Scroll to the bottom of the article for Rob Bagchi's all-time 23-man England squad August is traditionally silly season for journalism but on the football beat the two-week autumn and spring international breaks are the cue for extreme resourcefulness. Watching England toil through yet another developmental stage, the slimness of their options and assets in central midfield and the heart of defence as blatant as the consoling promise of Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, made us wonder in which eras each part of the team have been at their strongest? Was English goalkeeping, say, at its apex in the 1970s or have the wide players of the Forties never been surpassed? For once a decision to truncate the period for analysis is not motivated by either sloth or rampant neophilia. England rejoined Fifa only in 1946 and their first international tournament was the 1950 World Cup, having spurned the first three. Therefore it makes sense to start in the immediate post-war years and to help the process we will look at each phase for every sector - goalkeeper, full-backs, central defenders, midfielders, wide players and strikers - look at the players picked and the breadth of quality alternatives. Some will represent generations or decades, others distinct stages in the team’s evolution. We’ll begin in goal and chart the progression, chronological at least, from Frank Swift and his primrose polo neck sweater to Joe Hart and his binman chic high-vis short-sleeves, concluding with our stab at an answer. Goalkeepers If you’ve been paying attention to anything involving England without being so bored you’ve felt compelled to make a paper plane, our first contender will be obvious. Frank Swift, the wok-handed, spring-heeled Manchester City goalkeeper who pioneered the throw-out, was the first keeper to captain England and as the man in goal when England travelled to Turin to defeat the double world champions Italy (a pre Superga full-strength Azzurri side) 4-0, is our candidate from the Forties. He won 19 caps despite the war depriving him of his career from the age of 25 to 32, let in 18 goals and played in other memorable victories over France, Sweden, Scotland and Portugal. Other standouts from the truncated decade include Tottenham’s title-winning Ted Ditchburn, who won six caps, and the brave, acrobatic, sure-handed Bert Williams of Wolves who succeeded Swift after his international retirement and earned 24 caps over the next six years. Our Fifties options begin with Williams and Gil Merrick of Birmingham City who earned the most caps (23) of the decade and kept five clean sheets. It was Merrick’s misfortune to be in goal for the mortifying, 3-6 defeat by Hungary at Wembley in 1953 and the 7-1 thrashing in the Nepstadion a year later. Admittedly he appeared rattled on both occasions but only because the Magnificent Magyars and his shaky defence left him horribly exposed. The sight of him picking the ball out of the net 13 times have haunted English football ever since but he was not responsible. Those defeats should have marked a paradigm shift but the England system - once again propped up by a crop of excellent players - did not significantly change until much later. Other notable stalwarts of the decade were Bolton’s 5ft 8in Eddie Hopkinson, the master of one-on-ones who won 13 caps, and Colin McDonald of Burnley who kept goal at the 1958 World Cup and was a dominant, cross-catching doyen of the old school. The Sixties begin with Sheffield Wednesday’s, quick, agile Ron Springett who played 33 times including all four at the 1962 World Cup where he repeatedly saved Walter Winterbottom's side from a proper drubbing in the 3-1 quarter-final defeat by Brazil, and end with Banks of England, Springett’s understudy in Chile, justly recognised as the greatest goalie in the world. It wasn’t just his majesty during England’s 1966 campaign, it was his general safehandedness - helped, trivia fans, in a pre-gloves age, with a generous rub of Beechnut chewing gum-laced saliva on the palms - his rare ability to save gymnastically equally well whether his goal was attacked high or low and his courage. He was so supreme that he restricted other fine goalkeepers such as Peter Bonetti, Gordon West, Alex Stepney and Springett to a handful of caps after Alf Ramsey made him first choice in 1964. Gordon Banks remained Ramsey’s default selection until he lost an eye in a car crash at the age of 34 in Oct 1972, taking in the save against Pele in 1970, the world’s greatest keeper defying the game’s best player by