The average age of Gareth Southgate’s squad preparing themselves for this summer’s Euros is 24.8. Quite conceivably the average age of the starting eleven set to face Croatia in England’s opening game could even be a touch under that with Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson feeling their way back from injury and unlikely to feature.
In the Three Lions group who went to the World Cup in 2018 there were four players aged 22 or under. Now there are eight.
Such figures delight supporters because a youthful team suggests promise and potential, two facets that by their very nature are exciting. There is also a fearlessness from youngsters that energizes fans and maybe too we become overly familiar with players over a certain age. A cross-field, pinpoint pass from Jordan Henderson is all well and good but we’ve seen him do this many times before. Should Jude Bellingham do the same however our eyes widen.
But if a nation entering a major tournament with a plethora of emerging talents is always a thrilling proposition, age alone doesn’t cut it. Otherwise, we would simply see managers with less integrity than Southgate pandering to the masses and raiding the under 21 roster. No, quality is, was, and will forever be the ultimate barometer over a date of birth.
Thankfully these eight fresh-faced stars, most of whom were born in the 21st century with only the faintest of memories of Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea, or Woolworths ceasing to exist, or Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’, or Misfits; these eight fresh-faced stars have quality in abundance.
At right-back Reece James has been a revelation all season, showing an assuredness far beyond his years. Last week he shackled Raheem Sterling in a Champions League final and the Manchester City flyer is hardly the first winger to be completely neutralised by a player who oozes class in possession or out. Under the tutelage of Thomas Tuchel, a telescope is needed to view James’ ceiling.
Meanwhile, it is no exaggeration to say that Jude Bellingham’s accelerated development has amazed this year. ‘Impressed’ doesn’t come close nor any other words in that vicinity. The kid has amazed.
During Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League quarter final ties against Manchester City, Bellingham was the best player on the pitch, looking head and shoulders above the rest, dictating play with everything so fluid and easy. He goes into this competition as England’s principle box-to-box practitioner. He goes into this competition six months younger than Michael Owen was when he scored that wondergoal v Argentina.
Also in midfield, playmaker Mason Mount has added goals and more adventure to his arsenal in 2020/21 meaning this young talent who has long intuitively linked up play, simply and impactfully, is now becoming the full package. Only yesterday I was chatting to a former team-mate of Frank Lampard’s who told me whenever he watches Chelsea these days the resemblance in uncanny. Mount is that good.
Then there’s Phil Foden. What is left to say about the ‘Stockport Iniesta’ even though he is still seven years away from his prime? Truly, he is a generational talent with the most natural skill set of any English player since Gazza.
It is the responsibility of any writer to not talk up a player aged only 21 too much but very rarely – once in a blue moon in fact – we rightfully and unavoidably reach for superlatives usually reserved for Ballon d’Or winners. Foden is a phenomenon.
Add Declan Rice in there, and one of the best right-sided players in Europe, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Bukayo Saka, the versatile teen who was Arsenal’s most important player this past troubled year, and last but by no means least, the devastating-on-his-day Jadon Sancho and this is an incredible crop blessed with so many elite attributes that genuinely great things can be anticipated from them.
And that’s before we factor in Harry Kane by the way, with his ruthless prolificacy that is envied and feared around the world, and the nous of a Champions League-winning captain in Henderson, and Marcus Rashford who would stroll into almost all international sides. Let’s not overlook either the creative wildcard Grealish.
Within Southgate’s final 26 there are enough combinations and individual brilliance to win Euro 2020 which is why the Three Lions are presently second favourites behind France, but it goes beyond that. Because if this squad grows and evolves and collectively fulfils its immense potential we might well be witnessing the first strides made by the most successful England side of all time. We might well be looking at a Golden Generation.
England have had one before of course and boy did it under-achieve, with numerous reasons subsequently given for why a team containing Cole, Terry, Ferdinand, Neville, Beckham, Scholes, Lampard, Gerrard, Owen and Rooney failed on the biggest stages and repeatedly so.
There were too many club cliques, we’ve been told, while no manager got the best out of a potentially perfect midfield. Perhaps too there were mentality issues with players having an inflated value of themselves but lacking belief as a group.
Additionally, there has been a legitimate suggestion with the benefit of hindsight that maybe it wasn’t the wisest decision to label them in such a way, only burdening extra pressure and expectation onto their shoulders.
So, this is said tentatively; quietly. With just enough volume so you might read this and feel a frisson of excitement for moments that might lie ahead but not enough hype that it merges into the silly jingoism the tabloids always serve up.
If Southgate gets it right and if the players fulfil their promise then the possibilities for England going forward are limitless.
Read – Five rising stars who could light up this summer’s Euros
Read Also – Five Euros squads absolutely stacked with attacking talent
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