Inside the Lionesses talent factory: Five players to watch

Aggie Beever-Jones during an England Under-23s training session
Aggie Beever-Jones is one of the England youngsters looking to impress - Getty Images/Naomi Baker

England Under-23s have swapped St George’s Park for Spain’s Costa del Sol and a warm-weather camp where they are joining up with the senior women’s squad.

To one side, pristine-white Villas and palm trees sit atop a sheer cliff face in peaceful silence, while to the other, the Rio Guadaiza runs down the valley towards the Mediterranean sea, and in the middle lie the immaculate pitches at La Quinta Football Fields. This green grass, for one week only, is the factory floor for the highly competitive production line that produces Lionesses.

“Ok, let’s have a look at this midfield shape,” shouts England Under-23s head coach Emma Coates, as she briefly halts a training drill and positions herself in between the centre-backs to get the vantage point she wants. The style of play matters crucially because it’s part of the DNA the FA want to see in a Lioness.

“We have an internal blueprint for success: The playing and coaching curriculum and the operating philosophy for all of our England teams starts from the Under-15s, and one of the golden threads across that is how we want to play the game,” The Football Association’s women’s technical director Kay Cossington says, speaking to just a couple of newspaper journalists watching on at the side of the pitch at La Quinta.

“At Under-23s it’s not necessarily about a team winning three points. Of course we’re teaching players to win, that goes without saying, but it’s about carefully managing the transition of each and every one of these individuals, up and back from the seniors. Some of them are getting international senior-team exposure. They can feel it, they can touch it, they’re part of it. It is about preparing them to be able to perform on the world stage.”

Naomi Layzell, Laura Blindkilde Brown, Jess Naz and Aggie Beever-Jones of Englan during a training session
England's players training in Marbella - Getty Images/Naomi Baker

On Sunday alone, four of the Under-23s were invited up to train with Sarina Wiegman’s senior squad: Chelsea’s Aggie Beever-Jones, Manchester City’s Laura Blindkilde Brown, Bristol City’s Naomi Layzell and Tottenham Hotspur’s Jess Naz. And Cossington believes there’s huge value in senior internationals having come through the youth pathway.

“We take comfort and pride in that, at the Fifa [Women’s] World Cup last summer, we were the only nation where all 23 players had been capped at youth [international] level, and I think we should take pride in the system that we’ve created,” she said. “That hasn’t just happened in the past year or so. That’s 10-15 years of work.”

Coates’ youngsters were beaten 3-1 by world champions Spain on Thursday in Marbella but the former Doncaster Rovers Belles manager said her squad went “toe-to-toe” with Spain and passionately believes there are future senior stars in her setup.

Telegraph Sport runs through five players to watch for the future.

Aggie Beever-Jones (20)

Called up from the U23s to the senior squad to join the bench for Friday’s 7-2 win for the Lionesses over Austria, Chelsea forward Beever-Jones is arguably the closest to making a big breakthrough.

The former Bristol City and Everton loanee has earned her chance in Emma Hayes’ first team and has scored five times in her 10 Women’s Super League appearances this season.

And her involvement with Wiegman’s side is why Coates describes their joint warm-weather camp with such passion. She said: “I say it’s like touching the fire because they can feel the heat and go ‘OK, this is what it’s going to take to get to the next step.’ It’s super important.”

Michelle Agyemang (18)

Not yet with the Under-23s, but playing with the Under-19s around 500km eastwards in Alicante, is Arsenal’s Agyemang. The teenager scored twice in Saturday’s 3-2 loss against France in the Under-19s’ opening game of the La Nucia youth tournament, including netting this long-range scorcher:

Injury has limited Agyemang to just five Championship appearances so far this season but that hasn’t scored her notching up four league goals and she is one of the country’s brightest prospects.

Naomi Layzell (19)

The first of Coates’ Under-23s to be asked to train up with Wiegman’s seniors after arriving in Marbella was Bristol City centre-back Layzell, who volunteers at her local school in Bristol helping children learn to read.

In Spain, she’s the one doing the learning, in particular when listening to former England centre-half Anita Asante, who is on Coates’ coaching staff alongside several others including current Birmingham City midfielder Remi Allen and former Aston Villa head coach Gemma Davies.

On Asante’s guidance, Layzell said: “She’s there to support you and give you the extra details that you need. Especially as a centre-back, body-shape and positioning is especially important, and she’s experienced it, so she can only give the best information. It just means that the feedback can be so individualised, or ‘this is the extra 1 per cent you can do off ball’, so that you’re in a better position. She has got the best experiences and she wants to pass that on.”

Missy Bo Kearns (22)

Captaining Coates’ Under-23s side and enjoying a good season with Liverpool is die-hard Red Missy Bo Kearns, who describes fellow Scouser Alex Greenwood as her “big sister” and believes February’s joint training camp can inspire this group, saying: “It gives you that extra bite of your lip and desire to push.

“It’s an unbelievable experience for us all, just to have that little sniff of what it’s like and where we want to be. It’s a bit of extra motivation.

“No-one’s getting too giddy with it and everybody’s thriving on the opportunity and experience we’re getting. We’ve got the style of play - I think that’s so good in the sense [of] where we mirror them. It makes life easier in the future.”

Missy Bo Kearns playing for Liverpool
Missy Bo Kearns playing for Liverpool - Getty Images/Liverpool FC

Ruby Mace (20)

Tipped by some to be a long-term successor to Keira Walsh in England’s holding midfield role, Manchester City midfielder Mace thrived during a loan spell at Leicester City last season and seems to be at the centre of what the Under-23s try to do in possession.

“Everything we do is just a mimic of what the seniors do,” Mace tells Telegraph Sport. “It’s good to see what they [the seniors] are doing to put into place the expectations that we need to get there, and all of us want to get there.”

The senior Lionesses watched from the stands of the Marbella Football Center, a short drive down the valley from La Quinta, and many were seen chatting with Under-23s at full time. The youngsters’ training schedule meant they couldn’t attend England’s game against Austria in Algeciras, around an hour’s drive away, but they watched on from afar after a group BBQ.

Cossington keen for an Under-23s Euros

Coates’ team’s next game, on Monday, sees them meet the Netherlands in a new European Under-23s league that the English FA have fought hard to see formed for this particular age group. England are unbeaten so far in this league - Thursday’s meeting with Spain being a friendly - and Cossington said: “We’ve all recognised that there is a gap in the provision of major competitions throughout the women’s pathway, from pathway to senior team, [with] the Under-20s World Cup obviously being the latest age in the pathway. We felt that it was really important to provide a good competition element to transition players into seniors and keep bridging the gap into the senior team environment.

“In terms of what the gaps are right now, as you know there are good levels of competition at 17s and 19s and 20s in terms of Euros and World Cups, and my personal view is that the 23s is the gap at the moment.”

For the future, Cossington believes a formal European Championships for Under-23 teams is the way forward, adding: “Ideally we’d love an Under-23s Euros. That would be utopia for us.

“Many countries would be willing to participate in that. I also believe it’s a bit ‘chicken-and-egg’ scenario. I think you’ll start to see other Federations investing in their Under-23s if there was a competition. So I think that will then aid the growth of the game as well.”

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