Marc Guehi is one of the select few who knows what it takes to win a major tournament in an England shirt.
The Chelsea defender, on loan at Swansea City, was a key part of Steve Cooper’s Under-17 World Cup side four years ago, scoring in the final against Spain having worn the captain’s armband five months previous when losing on penalties to the same opponents in the European Championship final.
The now 20-year-old went from being “distraught and devastated” in late spring to overjoyed in autumn. It served as a sharp learning curve in the development of one of the country’s most promising centre backs, putting the fine margins between success and failure in sharp context but also hammering home the importance of unity.
“It takes a lot of togetherness,” he says of what is needed to win at international level. “That’s the one big component to go on and win a competition.”
A similar feeling will be required if Aidy Boothroyd’s Under-21s, featuring seven members of that victorious Under-17 squad, are to go far in the unusual, split-format European Championship that begins this week.
The tournament gets underway on Thursday afternoon with the group stage held across six days and the knockout rounds to come at the end of May. England begin with a game against Switzerland on Thursday afternoon before facing Portugal and Croatia in Group C.
It is a daunting schedule during a relentless club campaign but the centre back believes the familiarity of a squad filled with players that have come through the pathway together can give them an edge.
Guehi is joined in the squad by fellow Chelsea players Conor Gallagher and Callum Hudson-Odoi, with whom he has won more than a dozen underage club trophies in addition to international success. Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe, Fulham’s Steven Sessegnon, Sheffield United’s Rhian Brewster and Stoke’s Josef Bursik were all part of the Under-17 squad too.
“It’s fantastic having all us boys that were at the World Cup together,” he adds. “We’re all good friends, we grew up together and were playing against each other in youth teams and Under-21. We know a lot about each and follow each other, which is fantastic. It’s just a real good group of friends, a tight unit of players that want to do the best for one another. That’s really important.”
Another surprise benefit according to Guehi is that they find it easier to have a go at one another on the pitch without hesitation or concern of offending a team-mate.
“It’s massive,” Guehi adds. “I know how important it is on the pitch. You can really define the way a game goes and stuff like that. Being familiar with each other helps. Sometimes when digging a team-mate out you know it comes from a place of love and wanting to be the best and wanting for your team-mate to be the best. That familiarity really helps and is a big spark for this team.”
While this squad is entirely different to the one that failed to make it out of the group two years ago, a cloud lingers and the expectation heading into this tournament is perhaps even higher as a result.
England are third favourites behind Spain and France. Guehi said the class of 2021 believe they can go all the way in a tournament that the country last won in 1984.
“Naturally when you put on this shirt it is vital to go out and do your best but in this camp especially we feel there is an opportunity to go out and win this tournament,” the defender adds. “There are a lot of strong teams in this tournament with a lot of good players but when you put on this England jersey the expectation is to do everything you can to win.”
On a personal level, Cooper’s influence remains vital, with the now Swansea head coach working hard to secure his loan from Chelsea last January.
Guehi has been one of the Championship’s standout defenders, predominantly operating on the left side of a back three opposed to the four favoured by Boothroyd and that has fed into the hope that he can go on to make a full breakthrough for his parent club.
“Playing men’s football is every kid’s dream after playing in youth football for so long, and in 21s and wanting to get out there and learn,” he says. “That’s me basically. I just wanted to go out on loan, be a sponge and absorb everything I could. Especially this season a lot of that has come to fruition.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity. The gaffer has been crucial for my development since the England U17s. He’s helped me a lot and Mike Marsh [Cooper’s deputy]. They’ve really supported my development, they’ve said to just be myself and that’s one of the reasons I’m here. Just me being myself. I’m grateful for all their help.”
That gratitude may be shared by the England and Chelsea senior teams in the not too distant future.