England players celebrate after their Under-17 World Cup success in Kolkata.
Antonio Conte believes the unprecedented year of success enjoyed by England’s youth teams will make the senior side "very difficult to beat” in future tournaments. But the Football Association’s former technical director Howard Wilkinson has warned that Premier League clubs must give young players first-team opportunities or face seeing the best go overseas.
England Under-17s’ 5-2 triumph against Spain in Kolkata on Saturday rounded off a five-month period in which the FA’s various youth teams lost only twice – both on penalties – in 34 tournament matches. The under-20s were also crowned world champions in June before the under-19s lifted the European Championship title a month later; the under-21s lost to Germany in the semi-finals of their European Championship.
For those sides and the team that won the prestigious Toulon tournament in June Chelsea provided 19 players – more than any other club – and Conte, who managed Italy for two years before moving to Stamford Bridge, believes the latest success story points towards a bright future.
"I think football in England is growing in an incredible way because it is not the only result the young players [have had],” he said. “The under-19s won, the under-20s have won and the under-21s also played a really good European Championship. It means football in England is growing and improving a lot. I am sure that in the future it will be very difficult to beat, the England national team, the first team. I want to tell you this because I was a coach with the Italy national team and I think when you have this movement behind you, you can have a great possibility to have a strong team for the next World Cup and for the competitions for the national team.”
Marc Guehi, Jonathan Panzo, George McEachran, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Conor Gallagher were part of Steve Cooper’s victorious team in India, with defender Guehi scoring England’s fourth goal in the stunning comeback from two goals down and Hudson-Odoi also impressing. Conte admitted that he was delighted to see so many players from Chelsea gain experience and vowed to give them a chance to break into his first team if they continue to make progress.
"I am very happy for our five players, and sometimes Odoi has travelled with us [the first team],” Conte said. “I am very happy for our academy because it means our academy is working very well. I want to give these possibilities – but you have to deserve these possibilities.”
England’s victory in India was achieved in the absence of Jadon Sancho, the 17-year-old who left Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund in the summer after being voted player of the tournament at the European Championship in May. He made his Bundesliga debut last week having been recalled by Dortmund after scoring three goals in the group stages and Wilkinson, who helped establish the academy system in 1997, is wary that more could follow him if this generation continue to struggle to make the breakthrough at first-team level.
"That’s something that has to be worked on,” he said. “We used to be a finishing school for players like Thierry Henry, to name but one, and it would be a shame if these players have to go to the continent to get their chance. We’ve already got players in Europe, especially in Germany, and they are never slow to latch on to a good idea. I would think there may be a few more looking to do the same thing after the success we have had.”
In this weekend’s matches in the Premier League, only 66 of 198 starters were qualified to play for England, with senior manager Gareth Southgate having previously admitted his frustration at the small number of players at his disposal. Gary Issott, the Crystal Palace academy director whose club provided Nya Kirby to England’s squad in India, admitted that the financial pressure of staying in the most lucrative league in the world increasingly squeezes out young prospects as managers opt for more experienced internationals instead.
"It’s really difficult because everyone wants to stay in the Premier League and I’m not sure that someone like Wilfried Zaha would get his chance in the first team if he was coming through these days,” he said. “Far too often players are left waiting for an opportunity that never comes.”
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