Spotlight – The constant scrutiny of youngsters in English football

When Declan Rice scored against Newcastle United, the first thing he did was put his finger to his lips to shush the Toon army. His rather stiff attempt at the ‘Gun Lean’ followed, which got plenty of laughs and attention. Though the moments between him nodding the ball into the net and busting out his dance moves are what formed the genesis of this article.

English football
Art by Onkar Shirsekar

There is no notable rivalry between West Ham United and Newcastle. It’s also not as if they are directly battling each other in the table this season. The reason Rice felt compelled to do this was Sean Longstaff, or rather, the hype that was surrounding the midfielder and the comparisons between the two players. They’re young, English, talented and play in the same position; therefore, we must distinguish who is better and we need to do it right away.

Having done well in previous loan spells, Longstaff had played in an FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers, impressing so much that he just never left the starting line up. He played 10 games in the lead up to that match at the London Stadium. In that time, he scored in the replay against Blackburn, got his first Premier League goal and was nominated for the Player of the Month award. That’s pretty impressive for 10 games in holding midfield, though it is still only 10 games.

Rice had been a mainstay in the West Ham team since early in the season. He’d been linked with future moves to the likes of Manchester City before signing his new contract with the Hammers; there had also been a tug of war between England and Republic of Ireland regarding who he would represent on the international stage.

Yet one of the first things Longstaff’s run inspired was arguments over whether he’s better than Rice. This talk filled airtime on commercial sport radio and fan channels, column inches on websites and inspired social media polls. There are two problems with this whole argument. The first is that it is incredibly reactionary and short-sighted. With Rice and Longstaff just 20 and 21 years of age respectively it must apparently now be decided which one of them is the future of England’s midfield- completely forgetting that someone else could come along to oust the pair.

The second issue is that this is a toxic way of looking at English youngsters. It was expressed by some that Rice should have stayed with Ireland because there’s no way he’s getting a look in at England with Longstaff around. Others pointed at Longstaff, claiming that he’d be back in League One in no time. Tearing one player down to build another up was the tactic; discredit one of their achievements depending on who’s corner you’re in seems to be the norm in the era of hot-takes.

Longstaff picked up an injury during the game between the two sides. This is likely to see him on the treatment table for the rest of the season, while Rice recently received his first call up to the England squad and made his debut for the national team. That isn’t the point though. The pair could find themselves in reversed roles at any point of their careers. More importantly, there is no correlation between the success or demise of the two.

There are other examples of English players being needlessly compared. Many would have you believe Phil Foden should leave Manchester City to get more first team minutes because it worked out well for Jadon Sancho. Yes, the winger’s time at Borussia Dortmund has seen him take a step up in his career, but Foden recently became the youngest ever Englishman to score in European competition and is learning from arguably the greatest manager in the world. It isn’t too bad a situation for a teenager to be in. Of course going abroad is an option and has opened up new avenues for young and ambitious Englishmen to explore, but he shouldn’t be thought any less of if he decides to stick it out in Manchester. Players should be encouraged to take lessons from what others have done, but when looking into whether Foden or any other should be opting to take their career to another country, “because it worked for Sancho” shouldn’t be the primary reason.

If there is one thing that we should have learned from England’s World Cup squad this summer, it’s that every player has their own path. Jesse Lingard didn’t get any sort of regular game time at Manchester United until he was 23, Eric Dier had played in Portugal as a youngster, Jamie Vardy and many other members of the squad spent considerable time in Non League before making the big time and Trent Alexander-Arnold was already in the side during his teenage years. The latest England squad also shows that players can take the step up at different stages: there are two 18-year-olds, five more in the squad who are under 23, while 27-year-old Callum Wilson received his second ever call up.

This lesson has seemingly been countered by the England national team’s successes at youth level. So many used to hope so little for the country’s youngsters due to their path to Premier League minutes being blocked by foreign imports. However, after recent successes there seems to be a panic to get these players into the first team and to get it done now. We’ve already seen the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin get regular game time at Everton, but at the same time his fellow striker Dominic Solanke shouldn’t be written off because he left Liverpool and isn’t starting games every week. There seems to be the feeling that just because players like this aren’t in the first team now they never will be.

There have been so many instances where people directly compare players in a way which is unnecessary. There is undoubted talent amongst England’s youngsters, but they must be allowed to flourish if they are to be part of a successful collective outfit on the international stage. Maybe we should take heed of Rice’s celebration against Newcastle every now and again. There are times where we can simply stay quiet and just enjoy witnessing this exciting group of young Englishmen with the talent to achieve something special.

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Danny Lewis

Freelance sport writer and final year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University with a fascination for football's obscure stories.