With the countdown to Euro 2020 now firmly on, we’ve compiled an XI of the best England football players of all time. We’ve scoured players from all generations, from Stanley Matthews to Wayne Rooney, to find the best England players ever. And obviously we’ve opted for the most English of formations in 4-4-2.
For previews, news and betting tips on the upcoming tournament, make sure to check out our Euro 2020 predictions page.
Right, let’s take a big trip down memory lane as we select the best England players of all time…
GK: Gordon Banks
Stat attack: Banks was named Fifa goalkeeper of the year six years in a row between 1966 and 1971.
Career Span: 1963-72
Not only is Banks considered the most gifted English keeper of all time, he was also the goalkeeper behind England’s World Cup success in 1966. An instinctive shot-stopper with superhuman reflexes and spring, his six Fifa Goalkeeper of the Year awards are testament to his reputation as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time.
If any single moment were to define Banks, it would be his save at the 1970 World Cup known as ‘the greatest save in history’. In a swelteringly hot group stage game against Brazil, Banks dived spectacularly to his right to keep out a bullet header from Pele. The legendary Brazilian had even shouted ‘goal!’ as he watched his effort rocket towards goal, and the moment proved the beginning of a lifetime friendship between himself and Banks.
His absence through illness a few days was the generally accepted reason for England’s exit from the tournament at the hands of West Germany, with replacement Peter Bonetti at fault for two of the goals conceded. The curtain eventually fell on his England career in 1972, and he died in 2019 aged 81.
RB: Gary Neville
Stat attack: Gary and brother Phil are England’s most capped brothers, with 142 appearances between them. The record was previously held by Jack and Bobby Charlton.
Career Span: 1995-2007
The first member of Manchester United’s famed ‘Class of ‘92’ to force their way into the England team, there were few more reliable defenders than Gary Neville. An excellent crosser of the ball, he was also known for his telepathic partnership with David Beckham down the right flank.
He made his tournament debut at Euro 96 as England marched to the semi-finals – see if you recognise him in the video below. He went on to only miss one of the next five major tournaments as the so-called “Golden Generation” failed to live up to their huge promise. Neville himself claimed their best chance to win a trophy was Euro 2004, asserting that England’s would-be semi-final and final opponents were very beatable.
A bad injury sustained while playing for Manchester United in 2007 sidelined him for eighteen months, and he never managed to break into the international set-up after his return. Perhaps not the best England player of all time, but probably the best right-back.
CB: Sol Campbell
Stat attack: Campbell was the only England player to be named in the Fifa All-Star Team for the 2002 World Cup.
Career Span: 1996-2007
Yes, we hear the cries for Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, but we’re talking about performances for England here. And when it came to representing his country, Campbell was one of the very best. For years he was a pillar of strength, capable of booming tackles and able to win any aerial duel. He himself said “When I put on the England shirt, it felt like going into battle”.
A regular in the heart of the Three Lions’ defence for almost a decade, he became the youngest England captain since Bobby Moore when he first wore the armband in 1998. He went on to star in the next four major tournaments, a highlight being his crucial goal against Sweden in the 2002 World Cup. But his goalscoring impact could have been even greater. His headed winner against Argentina in 1998 was controversially ruled out, with almost exactly the same thing happening against Portugal in 2004. Talk about bad luck.
Campbell was dropped by new manager Steve McClaren in 2006 but forced his way back into the side the following year. The highlight of his return was a sliding challenge against Croatia, dubbed the ‘longest slide tackle ever’. See the video below – it’s well worth a watch. His international career came to an end in 2008, however, with Fabio Capello deeming him too old to feature in his plans.
CB: Bobby Moore
Stat attack: Moore’s 108 caps was a record for an outfield player until David Beckham surpassed him in 2009.
Career Span: 1962-1973
We couldn’t leave out the only English captain to lift the World Cup, could we? Moore was, and still is, a national hero. Numerous players described Moore as the best defender they played against, among them Franz Beckenbauer and Pele. An immaculate reader of the game, he was capable of snuffing out attacks before they’d even started. His tackling and passing abilities weren’t half bad either.
