From Alfreton to Stalybridge: A national team built upon rock, carved out of the English Football Pyramid

It truly has been a remarkable few weeks for the England football team, reaching their first Euro final…check, confirming the reputations of coaches and player…check, inspiring a nation…check. But more than just the cliché “the whole nation is behind you”, it appears there is a logical argument to suggest that this group of players resonate more with the nation than any of their predecessors. 

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It is well documented that Harry Kane spent his formative years on loan at Leyton Orient. The five goals he netted in his 18 appearances gave the Brisbane Road faithful a glimpse at the future England captain. His time there can lay claim to playing a part in his development a decade before he leads his country out in a major tournament final at Wembley on July 11th 2021. Football is about connections and stories, and it really struck me when the comedian Bob Mills said that he and his mates still talk about Harry Kane on the terraces and chuckle away at how he was destined for much bigger things than a crowd of 3,000 in League One vs Walsall. He’s one of our own they still sing. The notion that the future England captain and World Cup golden boot winner followed up his spell at the Orient with stints at Millwall, Norwich and Leicester seems bizarre, but it is a well-trodden path within this England squad. For a start, there can’t have been many England squads where the backup striker scored six goals in 5 games for Stalybridge Celtic, but in Dominic Calvert-Lewin we have one this time around.  

In fact, 16 of the 26 players in the squad have spent time on loan, predominantly in the lower divisions. The role these clubs have played in the development of each player indicates the continued importance of the English football pyramid. Darlington, Alfreton, Burton, Carlisle, Bradford and Preston were temporary homes for England’s number one Jordan Pickford before he held down a regular place at Sunderland and eventually moved to Everton. This level of grounding in both non-league and lower league clubs is everywhere you look in this squad and can go some way to explain their ability to relate to the masses. Tyrone Mings typifies this point, having started out at Souther League’s Chippenham Town before making the 200-mile trip away from home to play for Ipswich. Across the backline, Stones broke through at Barnsley, and both Maguire and Walker at Sheffield Utd whilst also plying their craft at Hull, Wigan and Northampton. Luke Shaw, though his rise may be considered more glamorous, saw his Southampton side in the Championship when he broke into the first team. Both Trippier and James spent time in the Lancashire footballing melting pot, playing for Burnley and Wigan. Elsewhere in the squad, Chilwell played for Huddersfield, White represented Newport and Peterborough, Henderson played for Coventry and Grealish turned out for Notts County. Even in this increased major tournament unit, there are very few players that have done things the easy way. Even a passing understanding of how Rashford and Sterling have achieved their success would make you stop and marvel at the hard work and dedication required to get where they are today. This appears to have had a significant impact on their appreciation for their position in the national side and fostered a remarkable togetherness within the group. Southgate seems to have eradicated any notion of ‘being big time’, and it continues to pay off. 

People have loved previous England squads, of course they have, but seldom has a squad been able to reach the length and breadth of the country like this one has. Italia 90 and Euro 96 were seminal moments in my formative years as a football fan, but I was not as interested as I am now in player backstories and narratives. It was basically Gazza or nothing. With the 2021 England squad, fans up and down the country can sit at home and say they have an involvement, they can relate, and they played a part, however small, in their success. That means something to fans. To some fans, it means everything. A friend of mine went to the semi-final on Wednesday. As he got into his seat, he looked around at the flags draped across the whole stadium; Chester, Darlington, Mansfield, Derby, Carlisle, Plymouth. Amazing scenes. To coin a political phrase, which would not usually be my want, this is an England team for the many, not the few. However, unlike the political divide that plagues our country, this is a story of unity and togetherness driven by a leader of humility and an understanding of how to communicate with the broader public, as well as his coaches and players. 

Southgate, of course, knows the importance of time, after all, St George’s Park was not built in a day, but his values relentlessly revolve around friendship, family and being relatable to the general public. Only Mings, White, Grealish and Rice have no England age group experience (the latter two have played youth international football for Rep of Ireland), which means the 22 others have been blooded for the job from a young age. Over time the culture has been created to ensure long term success. Sam Johnston is a great example here; he has been on loan at Oldham, Scunthorpe, Walsall, Yeovil, Doncaster, and Preston, yet he has been identified by England’s coaches as a player with potential and been involved in the Under 16,1 7, 19 and 20 age groups. Now he makes the full squad, he knows exactly what is expected whilst arriving on a foundation built upon rock, carved out of a career in the lower leagues. England has the second-youngest squad at Euro 2020, and it is impossible to envisage a scenario where they are not well prepared and ready to be very competitive at the World Cup in 18 months. We are in a unique situation where, for once, England look to be in control and are methodically plotting their way towards success. It took Clairefontaine ten years to bear fruit for France, and it feels like, for once, a ten-year building project has been delivered on time.

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If football doesn’t arrive back at its birthplace come ten o’clock (or heaven forbid a little later) this evening, I will be oddly at peace with that. Disappointed, yes, gutted undoubtedly, but it feels like Southgate and this squad of 26 lions has already brought football home. I have had conversations with my ten-year-old sons about racism, homophobia, homelessness, and poverty throughout this tournament. These are conversations that, 25 years ago, I never had with my friends, nor at school and certainly not with my parents! Footballers do not have to set an example or be role models, but it is mighty powerful when they do. Southgate must be so proud of his players on this front. This group speak with actions, and these actions will change lives. Furthermore, this is not a one-hit-wonder. This is the beginning of a ‘best of’ collection that could span a decade’s worth of hits.

I am proud of them too. Making a final is a huge achievement. Inspiring a nation is possibly an even bigger one. But there will be no greater legacy than that of young people creating a more tolerant society. They have all got there through very different routes, but the underlying bedrock is hard work. The vast majority of this squad has received a grounding in their journey that could be a platform to very special things if they continue upon this trajectory, both on and off the field. The players are humble because, for most, they have been humbled. The lower leagues have played a big part in that. History will judge this pioneering group of coaches and players very kindly and it is history that we hope they make in the Euro 2020 final.

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