‘It has not been easy’: England’s Under-20s size up hectic World Cup

On a wet and windy night in Manchester, Ian Foster runs through an itinerary that is taking the head coach of England Under-20s men’s team to Marbella and Bali over the next week. “It’s tough at the top,” he jokes. Warmer weather aside, Foster’s quip has substance, as the ripple effects of staging a winter World Cup in Qatar continue to be felt in international circles.

On Wednesday, England began preparations for the Under-20s World Cup in Indonesia with a 2-0 win over Germany at Manchester City’s Academy Stadium.

Samuel Iling-Junior, the Chelsea academy graduate who has broken into Juventus’s first team this season, scored twice as England overcame a difficult start to deliver a controlled and comfortable victory. The squad now heads for the Marbella Football Centre where they face USA on Saturday and France on Tuesday. And that will be that in terms of a World Cup warmup: three fixtures in seven days. Foster then goes from southern Spain to Bali for next Friday’s World Cup draw.

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Wednesday was the team’s first competitive outing for six months. It was the first, and only, appearance on home soil this season for a squad that qualified for the World Cup by winning the European Under-19s championships last summer. “We were desperate to play in England as European champions,” says Foster, who oversaw the triumph in Slovakia and has stayed in charge of the group’s development. “It is our only opportunity to do so and I thought the crowd [of 2,205] was brilliant. We chose Germany for two reasons: one, it is a special fixture, and, secondly, because of the Elite League they are in. Their players are a year older than ours so we knew it would be a sterner test.”

World Cup preparations would normally be stepping up at this stage, not merely starting, but the unprecedented timing of the senior tournament had an impact on the football calendar at numerous levels. “We are probably six games down with having no October window and no November window,” Foster says. “It has not been easy for the players. We haven’t seen them since September, and because of injury we haven’t seen a few others since the summer. But others are now getting a first opportunity – Mateo Joseph from Leeds and Dominic Corness from Liverpool – and it was brilliant for them to be capped against Germany.”

Foster, his coaching staff and the Under-20s team manager, Annabelle Cummins, have additional complications to contend with while planning for this World Cup. The tournament, the first Fifa event to be held in Indonesia, which was due to host in 2021 before the Covid pandemic forced a cancellation, will be played between 20 May and 11 June. England plan to depart about 11 May because, as the head coach explains: “You are crossing eight time zones so ideally you should have eight days in the country to acclimatise before you play.” But the Premier League season does not finish until 28 May and the Championship, while staging its final round on 8 May, has the playoffs at the end of that month. Serie A, where England’s match-winner against Germany is making his way, ends on 4 June. Italy have also qualified for Indonesia and their national association faces similarly delicate negotiations with their clubs.

“Because the World Cup is being played in the season, not at the end of the season, we won’t have any prep games because we will have to leave it as late as we possibly can to get the players out of the clubs,” says Foster. “It is the Fifa international World Cup being played outside the Fifa international window, which doesn’t particularly help anybody. But, listen, Germany at home, USA who are North American champions and then France, who are a wonderful outfit, are three really interesting and tough games for us. That’s what we need.”

Wednesday brought encouragement for England’s World Cup prospects, however. Foster’s team adapted swiftly to Germany’s gameplan while the impressive central midfield pair of Chelsea’s Carney Chukwuemeka and Bristol City’s Alex Scott illustrated the benefit of Premier League experience and regular first-team football respectively.

“There is a real contrast in terms of where they are all getting their minutes,” says Foster. “Players get first-team football either at the club they are at – like Alex and Ronnie Edwards [Peterborough United] – or on loan like Callum Doyle [at Coventry City from Manchester City], Tim Iroegbunam [at Queens Park Rangers from Aston Villa] and Aaron Ramsey [at Middlesbrough from Villa], and then the lads who are at Premier League clubs and can’t get in or are playing PL2 football.

“They are all playing but there are different levels. It tests you as a coach, as a developer and also as a scout. Ultimately we have to watch them and determine who are the best ones to come in based on form and potential. It’s hard when you are seeing someone playing in the Premier League and someone playing in League One – you’ve still got to trust yourself and trust that you know the players’ capabilities.”

There is another factor in England’s favour for the World Cup: the experience of winning last summer’s Under-19s European Championship. “It has definitely helped us,” says Iling-Junior . “That feeling you get when you win a tournament, you want to go again. This group of boys are monsters and we want to win again.”