In the first of a two-part interview with our England Under-17 World Cup winners, we discussed the opening fortnight at the tournament in India. Jon Panzo, George McEachran and Callum Hudson-Odoi now recall the latter knockout stages, including a memorable 5-2 victory over Spain in the final…
A fortnight into the tournament in India and England were down to the last-eight. The next challenge for Steve Cooper and his young players was to see off the USA, who had squeezed through the group stage as one of the best third-placed teams.
Jon Panzo, who celebrated his 17th birthday while away with the young Lions, was a mainstay in the team at left-back, contributing to three clean sheets in the run to the quarter-finals.
‘Throughout the tournament we were just feeling confident and it was the same at the Euros in the summer too,’ says Panzo. ‘We had quite a lot of the same players still together and that helped us a lot, knowing each other and how we play.
‘Rhian Brewster scored quite an early goal and that just set off the rest of the team to play well. It’s always good when the guys up the other end of the pitch are doing their jobs well but it also meant I had to be a bit more defensive at left-back, which can be difficult sometimes when you want to get involved.
‘It was slightly different to my role at Chelsea but understanding when to go forward and when to stay back is all part of developing as a defender. It also helps when you have players like Callum [Hudson-Odoi] and Jadon [Sancho] in front of you down the left wing doing their thing.’
Brewster’s hat-trick helped England to a 4-1 victory and a place in the semi-finals, where 63,000 supporters were expectant for a titanic clash against Brazil.
‘We were very excited to play Brazil,’ says midfielder George McEachran, who started all but one game at the tournament. ‘You know it’s getting big when the build-up is all over the newspapers and social media back home. Obviously we knew as we got to the later stages of the tournament we would come up against better teams and players but we believed in ourselves. We had belief that we were a good team and had a lot about us, which we showed in all the games we played.
‘When we first came out the tunnel it looked like we were at a concert. Everyone had their flashlights on - all you could see were lights everywhere so we knew it was a big moment for us. Brazil were good technically, very well-organised but we managed to break them down.’
Brewster, a clinical striker who spent five years at the Chelsea Academy from the age of eight, repeated his trick from the previous round in bagging a treble. It was enough for Cooper’s side to pass their Samba test and book a rematch with Spain in the final. The Spanish had scored an equaliser deep into stoppage time in the European Championship final back in May before taking the trophy with a win on penalties.
When we first came out the tunnel it looked like we were at a concert. Everyone had their flashlights on - all you could see were lights everywhere so we knew it was a big moment.
Falling at that final hurdle meant McEachran was unable to emulate older brother Josh, who had won the tournament back in 2010 alongside his Chelsea team-mate Nathaniel Chalobah. The McEachran siblings were in regular contact throughout the tournament, although brotherly rivalry was firmly on George’s mind on his arrival back to London.
‘I texted him quite a lot throughout the tournament and video-called him a few times as well,’ he continues. ‘He was just saying how proud he was of me and telling me to keep working hard. I listened to him and took that on board, though since we came home I’ve had to tell him that my World Cup medal beats his Euros one!’
However, overcoming Spain was far from plain sailing. The young Lions started well in the final but trailed 2-0 after half an hour. Callum Hudson-Odoi foraged down the left flank, curling a strike against the post as frustrations grew.
‘We didn’t feel we deserved to be losing 2-0 because we were playing so well from the start and could have scored in the first 30 seconds,’ the forward remembers. ‘I felt like it was happening against Spain again so it was frustrating personally but as soon as we got the goal back I knew we were going to win because we had the momentum.’
Excitement and retribution were predominant emotions for the players and staff in the build-up to the showpiece, with the group aware of gathering support both in India and back home.
'All the players were buzzing before the game but we also had that mentality of "we have to beat them, we can’t lose to them again" after what happened in the Euros final in the summer,' he continues. ‘We didn’t want to experience that same feeling again so everyone was very prepared and focused.
‘It gave us confidence when we knew the game was live on the BBC and Eurosport back home because we could feel that support and then when we turned up at the stadium it was packed with people. As soon as you walk out before the game starts, you just hear the crowd roaring and the stadium shaking – you know then that it’s going to be one of those games where you have to show what you’re made of and get what you deserve.
‘Spain didn’t look like they had the legs to carry on but we had the energy and when you score the momentum is always with you. As soon as it went to 5-2 we knew it was over – everyone was smiling even before the whistle and then at full-time it just went crazy.’
Brewster, Morgan Gibbs-White and Phil Foden had scored to put England in front for the first time on the night before a set-piece swung in from the left dropped invitingly between Panzo and Guehi in the six-yard box.
‘I had a swing at it,’ recalls Panzo, ‘then it fell to Marc and he buried it.’ It was 4-2 with just five minutes remaining and England had one hand on the trophy.
‘You can only dream of situations like that,’ reflects Guehi. ‘It was unbelievable and also the day of the final was my dad’s birthday so it was great to give him something back as well.’
'When we went 2-0 down we thought "that could be it",' says McEachran. ‘I personally didn’t feel that way but a few of the lads told me that they did. I always felt we were going to bring it back because of how we were playing and we pulled through to beat them by a significant amount in the end. Each goal was a bigger celebration and then the final whistle finally went – it was a massive feeling for us all.’
The spotlight has shone brightly on the young Lions since their fantastic achievement, with the players and staff paraded on the pitch at Wembley during half-time of the recent friendly against Germany. For Panzo and his club team-mates, though, the focus returns quickly to continuing their development back at Cobham, an education that has served them well to date.
‘There’s no better feeling than winning but you also have to stay humble. It’s a massive achievement and you can get carried away but we all just need to keep pushing and working hard now.’