This was my first opportunity to see the class of 2011 and compare them to the previous alumni who triumphed at last year’s Euros. That team was blessed with the likes of Connor Wickham and Josh McEachran so there were some big boots to fill at this summer’s Under-17s World Cup in Mexico but perhaps this wasn’t the fairest match to make any concrete assessments. With a draw sufficient to get England through to the last sixteen and a win guaranteed to see them top their group the result mattered far more than putting in any sort of performance. Yet, impressively, they succeeded on both fronts.
I was particularly looking forward to viewing Raheem Sterling and Nick Powell, two of the brightest hopes at this level, but unfortunately the former was demoted to the bench as experienced coach John Peacock reshuffled his pack. Ironically it was his replacement, West Ham’s fleet-footed right winger Blair Turgott, who far and away made the biggest impression on me as he skinned the Uruguayans for pace time and again before whipping in dangerous deliveries. For the rest of the summer there will be a teenage full-back in Montevideo having nightmares about this kid and with so many departures expected from Upton Park following the Hammers’ relegation Turgott has a real shot of breaking through ahead of his young international peers.
Crewe’s Powell didn’t disappoint either, putting in a commanding display and showing attributes of a midfielder many years his senior. Dario Gradi has unearthed yet another diamond and, although the big boys have been circling for awhile now, he very rarely lets his starlets move on until they’ve developed fully and completed their Gresty Road education. There is little doubt though that Powell is destined for big things.
The Uruguay game meant an upheaval from the relatively cooler climes of Pachuca – England’s base camp and venue for their previous two fixtures – to the stifling higher altitude heat of Torreon. Here, in 100 degree temperatures, the lion cubs suckled at water bottles during any stoppage of play and endured the hottest game of their lives. It required a slower, more thoughtful, build-up and serious value to be placed upon possession - an aspect of our national game that has long hindered us - yet it was extremely encouraging to see our fledglings knock it about with no small degree of authority and patience, captain Nathaniel Chalobah comfortably starting moves off from the back with Powell and the hard-working Clayton (another Crewe graduate) always making themselves available.
All that was missing was the huge spider shadow blotting the centre circle. And some fans.
It’s possibly too early to gauge but following the Under 21s recent dispiriting performances in Denmark perhaps the optimism lies further down the line?
Certainly progression in this tournament will do this group of youngsters no harm whatsoever in terms of their evolution with Mexico being an iconic setting for England triumphs and tragedies from times past. The startlingly green pitch and hint of haze was an evocative and familiar milieu and all that was missing was the huge spider shadow blotting the centre circle. And some fans.
England started the brightest with Liverpool's Brad Smith finding plenty of joy down the left flank and linking up well with the promising but often wasteful Alex Henshall. Liverpool have struggled for far too long now – since Riise left for Roma - to solve their problematic full-back area and suddenly, with Smith and Jack Robinson emerging, they find themselves with two home-grown contenders coming through simultaneously.
On the stroke of half time Chalobah put England ahead and in such searing conditions it looked all but over by the break. The impressive Clayton was then rewarded for his industry shortly after when he confirmed the victory with a well-deserved tap-in from a Hallam Hope pass. The remaining thirty minutes was simply a case of seeing things out and keeping mistakes to a minimum.
Everton’s Hope is precisely that. A grafting front man, stocky and ever-prowling with a predatory streak, he may soon find himself the solution to the Toffees seemingly eternal search for a reliably prolific centre forward. Assuming of course that he avoids the injury curse that appears to plague any striker of note who comes through the ranks at Goodison Park.
Overall it was an impressive and mature display against the South Americans and arguably the only sour note lay in keeper Jordan Pickford’s nervy erraticism throughout. After conceding to his opposite number in the previous game to Canada, and thereby inevitably becoming an unwanted Youtube sensation, it was perhaps understandable that he was shakier than a nervous Judy Finnegan and the Uruguayans cruelly attempted to take full advantage with a succession of long-range punts. Most were dealt with clumsily in a character testing ninety minutes for the rookie Sunderland goalie.
But he’ll learn. That’s the beauty of these tournaments. They all will.
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