England U21 goalkeeper James Trafford justified his reported transfer fee to Burnley as the Three Lions won the U21 Euros, write Alfie Sayers and Pat Lee Nichols.
In 2012, the English FA knew they had to dispel a burning narrative: that English football was faltering on the international stage, with little sign of an upturn soon. After failing to qualify for the 2008 European Championships, combined with a forgettable display in South Africa in 2010, it was clear a wave of change was desperately required. But change would take some time to be realised. Around the same time, Greg Dyke, the then-Chairman of the FA, had spoken of how the English game was in crisis.
Defeat to Iceland in the Round of 16 at EURO 2016 marked rock bottom for England, but it also marked the beginning of a new era. Two years earlier in in 2014, the then-Director of Elite Development at the FA, Dan Ashworth, highlighted the need for greater technical ability and tactical competency throughout the age groups. The launch of the ‘England DNA’ that year was designed to deliver England the success it yearned for.
In the nine years that have followed, the senior men’s and women’s teams have taken great leaps, culminating in the Lionesses lifting the Women's Euros in 2022. However, with no major tournament for the men’s team until 2024, the next burden of success lay on the next generation of English talent, at the Under 21 European Championships.
And, oh boy, did they deliver.
The goalkeeping department was led by one of the hottest properties in English goalkeeping right now, Manchester City's James Trafford (though, reportedly, soon to be of Burnley). He was deputised by a combination of Carl Rushworth (Brighton) and Josh Griffiths (West Brom). The whole squad was littered with Premier League quality.
It would be Trafford that would start the first game of the tournament against the Czech Republic. This first solid initial performance proved to be the groundwork for making history, and a first clean sheet of many. The group stage would be completed with a 2-0 win over Israel, and a 2-0 win that sent Germany home early; all three group games finished with the same 2-0 scoreline. Three clean sheets on the spin was impressive, but many goalkeepers had gone flawless in group stages previously, including Pickford at Euro 2020.
However, this was no ordinary 20 year old goalkeeper and no ordinary youth side. A Quarter Final match against Portugal would see more action for Trafford. A smart 13th minute stop set the tone as a fourth clean sheet was achieved. A re-match with group stage opponents Israel came next. Trafford would showcase his excellent ball tracking and positioning to deny a point blank header in the 84th minute, which all but sealed victory.
That marked clean sheet number five, and brought a fourth Under 21 European final for the Three Lions. It would be their first since 2009, a 4-0 thrashing by Germany. Scott Loach was the unfortunate man in between the sticks that day and a certain Manuel Neuer his counterpart.
But here was an opportunity for James Trafford to do something even the great German could not manage: lift the U21 Euros without conceding a goal through 540 minutes of staunch protection. The final opponents for Trafford and Co. would be Spain, who many regarded as pre-tournament favourites. They boasted talents such as Sergio Gomez (Manchester City), Oihan Sancet (Athletic Bilbao), Abel Ruiz (Braga) and in goal, the promising Arnau Tenas (Barcelona). The latter's contract officially expire on June 30th but talks remain on-going for an extension with the Catalan side.
The game would prove to be fluid, with the two best ‘footballing’ sides going jab for jab. The aforementioned Tenas would prove a stubborn shot-stopper, denying Anthony Gordon early on. There was little, however, that the Barcelona B goalkeeper could do to deny a wicked deflection off Curtis Jones that gave England the lead just before the half was out. A superb save would come again from Tenas in the early stages of the second half, to the disbelief of the previous goalscorer Jones. The remainder of the second half saw Spain push for an equaliser, but Trafford remained largely untested.
An England breakaway in the 88th minute looked set to end the affair and wrap up victory, but a miraculous double save from Tenas would keep Spain in with a chance. His goalkeeping performance looked set to be given a just reward as in the 99th minute, after long delays, VAR awarded Spain a penalty. It was time for Trafford to make history.
Three large strides back had Abel Ruiz start his run up from the top of the box. He opted to side foot the ball in the direction of the bottom left corner. Trafford got the bulk of his body across and deflect the ball away, though it rebounded straight into the path of an onrushing Spanish attacker. This follow-up was again denied by sharp footwork, and a third and final attempt was lashed high into the stands.
Trafford's pre-match vision of saving a penalty had come to fruition. He became the first goalkeeper in tournament history to lift the trophy and not concede in any of his six games. Viral clips flooded social media of his heroics on Saturday night, silencing all the criticism of Burnley for reportedly spending £19 million on him.
Should his move go ahead, Trafford will command the third highest fee for a British goalkeeper ever. Based on the strength of his performances across this summer's tournament, and his time at Bolton, we think that fee may seem a bargain in the years to come.