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England’s U-17s watched in awe as their U-20 seniors returned home from the World Cup triumph back in June. The younger players weren’t far from the festivities, for both teams are housed at St George’s Park – a 330 acre training centre dedicated to all English national football teams. And they saw in full detail how the nation erupted in celebration after England won its first World Cup – across all age groups – since the seniors clinched the 1966 title. That feeling of being ‘world champions’ had been rekindled, and it was contagious. “It was an inspiration for us to see them get that achievement,” says Marc Guehi, captain of the U-17 squad. “We want to emulate what they did.”
Four months later, as the England U-17s touchdown in India, their chance has come to capture that feeling.
From a coaching front, there is a sense that the Young Lions are well prepared. Paul Simpson, coach of the U-20s, has fresh first-hand knowledge of what it takes to win a world title. “There have been many formal and informal meetings, with presentations about the experiences. It’s helped with my planning and preparation,” says U-17s coach Steve Cooper, ahead of the colts’ practice session in Mumbai.
The interactions were made open to the players as well. “We’re really excited about having a go about it ourselves,” adds Cooper.
The Welshman smiles when he’s asked about the team’s performances. Back in May, Cooper’s wards remained undefeated as they stormed all the way to the final of the U-17 European Championships in Croatia, falling to Spain on penalties. The string of results, along with the success of the U-20 team, has altered the targets set by the coaching staff. Previously, it was simply to ensure players got experience and developed into successful professionals. But now, there is a strong motive to win.
“We had a successful summer, with us getting to the final in Croatia and the successes of the U-20s in the World Cup,” he says. “We no doubt are in a good moment, and it’s part of a long term plan to be successful in this tournament.”
This is only the fourth time in the eleven editions of the U-17 World Cup that England has qualified for the competition.
But that record didn’t matter for the group of teenagers assembled at the Mumbai Football Arena. Nor did it matter which player belonged to which Premier League club’s youth academy – an identification that is said to have often plagued the national team.
The club rivalries in England have unwittingly trickled down to the national team. There is the famed myth of a rift between Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and former Chelsea star Frank Lampard, as the two were never able to combine consistently for the Three Lions. Their performances were weak as England was held to a goalless draw against minnows Algeria at the 2010 World Cup, and they couldn’t do much to stop England from crashing out in the group stages four years later.
Asked in an interview by The Telegraph if there is indeed a rivalry, Gerrard replied, “it’s real. When that whistle goes and for 90 minutes when we are competing against each other, it is war.”
In Mumbai, no such rivalries came into the picture as the team trained. Instead, the mood was light as Angel Gomes of Manchester United paired up with Manchester City prodigy Phil Foden for a warm-up drill.
It’s a result of the support staff doing their bit to keep the players ‘grounded,’ and to keep them from thinking of the fame and fortune that awaits them once they make their way to the senior squads of their Premier League outfits (both Gomes and Foden are already first team players).
“We want the players to be playing and behaving in a way that serves us now and allows us to be successful in the tournament,” says Cooper. “That’s all in the idea of building to the senior team and that team doing well.”
For now, the U-17s have had the results to show for their calibre. But from their older mates at St George’s Park, they’ve got the hunger to be world champions.