Have England's international youth teams finally turned a corner?
There are two ways to view this summer’s action involving the England international youth teams. As a glimmer of hope amongst years of poor performances, or as another failure to win a major international tournament despite the Three Lions fielding teams full of promising young talent.
Rather surprisingly, it appears the overwhelming majority are looking at the positives. Many suggest that England’s youth teams did themselves proud in their respective tournaments stretching out over the course of this summer. It is with a jarring feeling of unease too, as England’s international teams have long since been associated with failure in recent key tournaments.
It is difficult to exactly place when England’s issues in key tournaments began. Every major tournament has its own unshakable precursor, the insurmountable feeling of excitement and optimism, before it is ruthlessly crushed by a poor performance and the overwhelming cloud of pessimism.
The injustice of the 2010 World Cup, where the England team visibly struggled in the staunching South African heat and limped through the group stage, could have been the starting point. The look of fleeting panic from Robert Green as he fumbled a simple save over his own goal line and the sheer agony of Frank Lampard’s shot thundering over the line off the crossbar but not being given. Memories that will still haunt every faithful England fan. Euro 2012 could also have been a point where the English people turned to apathy over genuinely taking an interest in how their national teams performed, as the Three Lions once again succumbed to a penalty shootout defeat.
However, five years on, and after the development of an entirely new format of how England national teams are coached, there are noticeable differences in the performances and philosophies within the country’s international youth teams.
Once again, people are starting to shake off their apathy and are taking a genuine interest in how they perform.
England’s under-17’s team came agonisingly close to winning the European Championship but lost on penalties to Spain in the final. Some could argue that this is an all-too-familiar outcome for an English international team and that the suited figures throughout the Wembley boardrooms had once again failed the talent produced by the country. However, it is also possible to side with a feeling of surprised optimism, as after all, the under-17’s team have only progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the competition twice within the last six years.
This increased feeling of optimism carried itself into June this year as England successfully retained the Toulon tournament trophy after winning a penalty shootout. Despite there being only 12 teams in the competition and with England entering as the defending champions, it was still an impressive feat to finish top of the group in the first stage, beat rivals Scotland in the semi-finals and then defeat a talented Ivory Coast squad to retain the trophy. The crossover with the u-20’s World Cup also reduced the availability of the Young Lions on display for the tournament, but they would still emerge as victorious.
The U20’s World Cup was entirely expected to be another tournament of failure for England’s youngsters, with certain players having moved into the age category above, and the usual dense, unshakeable knowledge of prior failure sure to be weighing heavily on the minds of the squad. However, the Young Lions spectacularly proved their doubters wrong and progressed through the whole tournament unbeaten, before defeating Venezuela 1-0 at the final hurdle to claim their first ever title for this tournament.
It appears this increased optimism found its way to the u-21’s European Championships, where England reached the semi-finals of the competition for the first time in almost a decade. Despite a penalty shootout defeat against eventual victors Germany, the outcome was almost certainly a successful summer for the squad; the tangible difference in performances across the board for all Young Lions team is inescapable.
And so, with the senior team hurtling towards a World Cup that they look woefully unprepared for, and a country-wide uncertainty about the appointment of Gareth Southgate, an opportunity has presented itself for the Three Lions to further progress. With senior players certain to be phased out of the England set-up slowly by the management team, there remains ample opportunity for the likes of Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham, Will Hughes and others to stake a claim for themselves and secure their future in the senior England setup for the foreseeable future.