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The best we never had: England’s 10 greatest underachievers

Theo Walcott Everton

As Theo Walcott prepares to bid farewell to Arsenal after over a decade of unfulfilled promise, Amit Katwala looks at the English players who once starred for big teams but ultimately failed to live up to their early potential

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For every gifted player who squeezes the absolute maximum out of their ability – Frank Lampard or Paul Scholes, for example – there are those who never quite live up to their spectacular early promise.

It could just be home-team bias, but it feels like a high number of them are England players from the past few decades as well. Maybe that’s our imagination. But we’re fairly certain these 10 players may have have punched - or are currently punching - seriously below their weight...

Jack Wilshere

At his best, Wilshere is one of the country’s most thrilling talents – smart in possession and capable of unlocking a defence with a clever flick (or three, as his ridiculous goal against Norwich in 2013 proved).

Right now things are actually looking up for the midfielder: with little competition he's arguably been Arsenal's best player of the last month, and duly been offered a new contract according to reports – albeit with a reduced salary. The bottom line, though: Wilshere is now 26 and has barely played any football compared to his peers – just 78 league starts in seven seasons.

He may still come good but, let’s be honest: this was never the plan for the man who was supposed to be the future of Arsenal and England’s midfield in his mid-20s.

Joe Cole

Joe Cole

"But boss, all you've written is 'track back' on every page"

In his early days, Cole seemed to float above the mire – full of sharp turns and flowing runs through midfield. He was at his best in the No.10 position, but unfortunately English football’s rigid structures were still some way short of bending to accommodate him.

At West Ham, he was part of the ludicrously talented team that went down with 43 points, and when Claudio Ranieri signed him for Chelsea, the Italian said he could be the club’s next Gianfranco Zola. It wasn’t quite to be. Although Cole enjoyed a successful spell under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea – winning 10 trophies – it was as a more workmanlike left winger.

Mourinho made him a winner by stifling his creative talents, while Sven did the same for England but without making him a winner. A catastrophic start after joining Liverpool set the tone for the rest of Cole’s career, and the 36-year-old is playing for Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL.

Ben Foster

Ben Foster

Foster: a fine keeper who didn't enjoy the pressure at Man United

After struggling for years to find a long-term replacement for the great Peter Schmeichel, Alex Ferguson thought he’d found a solution in Foster, a £1m signing from Stoke who Fergie claimed would be “England’s next goalkeeper”.

Initially, he was loaned out to Watford, whose manager Aidy Boothroyd went even further and said he had the potential to be the best goalkeeper in the world. But he struggled to break into the Manchester United team, making just 23 appearances in three years before moving to Birmingham and then West Brom, where he’s carved out a solid if unspectacular career.

Revealingly, Foster said he was relieved to escape the pressure of playing for United.

Ravel Morrison

Ravel Morrison

Morrison's lip caused more trouble than his feet

The great Alex Ferguson (whose judgement we’re actually beginning to question here) said Morrison was the best player he’d ever seen at that age, and the midfielder starred alongside Paul Pogba in Manchester United’s FA Youth Cup-winning side of 2011. Although he did possess bags of talent, Morrison was difficult to manage and faced a series of court proceedings for witness intimidation, assault and criminal damage.

Fergie decided it wasn’t worth it and sold Morrison to West Ham, where he scored one outstanding goal against Tottenham before leaving under a cloud after falling out with Hammers boss Sam Allardyce. Loan spells at QPR, Birmingham and Cardiff preceded a move to Lazio, where again his attitude won him no friends and a series of loan moves again followed.

The 24-year-old Morrison is currently on loan at Atlas in Mexico, but we’ve only ever seen brief flashes of his real ability.