England's young players excelling this summer after Toulon, U20 WC wins
The Toulon Tournament has gained a reputation as more of a scouting opportunity than a worldwide competition for the world's elite young players. It's where James Rodriguez, David Beckham, Pablo Aimar and plenty of others have caught the eye. But it's also a highly competitive tournament, and one that England won for the second year in a row this summer.
And England not only won, they won with a collection of players who had not only barely played together before, but were for the most part a couple of years younger than their opponents. It was quite a challenge for Neil Dewsnip, the FA's youth development lead for 17- to 21-year-olds, who was the team's coach in France.
"It was a unique group of circumstances," Dewsnip told ESPN FC. "This year it was officially an under-20s tournament, but our U20s were at the World Cup, and our U19s are going to the European finals, so it was then down to the U18s group.
"I was a little concerned that the age difference would be too much. So we took all the U18s we thought could handle it, plus some older boys to give us a better chance of being competitive. What we didn't realise at the outset was just how competitive we were going to be."
Their competition included sides that were comprised mostly of U20s players, including those from Brazil and France. But England's thrown-together collection of youngsters blew through their group, including a 7-1 win over Cuba, then beat Scotland 3-0 in the semifinal and overcame Ivory Coast in the final.
And it should be noted that, despite the apparent national mental block with such things, they secured the trophy by winning on penalties. "We played that game in 35 degrees heat, which was some challenge," Dewsnip said.
A tournament victory in alien conditions with a scratch side in a penalty shootout... doesn't really sound much like England. Talk very swiftly turned to what this youth success means for England's senior side, particularly when combined with the U20s' success in their World Cup.
In many respects it was frustrating that this wasn't regarded as more of a standalone achievement, allowed to breath a little as something for these youngsters to savour. Players such as George Hirst (a Sheffield Wednesday forward), Josh Tymon (a Hull City defender reportedly on his way to Stoke) and David Brooks (a Sheffield United midfielder named player of the tournament) excelled in extremely difficult circumstances.
"It's a sign that youth development in our country is flourishing at club and national level," said Dewsnip, who is proud of his team but recognises that this will be viewed as a step toward something else further down the line.
"Youth development is not an end in itself, it's always with a view to them playing in the full international team. Our challenge is to help, support and guide that group of players internationally, through to the players in the next couple of years. Players like Marcus Rashford have already made that step."
Dewsnip has been at the FA since 2013, before which he spent 17 years at Everton's academy. In that time, he oversaw the progression of Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley into the first-team, and set the basis for the youth system that has populated the current Everton side. His is a tough job, not least because he has to produce young teams capable of winning international tournaments, but also must balance the needs of the national side with the desires of clubs at an incredibly delicate stage of young players' development.
"There's a distinction there," Dewsnip said. "It's the club's role to produce the best footballers they can. We support that and try to help, but international football is a different exercise with different challenges. From 15, we have a pathway which hopefully prepares the players from that point. They'll be playing against Brazil regularly, playing against African nations, and will deal with all the different tactical and technical challenges that come with playing teams you're not used to."
Luckily, he has more than two decades of experience to help him. "I think most people can see an obvious outstanding talent," Dewsnip said. "What everybody recognises at 9 or 10 is an outstanding technical ability.
"What I've learned over the years is that there's so much more to it than that. There's a mindset which is very important. If the mindset of the player is not completely focused, determined, dedicated -- all those nice adjectives -- then it doesn't matter how talented the youngsters are. Until you work with the youngster over a period of time, you don't know that mindset. It takes time to understand. You can recognise talent, but the other bits take time."
Another tricky element to manage is the national clamour, whenever a successful national senior team emerges, to copy whatever they have done to produce good players.
"It would be remiss of us not to be aware of and take the lessons from around the world," Dewsnip said. "The bottom line is fitting those lessons into the culture of our own country. What works in Spain, France or Germany or Brazil might just not work, culturally, in England. It's very important we know what we're about, and how our youngsters learn and develop, and get the best out of what that is. But I'm not ignoring what happens in the rest of the world."
Dewsnip will now travel to aid Keith Downing at the U19s European Championships: despite the U21s' defeat in their semifinals, a good result there would represent a spectacular summer for England's youth teams.
"There's always the temptation to copy what everyone else does -- France, Spain and I guess now it's Germany," Dewsnip said. "But maybe everyone will be looking at England in the next few years."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.