The 2015 Edition of the U17 European Championships is currently underway in Bulgaria. With eyes on retaining the title they won last summer in Malta, the England U17 team has began their defence with a win over Italy and a 1-1 draw with the Dutch. England, as is now commonplace in International youth tournaments, have a squad of intelligent and technically gifted footballers on a par with any nation. Although not heralded as a standout year group, they remain one of the favourites to challenge for the title and in the process qualify for the upcoming U17 World Cup.
In yesterday’s draw v Holland, Chris Willock (Arsenal) stood out with his ability to carry the ball past the opposition from midfield. He possesses a rare combination of balance and skill that allowed him to slalom past his Dutch counterparts with an unerring ease. On the first two matchdays, he has excelled among this collection of 288 of the best 16/17 year old footballers in Europe. This is promising but there are a lot of hurdles to overcome to ensure he makes it at the senior level.
Names such as Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas are often bandied around as former graduates from the U17 Euros but they are the exceptions to the rule. This will possibly be the career peak for many of the players at this tournament and it would be a surprise to see more than 50% of these players become regulars in the top tier of their domestic leagues. A simple glance at the winners of the Golden Ball (MVP) over the past 13 years shows that the players identified and acknowledged as special at this age tend to continue to rise and have long senior careers at the top level. Rooney (2002), Veloso (2003), Fabregas (2004), Sahin (2005), Kroos (2006), Bojan (2007), Aleksic (2008), Gotze (2009), Wickham (2010), Ebecillo (2011), Meyer (2012), Mitryushkin (2013), Bergwijn (2014) – these winners feature World Cup winners and 9 senior internationals. It is too early to judge the last few who remain in their teens but only Serbia’s Danijel Aleksic stands out as a player who. as of yet, has failed to make any impact at a senior level. In a rare turn of events, his lone International cap came in the same year in which he shone at the U17 Euros.
Success and recognition at this level is by no means a barometer for future success however. A look through England’s past squads is clear evidence for this, although they are by no means the exception and the pathways to senior football are equally as difficult on the continent.
Key; Caps (International Caps to date)|PL Games (Premier League games to date) | Ch Games (Championship games to date)| L1 Games (League One games to date) | L2 Games (League Two games to date).
This is an extreme example but shows the stark contrast in careers that the class of 2002 have had. 13 of the 18 squad members who achieved a 3rd place finish in Denmark, are playing non-league football by the age of 30. The most notable member of the side is of course Wayne Rooney. Rooney began playing regular Premier League football just twelve months after this tournament and is on course to become the England senior team’s all-time leading goalscorer.
As you can clearly see, the 2003 class may not have a graduate who reached the same levels as Rooney did but were a more balanced squad of players who have mostly had solid professional careers. 16 of the 18 in the squad are still playing professionally and there are five full internationals among them. Jonathan Forte and James Morrison did not play for England but chose to represent The Barbados and Scotland respectively. Tom Huddlestone, Steven Taylor, Aaron Lennon and James Milner have become household names to followers of the Premier League, over the last decade.
2004 produced a lot of players who have become synonymous with the football league but also a handful who have fallen out of professional football by the age of 27. Fraizer Campbell has one solitary England substitute appearance and is unlikely to add to that tally. Chris James and James Walker have represented New Zealand and Antigua and Barbuda respectively since 2004.
2005 is notable considering that 4 of the 18 are retired from the game just 10 years later. Andy Gooding, Leigh Mills and Paddy Gamble failed to make any tangible impact in the professional game and unfortunately Fabrice Muamba had to retire following his on field cardiac arrest. Theo Walcott is the sole England international and made his International debut within 12 months of this tournament. Just 38 caps in ten years shows how troubled by injury he has been in this time. Mark Noble and James Tomkins look like the only realistic chances that the class of 2005 has to add to it’s representatives at senior level. Myles Weston has changed allegiance and represented Antigua and Barbuda since donning the England shirt.
This side were runners up to Spain in 2007. Danny Rose looks set to join Danny Welbeck as a senior international in the very near future and Victor Moses has established himself as an important member of the Nigerian national side. The rest of the squad is a fairly mixed bag with players such as Smithies and Lansbury likely to play in the top tier in the coming years, in contrast to Pearce who has recently been released by Conference side Torquay United. Gavin Hoyte has chosen to represent Trinidad and Tobago and made his debut with them in 2014.
The class of 2009 are still quite young so it is early to pass judgement on them but the contrast of fortunes in the 5 years that have passed are still already apparent. Wilshere has been declared the saviour of English football, missed two full seasons, returned and subsequently been prematurely written off whilst Walcott and Habergham have not made an appearance at a level above the Conference. Many of the players in this group have stuttered between the ages of 17-21 as they’ve found first team football hard to come by. Benik Afobe and John Bostock have made very encouraging steps to suggest they’re back on the right track despite the divergent paths they’ve taken. Following a successful loan spell at MK Dons in League One, Afobe chose to leave Arsenal permanently to join Wolves and has excelled in his time in the Championship. John Bostock has finally found consistency in the Belgian Second Division and looks set to progress to a higher level this summer.
The Champions in 2010 are still an incredibly young group of players who have had a range of different experiences so far. Saido Berahino is an example of the loan system working, following three short loan spells in the football league he has progressed successfully into the West Brom first team. McEachran and Chalobah are the other side of the coin and find themselves playing less first team football, at a lower standard, than when they were 17. I would be surprised if anyone outside of Bruno Pilatos and Luke Williams doesn’t forge a good career in the top two tiers in England. They should all be conscious of putting themselves in the best positions for first team football going forward though, Tom Thorpe and Will Keane’s lack of senior experience aged 22 is a worry for me despite both still being contracted to one of the worlds biggest sides. Ross Barkley has progressed quicker than anyone else in this squad and is now an established senior International. Jack Butland on the other-hand has always been a darling of the England Goalkeepers community but is struggling to justify the hype at the senior level so far. It would not surprise me if his solo England cap is the only one he gains in his career. Bruno Pilatos’ fall from the professional game has been drastic and although time is on his side, he’s a million miles away from his peers, playing in the 9th tier.
The class of 2011 was not the most highly rated bar a few names and they’re progressing as expected if not slightly below par. Raheem Sterling has been a revelation at the Senior level but many of the other players have suffered personal setbacks that have not helped their progression. Max Clayton has suffered two serious injuries in the last two seasons but is still very young and was progressing well under Neil Lennon at Bolton. Nick Powell has numerous question marks regarding his attitude which do not bode well for the future and has really stalled over the last few years. Only Nathan Redmond, Jake Forster-Caskey and possibly Chalobah will be representing England in this summers U21 European Championship which shows how little impact this group has had at a senior level. Jordan Cousins has progressed well and become an important part of the Charlton side, he looks set for a solid career.
Last years Champions are all still only 17 and 18 so have understandably had limited exposure to senior football. Those that have had the chance, namely Roberts, Cook and Gomez, have looked comfortable with the step up and the hopes for this group are understandably still high. Every player went to the U17 European Championship on merit but history has shown us how hard the transition from here to senior football can be.
The England U17 Tournament squads since 2002 have produced more non-league footballers than International footballers which emphasises the work that these players still need to put in and the opportunities they need to be granted to excel as they progress through the levels of English football. Hopefully these next two weeks in Bulgaria will not be the last time we are seeing some members of the class of 2015 in an England shirt.