We’ve had the top ten England performances in separate games at major finals. How about the best displays from individual players?
10. Bryan Robson (1982 World Cup)
Not only did England go unbeaten at the 1982 World Cup, they never even trailed during any of their five matches. The solitary goal they conceded in Spain came after France had eventually recovered from what was then the quickest strike in tournament history. The clock showed just 27 seconds when Bryan Robson netted the country’s first World Cup goal in 12 years.
Robson himself would cancel out Gerard Soler’s equaliser in a 3-1 win, the Manchester United midfielder emerging as the catalyst behind a stunning opening victory. England topped their group by labouring to a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia and a 1-0 victory against Kuwait. It was in the latter game that The Guardian noted ‘Robson’s strength and authority were badly missed in midfield’, having sustained an injury in the first half of the second game.
A difficult draw for the second group stage saw them pitted against the hosts and the eventual runners-up; a pair of goalless draws against Spain and West Germany sealed a cruel exit. But for Robson, it was a fine showing. With Robson alongside Ray Wilkins, the England midfield has rarely been so balanced.
9. Sol Campbell (2002 World Cup)
Nicky Butt might have been Pele’s choice as England’s “best player” ahead of their quarter-final meeting with Brazil in 2002, but even the midfielder himself deemed that assessment “crap”. It is not that Butt was poor as Steven Gerrard’s tournament stand-in – far from it – but the job was made easier by those behind him. The task of water carrier or defensive shield is not quite as complicated when teammates are willing to wear bulletproof vests and fetch their own drinks.
In Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand, England had one of the best central defensive pairings in South Korea and Japan. Neither missed a single minute, keeping three clean sheets in five games. Campbell scored the only international goal of his career in a draw with Sweden, capping a performance The Times described as ‘unflappable’. A place as England’s only representative in the Team of the Tournament was just reward.
The 43-year-old is now more obsessed with repeating the name of the Spanish capital, using his identity as a bemusing counter-argument and gradually diminishing his chances of finally entering football management. But it is worth remembering just how imperious he was in his playing prime.
8. Owen Hargreaves (2006 World Cup)
Henry Winter captured the opinion of both the public and the press. He declared that Owen Hargreaves ‘can count himself lucky to be on board’, while the Daily Express suggested the Bayern Munich midfielder would be useful in Germany as a ‘tour guide’. The Sun, as The Sun often do, went one step further, and certainly one too far; they said he had ‘the public persona of a mass murderer’.
The fixation with Hargreaves in 2006 bordered on the bizarre, but his was certainly an underwhelming selection. Injuries to Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen had rendered Peter Crouch the only fit, senior striker, with uncapped teenager Theo Walcott also part of the 23. “I thought perhaps we might see a forward in place of Hargreaves,” noted former England boss Graham Taylor.
But the 25-year-old reciprocated the manager’s faith with an inspired tournament. He played just seven minutes of the opening two games, but started each of the last three. It was in the quarter-final against Portugal in particular that he set himself apart, The Times comparing him to Superman. ‘There were times on Saturday when he seemed to get on the end of his own passes,’ they added, with no hint of hyperbole.
Hargreaves was the only one of four England players to score in the shoot-out defeat, further establishing his peerlessness. The critics were conspicuous by their silence when he was named England Player of the Year and England Player of the World Cup. A long and hard-fought battle had been won.
7. Wayne Rooney (2004 European Championships)
‘Is Rooney the new Pele?’ asked The Guardian, with the 18-year-old having scored his fourth goal of Euro 2004 in just three games. Sven-Goran Eriksson got that particular ball rolling by struggling to “remember anyone making such an impact on a tournament since Pele in the 1958 World Cup”, but everyone else was more than happy to run with it.
After disappointment in the opening defeat to France, Rooney came to life in Portugal. Two goals against both Croatia and Switzerland announced him on the European – if not world – stage as a generational talent. The sky really was the limit.
It did not take long for the crushing fall to follow the stratospheric rise. Just 27 minutes into the quarter-final, and with England already leading 1-0, Rooney broke a metatarsal in a challenge with Jorge Andrade. Darius Vassell was a like-for-like replacement in a positional sense and nothing more.
