The band of five Englishmen who have reached 100 caps for their country is a select group indeed and tonight, two of the remaining members of the golden generation will take one step closer to joining that small elite. Whatever the disappointments of the last decade, it would be unfair to underestimate the achievement of Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole as they earn cap No 99 against Poland tonight.
It barely goes without saying that both men will acknowledge the achievement in rather different ways. Gerrard was on his usual captain's duty last night at the National Stadium here in Warsaw, tackling every issue from the newly issued code of conduct to Patrick Vieira's recent criticism of English players' appetite for international football. Cole is unlikely to say much on the topic either after tonight's game or the friendly against Sweden next month.
When Roy Hodgson was first asked about Cole last night, a Football Association security man standing by the door leant back on the light switch and plunged the room into darkness just as the England manager was about to answer. If it came across as an elaborate FA plot to avoid having to address the question, Hodgson assured the assembled reporters, once light was restored, that was not the case.
Gerrard and Cole have very different public personas: both have had bumps along the road from protégées to major figures in English football and both would surely covet some of what the other has. For Gerrard it would be Cole's three Premier League titles with Arsenal and Chelsea; for Cole, still kicking and screaming against authority, it would surely be the way in which Gerrard has matured into the squad's captain and leader.
In the absence of Cole, it fell to Gerrard to describe the manner in which the rest of the players regard him. "I don't know what your opinions are of him," Gerrard said. "He's a top player. It's important to speak about him as a player. He's quite quiet privately, reserved in the squad, but he comes alive on the pitch. It's been an absolute pleasure to play with him over the years. He's been one of the best left-backs this country has ever produced. Let's enjoy the last few years of his time with us."
Certainly for a game like tonight, when Hodgson needs his best players for a pivotal World Cup qualifier away from home, Gerrard, 32, and Cole, 31, remain core to the team. It was Gerrard who made his debut in May 2000, before the European Championship that summer while Cole won his first cap in a World Cup qualifier the following March. Cole has played in five tournaments; Gerrard too, although he missed the 2002 World Cup finals with injury.
Gerrard's detractors will always throw his 2009 court case in his face, for which they seem to forget he was acquitted. What does not seem in doubt with Cole, who has by far the more medals to his name, is that his occasional outbursts, including the recent "Twatgate" seem to get angrier, the older he gets. With his contract at Chelsea running out this summer, and no new agreement on the horizon, it will be interesting to see his next move.
Between them they have won two Champions League trophies, three Premier League titles, nine FA Cups and four League Cups but there is no doubting they are in the last-chance saloon with England. It was Gerrard who missed a penalty in elimination in the 2006 World Cup, it was Cole who did so this summer at the European Championship. The 2014 World Cup is the last opportunity for them to improve the familiar story of England's tournament record.
Asked about the prospect of winning his 99th cap, Gerrard said that it "would only be a good memory" if the team won this qualifier, their fourth in Group H. "They've all been significant for me," he said. "Every time you put the England shirt on it's a proud moment. To have 99 in the locker is a fantastic achievement."
Poland has a special resonance when it comes to some of the other players with 100 caps for England. It was Poland who finally brought down the curtain on that golden era in 1973 when Alf Ramsey's team – including centurion Bobby Moore but not Bobby Charlton – were eliminated in World Cup qualification and England began almost 10 years in the international wilderness. Beaten in June 1973 in Chorzow by a Poland team that would go on to finish third at the 1974 World Cup, England then drew the return fixture at Wembley in October that year. The end had come for the golden generation whose accomplishments really were golden.
At the same time Hodgson was bringing to a close an unremarkable playing career in South Africa, a stint that he would be asked about almost 40 years later when he took over with England.
Hodgson is not one to get sentimental about the single great period in the England team's history, and he was no different yesterday. Even for a man of his generation, the Ramsey years are not something he likes to rhapsodise about. "The fact that ageing team were unable in 1974 to qualify, with the goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski at Wembley, that was a bitter moment," he said.
"But the fact is, historical moments don't really interest me. I don't ever dismiss history, but the bottom line, for us, is working for today and tomorrow. It's about what we're trying to build. A knowledge of history gives you some perspective, but it doesn't help you win the football match."
The problem with England, however, is that the history is always there. This qualification campaign is the last knockings of one era and some famous players in the history of the team. Tonight is a significant test of mettle for England on what they hope will be the road to the 2014 World Cup finals. Gerrard and Cole are two games away from joining a very famous group of English footballers but whatever the ultimate number of caps they win, and the differences in personality, they would surely rather be remembered for the things they won rather than the number of times they played.Reuse content