England are something of a football anomaly. On one hand, they were the ones who invented the sport and then exported it to the world. On the other hand, international success and England don’t exactly go hand in hand. They have won just the one World Cup and no European Championships. Indeed, as things stand, they are one of only two sides to have been crowned world champions just once. The other side is Spain, who won their maiden title in 2010. However, one cannot deny the fact that football and England go hand in hand. The sport is by some distance the most popular in the nation. And the Premier League, England’s top-flight league, is one of the strongest and most popular leagues in the world.
As such, England have produced more than its fair share of great players. But who would make an all-time playing XI for The Three Lions?
That’s a question we will now attempt to answer, although it was far from an easy process and many notable names had to be left out. But without further ado, here is our all-time England playing XI.
Goalkeeper: Gordon Banks – (Active from 1958-77, England caps: 73, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: World Cup winner, named 2nd greatest goalkeeper of 20th century, Major teams: Leicester City, Stoke City)
There are certain footballers who, even though they have had very distinguished careers, are best remembered for one moment. Banks is one such footballer. Ask anyone about the legendary English shot-stopper and the inevitable talk is about his save vs. Pele in the 1970 World Cup.
Pele headed the ball towards goal from close range and everyone – including Pele and Banks – thought that it was going in. Yet Banks pulled off an impressive save purely on instinct. That save, perhaps, summed up how important a player he was for England and his club sides.
Indeed, he started every game of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup campaign. He also enjoyed fruitful spells domestically with Leicester and Stoke, winning one League Cup each with both sides. For any English shot-stopper, Banks remains the yardstick.
Right-back: Gary Neville – (Active from 1992-2011, England caps: 85, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: won 17 major honours at club level including 8 PL’s and two UCL’s, Major teams: Manchester United)
Part of Manchester United’s vaunted ‘Class of 92’, Neville is sometimes unfairly typecast as a player who only won plenty of trophies due to being surrounded by elite talent. It is true that, at some level, Neville was not as athletic, naturally talented or even as speedy as some of his counterparts. But what he lacked in sizzle, he more than made up for in steak.
Neville’s biggest trait was the ability to work hard – both for himself and the team. His old-fashioned defending style stood out in an expansive United side, but was a necessary part of their success. He also worked hard at the attacking side of the game. He improved his crossing and ability to time his forays forward.
Neville was also a vocal leader who never backed down from a wind-up – just ask Liverpool fans. Nevertheless, Neville remains easily the greatest right-back the country ever produced.
Centre-back: Bobby Moore – (Active from 1958-83, England caps: 108, World Cup wins: 1, major career achievements: FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup winner at West Ham, Major teams: West Ham United, Fulham)
The stereotype of an English defender is someone who is rugged, no-nonsense and unbeatable in the air. Bobby Moore was the exact opposite of that stereotype. Moore’s greatness lay not in his physical attributes but in the way he saw and read the game. Of the many English defenders who have since emerged who favour technical skill over brawn, Moore was arguably the first one.
He was the captain of the English side that won the 1966 World Cup, and someone widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders ever. Indeed, he was proclaimed as much not only by Pele – a man who gave many defenders nightmares – but also Franz Beckenbauer, a man who knows a thing or two about defending.
He was also the highest-capped player ever for England for one point, and remains their third-most capped player. When he died at age 51 due to cancer, his club West Ham retired the number 6 jersey. His funeral was a public service too; the first-ever for a footballer in the nation. A fitting tribute to an all-time England great.
Centre-back: John Terry – (Active from 1998-2017, England caps: 78, World Cup wins: 0, major career achievements: Won 16 major trophies at club level, including every English domestic title and two European titles, Major teams: Chelsea)
The man seen as a natural leader both due to his superior in-game ability and his leadership and organisational skills, Terry captained Chelsea to every major honour possible during a stellar career in south-west London. His time at the club coincided with them becoming a major force both domestically and in Europe. And he was a key part of that rise.
