The World Cup is almost upon us. Some, like me, know it is the greatest show on Earth. Those who dislike football will be left running for the hills for four weeks from June 12.
It truly is footballing heaven – the tournament brings matches thick and fast until the final on July 13.
In terms of England, the weight of expectation which has weighed heavy over the last four tournaments, especially those played in by the so-called Golden Generation, has now gone.
In reality, England fans do not expect to have much to shout about from Brazil.
That’s not pessimism, that is fact. The belief carried by England fans that we had a divine right to win it was blown away one sorry afternoon late in June 2010 in the South African city of Bloemfontein. That was the day when a youthful German side tore apart sorry England. The memory of Ozil skipping past Gareth Barry for one of the goals is the stuff of my nightmares. The dream of the Golden Generation went with that defeat, and not before time.
This year, while there may not be an expectation, there is certainly some hope. Roy Hodgson has picked youth in the guise of Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Luke Shaw et al. If they get a decent runout, it should prove exciting. It could be something to build on.
In terms of the media, television is already becoming saturated with World Cup-related shows. Not only are England’s pre-tournament friendlies being televised (the Three Lions’ first match in the tournament kicks off on June 14 and is against Italy), but there are a plethora of shows on channels such as BBC3 and Dave which are exploring every facet of the tournament.
We’ve had England’s greatest ever goals, England’s worst XI (thought it harsh to include Des Walker), the best ever World Cup moments, the worst ever World Cup moments.
So, in the spirit of compiling World Cup-related lists, this blog is really about setting down my best ever England World Cup XI.
It will be made up of players who have played in the famous jersey since the 1986 World Cup (I genuinely only have vague memories of 1982, although the shirt for that tournament was by far one of the best).
The team will play a 3-5-2, simply because that is the formation Sir Bobby Robson deployed in Italia 90, when England reached the semi-finals before penalties broke our hearts.
GOALKEEPER: PETER SHILTON
Torn between David Seaman and Shilts here. Both were incredible keepers. Both had very dodgy World Cup moments.
At Italia 90, Shilts was past his best and really should have stopped the deflected German free-kick in the semi-final, which ballooned up of Paul Parker and looped in. In 1986, he was the victim of Maradona’s Hand of God goal.
Big Dave was left looking even more daft with that Ronaldinho free-kick in 2002. Shilts gets the nod.
CENTRE BACKS: SOL CAMPBELL, RIO FERDINAND, MARK WRIGHT (not the TOWIE star).
Wright will play the sweeper as he was so successful there in 1990. For younger viewers, his introduction brought a shift in formation which was instrumental in changing England’s style of play.
Rio will be disappointed not to play sweeper, but has to be in there as being the most gifted centre-back, and indeed player, I’ve ever seen. Harry Redknapp once said Rio was a Rolls Royce and he was right. Sol gets the nod over Des Walker, although his ratio of disallowed goals at crucial moments is a concern.
LEFT WING BACK: ASHLEY COLE
Cole is simply the best England player I’ve ever seen live at a tournament. His performances at Euro 2004 at the World Cup 2006 against Ronaldo were simply brilliant. He may be disliked by fans, but he is only England player over the past 10 years who would have walked into any other club or international side on the planet. World class, he is selected over Stuart Pearce.
RIGHT WING BACK: DAVID BECKHAM
An unusual role for him, but Becks has to be in the side and this is the only position I could get him in at. His work rate would allow him to play here. He’s not bad at free-kicks either. Beckham’s performance and last-gasp goal against Greece, and then his ‘redemption’ against Argentina in 2002, provided two of the most spine-tingling England football moments in modern times.
MIDFIELD: CHRIS WADDLE, STEVEN GERRARD, PAUL GASCOIGNE
Stevie G gets the nod over Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, and David Platt because he is a better player. He also gets the armband. Waddle is in because he could drift between positions and is one of my favourite players of all-time. His performances in 1990 (that penalty aside) were brilliant, particularly against Belgium, whose left back is still wondering where Waddle got to, some 24 years on.
Comparing modern day players to Gazza is unfair because he was a one-off. A flawed genius, he should have been the best in the world, although younger fans may not realise just how good he was. Lit up Italia 90.
FORWARDS: GARY LINEKER, ALAN SHEARER
The Match of the Day presenter gets the number ten shirt. Lineker grabbed the Golden Boot in 1986 with six goals, then helped himself to four more – including two penalties against Cameroon – in 1990.
Shearer is in to add power. If England were short of anything in the brilliant 1990 tournament, it was an all-firing second striker. Beardsley tried to rekindle the magic of ’86 with Lineker but was nowhere near as effective four years on, while John Barnes and Steve Bull also gave it a go.
So that’s the team. Players such as Michael Owen, Paul Ince, Bryan Robson, Barnes, Gary Neville, Teddy Sheringham, Terry Butcher and Owen Hargreaves (for covering every blade of grass in Germany 2006) will be among those filling the bench. The song for the team would, of course, be New Order’s World in Motion.
That team will beat anyone…but who would make your post-86 England World Cup XI?