The morning after the night before, it was left to Nathaniel Chalobah to sum up just how it feels to lose against Germany in a penalty shootout in the semi-finals of a major international tournament.
Chalobah wrote on Twitter: “7 years playing together through the England ranks with @NathanRedmond22. True winner in my eyes. Couldn’t have got where we did if it weren’t for you bro so keep your head up.” The Chelsea midfielder added: “We win as a team & lose as a team. So proud of the squad. Bigger and better things to come.”
Having just featured in his 96th match for England’s various youth sides since he first pulled on a Three Lions shirt as a 13-year-old, Chalobah – who, in the 66th minute and with England 2-1 ahead, finally succumbed to a groin injury sustained against Poland – limped through the mixed zone with his arm around Redmond. The Southampton forward’s eyes were bloodshot from the tears that had been flowing after joining Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate, David Batty and the rest in the club of which no one wants to be part, his penalty having been saved by Julian Pollersbeck to decide the match at Tychy Stadium.
Yet as the England squad departed Poland on Wednesday for a fortnight away from it all before returning to pre-season training with their clubs, the question should not be whether this crop of young England players are scarred for life by their experiences here. Instead, as the manager Aidy Boothroyd had intimated articulately before the match, the priority must be that they are given the platform to express their talents in senior football.
Four of the side who started against Germany – Everton’s Mason Holgate, Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell and the goalscorers Demarai Gray of Leicester and Tammy Abraham of Chelsea – will be eligible to contest the next edition of the European Under-21 Championship in Italy and San Marino in two years’ time, and many of the victorious Under-20 World Cup side will bolster Boothroyd’s ranks. Yet for players such as Redmond, Chalobah, the captain, James Ward-Prowse, and the outstanding defensive trio of Alfie Mawson, Calum Chambers and the goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, this is the end of the line in terms of youth football.
Aside from Chalobah, who won a Premier League winners’ medal under Antonio Conte last season despite making just one start and featuring for 159 minutes in total, all of them will go into the new season feeling confident of continuing to progress with their respective clubs and with at least a chance of making the step up to Gareth Southgate’s senior side.
Mawson, in particular, looks to have all the assets to become an England regular despite his unorthodox progress to the top flight with Swansea City via loan spells at Maidenhead United and Wycombe Wanderers. Chambers, his rejuvenated partner in the heart of Boothroyd’s defense for all four matches here, will hold talks with Arsène Wenger over the coming days to decide whether he is best served fighting for his place at Arsenal or going on loan to another Premier League club.
“We’re all disappointed but we have a lot of lads who will have the chance to come again to the tournament in two years and then there’s others like myself who have to try and kick on and get in the senior squad,” said Pickford, who completed his £30m move from Sunderland to Everton just after arriving in Poland. “Everybody is going to be hungry. We all want to get better as a group and individually. We did ourselves proud even though we didn’t get to the final.”
For Chalobah, however, it is time to make a brave decision. Since bursting on to the scene as an 18-year-old during a loan spell at Watford in the 2012-13 season, the powerful midfielder has made almost as many appearances for his country as he has for the five clubs to whom he has been farmed out on loan. Such is the south Londoner’s ability that his development has not stymied and it was his departure on his 40th appearance for the Under‑21s four minutes before Felix Platte’s equalizer after bravely battling through the pain that was the turning point against Germany.
With only a year left of his contract and Conte closing in on the signing of the France international Tiemoué Bakayoko from Monaco – who, incidentally, is four months older – the 22-year-old is finally believed to be willing to leave the club he joined at the age of 10.
Redmond was tipped as a future England star when he became Birmingham’s youngest-ever player in 2010 and should have no such issues having played more than 200 league games and won a senior cap under Southgate in March against Germany. Yet it will now be up to the new Southampton manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, and Redmond’s friends and family to help alleviate the gnawing pain of Tuesday’s bitter experience.
“It’s not nice to see what happened to him but we are there for him,” said Gray. “I’ve looked up to him since our days together at Birmingham and he’s helped me a lot, even in this tournament when I have been down. He will move on.”