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Retro World Cup: first name on the team-sheet? The 20 greatest ever England players

May 25, 2014

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It’s a numbers game: Will the wearers of these iconic England shirts be on this ultimate list?

Four years and a few days ago, Spain took on the Netherlands to win the 19th football World Cup in South Africa. And, in the lead-up to that occasion, this wee corner of the Internet blessed – if that’s the right word for it – you, dear reader, with several posts celebrating classic World Cups of lore (England 66, Mexico 70, West Germany 74, Argentina 78, Spain 82, Mexico 86 and Italy 90). And now four years later, with the 20th World Cup ready to kick-off in just 18 days’ time in sunny, exotic Brazil, this very blog’s at it again. Oh yes; pick the bones out of that; back of the net, etc etc.

So, in the first of a series of (most likely) two or three World-Cups-of-lore marking posts, let’s take a look back, shall we, at the double dectet of the most marvellous players to pull on a Three Lions shirt? The criteria for this list? Well, you have to be an outstanding English talent, obviously, but also you must at the very least have appeared in a major tournament; even better, performed with distinction at a tournament, preferably a World Cup (hence why you’ll see nary an England player from before the ’60s here; so, like it or not, there’s no Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews, Nat Lofthouse, Tom Finney, Steve Bloomer or Vivian Woodward). Sorry, folks, you’ve got to draw the (white chalk) line somewhere.

But wait… is that the billiard ball-like bonce of Pierluigi Collini dazzling in the light thrown out by the mega-wattage of the Wembley floodlights? Yes, I believe it is. And, lo, I hear his whistle tooting too. So, peeps, away we go…

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CLICK

on the player’s names for video clips of their ‘precious moments’…

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20. Paul Ince (1992-2000)

england_players_paul_ince

The position: Central midfield (classic shirt number: 4)

The performances: 53 caps/ 2 goals
(World Cups: France 1998/ Euros: England 1996, Holland and Belgium 2000)

The player: Midfield water-carrier with much nous, whom balanced the forward thrusting exploits of more extravagantly talented teammates in Euro 96 and France 98

The pros: Highly reliable in the modern ‘holding midfielder’ role, yet cultured and skillful, he formed a fine central-midfield pairing with Gazza at Euro 96. Seen as a true ‘hard man’ too, he echoed the image of Terry Butcher’s bloody-bandaged head in the excellent draw away to Italy to qualify for France 98, a tournament throughout which he, in fact, played with a broken foot

The cons: Labelled by former manager Alex Ferguson as a ‘big-time charlie’, the self-styled ‘The Guv’nor’ clearly thought (too?) much of himself and his talents and, like too many players, drifted during the early ’90s’ Graham Taylor years

The precious moment: Fooling a hapless defender into fouling him by trapping and dragging the ball back as he entered the penalty area in the legendary England-Netherlands Euro 96 match, thereby winning the penalty that led to the first of England’s four goals that night

The perfectly true: He’s both the first black man to captain England (against Italy in that autumn ’97 encounter) and to manage a top-flight English club (Blackburn Rovers in 2008)

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19. David Seaman (1988-2002)

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The position: Goalkeeper (classic shirt number: 1)

The performances: 75 (World Cups: France 1998, Japan and South Korea 2002/
Euros: England 1996, Holland and Belgium 2000)

The player: The memorably moustachioed, sometimes dubiously ponytailed goalkeeper par excellence with the soft Yorkshire brogue, Seaman was the nation’s first outstanding – and thus first long-serving – man to keep goal since Peter Shilton; a hero of the Euro 96 team, his success there quickly (two penalty saves, one against Scotland and another in a shoot-out) made him a near-national institution

The pros: Easily the best English keeper of his generation, he had nary a weakness (a top shot-stopper especially) and for a brief time – basically during Euro 96 – an uncanny knack of guessing the right way at penalties and thus pulling off a fair number of spot-kick saves

The cons: His one weakness (which, to be fair, aside from Arsenal’s Cup Winners’ Cup Final appearance back in ’95, didn’t resurface for years) was on long, drooping crosses into the box, which saw him foxed by Ronaldinho’s fluke free-kick winner in the 2002 World Cup quarter final against Brazil and then a European Championships qualifier against Macedonia a year later

The precious moment: That terrific shoot-out in the Euro 96 quarter final against Spain, in which he saved a penalty, playing a crucial role in not just seeing England through but winning our only ever shoot-0ut win

The perfectly true: He decided to grow his, frankly, daft early to mid-’00s ponytail when his teammate, the, frankly, coolly ponytailed Emmanuel Petit, left Arsenal; presumably Big Dave believed Highbury simply couldn’t survive without a ‘hair rat’. Goalkeepers, eh?

