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England’s U20 World Cup win meaningless unless players get regular Premier League playing time

during Fussball U21 Deutschland vs England at Brita-Arena, Wiesbaden, Hessen, Germany on 2017-03-24, Photo: Sven Mandel

As we were all waking up to more general election fallout over our Sunday morning coffees, the Three Lions quietly mustered their best victory in an international competition since 1966 as Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s first half rebound shot and a fantastic Freddie Woodman penalty save helped grind out a historic and hard-fought 1-0 victory over Venezuela in the Under-2os World Cup in Seoul.

The immediate congratulations fully ensued post match with proclamations that ‘the future is bright’ and ‘this is the new golden generation’ uttered by pundits and former players. Indeed, when combined with England’s defence of the Toulon Tournament coming but days earlier, this represents a recent resurgence for our national youth sides.

Under-20s coach Paul Simpson has formed a well-drilled team capable of last ditch defending, disciplined positioning under pressure and containment of opposition as well as breathtakingly swift counter attacks with incisive finishing.

This was epitomised by the likes of Everton wingers Calvert-Lewin and Ademola Lookman and Liverpool forwards Dominic Solanke and Sheyi Ojo, (the former winning the World Cup golden boot with four goals), going forward by powerful cut and thrust running out wide coupled with intelligent link up play and through balls in the centre.

Newcastle United’s heroic penalty saving Freddie Woodman conceded just three goals during the tournament and won the golden glove in the Far East. A solid back line consisted of elegant and skillful ball-playing Chelsea defenders Jake Clarke-Salter and Fikayo Tomori, (a rare breed in England), as well as the tough-tackling Jonjoe Kenny of Everton and Spurs’ Kyle Walker-Peters.

And I haven’t even mentioned The Toon’s Adam Armstrong, The Cheeries’ Lewis Cook, Spurs’ Josh Onomah and the Gunners’ Ainsley Maitland-Niles. This is a side that dropped just two points on their way to the final putting three goals each past heavyweights Argentina and Italy en route to the final in soul. Simpson’s young lions are unquestionably a force to be reckoned with and played wonderful expansive team football at the finals in Korea. He admitted that his team ground out the result in the final, but over the whole tournament he thought the side were deserved winners.

Of course the principle drive of these England youth teams is embedded in the holistic model of St George’s Park – to build a long-term success which will eventually reach the first team and an ‘England DNA’ which resonates throughout all teams. These successes in Korea and at the Toulon competition as well point to much needed promising signs for our national team after the lowest point in England’s history with the first XI’s 2-1 defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 last summer.

England won against Ivory Coast on penalties would you believe, to gain their victory in Toulon with Nottingham Forest’s Joe Worrall captaining a second string under 20s side to victory.

Yet the barometer of these national teams’ success have been measured, and will always be measured, with reference to how much playing time the three lions get in the Premier League as well as the ever decreasing quantity of English players in our top division when compared to foreign professionals.

It’s very simple, if the talent of these young players is not captured and used by Premier League teams, then the results and performances of our national first team will never improve.

England’s top flight is encouraged that last season there was a 20% increase in the number of minutes (716) played by home-grown debutantes. But the proportion of English players playing in it’s domestic league is down to 30.8% as of 2017 – the lowest in any European league. This figure is absolutely shocking and renders all the hard work done at St George’s Park over the past five years meaningless.

A 2015 study found the percentage of club-trained players in Premier League squads had reached a new low, with just 11.7% graduated from their club’s academy. 41 English players under the age of 22 played at least one Premier League game last season, totalling 16,532 minutes at an average of 403 minutes per player.

In France it was 98 players, with 79,062 minutes of action, at an average of 806 minutes per player. Four Premier League sides – Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Stoke and Sunderland – did not give a single game to an English player currently under the age of 22.

Despite efforts of the FA’s former chairman Greg Dyke, and calls for quotas in starting XIs, the Premier League has resisted pressure to further restrict foreign imports, sticking with the rule that eight places in 25-man squads must be ‘home-grown players’. The rule is a frankly disgusting money-minded insult to the immense talent pool that permanently exists across all clubs in England.

First team loan experience is what saw Tammy Abraham bang in 26 goals at Bristol City last season, Izzy Brown and Kasey Palmer do so well at Huddersfield and Adam Armstrong score 26 goals in two seasons at Coventry and Barnesley. Not to mention of course the rare sight of the likes of 17-year old Tom Davies at Everton and 18 year-old Marcus Rashford be given the opportunity to take games by the scruff of the neck in the Premier League, in the way that £30m waste of space Granit Xhaka really doesn’t.

It is this experience of big games and playing in the Premier League as opposed to the loan market however which is essential to the development of these young players. These homegrown professionals will give a team an element of flair and a desire for the shirt which often goes missing.

This long term goal of deploying young talent in the first team acts as an aid to the national team but will never appear in the Premier League as it does in Europe.  Playing youth is rarely in the foreign owners’ or managers’ interest and the pressure to win leads to a short term strategy of purchasing foreign players for tens of millions ahead of developing domestic youngsters.

Borussia Dortmund Chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke argues that the reason the Bundesliga produces more domestic players better is the 50+1 rule, which stipulates that 51 per cent of German clubs must be owned by members, preventing rich foreign owners from taking over.

The Premier League needs a monumental Sheikh-up. Pressure on foreign owners and managers to play homegrown players and employ the 8+4 strategy which is present in Germany must be more vociferous from the FA as it is across the continent and more embedded in club philosophies. Hopefully clubs will look at England’s Under 20 victory as an example that young homegrown players are good enough and technical enough to cut it in the Premier League.

The likelihood is though that however well Simpson’s team played, like the Under 17s European Championship win in 2010, this will be another false dawn. England will always churn out quality youth players. Yet it is only when policy towards homegrown talent is changed and restrictions from the Football Association are imposed in the Premier League that the immense talent pool can be fully exploited at club and by extension senior international level. Until then however, the status quo will endure and the FA’s target of a 2022 FIFA World Cup win will remain unattainable.

Joe Tanner

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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