Jadon Sancho has been nothing short of a phenomenon during his four seasons with Borussia Dortmund
Credit: JÃ¶rg SchÃ¼ler
It was during the BBC’s inquest into England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup that Jimmy Hill made an observation which remains just as perceptive 28 years later. “The market shows the strength of the talent we are producing,” he said, referencing a dearth of British footballers who were wanted by clubs overseas. Hill then highlighted a rigid and insular coaching culture that prioritised instant results in children’s football over the development of young players who were simply comfortable on the ball.
It has been a recurring explanation for England’s international inadequacies but, whatever happens at Wembley on Tuesday evening, there is compelling evidence to suggest that a 50-year cycle has finally been broken.
Just take a glance over recent seasons at Germany where, from Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala to Reece Oxford, Ryan Sessegnon and Ademola Lookman, dozens of largely English-produced players have been gaining experience and often excelling. The days of a Kevin Keegan, Tony Woodcock or Owen Hargreaves plying their trade alone in what felt like an alternative football planet are long gone.
It is a trend which also underlines how the perception of British footballers has been quietly transformed. “The quality of youth players coming out of England has increased dramatically,” says Robert Klein, the chief executive of Bundesliga International. “They are more ‘total football’ at a young age. They have the skillset, the attitude and they have added a spice to the league. And they know that if they are good enough, they will get playing time. The players are taken care of on the football and pastoral side. It works for all sides.
“Sancho has been outstanding. He talked often about the yellow and black wall at Dortmund and playing in front of 80,000. The football experience is fantastic. The only question we have is, ‘Why hasn’t Sancho been given any minutes in the [England] team?’”
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The Bundesliga has spent €1.6 billion on youth development since overhauling their system after Euro 2000 and has the youngest average age of first-team players across the five major European leagues. Germany were also crowned European Under-21 champions in March but, having peaked with the World Cup generation of 2014, there are good judges who believe that the English academy system may now have moved ahead.
Huw Jennings, who was the youth development manager at the Premier League and is now Fulham’s academy director, has witnessed vast change since the 1990s when there was a virtual one-way arrival of international talent into English football. He was also Southampton’s academy director during the mid-2000s when Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Adam Lallana were emerging and can recall visiting coaches being shocked to discover that the English were not simply “long ball merchants”. During a trip to Bavaria in 2017, Jennings also sensed a recognition that the English system had edged ahead.
“Typically we have very good athletic profiles to our players and they are good technically too,” he said. “Skills have been developed to a level that did not exist before. The Germans are clever – they can see that. Our pool of players, I think, are as good as anywhere. Tactically, there is perhaps still a gap to bridge in tournament football but we shouldn’t underestimate the work that has been done.”
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Smaller sided football for younger children, more individualised coaching, improved education and simply the dedication of young players have all been crucial.
Jennings says that the leading British players now excel in terms of their physical conditioning and estimates that around three-quarters of his academy scholars are teetotal.
Andrew Martin, a 41-year-old former professional player who is now the head of football at Whitgift, an independent school which counts Musiala, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Victor Moses among its recent alumni, agrees that the last two decades have been transformative.
“You go back 20 or 30 years and British footballers were loved for their intensity, tenacity and endeavour,” he says. “Young British players are much more highly trained technically. Gone are the days of a rigid 4-4-2, and you go in straight lines.”
Jamal Musiala has already received a call-up to the Germany squad after impressing during his short time at Bayern
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The coaching environment, says Martin, is also radically different.
“It was one style fits all and, by a million miles, it wasted more talent than it found,” he says. “We lost so many boys who needed to be nurtured a little bit more. You would see and hear things you could make complaints about now. We, as coaches, adapt to our players rather than making players adapt to our way.”
The players themselves are also more open to new experiences.
“It’s worked wonders for Jordan (Sancho) and Jamal (Musiala),” he said. “The period between Under-18s to seniors is difficult. Would they be playing regularly if they had stayed in the Premier League? Sancho broke the mould and Germany is the place to be now.
“The boys will get game time. The German clubs are happy due to the players being technically better and the potential sell on. It works for everyone.”
There is, however, one sizeable caveat. Brexit means that under-18s cannot now play abroad unless they have alternative European citizenship. That would mean Sancho and Bellingham’s Bundesliga moves would have had to wait. Some countries also have strict limits on non-European Union players over the age of 18. Others insist that they must earn a minimum salary or make them subject to a 90-day visiting visa.
“For a few years, pre-Brexit you were seeing a talent drain into Europe,” said Jennings. “This has all changed. You have to satisfy the working conditions of the countries you go to so I actually think, with the exception of a few, it will come to a bit of a grinding halt.”
And is this a bad thing? Jennings says that it depends on the individual, but has found that it is invariably enriching. “It’s not always the easiest but you will generally come back a more rounded player and person.” As for the wider international backdrop, there is good reason to believe that something of a golden age is possible.
For that old question posed back in 1993 by Jimmy Hill – ‘Is there a market for young British players abroad?’ – clearly now has a very different answer.