Not for the first time, Noel Blake can look back on a successful year at the helm of the England Under-19 team, and he has every chance of a fine 2013.
Already part of the Football Association (FA)'s coaching team, Blake took charge of the squad in 2008/09 and in his first campaign they finished UEFA European Under-19 Championship runners-up behind hosts Ukraine. Since then England have reached two more semi-finals, including last season when they were pipped by Greece, and Blake can have much optimism about their chances of making, and prospering, in Lithuania next summer.
Having topped their qualifying round group ahead of Ukraine, England have been drawn in elite round Group 6 against neighbours Scotland, Georgia and Belgium, who stage the mini-tournament between 24 and 29 May. "We drew Scotland in 2009 when we got to the final in Ukraine," Blake told UEFA.com. "Obviously there's the usual rivalry, the local derby mentality comes into play. And that's not disregarding Belgium, who we played a couple of years ago in Belgium, and our U17s have had experience of Georgia recently.
"Any nation you draw at this level now [are tough] – last year at U17 level Georgia were drawn with England, Spain and Ukraine, and Georgia got to the finals and the semi-finals, so we know it's not going to be an easy group but it's one we look forward to."
As U17s, this term's U19 squad got to the EURO semi-finals in Serbia, a double-edged success as some players young enough to be picked by Blake have already been fast-tracked upwards. "Raheem Sterling is in the senior squad, which is great to see," Blake said. "We've had one or two injuries with the group, one or two withdrawals, but it's allowed us to have a look at one or two new faces. I've been pleased with the new faces that have come into the system so we'll see how the season unfolds in time for the elite round."
Although England missed out on the U19 title last season, they did receive the Fair Play prize, collected at the 2013/14 qualifying round draw earlier this month by captain Tom Thorpe with Blake also in attendance. "This is the third success we've had in the Fair Play which is very important – we try to do things in the right way, the professional way," explained 50-year-old Blake, once a defender for the likes of Birmingham City FC, Portsmouth FC, Leeds United AFC and Stoke City FC.
Every squad is also challenged to match the achievements of previous generations. "Every year group has done something, now you have to match it or better it," Blake said. "This year we are looking to go one further as a year group but first you have to get through the elite round, which won't be taken lightly."
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