Being an England U21s player is a bigger deal now than it was a decade or more ago. That’s what assistant manager and former England great Ashley Cole told EnglandFootball.org in the autumn. And it’s a sentiment which has filtered down to the players. The U21s squad seems to refresh itself almost annually. In comes the latest batch of promising footballers who have spent their short lives being nurtured in progressive football systems at academies run almost infinitely better than when Cole himself was a youth player. It gives cause for optimism.
The last two England managers — or at least the last two who stuck around for longer than 67 days — have helped that process immensely. Under Roy Hodgson and now Gareth Southgate, the senior team has been more willing than ever before to integrate the age groups together. And this hasn’t just meant youth players join in with training sessions, such as when Dwight McNeil was on U20 duty in March 2019 but shone as Southgate offered him a rare morning session with the Three Lions. This has also meant more senior call-ups and caps as well.
Investment in youth is now seen as pivotal to the future of the national game, and so seasoned 29-year-old Premier League stars, for example, have never found it harder to earn a first England call-up. The reason for this: there always seems to be a 21-year-old alternative, also playing Premier League football at much the same level of consistency. The average age of the senior team has plummeted as a result. This, in turn, has brought the average age of the U21s down with it.Embed from Getty Images
Often it feels like a player has only just learned where his U21s locker is before he’s whisked away to join up with the seniors. That may well soon become the case for Leicester City’s bright young left-back Luke Thomas. He recently made no secret of his desire to represent the England seniors when he spoke with EnglandFootball.org. He said: “No matter what era it is, I think playing for England is always the biggest dream that you’ll have. Representing your country and impressing everyone at the Euros of World Cup would be a dream.
“As you could see at the Euros, everyone enjoying themselves at the time and then England getting to the final, the whole country was going mad. It’s always a great opportunity and hopefully one day I’ll get there and get the chance to do that.”
Southgate is certainly said to be an admirer, and with Ben Chilwell out for the season and Luke Shaw also injured, he has been tipped for the senior fold as early as this March. Things may take a little longer for Leeds United striker Sam Greenwood, still grappling for regular first-team minutes under Marcelo Bielsa. The 20-year-old has represented England at every age group since the U17s, and is impressed by the quality of Lee Carsley’s current U21 side of which he is a part.
“I know the quality of the players that are here,” admitted Greenwood. “We all believe in each other, so I’ve got no worries at all about that. I believe in the team. It’s a good squad that the U21s have got here.”Embed from Getty Images
Among the squad is Morgan Gibbs-White, the Wolves midfielder currently enjoying a successful campaign on loan at Sheffield United. He told EnglandFootball.org earlier in the season that he feels this campaign at Sheffield United needs to be his real breakout moment.
“I feel like it has to be”, he admitted. “I’ve got that mentality now that it needs to happen this season, and I want it to happen. I’m just trying to contribute to as many goals and assists as I can. But the main thing is to help the team get back to where they were last season. But my focus is on England right now and trying to concentrate on getting as many points as we can on that table.” The points he refers to are in qualification for the U21 Euros due to take place in the summer of 2023.
Gibbs-White played a major tole in the U17s England team managed by Steve Cooper who took India by storm and won the 2017 World Cup. The then-teenager even scored in the final — a 5–2 comeback win over Spain. He says that memories of that late summer soirée in 2017 come flooding back whenever he is driven through the entrance gates at St George’s Park.Embed from Getty Images
“Every time we meet up, me and the boys always speak about that trip away to India. It’s a motivational thing because if we can do it once, then we can do it twice. So all of us have always got that winning mentality and that desire to want to win more trophies. It’s a privilege to put on the badge; you grow up as a kid wanting to play for England. Knowing that I’m doing that now is a massive achievement.”
Their dreams to play for the England seniors are still very much alive. But in the meantime, Thomas, Greenwood, Gibbs-White and the rest are proud to represent what has evolved to become the England Reserves team in all but name. They’re on track.