Neil Humphreys: England's kids are all right
Three Lions manager Southgate deserves credit for gambling on youth
Gareth Southgate is turning into Ronald McDonald.
His job depends on keeping the kids happy.
England's training camp resembled a children's party this week. All that was missing was jelly and ice cream.
But there is nothing juvenile about Southgate's intentions.
On the contrary, he's preparing for the latest Euro 2020 qualifiers with the most dynamic and youthful Three Lions squad in recent memory (and that includes the team that reached the World Cup semi-final last year).
He may look like a cross between a chartered accountant and an indie folk singer, but Southgate is a radical in a waistcoat.
He's bringing boys to a men's fight, 10 of them in fact.
England's squad for the upcoming games against Bulgaria and Kosovo originally included 10 players under the age of 23, an optimistic statistic that epitomises Southgate's keen sense of adventure.
Of the 10, only Harry Winks is 23. Ben Chilwell, Joe Gomez and James Maddison are 22.
Manchester United duo Marcus Rashford and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are 21.
Lifelong friends Mason Mount and Declan Rice and still 20, as is Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The real pup in the litter, Jadon Sancho, is already Borussia Dortmund's star winger at just 19.
Wan-Bissaka has since withdrawn with a back injury, but Southgate's original decision to select so much potential over proven pedigree is a testament to an evolving selection policy that refuses to stagnate.
His previous squads were hardly filled with geriatrics to begin with, but his Darwinist insistence on picking only the fittest and brightest - four players (including Wan-Bissaka) are uncapped - is an admirable attempt to stop the Three Lions doing what they usually do.
It's interesting to note that the so-called Golden Generation - the glittering generation of England icons that won nothing - came of age in 2002, when Southgate's wide-eyed hopefuls were in kindergarten.
Despite a perennial lack of success, much of the Golden Generation clung together for years, picked for squads with weary predictability.
As England coaches succumbed to the cult of celebrity, the Three Lions fell at one tournament after another.
Same names. Same selections. Same failures. Nothing changed.
But everything changes with Southgate.
Not one of his 10 U-23 players - Alexander-Arnold, Chilwell, Gomez, Maddison, Mount, Rashford, Rice, Sancho, Wan-Bissaka and Winks - started in England's 2-1 World Cup defeat by Croatia.
The semi-final was played just 14 months ago. But Southgate doesn't stand still.
Of course, not every one of Southgate's starlets will start against Bulgaria at Wembley tomorrow, but they'll likely feature across the two fixtures.
Southgate is certainly blessed with relatively benign opponents and a growing incubator of young talent, but to cynically dismiss his bold selections as good fortune ignores England's conservative decision-making in the past.
Consider the curious case of Kyle Walker. The right-back collected back-to-back titles with Manchester City and remains a key member of Pep Guardiola's squad.
Southgate has dropped him.
The manager insists he has not closed the door on one of England's most dependable full-backs, but there are faint echoes of Joe Hart's decline here.
Southgate likes to kill the older ones softly. It's death by selection cuts.
Walker's misfortune warrants sympathy. The 29-year-old's only crime appears to be ageing as Alexander-Arnold morphs into one of the world's best in their shared position.
Having Wan-Bissaka and Kieran Trippier in the pecking order further hinders Walker's cause, but the veteran still might be shocked at his omission.
England had traditionally been a haven for ageing superstars, a place where the elderly always felt safe and protected.
Not any more.
The quietly ruthless Southgate barely accepts the old adage about a player being only as good as his last game. To earn selection now, an England player must be as good as his rival's last game.
Such a cold-blooded approach bodes well for the Three Lions ahead of their Euro 2020 qualifiers, showing an almost Germanic attitude towards personnel.
Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Chilwell, Rice and Sancho are among the younger players tipped to start against Bulgaria.
Maddison and Mount's outstanding form may earn them the nod against Kosovo (if not before, against Bulgaria).
The qualifiers could conceivably kick off with barely half the side that played in the World Cup-semi-final.
Nostalgia doesn't sway Southgate any more than the allure of branded names.
Fame doesn't concern him, only current form. Birth certificates don't interest him either. He intends to win with kids.
Southgate obviously is not the first England manager to have a number of fine English Premier League academy graduates to choose from.
But he might be the first to select them all.
GROUP A FIXTURES
- Kosovo v Czech Republic, 9pm
- England v Bulgaria, 11.55pm
- England v Kosovo, 2.45am
- Montenegro v Czech Republic, 2.45am