Disappointing results are nothing new for the English national team when it comes to international football tournaments. Be it the senior team or the under 21s, England have a knack of filling the air with optimism then overpowering it with a dark cloud of disappointment. So the question has to be asked: why?
Why do England struggle so much when it matters? Does it come down to quality, or is it because of something deeper? Have England become so synonymous with failure that regardless of what level enters a tournament the result stays the same?
There are a multitude of reasons as to why England struggle, and will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future. Some things could potentially be coached out of, or into, players, but some things are out of their hands.
The under 21’s recent failure in the European Championships is just another showcase of the several ‘what could have been’ scenarios England often find themselves in. Had Saido Berahino, instrumental in qualification, not been injured, would England have been more clinical in front of goal? Most likely, yes. Had the likes of Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain been chosen would England have done better? Again, they may have done.
The absence of players like Barkley and Sterling highlight one of the issues with the English game. England are always looking for the next big thing, always after that shining new light that will one day guide them to success yet, in doing so, they often over-hype a player and the result is failure. It is very rare a player ever lives up to the hype. The reality of the situation is that had all the players eligible for under-21s that are in the senior team been taken, England would have been favourites. The experience of winning a tournament would be priceless; since 2004, every nation that has won the under-21s European Championship has gone on to feature in a World Cup Final soon after. Coincidence?
As it is, by refusing to allow Barkley et al to feature for the under-21s, England effectively turn it into a glorified reserves team. The focus is not there, when really it maybe should be. The younger generation deemed good enough are thrust into the spotlight of the senior team, often to varying results, and the media and support can be the harshest critics. Should a 20-year-old, such as Sterling, already be facing the kind of backlash he currently does?
The issue with hyping the players up is that in doing so, the price of the player increases. It is rumoured £50 million will buy Raheem Sterling, essentially meaning he could only join a handful of teams. Saido Berahino, who has played just 70 games in the Premier League and scored 19 goals is rated at £20-30 million. For just under £14 million, Juventus signed Mario Mandzukic. Therein lies an issue.
Young, highly rated English players see their price inflate at ridiculous rates, yet they find themselves in demand because they become assets. They assist in helping teams meet the quota of home grown players they need. They can improve the image of a club to the public as they are ‘supporting’ the new generation. If the player does develop as they would like, the price will rise meaning the club will make their money back. Yet the danger is that the teams that can afford the highly rated English youngsters are also the teams that won’t necessarily always play them. For every Raheem Sterling, there is a Scott Sinclair.
If England want to succeed they need to change the game from within, and ensure that players are getting more game time. They need to work to bring down the transfer fees of players to ensure they are not priced out of moves that could develop them and give them playing time. They need to encourage to the players that they need to be playing every week.
The development of St George’s Park in Burton will no doubt help to develop future players and coaches (although the cost to train as a coach in England is also too high), but without game time those players will fester. Dan Ashworth will bring through strong young players that will go on to be deemed as future stars, but it could all be worthless. Lessons must be learned from England’s inability to succeed.
England need to learn to promote the under-21s as a team, rather than as individuals, and ensure they are not rushed through the ranks, and a lot of that comes from the media, too. Unless the Under-21s fail, is there enough media coverage on them? What does the media and FA do to ensure that the general public would celebrate a tournament win at under-21 level as much as they would at senior? And England’s players, at all levels, need to stop believing the hype, and focus on developing and playing.
They’ve mastered the art of failing, and there’s a long way to go to turn that failure into success.