England talent factory thriving as next generation primed for success

England talent factory thriving as next generation primed for success

As Sheffield United goalkeeper Fran Stenson left the training pitch at St George’s Park on Tuesday, England captain Leah Williamson pulled her into a hug.

Stenson, who plays for the Lionesses’ Under 23s (WU23s) side, had been invited to train with the first team under the watchful eye of Sarina Wiegman and her staff. She and her fellow WU23 goalkeepers had spent the morning being put through their paces alongside the likes of England No.1 Mary Earps and Chelsea star Hannah Hampton.

That, as well as Stenson’s warm exchange with Williamson, epitomises the culture of cohesion that underpins Wiegman’s philosophy as Lionesses boss.

As recently as three years ago, there was no England WU23s side to speak of. The age group was scrapped in 2018 to make way for a new U21s team, designed to better aid the transition between the youth pathway and senior football.

But, after Wiegman was appointed in 2021, the Football Association (FA) announced they were reverting back to their old model, with Women’s Technical Director Kay Cossington hoping the restoration of the WU23s would help the country’s most promising youth prospects to feel “really connected with the senior team”.

Fast forward to 2024 and it is safe to say the move has had the desired effect. Of the nine players who have made their senior debut for England under Wiegman, four of them have made the step up from the revived WU23s, with several more Young Lionesses having been called up to train with the first team during the Dutchwoman’s tenure.

“I think it’s just a matter of timing,” WU23s boss Emma Coates tells Mirror Football and other selected media at St George’s Park, reflecting on the key attributes that lead to players being promoted from her ranks. “I think for some of them it’s about whether they’re ready to play under that level of pressure. Can they play under intensity and make good decisions? Are they playing well for their clubs?

“I talk to the players sometimes about luck, timing and opportunity. Sometimes you need a bit of luck, you need a camp to fall at a time where you’re playing well, you need to be given the opportunity, and those three cogs need to turn at a time when you’re ready.”

Emma Coates, is manager of the WU23s

Emma Coates is manager of the WU23s

Coates, who has previously coached Leeds United Women and Doncaster Rovers Belles, describes her relationship with Wiegman as “really strong”. The pair meet once a week, alongside Coates’ assistant Gemma Davies and other technical staff, to assess the progress of England’s best young players.

“We sit down and we discuss how the players are performing at their clubs and what they’re doing,” she says. “We discuss the players who are performing really well that are developing in the areas that we want and, in the longer term, might have the potential to go through (to the first team).

“On top of that, we then have phone calls in between where we say: ‘This has happened’, or ‘What’s your thoughts on this?’ so we work really closely together and hopefully the players and everyone else can see that.”

Perhaps the clearest example of the synergy between the two managers arrived in February when both the senior Lionesses and the WU23s travelled out to Marbella for a warm-weather training camp. And, as Coates’ side played out a closely fought friendly with Spain, the first-team players were watching on from the stands.

“That camp was so helpful on so many levels,” Coates says. “The fact we’ve been on site together at the same time – it’s been rare in previous windows that we’ve been able to do that – is hopefully just more demonstration of the things we’re trying to do with the programme.

“For the (young players) to see it and feel it has just whet the appetite and so many of them are chomping at the bit. For young players coming through, for every player, it’s an exciting 12 months ahead.

“While the seniors are working now on their (European Championship) qualification phase, my question to the younger players has always been: ‘Who’s going to be the next one that’s going to work really hard and hopefully get an opportunity?’”

One player who is very much on the cusp of breaking through to the first team is Chelsea striker Aggie Beever-Jones. The 20-year-old – who has scored eight goals in just seven starts for the Blues this term – is yet to win her first senior cap, though she did train with Wiegman’s side in Spain and was named on the bench for the Lionesses’ rout of Austria.

“It was a really, really nice camp,” she says, smiling at the memory. “We were aware that it was a joint camp and that there would be opportunities for a few girls. I was lucky enough to get that and it was really surreal to be called into the matchday squad especially. I really enjoyed it and having a taste makes me want it more.”

Aggie Beever-Jones is on the cusp of breaking through

Aggie Beever-Jones is on the cusp of breaking through

Beever-Jones is now, in terms of experience, one of the older heads in the WU23s camp but her ambitions are shared by teammates Jessica Naz (23) who plays for Tottenham Hotspur in the Women’s Super League (WSL) and Ella Morris (21) who plays for Championship side Southampton.

“You can clearly see there’s a pathway now,” Naz says. “There was a big gap before between the youth teams and the seniors so to have the WU23s is perfect.”

