England’s Under-21s went into this summer’s European Championships as one of the resounding favourites.
After all, the seniors have done brilliantly over the last 12 months, reaching the semi-final of the World Cup and the finals of the UEFA Nations League.
Aidy Boothroyd also boasted a host of Premier League regulars in his side, including the brilliant Phil Foden, James Maddison and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
It was surely England’s to lose.
But against the odds, England were knocked out of the tournament faster than you could say “waistcoat” – with two calamitous group stage defeats and a draw with rivals Croatia leaving them with just a single point from Group C.
Many will point the finger firmly at the manager’s team selections – and in some instances, quite rightly so – but England were collectively bad in Italy and perhaps showed just how inexperienced they still are.
Ultimately, England’s tournament will be remembered for a succession of late collapses, with sloppy goals conceded in the final 10 minutes of each of their three group matches.
What’s worse is that the majority of England’s failings were self-inflicted, with three penalties conceded, one red card, a disastrous own goal, and a horrible goalkeeping gaffe just a quick summary of their individual errors.
Against France in their group-opener, England were heavily under-fire following the sending off of Hamza Choudhury on the hour-mark, eventually choking under the pressure of their opponents numerical advantage and conceding two late goals – the second deep in injury-time – to lose 2-1.
Choudhury’s red card was completely justified, with his awful challenge putting his opponent Jonathan Bamba in hospital, and he later described the dismissal as the worst moment of his career.
He’ll of course learn from his mistake, which is evident from his interview after the game: “I will go back and think about it.
“The next time I get in that situation, I won’t make that tackle. Right now, I am just upset. The lads were brilliant with me to be honest; they picked me up off the floor, they told me to keep my head up. But right now, I can’t. I just can’t. It’s a really difficult time.”
Choudhury wasn’t the only one at fault in the defeat to France.
Much was expected from Wan-Bissaka at right-back following his blistering season with Crystal Palace and rumours linking him with a move to Man United this summer, but he was distinctly average in the match and his sucker-punch of a late own-goal saw him dropped for the final two group games.
Same could be said for goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who performed admirably against the French – even saving a first-half penalty – only for a howler against Romania to seal his side’s fate.
Of course, mistakes like this can happen; it’s all part of the learning process for these young players. Tournament football can be a cruel mistress, and small mistakes can often prove monumentally costly.
Demarai Gray summed it up when he spoke to reporters after the defeat to Romania, saying: “It is part of learning. We have a lot of time left in our careers, these things happen and we will have many disappointments in our careers.”
For many of these players, it’s simply a case of managing expectations and working on basic match management. Blocking out certain distractions will be important for the future, too, with claims that Wan-Bissaka’s concentration was taken up by constant transfer speculation.
These youngsters still have bright futures ahead and some will surely play for Gareth Southgate’s main side in the not-so-distant future, with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke already boasting senior caps.
But this summer proved to be a reality check, but hopefully provided some very important experience of tournament football.
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