Oh how I wish the title of this article could be different. Sadly when England come up against Germany in any competition (especially in a semi-final) there’s a good chance it will end in defeat. Sad but true. Before the game, I let myself get carried away thinking of different titles for this piece on English football, such as ‘England’s Bright Future’, or ‘Bring on Russia’. But unfortunately as soon as the referee blew his whistle for the end of extra time, the title wrote itself.
After the major success of England winning the U20 ‘s World Cup, the nation inevitably turned their attention to the U21’s European Championships. The U20’s 1-0 win over Venezuela meant it was England’s biggest international title since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966. That’s depressing. Not taking anything away from the U20’s impressive feat, but surely the emphasis has to be on the senior stage. Without getting too carried away, which I know is difficult, as it’s in the DNA of all English football fans, this is definitely a good sign. The fact that England hadn’t won a single U20’s match in a tournament since 1997, as well as failing to even qualify on four occasions since finishing 3rd in 1993, shows massive strides. If you weren’t aware, the U20’s World Cup is every two years, not every four like at senior level. So that makes the stats I just mentioned even more embarrassing. Until now. We are U20’s World Champions…in your face U20’s Germany!
So it was now the U21’s turn to prove to the world that England are once again a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. I’m not going to say I watched every minute of every game of this competition because I didn’t. But after the U20’s success in South Korea, I was more aware that the U21’s were playing, so I tried to watch as much as possible. I did however manage to watch the semi-final. A game that I was really looking forward to in fact. Unfortunately I have to say the U21’s didn’t ‘wow’ me. They were on top for the first 20 minutes, and look organised and dangerous at times, but as the game went on, they slowly turned into the England teams of years gone by. The German team seemed to control the game, and other than a few moments didn’t seem too concerned by England’s attacking play. Germany did deserve to win the match, but I’m just gutted it had to be on penalties… again. Psychologically English players, at whatever age, who step up to take a penalty for their country must have the last 20 years ‘of hurt’, playing on their mind.
The German U21’s seemed a lot more established as a team, and I wondered if that had anything to do with the football they play at club level. It was interesting to find out that the German U21 players have had double the appearances (1,122) in the Bundesliga than the 563 appearances the English players have had in the Premiership. Of those 563, James Ward-Prowse is responsible for a quarter of those matches. Not only that but the German U21’s have scored triple the amount of goals (116 goals in Bundesliga) to England’s 32 in the Premier League. You might say that the Premier League is a tougher league to play in, or to break through into, but playing 90 minutes in a top league is still so important in developing a player. Stuart Peace said: “This is an indicator of the chances that young English players are getting playing in our country compared to their counterparts on the continent in Spain, in Germany, or wherever that might be… and the true experience is playing 90 minutes week in week out.” He’s right, the young talents in the England U21’s are not getting the minutes playing at the top level. You could argue that England’s best players of the tournament (in my opinion) were, Ward-Prowse and Jordan Pickford, who are two of a only a handful of players who play week in week out for their club at the top level.
For our National side to compete against the like of Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Argentina etc, these young players have to be given a chance to play more minutes for their clubs. It’s not good enough that teams like Chelsea buy these talents at a young age, loan them out to lower league clubs, and never give them the chance in the first team. By the time teams like Chelsea finally let these young talents leave the club, they are having to revive their career at the age of 23, which stunts their progress for the National side. Take Baker, Abraham, and Chalobah for example, they won’t become regular starters for Chelsea. They will go on loan for the next few seasons or play maybe 4 or 5 games for the first team and then be sold further down the line. I’m pleased to see England U20’s star striker Dominic Solanke has chosen to move to Liverpool from Chelsea this summer. Fair play. Under Jurgen Klopp I can see him being given his opportunity to prove himself at the top level, and this is coming from a Chelsea supporter. Solanke was never given his chance at Chelsea, and he’s just gone on to win the same award Lionel Messi won 12 years ago! I mean what has the boy got to do to get a chance at Chelsea? Chelsea’s loss is Liverpool’s gain. I’m sure Chelsea will try and buy him back in 3 years for 100 million. Good business.
Teams like Chelsea, Man City, Man United will all buy big expensive foreign imports to improve their squad. Whereas teams like Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton, seem to be trying to support the young English talent, which I think is great. I just wish my club (Chelsea) were doing the same. Loftus-Cheek won’t get an opportunity, and will be sold in a few years, stunting his progress as a footballer. But what I can’t get my head around is that if he was a Tottenham player I’m sure he’d be getting more opportunities, and developing into a top English midfielder. What English football needs is clubs like Tottenham, Liverpool etc who are putting their trust into young English talent to win the Premier League or an FA cup. At the moment it does seem these teams are falling short in these competitions. Hopefully when these clubs do start winning things, it will show other big clubs that young English talent is the answer. You just have to be patient.
Back in 2014 the Football Association produced a new proposal aimed at improving England’s prospects at major tournaments. It was named ‘The England DNA programme’, inspired by nations such as Belgium and Germany. The FA stated that it’s “the start point for the creation of a world-class approach of elite player development leading to winning England teams”. This new approach was introduced to all England squads from the U15’s to the senior team. Maybe the U20’s are the first England squad to benefit from this new system. This new approach may very well be starting to have an affect on the younger players in the England set up. My gut feeling is that this new development system won’t be the answer, though it’s great that they have tried to implement a plan in young footballers development.
The answer isn’t a DNA programme, it’s putting a new law in place that means young English players get more playing time at their club. I mean look at Joe Hart for example. England’s number one goalkeeper. Last year he wasn’t even playing for Man City and had to go out on loan to a mid table Serie A club, just to play 90 minutes. You don’t see the Belgium or German, or Spanish number one goalkeeper having this problem. No, they all play 90 minutes every game for top football clubs in the world.
Sadly watching the U21’s against Germany, I felt I was just watching the same old England. What makes it worse is that these are the next generation of English players who will be making the step into the senior side. Unless something is done by the FA to get young English players, playing regular first team football for their clubs, we will continue to fall short on the international stage. Alan Hansen famously said “you can’t win anything with kids” when Sir Alex Ferguson put his trust into very young English talent. But he was catastrophically wrong. Not only did Man United form one of the best United teams of all time with these English players, but they went onto win everything. Ferguson pretty much developed those young English players by throwing them into the deep end, and trusting their ability. Which of course had a positive effect on the national side too. We need more managers doing the same, not only Mauricio Pochettino, Klopp and Ronald Koeman.
It’s all well and good that the FA are trying to implement a certain philosophy when they join up with their specific England age groups. But England will not progress on the International stage if young English players aren’t given the playing time at their clubs in the Premier League. Fact. Sadly what ‘the DNA programme’ can’t give these young talents, are the opportunities on the pitch for their club at the top level. The FA director of elite development Dan Ashworth said “the only thing that should change is the size of the shirt,” when going through the age groups of the England set up. Unfortunately there’s a lot more than just the size of the England shirt that changes, if they are not wearing the shirt of their clubs first team.