MATT LAWTON AT WEMBLEY: After one of the more difficult periods in the FA's history, there was a deliberate effort this week to shift the focus back to the game itself at the governing body.
After one of the more difficult periods in the Football Association’s history, one that reached its nadir with that astonishing parliamentary hearing, there was a very deliberate effort this week to shift the focus back to the game itself at the governing body.
The Under 17 World Cup was paraded at St George’s Park on Monday and on Friday night at Wembley and senior figures in the organisation were only too happy to have conversations about the emergence of young English talent rather than the departure of the England women’s coach.
‘You can see the pathway working,’ said one member of the FA high command, noting not just the presence of so many Under 21 players in Gareth Southgate’s senior squad but the presence of Under 20 players in England training this week.
England played a number of youngsters against Germany, including Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Tammy Abraham caused a threat for the Germany defence on his England debut on Friday
Encouraged by the recent progress of Harry Winks and faced with so many injuries, Southgate decided to use this contest and Tuesday’s encounter with Brazil to give youth a chance even if that did include the curious decision to leave Marcus Rashford on the bench. One that made you wonder if Jose Mourinho had sent a begging letter.
Putting his trust in raw ability nevertheless remained a bold move by Southgate, creating a sense of excitement despite the obvious dangers of sending out such an inexperienced side against the world champions. Just 101 caps against nearly 300 in the opposing starting line-up, and what amounted to the most inexperienced England side since 1980.
But it was also a sign of things to come for an England manager who bemoaned the fact this week that, as well as operating in a European country that does not recognise the wisdom of a winter break, he is selecting a squad of 23 or so from only 70 Premier League players.
It certainly will not be lost on Southgate that the two out-field players he gave full international debuts to on Friday night have both had to go out on loan from Chelsea to get regular first team football. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is at Crystal Palace, while Tammy Abraham had to load up his car and head down the M4 to Swansea.
Gareth Southgate put his trust in raw ability against the world champions at Wembley
Just as Southgate will realise that had he left Loftus-Cheek and Abraham with the Under 21s, Aidy Boothroyd would have had seven loan players in his squad.
More worrying still is the fact that the five players who have remained with the junior side are not on loan at Premier League clubs. No, they might belong to Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton, but they are playing at Shrewsbury Town, Norwich, Hull, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest.
This might not be such a concern if Southgate wasn’t becoming increasingly reliant on the English players now coming up through the ranks. He intends to recruit more Under 21 players as cover for the game here against Brazil, and this week he even admitted that it might not be long before he is looking at some of those Under 17 stars. It would be determined, he said, by how much involvement they had in the first team at their clubs.
Right now Southgate still insists on ignoring players not playing regular first team football. It was the principal reason, he said, why Jack Wilshere had not been called up.
There were only 101 caps in the England starting line-up compared to nearly 300 for Germany
But one wonders how long he can maintain such a stance when it is becoming increasingly difficult for English players to populate the top flight.
The solution might be more loan players moving to teams sitting towards the base of the Premier League or lower still. It is understood Southgate would prefer to see Wilshere make another move away from North London rather than have to wait for the Europa League to come around to get a decent run out for Arsenal.
England’s very best continue to stand among the elite, of course. Had they all been fit, Southgate would have been picking players who only last week were here conquering Real Madrid.
But international football is about more than 11 players, particularly at a tournament, and the reality for England’s manager is more of what we witnessed here.
On ITV on Friday night, Ryan Giggs was actually asked how life for young British footballers today compares to a time when he was first emerging at United.
The Under 17 World Cup was paraded by the players on Friday night at Wembley
‘It's a lot tougher now with the instability of the managers,’ said Giggs. ‘We had a manager who was there for a long time so we had time to build.
‘I got a chance in the first team. David Beckham went to Preston and got games there. But you need to play games because you're going to make mistakes and it's about how you come back from the mistakes. You're not going to do it in the Under 23s. You're not going to do it training in the first team. You actually need to get that exposure in first team football and preferably, well ideally, in the Premier League.’
If there was a positive, it was how well the new players did on Friday night. Jordan Pickford was excellent in goal and Loftus-Cheek showed glimpses of why he is considered such a prospect. More composure in the opening couple of minutes and Abraham would have marked his first England appearance with a goal, but again he made some tidy contributions.
For Southgate, however, the challenge is a daunting one. He heads towards next summer’s World Cup trying to create a successful England team from a talent pool that continues to shrink.
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