diving downwards, like an hour hand pointing to seven o’clock, and twisting his wrist to ensure he flicked it over the bar to prevent the great striker pouncing on the rebound. But Leicester City did not rate the marginal differentials between an established world-class player and an emerging one as highly as Ramsey and sold Banks to Stoke in 1967 to clear the way for 17-year-old Peter Shilton who owned the Eighties but duelled with the agile, commanding and astute Ray Clemence throughout the preceding decade to be England’s No1. Shilton was a brilliant shot-stopper and all the hours of dedicated, unrelenting practice gave him uncommon agility and aerial mastery. From about 1978 onwards, the error against Poland in 1973 long overcome, Shilton has the right to be considered Banks’ equal and probably superior. The reign of the duopoly left those other excellent keepers, Joe Corrigan, Phil Parkes and Stepney feeding off scraps. When it game to goalkeepers Ron Greenwood had a touch of the Jimmy Armfields at Leeds (“the manager’s indecision is final) but at the start of 1982 after rotating them for five years, he eventually plumped for Shilton who stayed undisputed first choice for the whole of the Eighties. Clemence carried on as the first reserve until 1983 and from 1985 Chris Woods began to make the No13 shirt his second skin during international weeks. Woods made 14 starts in the decade but was mostly stuck on the bench occasionally conceding opportunities for the stand-by role to Gary Bailey, Nigel Spink, Dave Beasant and David Seaman. Poor Martin Hodge, Tony Coton and John Lukic never even got a sniff. Peter Shilton at the start of his international career Credit: Malcolm Croft/PA Bobby Robson stood by Peter Shilton for Italia 90 and kept the 40-year-old keeper between the sticks for the semi-final shootout against West Germany despite having not used all his substitute options and Shilton’s poor record at saving spot-kicks (one from 15). The veteran retired from international football at the end of the tournament but carried on playing for a variety of clubs until 1997. Woods, who once went 1196 minutes without conceding a goal for Rangers in successive matches, became Graham Taylor’s No1 and played at Euro 92 backed up by David Seaman and England’s first million-pound goalie, Nigel Martyn. Seaman came into his own under Terry Venables and proved himself a wonderfully athletic goalkeeper with great agility, positional awareness, sound judgment and, above all, consistency at Euro 96. He saved penalties, too. Glenn Hoddle logically opted for continuity but awarded caps to Ian Walker, David James, Tim Flowers and Martyn when injury or the need to see how the others shaped up demanded. Seaman continued through the proto-Golden Generation era until his mistakes were compounded by his age, particularly, like Shilton in 1990, a leaden-footedness in reverse. Paul Robinson was anointed for the 2006 World Cup when David Beckham metamorphosed into Sally Bowles in Baden-Baden but Sven Goran-Eriksson also tried out Martyn, James (the Euro 2004) starter and Rob Green. If we consider the McClaren era a coda to the Golden Generation, The Together Again tour after Dean Martin had bailed on Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis to be replaced by Liza Minelli, small wonder that it was largely a Robinson hangover with supporting roles for Scott Carson, Chris Kirkland, James and Ben Foster. Fabio Capello took a look at James and Green, didn’t like what he saw, blooded Joe Hart then went back to swapping between the other two, £4m a year not being enough to deliver decisiveness. Jack Butland, John Ruddy, Fraser Forster and Tom Heaton have made appearances under Roy Hodgson and Gareth Southgate. Foster, too, has returned from temporary retirement but the seven years since the 4-1 defeat by Germany in Bloemfontein have been the Hart hegemony, under whose dominion we linger. Poor old Whitney Houston did not live long enough for an answer to her question - where do broken Harts go? It’s West Ham, pet. Full backs Now we have established the decades we are going to compare, let us breeze through the options rather than dwelling in such detail to outline the parameters. First choices for full-backs of the Forties are Laurie Scott of Arsenal on the right and captain in all 13 appearances, George Hardwick of Middlesbrough on the left. Depth is added by Derby’s Bert Mozley as a back-up down the right and Manchester United’s Johnny Aston at left-back with 17 caps. George Hardwick, right, greets the Sweden captain