Going into the 2019 European Championship, hopes were sky high for England’s Under-21 side.
The Young Lions’ squad was filled to the brim with talent, most of whom were already established Premier League players.
Yet their trip over to Italy and San Marino would be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. There were red cards, own goals, penalties, and by the end of it all, a crushing sense of disappointment as Aidy Boothroyd’s side finished joint bottom of their group with just one point. It was so England.
Here is where it all went wrong…
The tone for England’s tournament was set 25 minutes into their opener against France, when Jake Clarke-Salter was penalised for handball in his own box. It was the first of three penalties that the Young Lions would concede in the competition.
Then Lyon striker Moussa Dembele stepped up for Les Bleus, only to have his effort stopped by Dean Henderson.
The high point of England’s tournament came soon after courtesy of the Stockport Iniesta, Phil Foden. Picking the ball up deep in midfield, the Manchester City man weaved past five players before maneuvering it onto his left foot and rolling home. He would then be dropped for the following game – go figure.
Minutes later, Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury was sent off for a horrific challenge on Jonathan Bamba in the box. Incredibly, France would miss from 12-yards again, with Houssem Aouar striking the post.
Les Bleus would have the last laugh though, scoring two late goals to clinch it. The first came from Jonathan Ikone with one minute of normal time left. Then, with seconds remaining, Aaron Wan-Bissaka would smash one into his own net to gift the French the points. Sacré bleu.
Boothroyd made five changes for the Young Lions’ second game against Romania. Jonjoe Kenny came in for Wan-Bissaka at right-back, Kieran Dowell replaced Choudhury, while Mason Mount, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Harvey Barnes replaced Foden, Dominic Solanke and Ryan Sessegnon.
Did it make any difference? No, none at all.
This was a rather strange game on football. Things were pretty even for much of the contest until a 76th-minute strike from George Puscas, again from the penalty spot, shocked things into life. Five more goals would come, just not a lot of them for England.
First Demarai Gray – now of Bayer Leverkusen, remember – levelled things up, before Ianis Hagi and Tammy Abraham strikes made it 2-2. Florinel Coman then emerged as the hero for Romania, netting twice in the final minutes to end any chance England had of qualifying for the semi-finals.
After the game, Boothroyd stood by his omission of star player Foden, telling the Guardian: “I still think, sitting here, that it was the right thing to do.”
Great commitment to the bit Aidy. Fair play.
With their exit already confirmed, England were presented with a chance to restore some pride in their final group game. As it was against Croatia they also had the added incentive of avenging the senior side’s World Cup semi-final defeat one year prior.
Things started promisingly enough with Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson converting from a penalty inside 11 minutes – even though he wasn’t supposed to take it.
“Tammy (Abraham) takes our penalties, he was put on the wall to do that. Maybe he is becoming benevolent. It’s very unusual for a centre forward to give the ball away. I don’t know. I haven’t got to the bottom of it,” Boothroyd said after the game.
Excuse us while we create a ‘Boothroyd Investigates’ meme.
Quickly after the spot kick, the tournament’s dominant theme of disappointment again reared its ugly head.
First, Josip Brekalo turned Jonjoe Kenny inside out and fired home an unstoppable shot to equalise just before the break. James Maddison then finished well to restore England’s advantage but again the lead did not last long.
Kenny thought he had redeemed himself by netting 20 minutes from time, only for some typically lax defending to allow Brekalo to grab his second soon after. This ensured England, the hot favourites at the beginning of the tournament, boarded the flight out of Italy without a win to their name.
After the tournament, despite heavy scrutiny, Boothroyd managed to keep hold of his job, blaming his team’s shocking display on the players.
“When you give away goals like we have, if you are expecting anything but draws and losses then you are daft,” he said after the Croatia game, as quoted by the Independent.
“There is obviously a concentration issue but it’s been different players who have been doing it, not just one guy over and over again. Different individuals in different games have made poor decisions. At this level you get punished for them.
“We fight back and get ourselves back in it but end up throwing it away. When we go through it all there will be plenty to learn from this tournament. When you look at the calibre of players who are making the mistakes it doesn’t make sense. There will be reasons and we will get to the bottom of them with a new team next time around.”