Lifting the World Cup aside, his most famous moment was a tackle on Brazilian legend Jairzinho in 1970. The winger was hurtling towards goal when Moore, at risk of conceding a penalty, timed his lunge to perfection to come away with the ball. His final cap came in 1973, and he tragically died of cancer 20 years later. He can still be found in statue form, however, standing imperiously in front of the new Wembley Stadium.
LB: Ashley Cole
Stat attack: Cole holds the record for most England caps without scoring a single goal.
Career Span: 2001-2014
If there was one member of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ who lived up to the billing, it was Cole. The left-back was truly world class for the majority of his time in an England shirt and could always be depended on to turn up in a major tournament. He famously had Cristiano Ronaldo in his pocket in both the Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 quarter-finals against Portugal, to give a couple of examples. Despite his lack of goals, he offered an attacking threat too, with his pace and crossing ability a nightmare for defences.
If we had to pick his best moment for England it would probably be a block against Ecuador in the 2006 World Cup. With the scores level, forward Carlos Tenorio through on goal and goalkeeper Paul Robinson beaten, Cole heroically threw his body on the line to deflect Tenorio’s effort onto the crossbar and keep England on level terms. He retired from international football in 2014 having failed to make that year’s World Cup squad.
RM: David Beckham
Stat attack: Beckham is the only player to have been sent off twice for England.
Career Span: 1996-2009
The most iconic Englishman of his generation, Beckham was a shoo-in for this list. Appearing no less than 115 times for his country, he was the star of the England team during the early noughties.
But his international career wasn’t always sunshine and roses. He became the most hated man in the country following his sending off against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, which fans blamed as the sole reason for England’s exit from the tournament. Effigies of him were burnt, his every touch booed by opposition fans in the Premier League.
It took a while, but he gradually won fans over with his fine performances and battling displays for the national team, and was handed the captaincy in 2000.
True redemption came in 2001, however. With England needing a goal to qualify for the following year’s World Cup, Beckham curled in a glorious last-minute free-kick to send the country into raptures. The transformation to national hero was completed at the 2002 tournament itself, with Beckham scoring a match-winning penalty against… you guessed it. Argentina.
‘Golden Balls’ went on to briefly become the country’s most capped outfield player, the only Englishman to score in three World Cups, and one of the ever best England players. It’s all so very far removed from that dark night in 1998.
CM: Bobby Charlton
Stat attack: Charlton is the only player to have featured in four England World Cup squads.
Career Span: 1958-1970
A living legend for both Manchester United and England, Charlton bravely made his England debut just weeks after the infamous Munich air disaster of 1958. His advanced midfield position and tremendous ability to strike a ball meant his record as England’s highest goalscorer remained intact until 2015 when it was broken by Wayne Rooney.
Charlton’s international stature rapidly grew after his 1958 debut, and by the end of 1961 he had already racked up 24 goals in just 30 appearances. He was instrumental as England marched to victory in the 1966 World Cup, with his best game coming the semi-final when he scored twice against a Eusebio-inspired Portugal.
His final international appearance came in the 1970 World Cup against West Germany. With England leading 2-0 and cruising, manager Sir Alf Ramsey substituted Charlton, looking to give his influential midfielder some rest before the next round. What happened next was astonishing – England completely capitulated and ended up crashing out of the tournament after a 3-2 defeat. It was a clear demonstration of Charlton’s immense importance to the Three Lions.
The best ever England player? Quite possibly.
CM: Paul Gascoigne
Stat attack: Gascoigne won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 1990, the first footballer to do so since Bobby Moore in 1966.
Career Span: 1988-1998
Perhaps the most naturally gifted footballer in this XI, ‘Gazza’ became a cult hero among England fans at the 1990 World Cup. Having been shown a yellow card that would see him suspended for the tournament’s final, Gascoigne burst into tears and subsequently produced an inspired performance before England crashed out on penalties.
Serious injuries interrupted much of his international career, but he came back with a bang at Euro 96 – a home tournament. In the group stages against Scotland, he scored one of the most iconic goals of all time when he flicked the ball over a defender’s head before crashing home a first-time volley. His celebration for the goal was typically controversial, with Gascoigne lying on the floor while teammates sprayed water into his mouth – a reference to an infamous drunken night out with the England team before the tournament. He then starred as England inflicted a memorable 4-1 defeat on the Netherlands.
