It was certainly a summer to forget for the England national team.
Roy Hodgson’s men failed to win a single game at the 2014 World Cup, and were eliminated barely a week after the tournament began.
But amid all the doom and gloom, there is reason to be optimistic for England fans. A month before the World Cup kicked off in Brazil, the national under-17 side won the European Championships in Malta. Not only did they lift the trophy for just the second time in the country’s history, but they did so in a very un-English manner - after a successful penalty shoot-out.
One of the mainstays for the young Lions was Arsenal full-back Tafari Moore, who started all but one of the games for John Peacock’s side. When the Arsenal Magazine caught up with ‘Taf’ recently, the teenager was still buzzing from the experience of winning silverware for his country.
Read the interview with Tafari and more in the latest edition
“It was the best feeling I’d ever had,” he beams. “To know we are only the second England team to win it feels great. From winning the Victory Shield as a 16 year old, you are working towards the European Championships, so it feels amazing when a two-year plan comes off. To go through all of that as a team, then win it was just incredible – an amazing feeling. I really enjoyed the experience and the sensation when we scored the winning penalty was crazy.”
The youngsters beat hosts Malta (3-0) and Turkey (4-1) in the group stage, with Taf playing both games. He was then rested for the final group game against the Netherlands, with qualification already assured. England lost that game 2-0 but Taf was back in the side for the semi-final against Portugal, and the 2-0 win set up another meeting with the Netherlands in the final.
“We had lost to them in the group stage so when it came to the final we thought ‘now it’s time to get our revenge.’” Taf explains. “We were really up for the game and there were no nerves whatsoever. Everyone in the changing room was confident, we knew we could beat them and we knew we had to beat them. We had a great feeling, everyone walked out for that final with no nerves at all. We were relaxed and confident.”
The whole process, from qualification to final, had gone according to plan for England, and it all came to fruition against the Netherlands. Taf talks us through the process. “We had a few days together preparing at St George’s Park before flying out to Malta. During that time we spent a lot of time practicing penalties. That came in handy at the finals in the end! We worked a lot on playing the ball forward early as well, looking up and moving the ball quickly. A lot of possession based training to get us confident on the ball.”
Once the preparation work was done, it was down to the boys to deliver on the pitch.
“We were among the favourites going into the tournament,” he continues, “and I knew that other teams knew we had a good chance of winning it. Also at previous tournaments and friendlies we had played, this 1997 year group had shown we were capable of winning. By the time it came to the European Championships, we knew we could win it. Each of us believed we could win, we knew we had a good team, especially the way we had performed in qualifying – we won every game we played, and it was basically the same group of players. A lot of us had won the Victory Shield at under-16s too.”
Taf, who turned 17 on July 5, usually plays right back for Arsenal, but he was drafted in at left back for his country, and was pleased with his performances.
“I kept my standard high from how I had played in qualifying. The manager John Peacock said he was really impressed with how I was able to keep the same level of consistency in each game. I had a lot of pressure on me in the Malta and Turkey games to show I could keep performing at that level, but I think I did really well so I was happy with my performances.”
"I kept my standard high from how I had played in qualifying. The manager John Peacock said he was really impressed with how I was able to keep the same level of consistency in each game"
He played the full 80 minutes in the final against the Dutch, which ended 1-1, and therefore went to the dreaded penalty shootout. Though as Taf explains, the younger generation don’t bear the scars of previous shootout disasters, and actually relished taking spot kicks.
“We were confident. If you watched it, you would have seen the confident body language all our players had when they walked up before each penalty. The posture was confident. We had been practicing penalties since May 3, all the way through, and it paid off. So when it came to the shoot out we thought ‘this is advantage to us’ because we thought no other team would have practiced penalties as much as we had. The first penalty from the captain Ryan Ledson set the tone, and I knew then we would win.”
England scored four out of four from 12 yards to win 4-1, though Taf reveals that the shootout would have had to go the distance and then some before he would be involved.
“I was 11th in line, even the goalie was before me!” he smiles. “The thing is I think I’m a decent penalty taker, but all the England boys are really good at it. I’m probably the worst of all of them, but if I had to go up, I would back myself to score. Especially in a final, I would not miss – I would make sure of that. When we were practicing penalties, even the goalies kept scoring.”
That’s a particularly refreshing revelation from a young England player, and shows that something is working well at grassroots level. Taf argues as well, that the psychological preparation was also spot on.
“A winning mentality is really important. You can’t go into a competition with negativity. I honestly believe that what you say and how you approach something has a big impact. Rather than saying ‘if’, say ‘when’. I know some people say that sounds arrogant, but I don’t see it like that, I think it’s about confidence, positive thinking, and that has an effect. That’s what all the boys in the team were doing in the championships.”