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18. John Barnes (1983-95)

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The position: Left-winger (classic shirt numbers: 11/ 19)

The performances: 79 caps/ 11 goals
(World Cups: Mexico 1986, Italy 1990/ Euros: West Germany 1988)

The player: Often flamboyant and undeniably gifted left-sided midfielder, whom offered razzle-dazzle to the all-conquering Liverpool side of the ’80s and the admittedly less-than-all-conquering England side of the ’80s, thereby rightfully becoming a major black cultural icon

The pros: Young, gifted and (ahem) black, Barnes was a big up-tick for England (every time he stepped on to the pitch he looked like a star of a progressive, multi-cultural nation) when he turned on the stuff; via pacy, excellent dribbling and his sweet left foot, combined with Gary Lineker, he almost pulled England back from a two-goal-deficit in that Mexico 86 quarter final against Argentina – had it gone on 10 minutes longer, they’d have probably scored that equaliser

The cons: Unfortunately, he simply didn’t turn on the stuff often enough for England, ensuring he was something of an enigma at international level – a wonderfully talented player whom just couldn’t replicate his club form for his nation (for instance, he made little impression on Italia 90, England’s second greatest World Cup)

The precious moment: That outstanding solo goal he scored in a 1984 friendly against Brazil at the Maracanã, jinking in all white (and inexplicably red socks) through that oh-s0 gifted yellow midfield and unleashing an unstoppable shot into the net. Well, it’s either that or his rap for England’s Italia 90 song World In Motion (1990), of course

The perfectly true: Barnes’ father played a pivotal role in setting up the first and notorious Jamaican bobsleigh team for the Calgary 88 Winter Olympics, forever immortalised in the hit film Cool Runnings (1993)

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17. Alan Ball (1965-75)

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The position: Right/ central midfield (classic shirt numbers: 7/ 8)

The performances: 72 caps/ 8 goals
(World Cups: England 1966, Mexico 1970/ Euros: Italy 1968)

The player: Inexplicably squeaky-voiced midfield dynamo who worked his socks off when wearing the Three Lions thanks to – in the sport’s clichéd parlance – an enormous engine, which allowed him to cover every blade of grass in the name of his team, yet was also blessed with an excellent touch and an eye for a fine pass. An essential (and, at just 22, the youngest) member of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup winning side

The pros: Was officially named ‘man of the match’ of the ’66 final. ’Nuff said, methinks

The cons: His England career extended well into the nation’s nadir era (the ’70s), suggesting his efforts, unquestionably dedicated though they were, did little avert to England’s embarrassing slide during this decade. Indeed, he was sent off in a 1974 World Cup qualifier away to Poland meaning he was suspended for the critical and infamously disastrous return fixture

The precious moment: Although he memorably struck the bar in the classic Mexico 70 group match against Brazil, his finest moments came in his tireless performance in the ’66 final, specifically playing a prominent role in the last three of England’s four goals

The perfectly true: As a teenager, he was turned down a professional contract with Bolton Wanderers for being too small

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16. Stuart Pearce (1987-99)

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The position: Left-back (Classic shirt number: 3)

The performances: 78 caps/ 5 goals
(World Cups: Italy 1990/ Euros: Sweden 1992, England 1996)

The player: Iconic symbol of determination and never-say-die-ism in the cause of national football glory, Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce may just be one of the most popular of all players to pull on an England shirt thanks to his heart-on-a-sleeve dedication to the Three Lions, not least in two of the country’s most successful tournaments, Italia 90 and Euro 96

The pros: Aside from his unbridled passion and dedication, Pearce was a useful, often combative and always tireless left-back, as well as (at his best) a free-kick specialist

The cons: Admittedly, he wasn’t the greatest left-back ever to play for England (on occasions, he was at sea defensively) and, of course, there was that heartbreaking penalty miss against West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final shoot-out; a setback so big it could have broken lesser characters

The precious moment: Undoubtedly that penalty he absolutely rammed home against Spain in the Euro 96 quarter final shoot-out (and his instant celebration, see image above); redemption – both personal and public – has never been so sweet

The perfectly true: Immediately following his move to Nottingham Forest (where he would spend much of his career), the unfancied Pearce was so unsure about his long-term prospects as a professional footballer he advertised himself as an electrician in the matchday programme

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15. Wayne Rooney (2003-present)

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The position: Forward (classic shirt numbers: 10/ 9)

The performances: 89 caps/ 38 goals (World Cups: Germany 2006, South Africa 2010/
Euros: Portugal 2004, Poland and Ukraine 2012)

The player: England’s best player of the last 10 years and the greatest of his generation that these British Isles has seen fit to produce (perhaps excepting Gareth Bale, or perhaps not?), he’s the one-time boy wonder whom Sven-Göran Eriksson rather dramatically warned us not to ‘kill’ following the 2006 World Cup as, frankly, any hope of our national team achieving anything of note for years to come falls squarely on Wazza’s shoulders, whether we like it or not