His international career ended on a sour note, however. Having not been picked for Glenn Hoddle’s 1998 World Cup squad due to eating kebabs days before selection, Gascoigne flew into a rage and wrecked his manager’s hotel room before being restrained. Mad, troubled but ultimately a genius, Gazza won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
LM: Stanley Matthews
Stat attack: Matthews’ appearance against Denmark in 1957 made him the oldest player to ever represent England. He was 42 years and 104 days old at the time.
Career Span: 1934-1957
England have famously never been able to produce left midfielders, so we’ve had to shove a right-sided player into this spot. There was also no way we could leave out Matthews, whose longevity in an England shirt is unmatched. Pacey, tricky and a pinpoint crosser, he was the real deal.
One of his best moments for his country came in 1939 against Scotland, when he set up Tommy Lawton to score the winner with seconds to spare. The attendance that day? 142,000. He went on to form part of England’s original ‘Golden Generation’ of the late 40s and early 50s, alongside Tom Finney, Jackie Milburn and future manager Alf Ramsey.
At the age of 38, Matthews’ international career looked to be over, but his performance in the 1953 FA Cup final – known as ‘The Matthews Final’ – earned him a recall. His last appearance came in 1957, by which time he was an incredible 42 years old. There were calls for him to be included in the 1958 World Cup, but these fell on deaf ears. He retired in 1965 with his status already secured as one of the best England players of all time.
ST: Gary Lineker
Stat attack: Lineker scored four goals in a match for England on two occasions, the only player in the last 50 years to do so.
Career Span: 1984-1992
He may have once soiled himself on the pitch against the Republic of Ireland, but we mustn’t forget that Lineker could also be an absolutely lethal striker. Nobody has scored more goals in major tournaments than the Match of the Day host, who also won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup.
In fact, his most memorable game for the Three Lions came in this tournament. Lineker scored the quickest-ever World Cup hat-trick with his three goals against Poland in the group stages. He then struggled at Euro 88, where it transpired he had been suffering from hepatitis, but starred again in the 1990 World Cup. He banged in four goals as England reached the semi-finals, and famously told manager Bobby Robson to “have a word” with Paul Gascoigne as the latter’s bottom lip began to tremble.
He came agonisingly close to breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s England goalscoring record towards the end of his career, missing a penalty against Brazil in 1992. He was substituted against Sweden in his last ever international, thus denying him the chance to reach the famous record. Visibly upset, he refused to look at manager Graham Taylor as he made his way to the bench.
Nowadays, Lineker can be found presenting for the BBC and BT Sport, as well as being the face of crisp manufacturer Walkers. If he were playing today, he’d almost certainly find his way onto our list of the best strikers in world football.
ST: Wayne Rooney
Stat attack: Rooney is the youngest player to play for England (17 years and 111 days) and to score for England (17 years and 317 days).
Career Span: 2003-2018
All-time top scorer, most caps for an outfield player – could we really leave out Wayne Rooney? The forward had his detractors throughout his England career, but now the dust has settled it seems clear he wasn’t bad at all.
Strong, quick, aggressive and with bags of technical quality, Rooney had it all when he burst onto the international scene at Euro 2004. With four goals in three games, England’s 18 year-old star looked set to drag his team to the trophy, but a foot injury in the quarter-final against Portugal put an end to all that. Even so, his performances had fans calling him the ‘White Pele’ and pundits claiming he could become England’s best player of all time.
Injuries, failure to qualify and poor form stunted his international career in the years that followed, but Rooney hit his stride after the disappointing 2010 World Cup. But as the last one standing of the “Golden Generation”, Rooney became the only star in an increasingly mediocre team in the years that followed.
He single-handedly dragged England to Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, and even scored or assisted all of England’s goals as they crashed out of the latter tournament. He announced his international retirement in 2017, but earned his final cap in a testimonial game against the USA the following year. Richly deserved for a man whose record-breaking feats make him an England legend.
Well, there you have it. An XI made up of the best England players through the ages. Before you leave, make sure to check out our football tips page, where you can find our experts’ free betting tips on all things football.
Also in this series: