Tonight, Gareth Southgate’s England team have the opportunity to do something the Three Lions haven’t done for 55 years - reach the final of a major football tournament - and the most thrilling thing for England fans is the number of young players coming through. This isn’t just a team for this year, or the World Cup in Qatar next year, or even the next Euros in three years time. Many of these players are young enough to play for England for ten years to come.
England’s starting line-up against Ukraine only featured one player over 30, and three players in their early twenties (Jadon Sancho, 21, and Declan Rice and Mason Mount, both 22). Of the second half substitutes, Marcus Rashford, - already an England veteran, with 45 caps and an MBE to boot - is still only 23, while Jude Bellingham, incredibly, has only just turned 18. Over half the squad is 25 or under. Bukayo Saka, man of the match against the Czechs, is 19. Phil Foden and Reece James are 21... The list goes on and on.
So where do all these young players come from? Why have England suddenly got such an abundance of supremely gifted youngsters? Of course, it’s partly happenstance. Clumps of brilliant young players have galvanised the French and German sides in recent years, and will surely galvanise them again in years to come. But for the moment, the team with youth on its side is England, and the emergence of the current crop has a lot to do with the development of the English football academy system over the last ten years.
I was lucky enough to get a close-up view of this system when my son joined Watford FC’s academy at the age of eight (he was there until he was 16). One of his teammates was Jadon Sancho, who was at Watford until he was 14, when he joined Manchester City. These boys got first class coaching, played against the biggest English teams (like Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea) and went on frequent foreign tours, to play against top European sides like Roma and Benfica. It was a great football education, and a great experience.
Of course, only a handful of academy players end up playing professionally (let alone for England) but I can’t think of a single player I saw in those eight years who wasn’t significantly improved. Playing with and against the best players, training with excellent coaches in superb facilities, whether you were one of the few who moved onto bigger things or one of the many who eventually dropped down the leagues, academies have lifted the standard of English football at every level. Now, even semi-pro teams are full of players who’ve been at big clubs as youngsters, and it shows. Big clubs have always had youth teams, but the set-up has come on in leaps and bounds during the past decade. Today’s young England stars are the first generation to come through the current system. They’re living proof of its success.
The academy system has attracted criticism on account of the considerable demands it makes of young footballers, most of whom are bound to fall by the wayside. It’s quite true that almost everyone gets let go sooner or later, and it’s quite true that when that rejection comes it’s bound to hurt. However I guess you could say much the same of young girls who go to ballet school. Sadly, there are some things you have to start learning at a very early age if you want to stand even the slightest chance of performing at the highest level. For better or worse football, like ballet, is one of those things.
And for the vast majority who don’t go all the way, academy football can open other doors. Many American universities offer scholarships to academy players, and some of England’s leading independent schools provide similar opportunities at A level. My son got a sixth form scholarship to Bradfield College, captained the England independent schoolboys national team while he was there, got a professional contract at Burnley, and then played for several semi-pro clubs before going to Loughborough University. Sure, every academy player dreams of playing for England, and he was no exception, but so long as those youngsters realise this is just a longshot, academy football can be a win-win. He’s proud to have played alongside Jadon Sancho, and so he should be. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle observed, talent always recognises genius. Only mediocrity knows nothing greater than itself.
Which brings us back to tonight’s game, and England’s chances. This is England’s fifth semi-final since they won the World Cup in 1966, and although they’ve lost the last four (in 1968, 1990, 1996 and 2018) this one feels different. Although the team is full of youthful flair, six of the starting line-up against Ukraine (Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Kane and Sterling) and three of the subs (Trippier, Henderson and Rashford) are veterans of the last World Cup, three years ago, when England went out in the semi-final against Croatia. Youth and experience: it’s a winning combination.
And unlike most English pundits, my confidence in an England victory isn’t tainted by wishful thinking. For familial reasons I’ve always supported Germany (I was at Wembley in 1996 when Southgate missed that crucial penalty) and it was some crumb of comfort that I called it right when I previewed the England v Germany game for The Independent, and predicted that England would win. My prediction this time, for what it’s worth, is that England will win the semi-final, against Denmark, but lose the final, against Italy. However for England fans, that shouldn’t matter too much. With an average age of just 24, this is a squad that’s going to carry on getting even better. After 55 years of chronic underachievement, at last England fans can look forward to a decade of spectacular success.