Erik Nilsson in 1947 Credit: Reg Birkett/Keystone/Getty Images In the Fifties the selection panel had Spurs’ Alf Ramsey at the beginning of the decade to play on the right and Blackburn’s Bill Eckersley on the left. Birmingham’s Jeff Hall and West Brom’s Don Howe made the right-back slot the preserve of the West Midlands for the rest of the decade while Manchester United’s majestic and adventurous Roger Byrne played 33 successive matches at left-back until his death at Munich during a period when the selection committee made consistency virtually unknown. Tommy Banks, Bolton’s tank, did his best to replace the irreplaceable at the 1958 World Cup and Sheffield United’s Graham Shaw filled in the following year. Take your pick from the Sixties beginning with the two 1966 imperishables George Cohen and Ray Wilson, Jimmy Armfield, a former captain who played on the right at the 1962 World Cup, Keith Newton, who succeeded Cohen and Terry Cooper who took over from his fellow Yorkshireman Wilson at left-back. Add on all those reduced to a handful of caps because of Ramsey’s loyalty - Bob McNab, Paul Reaney, Chris Lawler, Gerry Byrne, Tommy Wright and Cyril Knowles - and you have the kind of riches that would make Gareth Southgate turn green with envy beneath his beard. George Cohen, left, and Ray Wilson, holding the Jules Rimet Trophy, celebrate victory in 1966 Credit: PA Photos England’s least successful decade in terms of qualification is also, paradoxically, one remembered with a fondness for the quality of English teams – the best of which were bolstered by Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen. England’s full-backs in the Seventies numbered the Liverpool pair Phil Neal and Emlyn Hughes (not that Hughes played there for his club as frequently as he did for the national side). Their versatility was a virtue, as it was for Ipswich’s Mick Mills and Leeds’ Paul Madeley and Trevor Cherry. More orthodox full-backs were plentiful, too: the magnificent Viv Anderson on the right and Don Revie’s choices, Leicester’s Steve Whitworth and QPR’s Dave Clement. On the left Frank Lampard, Alec Lindsay, David Nish, Mike Pejic and Ian Gillard won caps, as did Kevin Beattie playing out of position but in masterly fashion, particularly in the 5-1 thrashing of Scotland in 1975. Kenny Sansom began the Eighties in possession of the No 3 shirt and held it for eight years, playing consistently and with real skill to hold off the challenge of West Brom’s Derek Statham, until the claims of Stuart Pearce in 1988 could be resisted no more. The right side was more problematic once Mills, Neal and Anderson entered their mid thirties. Mick Duxbury had a run there, Danny Thomas could have been the long-term solution save for that rotten injury inflicted by Kevin Maguire while Gary Stevens won 45 caps after his debut during Everton’s title-winning campaign in 1984-85 including Mexico ’86, Euro ’88 and the beginning of Italia 90. Kenny Sansom made the left-back position his own in the Eighties Credit: Duncan Raban/Allsport/Getty Images Pearce was key at the start of the next decade, becoming captain under Graham Taylor, taking a position in a back three for Euro 96 when Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton played wide, and was recalled at the age of 37 for a couple of starts under Kevin Keegan. Terry Venables initially preferred the Blackburn Rovers left-back Graeme Le Saux and but for injury he would have started Euro 96. Glenn Hoddle restored him as first-choice after a cameo from Andy Hinchcliffe but by the end of the Nineties the left side, in defence and midfield, had become something of a national neurosis. Phil Neville filled in there, playing alongside his brother, Gary, the undisputed No2 when fit. For club and country he succeeded Paul Parker and the challenges of Gary Charles and Rob Jones for the spot were sadly snuffed out by personal problems and injury respectively. Sven Goran-Eriksson promoted Ashley Cole as the man to solve the malaise on the left and over the 12 years of his international career from 2001 onwards he won 107 caps and held Wayne Bridge at bay. Gary Neville missed the 2002 World Cup where Danny Mills stood in but was back straight afterwards and carried on until 2007. Luke Young and Micah Richards stated their claims to be paired with Cole but ultimately Glen Johnson won the contest under Fabio Capello. Johnson stayed in situ under Roy Hodgson until the 2014 World Cup and was even recalled to the squad last year but Kyle Walker, Nathaniel Clyne and Kieran Trippier are