Team unlucky in European Championship

icon englandflag15 July ~ England's Under-19s were eliminated from the European Championship in Estonia on Thursday, having lost 2-1 to Greece after extra-time in the semi-finals. Profligacy and penalties were the cause. Greece, who were 1-0 up at the time, were harshly reduced to ten men just before half-time when goalkeeper Stefanos Kapino was wrongly adjudged to have brought down Arsenal's Benik Afobe. Substitute goalkeeper Sokratis Dioudis became an instant hero when he saved Robert Hall's resulting spot-kick.  

England grabbed an equaliser early in the second half, when Hall turned provider for Afobe, who headed in from close range. Despite dominating proceedings, England could not find a way through a resilient defence. Their opponents produced a smash-and-grab when Nathaniel Chalobah's weak header was intercepted by Charalambos Lykogiannis who coolly lobbed Manchester United goalkeeper Sam Johnstone. Greece's reward is a place in tonight's final against Spain, who beat France in the other semi-final.

It was a painful end for England but the signs look positive for the new generation, who had gone into the semi-final on the back of a 15-game unbeaten streak. This was more or less the same squad who had emerged victorious against Spain in the Under-17 European Championship final in Liechtenstein in 2010 – England's first tournament success in any age category since 1993.

They have been inspired by manager Noel Blake, a former central defender with Portsmouth, Birmingham, Stoke, Dundee United and Exeter. Their captain, Manchester United defender Tom Thorpe, had already led his academy side to FA Youth Cup success in 2011, although he is yet to make an appearance for the first team.

Ross Barkley is perhaps the most established name, having broken into the Everton side at the beginning of last season. Liverpool's Jack Robinson and West Bromwich Albion's George Thorne are the only other squad members with Premier League experience.

Seventeen-year-old midfielder Chalobah, the youngest squad member, captained Chelsea's youth side to the FA Youth Cup last season. Afobe, who scored two goals in Estonia, is held in high regard by Arsène Wenger. He featured in last season's Emirates Cup and has since assisted Reading's promotion cause while on loan at the club.

Tottenham forward Harry Kane impressed in spells with Leyton Orient and Millwall last season, while pacey winger Nathan Redmond is on the radar of the Premier League's top clubs after shining in the Championship for Birmingham City. Erik Dier, the only member of the squad not based in England, is under contract to Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon, his family having lived in Portugal since 2004.

That Italy and Germany both failed to qualify for the group stages of the tournament further highlights the promise in this young batch of players. The next step, from youth level to regular top-flight football, is one that many teenage players tend not to make.

In July 2010, England lost 3-1 to champions Spain in the Under-19 European Championship semi-finals. Of that side, only Steven Caulker, on loan from Tottenham to Swansea City, has become a regular starter in the Premier League, while Declan Rudd, Nathan Baker and Nathan Delfouneso have made a handful of appearances. The rest of the 18-man squad are still struggling to break through the ranks or feature in the lower divisions.

In contrast, nine of Spain's starting team played in La Liga last season. Thiago Alcantara, Sergio Canales, Iker Muniain, Oriol Romeu and Koke are some of the better known players who have made the breakthrough and are on the verge of call-ups for the national side.

If English academies and coaches can learn to perform this transition in the same way, England could be looking at a potential title-challenging side in years to come. But the Spanish academy system is very different to the English model. Premier League managers generally prefer to send their young prospects out on loan to gain valuable match experience rather than playing them in reserve matches, which are often of poor quality.

Loaning players out to a different club can force them to adjust to a different style and philosophy. In Spain, the use of B teams, such as Barcelona B and Real Madrid's Castilla, ensures players are taught the same technique and style in a competitive division from a young age. Many of Spain's Euro 2012 winner came through this system and the results are staggering.

There is little likelihood of B teams ever being admitted to the lower divisions of the Football League. While Spanish football can pride itself on its international achievements, it does not have the long tradition of well-supported lower division clubs. The Football League is the oldest competition in world football and the Championship was the fourth best attended division in Europe last season, after the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga. That it finished above Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie speaks volumes as to the overwhelming support for League clubs and symbolises an important strength of the English game. Max Bentley

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