As the final whistle reverberated around the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, England’s U17s dropped to their knees, their European hopes over for another season. Heartbreak. Despair. Fatigue. All juxtaposed with the sight of the Spanish, dancing in a circle and saluting their fans in jubilation.
But as the hurt fades, there will be a strong sense of pride that remains. It was a semi-final that ended 3-1 but neither the score nor the stats tell the whole story – one where a team, outplayed in the first half, fought back only to be denied by a cruelly deflected goal in the final minutes.
This pride was Mo Marley’s core emotion after her team produced a second half display of character and resilience against one of if not the best youth outfit in world football. “Even though it’s hard to take the result right now in the circumstances, they’ve got to reflect on what they’ve actually achieved,” the experienced England coach told GirlsontheBall. “A semi-final in a European Championships is a big step and a big achievement. It’s holding on to that and being prepared to learn from all the different experiences, because we’ve had so many in this competition already… It’s now how they reflect on this tournament and start to take it forward in their game if they want to continue to progress through our talent pathway.”
Beating Spain was always going to be a challenge. The Spanish youth teams are the current holders of the U19 Euros, and U20 and U17 World Cups [they just missed out on the full sweep in 2022, losing to Germany on penalties in the U17 Euro Final]. It remains a mystery – or maybe not so much given the current situation in the RFEF – how this seemingly endless pool of young talent has not yet translated to senior level. Manager Kenio Gonzalo recalled all his key starters for the occasion, with Barcelona’s “wonder-kid” Vicky López captaining the side.
This England team, however, are brimming with potential of their own. This European season has seen this come to the fore, unbeaten in nine before this encounter and having notched 32 goals. Marley named her strongest line-up with Michelle Agyemang and Araya Dennis returning to their attacking roles. Zara Shaw also came back in to bolster their defence and reignite her central defensive partnership with Katie Reid.
It is safe to say that the first half is one the Young Lionesses would rather forget. Chasing shadows for the best part of 45 minutes, they will have considered themselves fortunate to go into the break at only 1-0, thanks mainly to some superb goalkeeping from Leicester’s Sophia Poor.
Spain were relentless from the off and quickly found themselves ahead. When Cris delivered from the right, López soared highest in the box to bury her header. There was a fluid instinctiveness to their attack that made them a threat every time they surged forward as England backed off them and allowed them to dictate play. If there was a negative to be found, it was a lack of clinical finishing that could have ensured the game was put to bed. Pau and Cris both turned efforts wide, López crashed a free kick off the upright, and Poor produced a sublime save to turn Ainhoa Alguacil’s driven strike wide of the mark.
The Young Lionesses needed the break to regroup, gather themselves, and refresh the gameplan. Marley commented after that it was about eliminating any uncertainties. “I think once we got that clarity about what was expected, then they’ve gone out with nothing to lose. Sometimes with young players, that really makes a big difference. They’ve done it, it’s as simple as that. They’ve responded to their own reflections about what happened in the first half.”
Whatever was said, worked. England re-emerged full of energy and intensity, having clearly decided to play their own game and pay the opposition less respect. Within seconds, they produced their first effort on goal when Laila Harbert turned a shot inches over the bar. Lola Brown, a source of boundless energy throughout, then set through Agyemang, only for the in-form striker to slip at the vital moment.
Their endeavour was rewarded with a leveller after ten minutes. When Agyemang was brought down to the left of the box, Ava Baker pulled off a pinpoint delivery that looped perfectly for the jump of Reid at the far post. The defender nodded the ball home before wheeling away to the bench in celebration.
There were half chances for both sides as the contest began to look like it was heading for penalties. With a team like Spain, however, you cannot switch off for a second or else you’ll be punished. A failure to make a clearance saw the ball drop for Ainoa Gómez, who with practically her first touch unleashed a shot that got a wicked deflection to loop it over the keeper.
As the game entered injury time, England pushed everything forward and immediately got picked off on the counter. Noa Ortega broke passed the visibly tiring Shaw before cutting the ball across goal for Pau to drive home. It was the icing on the cake for Spain, making their 11th final in 15 editions of the tournament.
The loss and the manner of it will hurt this young England team, but this tournament and beyond has given them challenges that will stand them in good stead for the years to come. Marley has been left in no doubt about the potential they possess. “Oh my word. The talent of this group is amazing,” she states. “Obviously, it’s a tough defeat for them to take, and it’s probably going to be harder because it’s their first real one. But when you get to the critical stages of tournaments, all the teams are equally as talented as you are. It’s how you solve problems in those difficult situations when you’re matched against somebody who’s on your level. That’s the key message now. What have you learned and how are you going to make sure that when you’re matched up again, you can dominate all your individual duals. That’s part of growth and development of this age group.” After all, that is what these youth tournaments are all about – facing the best of the peers and putting the foundations in place so that they take another step forward.