Steadfastly analysed yet rarely watched, youth football occupies a peculiar place within the English football psyche: on the one hand, a youngster born on these shores can, in the space of a few fleeting tricks or an unexpected goal glut, be touted as the saviour of the national game; on the other, any sign of failure brings out the calls for all manner of root-and-branch reforms of the state of youth coaching, or the position of foreigners in the Premier League.
The temptation is to watch the European Under-21 Championship with the staid question of ‘What can we learn about English football?’ in mind, though, must be resisted; Stuart Pearce’s side must be allowed to shine without hyperbolic derision or praise – after all, they’ll suffer enough cynicism when their cohort’s turn to feature in senior international tournaments comes around.
Unfortunately for those who insist on brandishing sweeping conclusions at every opportunity, the bearing of youth-level performances on the future results of senior squads is limited. While there are some correlations, with Spain having won five of the ten European Under-19 Championships over the past decade, their transition towards long-term success is exceptional. By contrast, Ghana won the World Under-17 Cup twice in the 1990s, but the Black Stars haven’t lifted an African Cup of Nations since.
Additionally, only a fraction of players from any single age group will go on to represent the full national side together. Just four members of the squad Pearce took to the Netherlands in 2007 travelled to Euro 2012, even though James Milner, Ashley Young et al. were, aged around 26,at the nominal peak of their powers.
In sum, the effect any given under-21 crop can have on the senior setup is so minimal that a good performance in Israel is not a panacea, nor a poor one a disaster.
Fans should instead look forward to the tournament as an opportunity for the continent to showcase its youth; some of the quality on display will be magnificent. England’s hottest prospect, Wilfried Zaha, will be looking to show David Moyes that he can transfer his dominance at Championship level onto the elite stage, and while the squad otherwise lacks star quality, the young Lions take on the hosts, Italy and Norway in group A having won their last nine games without conceding a goal.
Spain’s squad is replete with a stunning array of attacking talent, including Barcelona men Thiago Alcântara and Cristian Tello and highly-rated Malaga playmaker Isco. The Netherlands bring defender Daley Blind, son of former Dutch international Danny, and several players who have made inroads into the full national side, such as PSV midfielder Kevin Strootman and Borussia Mönchengladbach striker Luuk de Jong.
Israel, hosting its biggest tournament since the 1964 Asian Cup, will be the home of football’s must-watch action for the next couple of weeks, filling the otherwise barren gap between the league season and the Confederations Cup. Plus, Phil Neville is travelling with the England party. It should be a belter.