“It’s more than youth football.” Oliver Skipp exudes confidence as he speaks to EnglandFootball.org about the importance of the upcoming Euro U21 Championships. “You see that the games are on Sky, the history of the tournament, and you look at the players that have played in the tournaments. I think as a group, we understand how big a tournament it is.”
The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is thriving in his loan spell in Norfolk, where he and Norwich City are winning almost every game as they look to win the Championship and make an immediate return to the Premier League.
England crashed out in the group stages of the U21 Euros two years ago, despite having Mason Mount, Phil Foden, James Maddison and a number of other current England seniors in their ranks. This month, Aidy Boothroyd and the next batch of talented youngsters will aim to right the wrongs of that disappointment.Embed from Getty Images
“I think that for us as U21s, it’s the best platform that we can show what we can do,” Skipp admits. “So, I’d definitely say it’s a massive step up from youth tournaments.”
While Skipp’s football career has seen him represent Spurs’ youth teams and progress to the seniors through that route, others in Boothroyd’s squad have played for lower-league clubs in order to get game-time in the men’s game while still young, developing players. Everton centre-back Ben Godfrey’s professional career started at York City. When he then moved to Norwich, he used a loan spell at Shrewsbury Town to get match experience.
“It’s more than youth football”Oliver Skipp on the importance of the Euro U21 Championships
Talking to EnglandFootball.org, Godfrey welcomed the fact that each player in the squad has a different footballing background to his teammates. He said: “We’re really lucky that we’ve all got our individual journeys that we’ve been on, our own experiences. That’s what’s special about when you put the national team together; everyone’s got different things that they add to it. We’ve definitely got a team full of good experiences, and some unbelievable talent as well.”
At 23, Godfrey is the oldest player in England’s squad. With Noni Madueke and Josh Griffiths in the squad at age 19 and with there being nine 20-year-olds too, Godfrey recognises his role as a leader within the group as they navigate a major tournament on foreign soil.Embed from Getty Images
“At the U21s, you often get young lads joining you,” he began. “It’s important that, the things we’ve learned on our journeys, if we can teach them a thing or two and help them along the way then that’s great. They’re always open to learning off people a couple of years above them, because of the type of characters they are, which is always good. The experiences that you gain you learn from and it can help you improve. It should benefit us coming into this tournament.”
The squad of 23 players features just three who don’t play their club football in England. Ryan Sessegnon is on loan from Spurs at Hoffenheim in Germany this season, while Madueke is emerging as one of the Eredivisie’s hottest prospects at PSV. The only other plying their trade outside of England is Marc Guéhi, the Chelsea-owned centre-back who has been a standout figure this term across the Welsh border on loan at Swansea City.
Guéhi told EnglandFootball.org about the moment he discovered he had been called up. The Ivorian-born defender said: “I was at Fairwood Training Ground [in Swansea]. Recently, I picked up a little injury on my groin and I was going to do my rehab. It just popped up on the TV on Sky Sports. [I felt] elated — fantastic. [I’d been] part of the qualifying squad up to this, [and have] been really trying to improve my game at Swansea. When I saw my name was on the list with so many great players, it was a fantastic moment for me.”Embed from Getty Images
On Tuesday, just two days before England are due to start their campaign against Switzerland on Thursday, Manchester United forward Mason Greenwood pulled out of the squad through injury. He was replaced straight away by Norwich livewire Todd Cantwell, who was tipped for a senior call-up when the Canaries were in the Premier League last term.
It’s not ideal preparation, and Boothroyd will be hoping it’s the first and last hiccup that he will have to contend with in the coming days. All of the major European nations have qualified for the finals in Slovenia and Hungary. Among some of the strongest players who will feature are Germany’s 16-year-old wonderkid Youssoufa Moukoko, Patrick Kluivert’s son Justin, senior Italian internationals Sandro Tonali and Patrick Cutrone, former Spurs man Gedson Fernandes of Portugal, and Spain’s Manchester City academy graduate Brahim Díaz.
France’s team alone features the likes of striker Jonathan Ikoné, 18-year-old Rennes superstar Eduardo Camavinga, and Premier League trio Matteo Guendouzi, Illan Meslier and Wesley Fofana.
England must trust in their own quality and back themselves, though. In Godfrey, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Dwight McNeil, Emile Smith Rowe and others, they have Premier League regulars of their own. They go into the tournament as one of the favourites, and rightly so. By Wednesday next week, they will have completed the group stages by facing the Swiss, Portugal and Croatia. If Boothroyd can get his latest crop firing, they’ll be plotting their way through the knockout rounds where, famously, anything can happen.
However, exemplifying just how strange a season this is, the knockout rounds will take place in May and June. That means in a different international break and possibly with different players. But England can’t worry too much about that. They must keep their heads, control the controllables, and ensure that they’re still involved come the summer.