It felt as though 2017 was a breakthrough year in English football. The men’s seniors did their job by qualifying for Russia, but it was the women’s fourth place finish at the European Championships that really got the nation excited over the summer. A second-place finish at men’s U-17 European Championships inspired their golden team of Rhian Brewster and Phil Foden to go and grab the World Cup in India later in the year, whilst the U-20s, with the likes of Dominic Solanke and Lewis Cook, won their age-group’s World Cup also, beating Venezuela in the final in June.
In Georgia, Ryan Sessegnon brought the U-19s European Championships trophy back to St. George’s too, and the England U-21s side, including Jordan Pickford, Tammy Abraham and Ben Chilwell, came a penalty shootout defeat to the Germans away from reaching the final.
With all these men’s teams jetting off around the world over the summer, England’s U-21s were not likely to successfully defend their Toulon Tournament from the previous year – they were bringing a third-string side to the tournament in France. Against all odds, they overcame the Ivory Coast in a tense final to win yet another trophy for the nation.
England had waited so long for a shot at silverware that when award after award after award was added to the barren St. George’s Park trophy cabinet it was barely believable to the average fan. Could 2018 live up to these crazy heights? Did it?
The first team in focus are the Lionesses, at U-17 level. They hadn’t qualified for the World Cup in Uruguay but did compete in Lithuania – at the European Championships in May. Their results were truly bizarre. A 4-0 thrashing of Italy in their final Group game sent them straight through to a semi-final tie with Germany. They were coming in off the back of an 8-0 victory over the hosts. England’s form stopped – the Germans repeated their last result, prevailing with yet another emphatic 8-0 win. A narrow defeat to Finland in the Third Place Playoff confirmed it was a fourth-placed finish four the Young Lionesses.
Two years their seniors, the England women’s U-19s side won the La Manga tournament in March, seeing off France 2-1 in the final. This was ideal preparation for their final 2018 European Championships qualifiers the following month. Defeat to Germany meant they wouldn’t take part in the Euros of 2018 [in July] but qualifying for the 2019 edition was soon to begin. The Young Lionesses have made a perfect start to that – beating Malta, Croatia and Slovakia 9-0, 8-0 and 4-0 respectively.
For England’s Lionesses in the U-20 age-group, 2018 was all about one thing – the World Cup, in Brittany in August. The girls got off to an excellent start, beating defending champions North Korea 3-1 in their opening fixture. Georgia Stanway, England’s revelation in the tournament, scored an early penalty against Brazil in the second match, only for an agonising stoppage-time equaliser to deny England a second win from two. Mexico, the group’s fourth team, had beaten the Brazilians 3-2 in their opener, but fell to a huge 6-1 defeat when England faced them. The Young Lionesses showed no mercy. Stanway and Alessia Russo each picked up their third goals of the tournament, while striker Lauren Hemp scored an inspired hattrick. Chloe Kelly scored the other and England were on their way to the quarter-finals.
Georgia Stanway decided the match for England. The Manchester City youngster fired in two solo goals to bring the Lionesses from 1-0 down all the way to the semi-finals with a 2-1 win. The Netherlands were beaten. Here, the inspired journey ended. Two quickfire first-half goals took eventual winners Japan past England and all the way to the final. In the match for third-place, England’s spot-kicks were the decisive factor as a 1-1 draw with France was decided 4-2 in the Young Lionesses’ favour from the penalty spot. It had been a brilliant journey for this promising group of players. Phil Neville will have been beaming all the way back from Brittany to Burton.
The youngest men’s side able to compete in regular tournaments is the U-17s. Last year they came second and first in the Euros and then World Cup, but things move on fast. A new generation was in for 2018 – a year where England were to host the U-17 European Championships in May. The preparation for this was a small tournament in the Algarve in February. A 4-0 defeat to hosts Portugal was a poor start to say the least. However, Steve Cooper’s side recovered to draw 1-1 with Germany. In their third and final match, they earned their first win of the tournament, beating the Netherlands 2-0.
