England starting to reap the rewards of their recent underage successes
Ruben Loftus-Cheek thought he was in trouble when his notifications started going haywire last Thursday. "My phone was lighting up. I thought: what's going on now?" he said. As it turned out, the barrage of messages was because he had been named in the England senior squad for the first time. And not just the squad: Gareth Southgate confirmed this week that Loftus-Cheek would make his debut against Germany on Friday.
International friendlies are hard to get excited about at the best of times, and an assortment of complicated maths and UEFA coefficient permutations means that England would probably be better to avoid these type of non-competitive games.
But the games against Germany and Tuesday's encounter with Brazil are significant because they will feature the first graduates of England's wildly successful couple of years at youth level. Tammy Abraham and Joe Gomez were the other two young call-ups that, in reality, will attract most of the interest for these two fixtures which could otherwise be written off as high-profile marketing gimmicks by the FA.
This summer England's youngsters at various levels played 34 tournament games, winning 30, drawing two and losing two: and those two defeats were both on penalties. The Under-21s were the only disappointment, limply departing their European Championships to Germany, but the U20s won their World Cup, as did the U17s after a slightly different version of that team reached the final of the European Championships earlier in the year. The U19s went one better and won their Euros, while a scratch team of 17-20-year-olds won the Toulon Tournament.
Actually, that's not quite right: they retained the trophy in Toulon. In 2016 Loftus-Cheek scored the decisive goal in the final, was player of the tournament (predecessors include Thierry Henry, Javier Mascherano and James Rodriguez) and England's winning squad also featured Jordan Pickford, who will also make his senior debut this week. Of the XI from that final, Loftus-Cheek, Pickford, James Ward-Prowse, Nathan Redmond and Nathaniel Chalobah have all since been called up to the senior squad, by their manager in the tournament, Gareth Southgate. Additionally, Dominic Solanke, Demarai Gray and Dominic Calvert-Lewin will all reportedly join the group for the Brazil game, after completing their duties with the U21s. All of this bodes quite well.
These are the first fruits of the FA's youth programme that we have seen succeed across the world this year. Many, like Manchester City's Phil Foden and Fulham full-back Ryan Sessegnon, will not be ready for a little while, but with players like Loftus-Cheek and Pickford already excelling in the top flight, there is at least hope. "I feel like, not just the younger generation now but the players coming through -- there's a lot of talent," says Loftus-Cheek. "The trophies that have been won -- it can only be exciting for what's to come."
He's right, of course, the big caveat being that to progress they will need time in serious first-team football. Loftus-Cheek, after being a peripheral member of Chelsea's title-winning team last season, is getting that at Crystal Palace this season. "I was starting to feel like, when I was playing for Chelsea I was doing well," he says, slightly tailing off with the impression there's an unspoken 'but wasn't getting in the team' hanging in the air. "You can only improve so much in training. For me to get to the next level, I needed to play regular football. I feel like I've eased into the Premier League well."
Abraham, who is also set to debut against Germany, said similar. "I've always wanted to play games, express myself and enjoy myself," he said. "You look at a club like Chelsea, it won't be easy to get into that team and sometimes you do have to go away, play football and show Chelsea that you are ready for them."
The injuries that have decimated Southgate's squad might have forced his hand slightly, but the emergence of this youthful promise, the players that have filled England fans with hope in their brilliant performances this year and last, will at least give everyone a reason to pay attention to these two otherwise meaningless games. Gradually introducing them to the senior squad and allowing them to spend time with experienced heads like Ashley Young, is about as much as Southgate can do to realise this vast potential. The rest is up to the players and their clubs.
This isn't just a sop to the FA either, a nod to their coaching programmes that have produced these winning youth teams: all three youngsters are playing with a real chance of making it to next summer's World Cup. Southgate has emphasised positional flexibility, which will suit Gomez and Loftus-Cheek, with both comfortable in a couple of different roles, while Abraham will be aware that beyond Harry Kane and possibly Jamie Vardy, England are light on in-form, top-notch centre-forwards. Ultimately their performance in the Premier League will determine whether they travel to Russia, but this is a good chance to make a first international impression.
The FA are rightly proud of their youth teams' performances this summer. At St George's Park, where the players gathered to train this week, they've been replaying the U17s final victory over Spain on big screens behind the desk at reception. Time will tell if that youthful promise translates to senior success, but the coming games will be our first peek at what is to come.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.