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Football: England stride on – but how far can they go?

People can, on occasion, be a little dismissive of the standard shown by opponents of the England team and most especially so when the result is heavily in England’s favour.

It undoubtedly was just so last night as visitors Montenegro were demolished 7-0 and the gulf between the two sides was justified by the score. But was it because England were ‘that’ good, or Montenegro ‘that’ bad?

Above: Harry Kane and John Stones celebrate a goal at the last World Cup (Anton Zaitsev)

Actually to give them enormous credit, the team in red tried to play football and for the most part, did not defend deep, merely trying to stifle the game and make life difficult. Montenegro were indeed not ‘that’ bad but England were also not ‘that’ good either. True, nobody scores seven goals unless they know their business and under Gareth Southgate, England do indeed look more the part than they have done for many years. Even so, it’s also worth pointing out that goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made two outstanding saves in the first half as the Europeans gave nearly as good as they got. Only nearly however, as the home team were really quite ruthless at the other end.

And it is this that presents the conundrum for English football. Defensively speaking, the current squad does have good players but as a group, England can sometimes be lacking in the nous required the keep at bay the best that the rest of the world can offer. Despite reaching the semi-finals of the last World Cup (an event at which supporters fell in love with England again) the nation that gave the game to the world was beaten by Croatia.

That said it is also true to say that England could have been out of sight by half time of the World Cup semi-final, as they were against Montenegro. Croatia however, are no mugs and know how to go about surviving occasions like the game against England before going on to win. That wasn’t enough to see them overcome France in the final however, but they had what it took to beat England, despite their hanging on at times in the early part of the game. It was also said at the time of the World Cup that the passage to the semi-final favoured England, in that they avoided the top teams – except of course, Belgium, to whom they lost. England also lost to Belgium a second time in 2018 in the third/fourth play-off game, so ‘some’ mild criticism may have been justified. But that was limited to the fact that Gareth Southgate selected a comparatively young squad and ended the international careers of formerly well-established players in the national team set-up. In other words, embarking on a rebuilding job for England, not just as senior level but down through the ranks as well. In this, Southgate has been a little fortunate. Below the top rank, England has developed a good record at international football; teenage world cup winners and European champions. It is these players that Southgate has had the wisdom and foresight to bring into the senior team.

Harry Kane receives much of the praise for his goal scoring – and rightly so – but often forgotten is that he is still only 26. Kane however, has not spent all his club playing time at Tottenham Hotspur; like others, he went out on loan from North London, and Kane has been quoted as saying it was useful experience for him. It might well have been, but is one really saying that the North London club were not capable of providing a platform for Kane’s development themselves?

Above: Tammy Abraham in action v Germany in an Under 21 game (Sven Mandel)

Tammy Abraham is another, as is Mason Mount. Both are, this season, starring for Chelsea but both have spent their last few seasons out on loan, lower down the football pyramid. Mount most famously at Derby under his current manager Frank Lampard, who spent one season as a manager in the midlands but quickly brought Mount back to London when being appointed Chelsea boss last summer.

Abraham was, at one point, on loan at Swansea City, and significantly while the Welsh club were in the Premier League. It begs an obvious question; why was Abraham considered good enough to play for Swansea in the Premier League but not at Chelsea, his home club?

Was it because Chelsea were too busy spending huge amounts of money on foreign players, some of whom were big-name stars (others were unknown) rather than developing players like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount?

Chelsea are well-known for spending money not just on established superstars but also on teenagers, bringing young boys from their home countries to London as hopeful footballers before sending them out on loan, not just within the UK but elsewhere also. Then, when those loan spells are up, instead of bringing them into their first team squads, selling them - sometimes to UK clubs, sometimes to clubs in Europe. Chelsea is not alone; most of the biggest English clubs have similar practices.

And all of those teenagers, who become young men, are brought into the English game at the expense of young players born and brought up in England, players like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount. Both are very lucky in that Chelsea are currently under a ban from signing big-name (or small-name) foreigners, meaning that Frank Lampard has had to bring in Abraham and Mount, among others.

Yet look at them. Is one seriously suggesting that both players are getting an opportunity at Chelsea only because their club can’t go and splurge another £40 million or more on another foreign star? Is it that they are getting a chance not because they are good enough but simply because the club is not allowed to buy somebody?

Left: Marcus Rashford (Kirill Venediktov)

Clearly, as their performances have shown, they are good enough. As are a number of other young English players. Marcus Rashford is another. Unlike Chelsea however, Manchester United have an enviable record of developing young English players, as well as young players from elsewhere around the UK (David Beckham is a Londoner, not a Mancunian; George Best was from Northern Ireland). In recent years however, the North-west club have also spent heavily on well-known foreign stars as well as unknown hopefuls from other countries. This is England’s – and Gareth Southgate’s – dilemma; how to persuade clubs to spend their time and money on players born and raised in England.

There are a good number of foreign players in the UK game nationally that have proved their worth. There are equal numbers who are indeed not quite up to superstar level but are worth their place in anybody’s team. But are these players really better than those England can produce? Has the country really reached the stage where young English players are not as good as those found in other countries? There are also a significant number of foreign players who should not be plying their trade in England, players who bring little or nothing to the game yet who will be signed by an English club, then sold on and doing the rounds of other English clubs for some years following. Why are they continually signed? They are so simply because they are here. It is, or at least has been, ‘in’ to sign a player because he is from some other country, not because he is genuinely good enough.

And it is these players that are keeping out of the picture young English players, players who are being denied the opportunity to progress. If English clubs can, or will, change recent habits, then England might stand a chance of being real contenders for World Cups and European Championships. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Marcus Rashford are just three examples.

There are more of them out there. The clubs just have to look for them.

Above: Mason Mount (Chelsea Debs)

© Kevan James 2019

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