by Dom Smith
2017 was an unforgettable year of vindication for the St George’s Park project. England reached the final of the U17 Euros, before the same group of U17s won the World Cup just seven months later. The U21s lost on penalties in the semi-final stage of the Euros. The U20s won the World Cup too, a specially formed U20s reserves team won the Toulon Tournament for the second of three years on the bounce, and the U19s won the Euros. It was a quite extraordinary year of success.
The side that travelled to Georgia to win the U19 Euros included three players who have gone to establish themselves as key members of Gareth Southgate’s senior side since: Mason Mount, Reece James and Aaron Ramsdale. As well as Spurs’ Ryan Sessegnon and a 17-year-old Trevoh Chalobah of Chelsea, the team was spearheaded by two upcoming stars who now turn out for different nations altogether. Lukas Nmecha has earned six full caps for Germany, and Ben Brereton has become Ben Brereton Díaz, shining for Chile where his mother hails from.
Five years on, England can once again claim to be European champions at that level. Under new management — the calming figure of Ian Foster — England sailed through the group stage in Slovakia, not conceding a single goal as they cruised past Austria 2–0, Serbia 4–0, and Israel 1–0.
In 28°C heat in Senec, England faced Italy in the semi-final. It was undoubtedly the biggest test yet for Foster’s Young Lions, and it startly poorly as Fabio Miretti’s penalty put the Italians ahead after 12 minutes.
England always looked to be in control of the match, and when Guernsey-born midfielder Alex Scott of Bristol City was brought on in the second half, it paid dividends straight away as his bullet header from a corner powered England back level.Embed from Getty Images
With Italy tiring and England hunting for a goal to negate the need for extra-time, Jarell Quansah, the highly rated Liverpool defender, profited from an Italy error from another corner. He nodded England ahead. Despite eight minutes of added time, England saw the game out well and reached the final.
The tournament favourites were undoubtedly France — buoyed by the uncompromising midfielder Warren Bondo of France, and the mercurial talent and No 10, Loum Tchaouna of Stade Rennes. Tchaouna finished the tournament as top scorer, but Israel were competing in this exclusive eight-team tournament for only the second time, and their twice-weekly preparation meetings throughout last season paid off as they stunned the French in the other semi.
However you looked at it, this boded well for Foster’s side. Israel were less of an unknown quantity, as England had already played them — and the favourites were out.
In front of the players’ families, a few travelling England fans, and scouts from a number of top clubs including Liverpool and Wolves, England’s Young Lions got underway in the Euro U19 final. Like so many England age-groups, Foster’s current squad is an eclectic blend of young first-team players from lower-league teams and academy stars from some of England’s biggest clubs.Embed from Getty Images
Aston Villa disrupted the English youth system’s recent duopoly in 2021 when they rose above the two favourites Chelsea and Manchester City — modern-day academy titans — to lift the presitigous FA Youth Cup at U18 level. Three of their academy stars were involved in the final, all playing in midfield: Tim Iroegbunam, Aaron Ramsey and Carney Chukwuemeka.
Chukwuemeka was the star of this England team, and looked comfortably the most capable player in all of his displays out in Slovakia. In the final this was the case too, but not in the first half. England were facing the wind in the first period, and that allowed Israel to enjoy seven shots to England’s zero in a one-sided and highly concerning opening 45.
England headed into the break behind, thanks to a truly exceptional solo goal from the highly courted Oscar Gloukh. Foster has said of his management style that he treats his players as adults, only stepping in when he sees fit. One of his other key performers of the tournament besides Chukwuemeka is his captain, Chelsea’s versatile attacker Harvey Vale. Vale can player across a midfield three and an attacking three, but played as a left-wing-back to good effect. He praised Foster’s management style throughout the tournament.
Foster’s half-time words must have worked, because England returned from the dressing room in Trnava ready to enjoy the wind’s, as well as the crowd’s, backing. They looked a different team, and before long they were level. Callum Doyle of Manchester City scuffed home the leveller — corners again proving profitable for England.
England pushed for the winner, but Israel are a very decent side and deserved their chance to upset England in 30 minutes of extra time. England showed their pedigree here though, with superior levels of fitness. Chukwuemeka and substitute Ramsey made Villa’s impact known with the goal and assurance goal that ensured England were crowned European U19 champions for the second time in five years.Embed from Getty Images
Goalkeeper Matthew Cox of Brentford was superb throughout the five matches. Recall that Brentford don’t even have an academy anymore. So too was rock-solid centre-back Ronnie Edwards, who at 19 years of age had a breakout season with Peterborough, playing 34 matches of their Championship campaign. Alfie Devine of Tottenham and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens showed their class and composure in midfield: both of them just 17 years of age.
Spurs’ Dane Scarlett led the line superbly, stretching defences and leading the press with all the tactical maturity Foster demanded.
Jude Bellingham could have been out in Slovakia as part of Foster’s team as he only just turned 19, but instead he spoke with Foster’s players after joining them for a five-a-side match at St George’s Park shortly after Southgate’s England returned from their 1–1 Nations League draw with Germany in Munich. Southgate also met the U19s, telling them that he’d be keeping a close eye on their progress. He sure was; his assistant manager Steve Holland travelled out for the final.
By reaching the semi-finals, this generation of England players qualified for next year’s U20 World Cup in Indonesia. Few other nations have qualified, but we know already that France, Israel and Italy will also join them — all talented iterations, as shown in Slovakia.
For some of Foster’s squad, this will prove the pinnacle of their careers. For others, just the start of something more fruitful. The next ten years and beyond will reveal which categories apply to which players.