Aidy Boothroyd backs England Under-21s’ hard work to excite

• Coach out to enhance home reputation in Euros
• Boothroyd’s team face tricky French test on Tuesday

Roaring lions and motivational lines from figures such as Raheem Sterling and Gareth Southgate decorate the walls of England’s training base but the home of Sammaurese provides none of the comfort of St George’s Park for the under-21 squad. There is no luxury here, nor a stand of any description on any side of a ground flanked by the A14 Autostrada, and final preparations for the hard shift of winning a European Championship are better for it. Minds must be focused when France are the first date.

“I love the training ground, especially the old Rocky Balboa-style gym with its punchbag,” says the head coach, Aidy Boothroyd, who worked his squad for three weeks at St George’s before their arrival in Italy on Friday. “It is the sort of place that lets the players know straight away they are here to work. Then, by contrast, we are staying in a really nice hotel [in nearby Cesenatico] with all mod-cons where the players can relax.”

Sammaurese play in Serie D, the highest level of the non-professional game in Italy, albeit without the infrastructure you would associate with clubs in the National League, its closest English equivalent. Their newly laid and Uefa-paid for pitch is immaculate, however, adding to Boothroyd’s satisfaction. The team based in San Mauro Pascoli finished 10th last season in a division topped by Cesena, where England launch their Euro campaign on Tuesday against a dangerous French side, with Romania and Croatia to follow in Group C.

Moussa Dembélé, Jean-Philippe Mateta and Marcus Thuram, son of the 1998 World Cup winner Lilian, are among the striking options available to the France manager, Sylvain Ripoll. It is an awkward start to a tournament where the three group winners and one best runner-up progress to the semi-finals, although Boothroyd insists there will be no inferiority complex within the England ranks. Not on the pitch nor in the technical area.

Highs and (mainly) lows since 1994

The Under-21 European Championship began in 1978. England have won it twice – in 1982 and 1984 – but have not fared so well since Uefa introduced group stages at the 1994 finals.  

1994 England failed to qualify after finishing fourth in their group, six points behind winners Poland. 

1996 England again failed to make it, finishing second behind Portugal but missing out on one of the best runner-up places.  

1998 England won their qualifying group but had to face Greece in a play-off to reach the finals. They lost on away goals despite Emile Heskey (2), Michael Owen and Marcus Hall scoring in a 4-2 home win. 

2000 England qualified for the finals but failed to get out of the group despite a 6-0 win over Turkey. Frank Lampard, Danny Mills, Jamie Carragher and Danny Murphy were in the squad but the team lost to Italy and Slovakia. 

2002 England, under David Platt, finished last in their group despite winning their first game against Switzerland. Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch scored in that 2-1 win but defeats by Italy and Portugal followed. 

2004 England struggled in qualifying, finishing third, 11 points behind group winners Turkey. Joey Barton, Joe Cole and Phil Jagielka featured. 

2006 Another failure to get to the finals, this time with Peter Taylor as coach. After finishing second behind Germany, England lost 3-2 to France in a play-off. 

2007 The tournament switched to odd years and England reached the semi-finals, where they lost 13-12 in a shootout to hosts the Netherlands. Anton Ferdinand missed the decisive penalty. 

2009 England again got to the semi-finals and this time won the shootout, against Sweden, Kieran Gibbs converting the last penalty. In the final Stuart Pearce’s team lost 4-0 to Germany.  

2011 England drew with eventual winners Spain in the group and picked up another point against Ukraine before conceding two late goals against the Czech Republic to go out. Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck were in the team. 

2013 England finished bottom of their group behind Italy, Israel and Norway despite having Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley.  

2015 Gareth Southgate was in charge but again England finished last in their group, despite beating Sweden in their second game after a goal from Jesse Lingard. 

2017  After Southgate was appointed manager of the senior side, Aidy Boothroyd took over as U21 manager. Jordan Pickford, Ben Chilwell, Nathan Redmond and Jack Grealish were part of the England squad that reached the semi-final, where they lost 4-3 on penalties to Germany. Kathryn Batte

“I hope we play in a way that excites and entertains people and changes the perception of English coaches,” said Boothroyd on his wish for the championship. “For too long there has been a widely held belief that foreign coaches are better than ours simply because they come from abroad and they are not. The quality of a coach should not be decided by nationality, it is about whether they can do the job or not.

“It’s the same with our players, too. For years they have been denied opportunities by an influx from overseas and told they are not as good as them. But as we are seeing now that is not the case either. I am hoping we showcase the best of English young talent so that people can see just how good our coaching system is.”

The temperatures for training on Saturday were in the mid-30s Celsius. The weight of every player was taken before and after the session and the reductions underlined the impact of the Italian summer on Boothroyd’s squad. A long and intense buildup to the competition appears to have had no detrimental effect on camaraderie, thankfully.

“One thing that let us down last time was that everyone was a bit too tense,” Tammy Abraham recalls of the 2017 Euros in Poland, where England lost to Germany in a penalty shootout in the semi-finals. “This squad is a lot more relaxed. I think it’s because a lot of us have known each other since we were very young, and I mean young.

“My first memories of playing football are with Dominic Solanke, Jay Dasilva and Fikayo Tomori – and now we are all here playing together in this squad. It still feels like I am in the playground having a kick-about with my mates. Don’t get me wrong, we are all deadly serious and focused when we are working, preparing and playing but the mood around the camp is definitely a lot lighter and that is a good thing because it helps relieve the pressure.”

The pressure that accompanied Aston Villa’s surge into the Premier League via the Championship play-offs has made for ideal preparation for the Euros, Abraham believes, as there is also no margin for error in a tournament being played in San Marino as well as Italy.

Their former Chelsea loanee said: “In the second half of the season we knew we had to win almost every game to have a chance so we went out to every training session up for it. There were times I nearly gave up but Jack Grealish would be in my ear telling me to keep going. When he was injured he used to phone me telling me to keep it going for him until he got back because he believed he had a chance.

“In January, all the Wolves stuff came out and it was something I looked at but I am so pleased I stuck with my gut instinct. Our attitude near the end was: ‘If we all turn up nobody else can beat us.’ That is the mentality we need to show out here.”

The motivational quotes on the walls at Sammaurese are, along with the framed pictures of lions and the England crest that adorns the changing room, part of the Football Association’s effort to make the under-21s feel at home in their basic, sweltering surroundings. Boothroyd was asked which quote was his favourite. “It is actually one of mine which says: ‘There has never been a better time to be an England player.’ With the pathway set out by the FA and thanks to Gareth there is a pathway into the senior team for our young footballers if they play regularly and do well. That hasn’t always been the case in previous years but it is now and we are reaping the rewards from that at all age levels.”