On 6 October 2001, David Beckham caressed the ball over four Greek men, and watched as it curled majestically into the corner of the net past a fifth. It stole England a draw, and with it a place at the 2002 World Cup finals. Mason Greenwood was just five days old. Today, he has been named in the senior England squad for the first time.
He is the latest young star plucked from the never-ending conveyor belt of England talent and thrust into the deep end to see if he’ll sink or swim. Ole Gunnar Solskjær and everyone at Manchester United would insist he’ll do the latter. For the Red Devils, this forward-turned-winger has risen to the occasion time and time again this season. No teenager has ever scored more goals in a season for United — not even Wayne Rooney.
When England play their first game in ten months, in Iceland on 5 September, Greenwood will still be 18. Gareth Southgate’s trust in such raw talent is commendable, but the hard work has been done by Greenwood and his exuberant compatriots. They’ve brought this attention on themselves by repaying their managers’ trust in big games.
And the Bradford-born attacker isn’t the only player for whom this squad brings their first inclusion. Joining the United starlet is Phil Foden, whose Manchester City career has thus far been one of drip-fed game-time from Pep Guardiola. Foden seemed to step up after the restart though, taking on a meatier role in the City team just as the sublime David Silva was winding down his exemplary decade at the Etihad.
The noisy supporters of Leeds United will be celebrating the third and final player to debut in the senior England fold. Their 24-year-old academy graduate Kalvin Phillips makes the squad before he has kicked a ball in the Premier League — a great compliment to the levels he reached in dictating the tempo of Championship fixtures last season. Given the fact holding-midfield has been such a problem position for Southgate, the promotion of Phillips and Leeds to the top-flight could serve as healthy competition to Declan Rice, Harry Winks and Eric Dier, all of whom also made the cut.
Winks and Dier have been beneficiaries of Tottenham Hotspur bringing in José Mourinho as their new manager in the autumn. Dier particularly so, as he proved a trustworthy stand-in when adopting his former position of centre-back.
There are no real surprises between the sticks, where Jordan Pickford — despite a wretched domestic campaign with Everton — was never going to miss out entirely. Joining him, and perhaps in a good position to grab a game each during this international break, are Nick Pope of Burnley and also Dean Henderson. The latter was superb on loan at Sheffield United last season, but will likely remain with owners Manchester United this term.
Injuries will have had a large bearing on some of the squad decisions — not least the fact that Southgate’s two preferred left-back options are both unavailable: Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw. The England manager has decided not to pick anyone in that position and will therefore likely trust Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings there. The centre-back has played on the left flank at various points in his career to date.
The FWA’s Player of the Year, Jordan Henderson, is also injured and therefore not involved. The same can be said for his club teammate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as well as James Maddison. The Leicester City man was in the news this week following a contract extension that will keep him at the King Power Stadium until 2024.
Manchester United captain Harry Maguire would have been a sure-fire inclusion. But his involvement in a bust-up and the subsequent criminal trial while on holiday in Mykonos has seen him disgraced and heavily tipped to be dropped. Despite the court ruling he was guilty of three offences, Maguire was allowed to return home and had initially made the squad. Then, later in the day, Southgate announced he was withdrawing the player.
Mings’ only competition at the centre of defence therefore comes in the form of Merseyside duo Joe Gomez and Michael Keane. Everton’s Keane does seem like an odd choice, given the standout form of James Tarkowski and Lewis Dunk for Burnley and Brighton respectively. The pair have three caps between them, all earned under the watchful eye of Southgate. Both, however, have missed out on a place here.
While no left-backs have been named, three right-sided full-backs made it in. The irrepressible Trent Alexander-Arnold will hustle with 2018 World Cup ace Kieran Trippier for the bulk of the game-time. And then a surprise inclusion — Kyle Walker is back after having played zero minutes for England since their last Nations League campaign, a year ago. Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka (still uncapped) is allowed to feel aggrieved at being overlooked.
The attacking flair of Foden in the No10 position is bolstered by the addition of Chelsea’s Mason Mount and Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse. Two-cap man Ward-Prowse was a favourite of Southgate’s when the manager was in charge of the England U21 side.
Fans of all loyalties have expressed outrage at the exclusion of Aston Villa captain and star man Jack Grealish. The former Republic of Ireland youth international was largely anonymous after the restart, but his undoubted quality saw him become the Premier League’s most fouled player of all time in a single season last term. Nevertheless, he must wait for a first call-up.
Recalling that Chelsea’s teenage winger Callum Hudson-Odoi has played cameos only this season, largely due to a succession of serious injuries, the England forward-line largely picks itself. In his absence, formidable competition on the wings will see Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling battle Mason Greenwood for as much game-time as the manager is willing to give them.
Those four struck a combined total of 90 goals and 43 assists in all competitions for their clubs this season. Their average age — to give that some context — is a refreshing 21.2.
Finally, on this season’s viewing in the league, few will be raising eyebrows at Southgate’s three choices up front, where the Three Lions’ skipper Harry Kane will be hard-pressed for a starting berth by Tammy Abraham and Danny Ings. Former England forward Jamie Vardy was the only player to hit more goals in the Premier League this term than Ings at Southampton, currently playing the best football of his career.
Other notable omissions include Ross Barkley, Dele Alli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian Delph and Callum Wilson. All five struggled to make any real impact after the restart though, and the overriding message to be taken from Southgate’s squad here is that form — not reputation — is what gets you into the England squad. Dier and Ward-Prowse may not be luxurious choices, but they’ve made more of an impression on the England manager in recent months than a number of more high-profile, young talents.
Gareth Southgate admitted when naming this squad on Tuesday, “There is no denying this is a complicated camp in terms of planning. We have players at so many different stages of their preparation for the new season.”
The first task for these 24 players is to get the better of Denmark and — chiefly — Iceland. Kane, Sterling, Walker, Rashford and Dier will know all too well that that can be harder than it looks.
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