It is difficult to remember a time when the general public was so enthusiastic about young English footballers.
For all the doom and gloom about those horribly talented foreigners coming over here and ruining our game, players blocking the path to first-team football and managers leaving youngsters to rot in the reserves, the tone of the conversation has become one of cautious hope.
With two European finals and two World Cup finals across three youth levels in 2017, the kids are on the up. Teenagers like Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, and Rhian Brewster have become household names after a stellar few months, and fans are lining up to usher in the new generation of stars – or to lambast clubs for extinguishing their spark.
“They’ll just sit on the bench.” “Why won’t the big clubs give them a chance?” “An English manager would have them in the team.”
We’ve heard it all before, yet nothing seems to change. Players fall by the wayside and the system is blamed. Now, though, this new generation has the world at its feet and the goodwill of the public and the media – and it’s time they took responsibility for themselves.
Loftus-Cheek and Abraham shine away from home
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been on the books at Chelsea since the age of eight. Thirteen years, a bucket of England youth caps and a smattering of Chelsea appearances later, he took his first steps away from Stamford Bridge, making the short journey across London to Crystal Palace. Four months later, he was Man of the Match for England against the world champions at Wembley.
His Chelsea teammate Tammy Abraham has taken a similar path. Wearing blue since 2004, he took his first flight from the nest a year earlier than Loftus-Cheek, taking the step down to the Championship with Bristol City. He knocked in a load of goals, took another trip away to Swansea the following season, and within months he was starting alongside the midfielder against Germany.
The prevailing logic here is that these talented youngsters must therefore be good enough to be playing at their big parent clubs. Perhaps that is correct.
Ray Wilkins recently complained that he couldn’t see £34 million worth of difference between the outgoing Nathaniel Chalobah and incoming Tiémoué Bakayoko at Chelsea, and it is fair to say that on the basis of this season, he has a point.
Chalobah leads the way
But Chalobah was sensible. Whether he thought he was good enough or not, he had been at Chelsea long enough to realise that his big break probably wasn’t going to come under Antonio Conte.
He had been cutting his teeth at a lower level for years. Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading, and eventually Napoli all saw some of his talent, but he never made himself a permanent home. Now, at Watford, he might finally have one.
Players like Loftus-Cheek and Abraham need to follow his example. As good as they might be, chances at the big clubs – Chelsea aren’t the only example here, of course – simply don’t come all that often and teams further down the ladder would love to have them.
There is a worry with some young players that once they get their big move, they think the job is done. England’s leading lights at the moment prove that that attitude simply isn’t good enough.
Harry Kane spent three years in the Football League scoring a fairly modest amount of goals before his big chance came at Tottenham. Jordan Pickford had six loan clubs down the footballing pyramid before his breakthrough year with Sunderland. After Dele Alli signed for Spurs, he returned to MK Dons for the remainder of the 2014/15 season on loan, winning promotion and being named the Young Player of the Year in League One.
Big moves and big contracts come too soon
These players put their time in at smaller clubs, learning their trade and bettering themselves with first-team football. They were the lucky ones who eventually got a crack at the big time, but this won’t be true of all these new young players now coming through.
These players have to be brave enough to say no to the big contracts and promises that we’ll make you a star, kid – and go somewhere less glamorous.
Prove themselves at a smaller club in the Premier League, or in the Football League, and that big move might just come back around at a time when the player is ready for it – when they are at their peak, able to force their way into the team rather than pick up the odd Carabao Cup appearance. Just because they aren’t at a top six club by the age of 22 doesn’t mean they never will be.
Of course, this isn’t a foolproof method. Just look at Patrick Bamford. He did all the right things; goals in League One, goals in the Championship, Championship Player of the Year and a series of loan moves to smaller Premier League sides, but it never quite clicked.
He now has one league goal since the start of the 2015/16 season, and is down the pecking order in a Middlesbrough squad packed with forwards. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.
Football is played outside of England, too
There is, of course, the Sancho option. Eric Dier is one player to reap the benefits of some time in a different footballing culture overseas, and Sancho was hugely brave to turn down Pep’s Grand Project in favour of one of the world’s premier footballing finishing schools.
His decision has been vindicated – in a blow for anybody worrying about their age, Sancho was born in the 21st Century and made his Bundesliga debut for Borussia Dortmund last month.
The complaint that Premier League clubs don’t make room for English youngsters is symptomatic of the insular view that the Premier League is all there is.
Paul Merson is probably the poster boy of this blinkered view, a recent comment on Sky Sports telling a great deal: "Why would anyone leave Liverpool for Bayern Munich? What's he going to win, the German league? Whoop de do."
Will the FIFA generation go abroad?
Perhaps now we are finally reaching the point where English youngsters going abroad will stop being outliers and start being the norm.
After all, those coming through now are products of a truly international game. They’ve spent their youth playing as Dortmund and Juventus on FIFA and Football Manager, watching Clásicos and Klassikers on Sky and BT, modelling their game on Lewandowski and Higuaín as much as those players closer to home. Why wouldn’t they want to play abroad? If Burnley and Stoke don’t appeal, perhaps Monaco or Milan will.
The overriding argument here is that England’s youngsters must swallow their pride, be brave, and take what might seem like the difficult option. The system may be unfair, but players must be aware of that by now. They may be young, but they are no younger than those leaving the comforts of home to go away for university or work.
They can leave the U23s and the League Cup cameos behind, and find somewhere to make a career of their own; to prove themselves deserving of a chance at the big time, rather than waiting for it to fall at their lap.