England's golden age

Seven months after England lifted the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, coach Steve Cooper is calling on his current crop to build on that success.

England's FIFA U-17 World Cup winners
England's FIFA U-17 World Cup winners ©Getty Images

You wait 51 years for a World Cup trophy and then two come along at once. That was England's happy experience last year when the country's Under-17 and Under-20 footballers returned home victorious from FIFA's two under-age World Cup tournaments – making heroes of players like Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Phil Foden.

Now comes the chance to build on those triumphs as England host the 2018 UEFA European U17 Championship, and coach Steve Cooper is relishing the challenge. "The fact it's on home soil is a real privilege and honour," he says. "I know the FA plus St. George's Park and Wembley have committed a lot of time to making the event a successful one, so we can showcase not just what the England teams are trying to do, but what youth development football looks like in England."

England's U20 World Cup stars with Prince William
England's U20 World Cup stars with Prince William©Getty Images

It seems fair to say that youth development in England appears in excellent health. After the thrill of victory at U17 EUROs in 2010 and 2014, their feats in 2017 provided the biggest statement yet. The tone was set by the U20s' 1-0 World Cup final win against Venezuela last June, followed by a title-winning campaign at the UEFA U19 EURO and – last but not least – the 5-2 scalp of Spain in October's U17 World Cup final.

"We stuck to the plan, we didn't change, and it worked," recalls Cooper, whose team battled back from two goals down to prevail.

Despite those euphoric highs, nobody is getting carried away. "Not for a moment do we think that we've cracked it," adds Cooper, referring to the entire coaching structure at St. George's Park, the hub for all of England's national sides. "You need to make sure it's a consistent approach. The fact all the staff are spending a lot of time together at St. George's Park just allows that process to happen more easily.

"Everything we do is with two lenses," he explains. "It's making sure it's giving us the best opportunity to be successful here and now, but also working in a way that's building towards the main objective of a successful senior England team in the future. That one still is the aim. We really believe in what we're doing – we have really good players and the academies in England overall are thriving."

Midfielder Lewis Cook in action for Bournemouth
Midfielder Lewis Cook in action for Bournemouth©Getty Images

Lewis Cook, the Bournemouth midfielder and ambassador for this tournament, can vouch for the benefits of the Football Association's approach. Not just a member of England's victorious side at the U17 EURO in 2014, he was also one of seven players from that squad who won the U20 World Cup last summer. Indeed, as captain, he became the first English footballer to raise a World Cup trophy since Bobby Moore held the senior prize in 1966.

"Every time I get mentioned in the same sentence is unbelievable," reflects the 21-year-old who made his senior debut against the Netherlands on 27 March. "It's a great achievement and something I'll never forget. This England team has taught me a lot. On and off the pitch we've known each other so long, so we're friends and it's like playing with your mates."

And, he adds, the lessons learned together in under-age tournaments are vital. "First of all, you play against a lot of different types of teams and different styles of play, so you learn from that. The tournament also helps us understand what needs to be done in terms of playing lots of games and how you look after yourself, eating the right things. You're away for a long time, so it's also getting used to managing your time."

2017 was a glorious year for coach Steve Cooper
2017 was a glorious year for coach Steve Cooper©Sportsfile

Steve Cooper reiterates this last point: "It's six games over the best part of two weeks, so that's a physical aspect. The games are coming thick and fast, so technically and tactically you have to get your head around game plans. You have to recover from setbacks and not get too carried away when you're winning."

If 'feet on the ground' is the message, Cooper also wishes to see a ball at those same feet. "Ideally, we want to be dominating games with the ball," he says, outlining the England playing philosophy. "With that, we want to play with good tactical discipline, which allows us to design our way up the pitch with an idea of playing forward so that we can be very creative and exciting in the final third. When we haven't got the ball, it's simple – get it back as quickly as we can and do it with composure and aggression at the same time."

The hope is that his latest U17 crop will carry out those instructions as well as last year's World Cup winners. "Expectations are obviously a bit higher because of what we did," he says. "But we should be excited about that because that's ultimately what the best teams do. The expectations are high, so if that's where we want to be, then we need to get used to it."

This article appears in the official 2017/18 UEFA European Under-17 Championship final tournament programme

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