“I think the keyword there is pathway,” Morris adds. “There is a clear way of getting into the seniors. Like Jess said, there was a big jump but now it’s bridging the gap. What we’re doing mimics (the first team). That means if one day we do step up into the seniors we already know the way they press and how they want to play out from the back so we’re ready to jump up into that environment and compete.”

And Coates’ squad don’t have to look too far for inspiration. Manchester United midfielder Grace Clinton (21) is a recent graduate of the WU23s and is currently enjoying a stellar season on loan at Tottenham, with Spurs boss Robert Vilahamn forecasting that the youngster will one day be a “superstar” for her country.

Clinton scored just 19 minutes into her senior debut for England in February and, alongside Manchester City prodigy Jess Park (22) has been included in Wiegman’s squad for their upcoming clashes with Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.

Park also impressed on her first outing for the Lionesses back in November 2022, scoring just 79 seconds after being called off the bench against Japan. And her scintillating recent form for City has only strengthened her case for a starting place in the senior side.

“I’ve been very patient,” Park admits. “I went out on loan and got some experience last year, and I have been able to come back and finally get an opportunity to show a bit about me.”

“I remember watching Jess play (when she was younger),” Coates says, reflecting on the midfielder’s rise. “She played for York Centre of Excellence and I was at Leeds Centre of Excellence and every time we played them, they’d go 3-0 up because Jess played; they’d bring her off and go 3-3; they put her back on and it would finish 5-3. You could see her talent from such a young age.”

It was a similar story for Clinton, who Wiegman described earlier this year as a “natural” on the ball. “Confidence for me comes from the manager, and both Robert and Sarina have given me so much of that this season,” the midfielder says. “This season I’ve just been filled with confidence and I think you can see that on the pitch. That freedom and confidence from them has allowed me to go and express myself.”

Grace Clinton scored on her England debut

Grace Clinton scored on her England debut

It’s not just the support of the coaching staff, though, that is helping the duo to settle into the senior set-up. There’s a clear sense of unity within Wiegman’s squad, with City defender Alex Greenwood, in particular, having taken Park and Clinton under her wing.

“In terms of her personality, as soon as I signed with City I just clicked with Jess,” Greenwood says. “It was just something about her that I loved. I loved the way she was and she was so exciting on the ball, she had loads of potential, but loads of things that she needed to improve on, off the pitch probably, that I’d seen, like her lifestyle sort of things – not that by any means she was doing anything wrong – but just things I used to see that I maybe used to do a little bit, and I thought ‘if I can help her now then the journey is a little bit easier’.”

And Greenwood admits she has, at times, been used as a reference point for players who are making the transition from the WU23s to the first team, with Clinton, especially, turning to her for advice.

“Grace is a great girl,” she says. “You see her about and she’s always wanting to ask questions, learn from everyone, and she’s a really confident girl as well. She believes in herself and she always wants to improve, and I love that about Grace.

“She was doing a press conference (on Tuesday) and so she came up to me and Lucy (Bronze) and said: ‘What can’t I say?’ That’s just an innocent question and that’s not even about football but it’s stuff that comes hand-in-hand now with playing for the Lionesses.

“At dinner she asks questions like ‘What do you eat Al?’ I remember her first camp, we were on a walk before the game and I said: ‘Grace, you haven’t shut up this whole walk’…but it’s nice.”

Greenwood’s fondness for England’s newest crop of superstars is plain to see and the way she talks about Park and Clinton speaks of the wider harmony within Wiegman’s squad. For Coates and her staff, there is no greater source of pride than seeing her former charges excel on the biggest stage, though she is always working to ensure England’s production line of talent continues to run smoothly.

“It’s what makes me get up and do my job every day,” she says. “I just like helping people and developing people. From my point of view, I play a really small part in that.

“That’s years and years worth of work from their first grassroots club, to what their clubs are doing, to the pathway, and I think sometimes it’s nice because my slice of cake is a little bit closer to the top so it probably feels a bit more connected.

“My job is to make it so when they do step up to the first team they only have to worry about football. They don’t have to worry about learning the schedule or the style of play, sitting in front of (the media). It’s about being prepared for those things so that when they do make that step up it can be seamless.”

Of course, ensuring that smooth transition is much easier said than done. For every Park and Clinton, there are several more players who perhaps never quite reach their full potential on the international stage.

But with Coates at the helm and Wiegman beginning to assimilate some of the country’s most gifted young players into her squad, the Lionesses’ future looks very bright indeed.

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