The pros: Supremely gifted (for a British footballer), with electric acceleration, a fast brain, an impressive passing ability, deft touch and variety of shots, as well as a willingness to wander all over the pitch to get involved in play and drive his side on, Rooney has been a talismanic figure for England ever since he made his debut as a callow yet awesome 17-year-old. Plus, with appearance/ goal stats almost identical to those of Michael Owen (but with years on his side yet), it’s a good bet he’ll break England’s all-time goalscoring record before he’s done

The cons: His desire to to get on the ball and make something happen can often be to the detriment of his (withdrawn) striker duties, plus his fiery temper (although more muted as he’s matured) has caused him and England trouble in times past, most memorably when he stamped on an opponent’s privates and got sent off in the Germany 2006 quarter-final against Portugal, thereby helping to scupper England’s chances of further progression in said tournament

The precious moment: Despite fair criticism that, John Barnes-style, he hasn’t turned up enough for England in tournaments, his performances in Euro 2004 remain an unequivocal highpoint; his pace, skill and tenacity scaring the living daylights out of world champions France and then him running the show and scoring two fine goals against Croatia (following a familiar first-half f*ck-up by England) to seal his side a place in the quarter finals. Had he not broken his foot early in that match against Portugal, who knows what could have happened?

The perfectly true: A self-proclaimed follower of the Catholic faith, Rooney boasts more than twice the number of Twitter followers of the Pontifex himself, Pope Francis

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14. Bryan Robson (1980-91)

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The position: Central/ right midfield (classic shirt numbers: 7/ 16)

The performances: 90 caps/ 26 goals
(World Cups: Spain 1982, Mexico 1986, Italy 1990/ Euros: West Germany 1988)

The player: England’s undoubted on-the-pitch leader for much of their up-and-down 1980s, Robson (also Manchester United skipper) was nicknamed ‘Captain Marvel’ by teammates and fans alike for his take-a-match-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck approach, ensuring he was the centre-point in the spine of manager and namesake Bobby Robson’s England team (along with Peter Shilton, Terry Butcher and Gary Lineker)

The pros: Utterly tenacious, thoroughly rambunctious, yet a fine passer and ‘reader of the game’, Robson was arguably the outstanding English midfielder of his generation, captaining his country on 65 occasions (putting him third in those terms only to Bobby Moore and Billy Wright) and chipping in with a fair number of goals – including critical ones in World Cup and Euro qualifiers and memorably in the Spain 82 group stage. He’s been hailed as one of England’s greatest ever players by Bobby Robson, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams and Peter Beardsley

The cons: A big con here; his non-shrinking violet nature saw him get injured far too often, most specifically in two of England’s best tournaments since ’66, Mexico 86 and Italia 90. Bizarrely, he sustained injuries in the second group match of both competitions and, ironically, manager Robson’s necessary tactical changes in his captain’s absence saw both teams’ football and form improve (indeed, Robson’s dropping from the team in Italia 90 saw arguable long-term replacement David Platt enter the side)

The precious moment: Just 27 seconds into England’s opening game at the 1982 World Cup against France when Robbo pounced, hooking the ball into the back of the net. This remained the fastest goal ever scored in a World Cup for 20 years and, in celebration, saw him pick up an inscribed gold watch from FIFA that he apparently still wears. He scored another in the second-half of that match to help England win 3-1

The perfectly true: Robson once owned a stake in the now defunct Birthdays high street chain

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13. Jimmy Greaves (1959-68)

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The position: Forward (classic shirt number: 8)

The performances: 57 caps/ 44 goals (World Cups: Chile 1962, England 1966)

The player: England’s deadliest post-war goalscorer (his goal average an awesome 0.77 for every game he played), the one-time Chelsea and Spurs forward was a cert in the stating line-up in the early to mid-’60s thanks to his penalty-box prowess, which saw him score six hat-tricks (still a record today) and ensures he stands third in the nation’s all-time scoring charts. In later years and after beating alcoholism, he became a jolly, rotund, moustachioed TV personality, most memorable for co-fronting ITV’s lightweight football show Saint And Greavsie (1985-92)

The pros: Blessed with electric acceleration, excellent anticipation an an utterly uncanny eye for goal (when one-on-one with a goalkeeper he genuinely barely ever missed), Greaves was arguably the ultimate striker of his era, both in England and maybe anywhere else in the world

The cons: It’s hard to find a fault in Greavsie’s make-up (how do you criticise practically the perfect striker?), but the low-point of his England and wider career, nay his entire life, came when he was injured in the side’s third group game in the much anticipated home World Cup of ’66. Not only did this ensure, with a gashed leg requiring several stitches, he missed out on the quarter final (in which his understudy Geoff Hurst scored the winning goal), he also missed out on the rest of the tournament, including famously of course the final itself. This slice of enormous bad luck led to his retirement from England in ’67 (he played just three more times) and may have contributed to his descent into alcoholism following the end of his professional career in ’71

The precious moment: Well, he did score half-a-dozen hat-tricks, of course, but because it’s good old, fun-lovin’ Greavsie, I’ve got to plump for him getting down on his hands and knees and coaxing an errant dog off the pitch in the 1962 World Cup quarter final against Brazil; an encounter Brazilian ace Garrincha found so funny he adopted the pooch as he pet

