One week after tasting promotion glory with Leeds United, two jewels in Thorp Arch’s crown will be playing World Cup football with England. Mateo Joseph and Darko Gyabi played starring roles in the under-21s’ return to the summit of academy football, but now their attentions turn to the Three Lions.
The 19-year-olds were front and centre as the Whites marched to the Premier League 2 Division Two play-off trophy on Monday night. Their form with United’s academy has not gone unnoticed with seats on the plane in England's confirmed squad for the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Adam Underwood, the club’s head of academy, was the man to deliver the news to the pair last week ahead of Monday’s play-off decider. It’s another proud moment for one of the country’s best academy programmes.
“Incredibly proud of both of those players, as are all the staff in the club, and that's including the first-team staff,” he said. “Everybody wants to see young players play at the highest level and, of course, it's a huge honour to represent your country.
“Both of those lads were over the moon when I called them the other night to let them know. Ever since then, the excitement is clear.”
Joseph, who scored 15 goals in 19 Premier League 2 appearances, was first called into Ian Foster’s under-20s in March to some initial surprise. Born in Santander before playing for Racing Santander and Espanyol, Joseph had been pigeonholed by many as an exclusively Spanish youth prospect.
The striker is in fact eligible for the Three Lions through his English father and St George’s Park’s scouts did not waste any time in nailing down one of the country’s best young goalscorers. Joseph arrived at Leeds in January 2022 and less than 18 months later he's in the national team.
“Mateo’s journey has been slightly longer than Darko’s and we've seen him grow so much over that period of time,” said Underwood. “Interest from not just England, but also Spain has been clear.
“Any player who has opportunities to pick between nations, at some point, will face a dilemma and, arguably, it's a good problem to have in many senses. Mateo has made a decision that's entirely his and a decision I'm sure he will believe is the right thing for him at this moment.
“His experiences leading up to World Cup selection with England were really positive and scoring a couple of goals, playing a strong part in the last round of fixtures has helped that. Beyond all of that, he's such a committed, and such a dedicated, player and an absolute pleasure to have in our groups and a real role model.”
Gyabi’s rise has been rapid too. While he has been better known to the England system, there was some pleasant surprise in seeing him leap from under-19s to under-20s for the first time on such an important stage.
The midfielder arrived at Leeds six months later than Joseph, but he has made himself just as crucial a cog in the under-21s set-up. Like Joseph, Gyabi broke into the first team with three appearances, including a Premier League bow against former club Manchester City.
“Having been with us now for a year, he’s (Gyabi) done nothing but impress in every sense, on the pitch and off the pitch,” said Underwood. “Great character and somebody, like many of those under-21s we have, we can be excited about.
“He's obviously a younger player travelling with that England group, which is arguably something to take note of because they'll want to involve younger players who have future potential. That's a real feather in his cap.”
Underwood added: “Travelling to Argentina for both those guys is going to be a brilliant experience and hopefully they can go and have that competitive success over there and contribute to a terrific tournament for England, which would make us really proud.”
England face Tunisia at 7pm UK time in their Group E opener on May 22 before facing Uruguay at 7pm on May 25 and then Iraq on May 28 at 7pm too. The tournament will be broadcast in the UK on Eurosport.