ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - It could have been the greatest day of their lives but England’s World Cup squad returned home on Sunday with the euphoria that surrounded their run to the last four having dissipated and familiar, less exhilarating, challenges lying ahead.
The Premier League begins in just four weeks and Gareth Southgate’s squad, players who were being hailed as national heroes just a few days ago, will return to the day job and the struggle for starting places at their clubs.
In a league where a large majority of the players are imported from Europe and beyond, being a member of the England squad is no guarantee of first-team football.
It makes life tough for the England manager, who, even at the height of their World Cup optimism, noted the unique issue facing him.
“We only have 33 percent of the league to pick from. So that is still a huge problem for us,” he said.
So for all the talk of England being stronger at the European Championship in two years time, Southgate knows it is not as simple as just adding experience to his side.
The situation is particularly hard for those players at the biggest clubs — none of Marcus Rashford, Phil Jones or Jesse Lingard are guaranteed a regular starting spot under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United.
Fabian Delph, John Stones and Raheem Sterling will all have a battle on their hands to appear regularly on the Manchester City team sheet alongside their England team mate Kyle Walker, who is a fixed presence at right back.
Sterling may have scored 18 goals in 33 appearances in last year’s title-winning campaign, but while he was in Russia, City manager Pep Guardiola completed the signing of Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City for a reported club record fee of 60 million pounds ($79 million).
Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson was an essential part of their run to the Champions League final last season but he too faces expensively-recruited competition in the shape of Brazilian Fabinho and Guinean Naby Keita.
It is even harder for emerging talent.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who ended the tournament with a promising display in the third-place playoff defeat to Belgium, does not even know where he will be playing next season.
His club Chelsea loaned him out to Crystal Palace last term and a change of manager at Stamford Bridge adds to the uncertainty he faces.
Those who can be confident of regular football are found at Tottenham Hotspur — where Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Kieran Trippier are established first-teamers.
Outside the Champions League clubs, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is a clear number one at Everton and Harry Maguire is at the heart of Leicester’s defence.
There is an undeniable air of optimism around the England team though and Football Association Technical Director Dan Ashworth summed up the view that gaining experience is now the key.
“We’ve got some good players in our senior team and some good technical players in our development pathway as well,” said Ashworth.
“We’re probably a little bit short on big-game experience, a bit short on number of national caps and we’re a bit young for what a winning national team looks like,” he said.
Much of the optimism over England’s future stems from the success of the junior teams. Last year, England’s junior teams won the Under-20 World Cup, the Under-17 World Cup and the Under-19 European Championship.
But there is long-standing concern over how much playing time those youngsters will get at their clubs.
Phil Foden, the talented captain of that Under-17 team, has been highlighted by many as a possible answer to the lack of a creative midfielder in Southgate’s squad but the 18-year-old faces a daunting challenge even to get into Manchester City’s midfield.
“He’s got a lot of ability and I can see him developing into a really talented player,” said his team mate Delph, who offered a reminder that Foden is still “learning his craft”.
“In terms of his development within the England set-up. That’s up to him — he’s got to keep working hard and progressing and if he breaks into the City team and shows what he can do, I’m sure the (England) manager will select him.”
The same consideration could apply to a dozen or so young players coming through the system.
When the current England first team, however, are not even guaranteed regular club football, the idea that a conveyor belt of young talent will carry Southgate’s squad to future glory is far from certain.
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Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis