WHEN Callum Hudson-Odoi came off the bench to make his England debut in the closing stages of Friday’s resounding home win over the Czech Republic, the first thing he did after receiving possession was spin away from his marker and start running towards the opposition goal.

It was a simple act, but also an extremely instructive one. Bold, fearless, purposeful. He might just be 18, but Hudson-Odoi has already bought in to the characteristics that have increasingly come to define Gareth Southgate’s England.

“Before I came on, Gareth just said, ‘Go on the pitch and express yourself’,” said Hudson-Odoi, who was handed his maiden international appearance ahead of his first Premier League start for his club side, Chelsea. “‘Be just how you are at your club. Go and do what you do’.

“When I was about to come on, I thought, ‘You know what, there’s no point being nervous or being shy - do what you normally do and be confident’. That’s what I came on and tried to do.”

It sounds like the most natural thing in the world, but for generations, a succession of England managers have wrestled with the challenge of how to persuade young, emerging players to play without fear when they step on to the international stage.

The vast majority, if not all, have failed. Steven Gerrard is hardly someone you would associate with self-doubt, but even the future Champions League winner has admitted he froze when he made his England debut. It was all too big, too daunting. How could he be himself when the weight of the shirt, and the implications of failing while wearing it, were so intense?

Of all Southgate’s achievements since taking over as England boss in 2016, removing that fear factor has probably been the most significant. When young players like Hudson-Odoi and Jadon Sacho step into the senior set-up now, they do so with a sense of excitement rather than nerves.

It clearly helps that they are entering a team environment that has enjoyed a decent amount of recent success, but it is about more than simply joining up with a winning team. By displaying a willingness to select and trust players at an extremely formative stage of their development, Southgate conveys a sense of belief in their abilities. And rather than instructing them to contain their natural instincts in order to adopt a much more pragmatic approach, his consistent message is to tell players to be themselves.

Don’t rein in your natural instincts – allow them to flourish. If that means Jordan Pickford fluffing an ambitious clearance or John Stones misplacing a pass along the back, so be it. If it results in Hudson-Odoi charging down a blind alley, be that as it may. It will eventually reap rewards, as evidenced by the shot that resulted in Tomas Kalas putting England’s fifth and final goal through his own net on Friday night. Had Hudson-Odoi felt contained and restricted, he would almost certainly not have fired in from distance when there were safer options infield. Instead, his unfettered positivity was rewarded with his first international assist.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve been the same way,” said Hudson-Odoi. “So has someone like Jadon. We’ve been playing sometimes on the streets, and that’s how we play. We normally play on the park and in the cages.

“It’s definitely good because we have that raw mentality, that mentality to go at defenders, be confident, be yourself, don’t be shy of no one. It’s great we have the confidence and ability to do that, so we’ve just to keep going and you never know.”

Hudson-Odoi and Sancho have played together in a number of different age-group teams, and their comfort in each other’s company, both on and off the pitch, is a resounding affirmation of Southgate’s policy of creating a much better pathway from England’s youth set-up to the senior squad.

From his experiences as Under-21 boss, Southgate developed a keen understanding of the need to promote players through the system. Other countries did it effectively, but for a variety of different reasons, England often struggled to maintain a cohesive process of youth development.

Not anymore. By promoting the likes of Pickford, Stones, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to the starting XI, Southgate was able to establish a template at the very start of his England reign. There might have been a temptation to tread more carefully in the wake of last summer’s success at the World Cup, but instead Southgate has moved in the opposite direction, becoming even more bold in his decision-making. Hence the appearance of Hudson-Odoi and Sancho on the pitch on Friday, along with Declan Rice, who could well make his first England start in this evening’s game in Montenegro.

“We’ve (Hudson-Odoi and Sancho) known each other since we were very young,” said Hudson-Odoi. “We used to play against each other, and have always been close friends. When I was at Chelsea and he was at Watford, we used to play against each other and stuff like that.

“We’d always talked off the pitch, we always call each other, speak to each other, see how each other is going. He’s had a great season, and since I’ve been here, he’s helped me from day one. Always been with me, helped me feel comfortable and be confident. Having a friend like that is always amazing, just to bring you into the team and help you feel yourself and be yourself.”

One of Southgate’s key challenges now will be to manage both the development of England’s young attackers, and the level of expectation that will inevitably attach itself to them.

He has already told Hudson-Odoi there is a good chance he will be playing at this summer’s European Under-21 Championships rather than lining up with the senior team at the finals of the Nations League, and whereas previous managers might have viewed that as a backward step in a young player’s development, Southgate is a firm believer that tournament experience is an invaluable part of a youngster’s learning process.

The England boss is also keen to take a leaf out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s book when it comes to dealing with young players, regarding the former Manchester United manager’s handling of Ryan Giggs as a perfect example of how to deal with emerging talent.

“It comes into everything really,” said Southgate. “How much we expose them to the public, how much we put them into commercial situations. We’ve got to be thinking about all of that all of the time because it’s very easy for them to enjoy these moments, and they’ve got to enjoy these moments, but equally, there’s a good balance.

“I always think of Sir Alex with Ryan and how he did that so well. They had sustained success because of that. So, although they’re not our player on a day-to-day basis, I think we’ve got a responsibility to do that as much as we can, because we’re putting them onto another level and we’ve got to make sure we get the balance right.”

Not, however, that that would make Southgate more reticent about starting with either Sancho or Hudson-Odoi in Podgorica tonight.

“I think with attacking players, they mature very young and can go in very young,” said Southgate, who is without the injured Eric Dier this evening.

“It’s not an issue to play them, and we’ve found another player that we really like (in Hudson-Odoi). He’s already proved in (this) environment that he can more than cope.”