now the default options after experiments with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones out wide. Leighton Baines played so well from 2012-14 that he essentially forced Cole into international retirement before the more athletic claims of Danny Rose and Ryan Bertrand did for him. Central defenders Here we face a problem with the first two post-war decades before the four-back system really took off. A bodged solution for the Forties and Fifties, rather than trying to corral in a wing-half, would be to list the options at centre-half even though normally only one was picked. We don’t even have to do that for the Forties because Billy Wright, the centre-half for much of the Fifties, captain for 11 years and England’s first 100-cap player, played at wing-half for his country at the beginning of his international career, alongside the exemplary Neil Franklin at No 5. Franklin abandoned Stoke in 1950 to move to Colombia and circumvent the maximum wage but his wife did not settle there and he faced the opprobrium of his club and the FA on return, not adding to the 27 caps he earned before he left. Breadth of talent for the decade would be provided by Blackpool’s Harry Johnston, Allenby Chilton of Manchester United and Liverpool’s Bill Jones. Wright made the position his own after the 1954 World Cup where Bill McGarry and Syd Owen had taken the role. Johnston, too, continued to make appearances at the start of the Fifties and Liverpool’s Laurie Hughes stood in for Franklin at the 1950 World Cup. Jim Taylor of Fulham, Burnley’s Mal Barrass and Charlton’s Derek Ufton were also tried but no one could dislodge the 5ft 8in Wright, captain of Wolves and England, golden-haired paragon of the post-war game. The finest partnership of the Sixties, Jackie Charlton and Bobby Moore, came together only a year before they won the World Cup and had it not been for the disgrace of Peter Swan - who won 19 caps as a cultured but powerful stopper between 1960-62 - Charlton may never have joined his brother as a cornerstone of 1966 and all that. Maurice Norman, the Spurs Double-winning centre-half, joined forces with Moore for the 1962 World Cup because Swan was confined to quarters with dysentery in Chile and Brian Labone both preceded Charlton and succeeded him as first choice towards the end of the decade. Norman Hunter served as Moore’s understudy but the consistency of the captain restricted ‘Bites Yer Legs’ to 28 caps over nine seasons. Moore at his peak Credit: AP Photo/files Moore made the last of his 108 appearances in 1973 and by that point there were plenty of contenders for his position, notably Derby County’s Colin Todd, Hunter and Emlyn Hughes. Roy McFarland earned 28 caps in the centre-half slot from 1971-76 before injuries ruined his career and gave Dave Watson a long run as first choice until 1981. Watson won the last of his 65 caps at the age of 35 in June 1982 but was omitted from the final squad for the Spain World Cup, the first for which he had qualified after failures to reach West Germany and Argentina. Phil Thompson of Liverpool and Manchester United’s Brian Greenhoff were given their debuts by Don Revie but only the former flourished after he left for Abu Dhabi. Watson’s role as the tall, raw-bone aerial colossus was filled by Terry Butcher throughout the Eighties though we forget how good his left foot was, his skill overwhelmed by the ‘up and at ‘em’ patriotism of his persona. Thompson led Liverpool to the 1981 European Cup and partnered the Ipswich defender at the Spain World Cup but Bobby Robson struggled to find a regular foil for Butcher thereafter and worked his way through Alvin Martin, Graham Roberts, Mark Wright, Terry Fenwick, Gary Pallister and a callow Tony Adams before settling on Des Walker for Italia 90 and a return for Wright in a back three. At the start of the Nineties Graham Taylor used Walker, Adams and Pallister but it was his successors, Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle, who got the best out of Adams. Venables managed it at Euro 96 when Adams was white-knuckling his sobriety for the duration of the tournament and Hoddle benefited from Adams stopping drinking and finding a new poise. Both also used Gareth Southgate in a back three while Sol Campbell, given his debut by Venables, became a regular when Hoddle took charge. Taylor and Hoddle used Martin Keown but Venables never picked him and though Steve Howey, Neil Ruddock, Steve Bould, John Scales, Colin Cooper and David Unsworth were tried, none established himself. The so-called Golden