By Sean Ingle/The Guardian
Amid the smiles that followed England’s beautiful dissection of the Czech Republic on Friday night, few were bigger than Jadon Sancho’s when asked whether Raheem Sterling was now one of the daddies of the team. “Yeah,” the 18-year-old replied, his face lighting up as he began his eulogy. “His numbers are crazy this year, and he’s showing all the youngsters what it’s about. I’m just happy that I’m sharing a pitch with him.”
Not so long ago it would have been unusual for a 24-year-old such as Sterling to be regarded as an elder statesman. Then again, in Gareth Southgate’s new England all sorts of staid conventions are being joyously ripped up. The Manchester City forward has the second-highest number of caps in the squad with 48 – just one behind Jordan Henderson – and nine players have fewer than 10 appearances. Increasingly, the emphasis is on youthful dash and dare.
“We’ve seen really young players from other countries in the world get their chance, maybe because they’ve got limited resources and numbers, and we’re a little bit in that situation now,” Southgate said during preparations for England’s next Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro today. “We have a smaller pool to pick from, so you’ve got to think a bit more creatively. You can’t wait for 40, 50 league matches, but that doesn’t mean that the players aren’t of the quality to go in and do well.”
That much was evident during the 5-0 thrashing of the Czech Republic. Sancho, who became England’s third-youngest debutant in a competitive fixture, set up Sterling’s first goal, before Callum Hudson-Odoi, who came off the bench to break the 64-year-old record set by Duncan Edwards by becoming the youngest at 18 years and 135 days, made a sparkling 20-minute cameo that hinted at a dazzling future.
Southgate has always been one of the game’s deepest thinkers and he believes the makeup of his squad reflects wider cultural changes. “I think young people in all walks of society have a little bit more belief,” he said.
“I think bosses in all industries are less draconian in the way they work, and I think that helps youngsters to come in and be more creative and believe they can make a difference. They don’t baulk at anything. I just think, generally speaking, given an opportunity, they’ll go and surprise people.”
As Southgate conceded, it was different back in his day, when young players had to know their place and slowly earn their stripes. “You were told: ‘Don’t get carried away, you’ve got to earn your right to play, you’ve got to earn your right to do this,’” he said. “Did that get the most out of us? Probably not. There were some great qualities that gave us, and we’ve got to make sure we don’t lose that, because respect is important, as is appreciation of what you’ve got, but equally, we want to let talent have its head.”
Part of the challenge now, as Southgate recognises, is making sure such players keep their feet on the ground while their careers soar, and getting the balance right between playing and commercial opportunities while with England. Citing Sir Alex Ferguson’s handling of Ryan Giggs, he added: “Although they’re not our players on a day-to-day basis, I think we’ve got a responsibility to make sure we get the balance right for the club, but most importantly for the player.”
Yet the England manager clearly believes he has another star on his hands in Hudson-Odoi, who was promoted from the under-21s because of an injury to Marcus Rashford. “We’ve found another player that we really like,” he said.
“We weren’t certain that he’d be able to adapt to this level, and probably we’d have given him a bit longer in the under-21s, but already he’s proved in this environment that he can more than cope. He’s a very confident boy, he has the maturity and this is going to be a fantastic week for him. I’m really pleased that he’s shown people what he’s showed us all week in training.”
Southgate also had warm words for Sancho, who is hoping to keep his place against Montenegro on what will be his 19th birthday.
Not that the Dortmund winger was entirely satisfied with his performance against the Czech Republic, despite providing the assist for Sterling for England’s first goal and exciting the crowd with a nutmeg and drag-backs. “I think it could have worked better,” he admitted. “My one-v-ones weren’t as sharp. But I was just happy that I played in my first competitive game, and to assist the first goal.”
England are expected to name a similar side to the one that beat the Czech Republic with only Eric Dier, who has gone back to Tottenham after sustaining a hip injury, absent. Unsurprisingly, Southgate again expects Harry Kane and Sterling to have a vital impact on the pitch – as well as off it. “To have such a top striker, like Harry, who has such humility and such a low ego, has a huge impression on the whole group, because at the moment he is the star player,” he added. “You wouldn’t know it from the way he conducts himself, you wouldn’t know it from his application to training and the way he is disciplined with his preparation and his focus.
“Equally, that’s the same for Raheem. You see his focus in training, his preparation for those things, so for young players coming on it’s an easy equation: if I do the things those two do, there’s a good chance that I’ll get the performances that they are putting in.” And if that happens, Sancho and Southgate won’t be the only ones smiling.
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