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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

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

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