Reaching the final of the 2017 European Under-19 Championship was certainly no easy path for England manager Keith Downing to follow. Qualifying was complicated enough, with Spain a daunting obstacle in the Elite Round, yet after beating them 3-0 and concluding their group – which also included Norway and Belarus – with three wins, 11 goals scored and only one conceded, the real obstacles were only just approaching.
"We're here without six players who should have come," Downing said, bemoaning the lack of key individuals he was deprived of due to club commitments. "This has been a major challenge and issue in our preparation.
"The best players don't come for whatever reason: it's pre-season back at home and they are under pressure to be there. It's a shame – it would be really good if everybody was bringing their best players. It's always better to play against the best, test yourselves against the best. For the development, that is what it is all about."
Downing may therefore not have had his best, but his team nevertheless proved that they were still the best, with England's manager perhaps reluctantly becoming a victim of England's recent success in youth tournaments with more and more Young Lions considered key individuals for their clubs. Already in 2017, the Young Lions had snatched the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and the Toulon Tournament for under-17s, adding that to their UEFA European Under-17 crown from 2014.
Downing made it a calendar year hat-trick as he delivered the latest positive results to emerge from the FA's commitment to their St. George's Park national football centre, which opened back in 2012.
"We have heavily invested in St. George's Park in the last five years," Downing said. "What we need to do now is sustain this success and continue working through all the age groups. It has been a big year for us and we'll enjoy it, but we'll continue to work. This year has created a huge momentum."
For the former manager of Cheltenham Town and West Bromwich Albion, victory in Georgia would nevertheless be considered the pinnacle of his career – to date. He joined the FA in July 2015, initially working with the Under-20s before assuming charge of the Under-19s in August 2016. He does not feel his job is done yet, though. Far from it.
"What we need to do now is sustain this success and continue working through all the age groups," he said. "We don't want this just to be a fantastic year. We must try now to have some consistency and not be a one-summer wonder. We want this to be the foundation for more consistent success."
Downing returned to St. George's Park with the latest trophy to adorn a cabinet which was built large enough to accommodate plenty more, confident he has helped launch more players on their own paths to what could perhaps soon see the ultimate prize delivered, with the England DNA playing and coaching philosophy starting to bear fruit.
"We saw the Under-20s winning in South Korea while we were at a training camp in Spain and some of the boys know the players from their clubs – there is a vested interest in each other, it rubs off and it has snowballed," he said. "There is very much a communication right the way through to the seniors. [England manager] Gareth [Southgate] obviously understands the development through the age groups. These boys are real talented youngsters. Six boys are under 18 so it's a young group, but they showed resilience as well as quality."
Thanks to Downing's successful implementation of the England DNA, regardless of the tools he ultimately had at his disposal, the obstacle-ridden path to glory was navigated in a way which suggests plenty more is to come from the birthland of football, which appears to have found its way back on track.