The perfectly true: While out of the Spurs first team, Greaves raced in 1970’s London to Mexico World Cup Rally, finishing sixth out of 96 entrants

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12. Michael Owen (1998-2008)

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The position: Forward (classic shirt numbers: 10/ 20)

The performances: 89 caps/ 40 goals (World Cups: France 1998, Japan and South Korea 2002, Germany 2006/ Euros: Holland and Belgium 2000, Portugal 2004)

The player: The heir to Gary Lineker’s crown, Michael Owen was England’s indispensable turn-of-the-millennium striker – whenever in a tight spot, needing a goal to claim a win or a draw, it was to Owen the nation usually turned in the Sven-Göran Eriksson-coached era

The pros: An out-and-out ‘fox in the box’, Owen made his one-time national team coach Glenn Hoddle look like a right wally (without a brolly) by proving the latter’s assertion he ‘wasn’t a natural goalscorer’ utter cobblers. An essential cog in the Eriksson England machine (hence gaining vice-captain status at just 21 years of age), Owen was arguably the side’s most dynamic, significant and dependable player in this era, grabbing absolutely critical goals in World Cup and European qualifiers, as well as goals in four consecutive tournaments – the only England player yet to do so. Plus, with a ratio of just under one goal every other game, he currently weighs in at fourth on England’s all-time scorers’ list

The cons: Like that other highly prized England ‘number 10’ of the ’00s (rugby union’s Johnny Wilkinson), Owen became injury prone round the middle of the decade and thereafter. His nadir came in the 2006 World Cup – after getting over yet another injury and building up to match-fitness in the first two games, he twisted his knee after just 51 seconds in the third match

The precious moment: What else could it be? The 18-year-old Owen’s sensational run at the panicking Argentine defence and then the rocket he fired into the top corner to make it 2-1 in that electric France 98 second round match (to make the score 2-1 – after just 16 minutes). Frankly, it’s England’s last truly great tournament moment

The perfectly true: As a child Owen played for Deeside Area’s Under-11 team, for which he scored 97 goals in a single season, breaking a record held by Ian Rush (whom had also gone on to become a legendary Liverpool striker) by 25 goals

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11. David Beckham (1996-2009)

england_players_david_beckham

The position: Right/ central midfield (classic shirt number: 7)

The performances: 115 caps/ 17 goals (World Cups: France 1998, Japan and South Korea 2002, Germany 2006/ Euros: Holland and Belgium 2000, Portugal 2004)

The player: England has arguably had three ‘golden boys’. The first was Bobby Moore, the second Gary Lineker and the third – and maybe the biggest – was David Beckham. When playing away from home, as far as the local media and fans were concerned, England were a one-man-team; it was Beckham and nothing else. It wasn’t really, of course, but in his prime he was an immovable, Hollywood-handsome monolith whom, at his best, defined the ’00s England

The pros: Awarded the captaincy by Sven-Göran Eriksson at the tender age of 25, he evolved into an on-the-pitch leader by example, sometimes dragging the team along with him to a draw or victory seemingly by his sheer will, or more precisely by his talent. A supreme crosser and dead-ball specialist, he also possessed a cultured passing ability; all of which made him the second most talented English player of his generation after Wayne Rooney

The cons: If we’re being fair, Beckham-as-England-captain was as much a brand as it was a football entity. Happy to go along with any and every publicity opportunity the FA asked him to (along with all his other million-dollar-endorsements), this saw England develop into a circus, especially when it came to tournaments – and coach Eriksson too seemed only too happy with the arrangement, never deigning  to drop his captain despite the latter’s injury-related sluggish form in both the latter World Cups he played (2002 and ’06) and Euro 2004

The precious moment: Many will say that free-kick he scored in injury time against the Greeks in autumn 2001 to send England to the World Cup, but I’ll plump for a bigger goal: his nerveless penalty against Argentina to grab a decisive, unexpected and, dare one say it, vengeful win in the tournament-to-come’s group stages. That penalty, of course, was seen to be redemption for him getting stupidly sent-off against the same opposition in France 98

The perfectly true: Despite attending church as a child, his maternal grandfather was Jewish, leading him to claim he’s ‘probably had more contact with Judaism than any other religion’

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10. Alan Shearer (1992-2000)

england_players_alan_shearer

The position: Forward (classic shirt number: 9)

The performances: 63 caps/ 30 goals (World Cups: France 1998/
Euros: England 1996, Holland and Belgium 2000)

The player: Geordie striker extraordinaire who led England’s line for pretty much the entirety of the ’90s and became an undisputed national hero thanks to his scoring exploits in Euro 96

