The foul was won just inside the Wales half by Danny Ings. Released by Southampton as a teenager for being too small, Ings came through the Bournemouth academy, making his professional debut when they were still in League Two. Ings took the free-kick quickly to Kalvin Phillips, who until this season had played all his football in the Championship with Leeds.
Phillips found Atlético Madrid’s Kieran Trippier on the right. At 30, Trippier has still played more than half his league football in the EFL, with Barnsley and Burnley. Trippier slipped the ball to Jack Grealish, who credits his three seasons with Aston Villa in the Championship for hardening him mentally and physically. Grealish’s cross found the head of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a product of the Sheffield United academy, via a loan spell at Northampton.
In a way, England’s opener against Wales was a goal made in the EFL. To a large extent, so was their team: Conor Coady came through the divisions with Sheffield United, Huddersfield and Wolves. Tyrone Mings was made at Ipswich Town. At the back, Nick Pope (ex-Charlton, York and Bury) locked the gate behind Michael Keane (Leicester, Derby, Blackburn and Burnley) and Joe Gomez (Charlton academy product).
You probably get the idea. Of Gareth Southgate’s 30-man squad, 24 had some sort of EFL grounding. In terms of appearances, England’s starting XI had more experience of the Football League than the Premier League. Put simply: this is an England team that would simply not exist without the EFL, whether as academy or finishing school, as second-chance saloon or last-chance saloon.
Deep down, on some level, we already know this. We know that world-class talent doesn’t simply appear on the international stage fully-formed. We know that players develop at different rates, that you can’t simply read their destiny off some curve on a graph. But as external events shake the foundations of what we so optimistically describe as “the pyramid”, rarely has English football been in more urgent need of a reminder.
Earlier this week, Manchester City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano outlined his vision for the future of the EFL, currently in the direst of straits and with many clubs likely to go to the wall in the medium-term.
“It’s a good opportunity to get together and solve these problems,” he said. “The challenges of developing players in England where B teams are not allowed. We have a development gap for boys that are 17 or 18: they are taken from us by the German teams, who try to sell them back to us for 10 times what they paid. This is mad, right?” You can see Soriano’s line of thinking here. If only young footballers had a place where they could spend their formative years, hone their craft, earn game-time. Not the Bundesliga, of course: all they’ll do is improve them, give them immediate competitive football and then try to earn a fair market rate for their work. No, this needs to stay in-house. But we only have 11 first-team places! If only there was some way of keeping a player, growing his value and giving him match practice without – you know – actually having to play them.
The fact that Soriano doesn’t see this as the “mad” part says a lot about his concept of the footballing ecosystem. And so it’s worth unpacking what his vision means in practice. Maybe a few dozen EFL clubs disappear: no great loss, in the grand scheme of things. Those who survive either rebrand as Premier League B teams, or fend for themselves in a neutered, salary-capped league.
Naturally, the result would be a horrible, watered-down product with virtually no value as spectacle or cultural artefact. In many ways, that’s the point. One of the reasons the Premier League is holding back on an EFL bailout is that it spies an irresistible opportunity to smash the pyramid for good. According to the Times, the Premier League is trying to enlist the EFL’s support in lifting restrictions on importing young players post-Brexit, allowing the big clubs to cut out the EFL and fill their academies with foreign talent.
And so if the EFL is no longer a talent factory, what’s it for? Simple: to give the B teams someone to play against, like ageing journeyman boxers whose entire job is to get knocked out by young pretenders. This is a world in which the very biggest clubs run the table, in which “English football” is essentially an extended suburb of the Premier League, its sole purpose to funnel talent and money towards the elite. For the EFL, the price of salvation may be its own suicide note.
And so, never mind the disenfranchised fans, the scarred towns, the torched history: what of the humans at the middle of all this? Perhaps the most callous part of the Premier League’s vision is the way it treats talent.
What happens to a late developer like Jamie Vardy? What happens to a Callum Wilson or Dele Alli, who doesn’t come through a Category One academy? What happens to an Ings or a Trippier, who fails to make the grade at a bigger club and has to start again? This is the footballer as pure resource: as human alfalfa, an asset to be bought up, traded, moved, stockpiled and junked as appropriate. It may have escaped your notice that while Chelsea were spending more than £220m in the summer market, it was also shipping out 25 of its existing players on loan. Izzy Brown is 23 and has just joined his ninth club. Lewis Baker has been at Chelsea for 16 years and played 133 league games, none of them for Chelsea. What was the point? Who wins here? Was there a better way of managing all this?
For his part, Southgate was under no illusions about the debt his team owe to the EFL. He pointed out that his back three at the World Cup – John Stones, Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire – had all come up the pyramid. “We’ve always had that connection,” he said. “Very often the opportunity to play comes earlier in the Championship. We know how important that is.” The message was clear. The big clubs may not need the EFL. But England certainly do.