Bright future for England as Under-21s conquer Europe for first time since 1984

It was a win that bodes well for the future of the senior national team – AFP/Vano Shlamov

England Under-21 players raced towards James Trafford at the final whistle at Batumi Stadium. He went into the European Championships after a season in League One but will fly back from Georgia as a Premier League No.1 and a hero after his stoppage-time penalty sealed a first triumph in 39 years.

Trafford looked like he would concede his first goal of the Euros when Spain were awarded a penalty with seconds remaining after Abel Ruiz was fouled by Levi Colwill. But the 20-year-old, who will head to Burnley after the tournament, saved Ruiz’s spot-kick and got up to save the rebound from Aimar Oroz.

It was the defining moment of the final but the winner came with a slice of fortune. Great things are expected of the Class of ‘23 their goal came deflected off the back of Curtis Jones as the Liverpool midfielder crouched down in front of the defensive wall, diverting Cole Palmer’s free-kick.

Lee Carsley’s young players join the likes of Mark Hateley, Steve Hodge and Mel Sterland as winners of the tournament from when England had previously won in 1984. Gareth Southgate was watching on from the stands and he will have seen a positive future for the senior team, not least with their goalkeeper.

Some of these players are almost ready for the step up. Steve Holland, Southgate’s assistant, was at Nottingham Forest’s training ground and watched Morgan Gibbs-White, who has looked every inch a senior player in a youth tournament in England’s games. Colwill has already had a taste of the seniors, as has Emile Smith Rowe.

England’s victory was once again based on a solid defence – AFP/Vano Shlamov

In this game they showed streetwise maturity to see off the tournament’s top scorers. They were as adept at the dark arts as the Spaniards who are deep-rooted in clever game management. When it mattered, they had the skill level that Trafford showed to finish off the job.

England’s feeder team last reached the final of this tournament in 2009 when they were thrashed by Germany, who had six players who went onto win the World Cup. The Under-21s have been through tournaments since where progress was difficult to see, Aidy Boothroyd calling it the “utterly impossible job” but this shows what a golden generation of youngsters England currently have.

Players were jubilant at the final whistle after six matches where kept cleansheet after cleansheet. It was their defence again, led by Colwill and then Trafford, who kept Spain at bay to seal the the triumph.

After a cagey first half, the final burst into life with Jones’ fortuitous opening goal, sparking the ugly mass brawl that also involved both benches. Palmer was the creator of the opener, drawing a foul from Manchester City team-mate Sergio Gomez on the edge of the area to give himself sight of goal.

Spain players were focused on Gibbs-White, who shaped to shoot at goal — but it was Palmer who struck towards the net. The set-piece ricocheted off Jones’ back as he ducked in front of the defensive wall, with Arnau Tenas totally wrongfooted on his goal line.

Emile Smith Rowe (left) and Max Aarons were key men on England’s path to glory – PA

Palmer celebrated in the direction of the benches, enraging the Spaniards who confronted the City forward. Pushing and shoving between the players and staff was separated but Ashley Cole was sent to the stands, his first England red card after 107 caps as a player. “If you know Coley, his emotions definitely run high,” said Shaun Wright-Phillips, the former Under-21 winger covering the match as Channel 4’s pundit.

There was barely anything between the teams before that point. England had started brightly by getting Anthony Gordon on the ball, with the Newcastle forward having a shot saved when he ran through, then almost setting up Gibbs-White with another run behind the Spanish defence.

But the Spaniards, winners of three out of the previous six tournaments, eased their way into the game and were rueing missed opportunities including Aitor Paredes’ free header, which was neither well directed or placed into the path of a team-mate. After the interval they found the net through Abel Ruiz’s header but he had strayed just offside when he met Gomez’s free-kick. The reaction to the Var check brought as much disgust as conceding Jones’ goal.

Jones raced through midway through the second half and almost netted an excellent, more orthodox goal. As Spanish defenders backed away, Jones headed towards the penalty area and his shot was well directed but parried away by Barcelona goalkeeper Tenas.

Palmer was overjoyed at the end hoping it sets them up for more glory in the future.

“It means a lot. Obviously I’ve been working hard over the past few years for this moment and it has come so we are buzzing,” the match-winner said. “I don’t know about the goal to be honest. When I went down and got the free-kick I just thought to score. It was lucky but you create your own luck, don’t you? I was a bit frustrated with the game, they were going down and screaming. So when we scored, the celebration might have been a bit over the top but I’m just happy.”

Match details

England Under-21 (4-2-2-2): Trafford 7; Garner 7, Harwood-Bellis 8, Colwill 8, Aarons 7; Gomes 7 (Archer 73), Jones 7; Palmer 7 (Elliot 82), Smith-Rowe 5 (Madueke 66); Gibbs-White 7 (Skipp 73), Gordon 7 (Doyle 82) 
Subs (not used): Thomas, Branthwaite, Griffiths (g), Johnson, Doyle, Elliott, Rushworth (g)
Booked: Gomes, Colwill, Gibbs-White, Trafford   
Spain Under-21 (4-2-3-1): Tenas 8; V Gomez 5 (Barrenetxea 73), Paredes 7, Pacheco 6, Miranda 6; Blanco 6 (Camello 82), Baena 6 (Oroz 59); Rodri 6 (Riquelme 59), Sancet 5 (Veiga 59), S Gomez 6, Ruiz 5 
Subs (not used): Guillamon, Martinez, Agirrezabala (g), Gila, Sanchez, Bernabe, Roman (g)
Booked: Baena, Blanco, Sancet, Oroz, Riquelme   
Referee: Espen Eskås (Norway)

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