On the eve of his second European Under-21 Championship as England manager in 2019, Aidy Boothroyd was asked which of the motivational quotes pinned around their training base in northern Italy was his favourite. “It is actually one of mine which says: ‘There has never been a better time to be an England player’,” he revealed.
Try telling that to the team that was comprehensively outclassed by Portugal on Sunday night. Despite Boothroyd’s promise that England would be more attacking after the opening loss to Switzerland, his side failed to register a single attempt on target in Ljubljana that means that their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals of the expanded tournament are now hanging by the slimmest of threads.
If this all feels somewhat familiar that’s because it is. Since 2009 when a Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira-inspired Germany thrashed Stuart Pearce’s team 4-0 in the final, England have won just three of their 18 games at the tournament. Boothroyd – who stepped up from his role as the Under-20s coach in 2016 when Gareth Southgate was appointed manager of the senior team – can claim credit for two of those in 2017 when England eventually lost to Germany on penalties in the semi-final.
Yet having seen a talented squad that included Phil Foden, Tammy Abraham and James Maddison pick up only one point from three matches in 2019, England are now on course for another early exit from this year’s edition despite the presence of several of the players who won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017. Only victory against Croatia in their final group match on Wednesday by two or more goals will give Boothroyd’s side a chance of progressing, although a draw or victory for Switzerland against Portugal would eliminate them.
“It does hurt because you always want to win, I have to do my job, pick the lads up, pick the staff up and go again,” said Boothroyd. “It’s still mathematically possible. We wanted to go into the final game with it still in our hands but unfortunately it’s not. Considering the amount of goals we scored leading up to this, it was a real strength of this group. To not have a shot or a real threat is something we need to rectify for the next game.”
England managed 34 goals in their 10 qualifying matches to help Eddie Nketiah surpass the record previously held by Alan Shearer and Francis Jeffers as the team’s all-time highest scorer. The Arsenal striker is captain for this tournament and lined up alongside clubmate Emile Smith-Rowe and Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi in a 3-4-3 formation against Switzerland that also featured Burnley’s Dwight McNeil at left wing-back.
But after Dan Ndoye’s late goal condemned England to defeat, that was swiftly abandoned as Boothroyd reverted to a 4-2-3-1 to face Portugal. An injury to Hudson-Odoi meant PSV Eindhoven’s Noni Madueke was handed his debut against opponents who surprisingly have never won this competition, with Tottenham defender Japhet Tanganga and Ryan and Steven Sessegnon also drafted in.
Even with twins in their team, however, unsurprisingly for team that appeared to have been thrown together at the last minute, England played like a team that appeared to have been thrown together at the last minute. As well as the decision to change formation for such a crucial game, the absence of Liverpool’s Curtis Jones from the starting lineup has provoked widespread criticism of Boothroyd.
Of course, it is not the first time that the manager has faced accusations of failing to make the most of the talents at his disposal. In 2019 Boothroyd justified leaving Foden out of the team to face Romania in their second game of the finals because “he didn’t want to break the Manchester City forward”.
“We all thought it would be right for him to come in as the game wore on and weave his magic,” he said after the 4-2 defeat that confirmed they would be going home early.
Boothroyd’s contract is due to expire in the summer and – barring a miraculous recovery against Croatia – it is not expected to be renewed. Sacked by Northampton in 2013 with the club bottom of League Two, the former Watford, Colchester and Coventry manager has been part of the England setup since February 2014 and it remains to be seen whether he will be retained in some other capacity.
Frank Lampard has been touted as a potential successor to a role that Dave Sexton – another former Chelsea manager – occupied for 13 years, leading England to their only victories in 1982 and 1984. With many of the current squad including Jones and Smith Rowe still eligible to play at this level in two years, the Football Association owes it to them not to make the same mistakes again.