After the immense disappointment that was England’s Euro 2012 campaign, some respite could be offered by the Under-19 side currently competing in the European Championship in Estonia. Youngsters of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea are all participating for the Three Lions in search of continental glory. Yet no matter what the outcome, the progression of these players into first team Premier League football is what really counts for the future of English football. But with no sign of an increase in the chances of young Englishmen breaking into the first team of many clubs, the nation will continue to lag behind on the international stage.
England qualified for the Under-19 European Championships by winning their Elite Round qualifying group consisting of Montenegro, Slovenia and Switzerland. A draw with the Balkan side was followed by the 5-0 trouncing of Slovenia and the Three Lions secured their spot in the tournament finals with a late win over the Swiss.
Chelsea’s Nathaniel Chalobah opened the scoring in that five-goal qualifying win and also rescued a point for England in their first game of the tournament against Croatia on Tuesday. Chalobah is looking to add to the glory he has already tasted this season after winning the FA Youth Cup with the Blues. He is a combative midfielder, but can also play in defence, and likes to get forward and contribute to the attack. Serbia and France await in the next two games which will be played on 6 an 9 July respectively and coach Noel Blake will need Chalobah at his best if England are to progress.
The stand-out name of the side however is unavailable for the tournament. Manchester United’s Will Keane had an excellent season in Manchester United’s reserves but suffered a potentially year-ending injury in the qualifier against Switzerland. His clinical finishing had garnered interest from Championship clubs and a loan move to offer first team football looked to be the next step. He has a great chance of potentially breaking into the first team set-up at Old Trafford assuming that the policy of blooding youngsters continues when Sir Alex Ferguson decides to call it a day. His twin brother Michael also plays for the Red Devils and England in defence.
Another duo in the squad with the same surname are Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane and Chelsea’s Todd Kane. The difference being that the two London-based players are not related. Harry Kane, a forward, enjoyed some time in the Spurs first team during their Europa League exploits and bagged his first goal for the club in the 4-0 win over Shamrock Rovers. He then impressed during a loan spell at Milwall which eventually saw him voted as the club’s Young Player of the Season. The ongoing striker tribulations could see him continue to press on the fringes of first team action, but another loan move would probably prove more beneficial.
Todd Kane meanwhile is a marauding right-back with the essence of Ashley Cole in his heyday down the left. Another key part of the Blues’ FA Youth Cup winning side, his pace and willingness to get forward make him a very exciting player. He does not fall short defensively either but as always chances at Stamford Bridge will be severely limited to any prospective regulars from the academy.
Ross Barkley though has already made his Premier League debut. He was regularly included in the Everton squad last season but he only made six league appearances, four of which came from the bench. Nevertheless his potential was immediately recognised and speculation over the now-18-year-old has since been rife. Chelsea and Manchester United are reported to be following the very talented midfielder who is composed on the ball and technically very gifted. He is the kind of player who will just sit and pull the strings but he also possesses great power and a good work ethic.
Realistically though, opportunities for the majority of players in the England Under-19 squad will be limited. As Premier League clubs insist on purchasing new players from elsewhere, the focus on cultivating their own English talent has reduced. It is remarkable at how unaffected the fans have become by the sheer number of foreigners in the English game.
Nothing is as exciting as witnessing the advancement of a home-grown player taking their first footsteps at the professional level. There is an immediate sense of loyalty and pride in such an occasion, yet it is one that has become far too rare in the Premier League. Financial Fair Play help curb the spending of clubs and see a rise in the use of domestic players, but that should not be relied upon as not enough is done internally by the FA to promote youth development.
All these factors have no doubt played a part in the nation’s continued shortcomings on the senior international stage. Spain’s recent successes have been built on a rapid overhaul of their youth development system. Since 2001/02 the Spain Under-19 side have won the European Championship a staggering five times out of 10. Last season La Roja were triumphant at Under-21 level too. It puts into place the building blocks for the senior team, and so what England need in order to move forward similarly is their own footballing identity.
Some of the squad may get lucky but the majority will not advance, or will be forced to take a long and hard path to Premier League football. England is the most prolific country in the Under-19 European Championship (which used to be an under-18), yet they have not won the trophy since 1993 when players with the calibre of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Sol Campbell taking part. From the current crop of players it is difficult to judge whether these players will match such icons of the English game.