Young Lions head coach Ian Foster on England's triumphant Euro U19 winners: "This squad are all wonderfully gifted players, that's almost a given because of the excellent work the academies do. They have such a togetherness and a team spirit, a real character in the group."
Monday 11 July 2022 07:55, UK
The message for England U19s ahead of their Euro 2022 final with Israel last week was the same as it had been throughout the tournament - except for one small but significant piece of advice.
If you lose, keep your runners-up medal on. And if you win, keep your shirts the right way round. You play for the badge on the front - not the name on the back.
England's route to victory in Slovakia required a skilful, well-organised team unit. But the culture around Ian Foster's title-winning side was one built on respect and humility just as much as technical ability.
This wasn't the manager's first international winner's medal. Foster was part of Steve Cooper's backroom team when England U17s thrashed Spain in the World Cup final five years ago. Then, they were roundly criticised for turning their shirts back-to-front amid the celebrations.
Even though the reaction to that incident was clearly overblown back at home five years ago, there was no repeat performance this time around.
"This squad are all wonderfully gifted players, that's almost a given because of the excellent work the academies do," the victorious manager told Sky Sports. "They have such a togetherness and a team spirit, a real character in the group.
"But the strap line for the boys going into the tournament was to be humble players, who show humility - and they've definitely done that. It's important for us to show that not only at St George's Park. It's also when we're walking through airports, through hotels; we have certain non-negotiables, about leaving dressing rooms and hotel rooms how we found them and just being good people.
"But to be honest, it wasn't something I continually had to say to them, because they are good people. Lee [Carsley], Gareth [Southgate] aren't just looking for good footballers, these are people who have to handle disappointment well, they have to live with the team of staff and players for three, four, five weeks at a time and perform. It's not only on the pitch we're looking at, but off it as well."
Foster's preparation for the finals began long before England had even got through the qualifying stages. At an international camp in September, the group were given a 'goal tree' with a collective aim of reaching and, ultimately, winning the tournament, as well as areas for each player to improve on along the way.
The real test of that development would have to come on the pitch, and Foster and the FA pencilled in a number of 'tier-one' friendlies against the likes of Germany, Italy and France alongside the qualifying rounds last Autumn. Having taken over in September 2020, it was the first opportunity Foster could truly judge whether his players would be ready for Slovakia. He soon felt they had a chance.
"Those games told us where we were at in terms of the level," he said. "We had a really difficult qualifying round in November, with Sweden and Switzerland in that group. Then we faced Portugal in March, so obviously the games get harder - but the players got better. Whatever we asked of them, they delivered.
"That was down to not only the ability of the group but the togetherness they had which they showed throughout the tournament, whether they were a starter or a finisher. That gave us an opportunity to go late into the tournament.
"You're always in the lap of the gods in terms of fitness, in terms of who you're going to get and who's available, which players might play up in the pathway. [U21 manager] Lee Carsley has been brilliant in terms of having a really tough May with qualifying for their own European Championships, but was very reluctant to dip into our age group which was great in terms of giving us an opportunity to be successful."
The quality of that U17 squad Foster worked with in 2017 may not be repeated for some time. The likes of Jadon Sancho, Marc Guehi, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden don't often come along in one age group, although the success they achieved in an England shirt is now far less unique.
England's U19s had already won the European Championship - for the first time - earlier that year and went on to add an U20 World Cup to their name, before lifting the U19 trophy again last week. The senior squad is yet to lift silverware but has reached as many major semi-finals in the last four years as in the previous 28 combined.
The quality of homegrown players in Gareth Southgate's Three Lions squad, as well as in the Premier League has suggested for some time that things are heading in the right direction. On the training pitch, that change is something Foster and his colleagues have noticed across the England age groups.
"The work being done in the academies, not just over the last five years but the decade, we're seeing the benefits of that now," he said. "You don't just get wonderfully technically gifted players, but players with real physicality and athleticism.
"At times in the past, we've had physically strong players who lacked technical ability. The tactical understanding isn't always there, it depends on the level of games they've played in already, but the technique of our young players right now is outstanding - as good as you'll see."
So what now for England's trophy winners? Of the U19 European champions from 2017, only five have gone on to play senior international football - although Lukas Nmecha's caps have come for Germany and those of Ben Brereton, as he was then known, have been in a Chile shirt.
Southgate's Three Lions will head to Qatar this winter with the expectation of reaching the final of the World Cup at the very least. With such a high bar set, how can the next generation break through?
Foster said: "Hopefully we've given them a platform. The teams are aware of their qualities, of course, but they might have seen something in this tournament which has pleasantly surprised them. It might give them an opportunity to go on loan, to perhaps a bigger club than they might have anticipated.
"We need to give the players these experiences so when they play for the seniors, they've been there before, and Gareth and the staff know the players have been deep into the tournaments previously, which has helped.
"The 2000-born players have been to the final of a European Championships, the final of a World Cup, you see it with Mason [Mount] and Aaron Ramsdale.
"It's just given them that exposure and platform, and they've shown they can perform at the highest level of international football in their age."
Matthew Cox (Brentford): Played in all-but one of England's games and named goalkeeper of the tournament. Joined Brentford B from Wimbledon last summer, and was unbeaten in open play en route to the final, pulling off a string of saves to help the Young Lions to victory in the semi-final against Italy.
Callum Doyle (Man City): Scorer of England's equaliser against Israel in the final, another who played a part in the Young Lions' run of conceding only two goals in five games across the tournament. Featured 44 times for League One promoted side Sunderland last season in his first season in senior football.
Carney Chukwuemeka (Aston Villa): Perhaps the best-known of the U19 squad, Chukwuemeka made 11 Premier League appearances last season and manager Steven Gerrard has spoken of his desire to keep him at Villa Park with less than 12 months left on his contract. Scored three times in Slovakia and could soon be stepping up the age groups.
Harvey Vale (Chelsea): Named Chelsea's academy player of the year only weeks before captaining England to U19 glory. A leader on and off the pitch and made the Young Lions' second goal against Israel in the final with a typically fine delivery.
Dane Scarlett (Tottenham): Not unlike another Tottenham No 9, doesn't have all the tricks and isn't the most physical player in the world but knows where the back of the net is. Scored twice in Slovakia and now has 12 goals in 14 U19 internationals for England.