Think of Terry Butcher and one image tends to spring to mind: of a blood-stained shirt and headband commemorating a wounded figure’s determination to play on against Sweden in 1989. Talk of David Platt and the chances are the first picture you see is of him swivelling to volley in the 119th minute winner against Belgium in 1990. Reference Stuart Pearce and there are twin memories, each framed by the other: the penalty that rebounded off Bodo Illgner’s legs in 1990 and the cathartic celebration after he buried his spot kick against Spain six years later. Gary Lineker? There are so many iconic moments that selecting one is a question of individual preference.
Nostalgia can be the England team’s constant companion anyway; sometimes it is a maudlin sidekick, at others a source of encouragement. Now comparisons with the past are less unflattering; now the prospect of a first semi-final in 22 years looms large. Now there is the chance Gareth Southgate’s team will be bracketed alongside the teams of 1990 and 1996 in the elite group just below the immortals of 1966.
The Hod Complex: England and the 1998 World Cup
But not just in their prowess and progress; in their identity. Gary Neville remarked a few days ago that he thought of Southgate first and foremost as an England player. The probability is that Butcher, Platt, Lineker and Paul Gascoigne are remembered in the same way, despite fine club careers. Even Pearce, an iconic Nottingham Forest footballer, was essentially an England player to many outside the East Midlands.
Mention Neville’s name, however, and his indelible association with Manchester United can obscure his England career, excellent a servant as he was over the course of 85 caps. The same may be said for many of his peers, all ensconced at super-clubs with bitter rivalries. Paul Scholes? United. Jamie Carragher? Liverpool. John Terry? Chelsea.
It also relates to the lingering sense of underachievement. Wayne Rooney’s 53 England goals would mean more if more than one came in a World Cup. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were good England players; they were arguably Chelsea and Liverpool’s greatest ever. Ashley Cole, the most consistent of the golden generation in a shirt bearing the Three Lions, secured honours aplenty in club colours but his final kick of a ball in a major tournament was a missed penalty. Only Michael Owen and David Beckham, arguably, were defined by international football.
Their team-mates seemed signs of the times, reflecting the ascendancy of the club game, with its huge budgets and multinational fanbases. Perhaps they made Lineker, Platt and co look anachronisms, products of an era when the national team appeared more important because few domestic matches were televised and, initially anyway, the Champions League was merely an idea, not an all-consuming phenomenon.
Perhaps not, though. Southgate’s current crop include plenty who may be known – to the wider world, if not the supporters of their respective employers – more for their exploits in an England kit. It is partly because men with lesser gifts could achieve more than the previous generation. It is partly because they are very modern throwbacks, creations of a particular dynamic.
Whereas their immediate predecessors were often fast-tracked to the top, this England team have not been. Their humble origins give them an everyman appeal to the supporters of smaller clubs who can be among the most fervent England fans. The starting XI’s former employers reads like a ground-hopper’s itinerary for a particularly busy autumn; Darlington, Alfreton, Burton, Carlisle, Bradford, Preston, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Barnsley, Northampton, QPR, Hull, Wigan, Watford, Coventry, MK Dons, Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton, Derby, Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich, Leicester.
Even after confounding expectations to progress thus far, most can testify to the difficulties the strength of the club game presents. It means they can assume a greater importance for Southgate than for the managerial Galacticos manning the Premier League dugouts.
For instance, Eric Dier may not be in Tottenham’s strongest side when Victor Wanyama is fit. Kieran Trippier has been arguably the World Cup’s best right-back or right wing-back but faces another battle for his place with Serge Aurier. Ashley Young’s deployment as a left-back for Manchester United feels a short-term fix. Jesse Lingard surged ahead of more garlanded talents last season, but there is no guarantee he will not revert to a squad player’s status next season. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has only made six league starts for Chelsea and his future is forever shrouded in uncertainty. Jordan Henderson faces more competition for his spot from the recent recruit Fabinho, as Raheem Sterling could from Riyad Mahrez’s prospective arrival at Manchester City. Each, though, should be confident he has a place in Southgate’s plans.
Yet it is also the case that fewer of England’s class of 2018 are defined by club honours in the way that Champions League winners such as Gerrard and Lampard were. Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford are unlikely to win major trophies with Everton and Leicester. Harry Kane has no silverware to show for his time at Tottenham. “Golden Boot winner”, however, would be a prefix to accompany his name for the rest of his life, just as it does to Lineker.
Michael Owen celebrates scoring against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup (Reuters)
Image credit: Reuters
He and Platt have both said that the World Cup changed their lives. Yet since Owen in 1998, it has not had such a transformative effect – or not in a positive way – on any England player. Until now, maybe. The signature images of Pickford’s career so far are his saves from Colombia’s Mateus Uribe in open play and Carlos Bacca in the penalty shootout; Dier’s conversion of the last spot kick may be the most recent memory but, in time, it could still stand out more than anything in a Spurs shirt.
A quarter-final and, potentially, a semi-final offer opportunities for others to make such a mark; the rarity value of World Cups and significance of them preserves the moment for decades. It could give them a subtle distinction. The temptation is to say Neville was a Manchester United and England player, whereas Butcher, for instance, represented England, Ipswich and Rangers. When country comes before club in the mind, it is a sign their greater deeds are done on the international stage.
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Richard Jolly - @RichJolly
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