England may have lost to the Czech Republic last month, but that was very much an anomaly in what has been an engaging and exciting couple of years for Three Lions fans. 2017 brought about a glut of good results for the Young Lions.
In one single calendar year, England sent six teams to major youth competitions. A third-place finish at the U21 Euros was the worst result. Four titles, two of them World Cups – England’s youth teams were finally starting to produce in tangible ways.
Many of the players attributed with making these successes possible have now gone on to star for top clubs, with many now representing England at senior level. Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Jordan Pickford and Ben Chilwell are just four examples of these countless once-talented and now high-profile players.
England’s players grow up – they always have done, and they always will do. We can no longer call Pickford young at 25 years of age. But when older players ‘graduate’ from these sides, new ones inevitably come in. Here are eight players making a name for themselves at the upper levels of England’s youth system.
The current U21 side has some real talent. Notably, Aaron Ramsdale has emerged as AFC Bournemouth’s first-choice keeper this season. He seems odds on to represent his country at senior level one day, as does Dean Henderson – Sheffield United’s first choice, his period with the U21s was up in the summer. It’s been a good few seasons since the Premier League last had as many English goalkeepers starting every week as it does right now. It’s to Ramsdale and Henderson’s credit that this sum is as high as it is.
Max Aarons is another player of note. After the exceptional quartet of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Aarons can consider himself a good bet at the next best right-back in England. Aged 19, he should be very proud of that. Norwich City are reaping the rewards of having him in their ranks.
Centre-back, Jonathan Panzo, also deserves a mention. He joined Monaco when Thierry Henry was manager. Despite struggling for game time early on, he’s improved hugely – even just by training with such players as Radamel Falcao, and admitted that himself when we met earlier in the year. This season, he’s got even better, spending his time out on loan in Belgium at Cercle Brugge.
Burnley’s best contribution to the England youth system is Dwight McNeil. A rare talent on the wing, McNeil has already scored four Premier League goals at the age of 19. Big things are expected of him and it would be a real treat for England fans if he lived up to them.
Eddie Nketiah is probably the most exciting option at centre-forward right now. On loan at Leeds United, Nketiah honed his skills as a youth player with Chelsea and then Arsenal. He’s played for all England age-groups from U18s upwards and his combined record for these four sides is an immense 27 goals from 29 games.
His five goals from 12 appearances for Leeds this season is certainly getting him noticed, especially back home by Arsenal fans eager to see more of this exciting young generation that’s brewing. There’s a budding Ian Wright in there somewhere.
Attacking midfield is hardly a position that needs looking at for England. Gareth Southgate has around eight players in and around his squad in that position as it is. However, looking to younger players doesn’t just offer James Maddison and Foden. Todd Cantwell is a man that’s impressed a lot of people already this season, emerging as the best provider for Teemu Pukki at Norwich City. A true Norfolk boy, Aidy Boothroyd first called on Cantwell for the U21s this season.
Possibly the least well-known in this entire list, Eberechi Eze is arguably one of the most talented players to feature. A Millwall academy reject, Eze impressed Queens Park Rangers and convinced them to sign him. His first experience of regular first-team football came on loan at Wycombe Wanderers, where five league goals in 20 games earned him a regular place with QPR once he’d returned.
Last season was his first full campaign with QPR, and his energy, presence and technical ability on the ball in midfield quite rightly earned him a first England youth call-up last October. His six caps for the U20s are to date Eze’s only for the Young Lions. But he’s now a consistently high performer for his club – a phone call from the U21s can’t be too far away…
Staying grounded, committed and willing to learn are three vital requirements if these promising young talents are to reach the very top. Looking at only glimpses of their talent suggests they can do it.