The 112 England games since the turn of the millennium have produced 64 wins and 22 defeats, but ranged in quality from the stirring victories in Munich (5-1, 2001) and Zagreb (4-1, 2008) to the pratfall in Copenhagen (0-4, 2005) and the vapid defeats at Wembley both old (0-1 v Germany, 2000) and new (2-3 v Croatia, 2007).
Of 62 competitive games played in this period, only 17 were in the final stages of either the World Cup or the European Championship, reflecting failure to qualify for Euro 2008 and an all-too-brief appearance at Euro 2000. On the global stage, England reached World Cup quarter-finals in 2002 and 2006, but lost both. Those defeats, one in a shoot-out, represented the peak of the Three Lions' achievement in the noughties: more foothills than summit.
Along the way, 97 different players were used by six different coaches; and while the likes of Michael Ricketts and Seth Johnson would struggle to make team of the day, never mind the decade, there have been others who've set English pulses racing. Several have featured prominently in the teams of current coach Fabio Capello. His 15 games in charge (12 wins) have brought a new sense of discipline and professionalism to the squad, and seem finally to have banished the curse of arrogance, whereby the team seemed to expect things to happen simply because of who were on the pitch.
This best England XI from the past decade includes several who could ensure the noughties end on a relative high.
David Seaman (1989-2002)
The days when England boasted a steady production line of top-class goalkeepers are sadly distant, and since David Seaman won the last of his 75 caps in October 2002, a worthy successor has not yet been found. Seaman may have endured the odd embarrassment - notably against Ronaldinho at Shizuoka in the 2002 World Cup - but 'Safe Hands' was a reassuring presence behind the back-four, offering greater reliability and fewer errors than all the subsequent England number ones.
Gary Neville (1995-2007)
One half of the latter-day version of the Charlton brothers - though he and Phil occupy a considerably lower place in the nation's affections - Gary Neville had the tenacity to become a solid selection for a succession of England coaches. The England squad’s shop steward was consistent enough to be first-choice right-back for more than ten years, despite the ravages of injury, and even earned a surprise recall to the England squad from Capello for two World Cup qualifiers, without actually playing in either game.
Rio Ferdinand (1998 - )
Ferdinand has largely rid his game of the lapses in concentration that punctuated his early career, evolving into a stylish and accomplished defender more comfortable on the ball than most center-backs. The suspension incurred because of the forgotten drugs test did his international career no favors; but after his return Rio showed a maturity that was rewarded with temporary captaincy.
John Terry (2003 - )
Made skipper by Steve McClaren, Terry retained the armband after Capello had taken a long hard look at the candidates. It was a sound decision as he is the natural successor to Tony Adams, a leader whose game is based on drive and commitment. Terry was the only Englishman named in the 2006 World Cup’s all-star squad. Sol Campbell was a strong contender for this position, but Terry edged it because of his captaincy and better goal-scoring record.
Ashley Cole (2001 - )
For reasons to do more with personality than performance, Cole may not win many popularity contests; he was mercilessly booed by England fans after his howler gifted Kazakhstan a goal in the Three Lions' 5-1 Wembley victory last October. Yet he has proved himself to be England's best left-back of the last decade by some distance. The defensive side of Cole's game has improved significantly at no cost to his attacking instincts, and 73 caps tells its own story of consistency.
David Beckham (1997 - )
Golden Balls has metamorphosed from precocious talent to petulant liability to national hero to veteran holder of 112 caps. The journey has included accepting and relinquishing the captaincy, plunging the country into trauma with a broken metatarsal, being discarded then reinstated by McClaren, and winning his place in Capello's squad. Through it all Beckham has been the supreme supplier of the perfectly weighted pass. His finest hour was scoring the stunning last-gasp free-kick against Greece that clinched England's participation in the 2002 Word Cup. Despite all the baggage, he is still inspired by the Three Lions.
Frank Lampard (2000 - )
Lampard's selection is contentious, not least because it is at the expense of Paul Scholes; but also because his performances for England often failed to match his outstanding club form, earning him the crowd's ire. Somewhat unjustly he seemed to epitomize the perception that England players were more ego than effort, yet his record stands scrutiny: 17 goals and a raft of assists in 71 appearances. Under Capello's clearer tactical thinking, the intelligent Lampard has responded well.
Steven Gerrard (2000 - )
In many ways Gerrard's England career (74 caps, 14 goals) has been as frustrating as Lampard's, and one of the burning questions of the decade was ‘can these two play together and, if so, how do you get the best out of them?’ Capello is getting closer to answering it effectively than his predecessors did, which is good as it would be folly to omit the world class Gerrard from any team for which he was eligible.
Joe Cole (2001 - )
One of the most natural English talents of the last decade, Joe Cole's international career was stunted by inconsistent selection, muddled tactical plans, and injury. But his boundless enthusiasm, speed, trickery and ability to sting the opposition with the unexpected made him more valuable to the team as the decade progressed. He offers balance on the left in what was for so long England's problem position.
Michael Owen (1998 - ?)
His last England appearance was as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat against France in March 2008; but his recent change of club may reinvigorate Owen's career and earn him a recall, as a fit Owen guarantees goals. Even if he doesn’t add to his current haul of 89 caps and is therefore unable to improve on his 40 England goals (which place him fourth on the all-time list), Owen deserves his place in this team for his consistently reliable poaching instincts - never better exemplified than when he hit a hat-trick against Germany in Munich.
Wayne Rooney (2003 - )
Prodigiously talented, and with the power and technique to unnerve most defenses when playing to his strengths, Rooney has been and remains a formidable weapon in England's armory. He threatened to run riot singlehandedly at Euro 2004 until struck down by the curse of the busted metatarsal; and 10 goals in his last seven internationals under Capello represents the sort of form to make even hardened cynics dare to believe.
G Neville Ferdinand Terry A Cole
Beckham Lampard Gerrard J Cole
G Neville Ferdinand Terry A Cole
Beckham Lampard Gerrard J Cole
Graham Lister, Goal.com
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