England’s decade of development bears fruit in Euro 2024

England’s progression to a first-ever major tournament final on foreign soil at Euro 2024 is the fruit of a decade of work on a player development programme that has turned perennial underachievers into serial contenders.

Ending a 58-year wait to win a major trophy at the senior men’s international level is the final hurdle left to clear for Gareth Southgate’s men in Sunday’s final against Spain after serial success at the youth level and in the women’s game.

Just months after the Three Lions had crashed out of the 2014 World Cup with one game to spare of the group stage, Southgate –- then in his role as under-21 boss –- appeared alongside the English Football Association’s technical director Dan Ashworth.

They presented a plan termed “England DNA” that had the goal of blending the passion English football was famous for with better technique and a stronger mentality to handle the pressures of major tournament football.

“One of the mantras we have is ‘The only thing that changes is the size of the shirt’,” said Ashworth, who was recently appointed Manchester United’s sporting director after successful spells at Brighton and Newcastle.

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“So as they come through that player pathway, from an under-15 boy or girl, all the way through to the seniors, we have some consistent messages around them.

“If everyone is on the same page and everyone buys into and believes what you are trying to do it can become so much more powerful.”

The results since speak for themselves at every level.

Many of Southgate’s squad in Germany have already experienced winning tournaments at youth level.

Anthony Gordon and Cole Palmer were part of the side that beat Spain in the final to win England’s first under-21 Euros for 39 years 12 months ago.

Ezri Konsa won the Under-20 World Cup in 2017, while the same year Phil Foden won player of the tournament alongside Marc Guehi and Conor Gallagher in winning the under-17 World Cup.

England’s women won their first major tournament on home soil at the Euros in 2022 and followed that up by reaching the World Cup final last year.

“As a football nation we have long been characterised by our passion, fighting spirit, and effort,” Ashworth said at the time.

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“Although there are aspects of these characteristics we wish to retain, we do not wish to be solely defined by them.”

* Series of near misses –

The blend of an old-fashioned never-say-die attitude with players of a higher technical standard has carried England on a rollercoaster to the Euro 2024 final.

Hyped before the tournament as one of the favourites, Southgate admitted the expectation weighed heavy as his side stumbled through the group stage, scoring just two goals in three games.

They then needed late fightbacks and individual moments of brilliance from Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka to keep them alive in sneaking past lower-ranked opposition in Slovakia and Switzerland to make the last four.

But in Dortmund against the Dutch, England’s decade of planning had its reward in a famous 2-1 semi-final win.

“It will be I would imagine a long time if ever an English side had 60 percent possession of the ball against a side from the Netherlands. So it shows the more modern England way,” said a beaming Southgate afterward.

The ultimate test lies ahead against a Spain side that have swept all before them, including Germany and France on the tougher side of the draw.

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England have previously suffered a series of near misses under Southgate.

They defied expectations to reach the semi-finals at the 2018 World Cup before missing out on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 final on home soil.

More heartbreak came in Qatar two years ago when Harry Kane ballooned over a late penalty against France in a 2-1 quarter-final defeat.

But that experience has put them in a better place than ever before to become champions of Europe for the first time.

“We’re more calm going into the knockout games because the first time we did it in Russia, we hadn’t won a knockout game for 10 years,” added Southgate.

“We hadn’t been through the experience. Quarter-finals, semi-finals, we’ve managed a lot of those games now.

“The last final was the first European Championship final I’ve ever managed. If I didn’t get anything right, apologise for that. I’m going to try and do better this week.”


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