Is This Really a Golden Generation for England After FIFA U-17 World Cup Win?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistOctober 30, 2017

Phil Foden: England's next great hope, or are we all getting too carried away?
Phil Foden: England's next great hope, or are we all getting too carried away?DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/Getty Images

On a sultry night in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, barely had Phil Foden and his beguiling band of England under-17 team-mates passed around the FIFA U-17 World Cup trophy than the first notes of caution were struck.

Don't get carried away was the message.

Don't get carried away after a 5-2 defeat of Spain, in a World Cup final, having come from two goals down.

Don't get carried away by the kid Foden, who scored two goals in the final and looks to be one of the most naturally gifted English talents since Wayne Rooney. He might have been to finishing school as a Manchester City academy graduate, but he retains a street-smart Stockport swagger.

Don't get carried away with Rhian Brewster, a striker at Liverpool who finished the tournament as top goalscorer after his goal in the final took his total to eight, having scored a hat-trick against the U.S. in the quarter-finals and repeated the feat in the semis against Brazil.

On BT Sport, a circumspect Frank Lampard warned: "They need to know they have nowhere near made it. Celebrate, enjoy it, go and Instagram it. Do what you have to do, but the real work starts here."

It must have been crushing for his kids when on learning to count they were immediately informed it doesn't make them Stephen Hawking. For a man who had perfect timing, Lampard's old-pro curmudgeon act seemed a touch too soon.

Let them have their moment and enjoy it without caveats. Just as suffocating as hype is its opposite, to underplay everything is mollycoddling. Solemn jubilation is a tricky look to pull off after winning a World Cup.

Too many pundits celebrated a lottery win by grumbling about the size of the cheque. 


Gary Lineker must have missed the memo. He tweeted: "England have won the U17 World Cup after beating Spain 5-2...yes Spain. We have a new Golden generation. Well played boys, well played."

The replies it elicited are indicative of an island trapped in a loveless marriage with international football. For a great many of us walking sacks of misery old enough to be Foden's father, the Golden Generation represents a mis-sold dream. It's sporting PPI. If everyone afflicted, circa 2002-2010, put in a claim the Football Association would be bankrupt by the end of the week. They should make Lampard and Steven Gerrard man the phones.

It proved a moniker even the best players grew to think of as a millstone. Rio Ferdinand still has to leave the room whenever it is uttered, telling Matt Gatward of The Independent that the expectation it generated, "consumes you in a tournament, overpowers you almost because you know the country is behind you."

It's said if you say "Golden Generation" three times in quick succession, like in Beetlejuice, Phil Neville appears from nowhere dressed in a black and white-striped suit to concede a penalty with a needless lunging tackle.

His brother, Gary, wrote an interesting piece on it in the Daily Telegraph in 2014—on the back of Lampard's international retirement, in fact. In it, he says the Golden Generation tag was a misnomer dreamed up by the FA's chief executive at the time, Adam Crozier, a marketing man by trade. Neville said:

"As an England player of that time – I call them the Blair years – I have always refused to be measured by a title dreamt up by someone with no intimate knowledge of football.

"I mention Blair because around the time Crozier came up with his tag the whole country was becoming swept up in itself. Everything was excess.

"Glamour" and "Cool Britannia" were everyday terms. In that social and economic climate, it was easy for David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and the rest of us to be seen as a new wave.

"By the end of the golden generation period, the country was almost bankrupt."

All across the globe, golden generations have as often proved more gilded than 24-karat. Belgium's crop is predated by the Enzo Scifo class of 1986 that won nothing, while Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure will look back on their careers when the dust settles and rue how an Ivory Coast team tipped to be Africa's finest ever never won the Africa Cup of Nations during the former's international career or made it through to the knockout phase of a World Cup.

Portugal's Golden Generation, coached by Carlos Queiroz, had myriad great players who graduated from winning the FIFA World Youth Championship in both 1989 and 1991 to being major stars on the senior circuit. Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Jorge Costa, Paolo Sousa and Joao Pinto all have winners' medals from that time, but none could match the feats of the Portugal side that won the 2016 UEFA European Championship courtesy of a goal from Eder, a player who bombed at Swansea City.

It's not even hope that kills us with the grey generation that is England's national team but an absolute lack of it in any guise. Going away for a short break on an international weekend when the Three Lions are playing is impossible; everywhere is fully booked. Hotels have been reporting of guests requesting to have televisions removed from rooms. The question may well be asked how do you get excited about the next generation when DVDs of Gareth Southgate's senior lot are available on request in lieu of eye masks?

