As Gareth Southgate takes his young England squad to Russia, it is inevitable that one of that group will play an unexpected starring role in the tournament. After all, we’ve seen it before and what follows is a look at five players who have exceeded pre-World Cup expectations wearing the famous Three Lions shirt.
Sir Geoff Hurst (1966)
Believe it or not, West Ham striker Geoff Hurst didn’t make his senior England debut until February 1966, at the age of 24. Manager Alf Ramsey opted to include him in the squad for the following World Cup on home soil, however Hurst failed to impress during warm-up matches versus Finland and Denmark, meaning that Jimmy Greaves and Roger Hunt were very much ahead of him in the pecking order.
Indeed, that pair were selected for group games with Uruguay, Mexico and France, but Hurst was called to replace Greaves in the quarter-final versus Argentina after the latter had suffered a deep gash to the leg. The replacement striker set up Bobby Charlton in a 2-0 semi-final win versus Portugal, however the public wanted to see a fit-again Greaves return to the starting lineup for the final.
Yet Ramsey stuck to his guns and the rest – as they say – is history as Hurst went on to score a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over West Germany, allowing England to lift the famous Jules Rimet trophy, a feat which has never been emulated since.
David Platt (1990)
Skipping forward 24 years to the 1990 World Cup, Aston Villa midfielder David Platt had been handed a place in the squad by Bobby Robson, despite having only earned his first England cap in a friendly versus Italy the previous November. The Manchester United youth product was very much a substitute, but was brought off the bench in group matches versus Ireland and the Netherlands.
England had battled with Belgium in the first knockout stage, but the match remained 0-0 after 90 minutes. Once again Platt was introduced as a substitute – on this occasion in extra-time – and became solely responsible for sending England into the quarter-finals, scoring a perfect volley in the last minute of extra time.
“I had an eye for getting on the end of that sort of ball and the technical ability to finish those chances off,” recounted the midfielder to The Independent in 2010. “I worked hard on practising overhead kicks and volleys in training at Aston Villa but, even so, if I had re-enacted that chance against Belgium 10 times in training the next day there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t have scored once from it. It was just one of life’s rare, perfect moments.”
He would go on to score against Cameroon in the quarterfinals and convert his penalty in the ill-fated shootout versus West Germany in the semis, his performances so eye-catching on the peninsula that he would forge a career in Serie A, signing for Bari before moves to Sampdoria and finally Juventus.
Mark Wright (1990)
Another man to exceed expectations at Italia ‘90 was Derby County’s Mark Wright. The defender had not featured at all during qualifying, yet Bobby Robson selected Wright for the squad ahead of Tony Adams. It was the forward-thinking manager who decided to change the system after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Ireland in the opening match and Wright was included as a sweeper as the boss went for a three-man defence.
The defender would keep his place, scoring a header in a 1-0 win versus Egypt and showing some typical English fighting spirit when forced off with a head injury in the quarter-final with Cameroon. Wright was to be patched up, bloodied and battered, but determined to finish the remainder of the match in a defensive midfield role.
Michael Owen (1998)
Going into the 1998 World Cup, an 18-year-old Michael Owen was already beginning to shine on the Premier League stage, having earned the PFA Young Player of The Year for his efforts for Liverpool. Even if his inclusion in Glenn Hoddle’s squad was expected, the youngster was still very much behind Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham for a starting spot, and the experience of Les Ferdinand hinted that Owen’s minutes may have been limited indeed.
Owen would give a glimpse of what he could do after being sent on with 18 minutes remaining versus Romania, scoring an equaliser in the 81st minute and becoming the youngest England player to ever score at a World Cup. He almost had a second, too, hitting the post in stoppage-time after Dan Petrescu had stolen the game for the Romanians. Hoddle would then pick Owen over Sheringham for the final group game with Colombia, and again – of course – against Argentina.
The 18-year-old announced himself on the world stage in some style with a superb run and beautiful finish to put England in front, after having earlier won a penalty that would be converted by Alan Shearer. Of course the Three Lions would crash out in a shoot-out once again, but a calm and collected Owen converted his spot-kick, rattling into the top corner via the post.
Trevor Sinclair (2002)
Although a recognisable name, winger Trevor Sinclair did not receive his first England cap until the age of 28 in a friendly with Sweden in November 2001. Yet the West Ham man would be called to the 2002 World Cup by Sven Goran Eriksson as a last-minute replacement for the injured Danny Murphy, but was still regarded as merely a backup player in the side.
That was until Owen Hargreaves also suffered an injury early on, and Sinclair was to earn four of his total of 12 England caps in Japan and Korea, becoming one of England’s best players as the Three Lions were eventually defeated by Brazil in the quarter-final. And he did while battling severe jet lag. Initially left out and sent home, he was met by The FA at Heathrow and immediately herded back onto the plane for another eleven hour flight. England may have fallen quietly in 2002, but it was arguably the highpoint of Sinclair’s career.
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