“You can play Kane, Vardy and Rooney,” says Terry Venables, though it should be noted that he said those words before England faced Portugal and proved that you really might not be able to play Kane, Vardy and Rooney. At least not quite like England attempted to play Kane, Vardy and Rooney.
“It reminds me of the clamour for me not to pick Alan Shearer ahead of Euro 96,” continued Venables. “I always knew I was going to pick Alan, even if I kept him sweating a bit in the build-up. But it would have been madness to have left him out – just like it would be with Rooney.
“Kane plays at a strong canter, Vardy is flat out, and you’ve got Rooney who is crafty. Rooney has learnt to do the Teddy Sheringham thing and ask defenders questions.”
Arguing about whether Rooney should start is an absorbing pastime but ultimately pointless because Rooney will, barring injury, start against Russia next Saturday. While Venables is always keen to take credit for ignoring the naysayers and picking Shearer – with no goals in his previous 12 international appearances – at Euro 96, it’s bizarre that he is one of many voices in the media insisting that Vardy should start as a striker for England after his record-breaking season. After all, it was Venables who ignored the claims of a player who had just scored 36 goals for his club.
In June 1996, Robbie Fowler had just ended what would remain the most fruitful season of his career and been named PFA Young Player of the Year for the second successive season. He had scored 36 goals for Liverpool that season and yet he played just 26 minutes in a Euro 96 campaign widely considered to be England’s finest major tournament since 1966. Sir Les Ferdinand – who scored 25 Premier League goals that season – never even made it off the bench as football came home. Venables did not feel the need to crowbar Shearer, Fowler and Ferdinand into some sort of split-striker formation – he simply picked Teddy Sheringham because he was the best partner for Shearer.
Fowler’s autobiography shows that the man himself never expected anything other than his bit-part role: ‘At the Championships themselves, Big Al and Teddy showed why Terry Venables had so much faith in them, with some brilliant performances. I was never going to get past them into the side.’
Fowler is just one of several domestically free-scoring English strikers who failed to make an impact for England in the 1990s, with Ian Wright (nine goals in 33 caps), Ferdinand (five in 17) and Andy Cole (one in 15) the most notable. It is often cited as a golden age for English strikers and yet only Shearer, Sheringham and later Michael Owen emerged from the decade with any real credit for their national side.
“I don’t know why I didn’t play more often for England, that’s not a question I can answer,” said Fowler in 2012. “I’d like to think I could play a little bit as well as score goals, but that didn’t get particularly appreciated.”
The answer of course is that pure goalscorers are not always suited to international football. Darius Vassell is one player whose game oddly enhanced England in the early 2000s while Peter Crouch’s record of 22 goals in 42 England games is vastly superior to many more natural strikers. And ask Owen about playing with the much-maligned Emile Heskey; there is a reason he has 62 caps. Those who preach that the highest English league goalscorers have earned their England chance would have presumably preferred to see Owen playing alongside Marcus Stewart on that 2001 night in Munich.
Vardy’s goalscoring prowess at the highest level may well be as fleeting as Stewart’s, while Kane could ultimately be a better option from the bench unless England exactly mirror Tottenham’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Both are at the fledgling stage of their international careers (Kane has just 12 caps to Vardy’s eight) and neither, either or both could ultimately underwhelm at international level. To tie ourselves in knots to get them both into the side along with Rooney is ridiculous. Venables did not feel the need in 1996 and neither should Roy Hodgson in 2016.
The consensus after Thursday night was that Hodgson has nine days to find a way to get Vardy and Kane closer together on the pitch; actually, the real challenge is to find a way to get England playing well and scoring goals, and that could involve one, two or three of the ‘strikers’ who laboured at Wembley. There’s little point revelling in England’s attacking ‘options’ if we try and make them compulsory.