It was mocked mercilessly when it came out widely in the press, but the FA’s ‘England DNA’ is proving to be a fairly competent piece of work based on recent evidence.
You can see why the idea of codifying what it means to be an England player would be unpopular: it is cold, plastic business speak which sounds more like a marketing ploy than an attempt at actually succeeding. And yet, England’s youth teams have never done better.
Last summer the world looked on as England won the World Cup at U20 and U17 levels as well as the U19 European Championships. The U21 side performed admirably at their Euros that summer too, losing on penalties in the semi-finals to eventual champions Germany.
This summer, another England youth team has won the prestigious Toulon Tournament – it’s the third consecutive time a Three Lions side has won in the south of France.
Indeed, in the competition’s team of the tournament, three English players feature – along with two from Scotland, whom the Three Lions beat in the semi-final – Freddie Woodman, Dael Fry and Lewis Cook.
L'équipe type du Festival International Espoirs 2018 ! ⭐️
The @TournoiToulon 2018 best XI ! ⭐️
— Toulon Tournament (@TournoiToulon) June 11, 2018
Does international football mean much at underage level? In one sense, it means nothing at all – simply a chance to give young players a the opportunity to get game time representing their countries.
In another sense, it means a great deal – that a generation of England footballers now know what it takes to win at tournament football. Not just win, but light up the stage doing so.
Woodman also won the best goalkeeper award.
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) June 11, 2018
The questions asked from here on in will be the obvious ones. With English football’s academy system dominated by the top clubs in the Premier League who are notorious for denying opportunities to young talent, the issue now is how many of these groups will make it to a high enough level to actually represent their country again in the future.
That’s a fair point, though one which is perhaps a little overblown: with the likes of Jadon Sancho getting clips for his highlights reel in the Bundesliga and Phil Foden getting a Premier League winners medal at the tender age of 17, the cries of foul play are a little bit over the top. But there is a real problem there nonetheless.
And yet, when you look at the identities of the players who are being honoured by the organisers in Toulon with inclusion in their team of the tournament, perhaps that future will seem just a little brighter.
Woodman, the best goalkeeper of the competition, is at Newcastle United. Dael Fry, at centre back, plays for Middlesbrough. And Lewis Cook, the captain and central midfielder, plays for Bournemouth.
— Middlesbrough FC (@Boro) June 11, 2018
That’s not to say it should be easy for any of these three to break through to the first team. Martin Dubravka is becoming a bit of an early-stage fan-favourite at St James’s Park, though that could certainly change if academy graduate Woodman breaks through and it’s not like he’s trying to displace David de Gea or Thibaut Courtois.
It’s surely much easier at a club like Newcastle, who don’t have all the money in the world, but whose fans are very much the type to get behind an enthusiastic youth product making his first steps into the team, nurtured by a managerial legend in Rafael Benitez.
Cook and Fry have arguably easier routes into the first team, too: outfielders will usually find it a little easier – there can be two or three centre-backs or midfielders, but only one goalkeeper. But the future for these players is arguably brighter at their current clubs than it is for the masses of players at big six clubs who will find it much tougher to get a look in.
Everton will be another interesting one. The Toffees provided four players in this year’s England squad for Toulon – a number matched only by Chelsea. At Goodison Park, the likes of Jonjoe Kenny, Tom Davies and Dominic Calvert-Lewin (who has scored the winning goal in an underage World Cup final) have seen regular minutes.
For England’s senior team to thrive in Russia in the same way that their youth teams did last summer and even more recently in Toulon would take something approaching a miracle according to most pundits and bookies. It is a young squad, but probably still too old to have been nurtured at youth level under the same exciting regime that’s in place for the crop of talent just one rung below them.
But over the course of the coming years, it could well be the likes of Newcastle and Everton who are the future of the England national side. Despite academies like City and Chelsea hogging the limelight, the pressures of the top of the Premier League might force managers right at the top to use more experienced players instead of trusting youth. One step below the top six, there’s a tonne of talent who look to have the perfect environment to thrive in.
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