English football seizes upon signs of a new dawn as eagerly as a government minister hailing indicators of an economic recovery. They usually end up just as disappointed.
Celebrations of England's dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Argentina in Mexico in the Under-17s World Cup late on Thursday night thus need to be tempered with caution. The only other time England reached this stage was four years ago, and of that squad only three players progressed to the Under-21s in this summer's European Championship finals in Denmark: Danny Welbeck, Henri Lansbury and reserve goalkeeper Jason Steele.
It is fair to say, then, that it would be premature to put the mortgage on victory in the 2022 World Cup, when the Under-17s will be in their prime. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic. Any defeat of Argentina is encouraging. The Albicelestes have a strong record at youth level, even if this year's crop did not appear a vintage one. In addition, to win a match on penalties is, given England's record of failure in the 12-yard lottery, quite an achievement in itself.
More important, perhaps, than the matter of the victory, was the manner of it. The match, which finished 1-1, was played in such torrential rain that puddles appeared on the pitch which made passing difficult, but until fatigue set in the team remained faithful to the principles coach John Peacock has inculcated into his players.
England have a big centre-forward, Everton's Hallam Hope, who holds the ball up well and brings others into play, but they do not simply lump the ball towards him. When the goalkeeper is in possession, the central defenders split, the full-backs go wide, and a midfielder drops deep giving the keeper five passing options. The team then play through midfield from whoever receives the ball, happy to play it wide, where the full-backs overlap, or into Hope. Some opponents press the quintet, forcing the goalkeeper to play long, but having drawn five opponents forward he does so in the knowledge that he will be putting the ball into an area where England will have parity and there is space to play, which is not usually the case when a keeper kicks long.
As Gareth Southgate, the Football Association's head of elite development, noted yesterday on twitter, "Congrats John Peacock +England u17s v Arg last night. Played out from back in awful conditions +grt to see them enjoying themselves."
Peacock deserves much credit for the team's performances. A full-back who made around 200 appearances for Scunthorpe in the 1970s he has been coaching with the FA for 16 of the last 20 years (he was academy director at Derby between 1998 and 2002). Since his return he has worked with Sir Trevor Brooking to produce a steady improvement in England's junior teams. Embarrassingly, for such a well-resourced football nation, 2007 was the first time England had even qualified for the Under-17s World Cup which (including its previous incarnation as Under-16s) is in its 14th edition dating back to 1985. There really is no excuse for such a record. Unlike the Under-21s, England usually have few problems with player availability at Under-17s level as the individuals are not in first-team squads. It is therefore probably the best indicator of a year-group's talent.
Under Peacock, England U17s won the European Championships in 2010 (their first age-group tournament success since 1993), having previously reached the final in 2007. This year's squad reached the European semi-finals before losing 1-0 to tournament winners the Netherlands. Uefa's technical report noted they played 4-2-3-1 with an "emphasis on building passing moves from the back" with "options offered to the ball carrier by good movement in front areas". That has often not been the case with England teams, at either junior or senior level.
"I am very proud of my team," said Peacock yesterday. "We showed fantastic character when taking the penalties, we were composed and thoroughly deserved the victory as we were the better side on the day."
Peacock now turns his attention to Monday night's quarter-final against Germany. The meeting is a repeat of the 2007 quarter-final, which England lost 4-1. Germany start favourites having romped through the tournament so far with four wins and a goal difference of 15-1. In their last-16 match they were 4-0 up against the United States in 50 minutes before easing up. France or hosts Mexico await in the semi-finals.
It is not just about results; tournaments like this are an invaluable learning experience which will come in useful for those who graduate to the senior team. On the pitch Peacock's teenagers have played in 35-degree heat, in a tropical downpour, at varying altitudes, and against opposition from North and South America and Africa. Off it they have experienced the hotel-airport-training ground "bubble" which is the footballers' lot at World Cups. One day, Peacock and his players hope, that experience will bear fruit at senior level.
Three under-17s who have excelled in Mexico
Team captain and centre-half, the Chelsea player has been playing for the Under-17s since he was 14 and was part of the 2010 European Championship winning team. Born in Sierra Leone and played for Chelsea's reserves while still at school.
An attacking midfielder who made 18 appearances for Crewe Alexandra, his hometown club, last season. He may play for a League Two club but his willingness to shoot suggests he has plenty of confidence. Takes most of the side's set-pieces.
Liverpool made a £500,000 down-payment to QPR for the attacking wide player last year, but that figure could rise to £5m. Jamaican-born, he joined QPR before his 10th birthday. Scored five goals in an FA Youth Cup tie against Southend in February.Reuse content