Terry was, in many ways, a meeting point between old and new. His style drew heavily from the no-nonsense style of old defenders but he also combined that with an ability to read the game and organising defences. He was an underrated ball player too, possessing a good passing range and also a threat from set pieces due to his ability in the air.
He also captained England, although off-field controversies saw him was stripped of the captaincy not once but twice. Regardless of off-field issues, Terry remained an exemplary performer on the field. As such, he is seen as one of the greatest English defenders ever.
Left-back: Ashley Cole – (Active from 1999-2019, England caps: 107, World Cup wins: 0, major career achievements: won 14 major domestic trophies in his career, Major teams: Arsenal, Chelsea)
Another Chelsea legend whose off-field behaviour dominated headlines, Cole was at one point the best left-back in the world. In an era when the role of a full-back was evolving into more than just a wide defender, Cole could do it all. His attacking play was top notch but over the years he became a well-rounded defensive presence too.
Cole played in multiple major tournaments for England. But he was one of the unfortunate ‘Golden Generation’ members to underachieve with the national team. Yet his legendary status as a player is evidenced in the number of caps he earned for England – 107.
He had a controversial side to him, which made him – ironically or otherwise – a darling of the British tabloids. Yet on the field, he delivered the goods on a frighteningly consistent basis. It is safe to say England are yet to see a left-back of his calibre.
Right midfielder: David Beckham – (Active from 1992-2013, England caps: 115, World Cup wins: 0, major career achievements: won major domestic trophies in four leagues, Major teams: Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy)
Part major celebrity, part iconic footballer and an all-time star, Beckham was one of the first celebrity footballers of the modern era. His good looks made him the poster-boy for a number of brands around the world. But don’t let that distract you from the fact that in his day, he was among one of England’s finest players ever.
Playing in a wide-right position that was previously typified by physicality, Beckham became an icon due to his technical ability. His ‘Hollywood passes’ – accurate 50-yard balls that effortlessly picked out teammates – are the stuff of legends. And his free-kicks, combining the perfect amount of power and finesse honed by hours of practice, are hard to replicate.
Perhaps the only slight against Beckham is that he is seen as the pin-up boy for the underachieving ‘Golden Generation’. After all, he was England skipper at the time and must shoulder some blame. Nevertheless, Beckham’s focus on technical ability over brawn made him a success the world over. It now remains to see how successful he will be as a team owner in America.
Central midfielder: Paul Gascoigne – (Active from 1985-2004, England caps: 57, World Cup wins: 0, major career achievements: two-time Scottish Premier League champion, FA Cup win with Tottenham Hotspur, Major teams: Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio, Rangers)
Gascoigne’s career is one that inspires emotions of marvel, regret and a sense of what could have been. The man was described as the most naturally talented player to ever emerge out of England. Yet there remains a sense that, were it not for his personal demons, he might have done so much more.
This isn’t a dig on mental health or alcoholism-related issues either; rather, it’s a case of wanting more. Because, when Gazza turned it on, few in the world could match his ability to decimate opponents. That and the fact he was quite the personality away from the field made him a beloved figure in England.
Never was this more evident than the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany. Upon being booked, he cried knowing he’d be suspended for the final. England lost, but Gazza’s tears made him an even bigger hero to the sympathetic English public. In a country obsessed with hard-men footballers, Gazza became a hero by crying. That says a lot about how much people adored him.
Central midfielder: Bobby Charlton – (Active from 1956-80, England caps: 106, World Cup wins: 1, major career achievements: won multiple trophies with Manchester United, Golden Ball winner in 1966 World Cup, Notable clubs: Manchester United, Preston North End)
There are many things that can be said about Bobby Charlton. But the best that could be said is that his career was truly one of a kind. After all, not too many can say they came out alive of a plane crash. He survived the 1958 Munich air disaster and became a key cog in the rebuild of the side under Matt Busby. Many probably felt he was lucky to even play again. But he would go on to have an all-time legendary career.
