The 2016 European Championship looms close and the talk of call-ups, injuries and surprise inclusions has begun to find motion. Of course, for England, the hype before a major tournament is always ripe and often nothing more than an unwanted distraction.
Yet, poor performances at the 2010 and 2014 World Cup’s, coupled with the track record of never surpassing the quarter-final stage since that famed Italia 90 campaign, suggests that the hype around this current England side is wilting at best.
That aside, the crop of players vying for a spot in the 23-man squad that Roy Hodgson will take to France, may have never looked more exciting.
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While Leicester City have shocked the footballing world and taken headlines by storm, the younger English players have quietly gone about placing themselves into an ‘almost certain’ position for inclusion – none more so than Spurs midfielder, Dele Alli.
His talent, although never doubted, has certainly been a surprise for the Premier League. On his debut, in a friendly against Real Madrid, his first touch was to nutmeg ex-Spurs star Luka Modric, suggesting that this young but raw talent was here to stay.
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His performances for Spurs all season have been energetic and vibrant, offering vital support for fellow Englishman Harry Kane, and even netting seven goals for himself along the way. His flick and volley finish against Crystal Palace in January was sublime, as was his 25-yard strike against France at Wembley in November.
Likewise, Ross Barkley has been a mainstay for England in the qualifying campaign and is a player that never ceases to get you on the edge of your seat. Criticised for his poor decision making and lack of discipline in the past, Barkley has found a maturity this season that has largely carried his Everton side in recent months.
A fierce ability to ghost past the opposition, his two-footed aptitude, a depth in his passing range and a keen eye for goal makes him a vital asset to England’s midfield. His capability to play with Dele Alli in the centre of midfield was questioned, but against a reasonable French side in November, he was able to stay composed without losing the edge to his game that can so often elevate his performances.
Similarly, to Barkley, Everton’s other young starlet John Stones has been questioned for his costly mistakes on occasion at the centre of defence.
Stones, a Barnsley youth graduate, has quickly developed into one of football’s brightest defensive prospects with an ability to play the ball from the back, and an unusual calmness under pressure. A huge transfer saga during the summer window in 2015 with Chelsea, suggested just how highly rated he is, with Everton managing to withstand the financial clout they possess.
While sparingly used for England, Stones complements the strength and power of Manchester United’s Chris Smalling, and would make the ideal partner for a youthful backline that is likely to feature Hodgson favourite’s Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand or Leighton Baines as full backs.
As Manchester City have stuttered throughout this season, young winger Raheem Sterling has slowly and quietly continued his development while challenging for a Premier League and Champions League title, and winning the League Cup at City.
Sterling has explosive pace and an ability to beat a player, but by his own standards is equally capable of drifting in and out of a game with dangerous ease, while his lack of strength on the ball can often be his undoing. Despite this, he can be an unknown quantity and was the only shining light of a dismal Euro campaign in 2012.
On his day, Sterling has the attributes to be a world-class winger, who can wander into a central position and hurt the opposition. Hodgson persisted with him on the left of a front four throughout the qualifying campaign, and he is likely to retain that role for the coming campaign. Given the service, and given the correct mindset, Sterling could just be a game changer for this England side.
No doubt all eyes will be on England, and how they perform at another major tournament. While the belief in the English national side has not often been lower than it currently is, Hodgson’s side could slip under the radar and surprise the pessimists and the doubters with a young team packed with potential.
France 2016 is an opportunity to prove that England are capable of challenging Europe’s elite as they did in 1990 and 1966. It is an opportunity to spark a resurgence in a youthful line-up. It is an opportunity to join those players that decades ago gave England supporters a reason to sing their hearts out and wave the St George’s flag higher than ever before.
England are ready to make their way out of the gloomy wilderness and into the light. Let us hope these young talents can carry the torch ahead.
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