Harry Kane played 18 times for Leyton Orient and scored five goals in 2011
Consider the not-so golden generation, circa 2004. It is an XI which rolls off the tongue: James; Neville, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole; Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes; Owen, Rooney.
Never mind that they didn’t actually start a single game together, because Rio Ferdinand was suspended for Euro 2004, the clubs the players had represented in their careers up to that tournament numbered just 15.
Five were David James alone (Watford, Liverpool, Aston Villa, West Ham, Manchester City), five more were various loan spells throughout the team. Leeds, Everton, Arsenal, Manchester and Chelsea completed the 15.
By contrast, England’s starting-line up against Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final had played for 29 clubs in total. If you look at the entire squad of 26 players, 50 teams from the English football system have some sort of claim – from Premier League champions Manchester City to Stalybridge Celtic of the Northern Premier League, in the seventh tier of the football pyramid. No wonder this team feels more representative than in years past, which is surely one factor in their popularity.
The depth of this country’s league system is unique: most other European nations have two reasonably well-supported levels at best, but by the time you are in the third tier around the continent crowd averages are rarely above 2,000. It is more like three figures in most European fourth tiers.
Meanwhile, League Two’s average for the last season with full stadiums was more than 4,000. In 2019-20, Notts County in the National League averaged crowds of more than 5,000.
League Two's average with full stadiums has been over 4,000
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
In theory that should mean a healthy production line of English talent, well schooled in the hard-knocks reality of football, seamlessly flowing up the pyramid and eventually to the national team. In practice it has seemed impossible to harness the talent pool, until now.
The growth of the longer-term development loans help. While Ashley Cole and John Terry spent short spells at Crystal Palace and Swansea City respectively, Jordan Pickford and Harry Kane clocked up 10 longer-term loan spells between them while waiting for a first-team chance at Sunderland at Spurs.
Jordan Pickford made his senior debut for Darlington – “He made one or two mistakes, but all keepers do,” says BBC Tees Darlington commentator Ray Simpson – and was schooled not just in the physical rigours of playing competitive football but also the pressure of playing in front of a decent crowd. “His first game was in front of 5,000 people against Fleetwood. He wouldn’t have played in front of a crowd like that before.”
Jordan Pickford made his senior debut for Darlington
Harry Kane’s bond with Leyton Orient, where he played 18 times and scored five goals in 2011, has endured. He has sponsored their shirt for the last two years and donated the space to charities, a thank you to the club who gave him his full senior debut.
“We were his local club,” says Matt Porter, a Leyton Orient director. “He was born in Walthamstow, brought up in Chingford. He wasn’t as naturally mobile as some other players, but he had a good eye for goal, so I think the loan was hopefully something that helped kickstart his career.
Harry Kane has sponsored Leyton Orient's shirt for the last two years
“He was a lovely lad even back then as a teenager. He was very humble, hardworking, dedicated, and committed. You could tell he had a drive to reach the top. A club of our status wouldn’t normally have home international senior players. Everything that Harry did for us is something that our fans remember.”
Stories like Kane’s give lower-league fans a stake in the team which has at times felt distant. The old England guard seemed divorced from the wider football landscape, most from the current lot know it well. Theirs is a squad for the whole of the English game to enjoy.
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