If it felt bad in 2019, it feels even worse this time around. Aidy Boothroyd has once again failed this England U21 side, who are now staring down the barrel of their fifth group stage exit in the last six tournaments.
The 2-0 defeat to Portugal typified everything about Boothroyd’s reign. No plan, no identity, no shots on target. In fact, England have only managed one shot on target (from a direct free-kick) in the 180 minutes of football they have played in the tournament to date. That isn’t just poor, it’s embarrassing.
When you consider that this squad contains the attacking talents of Emile Smith Rowe, Ebere Eze, Todd Cantwell, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Eddie Nketiah, the lack of fluidity and goalscoring threat is simply inexcusable. Having made four changes since the loss against Switzerland, England unsurprisingly looked even less cohesive than ever before. Phil Foden, James Maddison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin failed in 2019 and two years on another talented crop of youngsters are being failed once again. Who knows how damaging this miserable tournament experience will affect these young players as they progress into England’s senior team?
Now, the players must shoulder some of the blame but ultimately, there has been one ever-present across the last five years of failure. The manager. Boothroyd being offered the job in the first place was extremely fortunate, given his recent experience as a club manager. After being sacked by Coventry after one win in 16 games and then by Northampton, whom he left bottom of the Football League, he found himself in the England youth set-up. Then he was quickly promoted to his current role by a stroke of luck when Gareth Southgate was unexpectedly parachuted in to take over the England senior team. Never before has a man so out of his depth held a pivotal post for so long. It’s hard to believe he has lasted this long, but surely now his time is up.
So who do England turn to? Well, they need a manager who is up to date with the modern game but also someone who has proven they can get the best out of inexperienced young English players. Two managers currently out of work stand out. Frank Lampard, who did a good job at both Derby and Chelsea, was sacked harshly as he aimed to change the way Chelsea thought about young English players.
Without the influence of Lampard, Mason Mount wouldn’t be a regular for Chelsea or England. He took him under his wing at Derby as they made the play-off final and then allowed him to flourish in Chelsea’s first team. Other English talent emerged as key Premier League players under his tenureship. Tammy Abraham became a reliable goalscorer and in Reece James, England found another gem of a right-back. Callum Hudson-Odoi was trusted to fill the boots of Eden Hazard when fit and even youngsters like Fikayo Tomori developed under Lampard.
Chelsea had a clearly identifiable playing style under Lampard and there is no reason why he couldn’t improve a whole crop of English youngsters as England U21 manager. The English boss would give them a platform to make it into Gareth Southgate’s first team and could well lead them to international success.
Another option, although it does seem less likely is Eddie Howe. Out of work since leaving Bournemouth last summer, he schooled current England U21 keeper Aaron Ramsdale, Lewis Cook and Jack Stacey at the Vitality Stadium while Manchester City’s Dutch defender Nathan Ake also came through under his management. However, it does seem more likely that we will see him back in the Premier League sooner rather than later, although he would be another great fit for this role.
But why would Lampard or Howe swap the glamour and day-to-day management of the Premier League for a job in England’s youth set-up? Well, not only is it a win-win situation, with any new manager likely to improve on Boothroyd’s performances, but it also provides a clear pathway to the first-team England job. A failed spell at a mid-table Premier League club could rule them out of England contention, but taking this role would put them in pole position to succeed the current first-team incumbent.
Southgate has been England’s best manager this century, bringing through young players and leading the Three Lions to a World Cup semi-final, but in a few years time, he is likely to step aside. With Southgate’s success since stepping up from the U21’s it would be a no-brainer for the FA to repeat the trick and promote the U21 manager again, especially if Lampard or Howe had enjoyed success at that level. The young players will have already worked with the new manager, which would give continuity and provide a breeding ground for success.
Boothroyd will never be England manager and should be out of the door as soon as the European Championships have ended. Both Frank Lampard and Eddie Howe should think about their long-term job prospects, and the rewards that this U21 job could bring them. Simply put, the next England manager is likely to be Boothroyd’s successor.