South London, England's gold mine

Liam Tharme returns with another piece for Scouted Football. He focuses on the new generation of south London players that are propping up the future of English football.

Credit: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Described by Ian Wright – who himself hails from Woolwich, south east London – as a ‘hotbed’ of footballing talent, South London has become England’s place for developing footballers. A hotbed, hatchery, gold mine – take your pick of adjectives to describe it, South London, and to a larger extent the greater London area, will be fundamental to England’s future success.

Capitalising on talent from the capital is not something new in the footballing industry; reigning world champions, France, have seen the likes of Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi, Champions League-winner Kingsley Coman and the generational Kylian Mbappé all emerge from the numerous banlieues smattered around Paris and the wider Île-de-France region.

Of course, England has been fortunate enough to see the talent of Pogba and Kanté first-hand, with both residing at Premier League clubs. The latter, in particular, will be especially aware of the mass fruition of youth talent, with Chelsea a key contributor to England’s youth scene.

South London itself area was responsible for 14% of the English players in the 2016 season. More recently, and more staggeringly, 57% of England's 23-man under-21 squad for away trips to Austria and Kosovo were born or grew up in the Capital: Max Aarons (Hammersmith), Rhian Brewester (Dagenham), Josef Bursik (Lambeth), Josh Dasilva (Ilford), Eberechi Eze (Greenwich), Conor Gallagher (Epsom), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Wandsworth), Reece James (Redbridge), Reiss Nelson (Elephant and Castle), Eddie Nketiah (Lewisham), Jonathan Panzo (Brockley), Bukayo Saka (Ealing), Ryan Sessegnon (Roehampton). Of those 13 Londoners, a further eight come from south of the Thames.

Credit: The Guardian

England's youth team success in recent years can certainly be attributed to the new generation that has surfaced from London. In 2017, the under-17 and under-20 groups won their respective World Cups, while the under-19s clinched the European Championship. The under-21 group were semi-finalists at their European Championships, and a second team of under-20 players won the esteemed Tournoi Toulon in the south of France.

Across the three squads of the World Cup and European Championship winning sides, 25 of the 63 players were Londoners. The youngest group featured 11 from the capital, over half the entire squad and the highest total of any of the squads. Six Londoners represented the U-19s, the fewest of the three squads, but they still accounted for well over a quarter of the group. Here is a breakdown of every London born-player to represent those trophy-winning teams:

Under-17, World Cup winners: Josef Bursik, Steven Sessgnon, Timothy Eyoma, Tashan Oakley-Boothe, Conor Gallagher, Nya Kirby, Angel Gomes, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rhian Brewster, Jadon Sancho, and Emile Smith-Rowe.

Under-19, European champions: Tayo Edun, Dujon Sterling, Reece James, Ryan Sessegnon, Marcus Edwards, and Josh Dasilva.

Under-20, World Cup champions: Freddie Woodman, Jake Clarke-Salter, Josh Onomah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Ademola Lookman, Ezri Konsa, Kyle Walker-Peters, and Ovie Ejaria.

Of course, translating this youth team talent to the senior level is the ultimate challenge. But the numbers suggest that process is already well on its way to happening. Every single player from those three squads has since represented England at a higher youth age group, which is something in itself. Addtionally, three of them have progressed to make their senior international debuts: Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, with Reece James called-up to England's latest squad for their October fixtures.

From a debut perspective, a third – 6 of 18 – of senior England debuts that Gareth Southgate has handed out since the start of 2017 have been to London-born players. The process will naturally take time, as players progress at different rates, not to mention that forcing players through age groups too soon can often be detrimental. That said, England are extremely well set for future talent – but what exactly has contributed to this influx?

Firstly, there’s an abundance of football in London. The city boasts 12 professional clubs across England’s top-four divisions, and a further five in the fifth-tier National League – England’s highest non-professional league. Not only does this offer plenty of opportunity and accessibility, but there’s so much exposure to football, giving players role models on their doorstep.

Of course, the number of teams increases exponentially as you move down the footballing pyramid. In a city of nearly nine million people, over 500,000 play football on a regular basis, according to the FA. Most famously, the Hackney Marshes in East London are home to 72 football pitches, which accommodate football all the way from 5-a-side to 11-a-side. Jadon Sancho is one of many names to have played on the hallowed turf. The urbanisation of London has naturally diminished green space, which rather romantically uniquifies the Hackney Marshes. But such urbanisation has proved more of a solution than a problem, with the rise of street and cage football.

The metal-fenced, concrete-floored battlegrounds have created some of England’s most techical footballers in years. Many describe the cages as having no hiding place. Clinton Morrison called it “the boss”, saying that players who were not up to scratch would often never return. Many of these cages are unfortunately reflective of the poverty and deprivation in the London, which seem millions of miles from the lavish and multi-million pound training grounds which teams use on a daily basis. But football is a ticket, a way out. These cages provide players with the most physical of tests, with the walls providing fast and intricate passing barriers for players to beat opponents, whilst the small spaces force players to either become outstanding manipulators of the ball, or lose it.

Of course, players play in these for hours recreationally, meaning their number of touches could easily be in the thousands each time they leave a cage. There are no referees, no VAR. Players must deal with hard-hitting tackles, which creates an intense environment. Cage football has even been studied by academics; a paper by the University of Foggia determined that players recorded up to heart-rate values of up to 95% of their maximum when playing cage football, with mean heart rates as high as 88%. It's no surprise, then, that such environments create players who are not only technically excellent, but creative, psychologically resilient, and excellent athletes.

Plenty of the cage warfare marries with the cultural influx in London. Around one-third of Londoners were born abroad. Many England players hold dual citizenship, or were even born abroad themselves: Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s parents are both native to DR Congo, Callum Hudson-Odoi’s father is Ghanaian, Marc Guehi was born in the Côte d'Ivoire and Jonathan Panzo’s parents are Ivorian too, while Nathaniel Chalobah was born in Sierra Leone. Tariq Lamptey is one of the most recent London-born youngsters to explode onto the scene, impressing at Brighton following a transfer from Chelsea. He has represented England at U-21 level, but right-back – who hails from Hillingdon – could play for Ghana by virtue of his parents.

England are renowned for their dull culture. For decades, they coached and trained footballers to be disciplined rather than creative. English football had historically been about avoiding risks, avoiding failure. Thankfully, things are now changing – and the change is spearheaded and personified by the new generation. England are now blessed with players who can use both feet, wriggle out of impossible situations when pressed, attack when outnumbered, perform skills and tricks with a football that many could not even think of.

Come next summer's delayed European Championships, don't be surprised if you see England taking a squad dominated by London-produced players. They're the future.

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