It is a question that has been asked many times in England about the footballing powerhouses of mainland Europe. Whether it be France, Spain or Germany – what are they doing with their work at youth level?
This has been a storied summer for England’s under-age teams and it will conclude on Saturday evening when Keith Downing’s under-19s play Portugal in the final of the European Championship. Previously the under-17s were the beaten finalists at their European Championship, a predominantly under-18s squad won the Toulon tournament, the under-20s won the World Cup and the under-21s were beaten in the semi-finals of another European Championship.
In total England’s under-age teams have played 26 matches. They have won 22, drawn two and lost two, with the defeats at under-17 and under-21 level coming on penalties. All of a sudden Downing has heard the question directed at him.
“People have asked: ‘What is your philosophy? How are you creating that?’” the manager says. “Obviously it also relates to the World Cup success of the under-20s. I’ve had people say they have never seen an England team performing as we are performing in terms of technique and tactics. It is making some noise.”
It had been possible to fear for Downing’s squad before the tournament, as he was deprived of six key players – Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Chris Willock (Benfica), Tom Davies (Everton), Reece Oxford (West Ham United, on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach), Sam Field (West Bromwich Albion) and Andre Green (Aston Villa). He would also lose Chelsea’s Trevoh Chalobah to an ankle injury during the group phase.
It is a tribute to the depth of the young talent in England that the absentees have not been missed and it was a similar story in Toulon, when Neil Dewsnip, the manager, mixed and matched and was still able to see his team retain the trophy.
Downing has six players who have played a year up, including Chelsea’s Reece James, who was a part of the victorious group in Toulon, making him, potentially, the answer to a quirky quiz question. Which England player won two international tournaments in one summer?
Ben Brereton of Nottingham Forest is another one and he has excelled up front, having come in from the fringes – his first call-up for any England team was in March – and then there is Ryan Sessegnon, the 17-year-old Fulham prodigy, who is playing two years up and has starred on the left wing.
The final against Portugal will be a high-pressure occasion and Downing is happy about that, because the point of these youth tournaments is to give the players an introduction to what they might experience at senior level. England’s frailties at major championships have been endlessly exposed and documented. Downing is involved in the drive to breed a new mentality.
St George’s Park is a part of the process. The national football centre will celebrate its fifth birthday in October and it has felt as though the results of the under-age teams this summer have represented a tangible dividend from the investment. Downing talks about the “joined-up thinking” and the “common thread throughout the teams”, how there is a greater degree of cooperation with the clubs and the bottom line is that he feels the young talent is there. “The players have shown throughout the summer that they can handle whatever is thrown at them, technically and tactically,” Downing says. “The teaching is right in terms of youth level and I think we’re in a healthy position.”
As Downing acknowledges, it is all about what happens next to these players; specifically, whether they are given first-team opportunities at their clubs. He brings up the statistic that says only 33% of Premier League players are English and he describes the crucial period of transition from the academy to the senior squad as a “grey area”.
Downing has managed clubs at first-team level, most recently West Brom, and he understands the pressures – how it is a “big ask to put these boys in”. He has six players from Chelsea and a handful at other top-flight clubs.
“There are different pathways,” Downing says. “You’ve got Sessegnon at Fulham, for example, while the Chelsea boys will go through loan systems and probably not through the [Chelsea] first team. The opportunity is so little because clubs invest in other players.
“They are still getting similar teaching but it doesn’t beat actual Saturdays, what I call ‘real football’ – being able to win under pressure, playing in front of the crowd. I also think club under-23s football has a certain lifespan. They need that competitive edge and that’s down to the club and the individual.”