From Sheffield to Sunderland, Washington to Warrington, Bury to Barnsley, the Northern accents and down to earth attitudes of England’s players have been a refreshing signature of the 2018 World cup team. Yorkshire-born Harry Maguire has spoken of a “band of brothers” spirit. Such togetherness has been conspicuous for its absence in previous campaigns. The nation has taken the young team into their hearts.

Eight out of 11 of this year’s starting line up hail from ‘Up North’. Only Harry Kane, Dele Ali, and Raheem Sterling could be classed as southerners (Sterling was born in Jamaica but brought up in London). Four years ago Frank Lampard was the sole southerner in the starting 11 for the World Cup (and Sterling was the only player in the 23 man squad to have attended a London school).

Occasional England teams have been more balanced (geographically speaking): 6 out of the 11 in the Euro 1996 team for example were from London or the south. Yet overall since the first international in 1872, the north has produced more than twice the number of England players.

The downside of this Northern dominance is we could be missing out on footballing talent elsewhere in the country. Some have bemoaned the paucity of playing fields in London diminishing the development of young footballers in the capital. On the other hand England’s footballers are representative of the nation in terms of education backgrounds. The 2018 starting eleven are all from state schools (as is 93% of the population). In stark contrast, half of the players in our national cricket and rugby teams come from private schools that make up only 7% of schools. Perhaps the ‘posh’ south simply has less stock to pick from for the working class game.

But England’s football team continues to miss out on the country’s summer born talents. This is due the ‘relative age effect’ (RAE), the phenomenon by which younger children in a school year do less well at school or in sport. Children born at the start of the academic year (September) achieve better exam results, on average, than children born at the end of the academic year (August). The effect has been documented for sports teams across the world.

You are far less likely to earn an England cap if you were born in June, July and August than if you were born in the autumn. In the 2018 team there are two summer born players (Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane); in 2014 and in 1996 there was just one (Frank Lampard and Alan Shearer respectively). This pattern can’t be explained away by birth trends during the year. The implication is that England could be an even stronger team if they followed the All Blacks rugby team’s approach of ignoring age when developing younger players.

What is clear is that the backgrounds of the 2018’s band of brothers is uncannily similar to England’s 1966 winning team. Captain Bobby Moore was one of only three southerners in the team. All were state educated. The World Cup was won by Northern grit and flair. And there was only one summer born player – Roger Hunt. A sign that football’s finally coming home?

With thanks to Salman Ali Raja for his help with research for this post.

Photo by Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

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