“Golden Generation” is the phrase that should never speak its name again when projecting England’s future – the ultimate over-exaggeration for international underachievers.
England’s collection of world-class club players such as Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen, along with the Manchester United quartet of Gary Neville, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes, all felt the weight of the millstone as they came up short at major tournaments.
For England’s latest generation, the expectation has heightened after reaching the World Cup semi-finals in Russia and securing a place in the final four of the inaugural Nations League in Portugal in June.
And while one label must be banished from the lexicon, it is not stretching reality to suggest Gareth Southgate’s side start their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign against the Czech Republic at Wembley on Friday on the brink of an exciting evolution.
England are in the process of assembling one of the most promising young international squads in world football and the message to the more established guard is that the train is moving and if they stand still they will be left on the platform.
The elevation of Chelsea’s exciting 18-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi from England’s Under-21s to the full squad for the games against the Czechs and Montenegro in Podgorica on Monday is the latest symbol of Southgate’s boldness and determination to build on the success of Russia, not rest on it.
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Hudson-Odoi’s promotion may be regarded as premature but Southgate is from the “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” school and captain Harry Kane, after observing and interacting with the teenager Bayern Munich want to lure from Stamford Bridge, said: “Callum has been great. We are excited to have him. Competition for places is huge at the moment. Everyone is fighting for a spot and the youth aren’t scared to go and express themselves, try their skills and score. That’s what we want.”
And it is a process that will continue, threatening to push heroes of that Russian campaign such as Tottenham’s Kieran Trippier and Leicester City defender Harry Maguire, to name but two, to the margins.
Hudson-Odoi joins another 18-year-old, Borussia Dortmund attacker Jadon Sancho, in the squad, while the decision of West Ham’s Declan Rice, still only 20, to switch allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to England arguably gifts Southgate the sort of all-purpose, composed midfielder he has been missing in recent times.
England have had serviceable holding midfield players in Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Spurs’ Eric Dier but Rice could become the anchor who also has the range of passing to transform Southgate’s team by delivering an extra dimension.
Southgate will be disappointed at the absence through injury of Liverpool pair Trent Alexander-Arnold and defender Joe Gomez as they have already proved, at 20 and 21 respectively, that the England jersey sits lightly on their shoulders.
Manchester City’s Kyle Walker is still first-choice right-back but what riches Southgate has with Alexander-Arnold as well as Crystal Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the 21-year-old who has been outstanding this term and mixes old-fashioned defending with the fearlessness of youth.
It was a surprise, although a sign of Southgate’s loyalty to players who have served him well, that out-of-sorts Trippier got the nod ahead of Wan-Bissaka.
And there may yet be more versatility and options to come from Alexander-Arnold, whose well-rounded defensive game, range of passing and maturity could even see him develop into a top-class midfield player, as well as in his current right-back position.
Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell, 22, has taken over the left-back slot impressively after Ashley Young’s departure from the England scene but he will have competition from Manchester United’s Luke Shaw, a withdrawal through injury for these qualifiers, who is still only 23.
Southgate has youthful options in all areas, with Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, 24, rewarded for his fine form with a call-up and Leicester’s James Maddison, just 22, certain to win England caps.
Plenty of eyes will be on Phil Foden’s development and game time at Manchester City as, again at just 18, many experts believe he has the talent to be an England regular for years to come once he gets his feet under the table, or more pertinently on the pitch, at Etihad Stadium.
And with the more established order of captain Harry Kane (25), Raheem Sterling (24), John Stones (24) and Marcus Rashford (21) all with glorious futures ahead of them under a manager unafraid to trust to England’s younger brigade, there is the prospect that the next few months could be the start of a thrilling new England era.
England have rarely enjoyed such a variety of young talents in recent years and with the confidence of a landmark 3-2 victory in Spain in October, their first there for 31 years, as well as revenge over World Cup conquerors Croatia at Wembley to reach the Nations League finals, Southgate can mine a rich seam of talent.
Southgate has also fostered a unity of spirit and purpose which was beyond predecessors Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello, who presided over squads unable to cross partisan and competitive club lines at Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United for the good of their country.
Liverpool and Manchester City may be battling for the title and Spurs play the latter in the Champions League – but there are no cliques on Southgate’s watch.
Kane said: “We’ve heard about things happening in the past. People sitting on different tables and teams being divided. You just can’t have that in a team. You need to be 100% together.
“The great thing about this team is we have a bit of fun, a laugh and a joke but we know when we are here it is all about England. We put club stuff to one side. Even with the Liverpool and Manchester City boys it is 100% England.”
England became a band of brothers, on and off the field, that the nation learned to love again in Russia – although elation must also be tempered by the reality that, in many ways, it represented a huge opportunity missed to reach their first World Cup final for 52 years.
This, however, has the feel of England stepping forward into the next, exciting generation. Just do not call it the golden one.
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