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The impossible job? Why England Under-21s have struggled under Aidy Boothroyd

England Under-21s vs Croatia
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If nothing else, it was a valiant attempt to justify his own words. 

“I think the England Under-21s job is the utterly impossible job,” said Aidy Boothroyd earlier this week. He has tried to make it look that way by overseeing a second consecutive group-stage exit from the European Championships.

At least, having left Northampton bottom of the Football League, he can only leave England bottom of Group D. The cruelty of Wednesday’s setback occurred only in isolation; Domagoj Bradaric’s injury-time thunderbolt to eliminate England came in a game when they had excelled, but after two when they were dismal. A team that plays well on 33 per cent of occasions is not unlucky. After two abominable performances that featured no shots on target in open play (and only one from a free kick), England were fortunate they even had a mathematical chance to stay in the tournament.

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Boothroyd’s contract expires in the summer; deeming his job impossible would be a way of disqualifying him from an extension even before results were factored in. "Am I the right person? I think so,” he argued illogically on Wednesday. But his post-match interviews were studies in misery, a man who can seemingly see unemployment beckoning considering his fate.

And yet, five years into the job, he argued it was both impossible and undefined. “The other key thing is the role - is it winning or development? It’s a little bit foggy at the minute. We’re not sure what it is,” he claimed. All of which suggested he was oblivious to the realities of international football: gifted players eligible for the Under-21s get called up by the full team. England are no anomalies in that respect: virtually every side at the Under-21 Euros was denied players summoned for senior duty instead. The others still realised winning the tournament was a priority, regardless of who was missing. 

ALSO READ England Euro 2020 squad: The complete line-up for March's internationals

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England may have been stripped of Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Reece James, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka, even as injuries ruled out Mason Greenwood, James Justin and Tariq Lamptey before the squad was finalised. Yet they possessed such riches that Boothroyd omitted Eberechi Eze and Curtis Jones, the scorers against Croatia, from the starting 11 for the first two games. He hit on a winning formula by accident, selecting the last men standing not named Sessegnon. 

Many another manager would have welcomed the chance to choose some of Eze, Jones, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Emile Smith Rowe and Dwight McNeil, who was miscast as a wing-back. It seemed to complicate and confuse things for him. 

Arguably, though, it was not underachievement on quite the same scale as in 2019, when a group including Foden, Mount, Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Tammy Abraham, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fikayo Tomori and Dean Henderson were out after two games. Two years on, strange selections and incoherent performances proved a way to render another team less than the sum of its parts. He claimed England were only among the favourites in England; it felt an implausible attempt to downplay the calibre of players at his disposal.

Boothroyd may never escape his past. His greatest success came with a horrifically direct Watford team, his precocity in getting promotion to the Premier League at 35 followed by illustrations that his methods were less effective elsewhere. Attempts to reinvent himself have been unconvincing. His England were no long-ball merchants but Boothroyd has felt a man with the wrong skillset for the team and, perhaps, the time. He may have had the pastoral powers, but not the tactical abilities. 

He was the accidental Under-21 manager, overpromoted up an age group when Gareth Southgate took the senior job. The FA might have been better served by asking Steve Cooper to leapfrog Boothroyd; that the current Swansea manager and Paul Simpson won World Cups at Under-17 and Under-20 level suggested their jobs were not impossible. 

The evidence, too, is that there are more fine British coaches than was the case a few years ago. A replacement should be an upgrade. Because, while Boothroyd emerged in credit from the 2017 European Championships, the passage of a series of players to the senior team since then is more a consequence of their talent than his management. The last two Under-21 tournaments have been wasted.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.