FOR England’s youth teams to improve on a quite remarkable 2017 was always asking a lot.
The Three Lions Under-17s, however, are already making a good fist of building on a year that brought two World Cup triumphs for the under-age teams.
Two games into the European Championships and the hosts top Group A with a maximum six points. A draw tonight as England face Switzerland at Rotherham’s New York Stadium will be enough to clinch a place in the quarter-finals and a shot at landing another major honour.
For Mike Marsh, the former Huddersfield Town coach and assistant to Under-17s chief Steve Cooper, it is a case of ‘so far, so good’ for the young Lions heading into the clash with the Swiss in South Yorkshire.
“To take part in a home tournament is a great experience for everyone,” the former West Ham United and Liverpool midfielder told The Yorkshire Post. “A brilliant opportunity.
“The experience is very different to what the lads are used to with their clubs, particularly in terms of the crowds.
If a club manager sees one of his players relishing playing in front of crowds like this then it can help that trust. It shows they can handle the pressure that comes with playing when there is expectation.Mike Marsh
“We had 6,000 at Chesterfield last Friday (for the 2-1 win over Israel) and then 7,000 at Walsall (last Monday as Italy were beaten 2-1).
“I am told Rotherham will be even bigger and that is great for the lads, who when playing most Under-18s or 23s football will be watched by crowds of 100 or 200.
“The success that the teams have had recently has created more interest, which is great. That always happens with winning teams. And it is great for the lads to have a taste of playing in front of good crowds.”
As ever in youth football, things have moved on quickly over the past few months. Gone from the Under-17s set-up are the players who lifted the World Cup in India last October, as the likes of Phil Foden and Rhian Brewster continue their football education in a higher age group, while also hoping to achieve that elusive first-team breakthrough.
Foden, for instance, has made 10 appearances for Manchester City this term and was on the bench again last Sunday against Huddersfield Town.
It is an encouraging sign in a Premier League that, too many times in the past, has seen managers look abroad for players capable of making an impact rather than promote from within.
Further evidence that attitudes are changing comes via the Under-20s team that also conquered the world a little over 11 months ago.
Yorkshire-born duo Lewis Cook and Dominic Calvert-Lewin have both had plenty of minutes in the top flight this term, as have Kyle-Walker-Peters, Jonjoe Kenny and Dominic Solanke. Ademola Lookman also made the breakthrough at Everton before impressing on loan in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig since January.
For Marsh, such a sea-change in attitude is welcome. “Experience is what it is all about as the lads get older,” he added. “The big thing is getting matches into them.
“Having the trust of their club manager is key and that is where playing for England in front of crowds like we had in India last year – where it could be up to 60,000 for some games – and again in this tournament is important.
“If a club manager sees one of his players relishing playing in front of crowds like this then it can help that trust. It shows they can handle the pressure that comes with playing when there is expectation.”
Marsh has been involved with the Under-17s since March, 2016, when he called time on a short stint working under David Wagner at Huddersfield. Watching from afar, he has been delighted with the huge strides taken by the Terriers.
“I loved my time at Huddersfield,” he added. “I wasn’t there too long but I made some very good friends, both among the players and the staff.
“Seeing where they are now is brilliant. If the opportunity with the FA had not come along, I wouldn’t have left because I enjoyed being at Huddersfield. But the chance to work at World Cups such as last year in India, a part of the world I had never experienced before, was just too good to turn down.”
Both remaining group games kick-off at 7pm, England, who were watched by senior team manager Gareth Southgate on Monday, needing just a point to secure both qualification and top spot.
With the New York Stadium set to host the final on May 20 along with a quarter-final and semi-final, tonight will hopefully not be the last that the Rotherham sporting public sees of the young Lions.
“We can’t ask for a lot more than six points from our two opening games,” added Marsh. “This is a really good group. Fully committed and doing the best they can. They have real quality, too.
“It is a difficult group. People may have looked at it before and thought, ‘England and Italy will go through’.
“But Israel and Switzerland are very good teams. There is a lot of quality, not just in this group but across the entire tournament.
“We want to go through on top of the group. That is the plan. A point will get us through but we want to end the group with another win to set us up for the knockout stage.”