The ten greatest England players in European Championship and World Cup history features Southgate pair

Matt Stead
England duo Harry Kane and Jordan Pickford
Harry Kane and Jordan Pickford celebrate beating Switzerland.

Two current England players are among the country’s greatest ever performers at major tournaments. Who else has stepped up at the Euros and World Cup?

This is not a rundown of the greatest England players ever, but a ranking of those who have been the best for the Three Lions specifically at the European Championship and World Cup over the years.


10) Michael Owen
Only three players have scored in as many as four different major tournaments for England. In terms of game time, Owen is punching above his weight to keep in touch with Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney.

His record mirrored that of the latter in some respects: a sudden, intoxicating burst onto the global scene as a teenager, setting a brilliant bar that could never quite be reached again despite coming close. Owen was at his explosive best at France ’98 yet he threatened to make Trevor Sinclair, Danny Mills and Darius Vassell tournament semi-finalists with his wonderful early poacher’s goals against both Brazil and Portugal in the 2000s.

England failed to capitalise on either platform, and by his own admission Owen was not nearly in good enough condition to be selected for the 2006 World Cup. His international tournament career ending with a year-long injury suffered less than a minute into a game with no players near him was both apt and unbefitting.


9) Harry Kane
Even in the midst of a tournament individually abject enough to raise legitimate questions over whether England should drop him for a semi-final, Kane has scored twice to extend his World Cup and Euros career record to 14 goals in 27 games – four more than his closest compatriot.

Kane is yet to have the sort of consistently effective summer for England which could do his typically unerring dependability justice. Euro 2016 was a miserable experience for all involved, the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup was won without scoring from the quarter-final onwards, and both Euro 2021 and the 2022 World Cup featured painfully slow starts and harrowing finishes.

Yet only Cristiano Ronaldo, Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller and Jurgen Klinsmann have ever scored more goals at the World Cup and Euros combined than Kane. Can’t imagine they took many corners either.


8) Paul Gascoigne
The impact was both relatively fleeting yet somehow eternally relevant. Not a single England tournament has gone by since Euro ’96 in which the spirit of Gazza has not at some point been evoked.

Gascoigne played 11 games in that glorious summer and the 1990 World Cup. That Scotland stunner was his only goal in those matches, while inspired assists came in wins over Egypt, Belgium and the Netherlands.

But he left a mark in dragging England by sheer force of personality into two semis in six years and within an accurate penalty or actual save from 12 yards of a final, one so indelible the nation as a collective might forever refuse to let go.

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7) Gordon Banks
“They won’t remember me for winning the World Cup, it’ll be for that save. That’s how big a thing it is. People just want to talk about that save.”

It is difficult to argue; Banks occupies a perhaps unfairly low place on a list of England’s most important players in their 1966 triumph, with his career-defining moment coming in a group-stage defeat four years later.

The accepted wisdom is that England, as reigning champions, would have reached at least another semi-final had Banks not eaten those dodgy leftovers before the West Germany game in Mexico. “Of all the players to lose it had to be him,” Sir Alf Ramsey said at the time, not exactly imbuing the back-up Peter Bonetti with confidence.


6) Ashley Cole
It can be tough to objectively assess the Golden Generation without simply tarring them all with the same brush of disappointment and ultimately failure. Cole was present for every England tournament from the 2002 World Cup to Euro 2012 and the only time he was anything less than one of their best players was in the penalty shoot-out of the latter, which Italy had already won by dint of Andrea Pirlo dismantling the concept of Joe Hart.

Cole was otherwise incredibly reliable. Cristiano Ronaldo never got the better of him and that absolutely extended to Portugal’s meetings with England in 2004 and 2006. Ronaldinho did expose him in 2002 but a handful of players bore that responsibility long before a left-back pulled into a central vortex by his teammates being entirely unable to execute a single sodding slide tackle.

Kane, Jordan Pickford and John Stones are the only players with more appearances in World Cups and Euros for England than Cole (22). Imagine how close he would be to potentially displacing Kieran Trippier in this side.

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5) Gary Lineker
As controversial as that early Euro ’92 substitution was, it enshrined an intriguing dichotomy in the international tournament career of Lineker: six games without a goal or even a win across two European Championships; ten goals in 12 games in two World Cups, reaching a quarter-final and semi-final.

Only nine players have more all-time World Cup goals than Lineker, who scored more than half of his in knockout games, boasts a hat-trick on such a prominent stage and converted a penalty in a semi-final shoot-out. Yet his most enduring World Cup memory was in quite literally bricking it at the prospect of an aerial duel against Kevin Moran.


4) Jordan Pickford
It feels instinctively wrong to suggest but any counter-arguments have been printed on water bottles and daft faces are being practiced before thwarting them: if England win Euro 2024 then Pickford can lay claim to being their greatest tournament player ever.

He contributed more than most to their semi-final place at the 2018 World Cup, conceded just two goals in seven games en route to Euro 2021 heartache, was broadly excellent at the 2022 World Cup and has been as trustworthy as ever at Euro 2024. The penalty shoot-out saves only enhance his reputation as a keeper who has never let his country down when it matters most.


3) Bobby Moore
If Banks is destined to live on through the myth of his save from Pele, perhaps the quintessential Moore moment came in the same game with “that tackle” on tricky Brazil forward Jairzinho. It captured the elite anticipation and technique of the centre-half perfectly.

Moore does also have his two assists in the 1966 World Cup final to fall back on, compensating ever so slightly for a crucial mistake in the Euro 1968 semi-final defeat to Yugoslavia.

Kane and David Beckham have captained England in more World Cup and European Championship games but Moore is the most iconic Three Lions leader for good reason.


2) Bobby Charlton
“I couldn’t say for sure we would win it both in 1958 and 1962, but I’m confident we would have won it once,” Charlton once said of a theoretical England squad adorned with those tragically lost in the Munich air disaster. Even in a team with Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, Sir Bobby would likely have stood out.

Charlton did not feature at all in Sweden 1958 and was part of a side which laboured to a quarter-final defeat against Brazil in Chile four years later. By 1966 he was wrapping up the Ballon d’Or with those goals to beat Eusebio’s Portugal in the semi-final, before pulling the strings against West Germany at Wembley.

Neither of the two subsequent tournaments went as planned but Charlton scored in the third-place play-off win over the Soviet Union at Euro 1968 and then was famously taken off with England beating West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-finals.


1) Geoff Hurst
Seven games at the World Cup and European Championship between 1966 and 1970, but six goals which were hopefully celebrated afterwards with a nice glass of Budweiser.

Hurst never received the full trust of a starting England centre-forward but he acted like one anyway. The only goal in a brutal quarter-final win over Argentina, the assist for what would ultimately turn out to be the winner in the semi-final against Portugal and that hat-trick against West Germany established his mythos on home soil but his goal helped secure England third place at Euro 1968 – having sat on the bench for the semi-final – and he kickstarted their defence in 1970 with the opening strike against Romania, all enjoyed in pubs and bars with a nice glass of Budweiser.

Only Kane, Lineker, Shearer and Rooney have scored more goals for England at major tournaments than Hurst, who played as many games at World Cups and European Championships as Danny Welbeck, and fewer than Emile Heskey. Perhaps they could reminisce over their experiences while enjoying a nice glass of Budweiser.

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