Updated: July 11, 2021 10:02:15 am
In the end, as Gareth Southgate’s ‘Lions’ sang Sweet Caroline with the fans at Wembley on Wednesday, the ‘England DNA’ project came to the fore. In the mix was Phil Foden, the Golden Ball winner at the U17 FIFA World Cup in India four years ago. Close on his heels came Jadon Sancho who had earned the moniker, ‘dribble king’, at the same youth World Cup.
Mason Mount and Reece James were close by, the two players who were part of England’s 2017 UEFA European U19 Championship-winning squad. Jack Grealish, Jordan Pickford and Ben Chilwell were in the side that lost to Germany on penalties in the 2017 European U21 Championship semi-final.
The England team that beat Denmark to reach the Euro 2020 final has been a success story of youth rising through the ranks to earn its stripes.
The ‘England DNA’, launched in 2014, took about three years to yield positive results. Two World Cup titles — U20 and U17 – and a U19 European Championship triumph, all in 2017, confirmed the project’s forward trajectory. In fact, almost every player in the England team at the Euros has had been part of the Football Association’s youth set-up.
But what was the project?
The ‘core elements’, listed on the FA website, are: “Who we are, how we play, the future England player, how we coach, and how we support the process.”
In a microcosm, the ‘England DNA’ is the “coaching and playing philosophy of the England teams” that aims at wholesome development of young players. The launch of the endeavour was also a long overdue course correction. Frustrated with several years of hurt, the governing body of English football had turned to managerial exports at the turn of the century. Both Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello had impressive CVs but very little understanding of the English football culture. They were caught unawares by the complexities of the job, as a golden generation fell prey to internal bickering and club cliquism.
Groomed for the top job
When the FA returned to their own and appointed Roy Hodgson, he was into his sixties. Sam Allardyce’s stay was brief. But Southgate, young and rising through the ranks, carried the philosophy of the ‘England DNA’ from his experience of coaching the U21s to the senior team. He was groomed to take the top job, as streamlining of the coaching process across age groups started.
During the youth World Cup in India, then England colts’ head coach Steve Cooper spoke about how a common philosophy connected England football teams top down, with Southgate, a holder of 57 England caps himself, keeping an eye on the development process, receiving feedback and giving inputs.
“This trophy is dedicated to the good work that is being done in England,” Cooper said after his wards beat Spain 5-2 in the final. “The academies and (the way) the young players are being developed. These players have been in the system for four-five years now and have been on a journey where a lot of work has gone into them from different coaches.”
Southgate, 50, has built the senior team in his own image – fiercely competitive but humble and bereft of star culture. A strong education process for the youngsters has contributed to this as well.
“The Education team at St George’s Park under the management of Caitlin Hawkins liaise with all clubs and schools throughout the year and ask for work when a player is called up to the England team. There is also liaison with the parents of the players which of course is crucial,” the England U17s Education and Welfare officer Kevin Batchelor told this paper back in 2017.
“At St George’s Park, the home of the England teams, there is a purpose to build a state of the art education room for when the players are in camp there. When we travel abroad, all the work is taken as well as a suite of laptops and an education kit box containing everything needed whilst away,” he added.
Taking a leaf out of the England U19 cricket team’s book, the FA also adopted ‘Dual Aspirations’ for its young players.
Southgate knows the current crop of players have been groomed for these big moments, like the one they will experience on Sunday.
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