After another bitterly disappointing performance from the senior team at the World Cup led to more examination of the FA at grassroots level, but speaking from within the system itself, Taf believes progress is being made.
“They are looking at what other nations are doing, and are learning all the time. It is improving, and you can see that if you watch Youth Cup games. I still think people don’t like watching young players as much because they don’t expect a good game, but if you saw the European Championships, they were amazing games – at a first team level. We won that championships as England, with all English players, so something is working.”
The teenager has his own theories on what went wrong at senior level in Brazil.
“I really expected England to get through the group at least. Other nations still seem to be more comfortable keeping the ball in tight spots. That’s what we need to work on.
“In the World Cup too we weren’t clinical enough in front of goal, compared to other teams. I do think it’s getting better though. We played a lot of youngsters in the game against Costa Rica and England definitely has a future.”
Taf is now hoping to be part of that future, and take the path from youth team to senior international honours. He’s been shown the way by the likes of Ross Barkley, Paul Pogba and Memphis Depay who all appeared in the World Cup this summer, after starring at the Under-17 Championships in the past four years.
Following in such footsteps is another source of inspiration for Taf. “Just to know that players like that were once doing what we are doing now, and now four years later they are playing in the World Cup. It makes you think it’s possible. That’s an aim for me, I’m really going to push for that and I believe in four years time I could be there. I’ll be 20 by the time of the next World Cup, similar age to people like Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw. It’s a great feeling to be able to say I was a European champion at the age of 16. It’s a great confidence booster. I know what it means to be part of a winning team.”
It’s clear that Taf is a hugely ambitious young man, and there’s nothing in his career to date to suggest that optimism is misplaced.
Used to playing above his age group ever since he arrived at the Arsenal academy from QPR at the age of 12, he made nine outings for the under-21s last season as a 16 year old. He then signed his first professional contract with the Club on his 17th birthday. But he has no intention of resting on his laurels now, and is eagerly anticipating what could be a big year.
“I had quite a lot of experience last season, especially at under-21 level, so I would definitely be open to a loan deal this season if it was offered. It would be great to see where I stand at first team level. I just feel like I need to do it. I don’t want to be too old when I start in the first team, I want to do it as a youngster. I’m used to playing an age group or two above anyway.
“If not, it would be great to be involved in the Capital One Cup this season.”That route to the first team may have been cleared slightly following the departure of Bacary Sagna. “Yes, it’s a bit weird.” He grins. “There is plenty of competition though with Jenkinson and Hector Bellerin. We’ll wait and see what happens.”
"Sagna was a big help to me while he was at the club"
But whatever happens in the future, Taf will always be grateful for the advice Bac gave him in the past.
“Sagna was a big help to me while he was at the Club. One v ones weren’t my strongest point, my body position needed improving, and last season we had a session where all the youth players spoke to the first team player who plays in the same position. So Sagna was showing me about body position, how to use your body to slow down your opponent. Also I need to improve my crossing, and he helped a lot on that.”
Taf also paid tribute to another influential figure who left the Club in the summer, former academy boss Liam Brady. “Liam obviously played a big part on my career – I remember he used to put me on the wing sometimes and just shout at me to run at my man. That really helped me to learn more about the position and add to my game.
“I don’t know how things will change this season, I haven’t met [Liam’s replacement] Andries Jonker yet. But it’s exciting, I’m looking forward to it because new people have new ideas and it all adds to your experience. It will all be beneficial for us.”
Tafari’s enthusiasm and exuberance ahead of the new season is infectious. A bubbly, likeable personality, he plays the game with a smile and is a lively presence off the pitch too. His passion for entertaining and performing is in his blood, and as he explains, his talents are not limited purely to football.
“Yeah, I love to sing,” he smiles. “It comes from my mum and dad. My dad was a Reggae musician, and my mum sang as well – in fact that’s how they met. My dad is from Jamaica, and my mum is half Jamaican and half Bajan. All my family can sing, so growing up it was all around me. My brother, who is 18, is a rapper and he’s really good. I know people always say that about their brothers, but he’s actually really good. He’s really ambitious. My sister is talented too – she sings, dances and acts.
“I used to dance as well – I won my first competition when I was four – it was a Jackson Five theme.
“Obviously football is my priority, but I love singing as a hobby, I’m always in the studio with my brother in my spare time. Have a look on Arsenal’s YouTube channel, and you will see what my celebration will be when I score for Arsenal!”
Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.