Rolling Back The Years: On England’s youth team, an uncertain preparation, an unimaginative playing style ... and its best ever result at the Under-20 World Cup.
The development of youth talent, in any sport, is a notoriously unpredictable business. There is no guarantee that a standout talent at under-16 level—even if he is head and shoulders above any of his peers—is going to continue to be a star as he rises up through the national team ranks.
Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ tome on baseball thinking that many have tried to apply (with varying levels of success) to a number of other sports, reflects on this problem. The Oakland A’s, the subject of Lewis’ book, actively pursue college players over high school standouts—believing their track record at the higher level is more indicative of their major league potential.
Put simply, the older a player is, the more confident you can be about his level of ability. The younger a prospect is, the greater the possibility is for things to stagnate or go awry.
Perhaps that goes some way to explaining how England’s best ever performance at football’s biggest worldwide junior tournament, the Under-20 World Cup, came in 1993, with an 18-man squad that would go on to win just 65 caps (63 spread between two players) at senior level.
Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail?
For a tournament that produced a result no Three Lions cohort has equalled before or since, the preparation was remarkably chaotic.
England, coached by former West Brom, Southampton and Wolves attacking midfielder David Burnside, needed successive sudden-death penalty shootouts to even reach the tournament, beating Portugal 12-11, and then following that up with an 8-7 edging of Norway in qualification.
With the tournament itself taking place in March, in the middle of English league fixtures, Burnside called up an initial 30 names for the tournament, only parring that down to a final 18 after he had completed protracted negotiations with the relevant clubs over exactly which individuals would be released.
Final solutions only came days before the tournament was due to start, however, meaning Burnside was unable to hold a training session with his squad until they arrived in Melbourne.
The youngest player in the squad, meanwhile, was the only one born in 1975—Nicky Butt, who was highly regarded at Manchester United but still nearly 18 months away from breaking into the first team with any regularity.
Butt was also only a backup on this trip, playing just 21 minutes in total, with Burnside preferring to stick with the slightly more experienced central midfield partnership of Middlesbrough’s Jamie Pollock and his captain, Barmby’s Spurs teammate Darren Caskey.
Five days after touching down in Australia, England played their first game. It came against South Korea and saw England draw—although it felt more like a victory when Chelsea’s Ian Pearce cancelled out Steve Watson’s first-half own goal.
That set up an important meeting with the United States, who had hammered Turkey 6-0 in their opening match thanks to a hat-trick from the promising Chris Faklaris.
Perhaps buoyed by that display, the Americans felt comfortable of springing an upset on their more vaunted opponents.
“England play with a never-say-die attitude, which is wonderful to behold,” Billy Howe, the former West Ham striker and now the U.S. coach, said before the meeting. "Tactically, I don't think they have kept abreast with the rest of the world, but they overcome that with a determination to succeed.
“Any team that plays against an English team knows there is going to be a battle.”
Burnside, however, tactically outwitted Howe on this occasion—amending his formation by moving Crewe’s Anthony Hughes into a sweeper role (dropping Selley and installing David Unsworth at right-back, Hughes’ former position), while asking Bart-Williams to drop into midfield when not partnering Nick Barmby in attack.
Controlling play from the back England duly dominated the entire match, with Bart-Williams getting the only goal with 20 minutes remaining.
Despite that, England still needed to win their last group game, against Turkey, to be sure of progression—which looked altogether harder when Barmby, the most lively attacking player of the opening two games, was ruled out through injury.
But Barmby’s replacement, Julian Joachim, came in and showed some sparkling footwork before giving England the lead after just 11 minutes.
England continued to control matters until Oldham’s Marvin Harriott (in the team for Andy Myers, who had been injured at the end of the U.S. contest) then gave away a penalty in the final minute—with only Ilhami Arslan’s wild miss finally confirming England’s passage through to the knockout stages.
After the game, while insisting his side would "get better," Burnside told the few national reporters in attendance that reaching the knockout stages showed that clubs should be more willing release players for such tournaments in future.
“Reaching the quarter-finals justifies the FA decision to set this precedent, and in future all England teams will expect them [club players] to be made available,” he said. “Most of the players think that's the right thing to do.”
FIFA’s technical report on the tournament is somewhat scathing of England’s passage through the Melbourne group, noting that the late equaliser against South Korea in the opening game was a key turning point.
“After that they came through without trouble, yet without ever looking impressive in terms of technical skills,” the report reads. “Thanks to their physical talents, they clearly dominated both the Americans and the Turks.”
The report brings to mind Jack Wilshere’s comments this week about what English football is all about:
We have to remember what we are. We are English.
We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat.
We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.
The Luck of the English Gets Used up
The quarter-finals paired England with Mexico, who had finished second in their group to an impressive Brazil squad. A somewhat drab match inevitably drifted into a penalty shootout, where once again England’s luck held.
