If England are to end their 55 years of hurt this summer, you can bet the EFL will play its part ...
What do James Ward-Prowse, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Raheem Sterling, Ollie Watkins, Harry Kane, Mason Mount and Harry Maguire have in common?
If you said, ‘they make up England’s list of World Cup Qualification goalscorers from March 2021’, you’d be correct. If you said, ‘they were all raised in the EFL’, you’d also be correct.
Take the Three Lions’ 5-0 win over San Marino as an example. Ward-Prowse - who made his Southampton debut in EFL competition at the age of 16 – opened the scoring, assisted by Ben Chilwell, who once played Championship football for Huddersfield Town. Reece James, formerly of Wigan Athletic, then found ex-Sheffield United and Northampton Town man, Calvert-Lewin, for England’s second.
The third was made by 2018/19 Derby County loanee, Mount, and finished off by Queens Park Rangers Academy graduate and captain for the night, Sterling. Calvert-Lewin then got his second after good work from Jesse Lingard, who spent four seasons gaining experience in the second tier at four different clubs, before Watkins – whose career began with Exeter City - rounded things off on his first-ever appearance for his country.
It was a scoresheet which painted a clear and fascinating picture.
Fast forward to May, and 26 members of England’s provisional 33-man Euro 2020 squad either made their senior debut in EFL competition or have been part of an EFL academy. Six of those featured in EFL Play-Off Finals in the last six years. The trail which starts at EFL level and leads to international football was blazed long ago, and it’s one that the League’s growing list of young talents are continuing to follow.
Whitehaven-born Dean Henderson, who was snapped up by Manchester United from United’s academy as a youngster, played a combined number of games in Leagues One and Two (for Shrewsbury and Grimsby respectively) before starring in a Championship promotion winning campaign with the Blades through the 2018/19 season. Last season saw him make 27 appearances for his parent club as he came to the fore, culminating in this summer’s international recognition.
“There’s been a long look at youth development in this country,” manager Gareth Southgate says, speaking exclusively to the EFL. “A lot of work has been done at Academies which has benefitted the game, and opportunities for young players to play – whether in the EFL, on loan in the EFL or in the Premier League – have opened up in the last few years. “We know there are great players coming through, and they’ve been able to get experience at first-team level.
“We know that the youth development journey of a player isn’t the same for any two individuals. I remember talking about our defence at the World Cup in Russia – we had lads that had come from Barnsley, Sheffield and Burnley, and now we’ve got the likes of Mason who was on loan at Derby, and that’s been part of their progress. You’ve got players like Jack Grealish too, who was on loan at Notts County, and Harry Kane, who had loans at the likes of Leyton Orient. The majority of our squad have had that experience.”
Indeed, a third of the total career league appearances in the squad have come within the EFL, highlighting the quality of football on display throughout the League, but perhaps more importantly the opportunity and pathway the EFL provides in developing players for the national team.
Last summer saw two of the Sky Bet Championship’s best assets - in the form of Watkins and Eberechi Eze - fly the nest to chase their top-flight dreams, signing for Aston Villa and Crystal Place respectively. Last season’s EFL Young Player of the Season, Jude Bellingham, is playing alongside some of the world’s best players at German giants Borussia Dortmund, as well as for his country. And who can forget the likes of Luke Matheson, who burst onto the scene for Rochdale in 2018 at the age of 15, before going on to secure a move to top-flight side Wolverhampton Wanderers?
Southgate knows the rigours of the EFL and, in particular, the Championship as well as anyone, having captained Palace in the division as a player, and later managed Middlesbrough in what was his last club-based role before becoming England Under-21s manager in 2013.
Leicester City’s FA Cup-winning manager Brendan Rodgers cut his managerial teeth in the Championship with Watford, Reading and Swansea City. Sean Dyche managed Watford during their time in the division before taking Burnley to the Premier League. Outgoing Palace boss Roy Hodgson had a brief spell at Bristol City and David Moyes represented Preston North End. The list goes on, and will continue to do so.
“The ideal development is having some games that really stretch you, some games at your level and then some games where you can really impress and have more of the ball,” Southgate adds. “We won the Championship when I was at Palace and I was a midfielder then. To be winning every week and have the pressure of winning every week, that’s a different experience and it was good for my personal development.
“I was able to captain the club when I was really young, which gave me some other experiences. Physically, playing 46 games prepares you to go back into a full season in the Premier League with fewer games, so there were so many aspects that helped me.”
The more the England manager speaks about his own experiences and current crop of players, and the more stars make their way through the divisions, the clearer the importance of the English football pyramid becomes. As is so evident with Bellingham in particular, it even extends beyond our borders, with EFL influence felt at the likes of Juventus, Porto and Barcelona, among others, where former Championship and League One talents are testing themselves across the continent.
"I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for the EFL, and playing League football is something I'm proud of," Manchester United captain Harry Maguire said when speaking exclusively to the EFL in 2019. His time at Sheffield United, Hull City and Wigan are far from distant memories, as he prepares to potentially partner Barnsley boy John Stones for England during this summer’s European Championships.
Each year, the EFL's Youth Development Week seeks to celebrate stories just like these, and the extension of the League's EFL Futures initiative in 2019 means we can expect yet more chapters to be written and characters to emerge. Since launching in 2016, the £1 million-per-season programme - which will now run until the end of the 2021/22 campaign - has provided EFL clubs with a financial incentive to give home-grown players more first-team opportunities.
It follows the introduction of the Club-Developed Player Rule at the start of the 2018/19 season, which ensures each club is required to nominate at least one Club-Developed Player on their respective teamsheets for all League competition matches, alongside an increase in the number of home-grown players that must also be named.
What is clear is that the League and its clubs are investing time and resource into the next generation, and with good reason. The benefits can be both wide-reaching and immeasurable.
And so, as England prepare for what could be a tournament and a summer to remember, they will do so with the help of what has become a well-oiled youth development machine, powered by EFL clubs and their academies. The League’s lion cubs could well have a big part to play, if football is to come home.
“We shouldn’t rest on our laurels and say ‘we’re producing good players and therefore everything is great’, it’s actually a point at which we can keep looking to improve, because the world moves so quickly,” Southgate concludes.
“We’re trying to operate a bit more like a club. We want to invest time into these young players and feel that, in the long term, that is good for England and good for them.
“We’ve never restricted ourselves in terms of where we might look for talent. We picked Mason before he’d played in the Premier League, we picked Kalvin Phillips before he’d played a Premier League game, so we’re well aware of what’s going on in the EFL. At a club, recruitment is key and ours is about identifying talent.”