Jeonju is eight time zones away from Cobham and when Dominic Solanke broke through the middle before cracking his second goal past the Italy goalkeeper, Andrea Zaccagno, on Thursday his former place of employment could hardly have seemed at a further remove.
Solanke ended up sitting out this season at Chelsea after talks over a new contract broke down, early hopes of challenging for a first-team place fizzling into a limbo of training sessions and a handful of under-23 fixtures as it became clear he would not be considered for selection.
A move to Liverpool was finalised last month; he had been in danger of fading from view but now he will lead the line in England’s Under-20 World Cup final against Venezuela on Sunday as they seek an achievement that has no parallel in this country in the past half-century.
Solanke has learned the virtues of perseverance and there may be those inside Chelsea’s set-up who wonder whether the club should have stuck things out a little longer themselves. He joined the club at the age of eight and with starring roles in FA Youth Cup and Uefa Youth League titles behind him – not to mention the near-obligatory season on loan at Vitesse Arnhem – his trajectory appeared set.
It is rarely that simple for a 19-year-old attempting to break through at Stamford Bridge though and Solanke is hardly the first to seek an alternative path. Liverpool will be a fresh start with, should all go to plan, a clearer route by which to make up for lost time.
Give or take the finer details, Solanke’s was a depressingly familiar situation among English players of a similar age. Perhaps that will change if the Under-20s win their first final at this tournament and there is a sense that the current crop have a momentum that previous generations found hard to muster.
“We knew that we’ve got a winning bunch of players and we’ve got to repeat that,” Solanke said after that 3-1 semi-final win over Italy, referencing the Uefa Under-17 Championship title the core of the squad won together in 2014.
Solanke scored England’s goal in the final against Holland, which was decided on penalties; it appears not to have been a flash in the pan and when the players return for pre-season with their clubs – all bar four in the top flight – scrutiny over their use and treatment can be expected to intensify.
The cautious conclusion in Solanke’s case is that, whether or not England win the trophy and regardless of whether he scores the two goals that would almost certainly win the golden boot award outright, the tools are in place for the Premier League.
He has won admiration from those who have seen him work up close – particularly the Under-20s manager, Paul Simpson – for the way he handled his exile at Chelsea and has grown into this World Cup after, perhaps understandably, looking a shade below his best in his first two games.
Style wise, Solanke is a rangy figure who, rather than appearing awkward, has the strength and awareness to threaten when playing up against defenders or in deeper areas. He needs to be playing regularly at a high level now; so, too, do team-mates such as the Everton forward Ademola Lookman and the Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook.
If a lack of success in high-pressure situations has contributed to English clubs’ caution towards using young players, will an unprecedented victory this summer bring a change in mindset?
Venezuela need to be negotiated first and that, despite the country’s lack of presence as a power at senior level, is far from assured.
England will have the benefit of freshness after their opponents required extra-time to win all three of their knock-out games, but they will have to be wary of the forward Adalberto Peñaranda – who is on Watford’s books and has trodden a familiar-looking path in spells at Granada and Udinese – as well as Sergio Córdova, whose four-goal tally equals that of Solanke.
They are highly dangerous players but England’s biggest challenge may lie more in the mind – a situation that their distance from home, with few fans and media scrambling to make the 11-hour flight at short notice, perhaps improves. Interest and pressure may be ramping up before a first World Cup final at any significant level since 1966, but they are conveniently isolated.
“Everyone’s going to be rooting for us back home so hopefully we can make them proud,” Solanke said. If England do, their centre-forward might consider that those months on the sidelines were eventually well worth it. Chelsea, on the other hand, may feel precisely the opposite is true for them.
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