Generation had three stalwarts in Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Campbell while injuries prevented Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King from the long international careers their talent deserved. Jamie Carragher won 31 caps over 11 years, Matthew Upson became a favourite of Fabio Capello’s and Steve McClaren gave Joleon Lescott his debut in 2007. Rio Ferdinand and John Terry before the latter racially abused the former's brother Credit: Action Images / Tony O'Brien Ferdinand failed to re-establish himself after missing the 2010 World Cup through injury and ended his England career with 81 caps in 2011, Terry retired from the international game in 2012 after an FA Commission went ahead with charging him over racially abusing Ferdinand’s brother, Anton. Since then we’ve had shaky alliances involving Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Lescott, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, John Stones and Michael Keane. Central midfielders Again we need to make an adjustment here for the Forties and Fifties and will restrict it to wing-halfs, elevating most inside-forwards to forwards for the sake of this exercise. The immediate post-war era used Billy Wright most often as the right-half and Manchester United’s Henry Cockburn as the left pivot. Portsmouth’s hard-tackling tyro Jimmy Dickinson succeeded Cockburn and played 48 times from 1949-56 while Phil Taylor of Liverpool and Villa’s Eddie Lowe shared six caps on the right. Before the emergence of the Busby Babes - and we must include Eddie Colman here as well as Duncan Edwards because he would have been an international but for his death at Munich at the age of 21 - Wright and Dickinson formed the regular partnership. The claims of Edwards - simply the most complete player England has ever produced, skilful, forceful, bursting with stamina and natural authority - could no longer be ignored in 1955 and he won 18 caps before he was killed, also at the age of 21. Ron Flowers, who won three titles with Wolves in the Fifties, played once in tandem with Edwards and took over after the 1958 World Cup with Blackburn’s efficient Ronnie Clayton his usual foil after Clayton had seen off Wolves’ Eddie Clamp. Nobby Stiles played at centre-back for Manchester United but was magnificent as Ramsey’s midfield destroyer in the 1966 side, providing the platform from which Bobby Charlton could glide through the gears, the ball under his immaculate control, and ping passes, whip in crosses or fire thunderous shots at goal. Before the two of them joined up, Flowers and Bobby Robson had been the main men with Charlton out on the left wing and after injuries and age diminished Stiles, Tottenham’s Alan Mullery was given the job. Colin Bell, Man City’s Nijinsky, was blooded in 1968 and proved irreplaceable when Martin Buchan effectively ended his career in 1975 after 48 caps. For the first part of the Seventies Martin Peters tucked in from the left and Bell played the dynamic right-half role, sadly without as much freedom as he had to pelt forward for City. Trevor Brooking made his first start in Ramsey’s last match and became the co-key player with Kevin Keegan under Greenwood with his clever passing and penetrative movement. He was so good that he kept the magnificent Glenn Hoddle on the peripheries following his debut in 1978. Hoddle, as brilliant a playmaker as he is rotten as a pundit, would have a system tailored to his strengths for England’s last three games at the 1986 World Cup when crisis forced Robson’s hand. Gerry Francis, Revie’s second captain, would have given both stiff competition had he stayed fit after his 12th cap. Tony Currie and Alan Hudson join the list of inexpertly harnessed talents while Terry McDermott, so intrepid for Liverpool, was denied a consistent run in the side by Ray Wilkins who ended the decade a dynamic box-to-box midfielder with the skill, control and vision that would later make him so comfortable as a ‘sitter’ in Serie A. The entire Eighties can be considered the Bryan Robson years. Bobby was besotted by him but for understandable reasons, as Alex Ferguson outlined: "He had good control, was a decisive tackler, passed the ball well and his combination of stamina and perceptive reading of movement enabled him to make sudden and deadly infiltrations from midfield into the opposition's box." His fitness became a national preoccupation and he lasted two games each of the 1986 and 1990 World Cups after driving England to qualification at both. We saw him at his very best only in 