As the end was nigh, Aidy Boothroyd decided to unload. Partly to protect himself, as England’s Under 21s stood on the brink of consecutive group-stage humiliations at the European Championship two years ago, and partly to make an overarching point.
Boothroyd wanted to add context for the abject failure, which was his prerogative. For his faults as manager of a talented squad, there was a sense that he was always coaching with one hand tied behind his back.
‘I know the England senior job has been called the impossible job; I think the England Under-21s job is the utterly impossible job,’ he said. ‘The reason I say that is because of the amount of players that have to be produced for the senior team and the fact we are expected to win.
‘There’s a reason we haven’t won this [tournament] for 37 years and why we haven’t progressed as much as we thought we would. Part of that is because our primary aim is to get players through to Gareth. That’s what we’ve done.’
And there is a strong case for that. Jude Bellingham, for example, was making his second senior cap – a substitute appearance against San Marino – on the same day as Boothroyd’s Young Lions lost their opening Euros game against an organised yet uninspiring Switzerland.
Lee Carsley deserves credit for rejuvenating the Young Lions during his time in charge
Boothroyd’s inflammatory remarks came in the wake of a schooling by Portugal in their second match, a country this new batch of players are now looking to progress beyond at the quarter-final stage. His successor, Lee Carsley, has so far proven that it is anything but impossible.
England are here in Kutaisi on the back of maximum points from the group, three clean sheets and six goals, playing a brand of football akin to the very best Premier League teams. A collective swagger exists where previous incarnations relied upon the individual.
That said, they could easily lose. Portugal are dangerous, boasting Ajax winger Francisco Conceicao – son of Portugal great Sergio – and Valencia’s Andre Almeida. New Chelsea signing Diego Moreira too. They have considerable threats and, even though England arrive as favourites, Carsley’s road ending in the last eight would be no major shock.
That potential eventuality should not cloud judgement. Carsley, who cut his coaching teeth at numerous EFL clubs, has brought a style and invention to this tournament, making sure these players are capable of switching tactically and operating with freedom.
It has been a successful fortnight either way, although Carsley often admits to owning unreasonable expectations in life, so wants it all. He wants to win this thing while supplementing Gareth Southgate, who attended victories over Israel and Germany.
Aidy Boothroyd previously spoke about the diffciulties involved in taking charge of England’s youth sides
Top players such as Jude Bellingham were unavailable to Boothroyd after being promoted to the senior side
‘We’re not ready to go home yet,’ Carsley said. ‘I still feel like there is a lot more from the team, I really do. I think they have different levels they can reach.’
He had lost captain Marc Guehi and Conor Gallagher early in the qualifying campaign, although they have barely been missed. The difference, seemingly, is that England have caught up with the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) for academies, whereby two or four years ago it was producing enough quality for the seniors but the second rung of youngsters were not quite pushing them; the Under 21s suffered as a result.
The seniors now feels like a more difficult divide to cross. The positive is that, under Carsley, they are still being coached at an elite level. ‘I was speaking to the other staff and we were talking about that for me he is the best man-manager I’ve had so far,’ false nine Anthony Gordon said.
‘The way we’re playing is a credit to him. This might be the best footballing team I’ve played in, in terms of how we play and the combination play around the box. It’s really at an elite level. For me, that’s down to Lee.’
But England’s Under-21s are playing with a newfound coherence as a team, and Anthony Gordon credited Carsley for the change
Chelsea defender Levi Colwill, who trained with Southgate’s side before linking up with this team – he might have been poached completely in years gone by – has been afforded the tools to showcase his ability.
‘In my head when I’m on the ball, it’s not like I’m a defender – I’m an attacker,’ Colwill said. ‘I’m helping my team attack and hopefully score. If I’m able to break lines and play into the No 10, so we attack quicker, why can’t I?
‘I think we all trust Cars so much. Like most top managers, he gives us the confidence to play your football. That’s what he wants, he wants you to play with freedom and express yourself. Hopefully we reward him and win this tournament.’