England's roaring success: Young Lions' incredible year at youth level
England's youth teams are on top of the world after a remarkable spell of success this year -- and here is how they did it.
May 19: UEFA Under-17 Championship runners-up (lost 4-1 on penalties to Spain after 2-2 draw)
At the time this was a disappointment with certain green shoots: England were unable to win a first UEFA Under-17 Championship title in three years but they had come mighty close, a late Spain equaliser denying them victory in the final before the shootout lottery went against them. But there were signs of what these players would achieve a mere five months later -- a certain Rhian Brewster scored three times and Jadon Sancho five, while a total of 15 goals in six games suggested this particular group did not find it difficult to shine when on the front foot. It was an impression that would soon be borne out spectacularly.
June 10: Toulon Tournament winners (beat Ivory Coast 5-3 on penalties in final after 1-1 draw)
The Toulon Tournament has faded from the British public's consciousness in recent times so it was to relatively little fanfare that England's under-20s -- essentially a young and cobbled-together 'B' selection with the World Cup taking place concurrently -- reached the final in southern France. They had also won the competition a year previously: Neil Dewsnip's stylish side went on to retain the trophy and a glance through the lineup suggests their feats provided a decent pointer to future success.
David Brooks, the Sheffield United schemer, was named player of the tournament and on Friday night could be seen scoring the winning goal in a frantic Yorkshire derby at Leeds; the Leicester winger Harvey Barnes has been making waves on loan at Barnsley and 24 hours later scored a stunning equaliser for them at Sheffield Wednesday. Barnes scored two fine goals in the 3-0 semifinal victory over Scotland at Toulon and jointly top-scored with four goals alongside Wednesday's George Hirst. As would prove the case later in the summer and beyond, it was England's wealth of attacking talent that really stood out. "I think all the youth coaches in the country should celebrate this victory," Dewsnip said. "It shows the depth of talent in our country. There's some fantastic work that goes on."
June 11: FIFA U-20 World Cup winners (beat Venezuela 1-0 in final)
This was an historic achievement and nobody could have known that, when England lined up their first final in a major global tournament since 1966, there would be so much more to come. Paul Simpson's team grew in confidence during a competition that had, at the outset, engendered little excitement back home. England had been winless in this tournament since 1997, a run stretching 17 games, and it was commonly viewed as an inconvenience by top-flight clubs.
But Simpson oversaw a squad whose "steely determination," as he put it, was paired with some outstanding natural talent to triumph in South Korea. Dominic Solanke, the Liverpool striker, plundered four goals -- including two in a 3-1 semifinal win over Italy -- while Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the only goal against Venezuela in the final. Lewis Cook, of Bournemouth, was an inspirational captain and a number of the squad have gone on to enjoy impressive starts to the domestic season -- not least Kieran Dowell, another Everton youngster, who scored a match-winning hat trick against Hull for loan club Nottingham Forest on Saturday. England played with pace, dynamism and verve throughout the month and, as Simpson said at the time, it augured well for the coming months. "It is a sign of the good things going on with England right the way through the age groups," he said -- but not everybody could appreciate just how good.
June 17: UEFA Under-21 Championship semifinalists (lost 4-3 on penalties to Germany after 2-2 draw)
This turned out to be a rarity -- an England campaign that, while highly laudable, ended up conforming roughly to type. Aidy Boothroyd's side did not deserve to beat Germany in their semifinal and their resulting defeat on spot kicks, sealed by Nathan Redmond's miss, had a familiar air. But it still marked considerable progress after three successive group-stage exits at that level and suggested England have talents at U21 level who can make the step up.
Tammy Abraham, who scored against Germany, has proved that since with an impressive start to Premier League life at Swansea while his clubmate Alfie Mawson also showed he can tackle Europe's best. There were question marks at times over the style of football played by Boothroyd's side, who did not always dictate games and may not have reached the last four had Sweden scored a penalty in the sides' goalless draw during the group stage. But overall the encouragement was clear, and Boothroyd praised his side's "character and determination." It wouldn't quite be an English footballing summer without some form of sting in the tail from the Germans.
July 15: UEFA Under-19 Championship winners (beat Portugal 2-1 in final)
A well-rounded England side lifted the continental trophy in Georgia and kept the good times rolling. They had never won this competition before but Keith Downing's team possessed all the attributes needed to go far: tightly drilled but also boasting the imagination and incision to settle close games. The best example of that came in the semifinal against Czech Republic when Lukas Nmecha, the Manchester City forward, backheeled a sensational last-gasp winner after a relatively drab affair. Nmecha was also on target in the 2-1 final win over Portugal, along with Aston Villa's Easah Suliman, and while the side was rich in ability, their success owed plenty to Downing's rotation.
He was able to rest individuals when needed and managed his resources superbly despite missing seven players who would normally have formed part of the squad. Ryan Sessegnon, who is already a regular at Fulham, was excellent on the left while Ipswich's Andre Dozzell added poise and control in central midfield. Chelsea's Mason Mount and the winger Marcus Edwards, of Tottenham, also made big contributions. Mount was outstanding in the final and created Nmecha's winner; he recently scored his first senior goal, on loan at Vitesse Arnhem, and the hope is that this was also the springboard for others to push on.
Oct. 28: FIFA U-17 World Cup winners (beat Spain 5-2 in final)
England were, for long periods, simply stunning in India -- cutting loose to obliterate the majority of their opponents in front of huge, enthralled crowds. Only against Japan in the second round, when they required penalties to edge through after a goalless draw, did Steve Cooper's side ever misfire; other than that the key to their triumph was an ability to tear teams apart going forward and it was a commitment to their attacking gifts that ultimately saw them home. "We played our way, we didn't stop, we stuck to our gameplan," Cooper said of England's response to going 2-0 down in the final against Spain. It was an attitude that brought five unanswered goals between the 44th and 88th minutes in Kolkata, with stellar performances from some of the most exciting attacking players England has produced in years.
Phil Foden, the Manchester City midfielder, scored twice but it was Liverpool's Brewster who, in beginning the comeback, scored his eighth goal of the tournament and guaranteed himself the Golden Boot award. Brewster had scored hat tricks to defeat United States and Brazil in the previous two rounds; he and Foden, who was named the competition's best player, could have glittering futures and the excitement is that it hardly stops there. Sancho, who left City for Borussia Dortmund in the summer, is also part of the squad while Chelsea's Callum Hudson-Odoi shone in midfield. Another Sessegnon, Ryan's twin brother Steven, also played an integral role. This England team ruled the world by committing to a brand of football the seniors could usefully emulate.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.