1982 and Euro 88 when he needed support that his team-mates could not provide. Wilkins was his regular partner, replaced by Hoddle for 1988 and Neil Webb thereafter until Paul Gascoigne finally charmed the sceptical Bobby Robson in 1990. Peter Reid, Everton’s tigerish beating heart, took centre stage in 1986 when Robson’s shoulder popped out again but the promise of his Goodison colleague Paul Bracewell was ravaged by an ankle injury that took almost two years out of his career. England's all-action 'Captain Marvel' Credit: David Cannon/Getty Images Italia 90 began with Robson, Gascoigne and Chris Waddle in a midfield three and ended in unforgettable drama with David Platt in for the captain, having seen off Steve McMahon. Graham Taylor initially stuck with the Platt-Gascoigne axis for the victory over Poland but went with his Aston Villa pairing of Platt and Sid Cowans for the trip to Dublin. Gascoigne’s injuries and drinking alarmed Taylor who kept him around the squad when fit but his absences provoked some of the strangest selections in memory, noticeably Geoff Thomas, Andy Gray and Carlton Palmer. David Batty and Paul Ince injected some quality, the latter a mainstay for Venables and Hoddle - playing with Platt and Gascoigne at Euro 96, Paul Scholes at the 1998 World Cup. Jamie Redknapp was ill-served by injury, Nicky Butt ill-served by managers until Sven Goran-Eriksson’s hand was forced in 2002 by Steven Gerrard’s absence and Ray Parlour by the wrong-headed perception that he was well, in Lovejoy’s words, ‘only Ray Parlour’. Gascoigne lights up Wembley v Scotland at Euro 96 Credit: Stu Forster/Allsport Frank Lampard made his debut in 1999 but did not become a regular for four seasons when his class tempted Eriksson to fudge the biggest decision of his England career and stick Scholes on the left to start the ‘Lampard-Gerrard’ compatibility saga that was to run for the next 11 years. Once Scholes decided he’d had enough after Euro 2004 (ending a 29-game goal drought in his penultimate match), Gerrard and Lampard, Lampard and Gerrard held their positions until Steve McClaren recalled Gareth Barry, who impressed Capello so firmly that he put Gerrard on the left. The Golden Generation and its hangover phase featured cameos from Danny Murphy, Owen Hargreaves (though he normally played wide), Scott ‘Scottie’ Parker, Michael Carrick and Jermaine Jenas though none could either usurp Gerrard or Lampard or make the combination look convincing in tournament football. Both were still in the squad at the 2014 World Cup though age had taken the shine off them. Lampard was reduced to the bench, Gerrard captained the side but his one-paced partnership with Jordan Henderson left a dodgy defence too exposed to cope with Italy and Uruguay. Capello gave Jack Wilshere his debut at the age of 18 yet seven years later we are still waiting for him, probably forlornly, to be blessed with the physical resilience to regain his verve. Eric Dier has been the default starter with Henderson for the past 18 months but Jake Livermore is currently back in the squad, Tom Cleverly has been and gone, Fabian Delph gets in whenever he manages a couple of games for Man City while James Ward-Prowse and Harry Winks put the twinkle in Gareth Southgate’s eye. Wide men Should we just end this segment here? Stan Matthews and Tom Finney in the Forties and Fifties are the best pair of wingers England have ever had. In 1948 a forward line of Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Tommy Lawton, Wilf Mannion and Finney put on arguably England’s greatest performance in the 4-0 away victory over Italy but never played together again. Finney was an England regular for 12 years, playing on the right, left and through the middle until 1958 but Matthews, seven years Finney’s senior, was eased out only a year earlier at the age of 42 with 54 caps. He was not deemed as indispensable by myopic selectors who gave run-outs on the wings in his stead to Peter Harris, Les Medley, Billy Elliott and Johnny Berry. Blackburn’s Bryan Douglas took the No7 shirt 36 times and scored 11 goals from 1975-63 and Bobby Charlton won the majority of his caps until 1964 on the left flank, seeing out the decade in a Lancs touchline hegemony. In the Sixties, after the end of the Douglas-Charlton years, Ramsey tried John Connelly, Terry Paine, Peter Thompson, Derek Temple and Ian Callaghan before deciding on a narrower road to triumph. Alan Ball, essentially an auxiliary central midfielder, edged out to patrol the right for the latter stages of the 1966 World