“The game is important for us but I let the young boys leave for the under-20s before the end of the season because to play in a world championship is really good for their development” – Ronald Koeman, speaking before Everton’s final home game against Watford.
The Everton manager made headlines last week by reiterating an ultimatum to Ross Barkley but none for allowing five other English talents to miss the final fortnight of the Premier League season to prepare for the Under-20 World Cup. It reflected a significant change in the relationship between Premier League clubs and the Football Association, however, and similar decisions taken at Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Bournemouth, among others. The constraint that has often cost England youth teams on the international stage – a lack of cooperation from clubs – will not apply to Paul Simpson’s under-20s when they launch their World Cup campaign against Argentina in South Korea on Saturday.
“Our history in the competition shows it has been very, very difficult to put the strongest squad together that the FA would like,” the England Under-20s head coach admits. “But this year it is absolutely brilliant that all the clubs’s management teams believe it is good for their players’ development to be involved. That is superb for us as an organisation. We believe we have travelled to South Korea with a squad strong enough to compete at a World Cup.”
Everton have five players in Simpson’s 21-man squad, three of whom – Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ademola Lookman and Jonjoe Kenny – featured in Koeman’s matchday 18 at Swansea City before being released to England. The Liverpool pair of Sheyi Ojo and Ovie Ejaria, Spurs’ Josh Onomah, Lewis Cook of Bournemouth and Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles have also arrived in South Korea with first-team experience.
Cooperation works both ways, and the FA has agreed to Everton’s request to rest Tom Davies from the Under-19 European Championship following a breakthrough season in the Premier League and accepted Patrick Roberts, Axel Tuanzebe and Izzy Brown could not feature at the World Cup because of commitments with Celtic, Manchester United and Huddersfield Town respectively. England reached the final of the Under-17 European Championship this week courtesy of goals from the highly rated Jadon Sancho of Manchester City and Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi – they face Spain on Friday – and Simpson believes there has been a marked shift in the relationship between clubs and the FA throughout the youth system.
Asked whether England’s poor record at the Under-20 World Cup stems from clubs refusing to make the best young talent available in the past, Simpson says: “Without a doubt. There has been dialogue between the FA and the clubs all season. Dan Ashworth [FA technical director] has gone into all the clubs to have talks and they have given us great support.
“We have very good footballers in this country and we need to have the strongest squad to give them the opportunity to reach the later stages of this competition. We don’t want to be here for three group games. We want to give them the experience of knockout games, of a penalty shootout if necessary: all of the things that have been the achilles heel for England in tournaments in recent years. If they experience that now in their development phase it has got to stand them in good stead for the future.”
England have prepared meticulously for a World Cup that also features group games against Guinea on Tuesday and the hosts South Korea next Friday. Simpson’s squad spent last week at a training camp on Awaji Island in Japan – where the senior team were based for the 2002 World Cup – and, at a tournament that will see video assistant referees trialled for the first time at underage level, there are few excuses for an early exit.
The former Manchester City, Oxford United and Derby County winger said: “The preparations started last summer when we qualified for the finals [by reaching the last four of the Under-19 European Championship]. We organised a trip to South Korea last year so the players could experience the country in advance. We also staged a mini-tournament in Manchester, had a double-header against Brazil to test ourselves against South American opposition, played Senegal in France to experience African opposition, we played France who are the European champions and Portugal, another of the strongest teams in Europe.
“We have tried to give the players as much variation in terms of opposition and to tick every box – South American football, African football, European football, a host nation and knockout football. Now we are into the real thing. The preparations in Japan were spot on in terms of getting the players acclimatised to the humidity, temperature and the eight-hour time difference. Then we arrived in South Korea to be greeted by all of the World Cup hype and it makes you realise what a big tournament this is.”
England – with one third-placed finish in the competition (in 1993 when it was known as the Fifa World Youth Championship) – face a daunting opener against Argentina. Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero have played their part in helping Argentina win the tournament a record six times. If it is good enough for them …
“We are all professionals who enjoy winning and we want to win it,” says Simpson. “Our record in the competition has not been particularly good. We want to go a step better, play the style of football that England wants and we want the players to learn to manage games and have emotional control.
“We face big tests starting with the first game. There is a great history between England and Argentina and we want to do better than previous tournaments. When you see the Fifa promotional video with some of the great names who have won the competition it brings home the significance of it. Our challenge has got to be getting English players on that video in years to come.”