2017: Year of the Lion

2018 is an even, but 2017 was odd. Very odd. Everything came together for England’s footballers. Be sure to read that last bit again, because I meant it, it happened, they did it.

England’s women’s side made the semi-finals of the Euros, beating Spain and France and thrashing Scotland 6-0 along the way. Top scorer Jodie Taylor and Fran Kirby were a manger’s dream up-front. Their semi-final defeat was to the hosts and eventual winners the Netherlands. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

Semi-finalists ✔ “Top Scorer” [Jodie Taylor] ✔ Job well done ✔

The men’s under 17s had already made it to the European Championships final, and were just seconds from claiming the title, before Spain equalised, and continued England’s doomed luck in penalty shootouts to lift the trophy rather than The Three Lions. This prompted England’s player of the tournament Jadon Sancho to be snapped up and even regularly played by the mighty Borussia Dortmund since. A great effort.

Finalists ✔ “Best Player” [Jadon Sancho] ✔ Unbeaten ✔ Job well done ✔

The under 19s traveled to Georgia with young stars Ben Breteton, Ryan Sessegnon and Mason Mount. These three played a major role as England won the under 19 Euros for a record tenth time, but the first since its rebranding in 2002. This title was achieved by walloping Germany 4-1, seeing off the Netherlands 1-0 and beating Portugal 2-1 in the final.

European Champions ✔ “Top Scorers” [Ben Brereton, Ryan Sessegnon] ✔ 100% Win Record ✔ Job well done ✔

Our under 20 side, albeit the majority of our players were 18 and younger, travelled to the annual Toulon Tournament in France. We won it last year, with a team including Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jordan Pickford and Nathan Redmond, and coached by Gareth Southgate. This year, with an almost entirely unrecognisable squad, England beat Cuba 7-1, Scotland 3-0 and the Ivory Coast on penalties to retain the title. Brazil’s and France’s under 20s were out before you could say “we’re defending champions”. Defend it they had!

Winners again ✔ “Fair-Play Award” ✔ “Top Scorers” [Harvey Barnes, George Hirst] ✔ “Best Player” [David Brooks] ✔ “Best Young Player” [Reece James] ✔ Unbeaten  ✔ Job well done ✔

England’s under 21s thrashed Poland 3-0, beat Slovakia and saved a penalty in the opener against Sweden on their way to a semi-final match against Germany. Tammy Abraham helped England to a 2-1 lead, but the Germans prevailed on penalties after a 2-2 draw and then won the tournament itself. Semis for England here.

Semi-finalists ✔ Unbeaten ✔ Job well done ✔

It was South Korea for the world’s most eagerly anticipated youth tournament – the under 20s World Cup. England traveled with Dominics Solanke and Calvert-Lewin carrying the attacking hopes for England here. There was a 3-0 win over Argentina to start things off, and then there were more ‘nervy’ moments, like a narrow 2-1 win over Costa Rica in the second round. By hook or by crook England made it to the semi-finals, where a 1-0 deficit to Italy was no problem as the Dominic Solanke show cranked up a notch. His two goals helped England come back to win it by two. England 3-1 Italy. We were finalists.

England’s opponents in the final were Venezuela – not an unknown outfit at this level. Their team included some outstanding young players, already capped by the senior team. One of these was their goalkeeper – still just 19 years of age. He played a pivotal role as England were unable to rally like they had got used to in this tournament. Dominic Calvert-Lewin managed to stick the ball past him at the second attempt, and England had the lead. Venezuela struck the post from a long range free-kick before they were awarded a penalty. A young star, Adalberto Peñaranda, stepped up to take it, but goalkeeper Freddie Woodman, already an England u-17 Euros winner in 2014, saved excellently. The Young Lions smashed the woodwork themselves before they were confirmed as the nation’s first football world champions since the golden era of 1966. Dominic Solanke was awarded the Golden Ball for best player, and Woodman the Golden Glove for best keeper.

World Champions ✔ “Best Player” [Dominic Solanke] ✔ “Best Goalkeeper” [Freddie Woodman] ✔ Unbeaten ✔ Job well done ✔

The final tournament of the year was the second at under-17 level. The World Cup provided a chance for the Euro finalists to show what they can do again, as an almost identical squad traveled to India. 9 points and two 4-0 wins helped England to an uncontested first place in Group F, before penalty woes were put right against Japan in the second round, after a dull 0-0 draw. The USA were thrashed in the quarters 4-1, helped by a hat-trick from Liverpool youngster Rhian Brewster. Then Brazil loomed in the semis. Their squad included attackers already capped by Brazilian first division clubs, but they too were seen off, 3-1. Brewster broke the net thrice more – and knocked out the “Samba Boys” with it.

RooA familiar foe faced The Three Lions in the final – their European Championship conquerors Spain. Borussia Dortmund’s decision not to allow young Jadon Sancho to leave the club for the final was a real blow. And it showed as Spain took a 2-0 lead. Young star Sergio Gomez claimed both. But England dug their heels in, and Brewster netted a downward header just before the break. It was finely poised at 2-1. Straight away, Morgan Gibbs-White slammed home a tap-in for the equaliser. England pegging back Spain. My, how things had changed! More excellent play from England’s wingers allowed Manchester City prodigy Phil Foden to print his name on the scoresheet as England took a 3-2 lead. Chelsea defender Marc Guehi then made it 4, turning in from a long free-kick. His own-goal had put England’s under 17s behind in their European Championships opener against Norway. Now, his goal was looking as if it would win his nation its second World Cup in twice as many months. Phil Foden ran free in stoppage-time to slot the ball in once more, and turn an amazing comeback into an extraordinary one. It ended European Champions Spain 2, World Champions England 5.

World Champions ✔ “Top Scorer” [Rhian Brewster] ✔ “Best Player” [Phil Foden] ✔ Unbeaten  ✔ Revenge ✔ Job well done ✔

England’s senior men’s team were the only major side not to play a tournament in 2017. But they kept their nerve and qualified for the world’s largest football event next year. Gareth Southgate will have to navigate his side past Tunisia, Panama, Belgium and hopefully many more in Russia. 2017 saw friendly defeats – to France and Germany; unfriendly wins – over Slovakia and Slovenia; nervy moments – scraping a draw in Glasgow; and clean-sheets against the world’s best teams, Germany and Brazil, too. Southgate knows that his players must show England’s youngsters what there is to enjoy about being an England senior international. England’s women are an inspiration to their younger counterparts. Our men’s side need to be able to say the same. We’re into 2018 now, but that does not mean that the greatest year in English football history has to be forgotten. England’s Young Lions have now built a legacy and it’s up to Harry Kane and co. to write their own at the Greatest Show on Earth this summer.

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