The senior team may still be licking their wounds after their humiliation against Iceland in France last summer, but England’s Under-17 side are on a roll.
They will play Spain in the UEFA European U17 Championships final on Friday and there was more than enough in their 2-1 victory over Turkey in Tuesday’s semifinal to suggest that they could lift the trophy.
Steve Cooper’s young side are well organised, technically adept and boast a composure in possession that belies their years. But anyone bold enough to use the phrase “golden generation” around the English national team should be warned; this level of football can be treacherously misleading.
This will be the England U17s’ fourth appearance in the final in the last 10 years. They were twice winners in 2010 and 2014, and runners-up in 2007. With a success rate like that you might have expected their alumni to make more of an impact on the Premier League. Alas, this is not the case.
From the class of 2014, Joe Gomez’s injury-ravaged run in the Liverpool side represents the biggest Premier League success story, with Patrick Roberts’ role in this year’s treble-winning Celtic team worthy of an honourable mention. Ryan Ledson, named in the team of the tournament, is now at Oxford United, while the tournament’s top goal scorer Dominic Solanke, now 19, is still yet to play for Chelsea.
The Class of 2010 had a little more success. Ross Barkley is an Everton regular, Jack Butland would be Stoke City’s No. 1 if not for injury, Benik Afobe has found a home at Bournemouth and Ben Gibson was one of the few positives in Middlesbrough’s bleak season. But Saido Berahino’s career has stalled and Connor Wickham, the star of that team, hasn’t reached goal scoring double figures in a single season of his nomadic and thus far unfulfilled career.
There are even more salutary lessons in the 2007 squad. Danny Welbeck, Danny Rose and Victor Moses have enjoyed careers in the Premier League, but what of Middlesbrough’s highly rated Nathan Porritt? He was last spotted as a coach at Thornaby in the Northern League second division, the 10th level of the English football pyramid. Seth Nana Twumasi slipped from Chelsea’s youth team to National League side Maidstone; Gavin Hoyte, who made his Premier League debut for Arsenal in 2008, is now with fifth flight Eastleigh.
The U17 European Championships have, in the past, unearthed future global superstars. In 2002, the Golden Player award was won by Wayne Rooney. Cesc Fabregas picked it up in 2004, Toni Kroos in 2006, and his Germany teammate Mario Gomez repeated the feat in 2009.
But the development of young players is hard to read. Some are late bloomers, like Jamie Vardy who only starting playing in the Football League with Leicester in 2012 and didn’t represent the England team at any level until his senior debut in 2015. Some develop so swiftly that they stand out amongst their peers, only to fade into the background when everyone else catches up.
For some, the problems aren’t physical or technical, they’re mental. The pressure of dealing with expectations, not just their own, but of their family, teammates, club and sponsors. Manchester City’s Michael Johnson was almost universally tipped as a future England regular, but his troubled career ended in 2012 with a plaintive plea to be “left alone to live the rest of my life.”
England’s young stars may well be victorious on Friday. In simply reaching the final they have done themselves, their coaches and the much maligned Football Association great credit. But there is still a long way to go before their undoubted potential can be turned into success.
Of all of England’s entertainers, Jadon Sancho is easily the most eye-catching. The Manchester City forward loves to run at the opposition, his feet swirling around the ball, hypnotising defenders. His insistence on trying to beat everyone on the pitch can be infuriating, but he’s just about talented enough to get away with it. Somewhere, there’s a sweet spot between retaining that spontaneity and knowing when to play a simple pass. If he finds it, he’ll make it to the very top.
Left-back Lewis Gibson has only played a handful of games for the Newcastle development squad, but he’s already been linked with moves to Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and Celtic. Rafa Benitez would do well to keep hold of him. This England squad is filled with excellent technical footballers, but there’s something more redoubtable about Gibson. He’s tough in the tackle, sensible in possession and, while he can and will overlap, he seems more of a reassuring old-fashioned full back than the rampaging type so prevalent now.
The younger brother of former Chelsea and England youth star Josh, midfielder George McEachran is cut from a similar cloth. He’s been with the Blues since joining the U8s squad and was part of the side that won the FA Youth Cup in April. Originally an attacking midfielder, England use him in a deeper role where he sets the tempo and breaks down opposition attacks. He’s still very slight, but he can take a heavy tackle, as he demonstrated in the face of some ferocious challenges from Turkey. If he can maintain his focus, he might have a chance.