Out in Slovakia for the European Championship, England’s Under-19 Young Lions are making waves. With a group-stage record of three matches played, three victories and no goals conceded they enter the semi-final stage as warm favourites to beat Italy, the senior team’s Euro 2020 nemeses, on Tuesday evening in Senec.
An opening 2-0 win over Austria followed by a 4-0 defeat of Serbia had already qualified them for 2023’s Under-20 World Cup even before Saturday’s 1-0 win over Israel, played on a sodden pitch following a midsummer storm. In Indonesia next year, they will aim to repeat the success of their 2017 forebears, who became the first English world champions since 1966 after Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goal beat Venezuela in the final.
Before that, against an Italian team featuring Fabio Miretti – already a Juventus first-teamer – there is a chance to emulate England’s Under-19 European champions of the same year, a generation including Mason Mount, Ryan Sessegnon and Aaron Ramsdale.
Though England’s joint-top scorer in that tournament may now be known as Ben Brereton-Díaz and play for Chile, Lukas Nmecha also now being a full German international, the pathway to future senior recognition is clear. Gareth Southgate, a former Under-21 manager who addressed the Under-19s at St George’s Park before their flight to Slovakia, is far more readily disposed to England youth products than his predecessors.
“Gareth can empathise with coaches in the pathway as he’s worked here,” says Ian Foster, the Under-19 coach. The 45-year-old Merseysider previously worked alongside Steve Cooper, when the now-Nottingham Forest manager’s team won the Under-17 World Cup during that English FA annus mirabilis. “He knows how difficult it is with young players who will come and go out of the pathway. What is proven with Gareth as a senior manager is that he will give players an opportunity. He’s got a player from the 2003 age group already in his squad [Jude Bellingham]. It gives great incentive.”
The Covid-19 pandemic denied Foster’s youngsters the chance to compete at Under-17 level. “I think I went 22 months without a game, incredibly frustrating,” he says. His crop contains some already familiar names, not only because of Aaron Ramsey, this one being the Great Barr-born brother and teammate of Aston Villa’s Jacob Ramsey. Fellow Villa midfielder Carney Chukwuemeka may be the brightest jewel. Having gradually broken through under Steven Gerrard’s management he has been linked with Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund.
In May, Gerrard issued a public rebuke to Chukwuemeka’s representatives, though the 18-year-old’s situation highlights that young Englishmen are widely coveted. “The improvement lies in the academies,” says Foster. “From our perspective we inherit players who are technically excellent, physically very good. Young players lack tactical understanding and they’ll gain that with experience but our players, English players, are so much technically superior to where they were.”
Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, a 17-year-old forward, took the same pathway to Borussia Dortmund as Jadon Sancho in departing Manchester City’s youth setup. Samuel Iling-Junior is at Juventus after coming through the ranks at Chelsea, who he had joined as an eight-year-old. “The two boys who are playing overseas, they love it,” says Foster. “It’s a different way of life, a new language, it’s culturally different. And it can only make them better people and better players.”
Aside from the Sheffield United forward Daniel Jebbison, Bristol City’s Channel Islander midfielder Alex Scott, and defender Ronnie Edwards of Peterborough, formerly of National League Barnet, Foster’s is a squad of Premier League-contracted talent working through the FA’s coaching directives.
“The idea is that regardless of the kit they are playing in, you’ll be able to tell it’s an England team playing,” says Foster. “It’s not overprescribed in terms of what shape we play, what tactics we use, but in terms of how we plan, how we play, there is a DNA. We want to play the English way, high intensity and high tempo with control.”
Dane Scarlett, the Tottenham striker, scored twice against Serbia before being rested for the Israel game. Described by Antonio Conte as an “important prospect” he is expected to be loaned down the divisions next season with a future role as an understudy and possible successor to Harry Kane.
Kane was the star forward of the Under-19 team that reached the semis of the Euros in 2012, but a glance at the victorious 2017 generation underlines the difficulty of completing a similar journey to becoming a top professional. For every Reece James, now an established senior international, there is a Jacob Maddox, who never made a Chelsea appearance and played last season at Burton, on loan from Vitória de Guimarães in Portugal. Forward Isaac Buckley-Ricketts, then of Manchester City, played most recently for Warrington Town.
“Mason Mount would be a perfect example where you see a wonderfully gifted player who you would be surprised if he didn’t play senior international football, but there’s other players who will surprise you,” says Foster.
“There will be players who will play senior football for England, and there will be players who won’t. But they are having a wonderful time, they are representing their country, their families are here, so proud of them, as am I and my staff. We’ll just enjoy the moment and do our very best to beat Italy.”