When May came, there was a buzz in the Midlands. England’s matches were tight, tense and extremely well attended. Israel and Italy were beaten 2-1, before a one-goal defeat to the Swiss still allowed England through. The Young Lions’ most comfortable game ended up being the following one – their quarter-final. Norway went down 2-0. The Netherlands stood between England and a third consecutive Young Lions final for the U-17. It wasn’t to be, sadly. Eventual winners the Netherlands squeezed through 6-5 in a monster shootout after a 0-0 draw. Third place was a valiant effort from England’s next generation.
Despite not winning the tournament, England were Europe’s highest ranked side at U-17 level, and so gained a bye to the next round of qualifying for 2019’s version of the Euros. For this reason, the Autumn was free for Steve Cooper’s team. They used this free time to invite the United States, Russia and Brazil for a four-team tournament in Shrewsbury and Chester. The Young Lions were excellent, beating all three sides 3-1, 3-0 and 3-1 again, respectively.
For England’s U-18s, it was a year of friendlies. With no UEFA or FIFA tournaments for this age, every year is a year of friendlies. Seven wins, two draws and one defeat made it a good year for the U-18s. A 3-0 victory in the Netherlands was perhaps the highlight.
In July came the U-19s Euros. England won this annual event last year. Ryan Sessegnon was the hero in Georgia, but the odd timing of the tournament meant many club managers weren’t willing to let their youngsters play this time around. Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Sessegnon were all told they had to stay with their clubs for their pre-season tours. This harmed England’s chances from the day one. A tense 3-2 victory over Turkey was the perfect start for the defending champions, but failure to put the game to bed came back to haunt England in their second game – a 1-1 draw with the Ukraine. It all fell apart in the final group game though as the Young Lions were trounced 5-0 by 2016 champions France.
The France defeat meant England were out – third from four in Group B. They did still have one final match to play though – a play-off place with Group A’s third-place side. The winner would reach the 2019 U-20 World Cup. England, of course, are the current holders of that gong too. A second poor performance in a row handed Norway a comprehensive 3-0 victory. England won’t be in Poland to defend the title they won so unexpectedly in 2017. The 2018 U-19 European Championships wasn’t a tournament to remember for England. They came sixth out of eight teams, only above Turkey and Finland, who both lost every match they played.
The England U-20s began an eight-team league called the 2018-19 Euro Elite League. They were pipped by Germany by a single point in last season’s, the inaugural, edition. This time though, three victories from five, over Switzerland, Germany and Italy, have England in third place as we move into 2019.
2018 was England’s first unbeaten year for the U-21s since 2012. However, in 2012 England only played six times. This year, Aidy Boothroyd’s side went unbeaten in 13 fixtures. The side’s only tournament experience of the year was their May-June attempt to win a third Toulon Tournament in a row. Tammy Abraham’s late winner saved England from a draw in their opener – they beat China 2-1. A dull 0-0 draw with Mexico came next, before England faced Qatar. Needing a five-goal victory to top the group, they won 4-0 but made it through as the best second-placed team.
An Eddie Nketiah double helped England to a 3-1 semi-final victory over neighbours Scotland. They were into their third consecutive Toulon Tournament final. They faced Mexico who they drew 0-0 with in the group stalemate. In a truly dreadful start, Mexico took a second-minute lead. But goals from Dael Fry and Kieran Dowell gave England a deserved 2-1 victory. England won in Toulon for the third year in a row.
From here on in, the Young Lions drew 0-0 with the Netherlands, before beating Latvia, Andorra and Scotland 2-1, 7-0 and 2-0 respectively to qualify for next summer’s U-21 European Championships. They completed the year with convincing 2-1 and 5-1 friendly victories away to Italy and Denmark. Liverpool’s Dominic Solanke, winner of the Golden Ball for best player at the U-20 World Cup in 2017 [which he and England won], scored both in Italy before grabbing another brace against Denmark.