It's easy. For to be indifferent about an England team not legally old enough to enjoy winning a World Cup with a beer is perhaps to have fallen out of love not just with football but life itself. If you didn't smile when Foden and Brewster collected their individual prizes with their shirts on back to front, looking exactly like what they are—gauche kids—then get someone to check your pulse immediately.

Their club managers, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp respectively, are said to be very much in agreement with the informed opinion among youth football aficionados that suggests the players aren't far away from being ready to make an impact at first-team level.

The former has already intimated Foden would probably have made his full City debut had he been available for the recent Carabao Cup game with Wolverhampton Wanderers. Brewster once scored a hat-trick for Liverpool's first team in a behind-closed-doors match, per Saj Chowdhury of BBC Sport.

England's U17s played a devil-may-care brand of football that had neutrals out in India adopting Steve Cooper's side as their second team, according to Saptarshi Ray of the Daily Telegraph. It's unheard of—and fully deserved. England were progressive and engaging, confident and fluid even when they went two goals down.

When post-match Cooper was asked whether his side had outplayed Spain at their own game, he beamed, per Ray: "England beat Spain by playing our own game. This is us doing our own thing our own way."

What was most satisfying is how comfortable England's players looked at playing a fast possession game out from the back. It has been the most extraordinary 12 months for England in youth football.

Success, it seems, is infectious. In June, the U20s won the World Cup in South Korea with a 1-0 win over Venezuela in the final before the U19s claimed the UEFA European Under-19 Championship by defeating Portugal.

Over 90 minutes and extra time, England have not lost in age-group football for 34 matches. The only defeats have been via penalty shootouts, with the U17s losing the UEFA European Under-17 Championship final and the under-21s a semi-final in their version of the same tournament. The under-18s contented themselves with winning the prestigious, if not UEFA- or FIFA-supervised, Toulon Tournament.

England is the first country to have won three major underage tournaments in one year. There is quality coming through across the board.

For all the gloom over the senior setup, it's probably worth reiterating how Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier and John Stones were all eligible to play in England's defeat on penalties to Germany at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship over the summer but didn't partake in large part because of their involvement with the senior side. Harry Winks, Luke Shaw and Tom Davies could also have figured.

No nation other than Brazil in 2003 had ever previously won two underage World Cups in a calendar year. Of the 40 players to win either the U-17 or U-20 World Cups that year, nine of them went on to represent the full Brazil national side. Dani Alves, Fernandinho, Adriano, Nilmar, Fernando Henrique, Daniel Carvalho, Dudu Cearense, Marcos Arouca and Ederson Honorato represent a fair return.

When, at the back end of 2014, the Football Association director of elite development Dan Ashworth, Southgate (then England U21 coach) and head of player and coach development Matt Crocker went into a room together at St George's Park and excitedly came out grasping a document detailing the "England DNA" a couple of months later, it was met with barely a shrug. Football and middle-management speak don't tend to get on.

It's all part of the English psyche. Bleat on endlessly about needing a plan like those implemented by France, Spain and Germany prior to dramatically transforming fortunes not dissimilar to our own and then mock mercilessly when the FA provide one. Still, given the governing body's propensity to shoot itself in the foot, a fair dollop of scepticism is to be expected.

With an empty test tube and a remit to create English football a new DNA, few would have had handed the responsibility to coaches Cooper, Paul Simpson and Aidy Boothroyd. Preston North End, Shrewsbury Town and Stockport County all sacked Simpson during his managerial days, while prior to joining the England setup, Boothroyd had been dismissed by Northampton Town. It's not exactly like when Johan Cruyff titivated and honed a blueprint laid out for Dutch football by Rinus Michels.

Credit where it's due, though. It would be hard to argue the FA has not come good on its promise to deliver winning England teams. Even Southgate's lot get the job done.

That England produces first-rate young talent is surely no longer in dispute. The problem is what to do with it. The buzzword after the under-17s' triumph has been opportunity—or more pertinently, a lack thereof. England's starting XI in the final on Saturday was made up of four Chelsea players and three from Manchester City. Fulham, Watford, Wolves and Liverpool each provided one apiece.

That the biggest clubs are the most prolific collectors of young talent yet often never use it is hardly a secret. Starlets often become like Star Wars figures that have never been let out of their packaging. 

In the Sunday Telegraph, former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher wrote:

"Now the onus is on Manchester City and Chelsea to change policy. Seven of the side that has reached the U17 final are at those clubs. City and Chelsea have invested heavily in their Academies and have most of the best young talent, but for what purpose? Their managers are expected to win the title and Champions League and have ignored youth players, favouring expensive signings. 

