There was a time in the mid- to late-1990s when the Premier League was awash with great English strikers and there was not room for all of them in every England squad. Andy Cole scored 188 Premier League goals, second only to Alan Shearer, yet he won just 15 caps and never played at a major international tournament.
Cole's competition was formidable. As well as Shearer, the undoubted leader of the pack, there were Teddy Sheringham, Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand and then, from 1998, Michael Owen. Wright, Fowler and Ferdinand won just 76 caps between them and when you consider that Emile Heskey won 62 – just one fewer than Shearer – it is obvious that the following next generation was not as strong.
Even the strikers on the periphery then would have surely won more caps had they been born later. Stan Collymore, capped just three times, scored 22 Premier League goals in a Nottingham Forest team that finished third before he was given his debut in June 1995. Compare that to how quickly Andy Carroll was fast-tracked into the England team. As for Jay Bothroyd's and David Nugent's England caps – there was no room for Championship players in the England squad 10 years ago.
The longevity of Heskey in recent years has been the surest sign that England do not have as many strikers to choose from. But it has not just been the quality of the players that has restricted the variety of forwards who have got a chance. The focus that Fabio Capello – and before him Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren – have placed on Wayne Rooney, and doing what is right for him, has meant that others have struggled to get a look-in.
Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe have excellent goals-to-minutes-on-the-pitch ratios but seemed to drift in and out of favour. The only certainty has been – in the last two World Cup finals, in particular – that Rooney will play every time he is fit and sometimes when he patently is not. He is undoubtedly England's most gifted forward but he cannot be expected to do it all the time. And there has been a reluctance to find an alternative.
Yet after the 2-1 victory on Wednesday night over Denmark, could that finally be changing? Capello substituted Rooney at half-time – a decision more to do with keeping Manchester United sweet, although his performance merited it – and won the game. Even in Rooney's bleakest moments in last year's World Cup finals in South Africa, Capello stuck with him in the hope that he might come good eventually.
On Wednesday, with Rooney a few yards short of his best, England looked no worse for his absence in the second half. The first-half goal from Darren Bent and Ashley Young's winner in the second half were significant for both players. Neither has had much faith shown in them by England managers. That was the first time Bent has played a full 90 minutes for England. Young is still to do so.
Reprising his part in a partnership that has looked good at Aston Villa since he joined last month, Bent, who has won just eight caps over the course of five years, played well. Young, who was deployed in the role just behind the main striker instead of on the wing, was even better.
As well as Rooney, Crouch, Defoe, Young and Bent, there is still Carroll to come back from injury – and judging by the number of times Capello namechecks the £35m man he will be back in at the first opportunity. The last alternative is Bobby Zamora, a long shot given that he is 30 and still recovering from serious injury, but those seven names do offer Capello more variety than he has had in the past.
"Bent has improved and Andy Carroll is new – he is coming from the Championship," Capello said on Wednesday night. "And Defoe had three months out [between early September and early December he played just three games], I spoke to him about what had really happened to the ankle. Crouch we know very well. Rooney is another one. I have got a lot of forwards, but I hope they will be fit when we have to play."
They may not compare to the salad days of the mid-1990s up to the early part of the last decade but there is no disputing that Capello now has a choice – fitness permitting – although whether he is prepared to change his team when Rooney struggles is a different matter. Rooney has just one goal in 14 games for England since October 2009 and sometimes looks like he could do with a rest for his own sake.
Capello conceded after the win in Copenhagen that he finds the demand to change England's style of play difficult, given the short space of time that international weeks afford him. "For this reason I choose the players that are the best, absolutely," he said. "But when we play I teach them something about what you have to do. Sometimes you need to play long balls. Sometimes you have to play the movement without the ball and the position on the pitch. I try to teach.
"Every time it depends on the quality of the players. Without good players it is impossible to introduce a new style. If you have a big player like Crouchy you can't play a lot of short passes. You have to play to them and then after that you go for the second ball."
Capello still has certain players in certain boxes. Crouch? Long balls – although 22 goals in 42 caps, one every 99 minutes on the pitch, suggests that there is more to his game than just that. When Capello was asked whether he could see a new team emerging, the first name he mentioned was that of Carroll – and he was not even playing on Wednesday night – which suggests that Liverpool's new signing is foremost in his thoughts.
"I am happy because I think Andy Carroll is good, [Jack] Wilshere is good, [Michael] Dawson is back and [Gary] Cahill played with confidence," Capello said. "It was good. It is important for me that there are new possibilities for choosing players. I hope it will be difficult for me to choose [the players] because I hope the players will be in the same situation next month as they are now. You could see that all the players who were here were at the top of their physical condition."
The suspicion is that Capello sees Carroll as Rooney's next strike partner come what may and, if both are fit, it will be intriguing to see whether he tries to play them together against Wales in the Euro 2012 qualifier in Cardiff on 26 March. The more obvious strategy would be to use Bent, Crouch or Defoe, given the significance of the game. Carroll would be a risk but Capello is determined to bring him on as quickly as possible.
Thus far with England's Italian manager, a striker has been judged on his compatibility to play with Rooney and picked or discarded accordingly. But Wednesday was a reminder that there are options beyond the side's leading striker if he is struggling for form. The quality might not run as deep as it once did in that golden era of strikers around 10 to 15 years ago but there are alternatives – if Capello is willing to put some faith in them.Reuse content