What happened to the last England Under-21s team to reach the European Championship final?

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With their 3-0 dismissal of Israel on Wednesday evening, England’s Under-21s have reached the final of the European Championships for the first time in 14 years. Lee Carsley’s side will face Spain on Saturday without having conceded a single goal in the tournament, and could well become the first English team to win the competition since 1984.

What that actually presages for the future is up for debate. History suggests that many of the squad playing in Romania and Georgia right now will never make it as far as the senior team, and the odds are that only a handful will be good enough to become regular internationals. Age group squads rapidly become time capsules for talent, filled with near misses, also-rans and brightly burning flashes in the pan alongside those who would go on to become legends of the game.

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So we wanted to take a look back at the last England side to make it this far – Stuart Pearce’s 2009 team that were thrashed 4-0 in the final by a Germany side that included Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels among many others. To say that the England team’s future fortunes were mixed would be an almighty understatement…

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GK: Scott Loach

Still in the professional game at 35, Loach is currently living the luxurious life of the back-up ‘keeper at Derby County. Best remembered for his 154 league appearances at Watford, Loach has since played for a bewildering array of clubs – 22 in total, 13 of which were on loan. Never appeared for the senior team but actually played his last England match in 2022, for England C, the non-league side who beat Wales C 1-0.

RB: Martin Cranie

Scored one of England’s goals in the 3-3 semi-final draw with Sweden, but another player who never made it as far as the senior ranks, and indeed only made 9 Premier League appearances – for Southampton, Portsmouth and most recently Huddersfield Town. He’s spent most of his career in the second tier, with over 450 professional games to his name, but has been a free agent since being released by Luton Town in 2021. Still not officially retired at 36.

CB: Micah Richards

A massively promising career that felt like it fizzled out slightly after a stunning start. In his early days at Manchester City, Richards was brilliant and earned 13 senior caps – scoring his only goal against Israel in 2007. Then there were injuries, a gradual loss of form and even more injuries. All of which saw him sent on loan to Fiorentina before a somewhat unedifying spell at Aston Villa. Retired at just 31 to become a hugely engaging pundit, star of Celebrity Gogglebox and general bon vivant. Living his best life at all times.

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CB: Nedum Onuoha

Another Manchester City defender with immense promise who never quite hit the expected heights. Still made nearly 200 Premier League games for City and QPR, but never got as far as the senior England squad despite being absolute mustard on several Football Manager games. Retired in 2020 and took an accounting degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, but instead has begun to make his name as a superb broadcast journalist. He’s brilliant on Football Weekly, if you’ve not heard him.

LB: Kieran Gibbs

Another player who moved into the media after his career, Gibbs quietly retired at Inter Miami in February and joined their in-house media team, a gig which has likely been livened up quite a bit since Lionel Messi showed up. Made 10 appearances for the senior squad and was a regular for Arsenal from around 2012 to 2015, but spent most of his career either as a squad player at the Emirates and with West Bromwich Albion.

CM: Fabrice Muamba

Was already a regular first-teamer at Bolton by the time the Under-21 Euros rolled around, and he made 167 appearances in the top tier before he came shockingly close to losing his life after suffering a cardiac arrest during a game against Spurs. His heart stopped for 78 minutes but, almost miraculously, he was revived. Understandably retired on medical advice after that brush with tragedy, and has spent time coaching and in the media since.

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CM: Lee Cattermole

A shin-kicking Sunderland star and a hard-as-nails was an eternally aggressive presence in English football before his retirement in 2020. Was playing in this tournament just a few months after being banned from all pubs in the Stockton area for his troublemaking antics, but clearly stayed sober enough to carve out a pretty solid top-level career – even if he too never made the senior team. Picked up an impressive total of 85 yellow and red cards along the way, too, largely for treating opposing midfielders in much the same way as he did the pubs of the North East.

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CM: Mark Noble

Another club legend and a rare example of a proper one-club man in the modern era (early-career loan spells don’t count, come off it) - Mark Noble will be remembered by West Ham United fans for years to come for his leadership, elegant passing, and penalties. Ended up with 550 senior appearances for the Hammers and exactly zero for England, mention of which is a great way to get people in East London seething even now.

RW: James Milner

A genuine Premier League great with over 600 games in the top division and counting, three winners medals and 61 England appearances to boot. He was, astonishingly, playing in this tournament seven years after making his top flight debut, having become the youngest goalscorer in top tier history when he bagged for Leeds United in 2002 at the age of 16. Obviously not “Under 21” by this point, then, but allowed to finish the campaign anyway with the eligibility rules. Also the only man in this article to inspire a Twitter account dedicated to their dullness.

LW: Adam Johnson

Let’s move swiftly on.

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CF: Theo Walcott

Second only to Milner over the course of his career, and also still going – he’s set to sign with League One Reading, with the deal expected imminently at the time of writing. Was playing three years after becoming a hugely controversial selection for the 2006 World Cup when he was just 17 years old – not a decision that worked out too well at the time, but he still finished up with eight goals in 47 England games as well as nearly 400 Premier League appearances.

Sub: Michael Mancienne

Freshly retired having only played one single, solitary minute for Burton Albion this past season – Mancienne had an interesting career path, with 50 Premier League appearances, plenty of time in the Championship, three years at Hamburg and a spell in the States with New England Revolution too. Never played for the full England squad, so he switched allegiance to the Seychelles in 2022, getting five international games in before his retirement and even scoring against Bangladesh.

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Sub: Jack Rodwell

Once one of the most dynamic young midfielders in England, a combination of an ill-advised move to Manchester City and shocking luck with injuries conspired to ruin a career which had seemed bound for the stratosphere – although he still managed three England caps before it all went pear-shaped. Now remembered less for how exciting he was at Everton and more for refusing to leave Sunderland on a free despite being barely able (or willing) to play, an unedifying process which was broadcast to the nation courtesy of Netflix.

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Sub: Craig Gardner

A long, solid and thoroughly respectable career awaited versatile midfielder Gardner, playing for Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Sunderland and West Brom. Now 36, he retired in 2020 and had a spell as caretaker manager at Birmingham – he’s now their technical director. Remarkably few interest anecdotes seem to exist about him, unfortunately, but he did once give £500 to the family of a disabled toddler and didn’t tell anyone about it, so he’s probably a thoroughly nice bloke.

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