Gareth Southgate’s England head to Russia 2018 aiming to emulate Young Lions
Last year was the country’s best ever in development football.
The future looks bright for England, yet you cannot blame fans for approaching this summer’s World Cup with an undercurrent of pessimism.
The Three Lions are heading to Russia fresh from arguably the Football Association’s best year since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy on home soil in 1966.
England became just the second nation ever to win the under-17 and under-20 crowns in the same year, helping make 2017 the country’s greatest in development football.
The Young Lions also retained the Toulon Tournament title, lifted the Under-19 European Championship for the first time and reached the semi-finals of the Under-21 Euros, offering an exciting glimpse of the future.
Few appear better placed than Gareth Southgate to exploit that array of talent, having spent years working in key roles within the FA’s youth system.
The England manager is connecting the pathways and fast-tracking potential into the senior squad in the lead-up to the World Cup, with his 23-man group for Russia exemplifying his focus on promise and performance.
From uncapped full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold to a trio of goalkeepers boasting a mere nine caps between them, Southgate is not only nodding to the future but showing his belief that these players can right the wrongs of recent tournaments.
Four years ago Roy Hodgson’s men had not even finished their course of malaria tablets by the time they were knocked out at group stage with their lowest-ever World Cup points tally.
There are just five survivors from that squad in this summer’s 23, while Southgate has made 12 alterations to the group that somehow stooped even lower at Euro 2016 by bowing out to Iceland.
It was a loss that sent the national team into a tailspin. Hodgson walked and successor Sam Allardyce managed just 67 days in his dream job before England Under-21s boss Southgate parachuted into the post – a matter of weeks after admitting he did not feel ready for the top job.
But the 57-cap former defender has dealt with the situation manfully, making decisions that some suggested he was too nice to confront, such as easing out record scorer Wayne Rooney.
Southgate has so far been a breath of fresh air as well as a steadying presence, overseeing World Cup progress with a match to spare before pressing ahead in his move to a back three in his bid to evolve the team.
Solidity at the back has yet to bring a glut of goals, but March’s win in Holland and draw against Italy were encouraging performances from players who appear comfortable wearing the Three Lions – and all that entails.
Rather than be cowed by previous failures, Harry Kane spoke of his ambition to win the World Cup within hours of his appointment as skipper following a year of speculation as the captaincy was shared about.
Southgate did that in a bid to bring more responsibility and accountability to a group that has lacked just that in recent tournaments – the kind of foresight the country hopes will bear fruit in Russia.
Belgium will be a tough nut to crack but Tunisia and Panama give the Three Lions a good chance of reaching the knockout phase.
After that, it is up to England to regain some respectability and show they can be a force to be reckoned with at senior level on the world stage once more.