I had a startling revelation recently.
When watching some international football during Euro 2020/21, there was a lot being made by pundits about the clubs the players hailed from and the environment that it might foster. With clubs come rivalries and with rivalries come animosity. And so it does make sense to a degree that there would be a focus on who plays for which club.
And it became clear that Arsenal were pretty under-represented in this tournament. Some have cited this as another symptom of our recent freefall. But others have craned their necks and looked at the flipside of that coin and seen that our players will no doubt be fresher for the coming season.
And now, I finally get to my point.
With so much hyperbole and comments regarding Arsenal’s near-absence at this tournament, I cast my mind back to previous tournaments. Of course, when France won World Cup98, two of our players were instrumental. Bergkamp was on fire.
And then I thought about how Arsenal have represented England in the last few decades. And it dawned on me that although we have had some true class in our ranks that qualify for the Three Lions – Arsenal have, in comparison to our rivals, never had more than two or three in a squad.
And that led to a further dawning.
It is widely recognised by the experts in the game that when it comes to defences, Arsenal’s famous Back 5 were one of the finest exponents. They struck fear and impotency in front of goal in all strikers.
So why didn’t they dominate England squads and give the country a solid foundation to build from?
Why didn’t Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor and El Tel simply lift Arsenal’s defence and slip an England jersey on them?
That would come down to reputation, it would seem.
Gareth Southgate has forged a rep for picking young stars who are ripping up trees. Age is no barrier. Reputation is a factor, but it doesn’t hold much sway.
Whereas the majority of previous England managers would hold stock in those who had not let them down previously. Even if other players, players who were consistently performing week in and week out, had not been given a fair crack of the whip.
Hodgson, Capello, Sven, Hoddle, Taylor, Robson – they had an idea who would make up their side before even knowing who was fit or not.
Let’s look at the facts.
Between 1987 and 1993, Arsenal were among the best in the top flight. Two league titles. Two League Cups and an FA Cup. And in terms of defensive merit, they had built a formidable force that was the driving force behind that success.
At right back, Lee Dixon was snubbed for Italia 90. He was behind Gary Stevens in terms of selection, despite Rangers playing in a weaker domestic league. When Robson left, Taylor installed Dixon as first choice, but injury ruined his chances of playing at his first major tournament. When Taylor was binned after his failure to qualify for World Cup94, his replacements, Venables and Hoddle, both failed to call up Dixon. His last cap came five years after his previous. In 99, Howard Wilkinson called up Dixon to play against France.
At left back, Nigel Winterburn was even more harshly ignored. Nutty grabbed just two caps during his stellar career. Missing out on Italia 90 thanks to Stuart Pearce and Tony Dorigo, Winterburn did come in from the cold in 1993 as a substitute. But that was his last England appearance, mystifyingly.
Tony Adams was one who was not overlooked. Not only was he undroppable from England, he was also skipper too.
But the same could not be said for both Steve Bould and Martin Keown.
Keown fared slightly better than Bould, but this may be due to Keown’s career traversing different England managers. Keown amassed 43 caps for England, making his debut in 1992 and retiring from international duty a decade later.
Steve Bould though, grabbed just two caps for England. These were both for friendlies in 1993/94, when Bouldy was already past 30 years of age. It is ludicrous to suggest that Bould was not among the best in the business at centre-back between 1989-1992. And yet there wasn’t a single international call-up. Despite Bould being the epitome of consistency for the best part of a decade. Mark Wright? Keith Curle? Can anyone justify their selection above Bould’s?
And this strange ignorance doesn’t stop with Bould, Dixon and Winterburn. Paul Davis had international class in his DNA and was integral to Arsenal’s success between 1987 and 1993. And yet he never received a full cap, just B appearances.
Geordie Armstrong, among our leading appearance makers and wing wizard, never had an England call-up either.
But for not one, not two, but three successive England managers to break up and ignore an impregnable unit like our back 5? A unit that could well have proven the difference in a major tournament?
Was our back 5 better than what they had at their disposal at the time? The simple answer is yes as it was the finest defence, acknowledged by plenty.
So why did Robson, Taylor and El Tel all ignore this?
It seems so easy to take the cream of England’s talent and drop them into a team. When it is an entire defence from the same club? Isn’t that what you would call a ‘gimme?’
Our Back 5 should have gone on to international honours – and if they had been called up, then England’s long wait for a trophy could have been ended a lot sooner…