It’s hard not to cite Aidy Boothroyd as the problem when diagnosing the England U21s’ serial underachievement. The reality couldn’t possibly be that black and white, but the manager has consistently underperformed with three cycles of prodigious talent. Boothroyd told EnglandFootball.org just over a week ago, “If you’re in this competition, you’ve got to be pretty decent. And we know from experience that if you’re not at it, then you’re going to have a problem.” There’s a sour irony about those words now.
The U21s came into this tournament as one of the favourites. Among their squad were two senior England internationals: Mason Greenwood and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Greenwood, before it all began, had to be replaced through injury. It ended up just the first of many obstacles that Boothroyd’s side found themselves facing on their Slovenian trip. Unlike most, it wasn’t self-inflicted. After the first game — a humbling defeat to a dominant Switzerland — Hudson-Odoi was ruled out too. The chance of opening day points dashed and another superb player unavailable.
Aaron Ramsdale told the media after that defeat that England could still “beat anyone.” If it was just about believable then, hopes that the Swiss loss was just a blip were to be dashed in the second match.Embed from Getty Images
EnglandFootball.org spoke with 19-year-old PSV starlet Noni Madueke before that crucial second game. He’d not been involved for England in their dismal first showing. Asked about how much can be learnt when not involved on the pitch, his answer rose eyebrows. “It’s easiest to learn when you’re playing, to be honest. Obviously, it’s easy to be a critic from the sidelines when you’re not involved in the game. But when you’re playing, it’s easiest to know why some mistakes happen.”
He must have sent a message to the manager, because Madueke started against Portugal’s bright youngsters. He was given 72 minutes to try to jinx his way in and out of the Portuguese defence — with mixed fortunes — before being hauled off. That almost perfectly symbolised how disjointed this tournament was for England. Teams kept changing, both in starting lineups and during games. The players are all supremely talented unfinished articles, but none could make the difference. There were sprinkles of real quality, but cohesion was non-existent.
“This is the utterly impossible job”Aidy Boothroyd on his role as England U21 manager
Portugal were more efficient in possession and more disciplined out of it. They brushed the Young Lions aside 2-0. England had lost twice now, and hadn’t mustered a single shot on target in open play. Madueke had said before the Portugal defeat that he gets advice from the great Ruud van Nistelrooy nearly every week. By the looks of it, the whole England forward-line could have done with hearing his wide words. Without goals, you can’t win games. Without shots on target, Boothroyd’s side well and truly deserved to be heading home.
But heading home they weren’t… yet. Their hopes hung precariously by a single thread. Beat Croatia by two and hope Portugal beat Switzerland — anything less and they’d be out.Embed from Getty Images
If there’s one thing you can’t criticise Boothroyd for, it’s saying things as he sees them. At times, he’d be better to euphemise (or not say anything at all). In his press conference ahead of the make-or-break meeting with the Croats, he said that if the England senior manager position has been dubbed the impossible job, his is “the utterly impossible job.” His reasoning: that he is expected to win trophies and nurture talent and all while his best talent is pinched by Southgate.
“The only team that needs to win is the senior team,” he concluded. But that isn’t right. What better preparation for senior international football is there than winning the U21 Euros? Winning matters. England should have been challenging for the trophy, whether Boothroyd’s team were underperforming or not. You grasped his logic but it felt like a cop out.
“Like all good teams, you find your way out of it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Almost inevitably, they didn’t. But that’s nothing like the full story.Embed from Getty Images
Finally, with an injury list now seven players long and with more pressure than ever due to the two previous disappointing displays, England found a footballing cadence that their opponents couldn’t match. With goals from Eberechi Eze and Curtis Jones and with Portugal doing England a favour against the Swiss in Ljubljana, was the man with the utterly impossible job about to defy the odds in a way no one could possibly have foreseen?
The short answer was no. England conceded an incredibly cruel stoppage-time equaliser as Lille’s Domagoj Bradarić rifled the ball into the top corner well out of Ramsdale’s desperate reach. Within a whisker of qualifying dramatically, England were now genuinely out of the tournament. What was perhaps always inevitable was confirmed.
Boothroyd made his name as a player and as a manager playing a more direct, old-school style of football than is taught today. The England senior team have moved on from the years of centre-backs pumping hopeful balls up for Heskeys and Crouches to flick on. The England youth teams have too. That’s what St George’s Park was built for. That’s why England DNA was introduced. To move on. England couldn’t beat the best with their archaic style, so they joined them. Finally, flair over force.Embed from Getty Images
His England did not adopt such obsolete tactics, but neither were they cohesive in their attempts to play the modern way. England’s players must take some responsibility. Just starting out on their journeys or not, they allowed inferior footballers to see them off quite comfortably.
But Boothroyd was manager when a team featuring Phil Foden, James Maddison, Mason Mount, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and others crashed out of the 2019 finals at the group stage. Many felt at the time that he should never have been given a third bite at the cherry. A fourth would be too far, without doubt.
After defeat to Switzerland in the opener, Boothroyd reminded journalists that Sir Alf Ramsey’s England were held to a dull stalemate with Uruguay in their first game at the 1966 World Cup. Look what they went on to achieve, Boothroyd said. On every level, such a comparison felt like a sort of cursed stream of consciousness. If the ever-diplomatic FA don’t replace Boothroyd when his contract runs out this summer, they frankly don’t deserve U21 success. Blooding the next generation by immersing them in England tournament failure has gone on for far too long now. This time it really is someone else’s turn.