It was a moment to savour. Canada, a nation ranked 117th in the world by FIFA at the time, had sent a U20 side across to England and emerged victorious.
Marcus Rashford was a week removed from scoring the only goal in the Manchester derby. A month prior he had netted on both his Premier League and Europa League debut. For those in attendance at the Keepmoat Stadium in March 2016, this was a chance to watch the country’s latest starlet add to his burgeoning reputation.
Rashford did not score, however, and away from the result, there was a greater surprise hiding in the fact that Canada’s captain, the man who had shackled Rashford, was Englishman Fikayo Tomori.
“Fikayo was one of a few players at Chelsea that we looked at,” Rob Gale, then Canada’s U20 head coach told Oddschecker. “We found out he was born in Calgary, so we spoke to Chelsea’s youth coach Joe Edwards, who is now the club’s first-team coach with Frank [Lampard]. We couldn’t understand how he’d been in the Chelsea Academy since U8’s and not been capped by England or Nigeria.”
“I think he was pleased someone had paid attention to him if I’m honest,” Gale explained. “He felt he’d been overlooked and his coaches at Chelsea felt the same way. For us, it was a no brainer to reach out to him.”
Gale’s attempts to secure Tomori had started months before they took to the field in Doncaster, and the pitch was a simple one.
“We felt it would help his improvement as a player to experience international football,” Gale said. “CONCACAF is very difficult. Unless you experience it you underrate it a little bit, to be honest. We felt it would be a test for him, and I think his coaches at Chelsea felt the same.”
The defender made his international debut in Mexico City and came through it well. There was a tentative excitement about the possibility of the defender committing to Canada long-term. “He was close,” Gale said when asked to reflect on the tug-of-war.
It was then that an international fixture with England arrived. “We played two games, and one was behind closed doors,” Marcos Bustos, a teammate said. “I think they beat us 4-1 in that game, which was tough, but we felt confident of getting a result in the second game.”
If there were any jitters in the visitor’s dressing room Canada’s captain was prepared for it. “I think he calmed the dressing room down,” Gale said. “Fikayo was saying, ‘look I’ve played against these guys before, they are the same as you guys, just regular young lads, trying to make their trade so don’t give them too much respect’.”.
With confidence flowing, Canada took an early lead before Bustos added a second after halftime. And as much as the Canucks’ attacking intent was making a statement, it was a composure at the heart of defence catching the eye of England.
“He had extra motivation to show himself against England,” Bustos said. “I think where he stood out was his football knowledge, his football IQ. He’d step into tackles, he’d step in to win the ball, he did a lot of things that players at his age wouldn’t do. He was also very vocal, which you don’t see too often.”
The hosts secured a consolation goal through Kasey Palmer, but the result was a secondary concern. Gale’s attempts to secure a commitment from Tomori were now running parallel with England’s attention.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” Gale, who was raised in England but now coaches Winnipeg-based team Valour FC, explained. “I was a little bit disappointed that England didn’t reach out to us afterwards and say we would like to bring him over to us, especially because at the time my brother-in-law [former under-17s manager John Peacock] was working for them.”
While the Football Association were noticeably silent Tomori remained professional. “We had discussions back and forth,” Gale said. “I think it came with a bit of pressure behind the scenes from the Chelsea staff. I think they knew they had to rectify their mistake. He was very respectful, appreciated the opportunity, but he’s a bit like me, you’re born outside the country, but you’re as English as they come. And when England comes calling it was probably too big a pull to turn down.”
The pair remain in contact through social media, and while it would be easy to obsess over what if, Gale prefers to focus on the positive of seeing Tomori thrive.
“You’re invested in people,” he said. “We’re one of the last great human industries, so you care about the person more than the player. I don’t begrudge him any luck. They went to the World Cup and won it, we lost to Mexico, but you’d never begrudge the player any success. He is what you see, he’s level headed, he’s mature, humble and hard-working. He’s an all-round good fella and a good footballer.
If you enjoyed reading this, then you might want to read Kristan's article about Christian Pulisic, and his tough start at Chelsea. To find out more, simply click this link!