eric Dier and Luke Shaw.
The caveat is that judging senior success based on under-age tournaments is a patchy process, and that is true. Yet there is an optimistic counter to that argument: One of Spain or Germany have been in nine of the last 11 Under-17 European Championship finals. Brazil, Argentina or Spain have been represented in 12 of the last 14 Under-20 World Cup finals. Both of the last two winners of the senior European Championship (Spain and Portugal) have been represented in the previous year’s final of the Under-21 version of the same competition. Even the most tentative conclusion to draw is that success can hardly ever be a bad thing.
With the Under-19 European Championship still to come (here’s to you Reece Oxford, Ryan Sessegnon, Chris Willock, Marcus Edwards, Trevoh Chalobah, Andre Dozzell and Ben Brereton), England’s under-age men’s teams have so far played 20 matches at tournaments in 2017, winning 17 and drawing two. The penalty defeat to Spain is our only loss. It is an unprecedented run of form.
England are the only country to reach all three semi-final stages in the flagship youth tournaments this summer. Italy and Germany played in all three and failed to match England. Spain failed to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup, France failed to qualify for the Under-21 Euros and Portugal failed to qualify for the Under-17 Euros. This is evidence not just of talent in one age group, but strength in depth across the board.
Any expression of excitement in England’s young players is likely to provoke one of two obvious retorts, both at different ends of the spectrum. The first is to suggest that we are overestimating their ability, another example of classic English arrogance and blind patriotism. The second is the accusation of piling pressure upon those young players, usually with sarcastic mention of the ‘Golden Generation’. Positivity cannot be countenanced, as if it will unleash some black magic upon their careers.
Yet we must accept that this mistrust of hope, and the staunch determination to remain apathetic, is just as damaging as piling pressure on our young players. Fail to appreciate their progress and we risk suffocating them with negativity. Expecting the worst and treating anything else as a prelude to eventual despair is no way to nurture developing talent. English football struggles with the Goldilocks principle of appreciating young talent, air blowing either too hot or too cold but never just right.
The next step for England’s Under-17 and Under-20 teams is to forge pathways into the first-team squads of their elite clubs, a task that will be more difficult to achieve than their successes this summer. Yet it was encouraging to hear chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak promising that Sancho and Foden will become first-team players at Manchester City. Seeing is believing for those of us who despair at theirs and Chelsea’s loan farms, but intentions are good.
Summers like this one can make a difference, too. If pathways are not forthcoming from the top down, the onus is on the players themselves to change opinion from the bottom up. Success of England’s youth teams generates a desire among supporters for players to be given increased opportunities to prove their worth. Moves such as Oxford to Borussia Monchengladbach and Willock to Benfica persuade supporters that the players themselves are prepared to consider a different route to the top.
The success of the ‘England DNA’ will only ever be measured by the performance of the senior team; that much was conceded even on the day of its introduction. But it is worth reinforcing two things: Firstly, that this was a long-term vision rather than quick fix, and secondly that the Football Association is reliant upon the Premier League’s elite clubs ensuring pathways for young domestic players while simultaneously being virtually powerless against their financial might. Yet despite that difficult platform, heads are being raised above the crowd.
The summer of 2017 has not solved any of English football’s biggest issues, but it has at least erected signposts directed towards the solutions. If clubs and players have been shown lessons they must learn, so too have supporters.
This is the summer that has taught us that positivity is not something to be feared, but harnessed and allowed to flourish. Hope must no longer be a burden or the starting point of a decline. For the success of Young England, nothing can be done without it.