England’s Class of 2017 and the joy of seeing “One of Our Own” make it.

As disappointing as Arsenal’s season has been this time around, certainly before Christmas even if things have picked up to an extent recently, perhaps the one (only?) bright spark has been the emergence of two supremely talented young players that look set to take the football world by storm at least in this country, if not make a mark on the European and world stages, namely: Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe aged 19 and 20 respectively. 

As much as the modern media-driven football world goes mad about record-breaking  big money transfers (or at  least it did before Covid changed the world as we knew it!), there is something absolutely magical about a youngster from the academy breaking through, securing his place in the first team and (fingers crossed always) prospering at the club where he learnt his trade and paid his dues.

Even though we tried desperately to assert the fact that Harry Kane had actually  joined Arsenal’s academy aged 8, it was with begrudging admiration / thinly disguised jealousy that we watched him emerge as a phenomenal striker across North London and endured Tottenham fans’ repeated refrains of “He’s one of our own,” every time he stuck the ball in the back of the net. The ongoing experience made even more bitter by the fact that the he seemed to do just that all too regularly in North London Derbies and also with the regret that injury and off-field situations had put paid to the meteoric rise to superstardom of our own homegrown protégé, Jack  Wilshere (https://football-nerd.org/2020/10/30/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-the-twisted-fortunes-of-footballing-fate/ (https://football-nerd.org/2020/10/30/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-the-twisted-fortunes-of-footballing-fate/).

As much as he was on the verge of upping sticks and heading to Stamford Bridge in search of the ultimately elusive League title, the fact that he did an about-turn and stayed put probably saved Steven Gerrard’s legacy at Anfield. So much so that many Koppites see him as currently serving his managerial apprenticeship up at Ibrox before he returns home one day in the future to take charge of the Reds.  Of course Liverpool fans will point to the highly impressive Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomes and several other youngsters who have been called upon thanks to this season’s injury woes as more recent examples.

Manchester United’s Class of 92 is rightly revered as being a stunning crop of homegrown talent although relatively recently their manager at the time, Harry Redknapp, asserted that Upton Park’s own golden generation of: Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermaine Defoe and Glen Johnson was at least as good as their counterparts up in the North West and that: “If I kept those six players together I’m certain I would’ve won the Premier League.” One can only imagine the level of reverence that would have been reserved for those players given how Hammers fans of a certain vintage are quick to tell us at any opportunity that they of course won the World Cup in 1966!

There are countless other examples such as: Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona team that was founded on graduates from La Masia the clubs famed academy, and the Ajax team that so very nearly reached the Champions League Final a couple of seasons back; but there can be no greater feeling in football, especially in  the money-mad modern game, than watching one (or several) of our own go on to succeed at the highest levels.

Getting back to the now and Saka and Smith Rowe, in a strange way it was the younger of the two, Saka, who made the breakthrough onto the first team stage first. After a few cameos in the League Cup and Europa League, it is the surprising call up at left wing back under caretaker manager and former academy coach and mentor Freddie Ljungberg for a final group match away at Standard Liege that well and truly opened the door for Saka. This season he has simply taken off and rather than filling in at left back he is now considered Arsenal’s first choice as a wide right attacker, so much so that the club’s record signing Nicolas Pépé has been shunted over to the left to play as a more orthodox winger on the occasions when he makes the first choice team at all.

If Saka’s rise has been meteoric, for another youngster Emile Smith Rowe progress to the top has been slightly more circuitous. Smith Rowe first signalled his potential as a member of England’s triumphant squad at the Under 17’s World Cup in India (more on those guys a little later), scoring in the group stage against Iran and then assisting Rhian Brewster’s goal against Brazil in the semi-final.

Upon returning to his club, Smith Rowe found opportunities to show what he could do at first team level somewhat limited and injuries then impacted loan spells at RB Leipzig and Huddersfield and even ahead of the start of this season in a training ground friendly against QPR. Since coming into the team in his favoured Number 10 role against Chelsea on Boxing Day the Croydon-raised youngster has not only looked like that is exactly where he belongs, but also added a creativity and verve to the team’s attacking play that has been missing since Mesut Özil decided his huge contract entitled him to an easier life.

The emergence of Smith Rowe from that World Cup triumph led me to look back to the squad from the tournament in 2017. As well as the Arsenal youngster the names that leapt at me from the page will seem familiar to most with a keen interest in English football.

  • Phil Foden: so often this season Pep’s go-to man in a squad laden with millions and millions of pounds worth of talent and also now an established senior England international. The “Stockport Iniesta” is as clear an example as any of the local boy done good.
  •  Jadon Sancho: left City due to a perceived lack of a pathway to first team football and very quickly established himself at Borussia Dortmund with 130 first team appearances and 46 goals. He is another who is a regular in Gareth Southgate’s squad and if rumours are to be believed Erling Haaland may not be the only big money departure from Dortmund this summer.
  • Callum Hudson-Odoi: perhaps doesn’t quite carry the same lustre as Foden and Sancho but is carving out a niche for himself within the squad at Stamford Bridge and has allegedly been a transfer target of none other than Bayern Munich.
  • Morgan Gibbs-White: has just been recalled from loan by Wolves after an injury interrupted first half of the season at Swansea City, he is approaching 60 Premier League appearances.
  • Rhian Brewster: signed by Liverpool from Chelsea when just 14, Brewster was last October bought by Sheffield United for a reported £23.5 million. The Blades’ woeful form this season has certainly not helped his development.
  • Steven Sessegnon: brother of Ryan currently on loan at Bristol Rovers in the Championship, he seems a little further away than some of his World Cup winning teammates but is nevertheless one to keep an eye on. 

There may be others from that squad who are beginning to establish themselves or are even on the verge of breaking through, however we know from bitter experience that others will inevitably fall by the wayside. A relative success rate of over 30% of the squad of 21 already beginning to forge careers for themselves at the highest domestic levels and in the case of Foden and Sancho at international level is quite some return from a youth squad. When you also factor in the likes of: Dominic Calvert-Lewin of Everton, Ainsley Maitland-Niles on loan at West Brom from Arsenal and Tottenham’s Kyle Walker-Peters to name but three, who were part of the Under-20’s squad that won the Toulon Tournament in May and then their own World Cup the following month of the same year, then finally the game in England seems to be getting something right in terms of the development of young players.  

What made those two tournament successes even more notable was that just a few years previously the state of the England squad and the perception of youth development was so all over the place that it sparked the creation and launch of  “England DNA”  an 11-page document detailing proposals designed to improve England’s performances at major tournaments and with the rather lofty ambition of winning the World Cup in Qatar in just over a year and a half’s time. While that aspiration may still seem optimistic to some of us, there has most definitely been tangible progress.

Prior to the revamp of youth development by the FA a major criticism of the Premier League was that it’s never-ceasing commercial focus, the huge sums of money that it generates and the fact that it can draw in players  from anywhere in the world would stymie the development of our own players through lack of first team opportunity. The classes of 2017 are suggesting that while there is still a great deal of work to be done, we are beginning to reap some results from changing the way we do things. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the world’s economies football like anything else won’t be able to escape, but if one impact is to make English clubs more reliant on finding, nurturing and developing their own players that can’t be a bad thing and might just be a step back towards the game that we know and love.

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