When we look back over the history of the England team, who will we remember as "the golden generation" and what will we consider their legacy?
It is a question worth asking today, as Fabio Capello's squad meets at the Grove hotel in Hertfordshire for their make-or-break Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria on Friday and Wales four days later at Wembley with the wind of change blowing. The appetite is for a revolution and chiefly the elevation of Manchester United's quartet of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley to be the core of a new England team.
Such is the climate around our national team these days that any player with three decent games under his belt for a big club, and an English accent, is enough to start the chatter about a new dawn. Or more specifically the clearing out of an unspecified group of players, who are, by and large, those who have competed in the last four major international tournaments for which England have qualified, and who were described as "the golden generation" 10 years ago by Adam Crozier, then the Football Association chief executive.
The new generation – if that is what it is – is emerging from a more austere Britain than the gaudy Blairite version that launched its predecessor (although, it has to be said, not too austere if you happen to be a Premier League footballer) and is not just about United players. Its most prominent member is Arsenal's Jack Wilshere. Andy Carroll at Liverpool is another potential pioneer. Then there are those, such as Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott, Joe Hart and Ashley Young who fall between the previous generation and the new one now emerging.
Everyone knows the golden generation was beset by disappointment and missed opportunities. It suffered from Sven Goran Eriksson staying too long and from his inability, as Gary Neville has recently admitted, to make tough choices about big-name players at major tournaments, chiefly the 2006 World Cup. But the golden generation also had a lot of very good players and if we are really witnessing its passing in the build-up to Euro 2012, then we have to recognise that, for all their faults, it will take some replacing.
The curious thing about the golden generation is that no one has ever put any parameters on when it began and when it ended, or who should be granted the dubious honour of belonging. Gareth Barry once asserted that he could not really be considered part of the golden generation and we knew what he meant. He is the right age – 30, born in February 1981 – and he made his debut 11 years ago but there were almost four years between his eighth cap (June 2003) and ninth(February 2007) and he only established himself in the team under Steve McClaren.
It is more than just age that dictates a member of the golden generation, it is also about less easily quantifiable aspects of a player's career: the sense of optimism and excitement that accompanied their arrival in the team and how quickly they established themselves. To my mind the golden generation rose to seniority after Euro 2000, even though many of its most prominent members were already England internationals before then.
In descending order of age, that golden generation in full: Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Phil Neville, Emile Heskey, Jamie Carragher, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Kieron Dyer, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Owen Hargreaves and Joe Cole. Sol Campbell was a close call – he is older than all of those named – but despite his longevity he feels like he belongs to the previous generation.
Michael Carrick? Out of contention for too long with almost four years between his seventh and eighth cap. Robbie Fowler? No doubt about the talent but the last of 26 caps came in 2002 and, anyway, on another note, if you sent Fowler an invitation to an England golden generation reunion in 20 years' time, he would probably send it back. Ledley King? Alan Smith? Danny Murphy? Wes Brown? The right age, but not quite the England career to match.
Of those 16 players, Gary Neville was the first to play for England, back in June 1995 and most people have forgotten that, as a precocious 19-year-old, Phil Neville made his England debut in May 1996 before Scholes and Butt made theirs. Terry was the last of the 16, his England debut came only eight years ago, but his age qualifies him as a member of that group that spans seven years from the oldest to the youngest.
For all the misgivings, for all the failings, it is not a bad group of footballers. Between them they have 60 top-flight league-winners' medals, won in England, Spain and Germany. They share 36 FA Cup-winners' medals, 11 Champions League-winners' medals and four Uefa Cup-winners' medals. Of all of them, only Dyer – the lost member of England's golden generation – has not won a major honour.
There is no doubt that the golden generation, from the 2002 World Cup onwards, through Euro 2004, the 2006 World Cup, the Euro 2008 qualifying debacle, up to last summer's World Cup finals in South Africa have lasted a long time. Perhaps too long, which is partly because of the lack of competition for places – hardly their fault – but also because, in spite of their failure to win anything at international level, they are very good players.
After next summer they will surely be too old and many will no doubt retire from international football anyway. Even the youngest, Joe Cole, will be 32 by the time of the 2014 World Cup finals and he has fallen off the radar for club as well as country.
Before we get too giddy at the next generation, let us remember that in international football, where there is one trophy up for grabs only every two years, there is always a good chance that even the most gifted will come up short. If they have done anything, then the golden generation have proved that.
English not alone in attacking their own players – just ask Hansen
Interesting that Sir Alex Ferguson, during his monstering of the Football Association on Friday, said that the singling out of Manchester United players for abuse on international duty for England was peculiar to the English. "You'd never hear of it in Scotland," he said.
It reminded me of a column Alan Hansen wrote eight years ago describing his experiences playing for Scotland. "The great players like Kenny [Dalglish] and Graeme [Souness] were never embraced by Scotland crowds, even when the nation was fielding the kind of team actually expected to qualify for major tournaments," Hansen said.
"I used to warm up alongside Graeme before Scotland matches because he was the only player the crowd disliked more than me. At one point there was a serious debate in the Scottish press about whether Scots who played in England should be allowed to play for their country. What a joke." Having said that, when Ferguson was Scotland manager he appeared to feel the same way about Hansen.
Fans' reign in Spain is not a football utopia
Another lecture for English clubs last week from Michel Platini, the Uefa president, on how clubs would be owned by fans in his personal football utopia. "I like the system at Real Madrid and Barcelona, where the socios [members] are the boss of the club," he said, failing to mention the huge debts carried by these two clubs and their leeching of the television revenue that is killing the Spanish league. Fan ownership of clubs is a nice idea in theory, but if you want a template for it in practice then Spain's two biggest clubs is the wrong place to start.