England do not have the monopoly on youthful exuberance – Turkey’s squad is younger – but no one feels as much like a team of the future as Gareth Southgate’s. What their success-starved supporters want is for it to be the team of the present, though.
A victory over Croatia – incredibly, England’s first in the opening game of a European Championship – would be a great start. For that to happen, there will be a lot of reliance on 22-year-old Mason Mount
Only now is the under-estimated Mount starting to shake off his public image problem but the string of big footballing names who appreciate what he can do makes you wonder why he was ever doubted. With even Croatia’s 35-year-old midfield maestro Luka Modric a fan, there will be no inferiority complex as Mount takes on his hero.
Too raw to be part of his country’s last major tournament – he was on loan at Vitesse Arnhem before joining the Derby County team which would do Championship battle with Leeds United – Mount has quickly developed into a proper international footballer.
He may only have 16 caps but he is also a European Cup winner. Mount is more than just a part of a successful Chelsea team, he is an integral part, his versatility and footballing intelligence determining that since many a pair of knickers got twisted when Thomas Tuchel left him out of his first Stamford Bridge XI, he has become undroppable at club level.
For him to play against Croatia at least one, maybe more, of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling will not. It sounds crazy but could well happen. Jose Mourinho says it should.
Even the boyish side of the man underlines what a substantial player Mount has become.
He was excited to get Modric’s shirt when Chelsea knocked his Real Madrid out of the Champions League semi-finals, elated when he discovered the legendary midfielder wanted his in return.
Modric’s talent finally got proper recognition in 2018 with a Ballon d’Or earned largely on the back of inspiring Croatia to the World Cup final. England were collateral damage.
Mount does not need any videos to know what to expect tomorrow, and not because of those recent Champions League encounters. He has been scouting Modric since he was at school.
“Ever since he was in the Premier League playing for Tottenham (from 2008 to 2012) I’ve watched him quite closely,” he reveals unashamedly.
“Playing against him, it was weird. I kind of knew his moves and what he was going to do. It helps being a fan of a player and then playing against him.”
Some players do not enjoy watching football but not the studious Mount, jealously dubbed “teacher’s pet” under manager Frank Lampard.
“I love football,” he says. “Any chance to watch games and learn how to better myself, I will do that. I’m fully focused on being the best I can be.” Facing Modric was a confidence boost in more ways than one.
“I spoke to (Chelsea’s Croatian midfielder Mateo) Kovacic before the first game and asked if I could get his shirt,” explains Mount. “In the second game he came up to me, said he wanted mine, and said good luck in the upcoming games. It was brilliant to speak to him and for him to want my shirt. I was quite overwhelmed.”
Not that recognition from footballing greats is new to Mount, whose boot sponsors sent him, Phil Foden and Ryan Sessegnon to learn what major tournament football was about in 2018. After watching England versus Tunisia at the World Cup, they visited the BBC studios.
“We were walking around the set, we did a little interview with (Alan) Shearer and (Gary) Lineker and stumbled across Cesc Fabregas so we had a little chat with him,” recalls Mount. “He actually remembered me from training with Chelsea.”
As fan club members go, Fabregas, Modric, Tuchel, Lampard and Mourinho are pretty good ones.
But Mount and his young English cohorts have confidence befitting their talent. Grealish demands the ball in areas only those who really know they can handle it would, Foden is brave enough to get a Paul Gascoigne haircut, Rashford Zooms with Barack Obama. Mount, Reece James and Ben Chilwell are European champions.
“If you win any competition you gain confidence from it,” says Mount. “Winning the Champions League means a lot to all of us. We won it at a good time and it helps to carry that confidence into the first (England) games.”
He may be 13 years younger and in thrall to Modric off the field, but once Mount is on the Wembley turf, he will not play as anything but his hero’s equal.