Southgate's loan stars keep feet on the ground
Spells outside top flight have helped many of England squad mature, writes Sam Dean
One of the more revealing anecdotes told during England's World Cup preparations came from Kyle Walker, who was thinking back to the first day of his loan move from Sheffield United to Northampton Town. Then 18, Walker was so anxious about the journey - he had never driven on a motorway before - that he followed his parents, in a separate car, all the way down the M1.
He had not yet begun his first training session at his new club, but Walker had already started the process of leaving his comfort zone. "Some of those players depended on winning games for their mortgage," he said. "I had been with Sheffield from age seven, my career was being looked after, so it was something I hadn't quite seen before."
Walker arrived with his parents, but left with perspective. The same can be said for Harry Kane, who has spoken about being "caught off-guard" by the financial difficulties of his team-mates at Millwall, where he moved on loan from Tottenham Hotspur. "I was 18 at the time," he has said. "We were in a relegation battle and it really turned me into a man."
Similar tales have been told by Jordan Pickford, whose loan to Preston North End stopped him from "always relying on your parents or your girlfriend", and Jordan Henderson, who cites his loan to Coventry City as a key moment in his "progress as a player".
The list goes on. Jesse Lingard was "matured" by his four loan moves from Manchester United to Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby, while Kieran Trippier needed a temporary switch to Barnsley to learn what it was like to "play against men".
More than any England World Cup squad in recent history, Gareth Southgate's group are littered with players who have endured these testing but formative experiences.
This is the youngest English squad to travel to a World Cup since 1962, yet an argument can be made for it being the most mature and rounded group since the turn of the century.
Between them, Southgate's 23 players have represented 93 clubs. Together, they have embarked on 46 different loan spells, with 16 of them playing at least 10 senior matches in the lower leagues. The 11 who started England's opening game in Russia have collectively played for 46 clubs.
By way of comparison, the 2006 "Golden Generation" squad had played for just 60 clubs, and only eight had made at least 10 appearance in divisions beneath the Premier League. Sven-Goran Eriksson's starting line-up contained players with a combined 32 clubs on their CVs, and nine of those were contributed by one player, Peter Crouch. The same applies for the squads of 2002, 2010 and 2014.
Previous England squads have been more gilded, certainly, but their experiences at the time of the World Cup were markedly less varied. Were they less adaptable? Were they less prepared for the change of environment that comes with international football, less ready to step out of the comfortable bubble of club football?
Southgate, clearly, is a believer in the benefits of broadening horizons. Speaking last year, he encouraged more young players to go abroad. "From a football and life experience, I think travelling and seeing how the game is played differently in other parts of the world, with different approaches, helps young men to mature as players and people," he said.
The loan system is not without its critics, but England's thrilling start to this World Cup has strengthened the case for tossing young players into different leagues, where they learn different systems under different managers and test themselves against different opponents.
"The academies do a really good job but there is a clear difference (in the lower leagues) in terms of needing to win matches, having the pressure to deliver performances on a regular basis and hitting that level more consistently," says Mark Robins, the current Coventry City manager who was in charge of Barnsley when Trippier was signed on loan from Manchester City.
"Young players need to get used to that, both mentally and physically, because the physical demands are different. For anybody, playing at a different level and experiencing these different things can be a benefit. It really can help, and you can see that in a lot of players. You can see the technical quality they have got, and that they have a lot of different experiences behind them."
The irony of all this, of course, is that loan moves have become more commonplace largely because of the influx of money and foreign-born stars who have made it harder than ever to progress from a Premier League academy into the first team.
As the quick route to the top has become blocked off, English players are taking a more complex journey that may well be better preparing them for the rigours of international football.
"The academies do a wonderful job of producing talented footballers," Robins says.
"But they need that platform to go and develop. If they can't get that at the clubs they are at, they can do it elsewhere. That plays a big part in their development."
© Daily Telegraph, London