Back in February, we spoke to head coach Ian Foster, who will lead his team out tonight in the showdown, as part of the EFL's Youth Development Week.
It’s safe to say that the future has never looked brighter for the England national team and, for a large proportion of players, that starts with the individual age groups.
During the 2021/22 campaign, an unfamiliar face was seen in the stands up and down the country across the EFL as Foster kept tabs on his squad for the tournament in Slovakia as he prepared to make his selections.
Nevertheless, the Liverpudlian rejects too much credit for the development of the latest crop – instead, he nods his head to EFL Clubs for nurturing the next generation, be it through their own Academies or facilitating loan spells.
“Thanks to the amazing work that’s done throughout the country in the Academies on a daily basis, we get to reap the rewards,” he explained. “You work for the England national teams and we do have an array of wonderful talent in the pathway. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to work with these young players.”
The young Lions completed their final round of qualification games back in March but whilst his players are turned out for Clubs across the three divisions, he also kept a close eye on the Papa Johns Trophy – which has produced notable names in recent years.
“To go and play Papa Johns Trophy football gives them an opportunity, firstly, to play in a stadium; secondly, in front of a crowd; thirdly, against first-team players and in a really competitive competition,” he said. “I’ve been involved in that competition from the other side. It’s an opportunity for a big day out at Wembley. It’s not to be sniffed at.”
And with more and more players equipping themselves with invaluable game-time, it only evidenced to Foster how his players are stepping out of their comfort zone and stepping up.
“From what we’ve seen and learnt, the players are ready,” the 45-year-old noted. “They’re ready to go in. I know it’s a really competitive level but our young players that are in our pathway are technically outstanding. The tactical understanding isn’t quite there but that’s the purpose of the loan – to go and get that experience. They just need those games.
“It’s a strange age group at international level,” the 45-year-old noted. “Our players are playing all over the place. They’re playing first-team football in the Premier League or first-team football in the Championship and League One, Under-23s in the Premier League 2 and Under-19s in the UEFA Youth League.
“The ones who mature earlier are getting first-team football and the ones with really high potential that are not ready to play in first-teams are obviously playing younger age groups.”
Among those players hand-picked by Foster in November were Peterborough United defender Ronnie Edwards and Bristol City midfielder Alex Scott – both of whom were plying their trade in the Sky Bet Championship at the time.
The teens, in their first full seasons at their respective Clubs, caught the attention of the Under-19s boss whilst making their mark in the second-tier.
“It’s unusual for players to be playing as regularly as they are,” he admitted. “It’s a great credit to those boys and the coaches at those Clubs who have prepared them to play at such a competitive level at such a young age. Both boys playing regularly in the Championship is brilliant for them and it helps us as well.
“They’ve got themselves into our pathway and they’re doing very, very well this season. It’s Ronnie’s first taste has been Under-19s level so he’s late into the pathway and Alex came in at Under-18s level.”
Foster previously worked with Under-17s and Under-18s, encouraging the likes of Liverpool’s Harvey Elliot, Manchester City’s Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite and Manchester United’s Teden Mengi to gain first-team experience in the Championship away from their top-flight parent Clubs.
Indeed, a number of the Under-19s have already headed out on loan to EFL Clubs, balancing League schedules with international careers.
“We’ve got Callum Doyle who was on loan at Sunderland so he played regularly in League One and he got to the Quarter-Final of the Carabao Cup as well. It’s incredible for his development. Again, a young centre-back playing at such a massive Football Club in a really competitive League One.
“Levi Colwill is another one from Chelsea who was at Huddersfield Town. It’s great that our players are going into the EFL and testing themselves in such a competitive environment.”
Prior to joining the England set-up, the Whiston-born coach spent time as a first-team coach at EFL outfits Coventry City and Portsmouth – where the then-League Two side won promotion to League One during his second season at Fratton Park.
However, he always had one eye on the up-and-coming talent, and the ways he could pave a route to the first-teams.
“At Coventry, I was blessed in terms of getting to work with some really interesting young players," he remarked. "Callum Wilson would’ve been an Academy graduate just starting in the first-team at that time, and he’s gone on to play for England. James Maddison would’ve been another one; James was late in terms of his physical development but technically just an outstanding football.
“It gave me a real insight into the quality of players throughout the EFL Clubs, and a real insight into the game from Championship down to League Two.
“That helps if players do come to me and say, ‘look, I’ve had an offer from this Club’. I offer my opinion to the players. I can give them an informed decision on what the level is like and what it’s like to play in those types of divisions.”
And Foster hopes that EFL Clubs and their Academies will be the gift that keep on giving with some silverware potentially on the horizon.