By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – In recent times when expectation levels started rising over the prospects of England ending their long wait for major silverware, it was more out of blind faith and hope rather than tangible evidence on the field.
This time, however, after an electrifying start to the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, Gareth Southgate’s young lions appear capable of delivering at next year’s tournament.
Of all the leading nations, none have begun as impressively as England who, for the first time since 1984, scored five goals in successive matches — beating the Czech Republic 5-0 at home, then demolishing Montenegro 5-1 away.
Tougher tests await, but there are a plethora of reasons why England fans need not feel sheepish when talking up their teams chances of becoming European champions next year.
FEARLESSNESS OF YOUTH
When 18-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi came off the bench against the Czech Republic to join Jadon Sancho who started the match, it meant England had two players aged 18 playing in an international game for the first time in 138 years.
Hudson-Odoi then started for the first time against Montenegro, as did 20-year-old Declan Rice, and both played with a refreshing freedom and lack of inhibition, as Sancho did against the Czechs a few days earlier.
The average age of England’s starting lineup for each game was 24 and it was easy to forget that captain Harry Kane is still only 25, with Raheem Sterling, another of the ‘senior’ players, a year younger.
Gareth Southgate clearly trusts his crop of youngsters, and they trust him, meaning when they get on the pitch they feel do not feel overawed and their talent shines through.
PACE TO BURN
It is an old cliche that even the best defenders fear pace and England have it all over the pitch, from attack-minded full backs to fleet-footed forwards.
Sancho terrorised the Czechs and Hudson-Odoi did the same to Montenegro, while Sterling has now added a consistent end product to his jet-heeled approach play.
Add in Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, the Manchester United duo who missed out through injury, Southgate has enviable options to support his goal-machine skipper Kane.
Gone are the dressing room factions that were well-documented in previous England set-ups. Manager Gareth Southgate appears to have performed the masterstroke of making sure his highly-paid players leave their egos at home.
“To have such a top striker 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,” Southgate said of skipper Kane in the build-up to Monday’s game.
The momentum that started with England’s under 17s, a squad containing Sancho and Hudson-Odoi, becoming world champions in 2017, and the under 19s winning the European Championship the same year, has continued at under 21 and now senior level.
England’s surprise run to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia was followed by them reaching this year’s Nations League final four and a chance to lay down a marker ahead of 2020.
When England crashed out of Euro 2016 to Iceland, the faith of the fans was at an all-time low.
Less than three years later, England fans no longer regard watching the team as a chore, and there is real excitement and goodwill towards Southgate’s likeable squad.
With the business end of next year’s tournament played at Wembley and a vibrant squad dripping with potential, the stars might finally be aligning for the Three Lions.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)