Football – at the top level – is back after the international break, with the Premier League taking centre stage once more. The rung or two below, however, should not be ignored.
Gareth Southgate’s side that faced San Marino, Albania and Poland in the last 10 days was filled not only with players from the ‘top six’ but also stars from Aston Villa, Burnley, Everton, Southampton and more.
Declan Rice just became the first West Ham United player since the early 2000s to earn 15 caps for the Three Lions whilst playing for the Hammers, and Kalvin Phillips is the first Leeds United player in an England setup since Paul Robinson in 2003.
But while it’s nice that there’s so much of a spread – granted, it’s partly due to injuries – it’s equally as pleasing to see the huge role that the English Football League has played in helping so many of this group get to where they are now.
Goalkeeper Nick Pope is a perfect place to start. Before becoming a Premier League regular a Burnley, he had played around 80 games in the Championship and League Two, and a handful down in the National League. Meanwhile, fellow stopper, Dean Henderson, has actually played more Championship games than in the Premier League games as things stand.
Sam Johnstone, the third-choice keeper in the squad, has over 230 EFL appearances to his name after numerous loan spells in his early Red Devils career out and about in the lower leagues, while Jordan Pickford, missing through injury, gained a wealth of experience at Darlington and Preston before his big-money move to Everton.
Harry Maguire made his name in League One before stepping up into the Premier League, and his fellow Sheffielder and former Blade, Kyle Walker, racked up more than 50 EFL games in the second and third tier ahead of joining Tottenham Hotspur.
John Stones played 24 Championship games before being snapped up by Everton and then Manchester City, and Tyrone Mings has over 70 appearances in the same league to his name.
In total, just six members of Southgate’s latest England squad – Rice, Eric Dier, Luke Shaw, Phil Foden, James Ward-Prowse and Raheem Sterling – haven’t played at least one game in the lower leagues during their career.
You only have to go back a few years to Dominic Calvert-Lewin playing National League and League Two football at Stalybridge Celtic and Northampton Town respectively - in the same two seasons, Ollie Watkins was alongside him at Weston-super-Mare and Exeter City.
So while the Premier League is where the real money is at, and is arguably the greatest division in the world, this group of England players – one of the most exciting and likeable in years – has been created with a helping hand from the ‘little’ clubs that played their part in nurturing them.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and every Watkins, Calvert-Lewin and Mason Mount success story is another feather in the cap of probably the best football pyramid out there.