The pros: Shearer’s physical presence and aerial prowess ensured he was the first out-and-out ‘number 9′ to cut the mustard in an England shirt since Nat Lofthouse. His reliability as a striker, ability on the ball, capacity to score spectacularly from long-range and nervelessness from the penalty spot earned him not just an unconditional place in England fans’ hearts (his five goals made him Euro 96’s top scorer and he scored penalties in three separate shoot-outs), but also the England captaincy from autumn ’96 onwards (for a total 34 appearances)

The cons: It’s easy to forget, but Big Al’s England career was far from glorious for several years. He managed only five goals in his first 23 caps and, worse, went 12 games over 21 months without hitting the net in the lead-up to Euro 96. It all changed there, though, of course. He retired after England’s poor performance at Euro 2000 and, despite having hit the age of 30 by then, it’s been argued he could have carried on or at least made himself available for later tournaments; although Michael Owen was by then going great guns for England

The precious moment: He might himself point to that fine strike against the Swiss that reignited his England career in the opening group game of Euro 96, yet I have to go for that third goal (his second of the match) against the Netherlands in the third group game; it started with a terrific run into the penalty area by Gazza, then the playmaker pulled it back it across the box to Teddy Sheringham, whose deft touch moved it on to Shearer on the right, whom slammed it home via a side-footed finish. An exquisite goal and England at their best

The perfectly true: Shearer is one of the Deputy Lieutenants of Northumberland, a role that requires him (along with 21 others) to stand in for the Duchess of Northumberland when she can’t fulfill her role at engagements as The Queen’s official representative in the region

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9. David Platt (1989-96)

england_players_david_platt

The position: Central/ attacking midfield (classic shirt numbers: 17 / 7)

The performances: 62 caps/ 27 goals (World Cups: Italy 1990/ Euros: England 1996)

The player: The one shining light in England’s bleak early to mid-’90s, a dynamic, goal-scoring midfielder who more often than not kept his sides afloat, as well as usually captaining them; in happier, earlier days, he burst on to the scene to electrifying effect at Italia 90

The pros: Arguably the epitome of the English midfielder at its best, Platt was both a tireless workhorse and gifted passer, plus, of course, he loved to dash forwards and arrive late in the box to head, tap or crash an unexpected pull-back into the back of the net. The vast majority of his quarter-century-plus goals for his country were scored this way and usually for medicore or below-average England teams. To this day, he remains the second highest-scoring midfielder ever to play for England – behind Bobby Charlton, whom arguably played as a withdrawn striker half the time anyway. Moreover, Platt played a crucial role in the high-achieving Italia 90 and (to a lesser extent) Euro 96 teams, scoring in penalty shoot-outs for both

The cons: It’s hardly like he could be blamed personally, but much of England’s ‘Platt era’ was among its darkest, seeing them woefully stumble at Euro 92 and then fail even to qualify for the following World Cup. By the time of Euro 96, in which Platt played three times (twice as a substitute and once as a starter), he had lost much of his cut and thrust due to injury and, although still effective, was used as a ‘holding midfielder’ more than anything else

The precious moment:  Where it all began, naturally – that dreamlike goal in the last minute of extra time against Belgium in Italia 90’s second round. Platt drifted to the side of the penalty area to connect with a deep free-kick from Gazza, which he did perfectly, hooking it into the net with a glorious volley. He’d score (and have more chances) in the next match against Cameroon and again in the third/ fourth place play-off against Italy

The perfectly true: Platt’s total transfer fees in the ’90s, including (unusually for an Englishman) for Italian sides such as Juventus and Sampdoria, totalled £20m

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8. Martin Peters (1966-74)

england_players_martin_peters

The position: Attacking midfield (classic shirt numbers: 16 / 11)

The performances: 67 caps/ 20 goals
(World Cups: England 1966, Mexico 1970/ Euros: Italy 1968)

The player: Indispensable member of Alf Ramsey’s ‘first 11’ in both the ’66 and ’70 World Cups, the slight, barely capped West Ham (and later Spurs and Norwich) all-rounder proved a sensation at the former tournament – and thus one of the thinking England fan’s all-time greats

The pros: Peters was a pacy, two-footed, hard-working, attacking, tracking-back coach’s dream of a midfielder, who was also a dead-ball specialist, leading Ramsey to claim in 1968 he was ’10 years ahead of his time’. Debuting just a month before the ’66 tournament, he made a huge impact in the second match and became a key ingredient of the team, ensuring (along with Alan Ball) Ramsey’s experimental ‘wingless wonders’ formation worked. He kept his place throughout the competition and scored England’s third goal in the final – had the Germans not scrambled an injury-time equaliser, Peters would have been our World Cup-winning hero. He also played in all four games of the ’70 World Cup, putting his side 2-0 up in the quarter final against West Germany before being inexplicably substituted (England went on to lose 3-2)

The cons: Following Mexico 70, Peters (along with other greats) couldn’t prevent England’s failure to qualify for the next World Cup. Indeed, he was actually captain for that torrid Wembley encounter with Poland in October ’73 (the match they needed to win, but couldn’t) and later admitted he dived in order to win a penalty that resulted in England’s solitary goal that game

