“Where is the next generation?” This was a question asked by many a pundit and supporter following England’s dismal showing at Euro 2016 in the summer. Indeed, the next generation have once again comfortably qualified for next year’s Under-21 European Championships in Poland, with a record of 6 wins, 2 draws and 0 losses. Amidst a senior side in turmoil following the removal of manager Sam Allardyce and dropping of captain Wayne Rooney from the starting XI, we take a look at the next breed of players coming through and ask whether there’s cause for optimism, or pessimism, in the near future.
Following, what for England, was an unusually buoyant two years in 2007 and 2009 when the U21’s reached the semi-finals and final respectively of the European Championships, the side have caught the senior team’s bug at major tournaments. Three consecutive tournaments have ended in a failure to emerge from the group stages and more than that, the 2015 failure was all too reminiscent of the lacklustre, unimaginative, low-scoring performances that the senior team produced in France. Nevertheless, I’m here to argue there is, believe it or not, reason to be more positive about the future.
For a start, it couldn’t possibly get any worse for English football at the moment (until we fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup!) In all seriousness though, the only was is up. More significantly, a team led by current England U20’s manager and ex-Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd won the famous Toulon tournament last summer for the first time in 22 years. This is a tournament which has seen the likes of Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry and Javier Mascherano win player of the tournament. Chelsea midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek won that accolade this time round, and Lewis Baker (the next in a long line of Chelsea youngsters out on loan at Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem) finished as top goal scorer. Loftus-Cheek in particular is a player who many hope to be the next big breakthrough star if, and it’s a big if, he can get some regular first team games under his belt at Stamford Bridge. Strong, tall and deceptively quick, he’s shown glimpses of his potential in a series of run-outs at the back end of last season under Guus Hiddink, where he played very effectively in a number of different central midfield roles. He just needs Premier League minutes in order to develop; the same can be said of other U21’s at top Premier League teams, such as Sheyi Ojo (Liverpool), Chuba Akpom (Arsenal) and Josh Onomah (Tottenham).
And then we have Marcus Rashford. Arguably the only shining light to emerge from the Euros, Rashford’s rise has been somewhat remarkable: from starting for the Manchester United under 18’s to being a first team regular in the space of a couple of months. His effortless speed with the ball coupled with a mature head on young shoulders, as well as an innately natural eye for goal, has led to many calls from the public and press to be a regular for club and country. However, he’s still a teenager, and it will be interesting to see how Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho – a coach who doesn’t have a history of bringing young players through to become first-team regulars – and interim senior boss Gareth Southgate use him in the upcoming months (as well as attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard). My personal view is that his rawness and fearlessness is something that for now cannot be sacrificed for the sake of burn-out fears or tactical adaptability. He needs to play as much as possible, in his favoured position up front.
Rashford’s rise has been somewhat remarkable
There is more to the future of English football than one Manchester United striker however. Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland was having a very impressive season before his Euros hopes were shot down by an unfortunate ankle injury in March – it’s crucial he recovers well from this setback. In addition, Matt Targett is the next young left-back flourishing at Southampton, playing well alongside new signing Nathan Redmond and academy graduate James Ward-Prowse. Jordon Ibe has made a strong start to life on the south coast at Bournemouth, and Joe Gomez is on the cusp of a return from injury following his breakthrough at the end of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure at Liverpool. And does anyone remember Reece Oxford? That 16-year-old West Ham debutant who had Arsenal superstar Mesut Ozil in his pocket on the opening day of the 2015-16 Premier league season? Well, he’s been plying his trade back down with the youth team, but a player the Hammers put a £18 million price tag on in the summer is surely one with a bright future ahead of him.
To the future then, it’s not all doom and gloom. However, of immediate importance for the FA is to clarify who will be managing the Under 21’s at next summer’s Euros. It remains to be seen whether Gareth Southgate will be given the senior role on a permanent basis, and if he is, then it’s likely Aidy Boothroyd will be given the reigns. Dependent on a favourable draw, there’s no reason why the Under 21’s can’t have a successful tournament in Poland, and who knows how many could then make the transition to the seniors ahead of the 2018 World Cup, joining the current young crop which include Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and John Stones. However, as many as possible need to be playing week in week out in the Premier League, and with the influx of players from abroad and the vast sums of money being paid for such players, it remains to be seen if this will be the case. Still, here’s to hoping that the Under-21’s come of age in the tournament spotlight, with an eagerness to do something special on the ball, instead of the slow, methodical passing we’re all too used to seeing from the England football team.