If you are a fan of youth football in England, chances are you are probably getting rather excited by recent events.
The surprise U20 World Cup victory for Paul Simpson’s outfit, coupled with Aidy Boothroyd’s U21 side topping their group at the European Championships in Poland, set up a mouthwatering semi-final clash with old rivals Germany that in the process seems to have re-vitalised the prospects of young players. It has also raised key questions about why Premier League clubs are sometimes so reluctant to let their coveted assets train and play for their country.
The U20’s success in Korea was hardly expected, with the side being fifth-favourite before the tournament to lift the coveted trophy, but they certainly had significant pedigree on the pitch. Everton youngsters Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ademola Lookman and Jonjoe Kenny impressed, with the latter showing composure beyond his years from right-back, typical of his steady performances on loan at Oxford United the previous season.
At centre-back, the partnership of Chelsea’s Jake Clarke-Salter and Fikayo Tomori, who had both experienced life in professional football on loan at Bristol Rovers and Brighton and Hove Albion respectively looked solid, akin to their numerous Youth FA Cup and Champions League triumphs for the London club. Dominic Solanke, whose controversial wage demands have seen him swap London and Antonio Conte for Merseyside and Jurgen Klopp for an undecided tribunal fee, starred throughout as the attacking spearhead, notching four goals and nabbing himself the Adidas Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player in the process.
And of course a mention for Freddy Woodman, the young Newcastle goalkeeper whose dramatic late penalty save in the final against Venezuela’s Adalberto Peneranda will be forever immortalized in English youth history.
There’s no denying that the English youngsters deserve a lot of credit, but the ramifications of this victory will only be seen in the next few weeks. France, who won the tournament several years ago with a side featuring the likes of Kurt Zouma and Anthony Martial now look equipped to have one of the best, vibrant young teams at senior national level. The depth and quality is outstanding.
However, it is worth noting the entire England lineup for the final had less than 60 senior appearances between them for their parent clubs. Whilst they’ve accrued a lot of time out on loan, most of the squad (with the exception of the Everton lads) have been unable to break into their first side. Solanke’s move might be the best acid test for seeing how well the young players will progress as he clearly feels that it will be easier to displace current England striker Daniel Sturridge than tussle with any potential Chelsea centre-forward who might be signed in the transfer window.
The U21s are a few years older and wiser, and it shows. Although their first group game was a poor performance, they’ve kicked on since then and qualified for the semi-finals, which is nothing to sniff at. So far, it’s been defensive quality that has shone through with particular plaudits for Jordan Pickford- again a recent Everton signing- and Swansea’s Alfie Mawson.
The former looks a lot more confident behind the English defence rather than the absymal Sunderland back-line which was relegated from the Premier League, whereas the latter played an important role in Swansea’s great escape this year, scoring a few goals in the process. If I had to compare him to another centre-back, I’d say his aerial ability and confidence reminds me of Gary Cahill, although he is a bit more mobile than him. Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham, who is set to join Swansea on loan following his breakthrough season on loan at Bristol City so far has had a frustrating tournament, starved of service and rotated for the final group game due to fatigue. Pundits did praise his hold-up play and general play during the comeback victory against Slovakia, but he is the sort of striker who expects to score every game.
If England want to beat Germany on Tuesday and book themselves a slot in the final, they’ll be hoping he, Demerai Gray and Jacob Murphy can all star and expose any potential weakness in the German backline.
It’s much too early to talk of another golden generation, but early signs are cautiously promising. The issue of top clubs still refusing to allow young players to play for their country is concerning,- case in point of Manchester United and Jose Mourinho denying Marcus Rashford the chance to link up with Abraham for the U21s this summer- but hopefully the prospect of silverware, and examples of the success shared by Paul Simpson and Aidy Boothroyd’s sides will hopefully spur them on to being more acceptable when it comes to releasing players.
There is a lot of talent in the English game right now and many exciting players are waiting to get the chance to show what they can do at the top level. The question is – how many will get that chance?