For all the talk of England lacking true star talent, and for all the criticism of what little star talent they do have essentially bunking two vitally important warmup friendlies against high-quality opposition, it’s often forgotten that star talent has rarely got the Three Lions very far.
The Golden Generation was England’s richest cohort since 1966 and yet, the failure to organise them effectively as a team saw Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and numerous others consistently fail to replicate their domestic form at international level.
That’s not to suggest England would be better off by excommunicating all of their best players, but it does provide us with a timely reminder that the sum of all parts is always more important than the ability of individuals, and that England’s most important players don’t necessarily have to be the most in-form or the most star-studded.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of that is provided by Joe Cole. A footballer of immense natural ability, yet one rarely thought of in the same terms as Lampard or Gerrard. Despite this, and despite the fact he was shoe-horned out wide as a solution to England’s ever-problematic left wing, Cole was England’s standout performer at the 2006 World Cup – the tournament when the Golden Generation, further enriched by a young Wayne Rooney, were widely expected to finally come into their own.
While the big names struggled to deliver though, it was Cole who provided the inspiration and spark – most notably a stunning volley in England’s 2-2 draw with Sweden. As the Swedish cleared a looping cross towards Peter Crouch, another unexpectedly strong England performer amid a sea of far more luxurious reputation, Cole controlled the ball on his chest and struck it sweetly before it could contact the floor. The effort rasped through the air, swerved and dipped into the far corner of Andreas Isaksson’s net. He later provided the assist for Steven Gerrard’s 85th-minute strike as well.
Totalling one goal and two set-ups, Cole ended the tournament as arguably England’s most productive player, contributing to half of their six goals before being eventually eliminated at the hands of Portugal – inevitably by way of a penalty shootout. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that a creative midfielder in one of England’s most offensive roles provided that kind of return, but it nonetheless highlights how the Three Lions’ most-lauded players aren’t always the ones who deliver. In fact, it’s often those with a point to prove that rise above the passive mediocrity.
Ahead of two friendlies that have been disrupted by incredibly contentious injuries, that’s perhaps the ultimate inspiration Gareth Southgate can take into them. Whether his choice or not, he’s been given the chance to assess players who aren’t England’s top talents on paper, but can be invaluable to the side he’s constructing for the World Cup. That includes players like Tammy Abraham, Joe Gomez, Jack Cork, Ashley Young and Ruben Loftus-Cheek – players who are theoretically way down the pecking order, but could be well-suited to very specific roles, or could at least have the temperament to perform to their abilities on the international stage rather than be held down by the weight of expectation.
Who knows, Gareth Southgate may even unearth his very own Joe Cole in these next two games – not the most celebrated name on the team-sheet, but a talented player ready to make an impact at a major tournament.