"Pep Guardiola has indicated he wants that to change. Chelsea managers, who come and go every two years, have shown no interest in anything but the here and now. As a club, it has damaged their reputation and they have paid a long-term price."

A demand for Premier League clubs to give youth its head, while well-intentioned, is nothing more than a pipe dream. Given Chelsea and Manchester City have won five of the past eight Premier League titles, why would the onus be on them to change policy unless it was made mandatory? 

Maybe the onus is on the players as much as the clubs. The tide does appear to be turning in this respect. When Paul Pogba, in his first spell at Manchester United, decided he was ready to be playing regularly before Sir Alex Ferguson did, he engineered his way to Juventus. It takes a forceful personality to walk away from a big club, but then if there is one thing millennials do not lack, its chutzpah.

The prodigiously gifted Jadon Sancho missed the knockout stages in India because his club, Borussia Dortmund, wanted him back to make his Bundesliga debut. There was disbelief over the summer when Sancho turned his back on Manchester City to move to Germany. Given he is one of just three players in England's U17 squad to have already been granted first-team minutes, his situation will have given team-mates food for thought.

So too must Nathaniel Chalobah's. A lovely footballer with a unique capacity to make it look as though he is playing the game at his own pace, decided, at 22, he'd had enough of perpetually being loaned out by Chelsea.

In his first five games at Watford, prior to injury, he had impressed enough to win a full England call-up. Chalobah, along with Sancho, Reece Oxford and Chris Willock, has already experienced a stint overseas in his fledgling career. It's a development that should be heartily encouraged. Habitually, London-based players have tended to view anywhere north of Watford as being abroad and vice versa.

How Chelsea handle George McEachran will be interesting. His older brother, Josh, made 22 first-team appearances for the club between 2010 and 2015 and is now happy at Brentford after five different loan stints away from Stamford Bridge.

He has since told Jason Burt of the Daily Telegraph he regrets turning down a move to Real Madrid earlier his career, having failed to make his mark at Chelsea despite breaking into their first team to much fanfare. A cultured midfielder like his sibling, left-footed playmaker George did his reputation no harm at all in India.

Blues boss Antonio Conte, though, is not prone to throwing caution to the wind in terms of promoting young players to his first team. Just ask Dominic Solanke.

The 20-year-old striker was named the best player at the U-20 World Cup, during a summer in which he swapped Chelsea for Liverpool having grown exasperated at being granted just 17 minutes of first-team football. It is a journey that has an echo of Brewster's, who at 14 had the nous to deduce he had more chance of progressing on Merseyside than in the capital.

"I didn't see a pathway to become a first-team player at Chelsea," Brewster once said, per Andy Hunter in the Guardian.

Kids aren't willing to wait anymore. Patience, it seems, is for old people.

Barely had Brewster run a finger over his engraved name on the top goalscorer trophy than articles were being published about what had happened to previous winners. It's safe to say he would rather have Cesc Fabregas' career than Danny Allsopp's. As a Golden Boy winner, Foden's predecessors also include Fabregas (2003) and Toni Kroos (2007).

For all the excitement Foden generated by looking more Spanish than the Spanish, let's not forget Rooney was playing for England's seniors at the same age. As was Theo Walcott.

How likely is Foden to be given significant game time at Manchester City when Bernardo Silva, who plays in a similar position, is struggling for minutes despite being one of the outstanding players in last season's UEFA Champions League? As he showed in pre-season, Foden wouldn't look out of place in this City team, but if he can't improve it, he won't play.

Guardiola's responsibilities lie solely with Manchester City. He will smile politely when asked of safeguarding the future of young English talent and then pick whomever he likes.

The club's hierarchy has spoken regularly of becoming more self-sufficient, with the long-term aim to promote from within rather than buy straight off the shelf. Guardiola will point to the best start to a season in the history of the Premier League and leave it at that.

The Catalan did, though, have encouraging words for English football as a whole, per BBC Sport: "It is the step they need. It happened in Spain. Spain was always only the last 16, quarter-finals. They arrived one moment in the semi-finals, and since then they have won every time. That's why it is so important."

Looking through the archives, the tournament Guardiola may have been referring to is perhaps the 1997 FIFA U-17 World Championship in Egypt. Of the 18-man squad that reached the semi-finals, exactly half went on to have careers that didn't merit their own Wikipedia page. To quote the famously caustic Gore Vidal: "Precocious talent matures slowly, if at all."

The only two to progress to Spain's full national side didn't do too badly. Between them, Iker Casillas and Xavi won exactly 300 caps.

Maybe the same fate awaits Foden and Brewster.

Golden Generations, after all, can be just as much about quality as quantity.

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