A summer of success for England’s development squads has demonstrated two things, neither of which should come as a great surprise. Namely:
- Germany are better at penalties than England
- England produce some very talented young footballers
While even the most optimistic of English fans may have to accept the occasional shoot-out heartbreak as an occupational hazard, failure to make the most of obvious potential should not be tolerated. A group such as this, clearly among the best in European football, should produce stalwarts of the senior team for years to come. However, there are already signs that some from the newest crop will struggle to live up to the hype.
England’s Under-21s made it to the semi-finals of the European Championships in Poland last week, with Chelsea’s Lewis Baker as captain. As for much of his early career through the youth ranks of both club and country, Baker was the No. 10, the leader.
An intelligent, lavishly talented prospect, he has been the subject of much anticipation amongst Chelsea fans who have waited eagerly to see him finally emerge as a rare success story from their academy. He is now 22 years of age, and Blues supporters have seen him in action for just three minutes, in a 3rd round FA Cup tie.
Failure to turn promising youth into accomplished internationals is a worrying trend amongst England’s development sides, and was also the case with the team who faced Germany in the 2009 Under-21s European Championships Final.
From that starting eleven, only James Milner and Theo Walcott have made over 20 senior caps, and this at a time when the national team has consistently underachieved. Premier League clubs are largely reluctant to give English prodigies such as Baker a chance and while they are free to sign seasoned professionals from abroad, it is the national team who suffers.
This is not always the case though, and some clubs still pride themselves on bringing through exciting talents, who are as envied by opposition fans as they are loved by their own.
Much of the talk during the summer months revolves about big money transfers of international superstars, but there will be few signings capable of delighting stadia as much as Marcus Rashford enthralled Old Trafford when he burst onto the scene less than 18 months ago.
Tottenham Hotspur’s progression under Mauricio Pochettino has been built around a spine of English youngsters as Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane have been allowed to flourish.
Spurs fans will attest to the joy of seeing young players lighting up the first team, but it is a sight that has become so rare as to shock most Premier League supporters. But given that managers are routinely sacked for their ‘style of play’, should youth development not also be a consideration?
Tony Pulis left Stoke, a club he guided from Championship mediocrity into Premier League stability (and even, briefly, the Europa League), because the fans grew tired of his failure to play free-flowing attacking football. If fans and owners value entertainment this highly, why is failure to bring through exciting prospects so readily accepted?
Baker, like Nathaniel Chalobah and Tammy Abraham, is unlikely to find regular playing time at Chelsea this year, yet it is hard to imagine many supporters questioning Antonio Conte after his stellar first season at Stamford Bridge.
As fans become increasingly convinced that youth development is an unexpected bonus rather than a footballing necessity, the national team will continue to struggle. Clubs must be put under pressure to ensure that England’s flourishing development teams do not become another lost generation of English football.
There has been little to cheer about since halcyon days of the 1990s which saw England reach the semi-finals of major tournaments twice. This could be within reach for England’s youngsters, and while a World Cup victory may be a touch too ambitious at this stage, recent success suggests that we may return to the glory days of heroic defeat in the traditional fashion. Losing to Germany on penalties.