The Young Lions

With a routine 1-0 win over Norway, England could not have started any better their qualification campaign for the Euro 2017 tournament. England have now gone 22 games unbeaten on home soil, whether friendlies or competitive. The U21 team seems to be like a young panther being taught the ways of the jungle, doing its job under everyone’s nose and no one seems to take notice of this. However, take a step back and the trail the young one is leaving is quite deadly, even by the standards of experienced hunters.

Back to back 1-0 wins may not quite tell the tale of the Young Lions’ brilliance but they have dominated the recent games that they have been involved in. In my opinion, I would base this revitalized performances on one thing: GARETH SOUTHGATE. For someone who earned just over 50 caps for England and scored two goals, the 45 year old has certainly made his mark mark on the history of English football. Among his achievements is leading the U21s to the European Championship Finals against Italy, albeit they emerged second best. The Young Lions are also the only country on the continent to qualify for five straight Euro finals.

Straight Faced
Straight Faced

Since Southgate’s introduction, the number of English players involved in top flight football has certainly taken a turn for the better. Talent is blossoming again among England’s grounds through the Elite Player Performance Plan which Southgate has been a strong advocator for. Through such, we now see Jordan Pickford, the 21 year old Sunderland goalkeeper who is on loan at Preston North End. Watching the friendly against USA and the qualification game against Norway, it was hard to believe that this was the lad’s first two games. He looked comfortable in his area and make a couple of key saves, which drew praise even from his manager. With Jack Butland also emerging, Joe Hart certainly needs to focus on maintaining his from because England seem to have a steady supply of shot stoppers. Ready to take their chances when needed.

Straight Outta EPPP
Straight Outta EPPP!

There’s also the leadership aspect that seems to be breeding around the squad. Under Southgate, players have looked to be more mature than their age calls for. James Ward Prowse has been handed the armband and this seems to have brought him up and the last couple of games has delivered some stellar performances in recent times including a coolly slotted penalty against Norway. John Stones has also elicited praise from Club Manager Martinez for the mental steel he had. Despite the transfer whirlwind that surrounded the young man, he focused on his football rather than media rants and its safe to say he came out on top. He has been touted as a possible captain at some point in his career. One would also expect Harry Kane, after his goal-scoring exploits last season,(including ‘Kaneing’ Arsenal) that he would suddenly acquire this world class aura around him but no, he has stuck to his guns and maintained his humble nature. He was handed the number 10 shirt at Tottenham and in my opinion this was too much pressure on him. He doesn’t have the ability to deal with that kind of pressure as of now. Its no wonder the goals are yet to come for club but in international colors, his goal against San Marino honestly did not belong to someone with a goal drought. The quality, the composure, the technique. That was something else. He now has three goals in three appearances for the senior team.(International Goal number 50, is that you?) He has been quick to praise Southgate for his development.

That touch man!
That touch man!

kane v s 2

The Young Lions looked to be riding on a high until that humbling defeat in the hands of Italy at the European Championship finals. 2-0 down at half time and Southgate looked pensive when heading down to the dressing room. In all fairness the lads did try in the second half by getting a goal back but the prospect of more goals left them vulnerable at the back for the Italians to deliver that killer blow. A couple of the players looked leggy during that game and it was something he did not shy away from speaking about. A good example was Reuben Loftus Cheek who plies his trade with Chelsea. The performance he delivered was simply shocking to say the least. What happened to all that hype that had been generated around him? It was as if an impostor had been given his jersey, his body, his mind but not his talent. The lad also faced a public blast from club manager Mourinho for being complacent. “We’ve got to keep challenging all of the young players,’’ Southgate said said. “I’m not just talking about Ruben here, but collectively too much sugar for them isn’t going to be good. We’ve got to make sure that they recognise there’s always another level to go to.”

And therein lies the problem with England. Glorifying the players before they have proved themselves. Not just as footballers but as overall individuals. Berahino was being praised as the forward to watch some months back but during the transfer window, he was suddenly shunned, called unprofessional and told to GROW UP. Where exactly does the buck stop?

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The boys should be taught to have the mental toughness as players. The ability to deal with pressure on and off the pitch should be embedded in the boys. The ability to focus when you are 2-0 down to finally win a game 3-2. the ability to deal with the death of your newborn professionally rather than rushing to cocaine hence putting your name in bad light as a footballer.(My condolences by the way.).

One group will criticize Southgate and the other will claim he has balls. It depends where you lie. I’m talking about his decision to leave established players at home instead of including them in his team that eventually lost the finals. Jack Wilshere, Phil Jones, Raheem Sterling and Chamberlain are just but a few of the players who were eligible to play in the European Championship but were not called up. Southgate meanwhile opted to be loyal to the group that had attained that achievement. He drew criticism for this as most people feel that the young ones can get experience at a later time and success is more important. But on the real, what is the point of the players gaining experience if there is no success? Does that simply mean they are not good enough?

All in all he did make a big-boy decision for that and like him or hate him, you have to respect a man who makes such a call. Its these kind of decisions that truly bring out the grit of a manger, as compared to others who choose to play under-performing players and misfiring forwards. Standing up to players has always got to be something most managers have to do but some choose to postpone it. Southgate certainly doesn’t. He has a kind of directness and fearless nature that I honestly admire. Its his ballsy nature that made him hand débuts to the likes of Jordan Pickford, Joe Gomez, Ibe and Deli Ali yet qualifications were looming.

With Roy Hodgson future cast into uncertainty beyond the Euro 2016, the FA Chairman has been categorical on the Roy’s replacement. He stated that the FA will consider not only Englishmen but also naturalised Englishmen like Roberto Martinez and Garry Monk. With Southgate falling in the former category, its no secret he will be among the people considered for the job. For me, Southgate or Garry Monk will be a big plus on the future of English football. The Three Lions cries for a manager with something different to offer, a dynamic, explosive, entertaining yet efficient and ruthless in results. Its time the lion ruled the jungle again!

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