Loftus-Cheek prepared to bear burden of ‘great new hope’ tag
Fearless young talent often gives cause for hope – the hard part is meeting the expectation, says Sam Dean
Iceland’s Hordur Magnusson had a better view than most of the nadir of English international football. He was there in the summer of 2016, sitting on the bench with an ever-widening smile, as Roy Hodgson’s side dissolved before the world’s eyes and made the most humiliating of exits from the European Championships.
Asked by The Telegraph last month to explain how it happened, Magnusson did not credit his side’s tactics, their togetherness or physicality. His answer was simple. “We could see it in the England players,” he said. “They were scared.”
For all the talk of coaching pathways, the ‘England DNA’ and the need for a winter break, Magnusson believes it was simple fear that debilitated England, a festering terror that slithered into their minds and set the nervous sweat trickling down their faces.
Perhaps this is why England fans are so inspired by the sight of youthful abandon, why the name of 20-year-old Marcus Rashford received a bigger cheer than anyone else’s against Germany on Friday, and why the sight of debutant Ruben Loftus-Cheek strutting across the pitch filled Wembley with such enthusiasm.
With his shoulders back and his chin jutting forward, Loftus-Cheek looked like he belonged at the national stadium and, best of all, looked like he knew it. A doublenutmeg was an early glimpse of his talent, and he quickly grew in confidence and stature.
It felt fitting to then hear both Loftus-Cheek, 21, and defender Harry Maguire, 24, discuss, without prompting, the need for bravery in possession. “Always be confident on the ball and have no fear when going out on the pitch,” Loftus-Cheek said. “That is one thing young players need to have in their game to develop and play their best football, so that is what I do.”
For his part, Maguire seemed liberated by his role on the left of the back three, where he was allowed by manager Gareth Southgate to indulge his passion for dribbling upfield like a snorting bull.
“He was a centre-half himself and he was good on the ball in his day,” Maguire said of Southgate. “He always encourages us, says he wants us to play on the ball. Obviously we had made a lot of changes but he wants us all to be very brave.
“That’s not just in terms of blocking and heading away clearances or attacking corners. He wants us to be brave on the ball, for everyone to be a passing option.”
No fear for these fresh-faced players, then, but the worry for the watching nation will be that the weight of expectation will slowly take its toll. It always does, doesn’t it? Just look at the way Wayne Rooney became bogged down after his teenage glory years, or how Theo Walcott never progressed from the hat-trick he scored in Croatia at the age of 19.
More recently, there were encouraging performances from Ross Barkley as a 20-year-old before the 2014 World Cup. And last year, before the Euros, Dele Alli was magnificent as a 19-year-old in a 3-2 win over Germany in Berlin. Who would have thought that Alli would be as infected by anyone by the Iceland panic? So we have been here before, and the challenge for the likes of LoftusCheek, in particular, will be to do what his predecessors have so far found beyond them: sustain this early promise of daring and drive, of chutzpah and power.
The task should be made easier by his new role at Crystal Palace, where he can finally experience life as a first-team regular after years on the fringes at parent club Chelsea.
“Right now I just think I need 10 or 15 games in a row to feel good for the whole 90 minutes and to feel strong and to start playing my best football,” he said. “Mentally, it takes the pressure off. At Palace I feel like a first-team player and I have got the opportunity to play every week. There are no guarantees but I have a better chance of playing, so it gives me the platform to learn and develop.
“In these last two or three years I have had to be really patient. It was tough mentally at Chelsea, obviously, not getting the game time. When you don’t play you really feel the difference of what matches give you. The match-sharpness, the fitness. It’s what you need to progress. It was hard not playing and having to try to be the best player on the pitch.”
He was certainly the best player on the pitch on Friday, even if his first England start only arrived because of a series of injuries and withdrawals.
“The most pleasing thing for me is that he is such an unassuming, quiet, polite kid,” said Southgate. “I hope he takes huge belief and confidence from his first game because he has shown what he is capable of on a big stage.
“This season, going out and playing has helped him. In the early season I saw him and he showed flashes of what we saw against Germany and I think he can affect big matches like he did. He can probably add a little bit more quality in the final third, he can probably go and score more goals given some of the attributes he has got, but I was really pleased to see the effect he had and to get a performance like that.”
There will be stiffer tests for both Southgate and Loftus-Cheek, even if Germany are the world champions, but nights like these provide the country with shoots of optimism ahead of a major tournament.
The question is, therefore, how long the excitement will last. Whether the likes of Loftus-Cheek, Rashford and Harry Winks will remain unburdened by the overwhelming weight of everything England, or whether they are simply taking their first steps towards the endless merry-go-round of hope, despair and an eternal faith in the fearlessness of youth.
All to play for: Ruben Loftus-Cheek grew in stature against Germany on Friday night