As England’s Under 17s touched down at Heathrow with World Cup in hand euphoria was in the air, Callum Hudson-Odoi’s parents talked to Sky Sports’ reporter of how positive Mr Conte was about their son, Pep had talked light heartedly about picking Phil Foden- for all concerned this is a moment to savour.
Chief amongst those celebrating will be the FA, it’s been a bruising few weeks for English football’s governing body- the Eni Aluko affair has illustrated the FA has a long way to go in terms of good governance. However the new strategy on the pitch is working better than anyone could have hoped.
St Georges Park: case closed
When St Georges Park was opened in 2012 it was hoped the new National Football Centre would be a beacon of hope for the future, whilst its detractors argued it was simply a waste of money. The first cohort of players to go through the new system based at St Georges from the bottom rung of the age ladder are the current Under 20 World Champions- meaning every group that started their international careers at St Georges Park have now won a major trophy: Under 20 World Champs, Under 19 Euro Champs, back to back 18-20 Toulon Winners and now Under 17 World Champs. The arguments over St Georges Park and the efforts of Dan Ashworth & Gareth Southgate in revitalising grass roots football are over- The FA have got it spot on, arguing that St Georges Park is a waste of money is like arguing the Earth is flat!
It isn’t exactly a shock that it works- The FA is merely copying the French Football Centre at Clairefontaine. The French established their system in 1988- 10 years later they won the World Cup. Since the turn of the millennium Germany & Spain established similar programs- what do these 3 footballing nations have in common? Answers on a postcard!
Of course the players are being developed at their club academies but St George’s Park is ensuring they can blend together and find the marginal gains, making the national youth sides more like club teams.
I’ll share a personal story with you- When England crashed at the 2010 World Cup I was chatting to a friend who’d spent the previous 2 weeks wearing an England shirt, he moaned, he ranted, he was very upset. 3 days later he was saying ‘I support a big club so I’m looking forward to next season.’ He forgot about the national team for 2 years before and the cycle repeated. It happens up and down the country every 2 years and it’s understandable in a way- if England can’t produce the players why wouldn’t you concentrate on club football and big money signings.
The weekend England won the Under 17 World Cup only 71 English registered players started Premier League games- 32%. In France, Germany, Spain & Italy that number varies between 41% and 61%, England have great youth teams but a struggling senior side and the endless mantra surrounding England senior fixtures is of a shallow pool of players- the disconnect is obvious, the question is what to do about it.
Whenever England lay an egg in a major tournament (and surely you know the drill by now) fingers are pointed at the England manager and the FA, the former for ineptitude on the pitch and the later for failing to develop grassroots football. If the same thing happens next summer in Russia Gareth Southgate will pay with his job, whilst this time the FA have an answer on their development of youth players. So as sure as night follows day fire will then be turned on the Premier League for not giving the kids a chance.
Whenever pressed on the issue of Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore has repeatedly pointed out when the league was dominated by English players the national team weren’t exactly setting world alight. Whilst he has a point it’s a response that smacks of ‘Not my problem.’ Now it is his problem- the Premier League needs to be part of the solution, when Germany decided to rip it up and start again (a process chronicled in the excellent boot ‘Das Reboot’ by Raphael Honigstein) the Bundesliga was part of the process, the national team in effect the 19th Bundesliga club. England need a similar solution.
The Hope & Fear
There is reason for optimism in the Premier League- Scudamore has always been a canny operator and the current high level of interest in the England youth teams won;t have gone unnoticed- there should be more appetite for homegrown talent.
Worryingly almost all if England’s starting 11 on Saturday play for Chelsea, Manchester City or Liverpool. City have spent huge the last 2 summers on the back of Pep’s arrival, with the squad now flipped the summers of overhaul at the Etihad should be over. Guardiola did promote youth at both Barca & Bayern, he may well do the same at City. Looking at England’s star man Phil Foden he probably has to compete with David & Bernardo Silva for a place in the team, whilst further up the pitch he could face competition from Sterling, Sane and potentially Alexis Sanchez. But David Silva will be 32 in January and I suspect won’t stay much longer in Manchester, the acid test will be does Pep buy an expensive readymade replacement or give Foden more chances?
At Liverpool Jurgen Klopp has given chances to the likes of Welsh youngster Ben Woodburn and England’s Trent Alexander Arnold whilst Under 20 World Cup hero Dom Solanke is on the fringe of the first 11. When the likely sale of Philip Coutinho comes will he give more chances to the likes of Woodburn and Rhian Brewster or buy another forward in a frontline that already includes Mane, Salah, Firmino, Sturridge, Solanke and Ings? Most Liverpool fans would rather see the money spent on the backline but will Klopp see it that way?
Chelsea remain the most troubling case of a blocked pathway. the last academy player to make the transition to the first team was John Terry. Since then Chelsea have established themselves as the premier academy side in England but failed to produce a single first team regular with the likes of Ryan Bertrand, Ruben Loftus Cheek, Nathan Ake and Nat Chalobah going close but ultimately moving on to find first team football. Chelsea usually dispatch their best prospects to Vitesse Arnhem where England Under 19 prospect Mason Mount is currently making his mark (5 appearances 2 goals to date). The problem now for Chelsea is this summer an open disconnect occurred between youth team and first team policy with several players leaving who were supposed to make it to the first team. It’s hard to say if this is down to the manager or the board but Chelsea are a club where the manager is a dispensable figure so the only way an improvement in the pathway can be established is for it to be part of the manager’s brief. At present short term thinking rules and 5 Premier League titles suggests there won’t be a shift anytime soon.
Each club has a different philosophy but it’s the sides where the manager is central to the direction of the club where academy prospects have the strongest chance of success.
One incident that made England’s Under 17 triumph so much more impressive was they managed the knock out phase without their best player: Jadon Sancho.
Sancho was recalled after the group phase by his new club Borussia Dortmund for whom he has since made his first team debut. Sancho made the move because he didn’t see a path to the first team at previous club Manchester City.
The various international youth tournaments at which England have dominated are treated by European clubs as a scouting expeditions, there will now be a long line of clubs monitoring these players- if you can’t get a game in the Premier League the continental clubs will be interested.
It worked for Eric Dier who came through the ranks at Sporting Lisbon. Leagues like Portugal & France have an excellent technical level in which young players can develop and where the clubs need to recruit youngsters because they don’t have the finance to acquire ready-made stars (PSG aside). Players should back themselves and go where they will play and develop.
Backing the talent
A final thought on England’s upcoming generation: people have been quick to say don’t build them up- as long as these boys understand they have a long way to go to be great why not build them up?
A parallel case I remember from another sport happened in 2004 when a teenage Andy Murray won the US Open boys tournament.
By the time Murray made his senior Wimbledon debut the following summer he was a household name. Everyone was quick to say don’t build him up but was immediately clear was he thrived on the big stage unlike the generations of British losers who’d preceded him and the rest is history. Winning an under 17 World Cup suggests these kids will also thrive where it counts the most.