The precious moment: It has to be one of his cracking contributions to England’s glorious summer of ’66 – and what better than his goal in the final? Sport (and life, of course) is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ – and his opportunistic strike could have grabbed us glory. Could have…

The perfectly true: He played in every position for West Ham at least once, including goal

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7. Peter Shilton (1970-90)

Peter Shilton of England

The position: Goalkeeper (classic shirt number: 1)

The performances: 125 caps (World Cups: Spain 1982, Mexico 1986, Italy 1990/
Euros: Italy 1980, West Germany 1988)

The player: Incredibly long-serving shot-stopper for his country, whose longevity saw him link the ’66-’70 golden and ’86-’90 silver eras of the England team

The pros: The best Englishman between the sticks across across two generations (he first saw off his Leicester City mentor Gordon Banks, then Ray Clemence and later kept out Gary Bailey, Dave Beasant and David Seaman), Shilts literally was an immovable object in the England goal. Not only is he still the nation’s most capped male footballer, but also holds the record for the most clean-sheets (10) in World Cup finals with France’s Fabien Barthez and, playing in every one of England’s qualifying matches for Italia 90, didn’t concede a single goal in that campaign

The cons: Having played so many times for his country (and in, potentially at times, such a precarious position), he was bound to have experienced the odd cock-up – and he did have a couple of major ones. First, he was partly at fault for Poland’s goal in that notorious 1973 World Cup qualifier that ended in a 1-1 draw, but England needed to win; diving too late to save the striker’s shot in order to make ‘the perfect save’ and being beaten. And, second, when his attempted aerial punch was infamously beaten by Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ (read: handball) in the ’86 World Cup quarter final against Argentina, his leap hardly got off the ground – indeed, consider just how diminutive the devilish Diego is compared to Shilts

The precious moment: Memorably, he was beaten by all four of the expertly taken German penalties in the Italia 90 semi-final shoot-out (despite guessing the right way for every one), yet he did actually save a penalty from a German – and their penalty-converter from that tournament’s 1-0 final, Andreas Brehme, at that – in a 1985 friendly, which England won 3-0

The perfectly true: Shilts played until the age of 47 to break the 1,000 professional-appearances-barrier; his last game was for Leyton Orient in November ’96 and was his 1,005th

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6. Gordon Banks (1963-72)

England goalkeeper Gordon Banks leads the team out at Wembley

The position: Goalkeeper (classic shirt number: 1)

The performances: 73 caps (World Cups: England 1966, Mexico 1970/ Euros: Italy 1968)

The player: The other legendary Leicester-hailing keeper for England, but the one who won the World Cup in ’66 and made that save from Pelé in Mexico 70

The pros: Yes, Banks kept goal for the World Cup-winning England side, but he wasn’t arguably as tested as Shilton was in his tournaments – all of those tournaments – and won nowhere near the number of caps his 20-year-long-serving protégé did; so why’s he one place higher in this rundown? Well, out of all his 73 appearances, Banks kept a clean sheet in 35 of them (yes, more than half) and was on the losing side just nine times. Quite brilliant stats for a man whose international career stretched nearly 10 years. And then, of course, there’s that remarkable instant-reflex save in the 1970 World Cup group game against Brazil, which saw him not just save Pelé’s thunderous downward header, but also somehow flick the ball over the bar. Pelé (among many others) reckons it was the greatest save of the 20th Century. He may just be right…

The cons: Banksy’s pretty blameless here, but his lowest point in (or rather out) of an England shirt came due to catching a bug out in Mexico, thus having to sit in his hotel room and watch his teammates throw away a 2-0 lead in the quarter final against West Germany – his replacement Peter Bonetti didn’t exactly cover himself in glory on the Germans’ three goals either

The precious moment: Erm, that save. Like, obviously

The perfectly true: Banks’s nephew Nick was the drummer with top Britpop band Pulp

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5. Geoff Hurst (1966-72)

england_players_geoff_hurst

The position: Forward (classic shirt number: 10)

The performances: 49 caps/ 24 goals
(World Cups: England 1966, Mexico 1970/ Euros: Italy 1968)

The player: Lanky and front-teeth-missing West Ham ace whom became England’s hat-trick hero in the ’66 World Cup final and went on to appear in Mexico 70 too

The pros: Well, frankly, we’re talking the legend whose three goals won the nation its only football World Cup, which is why Hurst makes this list’s top five; surely only a hard-hearted soul would deny the always amiable Sir Geoff that. Or a die-hard Jimmy Greaves fan. In fact, nearly 50 years later, Hurst remains the only man to have scored a hat-trick in a World Cup final

The cons: No question, the records (goal volume and caps) of Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and, yes, Greaves are greater than Hurst’s. Indeed, he only made his debut for England four months before the ’66 World Cup and his international career was far from illustrious thereafter; he made little impression on the two games in which England played in the (admittedly two-game-only) Euro 68 and played in only three of his side’s four games in Mexico 70, scoring a single goal. He was involved in a few matches in England’s unsuccessful qualification campaign for Euro 72, but by then his time in an England shirt was fizzling out

