England have earned plenty of admirers at the U17 World Cup in India. Manager Steve Cooper speaks to Sky Sports about their eye-catching run to the final and explains why the tournament experience will be invaluable for the players.
England’s senior side were criticised for their uninspiring performances against Slovenia and Lithuania earlier this month, but at youth level the excitement continues. It is only a few months since the U20s and U19s stormed to tournament success in South Korea and Georgia respectively. Now the U17s are a game away from repeating the feat in India.
Spain stand in their way – the same Spain who beat them on penalties in the final of the U17 European Championship in Croatia in May – but England’s talented youngsters head into Saturday’s re-match on a high. Thursday’s 3-1 win over Brazil in the semi-final was another statement of intent from a side who have scored 18 goals in six games.
Jadon Sancho was billed as the man to watch having been named player of the tournament at the Euros, but the manner in which England have coped with his return to Borussia Dortmund is a testament to their quality. Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster has taken centre stage with back-to-back hat-tricks, but manager Steve Cooper insists the strength is in the collective.
“We lost Jadon and we have also picked up a couple of suspensions and injuries,” Cooper tells Sky Sports. “It’s all part of international football, but the sign of a strong squad is being able to play at the same level no matter who is in the team. I firmly believe that every player out here is capable of representing the country in an event as big as this.”
Cooper is quick to point out that his side have shone defensively – “We’ve only conceded four goals and we’re committed to keeping the ball out of the net,” he says – but their attacking flair is the biggest source of excitement for watching supporters. Like the U20s and the U19s, Cooper’s side are slick going forwards and bold in possession.
It’s all part of the new identity running through England’s youth teams. “It’s good that the playing style is being recognised because it’s very much what we’re trying to do as part of the England DNA,” says Cooper. “All the youth teams are playing with a similar identity. You can see it on the back of the summer’s results and performances.
“I think you can watch any England team play now and you already have an idea of what you’re going to see. That’s good because it’s a sign of a joined-up approach and a plan all the way from the U15s to the seniors. It’s about dominating possession and playing attacking football. We think it’s a style which can serve us well. For us to have done it in a World Cup is a good sign.”
Recent evidence suggests Gareth Southgate’s senior side are still getting to grips with the new identity, but for the U17s and the rest of England’s youth teams, it is about breeding long-term success. “We have two aims,” says Cooper. “We want to be successful in the tournaments we enter, but we also want to prepare the players for the future.”
In that sense, the experiences of the U17s in India have been invaluable. “It has been a wonderful experience for the boys,” says Cooper. “To play in front of massive crowds of 50 or 60 thousand so early in their development will prove to be priceless. The ones that get through – and we hope many of them do – are going to be playing under that sort of scrutiny in every game.
“We’ve done it all out here,” he continues. “We’ve played group games and knockout ties. We’ve played five o’clock kick-offs and eight o’clock kick-offs. We’ve taken four internal flights. We’ve had a penalty shootout, suspensions and injuries. There are just so many aspects of the experience which will serve them so well throughout their England careers.”
Cooper takes great satisfaction from how the players have responded both on and off the pitch. “The boys have embraced it,” he says. “They have enjoyed it and thrived on it. We’ve had meetings the day after games and they have talked about the experience – what they felt and what they saw. The experience will stay with them.
“It’s all about the long-term plan and giving the players as much exposure and experience of the England pathway as possible. That way, when they do become senior players, they will have the tools in the tool box to perform at the top level and hopefully win senior World Cups and Euros.”
It remains to be seen whether young stars such as Brewster, Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi will be afforded the opportunities they need in the Premier League, but at international level, at least, the system certainly seems to be working.
“We very much focus on the controllables,” says Cooper. “There is some fantastic work going on with the academies. Every club has a long-term plan for their players, that’s pretty normal now, and we obviously have a long-term plan as well. Part of that plan is ensuring that you provide the right programme day-in day-out. We just want to keep doing what we’re doing in terms of making every day positive and productive.”
Cooper’s side now hope to cap a memorable tournament by lifting the trophy on Saturday. “The players will be planned and prepared for it,” says Cooper. “We’re really enjoying being out here and we have a great opportunity to make history, but we know the experience will serve us for the future as well.”