The weekend just passed saw a number of notable sporting successes.
Rafael Nadal won a 10th French Open title, the first male tennis player to win 10 series of the same Grand Slam; the English cricket team beat Australia; the English, Scottish and Irish rugby teams beat their opposition on tour; the British and Irish Lions even managed a victory… and in football, England’s Young Lions successfully defended their Toulon Tournament title.
However, the greatest success came from the England U20 football team which won the FIFA U20 World Cup handing them perhaps the most significant international football title since Bobby Moore led England to the 1966 World Cup over 50 years ago.
Together with winning the bi-annual tournament Newcastle United’s Freddie Woodman was awarded the Golden Gloves for being the best goalkeeper in the tournament (no doubt cemented by an excellent penalty save in the final) whilst the Golden Ball for player of the tournament, a prize previously won by such luminaries as Diego Maradona, Sergio Aguero, Paul Pogba and Lionel Messi, went to soon to be Liverpool striker Dominic Solanke.
Success in Korea has inevitably led some to suggest that the triumph will herald the start for a new “Golden Generation” of English football. This phrase was first coined by then FA Chief Executive Adam Crozier when referring to the senior England team ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, a team that included the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand to name but a few.
Ultimately this group of players failed to deliver on the ultimate stage of major championships but will this fate follow the latest crop of new talent?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle standing in their way of this latest generation is how far the Premier League has come in the last 15 years. The influx of money from increased TV rights deals has led teams throughout the league being able to afford and attract both national and international stars. This in turn leads to criticisms that it is stifling opportunities for up and coming English players to develop at the highest level.
The team which started the U20 World Cup final on Sunday had played only 1,094 minutes of Premier League football between them last season, just over 12 matches. Indeed only 6 members of the squad had started more than 10 matches for their club at all and all of which were whilst on loan at lower league clubs.
If players are not getting the opportunity in the Premier League how then is the FA nurturing this squad?
Some point to investment by the FA into both the St George’s Park facilities and youth tournament football has seen the FA look to develop players within tournament football from the U16 level upwards. Further the FA encourages a consistency of tactics of all of its youth teams, both male and female, leading to an easier transition when moving between age groups and coaches. This approach would appear to be paying dividends in light of the recent success and the fact the same group of player won the European U17 Championship in 2014. Others point to the opportunities afforded to more junior players in competitions such as the Checkatrade Trophy, with the introduction of U23 B teams for Premier League and Championship Clubs with Category 1 Academies, and which previously did not exist.
It is the next stage however that may prove the hardest. To break into the senior England team it is thought that a player must be playing regularly in the Premier League. If these opportunities, or opportunities to play for the senior England side, are not there then recent history suggests that players may look elsewhere for International honours. Wilfried Zaha and Alex Iwobi being examples of players capped by England youth teams but who have since played for alternative senior International sides (Ivory Coast and Nigeria respectively).
It must be hoped that the success of the U20 team will lead clubs in the top flight of English football to realise that there is a good crop of emerging talent already available to them and that investment in these players, rather than those from abroad, will be beneficial both for their club and the country.