Cup, driving England on with his stamina, skill and heart but victory convinced the manager to stick to his system, using the full-backs for width with Peters augmenting the strikers from a nominal position on the left and Ball from the right. Wingers were out of vogue for most of decade after 1966 - Ian Storey Moore kept the flame flickering briefly and Revie tried with QPR’s Dave Thomas and Merlin himself. Gordon Hill, but it wasn’t until Ron Greenwood picked Manchester City’s Peter Barnes and United’s Steve Coppell together in 1977 that England took flight again. Coppell evolved into a solid right-sided player but at that point was an out and out winger who held the position for five years. Laurie Cunningham made three starts alongside him but by the start of the following decade Greenwood had cramped his own style. John Barnes at the Maracana Credit: David Cannon/Allsport The Eighties should have been the decade of Waddle and John Barnes and in popular memory it remains so but England started the decade with a tighter system, using Coppell and Graham Rix at the 1982 World Cup, and got to the quarter-finals of the 1986 tournament having ditched the wingers for Trevor Steven and Steve Hodge. Villa’s European Cup-winner Tony Morley briefly enraptured Bobby Robson and Mark Chamberlain preceded Waddle into the side by two years but it was largely a Barnes-Waddle duopoly from then on, though rarely in tandem and both, despite their brilliance and that goal at the Maracana, the first scapegoats. Lee Sharpe was the great left hope of the Nineties but faded away, Venables got the best out of Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman to provide hope of a more expansive future until David Beckham took freehold of the No7 shirt and front pages for eight years with a revolving cast of Nick Barmby, Paul Merson or a wing-back on the left. Eriksson blanked McManaman at the start of the 2000s and tried Trevor Sinclair, Scholes and Joe Cole out there to give some balance for Beckham. Stewart Downing became a mainstay of Steve McClaren’s squads while Aaron Lennon and David Bentley were tried out on the right. Ultimately he went back to Beckham. Capello got the best out of Theo Walcott for a few games, pulled Gerrard out to the left and employed James Milner as a Steady Eddie solution. Hodgson switched to 4-2-3-1 and used Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Adam Lallana to provide width which is largely, with the exception of Rooney, where we remain apart from the saving grace of Rashford. Forwards To the summit … and, controversially, I am going to include some inside-forwards for the first three eras. So, for our post-war pioneers we will go with the aforementioned Mortensen, scorer of 23 goals in 25 games, Lawton, who scored 22 times in 23 starts, and Mannion, ‘the Mozart of football’ as Matthews put it. Len Shackleton and ‘Wor’ Jackie Milburn straddled the Forties and Fifties while Mortensen played on until 1953. The No9 shirt fell vacant in 1948 when Lawton told Walter Winterbottom that the coach didn’t know enough to be giving him advice, Milburn filled it for a spell before Nat Lofthouse won 33 caps and scored 30 goals, including the two at the Praterstadion that made him forever ‘The Lion of Vienna’. Tommy Taylor, one of the eight ‘Flowers of Manchester’ among the 23 victims of the Munich Air Crash, shot powerfully with both feet, had pace, guile and spatial awareness, and the fast-twitch reflexes of the thoroughbred goalscorer. He bagged 16 goals in 19 appearances as the other out-and-out England centre-forward of the decade. Lofty and Tommy were supported by Ivor Broadis and the finest, most astute passer in the team’s history, Johnny Haynes, who was only 27 in 1962 when he played his 56th and final game for England (his 22nd as captain) in the 1962 World Cup quarter-final. He was never as fluent again after a car crash on his return from Chile. Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final overshadows anything any other England striker can match. Roger Hunt, the other Wembley immortal, was so crucial to Ramsey’s system because his tireless movement made space for Bobby Charlton to fill that it is forgotten that he scored 18 times in 34 appearances, and Jimmy Greaves, English football’s most cold-hearted and deadly finisher, gave the manager a richness of options. By the end of the Sixties Franny Lee had taken over from Hunt and Greaves as Hurst’s partner for Mexico Sniffer Clarke, the heir to Greaves, made his debut in 1970, Peter Osgood made only a couple of starts and Martin Chivers became Ramsey’s preferred No9 for two years, scoring 13 times in 24 appearances. Rodney Marsh exasperated his manager, Malcolm MacDonald thrashed five past Cyprus for Revie but made his distaste for the man who picked him well known, which meant the search for an ‘oppo’ for Kevin Keegan - the human dynamo, a rampaging forward who could leap, head, shoot and pass with distinction - lasted too long. Bob Latchford found favour for a while as did Stuart Pearson, Mick Channon moved over from the right, Paul Mariner began the international career that would yield 35 caps and 13 goals and Tricky Trevor Francis beguiled us all with his positioning and vision. Kevin Keegan scores against Scotland in 1979 Credit: Steve Powell/Allsport Cyrille Regis would have made more than two starts in the Eighties had he moved to Manchester United from West Brom instead of Coventry but he couldn’t displace the Keegan-Mariner-Woodcock-Francis usual suspects for the World Cup in Spain. Robson ushered Keegan into retirement but kept faith with the others until Gary Lineker, the quicksilver scavenger, gave him no excuse in 1984 and began the march to the Mexico Golden Boot, a World Cup quarter- and semi-final and 48 goals in 80 games. He was at his best with Peter Beardsley - who brought out the best in everyone - but also fed off Mark Hateley, Alan Smith, and Steve Bull. The Nineties began with Lineker and Italia 90, Taylor then gave him the captaincy and slim pickings to work with up front and he left the scene in 1992 when shown the managerial big curly finger despite England desperately requiring a goal against Sweden. Taylor turned to Ian Wright who made a terrific return under Hoddle after being ignored by Venables and Les Ferdinand. Alan Shearer, impressive at Southampton, unstoppable except by injury at Blackburn, won his first cap in 1992 but had scored only five times in 23 appearances before the start of Euro 96 and hadn’t managed an international goal for 21 months. He hit five in the five games, was elevated to the captaincy for four years and ended still the talisman, though far less mobile, in 2000 with 30 goals. Teddy Sheringham played the Beardsley role for him perfectly and kept Andy Cole out of the squad and Robbie Fowler out of the side until Michael Owen came off the bench to score against Romania at France 98 and could not be left out again. Two games later he scored the wonder goal against Argentina that sounded the trumpets for his charge to the Ballon d’Or three years later. Michael Owen scores against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup Credit: Pawel Kopczynski REUTERS Owen was never really considered part of the Golden Generation because of a certain diffidence but he was its spearhead, when fit, and its yearned for king over the water when absent. He began the decade with Shearer, combined with club-mate Emile Heskey for the 1-5 in Munich and spent time up-front with Fowler and Darius Vassell before Eriksson promoted Wayne Rooney in 2003. Over 14 years Rooney would surpass Bobby Charlton’s England goalscoring record, beginning by playing off the cuff with boundless zip and chutzpah, maturing into that rarity, a workhorse with ebullient, irrepressible swagger and ending up a shadow of electrifying presence he once had been. During the decade Rooney played up top with Owen, Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch most frequently. Dean Ashton seemed to fit the part but it wasn’t to be. Rooney has been the key striker and player of this last decade, too and very much undroppable until Southgate took charge. Opportunities for Jay Rodriguez, Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge have been curtailed by long-term injuries, Hodgson thought it wise to take Rickie Lambert to the World Cup but in 2015 Harry Kane was given a chance and grabbed it. Jamie Vardy remains among the alternatives along with Sturridge and the second (third and fourth) coming of Defoe. Conclusion How do you come up with a decision on the relative strengths and weaknesses over eight decades? Subjectively, obviously, but without prejudice: Goalkeepers: Seventies - Banks, Shilton, Clemence. Full-backs: Sixties - Armfield, Cohen, Wilson, Cooper. Central defenders: Seventies - Moore, Labone, Todd, McFarland, Thompson. Central midfielders: Eighties - Robson, Wilkins, Gascoigne, Hoddle. Wide men: Fifties - Matthews, Finney, Charlton R. Strikers: Nineties - Lineker, Shearer, Owen, Beardsley. Please feel free to dispute this 23-man squad selection in the comments section.