England are delivering at a European Championships. Seriously. The Under-19s have reached the semi-finals of their Euros in Germany and for the coach, Aidy Boothroyd, progress is testament not only to the talent but the tournament experience developing at youth level. Some day soon, a nation and the Football Association hope, the seniors will reap the benefits.
As was the case in 2014, when Roy Hodgson oversaw England’s worst performance in World Cup finals history, it is a group that can be generally classified as “the boys of 97” who have injected expectation into another miserable summer for English football.
Three wins in three group matches – against France, Holland and Croatia – have secured a semi-final against Italy in Mannheim on Thursday (kick off 11am BST). Qualification for the last four has also ensured a place at the Under-20s World Cup in South Korea next year. The Under-19 squad include many who won the European Under-17s Championship via a penalty shootout defeat of Holland two years ago. Their consistent strike rate is no coincidence, according to Boothroyd, who says the FA’s development pathway remains on course regardless of the senior team’s failure in France and change of manager.
“That  has been a big factor,” he says. “The whole point of the development programme is to give our young players experience of tournament football so by the time they reach the senior team, even though the media intensity is much lower at this level, they are used to group stages, knockout games, penalty shootouts and playing in different places in different conditions. All of these things have gone into the makeup of what we are trying to develop for the senior team.
“Our 15s, 16s, 18s and 20s are also playing world opposition. They know what it’s like to play on different continents and are getting to know what it’s about at a competitive level. We have really good players at all age levels, we have good strength in depth in the 1997 age group, and we are working hard every year to develop players for the senior team. Hopefully, in five or six years’ time, we’ll have players coming through on a conveyor belt for whoever is England manager at that time.”
Gaining access to the best young talent, or convincing Premier League assets to put international tournaments before club pressures, has been a frustration for countless England coaches from under-21 level downwards. Boothroyd says co-operation with the FA has improved considerably, with Premier League clubs seeking to improve players’ competitive development. That belief was underlined this week when the Arsenal defender Tafari Moore seized the opportunity to replace the injured Everton defender Callum Connolly in the squad.
“It’s not very nice to tell a player who has been with you all season that he hasn’t made the final squad,” said Boothroyd of Moore’s original exclusion. “But that just shows the quality and high standard of the group. Tafari being Tafari, as soon as he picked the phone up he was straight on a plane and out here and is now integrated into the group like he’d never been away.”
Boothroyd added: “We have been quite lucky, and I think I can speak for all the coaches on this, in that 99 times out of 100 the clubs have been really good with us. They are their players, we only loan them, but the clubs and the FA are working together. The fact they will go back to their clubs this summer with European Championship experience, and World Cup experience next summer, adds to them as people and players.
“It can be difficult with tournaments in July and players having pre-season but we couldn’t have got this far without having all of our players available. That is down to the relationship we have built with the clubs. You can’t win without your best players. I went on the road long before this tournament began to meet coaches and club managers about having our best players available and, touch wood, it is going to plan so far.”
Portugal or France await the winners of England’s semi-final. Italy reached the Euros courtesy of a goalless draw against Boothroyd’s side in Macedonia in October and, with the guiding hand of Arrigo Sacchi behind them, Boothroyd expects a formidable challenge on Thursday.
“We played Italy in torrential rain in our final qualifying game,” he says. “We had won the group and Italy needed a point otherwise Finland would have gone through instead. It was 0-0 but we got to know their players. There are two things that stand out about them: they are really good at pressing and they combine well as a team, which is what you expect with Arrigo Sacchi as technical director. They are very well organised and we’ll have to be at our best to beat them.”
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