Pollock, Caskey, winger Alan Thompson and Bart-Williams all scored after Jesus Olalde had crashed Mexico’s first effort off the bar, so when Dave Watson saved Juan Solis’ fifth and final attempt, England were through.
Watson’s performance in that game and the entire tournament caught the eye of FIFA’s technical report team.
“In general he showed that one day he could perhaps add another chapter to the book of great English goalkeepers,” the report opined.
The semi-finals saw England matched with Ghana, who had drawn opening matches with Uruguay and Germany before breezing past Portugal and Russia. Inspired by their captain, Anderlecht playmaker Nii Lamptey, the Ghanaians had proved one of the surprise packages of the tournament.
The first half of match underlined the respective fortunes of the two teams. Ghana, orchestrated by Lamptey, dominated possession and chances—although they needed a fortuitous penalty to take the lead after 14 minutes.
Ten minutes later Torino’s Mohammed Gargo doubled Ghana’s lead with a free-kick.
After half-time, however, the tide turned—perhaps inspired by a rollicking from Burnside. It took just four minutes for England to halve the deficit after Pollock converted a more warranted penalty.
England’s glorious chance at an equaliser came in the 74th minute, when Bart-Williams was presented with the ball in front of goal just seven yards out. But he could only watch as his attempt bounded away off the crossbar—and with it England’s chance of reaching the final.
In the third-place play-off England duly beat hosts Australia, with Joachim converting five minutes from time after Ante Milicic had cancelled out David Unsworth’s first-half opener.
That secured a bronze medal and England’s best-ever finish in the tournament, as Brazil duly beat Ghana in the final for gold.
In summarising England's tournament, FIFA's reporters wrote:
On the tactical side there was nothing new. The team played in typical English style with a strong defence.
Once in possession, they used five midfielders and played long balls up to the strikers.
Coach Burnside did not try to introduce new tactical elements into the team's game.
Although he was well aware that for even more success certain changes in tactics and style of play would have been necessary, he stuck with what had been tried and tested.
The bronze medal proved him right.
When all was said and done, England had achieved their best result in the World Youth Cup—despite not knowing their squad more than a week before the tournament, not training until they arrived in the country together, playing uninspiring football and failing to score more than three goals in their opening four matches.
What might they have achieved with better preparation?
Where Are They Now?
Butt and Barmby were the only two players to progress to regular full international honours—with the former winning 39 caps, even earning the praise of Pele after proving crucial to England’s efforts at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
The two other players from Burnside’s squad to get full caps were winger Alan Thompson and defender David Unsworth. Thompson was awarded his as a 30-year-old by Sven-Goran Eriksson after finding a rich vein of form with Celtic, while Unsworth played against Japan in 1995 but never got another chance to represent his nation.
Midfielder Andy Johnson, the only player other than sub goalkeeper Simon Sheppard not to play a single minute in Australia, eventually ended up representing Wales at senior level—earning 15 caps.
Many members of the squad ended up enjoying successful professional careers at a high level (Myers, Bart-Williams, Selley, Joachim) without earning England calls.
Watson, the goalkeeper so lauded by FIFA’s observers, stayed with Barnsley his entire career—finally earning England recognition in 2012 when he joined Roy Hodgson’s backroom staff as goalkeeping coach.
None of those players were helped by the fact there was a group of younger and more talented players coming through right behind them. Later in 1993, England won the Under-18 European Championships with a squad that included Paul Scholes, Robbie Fowler, Gary Neville and Sol Campbell.
All would go on to make a sizeable impression in England colours.
Perhaps it was Anthony Hughes, the “libero” whose redeployment helped England so much in 1993, who ended up symbolising the difficulty of projecting young talent.
The 19-year-old from Crewe appeared to have all the talent in the world, but within five years he would retire from the game—having been released by the Alex and then enduring four unremarkable years at non-league Morecambe.
“He was a very good footballer, he had all the talent, but he did not apply himself,” Jim Harvey, Morecambe’s manager, later told When Saturday Comes. “I think his background did not help him.
“He did not have a problem with overdoing the social life or anything like that, it was just a mental thing with Anthony. He was a lovely lad and had tremendous talent but could not get things together.”
Not that Hughes was in bad company. For differing reasons, the two stars of the tournament—Ghana’s Lamptey and Brazil’s Golden Ball winner Adriano—never made a real impression on the higher echelons of the game either.
Notable Participants at the 1993 World Youth Cup in Australia
Brazil: Dida, Mario Jardel.
Cameron: Marc-Vivien Foe, Rigobert Song.
Germany: Carsten Ramelow, Dietmar Hamann, Carsten Jancker.
Ghana: Nii Lamptey, Sammy Kuffour.