England U-21s were knocked out of the European Championship last night at the semi-final stage, losing a gripping encounter via a familiar route – the dreaded penalty shoot-out. The manner of the defeat should not overshadow what has been a hugely successful and productive campaign for Boothroyd’s team, and for the rest of the England youth set-up.
Nathan Redmond was the unfortunate victim this time around, joining an illustrious cast of England stars who have failed to convert their penalty when it matters most. That it was England’s best player who missed the decisive penalty made for even harsher sentiment, although his positive words following the match speak volumes about the young man’s tenacity.
Redmond issued a formal apology, then stated ‘I will continue to keep learning from these experiences and try to improve as a player every day as usual. There is work to do and I’m OK with the mental and physical challenges that lie ahead.’ While there was sufficient time between the penalty and apology for him to gather his thoughts, these words showed grit and maturity, essential traits for any England senior international heading into a major tournament.
The power of patience
An experienced journalist this week made a suggestion on Twitter that the positive performance of England’s youth teams this summer unfortunately adds credence to the misguided theory that, after every major tournament defeat, we should have ‘just played the kids instead’. There is some truth in this. Rather than not giving youth players an opportunity, it is often the exact opposite – we rush stand-out players into the senior set-up before they are fully ready.
At Euro 2016, Deli Alli looked a shadow of his Tottenham self from that season. Marcus Rashford, England’s only half-decent performer against Iceland, is perhaps not too thankful for less than an hour’s total summer football and his first taste of major tournament ignominy, now unnecessarily living with the skulls of a gleeful lambasting from the press.
The argument that the players should be in the senior set-up as soon as they are good enough does not stand true. Other leading European countries simply don’t do this to the extent that England do. This summer has afforded some of England’s future stars the opportunity of tournament football, and the majority equipped themselves with resounding grace and capability.
Positive performances and the invaluable currency of tournament experience
This tournament has seen some brilliant individual performances across the England squad. Will Hughes, Calum Chambers, Demarai Gray and James Ward-Prowse all performed solidly throughout the campaign. Will Hughes is a hugely talented central midfielder, with a pivotal focus on technical competence over physicality, seldom seen in English players in recent years. Having been hotly-tipped for a transfer to the Premier League for nearly five years, he completed his move to Watford on Saturday. The type of player more suited to the Premier League, an interesting season now lies ahead.
Chambers was the stand-out player against Germany, a defender who has spent the majority of the season sidelined with injury on loan at Middlesbrough. That he is a favourite with the fans on Teesside despite his relative lack of game time demonstrates his class. He offers an alternative option as a right full-back, although it would be interesting to see him used more often as a centre-back in the months and years ahead. He knows the position well from youth football, but has scarcely been given the opportunity to develop in that role at the Emirates.
Individual performances aside, the summer has been a very positive one for English football. Players have had a taste of reaching the latter stages of a major tournament, as well as the pressure this brings along with it. I’m still convinced that England will win the World Cup in my lifetime, but, on that front, patience is key. One thing we can all agree on though – the future is bright.
Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here