“I believe if I’d stayed fit we would have won the tournament,” Rooney said 13 years later. He might actually have had a point.
6. Michael Owen (1998 World Cup)
Of course, Rooney was only following in the footsteps of a future teammate. Liverpudlian? Check. A Premier League regular at the age of just 18? Absolutely. A tournament that would prove impossible to eclipse or even match in later years? Not for the first time, Michael Owen and his natural successor had completed the hat-trick.
Owen arrived at France 98 having won the Premier League’s Golden Boot. Glenn Hoddle had seen fit to hand just five caps to the striker before the tournament, and his role as back-up to Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham was confirmed as he played just 23 minutes of the opening two games.
A goal in the second – a defeat to Romania – was enough to persuade the manager to start him in a must-win game against Colombia. The South Americans, presumably after some admirable and largely unpunished sh*thousery, were duly dispatched, pitting England against Argentina. Owen wreaked havoc from the start. He won a penalty, scored one of the great World Cup goals and netted in the unsuccessful shootout.
‘Argentina were so terrified of Owen’s pace and directness that their brains stopped functioning properly,’ said Rob Smyth in his gripping account of the tournament. A star truly had been born.
5. Bobby Moore (1970 World Cup)
The sobering truth is that many who have spent the summer celebrating football’s return home may not know the context of the lyrics they sing. They understand the ‘three lions on a shirt’ and the ‘thirty years of hurt’, and can likely picture in their mind’s eye David Platt’s extra-time winner at Italia ’90 and Gordon Banks’ save against Brazil in 1970 as John Motson and David Coleman’s commentary plays.
But some may not ‘see that tackle by Moore’. Some may never have witnessed it in all its perpetual glory, or at least not realised it: how Moore subverts the role of defender by stalking his attacking prey, how he waits for the perfect moment to pounce, how he is always on the front foot even when tracking back, how he slows down time even as Jairzinho runs at him full pace. The intervention is devastatingly impeccable.
The 1966 World Cup might have been Moore’s career highlight, but his personal zenith came four years later. His preparation for England’s title defence was hardly ideal, spending four days under house arrest after being charged with stealing a bracelet in Bogota after a warm-up match against Colombia. Moore was released on May 28; England played their first game five days later.
The centre-half had hardly missed a beat. Moore played every minute as captain, keeping clean sheets against Romania and Czechoslovakia, but understandably failing to avert the quarter-final collapse against West Germany. Yet it was England’s second group game that secured his status as an icon: Brazil scored three or four goals in all but one of their games as they sauntered to success in Mexico. The sight of Moore and Pele embracing after the Selecao battled to a narrow 1-0 win was a sign of mutual respect between two of the all-time greats.
4. Gary Lineker (1986 World Cup)
Just three players have won the World Cup and the Golden Boot at the same tournament. Just two players have won the Golden Boot outright without reaching the semi-finals at the same tournament. James Rodriguez was simply following Gary Lineker’s lead.
For both men, their run was ended at the quarter-final stage. For both men, South American opposition was responsible. Brazil stopped Colombia’s charge in its tracks, while it took some divine intervention from a certain Argentinian to halt Lineker’s dominance in 1986. Even then, the striker tried to spark an England revival with the consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat.
Lineker had not quite dragged Bobby Robson’s men there single-handedly, but his fingerprints were all over their campaign. He failed to score as England lost to Portugal and drew with Morocco in their first two group games, but came to life in their hour and a half of need. A first-half hat-trick sunk Poland with ease to secure second place.
Two goals in the last 16 against Paraguay was supplemented with a strike in vain against Argentina, completing Lineker’s award-winning collection of six goals. Before the tournament, Geoff Hurst was England’s all-time World Cup leading goalscorer with five. The gap would only widen.
3. Bobby Charlton (1966 World Cup)
The iconic picture is of Moore clutching the trophy, being held aloft by his teammates. The quintessential footage is of Geoff Hurst’s second goal – England’s third – and the panicked reaction of linesman Tofiq Bahramov. The soundtrack is provided by the voice of Kenneth Wolstenholme.
