Terry Butcher: 'If I were an American, I'd stand on Rooney's toes, pinch him – it's a concern'

England's most successful captain since 1966 tells Glenn Moore why this year's vintage can reach the semi-finals – and beyond
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The Independent Football

Very few Englishmen possess a greater knowledge of World Cups than Terry Butcher. The former centre-half has been to six finals, three as a player, three as a pundit. He played 14 finals ties, a figure only exceeded by Peter Shilton and matched by just Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. He was captain the last time England played in a semi-final, in 1990, and he was assistant manager in a World Cup qualifying campaign.

That was for, ahem, Scotland, where he now lives having steered Inverness Caledonian Thistle to promotion to the SPL last season. So he was enjoying the first stirring of World Cup fever on a visit to London yesterday.

"It's weird seeing all the England flags flying," he said, adding partly in jest. "You only fly one of those in Scotland if you have a deathwish. They are all cheering for ABE: Anyone But England. When I get back I'll be decking my car out, but I'll have to avoid traffic jams, I'd rather be a moving target."

Butcher, who stressed he enjoys the Anglo-Scottish banter, then delivered a verdict which will be popular north of the border. "Are England good enough to win it? No." But there was a caveat. "I think we can go a long way. Teams build up a head of steam. Were Italy good enough to win it in 1982? Not at the start, but they scrambled out of their group and found form against Argentina and Brazil. It is about how the squad gel, how the team develops. If England progress they will have a surge in confidence."

That was the case in 1986 and 1990. England began in Mexico by losing against Portugal and drawing with Morocco, Bryan Robson was injured and Ray Wilkins sent off. "England need to start well this time because if they top the group they get a much better draw, but you can recover. In 1986, it was a wretched start. We had not scored a goal, we had one point, and we were slaughtered in the press. There was no internet then, no mobile phones, we had to ask the TV guys to borrow their lines to call home, but we got the message. It was horrific, Emlyn Hughes, bless him, said he was ashamed to be English.

"Bobby [Robson] had to change the shape from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, a lot of players came in, and we won the next two games 3-0."

Four years later, it was little better. Butcher had been substituted in a warm-up in Tunisia for allegedly butting an opponent, there was a sex scandal at the team hotel, David Seaman had to pull out after a freak injury, and England were so poor in their opening game against the Republic of Ireland that The Sun demanded "Bring them home".

England again changed formation to deploy a sweeper, Paul Gascoigne emerged as a star, and England developed a momentum that took them all the way to that titanic semi-final with West Germany.

Butcher was captain by then because, for the second successive finals, Bryan Robson had been invalided out. England have already lost their captain this time but while Butcher said he was "very disappointed Rio Ferdinand is out because he is a great leader, a good player and strong character", he forecasts a silver lining.

"These things bring a squad together. They are a test of mettle but teams that win World Cups, that win tournaments, have a cause. A team that feels it is on a mission will go further than one without. It is a cliché, but there is something in the 'win it for Rio' idea." Italy's success last time out, in the wake of the "Moggiopoli" match-fixing scandal, would be a prime example.

Butcher added: "It is a blow but there will be no sense of despair under Fabio Capello. Nothing fazes him. That's good for the players. Capello will have made plans already, as an international manager you have a lot of time to make plans. It's cold and clinical, but he will move on quickly."

Ledley King looks like being Ferdinand's replacement and Butcher, who won 77 caps, approves. "Ledley is there on merit. He's had a very good season, he has pace, reads the game well, is strong, and is comfortable on the ball. I don't think the fact he has to be careful training is a problem. He will have got much more from playing 45 minutes alongside John Terry on Monday. In 1986, I had a medial ligament injury I had to nurse. I didn't tell anyone but it was very sore."

In goal, Butcher would choose David James, for his experience, and he did not think the uncertainty over the position was a problem for the defenders. "I couldn't care less who was in goal, as long as I was playing. There's too much made of that."

Of greater concern was Wayne Rooney's temperament. Echoing US defender Jay DeMerit's comments yesterday, he said: "If I was an American I'd wind Rooney up. I'd stand on his toes, pinch him, belt him if I could. It concerns me, but the danger for opponents is, as with Gazza, that it inspires him to do something special."

Butcher would partner Rooney with Emile Heskey – "people play better alongside him" – and expects Gareth Barry to play as soon as he is fit with England becoming "more Italian in style as the competition goes on".

Much has changed since Butcher's playing days. "After England were knocked out of Euro 2004 we went round the hotel. They had their photos on their room doors and Sol Campbell was the only player who hadn't taken his picture home! I'd have been drawing moustaches on them all. Now I hear they have pictures around the camp of them celebrating trophies with their clubs. That's different, showing success is good psychology."

But if England don't win, who will? Butcher, who still remembers Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal with bitterness, and the two hours subsequently sharing a drug testers' room with the Argentine, picked out Brazil, Spain, the Dutch... and Argentina. "I would hate it if they won." It might be a popular success back home though.