England manager Gareth Southgate hailed his impressive youngsters following a comprehensive Nations League win over Iceland – but reserved special praise for Harry Kane for setting the example to follow.
The Three Lions brought down the curtain on a difficult year of international football with a comfortable 4-0 victory at Wembley in which Phil Foden starred.
The Manchester City forward had made his debut against Iceland in September before being sent home for breaking Covid-19 regulations and being dropped for the following month’s triple-header of England games as part of his punishment.
But he returned with a bang and his late brace of fine finishes capped a happy end to the year for Southgate and his squad as they secured victory in what was a dead rubber, given the weekend loss to Belgium meant England could not qualify for the finals.
With Declan Rice and Mason Mount on the scoresheet and decent performances from the likes of Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, Southgate was delighted with the collective effort of his young stars against Iceland – but highlighted the impact the more senior members of the squad have made of late.
“I think we are very conscious of a crop of young players coming through that we think will be fabulous for England for years to come,” he said.
“I think it was great for the public to get a glimpse of that and they were surrounded by some excellent professionals and those senior players have been outstanding, in the last couple of months in particular.
“In the last three days they really set the tone – it would have been easy for us not to perform well tonight. There was every excuse possible not to perform well.
“But that was not the mentality of the seniors and I have to say the captain led that right from the start – he led the training, you could see his mentality for the game.”
From Harry Maguire’s Greek court case and the high-profile bio breach by Mason Greenwood and Foden to injury headaches, empty stands and his own bout of coronavirus, this has been a tough autumn for Southgate.
But seeing Foden blossom into a bona fide England international at least brought it to an end on a positive note.
“Tonight’s performance is why we picked him in September because we know what he is capable of,” he said of the 20-year-old.
“I’m really pleased for him and his family, to have the experience he had in September is really tough for a youngster and we all make mistakes.
“What we were intent on doing was making sure that when he came in this month in a difficult situation, you are walking in the door and you’re looking at everybody’s faces and you know the last time you saw them it was complicated.
“It took him a few days I think to settle into the camp and start to smile and relax a bit more – then tonight we felt was a really good game for him.
“We know what he is capable of doing and he is one who is going to be exciting for the next few years for England.”
Despite the obvious positives, Southgate did still highlight the fact the recent camps have been damaged by the off-field behaviours of some of his players – and called for improvements in that area moving forward.
“We’ve been very, very close to achieving the objective,” he added. “But we’ve also got to recognise that there are lessons we have got to learn from this period. We created dramas for ourselves on and off the pitch, which made life more complicated.
“We’ve been nowhere near having availability of all of our players and we have got to have a look at why that has been and reflect on that – so that is the balance really.”
Iceland manager Erik Hamren was equally impressed by England but believes Euro 2020 may come too early for Southgate’s young talent and feels they may need longer to develop before challenging for honours.
“I think they can be good in the summer,” he said.
“They have quite a good mix but if you look, then winning something, a big tournament, maybe they need to wait some more years until those young ones now coming up.
“They are really good, so maybe in four or five years there will be a top team, that is my opinion.”
The game also brought down the curtain on Hamren’s reign as Iceland boss.
The 63-year-old opted to step down after losing the Euro 2020 play-off to Hungary last week, before his father died over the weekend.
“It has been some tough days, the loss versus Hungary it was taken really hard by me, the staff and the players,” he added.
“We did a good game against Denmark but not today – then my father also, yes, it has been a lot of emotional days and that will be the same when I say goodbye to the staff and players because I really like them and did some good work with them.”