The precious moment: Take a wild guess, go on…

The perfectly true: To this day, controversy still surrounds that dubious second goal he scored in the final (and, let’s be honest, wonderfully always will), but the third arguably shouldn’t have been either – it was scored, of course, with just seconds of extra-time remaining and England having just gone a goal up again, so in receiving a long pass from Bobby Moore, Hurst ran with it and unleashed his shot towards the German goal with no intention of scoring, but of firing over to waste time. Yet the ball hit a divot in the pitch just before Hurst hit it, ensuring he struck it perfectly to smash it home and confirm England’s victory in emphatic fashion

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4. Paul Gascoigne (1988-98)

england_players_paul_gascoigne

The position: Attacking/ central midfield (classic shirt numbers: 19/ 8)

The performances: 57 caps/ 10 goals (World Cups: Italy 1990/ Euros: England 1996)

The player: The impossible-not-to-love Geordie prankster who also happened to be perhaps the most gifted man ever to wear an England shirt; his talent proving pivotal to his nation’s success at both Italia 90 and Euro 96

The pros: A mercurial midfielder whose two-footed-touch, vision and unbridled creativity was matched by his spirit, endeavour and sheer joy in playing the game. Like Wayne Rooney would 14 years later, Gazza (as he was instantly nicknamed by teammates, fans and the nation alike) was an instant success on the biggest stage, the 1990 World Cup; providing moments of perfection to play a huge role in getting his country to the semi-finals – for the first time in 24 years; something they’ve not managed to repeat for another for 24 years now. In 1996, he replicated these exploits at England’s own European Championships as the playmaker in Terry Venables pseudo-‘Total Football’ side, scoring possibly one of the greatest goals of all-time in the process

The cons: Gazza’s lows are, of course, as legendary as his highs. A victim of alcoholism off the pitch and of (partly self-inflicted) injury woes on it, he simply didn’t play enough for England and, thus, wasn’t as big an influence as his talent demanded he should have been. Owing to injury, he missed far too much of England’s qualification campaigns for Euro 92 and the ’94 World Cup (he wasn’t even present at Euro 92; had he been, England may have been quite a different side and had he played more thereafter, there’s a good chance they’d have made it to USA 94). Later, following Euro 96, he was active during qualification for France 98, but was axed from that tournament’s preliminary squad, deemed not to be in good enough shape. The debate rages on whether that was the right decision; what’s unequivocal is it spelled the end of his England career

The precious moment: That sensational goal against Scotland in the second group match of Euro 96 – outfoxing the blond-mulleted Colin Hendry before volleying the ball home and reigniting a sleeping giant of the international game for another tournament

The perfectly true: The reason why, every match, Gazza stuck his tongue out to the TV camera as it passed the England line-up prior to kick-off of Italia 90 matches wasn’t because it was a cheeky gesture he couldn’t resist, but a gesture of obscure, superstitious good-luck-granting

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3. Gary Lineker (1984-92)

england_players_gary_lineker

The position: Forward (classic shirt number: 10)

The performances: 80 caps/ 48 goals (World Cups: Mexico 1986, Italy 1990/
Euros: West Germany 1988, Sweden 1992)

The player: At one time, the sight of today’s ‘Mr BBC Sport’ Gary Lineker in the England ‘No. 10’ shirt scoring goals for his country was as familiar as Maggie Thatcher dividing opinion, Aussie soap stars topping the charts and Michael Buerk telling us The Nine O’Clock News

The pros: An unfaltering servant for England, Lineker was their chief goal-getter for nearly 10 years; it’s no surprise their fortunes flourished during his era (Mexico 86 quarter finalists and Italia 90 semi-finalists) and wilted when he stepped down (ineptitude until Euro 96). Perhaps not the world’s greatest footballer, usually by his own admission, he was nevertheless the ultimate penalty-box poacher; the man who made goal-hanging glorious. Indeed, across two World Cup finals he racked up a sensational tally of 10 goals. So prolific was he, the then nicknamed ‘Queen Mother of Football’ (as he was never booked in his entire career) retired just one, single strike short of equalling Bobby Charlton’s England goal-scoring record

The cons: Admittedly, Lineker’s efforts at both Euro 88 and Euro 92 were left wanting. There’s caveats in both cases, though. His poor performance at Euro 88 coincided with him suffering from hepatitis, while Euro 92 came slap-bang in the middle of the woeful Graham Taylor era that saw creativity thrown out in favour of ‘long ball’ tactics. Indeed, so crap was England’s experience at the latter it included Lineker’s substitution before the end of the last group game, inexplicable given they had to win it to progress and everyone knew it would be his last cap

