IT has been quite some year for England’s junior sides, with World Cup successes at Under-20 and Under-17 level, a European title for the Under-19s and a European semi-final for the Under-21s. The key question is whether those youth players will be capable of progressing to the senior ranks. On the evidence of last night’s entertaining goalless draw with Germany, the pathway to Gareth Southgate’s side clearly exists.

Unlike previous friendlies, when the same old faces have trotted through the same old routines, this was a night when the next generation announced their arrival on the scene.

Wearsider Jordan Pickford made a series of impressive saves on his senior international debut, and exuded a calm sense of confidence that suggests he is more than capable of leapfrogging Joe Hart and Jack Butland in the pecking order.

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Joe Gomez produced a polished defensive display after replacing Phil Jones midway through the first half, with his fellow 20-year-old Tammy Abraham underlining his potential with an accomplished performance in attack.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, one year older at 21, was the best midfielder on the pitch in the second half, quite an accolade given he was up against the likes of Mesut Ozil, Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane, and while England were unable to make the breakthrough their bright attacking play merited with substitute Jesse Lingard blazing the best chance over with the last kick of the game, this was nevertheless a hugely satisfying night.

Southgate’s squad might have cruised its way through World Cup qualifying, but it still contains a handful of players who are there more because of past reputation than merit. Suddenly, there are a clutch of youngsters hoping to displace them from the squad for next summer’s World Cup finals. It will be fascinating to see what Southgate, a manager who has constantly championed the value of youth, settles on when he selects his final 23 for Russia.

When he chose Germany and Brazil as the opponents for this month’s friendlies, he was hoping to use the games as an opportunity to test his potential World Cup starting line-up against two of the favourites for next summer’s tournament in Russia. Seven injury withdrawals later, and that plan was out of the window.

Instead, last night’s game became an audition for some of the fringe players hoping to make it on to the plane to England’s World Cup training base on the outskirts of St Petersburg. With a combined total of 101 caps at kick-off, this was the most inexperienced England team since Ron Greenwood selected his side for a friendly win over Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in May 1980. It could be argued that every player in Southgate’s starting line-up had something to prove; the vast majority ended the evening in credit.

There were five debutants in the England ranks by the time Gomez and Jack Cork had come on to the field, with former Sunderland goalkeeper Pickford by far the most notable from a North-East perspective. Five years and nine months ago, Washington-born Pickford was making his senior debut on loan at Darlington in a 1-0 defeat to Fleetwood Town. This time last year, he still only had 15 senior appearances for Sunderland to his name. His life has changed markedly in the last 12 months, and he now finds himself competing with Hart and Butland for the starting spot in England’s World Cup opener next summer.

He had to be alert from the off last night, sprinting off his line in the first minute to clear ahead of Timo Werner after Harry Maguire’s hesitant back-pass threatened to play his side into trouble, and that proved the precursor to an accomplished display.

His distribution, always one of the strongest parts of his game, was noticeably slicker than Hart’s usually is in an England shirt, and with Southgate keen to adopt a possession-based approach that begins at the back, his comfort with the ball at his feet could prove an extremely valuable asset.

He is also a fine shot-stopper, as he proved with two superb first-half saves to deny Werner. The first saw Pickford keep out the striker’s low effort after England’s defence was exposed in the inside-left channel, and the second, which was the pick of the pair, saw the North-Easterner throw himself to his left to claw away Werner’s low effort after Gundogan had unpicked the hosts’ back four.

England’s other two debutants at kick-off were both Chelsea loanees, Loftus-Cheek and Abraham. Both have served their apprenticeship with the Under-21s, both have kicked on this season since leaving Stamford Bridge for Crystal Palace and Swansea City respectively.

At this stage, neither is guaranteed a place in next summer’s squad, but on last night’s evidence, neither would look out of place in Russia. Loftus-Cheek offered assurance and a touch of welcome arrogance at the heart of midfield, driving forward at every opportunity and fashioning an assortment of flicks and tricks that confirmed his confidence. He grew more and more influential as the night wore on and at the very least deserves to retain his place for Tuesday’s game with Brazil.

Abraham was equally at home in his surroundings, linking up effectively with Jamie Vardy during his hour on the field. He just failed to connect with Vardy’s second-minute cross as his strike partner drove the ball across the face of the six-yard box, and came even closer shortly before the interval as he turned neatly in the area before poking in a shot that looped narrowly wide via a deflection off German defender Antonio Rudiger.

Both Loftus-Cheek and Abraham could be pleased with their night’s work, along with Tottenham full-back Kieran Trippier, who made a series of telling surges down the right-hand side. He set up Vardy for a second-half header that was well saved by Marc-Andre Terr Stegen, and is a more than able deputy for Kyle Walker.

The problem for England is that while Loftus-Cheek, Abraham and Trippier boast potential, the players auditioning for a regular place in the German starting line-up last night are at a rather more advanced stage of their career.

Take Sane for example. The Manchester City midfielder has been one of the stars of the Premier League this season, yet last night’s appearance was only his ninth in a senior German shirt. He would walk into the England team, and was the best player on the pitch by a distance before the break.

Having fired an eighth-minute effort into the side-netting, the 21-year-old came within inches of breaking the deadlock in spectacular fashion midway through the first half. Joshua Kimmich teed him up close to the edge of the area, and with barely a flick of his left boot, he arced a superb effort against the underside of the crossbar.

He went close again moments later, following up Werner’s effort that Pickford had saved, but Jones nodded away his goal-bound effort from half-a-yard in front of the goalline. His ability to drift between midfield and attack caused England problems, evoking unpleasant memories of the havoc caused by Thomas Muller and Mezut Ozil when these two sides met in Bloemfontein in the 2010 World Cup. In time, he could well prove every bit as good as those two World Cup winners.