Everyone seems to know the score. They’ve seen it all before. England turn up but very rarely conquer when it comes to international football.
But really, has it always been that bad? We’ve seen some exciting teams over the years, at World Cups and European Championships. Golden generations, sides built from that lion spirit and lads with flair in their feet. If you were to rank the best 10 sides to have ever come from this rainy island, where would you begin?
For us, we’re starting in France…
Note: For most of these sides, we're simply looking at one international tournament that defined them, though others were defined by a longer period of time - perhaps they kept winning across that period or didn't have so much change over a few years.
The 1998 World Cup in France was a curtain closer for the heroes who’d helped establish the Premier League: the likes of Paul Ince, Tony Adams and Alan Shearer were the older heads in a squad managed by a youthful Glenn Hoddle.
England proved in a long second half against Argentina – plus extra-time – that they could battle better than most. There was that touch of magic too, from players like Scholes, Beckham and 18-year-old Michael Owen. But if we’re being honest, this team lacked the quality to go all the way to Paris. If it hadn't been Argentina that knocked England out, it surely would have been Germany, France, Brazil or Netherlands – who were all much better sides.
Watching videos of England on home turf in 1966 and in Mexico 1970 are markedly different. A contrast between younger, wide-eyed dreamers and experienced national treasures. Four years after the Wembley triumph, some of these players had become European champions at Manchester United in 1968.
The 1970 England team had been surpassed by the likes of Pele’s Brazil by that point. While they were still a world force, they hadn’t quite recycled the side enough, downgrading on three of the back four and still opting for Geoff Hurst in attack. It feels almost anti-patriotic to say it – like kicking a swan or something – but Hurst was never as good as Jimmy Greaves, anyway. Still, this side was iconic in its own right. Just not as good as the previous World Cup’s.
We all know that England weren’t beaten by fair means in 1986. Who knows what could have been if it hadn't been for the Hand of God?
Bobby Robson’s team took a little while to warm up but still boasted the Golden Boot winner that year – a certain crisp enthusiast Gary Lineker – along with Terry Butcher, Ray Wilkins and Glenn Hoddle. Bobby’s boys were to improve as a side but 1986 was a blooming good showing either way.
7. 2001 - 2002
England’s first foray into the world of foreign coaches was an exciting step, christened with Sven Goran Eriksson spanking the Germans 5-1 in their backyard in 2001. English football was beginning to produce more technical talent and the Three Lions went into a World Cup in the far east as dark horses.
Though Brazilian players have claimed that beating England in that tournament was a huge achievement, does this team really rank among the best England sides ever? As talented as they were, some of these players had barely won much at club level. It was a fun time to follow England but a bridge too far to expect big results.
When Kieran Trippier’s free-kick went top bins - for about half an hour - 60 million English folk all believed. Forget that Gareth Southgate’s side didn’t create chances in open play. Forget that they had an easy route to the semi. Forget that the back three, in hindsight, was very peculiarly constructed. This team made us all believe.
All it takes for any good side are two good attackers and Southgate had two world-class options in Sterling and Kane - the latter arguably the greatest penalty taker in the world - with Rashford in reserve. This England side were well-drilled, hard-working and most impressively, calm in the fire of the battle.
Alexa, show me pure, unfiltered heartbreak. The golden boy of English football bawling his eyes out. Arguably the nicest man we’ve ever had as manager sighing the biggest sigh and having to pick up the likes of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, David Platt - some England’s most talented magicians ever - and console them, now they’ve all been denied the opportunity of a Pavarotti serenade.
The 1990 World Cup team was one of brawn, brain and unbelievable characters, from the young Gazza to the then-experienced Gary Lineker and everyone in between. This was a tournament which became as defining as the 1966 World Cup win itself - for completely different reasons - but what an unbelievable side this was. Some of the country’s best-ever players and a real shame it ended like that.
If you enjoyed the heartbreak of 1990, then we’ve got great news for you. Six years later, in front of a home crowd, England did it all again. And arguably, this team was better.
Terry Venables now at the helm, the likes of Pearce and Gascoigne were all grown up and the stars of this side. Alan Shearer was unstoppable, Tony Adams a stalwart and that game against the Netherlands is probably the best tournament performance since 1966. Again, it fell to penalties. In the event of a draw, we should go through because we invented the game. OK?
3. 2004 – 2006
While England teams of the previous 20 years had brought the nation to the tears, England’s supposed “golden generation” in fact evoked more anger than anything else. This was a bunch of world-class talents who appeared to, just, bottle it on the world stage. Admittedly, there was no tactical plan, little leadership and a whole lot of intrusion into the camp.
But what a side that was. Four of the greatest midfielders to ever kick a ball - English or otherwise. Defensive titans that would go onto captain sides to Champions Leagues. Two strikers who came to define separate eras of the English game. What happened? We’ll never know for certain. But this England team was the badger’s nadgers.
England didn't make a single substitution in the knockout stages of Euro 96. Perhaps the quality of the Golden Generation's XI 10 years later masked mediocrity in depth. But that's something you cannot level at Gareth Southgate's extraordinary Lions of '21: good times never felt so good.
Grealish, Foden, Sancho, Bellingham, Henderson, Trippier and Rashford all came into this side, which looked rather ropey in the group stages of Euro 2020, before explosive performances against Germany and Ukraine. This was a side built of something different - just not quite good enough to edge Italy in the final at Wembley.
Make no mistake about it, though. Despite cautious tactics, a slowness to break and sometimes a difficulty in breaking sides down, this is the best English team over half a century. The exciting thing? This team is still young and could be bolstered with even better starlets coming through...
Over half a century later, the Jules Rimet trophy is, indeed, still gleaming. This was the England team to which all others had to answer. But not only was it full of some of the best players the world had to offer in the 1960s, it was tactically genius.
Alf Ramsey’s “wingless wonders” ran riot on home soil when football first came home in the 1960s. After the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 and the general rebuild of football in England, this was the moment that the Three Lions brought a title back to Blighty and wrote their name into footballing folklore. It was characterised by guile, guts and some of the most breathtaking attacking play that the country would ever put its name to.
Most of this side are still household names. Those who have since been lost are still in our hearts. This isn’t just the most successful England side ever, it’s a collection of the most beloved, inspiring sportsmen to ever represent a nation. Makes you praad to be English, dunnit?
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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. Over his time on the brand, he has interviewed the likes of Aaron Ramsdale and Jack Wilshere, written pieces ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career, and has been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals, working for FFT.