England under-age teams are not just winning tournaments this summer but doing so with a sense of style and conviction that suggests the future may not be as gloomy as predicted.
You know how the story goes. An old, familiar script. An England team at another major tournament, getting schooled by opponents with superior technique and know-how, the contrast between rival football cultures never clearer. One in which everything is done with a sense of purpose and conviction, the other hapless and haphazard, drifting aimlessly and endlessly from one mediocre showing to the next.
There wasn’t much to suggest that Aidy Boothroyd’s under-21 team would buck the trend at the European Championships in Poland which started last week. The same old articles would be recycled, the same old excuses rehashed and reheated. English players at top clubs not getting enough game time. The lack of fully qualified coaches at the grassroots of the English game. All the things that were determinedly dragging the national side down.
Particular scorn would be reserved for Boothroyd, last seen being sacked by then League Two side, Northampton, before finding sanctuary in the FA, an old-school appointment by an old-school and tactically sterile organisation. Little wonder, it would be said, that the Leagues are being flooded with overseas coaches if this is the best the English game can offer.
But guess what? England haven’t just torn up the script, but have swept imperiously into the semi-finals and lain down a marker for the other teams in the tournament. In Sweden, Slovakia and Poland, they may not have faced the toughest of groups, but it is the manner of their progress that has captured the eye. In the 3-0 defeat of the host nation on Thursday they were riveting to watch, tactically astute and clinical in their execution. Whatever he has done, Boothroyd has his team playing with verve and conviction.
On its own that doesn’t mean all that much, of course. Except it has come in the context of a summer in which English football has somewhat rediscovered its mojo and has embraced victories in the prestigious Toulon Cup in France and at the Fifa under-20 World Cup in South Korea as well as a penalty shoot-out defeat to Spain in the Uefa under-17 Championships in Croatia. How could even the most disillusioned English fan not feel a little excited by this?
The victory in Toulon was the second year running that England had lifted that trophy. What is so encouraging about the display in 2016 was that it featured many of the players who are performing with distinction in Poland right now. Of course, that sense of progress and continuity loses its lustre if that set of players fail to make a meaningful impact when they step up in grade, but that is a discussion for another day.
It’s fair to say, though, that Boothroyd’s squad is not one shimmering with any great sprinkle of stardust. Nathaniel Chalobah has been one of England’s best players in Poland, but it will be no surprise if he struggles to force his way into Antonio Conte’s plans at Chelsea. Demarai Gray and James Ward Prowse are somewhat established at Leicester and Southampton respectively and Nathan Redmond has shown in patches that he could be a midfield playmaker with a very bright future.
But this England team is more about the collective than any individuals and there’s nothing much wrong with that. Of course there is a solid argument to make that those deemed effectively too good for the grade – Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, Eric Dier – would be better served by being present and enhancing the team’s chances of lifting the trophy. Then again Italy, one of the pre-tournament favourites, brought a panel including several players with senior experience but haven’t performed well. There are two sides to the argument.
While it’s hardly time to be getting carried away yet, perhaps it’s time to at least start seeing English football in a new light. There is much to admire and glean from how the likes of Spain, France and Germany conduct their business, but it doesn’t automatically follow that everything is perfect in those places while everything in England is broken. Perhaps English football is better off concentrating in what it can do best, rather than on what others can do better.
It is true that the Premier League as it is constituted will never be conducive to the production of young home-grown talent and that is unlikely to change any time soon. So be it. They may never have as many qualified coaches as Spain or Germany, but a lack of quantity doesn’t necessarily have to mean a lack of quality. If a country like Iceland can churn out decent players with a relative pittance of resources, there are no reasons why England shouldn’t be doing so as a matter of course.
We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing and reading about all the things England are doing wrong, that it seems a little bit strange to be considering what England might be getting right. At the very least, they are breaking the pernicious cycle of defeat that has dragged England teams down in the past, playing with a freedom and purpose that betrays no sense of fear or anxiety about past failures.
This is a good generation of English players that were badly let down in France last summer through the tactically inept management of Roy Hodgson. England lack a top class goalkeeper and maybe a central defender of the highest class, but in the likes of Rashford, Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling there is a strong spine to build a solid team around. Mix that talent with the spirit and attitude being shown by the under-21s in Poland and you have a potent combination.
England might not yet win the tournament, of course, but that will likely only represent a blip in what has been a magical summer for the national set-up. What it all proves, beyond doubt, is that England do have the players, they just have to learn how to use them.