Sam Wallace: Wilshere's made his mark but spare a thought for the luckless eleven of 'unfulfilled England'
They faded away early, or at least before their time. Some perennial underachievers, some drifted off for no obvious reason. Injury did for most them
For every Jack Wilshere, established in the England team at the age of 19, there are so many young English players who fall by the wayside, having promised much at international level. To prove how many have been lost along the way, consider an England XI of players of unfulfilled promise.
The criteria demands they have been capped for England at least once and still be playing professionally, but out of the reckoning for international football. They must have made their international debut relatively young, as befitted their potential, only to have faded away early, or at least before their time. Some are perennial underachievers, some drifted off for no obvious reason. But for most, it was injury that did for them.
No shortage of contenders in goal. There is a case for saying even Paul Robinson, with 41 caps, and the No 1 in England's goal for more than three years, came up short. He retired from international football in August at just 30, in what looked like a protest at being called up as a late replacement. Only 23 when he made his debut, he was first choice at 24 but has not played since Steve McClaren dropped him for Scott Carson for that disastrous defeat to Croatia in the Euro 2008 qualifier at Wembley in 2007.
Carson? Another contender. He made his debut at 22, then had his nightmare game against Croatia and won one more cap in a friendly the following year. Fabio Capello called him up to the squad last week as a replacement for Ben Foster but you get the feeling his heart is not really in it.
But the first choice has to be Chris Kirkland. He has just one cap – against Greece in August 2006 – which was enough for the bet his dad had placed years earlier on him being an international to pay out. Kirkland was a richly promising goalkeeper. Still only 29, he should be in his prime but injury has taken a heavy toll and he is no longer first-choice at Wigan.
Right-back is easy. It is not his favourite position but it was where he played in an outstanding debut for England against Luxembourg as a 20-year-old in 1999. Kieron Dyer is the lost member of the golden generation. His career sunk by injury, he played 33 games for England but, still only 32, his cap-count should be up in the mid-80s with contemporaries like Frank Lampard. Instead he is on loan at Ipswich Town.
In central defence, Ledley King. OK, he won 21 caps and was in the World Cup squad last summer – when he played his last game for England – but were it not for injury he would have played so much more. His debut was against Italy as a 21-year-old in 2002. King has the distinction of having played under Sven Goran Eriksson, McClaren and Capello. None of them wanted to give up on him.
King's former Spurs team-mate Anthony Gardner managed one cap as a promising 23-year-old in 2004 and never really kicked on but Jonathan Woodgate trumps him. Capped at just 19 in 1999, he won only seven more caps in the next 12 years. Injuries have virtually finished him yet he is only 11 months older than John Terry.
At left-back is Kieran Richardson. He scored two goals on his debut against the United States in May 2005 at the age of 20 and won seven more caps in the next 17 months but nothing since. Now 26, he ticks over at Sunderland but looks a long way from the England team.
In midfield, the possibilities abound. There are the one-cap wonders Joey Barton (February 2007) and Lee Hendrie (November 1998, and currently playing professionally aged 33 in Indonesia). Even Michael Carrick, frozen out by Capello, is a possibility. He is stuck on a relatively modest 22 caps despite having made his debut a decade ago.
On the right, David Bentley is the obvious candidate. He has seven caps, all won in the space of 347 days between his 23rd and 24th birthdays and he has not played since August 2008.
In the middle is Lee Bowyer, another one-cap player whose debut was delayed by his trial for assault in 2001 and, after he played in 2002 at the age of 25, he was never asked back by Eriksson. Alongside him is one of the great unfulfilled talents. David Dunn was an Under-21s regular and scored one of the best goals for England at that level against the Dutch in 2001 but won only one cap for the seniors in the same game as Bowyer against Portugal at Villa Park.
Owen Hargreaves has 42 caps, more than any other in this XI, but has to be included just because he could have achieved so much more if not for injury. He would be a key player now, with 70-plus caps, were it not for the tendinitis that has derailed his career. He is only 30 and yet he has not played for his country since May 2008.
Up front, there is one very obvious choice. He won one cap at the age of 22 and is still one of only two English players Arsène Wenger has paid big money for. Now, Francis Jeffers is just 30 and currently playing for Motherwell. Although he has had problems with injuries, his failure to live up to his potential is arguably the hardest to explain. He made his debut against Australia in February 2003 alongside Wayne Rooney.
Also making his debut that night was James Beattie who, with five caps, almost makes this team. But the last place goes to Alan Smith who, with 19 caps, the first of which was as a precocious 20-year-old in May 2001, should have had many more. Again, injury was a factor and he won his last cap aged 27.
Dean Ashton would have been a contender but sadly, at 27, he has long since retired with injury. The ankle break that was the beginning of the end of Ashton's career was picked up in an England training session in August 2006. He came back long enough to get his one cap two years later. Of all the underachievers, unfulfilled and just plain disappointing, Ashton's story might be the saddest of all.
The FA's power to right wrongs is not used consistently
The Football Association is hidebound to follow slavishly Fifa's rule that games cannot be re-refereed and therefore it cannot, for example, go back on Wayne Rooney's elbow on James McCarthy last month and punish the player because, Fifa says, the referee took action at the time. Yet the FA last week had the power to rescind Sunderland defender John Mensah's red card against Liverpool.
The FA's right to rescind red cards is an anomaly. It was granted by Fifa as a concession and is used sparingly. It was created for the rare cases the referee gets the identity of the offender wrong or, as the rules say, the club can prove that the referee made a "serious and obvious mistake" which Sunderland presumably did in the case of Kevin Friend. The Mensah red card was the wrong decision but there are far more serious incidents this season that have merited retrospective action.
Traffic in the best of Brazil's young talent is a disgrace
It was once the case that football clubs in South America, in Brazil in particular, lost their best players to European sides when they reached their prime. Then the Europeans started raiding the academies of South America's best clubs for the top youngsters.
Now, with the help of private academies like Desportivo Brasil, near Sao Paulo, which is unaffiliated to any club and created for the express purpose of scouting and developing boys to sell for big profits to customers such as Manchester United, the likes of Flamengo, Fluminese, Corinthians et al are cut out of the process altogether. And we wonder why the developing world resents us. Appropriately, Desportivo Brasil's owners are called Traffic.
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