England in the 90s: The strikers who never made it

Aside from the relentless Harry Kane, top-class strikers are in short supply for England at the moment. There are few options to play as a focal point in his absence, with Gareth Southgate placing much greater emphasis on multi-purpose attackers like Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho.

The latest squad, which scored 15 goals without reply against Albania and San Marino, contained just Tammy Abraham as an obvious alternative to Kane. At the Euros, it was Dominic Calvert-Lewin. This is indicative of the way modern football continues to develop, with old-fashioned centre-forwards in general decline. Fluidity is key, leading to the rise of versatile wide forwards.

This trend is far removed from the early days of the Premier League era when 4-4-2 still dominated and strike partnerships were king. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was an abundance of prolific English strikers as a result.

In the mid-90s, Terry Venables had an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon. He typically paired Alan Shearer with Teddy Sheringham, but Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole, Stan Collymore, Les Ferdinand, Chris Sutton and Ian Wright were also scoring for fun. The England ranks had incredible, almost unparalleled, strength in depth up front.

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In this respect, the 1994-95 season can be seen as the pinnacle, when the aforementioned group of eight strikers bagged 177 league goals between them, an average of 22 each. All featured in the division’s top 10 scorers, alongside Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier. More of a maverick playmaker than a conventional striker, he still notched 19 goals.

Yet, with the notable exception of Shearer, who was going through a lean spell for England himself in the run-up to Euro 96, they all struggled to replicate excellent club form on the international stage, to varying degrees. Even now, their failure to do so remains something of a mystery.

Despite outstanding domestic records – six of the eight registered more than 100 Premier League goals in their careers – success with the national team typically proved elusive. In total, they won 209 caps and scored just 63 goals, almost half of those coming from Shearer. So, what was the problem? Why couldn’t Cole, Fowler, Ferdinand and the rest perform for England?

The best place to start could be the relative weakness of the Premier League. In 1995, it was ranked as the fifth strongest league in Europe according to UEFA’s coefficients, trailing behind the top divisions of Italy, Germany, France and Spain. English strikers were scoring regularly, but they weren’t being tested against the best defenders.

This was partly due to some of the old-fashioned attitudes that prevailed in England. Still a rather insular country with few foreign players, there was an unhealthy scepticism about new approaches to training, diet, fitness and tactics. People stuck to what they knew and were resistant to change.

In comparison to Europe’s top leagues, some of the football could be crude and unsophisticated, relying more on physicality, team spirit and exceptional individuals rather than well-honed technique, tactical systems and patterns of play.

It’s an overgeneralisation, which does a disservice to some great players and teams from that period, but there’s a reason why it exists. Although Manchester United may have won the Champions League in 1999, before that, England’s outstanding side crashed out to Galatasaray, IFK Goteborg and Monaco.

While the quality of international football varied considerably during the 90s, – aside from the minnows, of which there were fewer – many European nations were often a cut above English club sides. For example, Fowler drew a blank on his full debut against a Croatian backline featuring Slaven Bilic, Igor Stimac and Robert Jarni.

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The array of attacking options at the manager’s disposal caused its own problems. There were too many in-form strikers to fit in the squad, let alone the starting line-up. Terry Venables tended to favour Shearer and Sheringham, limiting the opportunity for others to integrate and adjust. They couldn’t establish the necessary rhythm by playing a run of games together.

Rightly or wrongly, several international careers were sacrificed for Shearer’s benefit. To some extent, his peerless club record demanded it. Between 1993 and 1996, he scored more than 30 league goals in three straight seasons for Blackburn Rovers, a feat of astonishing consistency even in such a packed field.

Others simply couldn’t compete, so had to content themselves with peripheral roles. It took until 1999 for Fowler to start consecutive games for England. For Cole, whose first four caps came under four different managers, it was a year later, and he had already missed out on three major tournaments by then. Sutton and Collymore never managed it, picking up just four caps between them.

Wright and Ferdinand perhaps suffered due to their association with Graham Taylor’s disastrous reign. Both flitted in and out of the team during a tough period, characterised by demoralising results in big games and crippling press scrutiny. There was a sense that their chance had already been and gone by the time Venables took over.

That clutch of strikers had an interesting mix of attributes and playing styles, some better matched than others. There was a clever, deep-lying creator (Sheringham), powerful target men (Shearer, Sutton, Ferdinand), instinctive poachers (Wright, Fowler) and talented all-rounders (Cole, Collymore). Finding the right combination was important.

If Shearer was destined to start, which he did in all but four of Venables’ 24 games in charge, then that ruled others out of contention. Sheringham’s lightness of touch made him a good foil for Shearer, as he proved at Euro 96, in a way that the likes of Wright and Fowler, for instance, didn’t seem to be.

Venables made his preference for pairing Shearer with a certain type of striker clear from the start. After three years in the international wilderness, the ageing Beardsley was immediately recalled to the squad and started the new manager’s first three games. He picked up another seven caps in the lead up to the Euros, limiting the chance to try out younger prospects.

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Glenn Hoddle generally persisted with two up front, albeit in a variety of formations. Shearer was firmly embedded as first-choice striker and England captain after his Golden Boot-winning exploits, so others had to fit in around him. Ferdinand, Sutton, Collymore and Wright were no longer as consistently effective, while Fowler suffered with injuries.

Cole is the striker with the biggest cause for complaint after 25 goals in all competitions during the 1997-98 season wasn’t enough to earn him a place in England’s World Cup squad. Hoddle didn’t seem to trust Cole, claiming that he needed too many chances to score and repeatedly sidelining him. Sutton fell out with Hoddle too after rejecting a call up to the B team.

At the tournament itself, Michael Owen burst onto the scene in unforgettable fashion, topped by his incredible solo effort against Argentina. The country suddenly had a new hope to build around as Shearer stepped away from England duty after Euro 2000.

Times changed, and the squad evolved to reflect that, leaving that glut of mid-90s goalscorers on the outside looking in, most reflecting on curiously underwhelming international careers that promised so much but delivered little.

England in the 90s: The strikers who never made it
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