11 months ago, Gareth Southgate was awkwardly trying to explain how his England under 21 side had managed to finish bottom of their group in the European Championships. In fairness to Southgate, England had been placed in an extremely difficult section, a point reinforced when two of its members, Sweden and Portugal, contested the final. Still, there was no escaping the fact that England had flopped. One win from three was not an acceptable return. Questions were asked as to Southgate’s suitability for the role, particularly as he had been allowed to pick pretty much his strongest squad (Jack Butland, John Stones and Harry Kane all featured,) a luxury not afforded to his predecessor, Stuart Pearce.
Despite the poor showing, the FA stuck by Southgate and less than a year after losing 3-1 to Italy in their final game in the Czech Republic, England actually went and won a tournament.
The Toulon Tournament is something of an oddity in international football. First held in 1967, the competition falls outside of UEFA, or indeed any governing body’s jurisdiction. Games are played over 80 minutes rather than 90, are usually staged in small but empty stadiums (save the plethora of scouts) and feature teams with age groups ranging from under 20 to under 23. England have been regular competitors in it but this year marks the Three Lions’ first win in the tournament since 1994.
Southgate’s side kicked off their campaign with a redemptive 1-0 win against Portugal – the same team to whom they’d lost their opening game at last summer’s euros. Lewis Baker set the tone for his tournament by grabbing the only goal of the game.
The second match against Guinea began with a fright as the African’s took the lead inside a minute but that served only to rile up England who were 4-1 up by halftime thanks to a brace from Jack Grealish, a James Ward-Prowse penalty and a Nathan Redmond strike. A own goal and a Cauley Woodrow double in the second half saw England run out 7-1 winners.
The final group game against Japan was much tighter, Baker’s early penalty proving decisive. That set up Sunday’s final against France. The hosts have won the tournament a record 12 times, including in 2015 but England saved arguably their best performance until last, running out 2-1 winners. The victory was more comfortable than the score line would suggest. England were 2-0 up at the break thanks to a fine header from Baker and a clinical finish from his Chelsea team mate Ruben Loftus-Cheek. A late France goal briefly set nerves jangling but England held out and claimed a deserved victory to lift the trophy
The big question of course is what happens next for this group of players? England’s squad featured 5 Chelsea men but of them, only Ruben Loftus-Cheek has regularly appeared for the Blues first team. He was named player of the tournament, an award previously won by the likes of David Ginola, Rui Costa, Alan Shearer, Juan Roman Riquelme, Thierry Henry and Sebastian Giovinco. Loftus-Cheek, like Golden boot winner Baker, will be hoping Antonio Conte was being kept abreast of events in France over the last few weeks.
A glance at the England class of 2016 shows a number of players with a decent amount of Premier League experience already to their names. The likes of Calum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond will all feel they have a realistic chance of being involved with the senior set up in the future but for others, Sunday’s success will represent the high water mark of their international careers.
The team who won the 1994 final was comprised of a mix of future stars and those would struggle to make much of an impact on the big stage. Captain Jamie Redknapp, Sol Campbell, Trevor Sinclair, Ray Parlour and Robbie Fowler all went on to graduate to the full England team. Others, such as Oldham right back Chris Makin and then Spurs centre half Stuart Nethercott weren’t as lucky.
Baker could well be the England player of this generation to benefit most from his exploits in Toulon. Having spent a season adjusting to men’s football outside of the media glare in the Eredivisie for Vitesse, he’ll be hoping he can force his way into Chelsea’s first team next season. A loan move to a fellow Premier League club seems more likely but either way, Baker will be keen to use his summer of a success as a springboard for greater things. The same can be said of Gareth Southgate. Should England flop in France, Roy Hodgson will surely find himself out of work and given the lack of credible alternatives, Southgate will be amongst the contenders to replace him.
The 2016 Toulon tournament might have passed a lot of people by, despite that, its impact on the England national team over the next few years could be significant.