Playing mostly in a more advanced attacking role from midfield, he became a key goal-scorer. Indeed, he held two records for United for the longest of times – most appearances (758) and most goals (249). Ryan Giggs surpassed the former record in 2008, while Wayne Rooney pipped him to the goal-scoring record in 2017.
He was also integral to England’s 1966 World Cup win, scoring key goals en route to the summit clash. He might have had a quiet final, but make no mistake about it – England owed their presence in the match to Charlton’s goals earlier in the tournament.
Left midfielder: Tom Finney – (Active from 1946-63, England caps: 76, World Cup wins: 0, major career achievements: scored 187 career goals at one club, Notable clubs: Preston North End)
Finney is a rare case on this list. He didn’t achieve a lot of glory in terms of trophies; in fact, the only trophy he won was the second division title in 1951. It’s also worth noting that he didn’t play for some top club in the division, as he spent his entire career at boyhood club Preston North End.
But what a career it was. Finney, who played across the forward line but was mostly at home on either wing, was extremely key to his side. In fact, a satirical observation said that Finney should “claim income tax relief… for his 10 dependents”, a reference to him carrying his teammates. Indeed, it’s worth noting that a year after his exit from the club, they were relegated.
His greatness can be summed up by this quote on him by legendary manager Bill Shankly. “Tom Finney would have been great in any team, in any match and in any age… even if he had been wearing an overcoat.”
Striker: Gary Lineker – (Active from 1978-94, England caps: 80, World Cup wins: 0, major career achievements: Golden Boot winner in 1986 World Cup and World Cup semi-finalist 1990, Notable clubs: Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur)
Lineker is known to modern fans as host of popular football show Match of the Day, as well as being a consistently funny presence on social media. But the former England striker was an extremely fine player in his day, and even had a successful stint abroad at a time when English players moving abroad was uncommon.
Lineker was a goal-scorer par excellence; in fact, he is the only player to have been the highest scorer in a season with three different clubs. He is also England’s third-highest goal-scorer behind Wayne Rooney and Bobby Charlton, having scored 48 international goals. He is also England’s highest goal-scorer in the World Cup.
Besides his ability to find the back of the net, Lineker was also an extremely fair player. Through the course of his 16-year career, he never received a single yellow or red card. He also contributed a six-figure sum to save former club Leicester City from bankruptcy in 2002.
Striker: Wayne Rooney – (Active from 2002-21, England caps: 120, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: Record goal-scorer for England and Manchester United, Notable clubs: Manchester United, Everton)
Rooney was nicknamed ‘Wazza’ for his style of play resembling that of Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne in his early days. It was a nickname that stuck, even though the boyhood Evertonian was a striker rather than a midfielder. Yet a look at Rooney in his prime reminded many of Gascoigne, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Rooney was a creative force who could play either as an out-and-out forward or in a slightly withdrawn role. His prolific goal-scoring was matched by his ability to change games, as well as his excellent passing range. As such, Rooney was a first-choice for both club and country. And it was that which led to him burning out sooner than expected.
It says a lot about Rooney that people think his career could have been so much better despite what all he achieved. But that does not take away from the trophies he won, the memories he made and the impact he had on English football as a whole.
Manager: Alf Ramsey
England have probably had managers with bigger or better CVs been at the helm of the national team. Yet it is worth noting that absolutely none of them won the World Cup or even the Euros with England. Ramsey, however, remains the only coach to have brought home a major international trophy for The Three Lions.
His managerial style, though not universally popular, was predicated on a focus on tactics and man management as well as a system that was revolutionary for the time. In an era where pacy wingers were the norm, Ramsey preferred using wide attacking midfielders who cut in centrally rather than went wide. If that sounds familiar, it is because that is the way things work in modern football.
Such is Ramsey’s status in English football that he remains the only man to be twice entered into the English Football Hall of Fame – both as a manager and a player.