With Paul Simpson’s talented side having emerged as world champions following a 1-0 victory over Venezuela in the final of the under-20 Mundial in South Korea, expectations have been swiftly raised among the English sporting public, as proven by a quick Twitter search for the term “golden generation”:
Remember the names…
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) June 7, 2017
England's World Cup heroes set sights on being the new golden generation – and a Premier chance https://t.co/O3wxNreNRN
— John Cross (@johncrossmirror) June 12, 2017
Understandably, Simpson himself has played down such notions, asking for his young charges to be given time to develop rather than being immediately served up as feed for the ravenous and often capricious beasts of the British media. Yet that may well be a request that falls on deaf ears as journalists and fans alike begin to lose themselves in hedonistic fantasies of Lewis Cook gleefully thrusting aloft the senior World Cup trophy in 2022 or 2026.
Got lots to look forward to in the future with this group of players Lewis cook could be lifting the real thing 2026
— Gary Speller (@SpellerGary) June 11, 2017
But what real chance is there of this England group going on to form the nucleus of a genuine “golden generation” capable of challenging for the major international honours?
Regular observers of youth football will be aware of the infrequency with which success at underage level is translated to the senior setup. It’s undeniably rare for a group of youth internationals to replicate competition wins at full international level.
In the past 30 years, Brazil and Spain are the only countries to have won both an under-20 and a senior World Cup during that period.
Moreover, they did so with very little overlap between the playing squads of their respective winning outfits; aside from Xavi and Iker Casillas, you won’t remember many of Spain’s 1999 champions or Brazil’s 1993 team, for example.
Yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that successful youth sides produce players who subsequently go on to perform with distinction for both club and country. In 2013, for example, France won the under-20 title with a lineup that included Kurt Zouma, Paul Pogba, Lucas Digne, Alphonse Areola and, er, Yaya Sanogo. Brazil’s 2011 winning squad, meanwhile, contained the likes of Danilo, Juan Jesus, Alex Sandro, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and Oscar.
From the ranks of Argentina’s 2007 generation sprang luminaries such as Sergio Romero, Ever Banega, Mauro Zarate, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria. Not one of these players has yet won a major international tournament, despite their prosperous club careers.
And what of the 2017 England side? It’s fair to say that none of the world champion squad are currently considered first-team regulars at their clubs, with only Lewis Cook, Josh Onomah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Adam Armstrong, Ademola Lookman and Ezri Konsa boasting anything that resembles significant experience in that regard. Aside from Maitland-Niles, Lookman and – following the announcement of his Bosman move from Chelsea to Liverpool – Solanke, few would be well-known to the more casual fan.
However, first-team experience is not necessarily a reliable indicator as to the future careers of this generation. In the modern era, English clubs, particularly in the top two tiers, are largely reluctant to blood players still in their teens and early twenties.
No pressure, Dominic. pic.twitter.com/n1nJM2cfNi
— Paddy Power (@paddypower) June 11, 2017
Consequently, Solanke, with his mere sprinkling of first-team appearances, is arguably the most high-profile member of the squad at present, but is far from the only one tipped for bigger things. Cook is considered one of the brightest defensive prospects in England, Maitland-Niles is highly thought-of among Arsenal fans, while Calvert-Lewin and Lookman are exciting attacking talents. Interest in their progress will have soared as a result of their recent achievements, but there are few outright stars in this crop, which may help to moderate expectations somewhat.
Ultimately, there are few predictors as to how a successful underage international team will develop.
A large number of outstanding youth players fail to make the grade as the rest of their contemporaries catch up, and attempting to foretell how a group of kids will perform when the safety-net of age restrictions is removed is a risky pursuit likely to end in ridicule. Many observers will be keen to inflate the reputation of Simpson’s men – some, no doubt, in order to deflate them at a suitably opportune later date – but others will recognise the importance of minimising the hype that is sure to follow these players around over the coming years.
England’s previous “golden generation” never made it past the quarter-final of an international tournament, despite the occasionally maniacal level of interest that often enveloped them. Through no real fault of their own, they were inevitably seen as inglorious failures as a result of the expectations laid upon them. The same hyperbolic hype-machine may yet swallow up and spit out Solanke and co, but as it stands the prospect of a successful England generation is a real one, albeit one that should at this stage be considered a bonus rather than a probability.
Still, if you’ve been buoyed to the point of unhinged optimism by the under-20 success and think the senior side can follow suit in Russia, you could do worse than the 20/1 we’re currently offering on England to win the 2018 World Cup.