I originally wrote this title without the question mark, but as I type a few English players are making me reconsider my position – there’s a long way to go but perhaps we’re heading in the right direction.
When I first started to appreciate football we had some great leaders playing in the Premier League; Tony Adams, Alan Shearer, Stuart Pearce, Paul Ince, David Platt – I’m going to stop there but say I’ve barely scratched the surface. These guys, on the field, truly lead by example and everyone in their respective squads followed suit. Much of this was down to managers having more power but the players deserve credit for the contribution they made.
What happened? I look at the current England crop and those leaders just don’t exist. Wayne Rooney is our captain, I’m a huge fan of what he has achieved in the game but mental strength is something he simply doesn’t possess – he has had one bad patch in his career (it has lasted 5 years so far) and he can’t get through it. Why would we make him our captain with this in mind? Well, we’re not awash with options, are we? I saw Chris Smalling wearing the captain’s armband for Manchester United recently, he watched Herrera scream at the referee when he was on a yellow card, he just looked open mouthed and with dead eyes as if they weren’t there – that’s not captain material. Herrera received his second yellow card a few minutes later, would a word from a captain have helped? Probably. Gary Neville or Roy Keane would have addressed the situation.
Picking a captain is just one issue, the main problem I see is the mental toughness that is absent throughout the squad. I saw Daniel Sturridge interviewed before the Euro 2016, the arrogance he showed surprised me, he actually said anyone who criticises his lack of consistency is wrong – “I have nothing to prove” was his comment. Even the great players talk about continuing hard work to improve further. Theo Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart, Raheem Sterling (again I’m going to stop there) seem to be of a similar ilk – whether it’s a career on Arsenal’s bench or moving clubs for money it just seems these guys don’t really need to strive for greatness.
The so called Golden Generation can’t be compared to what we’re dealing with currently. They didn’t achieve their goal of winning a tournament but they rarely embarrassed themselves, they were simply knocked out by a team better than them, usually on penalties. We can’t ask for much more than that, we’d kill for that with the current crop. I’d rather see Frank Lampard, David Beckham and Michael Owen give it a go than watch the 2016 squad fling themselves to the floor after the Iceland embarrassment, they seemed to know they weren’t good enough – imagine Steven Gerrard allowing that thought to enter his head.
However, we seem to have a light at the end of the tunnel. You’ll note I didn’t mention Jordan Henderson when discussing captains, that’s so I could address him here – he’s the obvious choice now. He seems to have directed the chest pumping into something constructive and I think he’s a leader. Other players who are breaking the mould are the likes of Harry Kane – this guy had an excellent debut season, got man marked as a result but continued unaffected. He’s a quality player. Dele Alli is heading in the same direction, he’s growing up and getting better now he’s reacting less to provocation. He’s not the finished product yet but he’s only 21. Marcus Rashford and Adam Lallana have incredibly tough roles to play, considering they’re asked to carry the ball past the opposition, but they do this admirably. Lallana took some criticism earlier in his Liverpool career and I feel this improvement shows his mental rigidity, I see why he was Southampton captain at such a young age.
Perhaps international football is no longer the pinnacle, it’s hard to get excited about anything FIFA organise when we watch the Champions League every year. That said, I hope we can start to enjoy the Three Lions more and be proud of what we see, win or lose.