So today’s the day. England Under-17s take on Spain in the World Cup final. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, this. It ought to feel inevitable that an England football team will choke, or look suddenly ordinary, or in some other way mess things up, against a big-name team like Spain. As everyone knows, it’s fifteen years since a senior England side beat a decent team in any finals. That was in Japan in 2002, when we scraped through unconvincingly against Argentina with a Beckham penalty. In the 2004 Euros we really fancied ourselves, but both France and Portugal beat us, and I won’t go into what has happened since, golden generation and all.
Coming down the age-range a notch, four months ago the Under 21s got knocked out of the Euros, by, yes, you’ve guessed it, Germany on penalties. OK, you may point out that three weeks earlier, the Under20s had beaten Italy on the way to deservedly winning their own World Cup. But the unpalatable fact is that England very rarely indeed beat a major footballing nation at any level. So, my reasoning goes, if we had any sense we wouldn’t expect too much today.
But for anyone who has been watching this team, it’s hard to shake a feeling of quiet confidence that they can beat Spain and win this World Cup. This isn’t because they have swept through the tournament, outclassing and out-passing every team they have come up against. 4-0 against Iraq looks good, but England were laboured for much of the game, and didn’t finish the Iraqis off until late on. They needed penalties against Japan (when you may remember the England goalkeeper Curtis Anderson put on an unedifying display of poor sportsmanship, unchecked by the referee), and in the quarter-final against USA, they spent quite a bit of their time wondering where the ball was. But what they have is a solid and physically imposing back four, a consistently high-class midfielder in Phil Foden (who looks eerily like Jack Wilshere on the ball), and a proper centre-forward who knows how to put the ball in the net. They like to play the ball forward quickly and positively, rather than pass it around aimlessly, predictably and riskily at the back (as the senior team do, because they’ve been told over and over that they must do whatever it takes, no matter how negative and pointless, to deny the ball to the opposition). Above all these boys play with conviction, as if they don’t just intend to win but know how they are going to do it. That was enough to put a talented and highly-fancied Brazil side away, and might well be too good for Spain.
But steady on, let’s not get too cheerful. Since the senior team’s grisly tournament record has ended any expectations of their having it in them to do well when the chips are down (only a lunatic would bet on them doing well in a tournament against Germany, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Belgium, Portugal or plenty of others) England fans have wedded themselves to hope. It’s nice to dream about the future, and commentators and journalists have spoken excitedly about the year’s age-group successes as if this is a successful senior England team in waiting. But it isn’t.
A big part of the excitement in watching the Under-17s is the fact that hardly anyone outside football (perhaps excluding the diehards who turn out to watch club training-sessions and reserve matches) had heard of these kids until a few weeks ago. It’s like finding a box of chocolates you didn’t know you had, all with new names and flavours. There’s something dream-like about it.
That is a very different feeling from what you get with the Under-21s, where you find yourself watching the likes of Calum Chambers or James Ward Prowse; or even the Under 20s, with Calvert Lewin, Solanke and so on. The problem is that, unlike the Under-17s, we have seen these players for their clubs, and have got used to seeing them look decent-but-nothing-special-yet, and in most cases not even likely to be special. Nobody in his right mind gets dreamy-eyed about a future England team based on Chalobah or Ward-Prowse (let alone Chambers, God forbid) because we have seen what these players offer in league football. And it’s no use comparing the FA’s development programme with what Clairefontaine did for the French team. Good young French players get regular games for their clubs, but when English commentators enthuse about players for the future like Solanke, Gomez, Maitland-Niles and the rest it’s hard to resist a sceptical twinge at the back of your mind, because you know that unless they keep improving at a very steep rate indeed, Klopp or Wenger are going to move them on to Sunderland or West Brom after a year or two, and that might very well be the end of them (I’m not even going to talk about Chelsea’s market-garden approach to youth development).
So caution is advised when making predictions about even this exciting Under-17 team: the real challenge will be getting a game for their clubs.
But first, the World Cup.
* Note to the reader. This post is not intended to be (particularly) humorous, but I can’t make the Categories work properly.