U17 World Champions: Our tournament - part one

Five Chelsea Academy players featured as England lifted the Under-17 World Cup last month. On their return to Cobham, the official Chelsea website sat down with our teenage champions to discuss their tournament experience. In the first of a two-part feature, we asked Conor Gallagher and Marc Guehi to reflect on the opening fortnight in India...
 

England versus Germany at Wembley and a World Cup trophy is being paraded around the field in front of a delighted home crowd. However, over fifty years on from the summer of 1966, this is a new generation taking the applause - the Under-17 World Cup winners of 2017.

Staff and players from England’s Under-17s were the FA's guests at the national stadium on Friday, invited on to the pitch at half-time to show off their silverware, the first England team to be crowned world champions at that age group. It was the latest checkpoint in a whirlwind few weeks since Steve Cooper’s side, with five Chelsea Academy youngsters among the ranks, beat Spain 5-2 in the showpiece final in Kolkata, India.

A month before the final, Conor Gallagher was still waiting for the opportunity to represent his country at any youth level. The midfielder’s tireless work and endearing attitude saw him awarded the Chelsea Scholar of the Year last season and a similarly impressive opening to the new campaign earned him a maiden England call-up. The timing was impeccable and the call from Steve Cooper came with congratulations and a plane ticket to Asia.

‘I was hoping for a call-up for a while because I had been playing well before the tournament,’ says the teenager born just eight miles from our Cobham training ground. ‘I wasn’t thinking too much about it because I was focused on doing well for Chelsea but it stays in the back of your mind, the belief that if you keep on doing well then maybe there’s a chance to get in the squad.

‘It was easy for me to settle in with the group quickly because all the boys were really nice and the fact there were four other Chelsea boys there as well made it easier. It can be quite an intense environment at a tournament and it’s a long time being away from home, which I’m not really used to, but we just tried to focus on winning each game as it came.’

"It was easy for me to settle in with the group quickly because all the boys were really nice and the fact there were four other Chelsea boys there as well made it easier."

-

His debut was in a warm-up game against New Zealand in Mumbai before the manager turned to him in the 73rd minute of the second group match. England had beaten Chile 4-0 in the group opener and established a 3-0 lead against Mexico but the South Americans were launching a comeback. Diego Lainez’s brace threatened England’s grip on the three points and Gallagher was instructed to plug the holes in midfield and stem the tide.

‘I was just told to stay in the middle of the pitch and try to see out the win,’ he recalls. ‘It was important for us to keep our shape and positioning, to show a different side and dig in for the points. The game was quite tight at that point so it was an important time but I felt confident coming on that we could see out the game.’

Despite facing 20 minutes of increasing pressure, the youngsters got the job done and maximum points from their first two games ensured their safe passage to the knockout round. It meant Cooper could freshen up the team for the final group game against Iraq, in which Gallagher started and featured throughout. A Saturday evening kick-off in the football-mad city of Kolkata had over 56,000 in attendance.

‘It was crazy,’ recalls Gallagher. ‘I’ve never played in front of anything near close to that amount of people and to play a full game and to win was such a great experience. When you go on the attack, you hear all the fans roaring - even when the opposition are attacking and you’re trying to defend, you can just hear that noise and that’s what I remember the most from that game.’

Gallagher meets fans in the crowd in Kolkata, where 56,000 watched the group game against Iraq.

The 17-year-old was Cooper’s go-to man in the knockout games, featuring from the bench in the quarter-final and final.

‘I think the manager used me as a player to try to see out games so when we were winning he would look to bring me on,’ he noted. However, an unnecessary foul in the dying stages of the quarter-final victory over the USA meant Gallagher was suspended for the last-four meeting with Brazil, an exile in the stands he remembers as tough.

‘I didn’t really think it through to be honest. It was more of a tactical foul but one I didn’t have to make because we were winning 3-1 with about 10 minutes left. It was quite hard to be sat in the stands watching the boys in the semi-final but thankfully they beat Brazil and I was able to get on in the final.’

In the first knockout tie the young Lions faced their most frustrating 90 minutes at the tournament, a meeting with the well-drilled, hard-working Japanese. While England averaged almost four goals a game across the other six matches in India, this was the one occasion an attack with multiple components failed to find a breakthrough.  

‘Japan really did their homework on us,’ says Marc Guehi, the teenage defender who signed a first professional contract at the club in the summer. ‘They were organised and hard to break down with really tight lines so throughout the game it was a bit frustrating. The message from the sidelines was to keep going but inevitably it went all the way to penalties.

‘We had been practising before and I think that helped us. There were a lot of meetings we had together talking about how we’d expect ourselves to act in those situations – when the whistle goes, when you’re walking from the centre circle to the spot, placing the ball down, just picking a corner and shooting. There’s obviously a lot of pressure but we’d prepared well and focused on ourselves.’

Guehi was one of only two starters in all seven games at the tournament for England.

Blunted in open play, England were sharp from 12 yards and scored all five spot-kicks, winning the shootout 5-3. Guehi watched with his team-mates from the halfway line, counting down the list as his moment in the spotlight loomed, though he maintains he had belief that his own ability from the penalty spot would not be tested.

‘I was quite close, about sixth or seventh but I had the faith we could get through before it came to me,’ he continues. ‘It’s always good to get these experiences when you’re young so you can take them through when you’re at senior level, learning how to win in penalty shoot-outs and taking the pressure in your stride.’

Overcoming an age-old stumbling block for England at major finals and winning a penalty shoot-out felt like a significant moment. The youngsters were into the business end of the tournament and Guehi believes their honest ambition was crucial in setting high standards from day one.

‘It was clear right from the start that our objective was to win the World Cup. Even though we lost in the final at the U-17 Euros in the summer, we looked back on that as a successful campaign and it was always our aim to make amends for that and try to win the tournament. Everyone was just excited to go to a major tournament like the World Cup and see how far we could get.

‘The support from back home was great, not just friends and family but everyone at St George’s Park and back at Chelsea. All the messages we received were amazing and really helped us to go all the way.’

 

In the second part of our interview tomorrow, we focus on the quarter-finals onwards and speak to Jon Panzo, George McEachran and Callum Hudson-Odoi about lifting the trophy...

WORLD CUP WINNERS: Our Five Young Lions Reflect On Their U17 World Cup Win