A quick note to all the journalists who have spent the last week and a half expounding just how far Emile Heskey has come on as a player in the last few seasons: he hasn’t. He’s just as good (or, indeed, bad) as every one of you ever said, thought or wrote he was. The reason he now looks like Pelé’s younger brother is simple: Fabio Capello understands the value and importance of a team dynamic above all other concerns.
As every schoolboy knows, one of the first things Jack Charlton – then pushing 30 – asked Sir Alf Ramsay upon his maiden call-up to the English team is “Why me?”. As they will also be able to tell you, in between selling crack cocaine or stabbing you for the £17.26 in your pocket, is that Ramsay’s answer was brutally honest and to the point. Charlton, Ramsay reasoned, was not the best player in his position in the country. But he was the best of the exact type of player Sir Alf needed to make his tactical plan function. Simple.
The same thing, surely, applies to Emile Heskey. The surprise, perhaps, is that it has taken 35 years of experimentation and counter-experimentation to remember the importance of the team ethic. The whole Lampard-Gerrard condundrum in the centre of the park is symptomatic of the English team’s approach down the intervening years – pick the very best players in the ratio of four, four, two and then they will surely and magically become the best team. This has, of course, worked out brilliantly well.
This brings me to what I consider to be one of the most curious oversights in the post-1966 history of the English national football team. In 1990/91, Arsenal – née Boring Boring Arsenal – won the First Division with the loss of just 18 goals in 38 matches. The team in fact conceded less goals – eight – away from home than they did at Highbury. The foundation stone of this exceptional record, and of the team’s sustained growth ever since, was (as any schoolboy can tell you when they’re not selling your sister into sex tourism) the Arsenal Back Five. In 1990, George Graham signed David Seaman from Queens Park Rangers to be the custodian of the now-legendary back four of Tony Adams, Steve Bould (initially battling for the number 5 shirt with David O’Leary), Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn.
Now. Here’s the thing about Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould. David Seaman was born in Rotherham. Lee Dixon hails from Manchester, whilst Nigel Winterburn was born in Warwickshire. Tony Adams is from Romford and Steve Bould was born in Stoke-on-Trent. Impossible though should perhaps now seem, this solid unit never all represented England at the same time. Indeed, two of the number – Bould and Winterburn – only won 2 international caps, both times in friendly matches. And whilst both of Bould’s appearances, against Greece and Norway in 1994 under Terry Venables, were sensibly alongside Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn’s two caps (both as substitute) saw him playing with none of his teammates. In the second, Andy Sinton (Andy Sinton!) was preferred at left full-back.
As I look at it, this is an absurd state of affairs. I can’t, with any good conscience, claim that had this single unit been transplanted from one bit of North London to another that England would have won all their matches ever. Or been the World Champions in 1990 and 1994 and European Champions in 1992 and 1996. It is, nevertheless, baffling that no-one in a position to pick the first XI ever at least tried it.
In the 1990/91 season where Arsenal achieved levels of thrift rarely ever experienced before, England played 4 competitive matches, all qualifiers for the 1992 European Championships. To be fair, they were not exactly leaky at the back – the team shipped just two goals in this time, in home and away 1-1 draws with the Republic of Ireland. Even in the following season, when England’s less than stellar record read 5 competitive games, 1 win, 3 draws and 1 loss, it was the result of conceding just three goals. However, it’s tempting to suggest that, with a bolt-on of five guaranteed, proven, players at the back, more focus could have been given to getting the six in front of them to fire. In the entire 1992 European Championship run – nine games – the team scored just eight times. Indeed, they only netted more than once in one fixture, the opening qualifying rubber against Poland in Autumn 1990. Instead, Graham Taylor fiddled about. He experimented with the five-man defence which had been such a successful tactic for the team at that summer’s World Cup. After a flirtation with a traditional back-four, against France and Sweden in the finals, he went for just 3 recognised defenders. It was a tricky time for England. Peter Shilton had retired. Gary Lineker was approaching his dotage as an international player. Geoff Thomas and Carlton Palmer were picked on merit. Sticking the whole Arsenal defence on the team would, for me, have been one less headache.
Lee Dixon won 22 England caps. Of those games, 14 were alongside at least one of his Arsenal teammates; of these two were with two and just one with three. Helpfully, for my argument, the latter game was a 2-0 home defeat to Italy. In my defence, though, it was in 1999, when the unit had already started to break up and go grey at the temples. Also, the manager in charge the day Seaman, Dixon, Adams and Keown all lined up in the same team was Howard Wilkinson. So, basically, throw me a bone here. Generally speaking, the players who made up the remaining positions in the aforementioned 14 games were Stuart Pearce at left-back and Des Walker alongside Adams, with Chris Woods in goal. On four occasions, Seaman was Dixon’s fellow, with Mark Wright, Gary Pallister or Gary “Diabetes” Mabbutt filling Adams’ breach. Not one of those players is a dud. Des Walker is still a rare breed – an English defender good enough to play abroad. Stuart Pearce is a bona fide, ‘Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George’ English national treasure. It would have been sad had either of them had been forced to sit out as a result of a one-club juggernaut.
Sad, yes, but not a problem if it worked. In these days of international players left, right and centre in the Premier League, it seems very unlikely that Fabio Capello will ever encounter anything even remotely similar to Arsenal’s defensive cabal of the 1990s during his reign. International football is a brutal mistress. The sad fact is that exceptional footballers tend – unless you happen to be from South America – to arrive in a glut rather than a steady stream. Someone will always have to miss out. If that had been Des Walker or Stuart Pearce, it would have been less than they deserved. Just ask Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon.