For the last dozen years, England fans have enjoyed watching top centre-backs, such as Terry, Ferdinand, Campbell and Keown, play for their country. These have been world-class players that have secured England’s goal, and kept countless clean sheets. And along with top full-backs such as Ashley Cole and Gary Neville, the Three Lions have been blessed with some top defenders for recent tournaments.
Up front for England, they have been truly blessed. Sheringham, Fowler, Owen, and Rooney have all led the line since the turn of the Millennium, all dreaming of scoring the goal that fulfils the hopes and wishes of millions of fans back home. With the service from some incredible midfielders like Gerrard, Beckham, Scholes and Lampard, these forwards have gone on to score goals from exhibition hat-tricks to vital last minute winners.
But one thing no England manager in the 21st century has had, be it Keegan, Sven, Capello, McClaren or now Roy, is a true, world-class left midfielder. Many have tried, but none of them managed to nail down the position. Beckham, Gerrard, Rooney, Owen, Terry, Ferdinand and Cole were all but guaranteed their place in the team. But there was always a mystery over who would play on the left hand side.
Nicky Barmby played there when we moved into 2000, and was part of the team that won 5-1 in Germany. But he wasn’t a world class winger, and was rarely consistent, either in the white of England or Red of Liverpool at the time. One year later, England faced Brazil in the Quarter-finals of the World Cup. Trevor Sinclair started on the left for the Lions, but it would be 1 of only 12 appearances he would make for the national team.
Into Euro 2004, again with fresh hopes of some much needed tournament success, Paul Scholes, one of the country’s best central midfielders, found himself on the left touchline. With Sven-Goran Eriksen wanting to play Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard together in the middle, Scholes was forced out wide in order to play. Just over a month after England were knocked out of the competition, Scholes retired from international football, stating his family life, and Manchester United career was more important, meaning England would have to look elsewhere once again.
Sven thought he may have had the answer in 2006, when Joe Cole’s fantastic form for Chelsea under Jose Mourinho earned him a place in the first team. The tricky winger scored of one of the goals of the tournaments against Sweden, controlling the ball with his chest before hitting a dipping volley from 35-yards. Had the then Blues winger not been so unfortunately injury-prone, he may have become a key player for England. But too many injuries made Cole miss opportunities to secure his place in the England team.
In 2008, when England ended up failing to qualify for the European championship, Steve McClaren often had to try other players on the left, with Cole watching on from the treatment table. Shaun Wright-Phillips was starting to make an impact on the right hand side, now David Beckham had been dropped from the side, whilst Steven Gerrard had been pushed out to the left, so Gareth Barry could play in the centre. Stewart Downing often came off the bench during matches, but never made enough of an impact to warrant taking Gerrard, Barry or Lampard out of the starting eleven. Whilst Gerrard wasn’t playing at his full potential out in the wrong position, he was still performing well enough to keep Cole out of the side. Another injury to Cole in January 2009, this time snapping his cruciate ligament, would see him miss out on more international game time, and ruin his opportunity at becoming a regular in the England set up.
Cole only made two substitute appearances at the 2010 World Cup, as Gerrard and James Milner played out wide during England’s disappointing campaign. That would be the end of Cole’s international career, where true promise was hindered by injuries. Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott were also making England appearances, but unfortunately, were both right wingers, and struggled on the left hand side.
So what about now? Ashley Young has been in and out of the England team, much like he has at Manchester United. Downing is now at West Ham, but not close to earning a flight to Brazil. Lennon and Walcott have continued to play the majority of their club football on the right, and will be unlikely to feature on the opposite flank.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played well during his one match at Euro 2012, and now has 3 goals to his name from 13 international appearances, including one against Brazil in Rio. The Arsenal youngster has missed nearly the entire Premier League season, after sustaining a cruciate ligament injury during Arsenal’s first game of the season. He looks set to be back fit in time for Brazil, but will he have enough time to fight his way onto the plane? And would he be a success on he left flank on the biggest of stages?
Andros Townsend has shown great promise since bursting onto the Premier League stage, earning his England call up in October. The 22-year-old has shown pace, trickery and a desire to attack defenders for both club and country, and could fit the bill on the left wing. Townsend has played on the left, right and down the middle for Spurs, so it appears he has the flexibility to be able to play on the left.
Hodgson has shown he has been willing to try things, with Welbeck, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez all playing out wide in the last few months, to test their abilities on the wing. But over all these years, over a decade of football, can we really say that we have fixed the problem that Sven Goran-Eriksen had when he first took over?
Personally, only Joe Cole showed real promise at being a regular, world-class left midfielder, only for his injury problems to disrupt his grip on the England shirt. With Townsend and Oxlade-Chamberlain comes potential. But after all these years of different options, it’s about time one of these new boys comes in and stays there. With 6 months to go, it’s time to see someone step above the rest and make themselves the one everyone wants to see start on the left on the 14th of June.