Emile Smith Rowe is tipped to be an England star of the future
Credit: NMC POOL
There will come a point imminently when Gareth Southgate and his staff must step off the emotional rollercoaster and attempt to reboard the train that has been transforming English football over the past decade. And, through a fog that has been contaminated over recent days with the spectre of disorder, racism and abuse, more uplifting realities will emerge. England came within a penalty shoot-out of winning Euro 2020 and they did it with one of the youngest squads in the competition.
The inquest has thus moved beyond the age-old debate about whether the players we produce are actually good enough to questions of tactics and big-game mentality. We also now know that historic tensions between club and country are surmountable, and the once-derided concept of an “England DNA” – on and off the pitch across the national age groups – has rarely felt more tangible.
Above all, there is a quiet optimism from inside the English game that those players who starred at this European Championship are being followed by a crop who can conceivably challenge their places by the time of the World Cup next year and certainly Euro 2024. Mason Greenwood, Max Aarons, Emile Smith Rowe, Tariq Lamptey, Carney Chukwuemeka, Harvey Elliott, Noni Madueke, Jude Bellingham, Liam Delap and Curtis Jones are among the most prominent young names on Southgate’s radar.
Paul Mitchell, who is AS Monaco’s sporting director and previously worked in similar roles at Tottenham Hotspur, RB Leipzig and Southampton, says that the “UK is now one of the biggest producers of talent in the world”. Just as in France, which remains arguably the ultimate hotbed of world football, Mitchell attributes the transformation to more diverse academies and stresses a “proactive adjustment” inside the clubs and the Football Association.
“We are seeing the by-product of that in the profile of players,” he says. “We were synonymous with big, strong, physical, long-ball types. The reality now is players like Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden.” It is also no coincidence that we are now seeing the first generation of players since an overhaul in the academy structure culminated with the 2011 Elite Player Performance Plan. This has meant an added investment in coaches and facilities, as well as increased contact time and a broader education and games programme.
Huw Jennings, who was the youth development manager at the Premier League and is now Fulham’s academy director, says that England players are now renowned in Europe for their technical quality and physical conditioning. He estimates that three-quarters of the academy players at Fulham are teetotal. “Much of the talent comes from city districts in London, Greater Manchester and Birmingham,” he says. “We benefit from the diversity.” An increased willingness to follow the path of a Sancho or Bellingham also means that more players are ready to move abroad if they cannot see a realistic pathway. That, in turn, has concentrated the minds of Premier League clubs.
There are high hopes for teenager Jude Bellingham
Home-grown talent played more top-flight minutes last season than at any point in the past decade. England had more home-grown players than any other squad at the Euros. “Talent can only develop to its final destination if it plays first-team football,” Mitchell says. “The French, German and Dutch markets traditionally give that opportunity. The English are looking and saying, ‘We don’t want to lose our talent. How do we stop that?’ It’s giving opportunity at the right time. It’s a balance but it is doable.”
Southgate was involved both with the implementation of EPPP and the development of St George’s Park, but has since also proved to be a highly skilled alchemist in translating those progressions into progress at an international level. The concept of an “England DNA” had been the brainchild of Dan Ashworth, the FA’s former director of elite development. It was a project designed to provide clarity and cohesion to coaching but, crucially, proactively instill a more positive identity among the elite players. “We needed the players to start believing that they were as good as their counterparts,” says Matt Crocker, who was the FA’s head of player and coach development.
“Historically, we were tarred with the perception that we’re not technically good enough and that we always blow up in key moments. To change that is difficult and I think Gareth, Dan and the creation of the England DNA – which got slaughtered at the time – played a massive part.” Crocker had been asked to lead on the DNA idea shortly after joining the FA in November 2013. They would study 10 other leading football nations – three from South America, seven from Europe – to assess what made their senior teams successful. The first theme was a very real link between winning in junior tournaments and repeating that habit in senior international football.
They also found the number of international matches a young footballer had played in the developmental teams often correlated with senior success. The FA reintroduced its under-15, under-18 and under-20 teams and, crucially, there was a greater willingness to travel the world in search of the best competition. “We didn’t want to just tell the players that they were good enough, we said, ‘We will show you by taking you to places you have never been before’,” Crocker says. “We got a lot of stick for pulling out of the Victory Shield but that year we took an England under-16s team to play Brazil in Sao Paulo. Bukayo Saka was in that team.”
Crocker was subsequently top table, alongside Southgate (then England Under-21 manager) and Ashworth, for its public launch in December 2014. There were five key strands: who we are; how we play; the future England player; how we coach and how we support the process. Ashworth would look around St George’s Park, which opened a month after his appointment in 2012, and conclude that his “predecessors must have had their hands tied behind their backs” in trying to establish connections between the various national teams. Crocker specifically recalls the moment an impromptu game of Kwik Cricket broke out in the main reception between the England senior team and the under-17s. The latest FA mantra, “only the shirt size changes”, suddenly felt real and, in the context of predecessors who once struggled even to endure meal times outside their club cliques, crucial.
“It was something England never had,” Crocker says. “Often the younger age groups would look at those senior players like idols. They were always in a hotel somewhere – almost the untouchables – and you couldn’t get near them. Now they were all rubbing shoulders and the age groups could see how the seniors worked. The atmosphere was like a club training ground.” It was not only the players who were increasingly connected. Southgate was sharing an office with Steve Holland, his assistant, and then Under-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd. Next to them was Crocker.
Ashworth was another door further down. The FA remained consistent to their England DNA ideal even after the nadir of losing to Iceland in Euro 2016. The following year was, to Ashworth’s mind, the greatest for English men’s football since 1966. The under-17 team won their World Cup and reached the European Championship semi-final. The under-18s won the Toulon tournament. The under-19s were European champions.
The under-20s were World Cup winners and the under-21s were runners-up in the European Championship. Most of England’s present England squad were involved in one of these teams and, if their research was correct, Ashworth, Crocker and Southgate knew that success at senior level should follow.
While Sunday’s final was both reality check and opportunity missed, the next wait will surely be considerably shorter than 55 years.