None of that would have been possible without Bobby Charlton. His performance in the semi-final is often cruelly forgotten, with two fine goals helping edge the hosts past Eusebio’s daunting Portugal side. He also ignited their campaign, scoring their first goal of the tournament against Mexico after an uninspiring goalless draw against Uruguay. England would never have got so far without Bobby belting the ball, of course.
“England beat us in 1966 because Bobby Charlton was just a bit better than me,” Franz Beckenbauer, the man tasked with marking the Manchester United lynchpin in the final, later noted. He remains the only Englishman to ever win the Golden Ball.
2. Paul Gascoigne (1990 World Cup)
“Don’t worry. You’ve been one of the best players in the tournament. Don’t worry son, don’t worry son. You’ve been absolutely magnificent, haven’t you, yeah? You’ve got your life ahead of you, this is your first…”
Little did Bobby Robson know, but it would also be Paul Gascoigne’s last. A combination of a failure to qualify in 1994 and his own personal demons meant England’s most gifted footballer cut his teeth on the world stage just once.
Had the circumstances been slightly different, Gascoigne would never have even had the memories of Italia ’90. Then 23, he was far from a regular fixture on the international scene. He had won just four England caps by the start of the calendar year, earning more in the five warm-up friendlies in the three months before the tournament. It was in the 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia, which Gascoigne himself admitted left him “terrified”, that he secured his place. Robson could hardly ignore one goal and two assists.
It was the role of creator that would allow Gascoigne to thrive that summer. His free-kick provided the winner for Mark Wright in the group stage against Egypt. Another set-piece in the last 16 against Belgium was duly dispatched by David Platt in extra-time. He conceded a penalty in the quarter-final against Cameroon, but atoned for his error with a sumptuous through ball to Lineker to win and convert a spot-kick in response.
The story of the semi-final has been oft-told. Gascoigne was once again wonderful, this time his defensive work thwarting Lothar Matthaus. But one misstep in extra-time ensured his tournament would last just 20 more minutes, regardless of the outcome. A late tackle on Thomas Berthold brought both a yellow card and the iconic tearful reaction.
Gascoigne had still barely recovered before the penalty shootout, with Robson taking to the pitch to remind him of his “absolutely magnificent” efforts in carrying England so far. A place in the Team of the Tournament was no consolation for a player who deserved so much more.
1. Harry Maguire (2018 World Cup)
1. Alan Shearer (1996 European Championships)
As far as preparations for Euro 96 go, Alan Shearer’s were about as tumultuous as possible. A Premier League record 31 goals for Blackburn masked an international drought that extended to 12 games, dating back to October 1994. He played only a minor role in the infamous Cathay Pacific flight nightmare, but one large enough to set Gascoigne on a path of in-air destruction.
Terry Venable recalls a “clamour” to punish Shearer’s poor England form by dropping him for the tournament. For the former manager, it was never really an option. “I always knew I was going to pick Alan, even if I kept him sweating a bit in the build-up,” he later said. “But it would have been madness to have left him out.”
Within 23 minutes of England’s start to the tournament, the obvious decision was justified. Shearer collected Paul Ince’s delightful pass before rifling the ball into the roof of Marco Pascolo’s goal. His celebration was one of joy and relief, jumping and punching the air as Wembley watched on.
Switzerland would salvage a draw, but Shearer was reenergised. He opened the scoring in the win over Scotland, heading home Gary Neville’s inch-perfect cross. His two goals then helped dismantle the Netherlands in an all-round display of attacking dominance.
Shearer could even claim to have scored in every England game. After four goals in the group stages – more than any other player managed throughout the entire tournament – came a goalless draw with Spain in the quarter-finals. But the striker netted first in the penalty shootout. He did the same in the semi-final, having stunned Germany with a goal in the third minute.
The 25-year-old was reborn on the international stage. Barcelona toyed with the idea of signing him that summer instead of the incomparable Ronaldo, but eventually left Newcastle and Manchester United to decide who would break the world transfer record. But Shearer’s mind had long been “made up”. He joined the Magpies on July 30 for £15m, and remains their second most expensive signing ever.
At his unveiling, Shearer stated that the decisive factor was simply “the challenge of coming home”. He was unfortunate not to have escorted football to the same destination a month prior.