The precious moment: Purists may say his greatest moment for England came in another match they needed to win, against Poland in their final group game of Mexico 86, and did thanks to his terrific hat-trick. However, I’ve just got to go for maybe the most important strike of his career – England’s extra-time-forcing equaliser in the Italia 90 semi-final against West Germany. A brilliant finish, it saw him receive and flick the ball to his left foot and away from the two German defenders in the box, before expertly whacking it past the keeper into the far corner

The perfectly true: A national institution and housewife’s heart-throb (before and definitely) after Italia 90, ol’ Gal saw his name used for the title of a West End comedy about a group of Spanish holidaymakers watching that semi-final, An Evening With Gary Lineker (1991); he actually made a cameo appearance in its 1994 ITV adaptation

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2. Bobby Moore (1962-73)

Bobby Moore, England captain, 1966

The position: Centre-back (classic shirt number: 6)

The performances: 108 caps/ 2 goals
(World Cups: Chile 1962, England 1966, Mexico 1970/ Euros: Italy 1968)

The player: The man who led his side to World Cup-wining glory, ensuring the summer of ’66 was, in England at least, the ‘Summer of Love’; talismanic national leader at Mexico 70 too

The pros: Quite frankly, Bobby Moore was England’s greatest ever defender and, given he’s the guy who lifted the Jules Rimet trophy, its greatest captain (a role in which he served 90 times, in fact; a record shared with Billy Wright). A fantastic reader of the game, very rarely found wanting positionally and only too happy to stride out of defence and get involved in midfield play or feed a forward with an expert pass (he assisted two of Hurst’s three goals in the ’66 final), Moore was arguably decades ahead of his time as a centre-back. He also looked damn good, becoming (thanks to his ’66 exploits) the nation’s first unequivocally adored football pin-up with a gorgeous wife (i.e. the proto David Beckham). Moreover, his 108 caps was the national record for an outfield player until David Beckham beat it 36 years later, although Moore played every minute of every one of his appearances. Fellow legends including Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Alex Ferguson claim Moore was the greatest defender ever to have played the game

The cons: Most players’ careers wind down, so really this isn’t a con, but Moore’s final days for England were particularly sad. He was at fault for both the goals that Poland scored in a 1973 home victory against England, which ensured the visitors had to win the return match that October to reach the ’74 World Cup. Owing to his dip in form, Moore was dropped by coach Alf Ramsey and England infamously couldn’t gain the win (Ramsey seemingly lost in indecision when a substitution surely had to be made and, according to Moore himself, the off-field captain practically becoming de facto coach and forcing the change). Moore would play just once more for England and, eventually, a far less successful post-football life would follow

The precious moment: Receiving the World Cup from Her Maj and lifting it high

The perfectly true: According to Geoff Hurst, ahead of the ’66 final, he overheard Ramsey discussing with his coaches the possibility of dropping Moore for the iconic match in favour of other England centre-back Jack Charlton’s Leeds United teammate (and the more rambunctious than Moore) Norman Hunter. How different things could have been, eh?

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1. Bobby Charlton (1958-70)

england_players_bobby_charlton

The position: Attacking/ central midfield (classic shirt number: 9)

The performances: 106 caps/ 49 goals
(World Cups: Chile 1962, England 1966, Mexico 1970/ Euros: Italy 1968)

The player: England’s talisman throughout the ’60s, Charlton was the ultimate gentleman’s footballer – and, both then and now, considered one of the world’s greatest ever players

The pros: Where do you start? Not only was he immeasurably talented, a terrific passer and mover who, at times, was almost balletic on the ball, he also boasted a thunderbolt of a strike from either foot. Initially, he established himself both for England and Manchester United (with whom he was equally as successful) as an old-fashioned inside-forward, then evolved into what today would be recognised as the ‘number 10’ role. Never playing as an out-and-out forward then, he nevertheless raced away to become England’s greatest ever goalscorer – and 44 years on from his retirement, his record haul – just one short of a half-century – is yet to be bettered. He also excelled in the old ‘Home Tournament’ (against the other ‘Home Nations’), scoring 16 goals and winning it with England on 10 occasions (five times shared). Plus, he remains the only Englishman to have been selected for four World Cup squads. Oh, and in ’66 he won the thing itself, of course, when Alf Ramsey’s legendary team was built around him

The cons: It’s only fair to say that as matches wore on at Mexico 70 Charlton looked past his best, tiring in the Central American heat, but really, in later years by far his biggest drawback was that ill-advised old man’s comb-over he favoured instead of embracing baldness. A noble, stubborn, thus very English gent to the end then

The precious moment: His 49th and final goal (the strike that ensures he still holds the all-time record) during a 4-0 victory away to Colombia in warm-up for Mexico 70 might just be his greatest moment, but surely his most important goals – and thus his ultimate moments – were his brace against Portugal in the 2-1 semi-final win that took England to the ’66 final

The perfectly true: Always a committed family man, Charlton’s legacy might be said to be his children as much as football memories, and in this way he could be said to have blessed TV meteorology – his daughter Suzanne was a regular BBC weather forecaster in the ’90s

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