Taking pride in the team rewriting English footballing history is particularly easy for fans of Barnsley, Sheffield United or Leeds United.
“Three of that back four are South Yorkshire lads and it’s absolutely class,” exclaims Mark Burton, who has more reason than most to feel good about that.
Four of Saturday’s starters against Ukraine – Kyle Walker, John Stones Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips – are Yorkshiremen who came through their local academies, as is substitute Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale is also a Sheffield United product.
This England team has players with far more technical ability than so many predecessors. Walker, Stones, Maguire and Phillips might be defensively-focussed but are more accomplished on the ball, more adventurous with it, than so many before them whose job was scoring and making goals.
Giving players those habits and the courage to stick to them was not always easy.
“It was against the norm and a bit uncomfortable for fans,” says Burton of how Barnsley’s youth team played when Stones and Maguire appeared for them. “When we gave the ball away you’d hear rumblings.”
Burton is Barnsley through and through, a YTS midfielder-turned-first-team captain, head of academy coaching and joint caretaker manager. Despite a 20-year association, he was not set on the Oakwell way.
“Barnsley were always big strong players who got it back to front very quickly,” recalls Burton, who later worked for Rotherham United and is now at Notts County. “Our philosophy was totally based on possession, express yourself but also have that work ethic. We played a style quite alien to Barnsley because I loved Barcelona. The players must have got fed up of me asking if they watched Barcelona the other day. We didn’t cross the ball or kick it long.
“Stonesey made some cock-ups and gave goals away but me and (fellow coach) Ronnie Branson told them as they got higher they’d know when it was right to do it.”
Stones and Barnsley came together when he was eight for 10 years before he joined Everton, then Manchester City. Maguire was only there from 14 to 16 before joining Sheffield United’s finishing school when Barnsley went into administration in 2009.
“At so-called little clubs they’re a big fish in a little pond so the programme’s usually geared around them,” says Burton. “And they’re playing and getting pushed.”
Often top footballers play against older boys throughout their youth but the diminutive Stones was held down a year in his mid-teens.
“It would be a little bit easier for him,” argues Burton. “He could step in (to midfield), take even more risks and get away with it. If you play a 16-year-old striker at under-18s he’ll work on his hold-up play and out-of-possession stuff but he can’t forget about scoring goals. It’s no point challenging him and he only gets one chance per game. John could do a little Cruyff (turn) and he wouldn’t get outmuscled so he was practising that skill.”
There was a tough side too.
“He could defend,” stresses Burton. “We didn’t give him a desire, an attitude and a work ethic. When you tell lads to play in youth football sometimes they think, ‘They don’t want me to tackle or work hard.’ I want both. Stonesey wanted to win more than anybody.”
As with Barnsley, Stones has an international manager prepared to stand by someone trying to do things the right way.
“I don’t know Gareth Southgate from Adam but you can see the belief the players have got in him,” says Burton. “It’s good he’s worked with the under-21s. If clubs bring three or four youth-team players through, why not bring the youth-team coach?”
Nowadays Burton is happy to largely leave Stones be.
“I speak to him now and again but he’s got Pep Guardiola, the best manager in the world, what does he need me for?” he says. “But if he comes to me he’ll get straight-talking. Two or three years ago he came to me after a Liverpool game and I told him he got square on and didn’t defend properly for one of the goals.
“Stonesy and Harry know they can cope with that standard of player and tomorrow won’t faze them one bit.”
They will because of hours on training grounds with coaches like Burton and so many others across Yorkshire and beyond. Stones and Maguire might have moved to glamorous Manchester clubs but every game they play is a reminder of why the English pyramid is so important.