Young returns to England fold offering wisdom, guidance to promising youth
Ashley Young didn't expect to be here. Having become a peripheral figure at Manchester United, often left out of not just the team but matchday squads by Jose Mourinho last season, a recall to the England team was pretty low on his list of priorities and expectations. But after a run of good form, a switch of position and, to be frank, a paucity of other options for Gareth Southgate, he's back.
Young's international career to this point has been nothing spectacular, with 30 sporadically earned caps spread over six years, the most notable moment probably being his missed penalty in the shootout against Italy at Euro 2012. He hasn't played for his country since 2013, and while in the interim England haven't exactly gone from strength to strength, focus has turned away from his generation and to the clutch of promising youngsters coming through the system.
But now, having been brought back into the international fold, could Young actually be entering the most significant phase of his England career? He is suddenly the senior citizen, at 32 the oldest player in Southgate's squad for the upcoming friendlies against Germany and Brazil. The only real thing to get excited about in these games is the first graduates from England's recent success at youth level coming through: Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Joe Gomez are all exciting talents, but an experienced head to offer advice and guidance would certainly be handy.
"I've found that at club level too," said Young, of his new status as the sage old soul. "All of a sudden I'm in the top three seniors. You become more wise and get more experience. If I can bring my experience to the younger boys here, I can help them and they can help me.
"The manager's said he's going with younger players but he's also said those playing well and on form will get a chance. If I can bring experience to help them, like I do with Marcus [Rashford] and Jesse [Lingard] at United, they're always players that want to learn."
Young is better placed than many to comment on Rashford's rise, having witnessed it at close quarters. "When I first signed for United [in 2011, when Rashford was only 14] his name was being mentioned, and you could tell he was going to be a big talent. Even at that young age he wanted to learn, and wanted to be the best.
"He's got his feet on the ground and wants to learn and better himself every day. I think the manager has to drag him off the training pitch every day because he wants to be out there all the time. It's refreshing to see that in a kid so young, that he wants to get to the top. He's a special talent."
Dele Alli is another of those younger players, but alas a hamstring injury has denied us an emotional reunion between he and Young, who -- shall we say -- had words during United's recent 1-0 win over Tottenham. "Come back when you've won the Prem," Young was clearly seen to have said, offering a sharp put-down to the impudent youth who has taken up residence in the England side, but without Young's medal collection.
"Things happen on football pitches," Young said. "Things are said, but once the game is finished you talk afterwards. That's how it is. He's a confident player, and a very good player, and that's what gives him that edge." He hasn't got that Premier League medal though, has he? "Not yet." And, with a grin: "It would've been nice to see him."
Experience was the theme Young kept coming back to, not least in another aspect that could make him very useful to Southgate. When he was last in the England setup, Young was most certainly a winger, but tactical necessity has meant he's been forced to play at full-back and wing-back for United, where he's done well. And it's that flexibility that is key, particularly for an international team.
"It's one of the things the manager said," Young said. "As a footballer nowadays you've got to play in different formations and systems, and it's just whether you can adapt. I've been able to do that. [Southgate] has talked about playing 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, so I feel I can step into that role whenever called upon."
Ideally Young would still like to be further forwards, but at this point in his career, and with his spells out of the team in mind, he's probably happy just to be involved. And more importantly, it's his know-how and years in the game that have allowed him to flourish in these new roles.
"It's more having the right footballing brain," he says, when asked if previously playing as a winger helped inform how he approaches more defensive duties. "I'm one of those players who can read the game well. I've got that experience to be clever, know where to be, when to attack, when to defend. It's been quite easy to adjust to the position, and with the help of [Mourinho] and the other players I've done that really well."
As Young sits at St George's Park, the whole England setup having changed since he was last around, there is an edge to his speech. A slight "I've shown you" attitude, having earned his recall when many in the media and general public thought he was done. And he's quite right to think so: determination and circumstance have brought him back, and now he wants to stay.
"I've showed I'm deserving to be in the squad," he said, "but it's not just that it's being in the team. I want to play every game. The World Cup is a long way away, but every England player wants to be in the World Cup. I'll never retire until my legs tell me I can't run anymore."
England might need those legs to stick it out for a little longer.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.