It did not quite end 51 years of hurt, but it was a damn fine painkiller. With Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s first-half strike against Venezuela, England were crowned world champions in South Korea. That this was the Under-20s, not the senior side, did nothing to dull the overwhelming sense of achievement and jubilation.
It was an encapsulating, pulsating final. Venezuela’s tactic of relying on skill to beat one defender before shooting from at least 40 yards was endearing, and the South Americans undoubtedly have some fine talents ready to break through.
Ronaldo Lucena was unfortunate not to open the scoring in the first half with a quite wonderful long-range free-kick which struck the post. Yeferson Soteldo, the 5ft 3ins second-half substitute, almost turned the tide of the game single-handedly. Venezuela played some delightful football, and can take pride at claiming a silver medal.
But it was England who would be crowned champions, marrying technical proficiency with typical grit. Paul Simpson has assembled an exciting, promising group of individuals who have emerged as the best team over three weeks in South Korea.
It always seems a shame that these moments are rarely savoured for long. While the squad was celebrating what is England’s first World Cup final victory since 1966, those back home were wondering what the future holds for these players.
Would they be rewarded with a chance in the first team at club level? Is this the next crop of players ready to break through and challenge for places in the senior set-up?
These, after all, are not household names. Calvert-Lewin, the scorer of the winning goal, started five Premier League games for Everton this past season, totalling 346 minutes.
Lewis Cook, the captain who delivered the free-kick leading to that strike, started four Premier League games for Bournemouth this past season, totalling 431 minutes.
Freddie Woodman, the goalkeeping hero who saved Adalberto Penaranda’s second-half penalty, did not even feature on the bench once for Championship Newcastle, with his 15 first-team appearances coming only after he moved to Scottish Premiership side Kilmarnock on loan.
— John Bennett (@JohnBennettBBC) June 11, 2017
This past season, 41 English players currently under the age of 22 played at least one Premier League game. They were afforded a combined 16,532 minutes at an average of 403 minutes per player.
Compare that to Italy, whose Italian players under the age of 22 played a combined 21,865 Serie A minutes at an average of 546 minutes per player. Or Spain, whose Spanish players under the age of 22 played a combined 37,992 La Liga minutes at an average of 756 minutes per player. Or Germany, whose German players under the age of 22 played a combined 36,001 Bundesliga minutes at 765 minutes per player.
Ninety-eight French players under the age of 22 played at least one minute of league football this past season. That tally includes 13 players who featured abroad; England had none. French players under the age of 22 played a combined 79,062 minutes this past season at an average of 806 minutes per player. France’s young stars are being afforded literally twice as many opportunities as their English counterparts.
Of the 50 players under the age of 22 who played the most minutes in Europe’s top five leagues this past season, France account for 14. Spain are next with nine, followed by Germany (7), Italy (3), Senegal (2) and Brazil (2). England (1, Dele Alli) are level with Mali, Cameroon and Turkey among others.
One day prior to the success of England’s U20s, another U20 squad beat Ivory Coast in the final of the Toulon Tournament. That they did so in a penalty shoot-out, coupled with Woodman’s spot-kick heroics in Korea, suggests that this is a different kind of youngster being produced by the country.
The U17s side, managed by Steve Cooper, was beaten by Spain in the final of the European Championships in May. Aidy Boothroyd will lead the U21s into the European Championships later this month, while U19s head coach Keith Downing will do the same with his age group in July. Both England sides will be among the favourites.
Yet while these players are enjoying unprecedented levels of international success for this country, the pathway at club level is increasingly difficult to clear. Tottenham (63), Everton (62) and Manchester United (51) led the way in terms of handing league appearances to English players currently under the age of 22 this past season. Arsenal (10), Liverpool (9) and champions Chelsea (9) recorded far less favourable numbers. Crystal Palace can count the 22 minutes handed to Sullay Kaikai as their sole offering, while four sides – Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Stoke and Sunderland – did not give a single game to an English player currently under the age of 22.
And while Tottenham set the standard in terms of Premier League sides, it should not be ignored that England’s best player in the final, Josh Onomah, played just 18 minutes of league football under Mauricio Pochettino this past season.
The 20-year-old is good enough to be given further opportunities. Dominic Solanke, awarded the Golden Ball award for best player, has to receive the chances at Liverpool next season that were not forthcoming at Chelsea. Cook’s game time at Bournemouth was interrupted by injuries, but his role in captaining this side cannot be overlooked by Eddie Howe as he plans for the upcoming campaign.
These players must be afforded the chance to bask in the glow of their success this summer, but it is impossible not to look to the future and consider what this means for their development and progress. The cream is often said to rise to the top, but these players have to be given the chance to do so.
Football, to an extent at least, is coming home. The young players delivering it should not be forced back into the shadows upon their return.