Finally we come to the Lionesses and Three Lions at senior level. With a new manager in Phil Neville, the Lionesses began 2018 in the United States, at the annual SheBelieves Cup. Neville’s reign got off to an outstanding start as his side thrashed France 4-1 in their opener. They then twice came from behind to claim a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Germany, Ellen White scoring twice. A Karen Bardsley own-goal gave the USA a narrow victory in the final match. It was second place for England – an improvement on their two previous third-place finishes.
After this, England topped their group to qualify for next year’s World Cup. Four prestige friendlies in October and November completed a strong year for the Lionesses. A 1-0 victory over Brazil was followed by a 1-1 tie with Australia. England were convincing in their 3-0 victory in Austria, ahead of their final match of the year. A 2-0 defeat to Sweden in Rotherham was a testing end to a good twelve months for Neville’s side.
For England’s men, Gareth Southgate masterminded the best calendar year possibly since 1966. March friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy offered positive viewing as fans got used to the new three-at-the-back system. In June, victories over Nigeria and Costa Rica in London and Leeds offered glimpses of brilliance. England left for Russia.
Harry Kane displayed his goalscoring instinct to see off a disruptive Tunisia side in England’s first match. Then came the craziest summer lunchtime in living memory. England stormed to a 5-0 lead over Panama, eventually finishing as 6-1 winners in Nizhny Novgorod. A 1-0 defeat to Roberto Martinez’s Belgium gave England a rather easier path to the World Cup final. England was getting ahead of itself. Gareth Southgate and his team weren’t.
The following fixture was a match that turned an entire chapter in the book of English football history. Just two minutes away from making it past Colombia, England conceded a stoppage-time equaliser to send the match into extra-time. Dangerous territory. Southgate exorcised some personal demons, leading England through a near-textbook penalty shootout. Colombia had been fouling, then testing and then fouling once more. They were out, but England had rewritten the history books and were well and truly through.
England’s first World Cup quarter-final victory since 1990 was bizarrely one of the most comfortable games of the year. England 2-0 Sweden. The dream died in Moscow. Trippier was outstanding but Croatia were streetwise. England were out, 2-1 to the Croats. The all-new UEFA Nations League was next for a rejuvenated England. Defeat at Wembley to Spain felt harsh as Danny Welbeck levelled deep in injury-time with a seemingly legitimate equaliser, but revenge was on the horizon.
A 0-0 draw behind closed doors with Croatia offered many chances. None were taken. Next came a trip to Seville. Spain’s form included the victory over England and a 6-0 whipping of World Cup finalists Croatia. Nevertheless, England’s youngest starting 11 since 1959 were up for it. Raheem Sterling’s England goal-drought came to a stunning end as his side led 3-0 at the break. Despite the final score being closer at 3-2, England actually defended very well in the second period. Spain’s second goal only came in the 98th minute with the last kick of the game.
And so it all came down to the final month of fixtures – November. Wayne Rooney had the send-off he would have hoped for. England’s record goalscorer made a lively cameo in a dominant 3-0 win over the USA. The final match had the feeling of an FA Cup final about it. A 2pm kick-off against Croatia provided the chance to make history. Could England make the Nations League finals of next June, at their first time of asking? England could get relegated to League B, could stay put or could make the finals. Croatia’s lead gave Kane’s team the focus and purpose they needed. The skipper stabbed home a late winner – England are off to Portugal in June 2019. What will be 53 year of hurt may end up being no more.
Georgia Stanway’s U-20s and their women’s World Cup run and the men’s U-21s retaining the Toulon Tournament provided the highlights at youth level in another strong and promising year for England’s young sides. Phil Neville and Gareth Southgate had great years too. One is growing the women’s game in its motherland; the other has inspired the nation to get behind the Three Lions once more.
If 2017 was about promise at senior level and excellence at youth level, 2018 was completely the other way around. The future of England in international football looks like a very bright place indeed.