It was twenty years to the day last Wednesday when David Beckham scored that free kick against Greece.
Readers of a certain vintage won’t need the obligatory reminder about how England, needing a point to qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals, were wretched against Greece and 2-1 down until Beckham seized a last-minute free kick and, with his trademark brilliance, curled it into the top corner.
Every English football fan alive would be able to recall it and describe it in detail, including, it seems, Phil Foden, who was 16-months old at the time. ‘I’ve just seen his post on it,’ says Foden, referring to the clip Beckham put up in his Instagram account of him listening to BBC’s Alan Green’s exuberant and memorable commentary.
Phil Foden is bursting with ambition to get England to the top, and he might be onto something
David Beckham’s iconic free-kick against Greece is a throwback to very different England days
This is how a generation learns its history, via social media.
‘I was just watching it back for first time,’ said Foden. ‘Great commentary weren’t it? And great goal.’ Beckham, in last week’s Instagram post, turned to camera and gave his wry, handsome, film-star grin and arched his eyebrows as Green roared his approval.
And yet that was England back then, a world away from now. Iconic moments then were forged from a last-minute equaliser that qualified a team for the World Cup finals. It wouldn’t get any better for Beckham with England than that.
For a 21-year-old with three Premier League titles behind him, a Champions League final, who was shortlisted last week for the Ballon D’Or European Footballer of the Year having played a significant role in England reaching the Euro 2020 final, it must seem a little odd.
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Did we really get that excited about qualifying for a World Cup? The Germans always sniggered when we greeted our 5-1 demolition of their team in Munich in that same campaign as a cause for national rejoicing, while they quietly rebuilt and made their way to the 2002 World Cup final and then went on to win the 2014 World Cup.
This England team, Foden’s generation, are an entirely different proposition to Sven Goran Eriksson’s. ‘We want to be the No.1 country in the world,’ said Foden last week in the run-up to last night’s World Cup qualifier against Andorra. ‘We’re really fighting for that.’
Had Beckham said that, it would have been a soundbite unsupported by the national team’s record. When Foden says it, it comes on the back of a World Cup semi-final and the Euro 2020 final.
And the gulf between this team and the Wayne Rooney’s generation, the team that Southgate inherited that failed to reached Euro 2008 and then imploded at major tournaments in 2010, 2014 and 2016, is cavernous.
It helps of course if you have good players. There was a moment in the opening minutes of England’s campaign last summer when a peroxide blonde attacking player sprinted into space with the ball and with impudence of youth, shot straight for goal, hitting the post.
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Phil Foden’s introduction to Euro 2020 against Croatia was unforgettable: the blond hair, the exhilarating acceleration, the mesmerising ball control. Paul Gascoigne was reborn and we were back at Wembley for Euro 96.
Yet there was ultimately that nagging sense of dissatisfaction by the end of the tournament. Rested against the Czech Republic, Foden then wasn’t picked against Germany and the Ukraine.
He came on in the semi-final against Denmark and his impact was such that he might have started the final, had not a foot injury intervened. Certainly his ball retention is surely what England needed against Italy. And he would undoubtedly have taken a penalty.
Foden looks even better and stronger this season. His display against Liverpool last weekend was breath-taking, leaving experienced, hardened pundits spellbound. No English player in the modern era can match Gascoigne for talent and only Rooney came close.
Foden announced his next step up at Euro 2020, drying his hair Gazza-style and thriving
But the fact that this young man from Stockport had dyed his hair in homage to Gazza was a statement in itself. He is willing to take on that challenge.
They could hardly be more different, Gascoigne the compulsive extrovert, Foden, quiet and observant when in groups outside of his family. The obsessions he does share with Gascoigne, other than football, is a love of fishing.
Famously, when Manchester City won the 2018 Premier League title and Foden had just broken into the team, captain Vincent Kompany rang to invite him to the impromptu party the team had organised at a pub in Altrincham. Foden sheepishly declined: he was going night fishing with his dad.
With Gascoigne, you felt he time away angling was a reconnection with sanity. For Foden, it seems like the natural outlet of an introvert. After the Euro 2020 final, many of England’s Euro squad met up in Mykonos, happily singing along to Sweet Caroline at beach bars.
Foden was to be found at Cudmore Fisheries near Whitmore in Staffordshire, where the bream and carp are apparently plentiful. He didn’t go abroad or even on holiday at all. He simply fished with his dad, rehabilitated from injury and played the paternal role in the birth of his daughter, his second child, a sister for his son, Ronnie, now 2.
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‘That kept me busy…kept me on my toes while I was injured!’ he said. As does Ronnie, who is already following in dad’s footsteps. ‘He’s only two and kicking a ball everywhere! I keep hearing bangs in the hall!’
There was an intriguing cameo the other week after Chelsea had beaten Manchester City 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. An hour after the final whistle, when the players had showered, changed and were walking along the pitch-side to leave, Foden and his new City team-mate Jack Grealish found themselves with Chelsea’s Mason Mount.
Ben Chilwell sauntered up to join them. For ten minutes, the quartet chatted like old friends, doubtless reliving the summer’s war stories and planning future social meet ups. Liverpool versus Manchester United circa 2001 it was not.
Imagine Gary Neville and Paul Scholes palling up with England team-mates Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard post match, especially after a defeat.
Yet this generation are genuinely bemused when they are told past England squads would sit on different tables based on club allegiance. ‘I don’t see the problem when you’re battling on the pitch and fighting against each other, once the full-time whistle is gone to show your respect and talk to your team-mates,’ said Foden.
This England are able to put club rivalries aside and it has seen the team drastically improve
‘That is the kind of bonding we have here now. We are all so close and tight as a group. It definitely helps in games when we need each other. When we need team-mates to help each other, it helps having this bond.’
This is Southgate’s greatest achievement as England manager. No one has succeeded in transforming the culture like he has, so that England players want to meet up.
Five years ago, he took this job on a caretaker basis and in the chaos that had followed the debacle of Euro 2016 and Sam Allardyce’s farcical hiring and sacking in 67 days, Southgate inherited a hollowed-out, broken institution, where players were suspicious of each other and some reluctant to play.
Now they a group of ambitious and talented young men, united in purpose whose results demand they be taken seriously.
And if Foden continues to shine, surely England will too.