England U17’s journey to World Cup victory captured the imagination of a nation, with the BBC deciding to broadcast England’s semi-final win against Brazil and most recently their 5-2 triumph over Spain in the final on Saturday. The tournament has provided a welcome escape, but an evasive, wilfully forgetful escape nonetheless, from the drudgery of the senior team’s waddle towards Russia 2018 qualification and the stock frustration that any seasoned England fan can expect to find there.
Certainly, it was a refreshing, if somewhat surreal, sight to see England bossing possession against undisputed tiki-taka masters Spain. Not only did England’s lion cubs show technical prowess, threading passes through the Spanish lines at will, they also showcased a level of resilience and mental toughness not seen in the senior team since that heady summer of 1966. Coming from two goals behind to win 5-2 they showed just the winning mentality England sorely lacked when they prematurely crashed out of the Euros against plucky minnows Iceland last year. Certainly, in terms of youth football, England are top of the pile. This summer alone, the U19’s won the European Championship, the U20’s won the World Cup and the Toulon Tournament and last Saturday the U17’s completed the set.
But what does this all mean? Out of the previous six U17 World Cups Nigeria have won 3, and yet we are still waiting to see them live up to their youth level prowess and emerge as the next footballing world power. Being a quality player at 17 is merely the first leg in a long, arduous journey towards a career at the highest level, with the limbo between the youth game and a Premier League first team almost impossible to bridge in recent years. It is telling that, according to research conducted by Manchester City academy, 83% of players who made the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions League over the last decade were playing first team football at the age of 17.
So, the only way that an England U17 World Cup win can eventually translate to a senior World Cup win – or even a senior football team that is not an international embarrassment – is if these players can get a look into first teams from now onwards. Having shown that they are top of the pile in their age group, they desperately need the next five years of development to be in the more physically and mentally demanding realms of men’s football before they can start thinking about starting berths in Gareth Southgate’s side. However, with lucrative television deals illimitably pouring money into Premier League coffers, clubs have been quick to overlook their academies in favour of buying proven foreign stars in their prime. To keep pace with the teams around them, Premier League clubs spent a staggering £1.4 billion during the summer transfer window – greater than the annual expenditure of Greenland.
On Saturday, England were driven to victory by the pace and power, technicality and trickery of Chelsea talent Callum Hudson-Odoi and Man City starlet Phil Foden, both showing ability beyond their years. However, the recent dominance of Chelsea and City’s highly funded wonder-kid-factory academies is yet to yield a single first-11 starter and herein lies the crux of the problem. Instead of introducing their academy products to the first team at this formative age, they send them away on loan – the two clubs boast a greedy 48 loanees between them – and ultimately sell them for a small profit. A profit, that is, which is reinvested in the hundreds of millions spent on players that English prospects outshone at youth level.
Incidentally, this half century of commodified loan players includes stars of England’s last U17 triumph – the 2014 European Championship. Footballers such as City’s Patrick Roberts and Chelsea’s Izzy Brown, whilst accomplished players, look unlikely to fulfil their full potential or make it in their respective first teams. This begs the question of where Foden, Hudson-Odoi and the rest of England’s bright lights – golden boot winner Rhian Brewster, defensive rock Joel Latibeaudiere, silky Jadon Sancho to name but a few – will be in three, four, five years’ time and whether the England senior team will be any better off as a result. Despite the newfound prosperity of our youth teams, English football in its totality seems customarily mired. In interests of national quality of life, then, perhaps the BBC would be better off embracing our collective denial and scrapping coverage of men’s games altogether – to focus instead on the conquests of our youth teams and pinning our footballing hopes on the burgeoning prospects who, until something changes, will never truly bud.