The best there never was: England’s 10 greatest underachievers

Amit Katwala
After Jack Wilsheres spell at Bournemouth was cut short, Amit Katwala looks at the English players who once starred for big teams but ultimately failed to live up to their early potential

For every gifted player who squeezes the absolute maximum out of their ability – Frank Lampard or Paul Scholes, for example – there are those who never quite live up to their spectacular early promise.

It could just be home-team bias, but it feels like a high number of them are England players from the past few decades as well. Maybe that’s our imagination. But we’re fairly certain these 10 players may have have punched - or are currently punching - seriously below their weight.

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Jack Wilshere

Jack Wilshere

A hairline fracture of the fibula sustained in a challenge with Harry Kane is the latest in a long line of injury setbacks for Wilshere, English football’s nearly man.

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At his best, he is one of the country’s most thrilling talents – smart in possession and capable of unlocking a defence with a clever flick (or three, as his ridiculous goal against Norwich in 2013 proved).

However, he’s 25 years old now and has barely played any football compared to his peers – just 115 league starts in nine seasons. His spell at Bournemouth had been restorative, but he’s hardly set the world alight and this latest injury puts his future in doubt. Yes he’s been unlucky with injuries, but his attitude hasn’t always helped.

He may still come good but, let’s be honest: it was never the plan for the man who was supposed to be the future of Arsenal and England’s midfield to be in and out of Bournemouth’s first XI in his mid-20s.

Joe Cole

Joe Cole

In his early days, Cole seemed to float above the mire – full of sharp turns and flowing runs through midfield. He was at his best in the No.10 position, but unfortunately English football’s rigid structures were still some way short of bending to accommodate him.

At West Ham, he was part of that ludicrously talented team that went down with 43 points and when Claudio Ranieri signed him for Chelsea, he said Cole could be the club’s next Gianfranco Zola. It wasn’t quite to be. Although Cole enjoyed a successful spell under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea – winning 10 trophies – it was as a more workmanlike left winger.

Mourinho made him a winner by stifling his creative talents, while Sven did the same for England but without making him a winner. A catastrophic start after a move to Liverpool set the tone for the rest of Cole’s career, and the 35-year-old is playing for Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL until the end of the season.

Ben Foster

Ben Foster

After struggling for years to find a long-term replacement for the great Peter Schmeichel, Alex Ferguson thought he’d found a solution in Foster, a £1m signing from Stoke who Fergie claimed would be “England’s next goalkeeper”.

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Initially, he was loaned out to Watford, whose manager Aidy Boothroyd went even further and said he had the potential to be the best goalkeeper in the world. But he struggled to break into the Manchester United team, making just 23 appearances in three years before moving to Birmingham and then West Brom, where he’s carved out a solid if unspectacular career.

Revealingly, Foster said he was relieved to escape the pressure of playing for United.

Ravel Morrison

Ravel Morrison

The great Alex Ferguson (whose judgement we’re actually beginning to question here) said Morrison was the best player he’d ever seen at that age, and the midfielder starred alongside Paul Pogba in Manchester United’s FA Youth Cup-winning side of 2011. Although he did possess bags of talent, Morrison was difficult to manage, and faced a series of court proceedings for witness intimidation, assault, and criminal damage.

Fergie decided it wasn’t worth it and sold Morrison to West Ham, where he scored one outstanding goal against Tottenham before leaving under a cloud after falling out with Hammers boss Sam Allardyce. Loan spells at QPR, Birmingham and Cardiff preceded a loan move to Lazio, where again his attitude won him no friends.

The 24-year-old Morrison is currently on loan at QPR until the end of the season, but we’ve only ever seen brief flashes of his real ability.

David Bentley

Pegged as the next David Beckham by the heavily leveraged producers of initial-branded merchandise, Bentley scored some spectacular goals but lacked the passion for the game that drove his predecessor to the heights.

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He broke through at Arsenal, but struggled to hold down a first-team place while in the grips of a serious gambling addiction. He spent time at Blackburn and Tottenham, where he made his most memorable contribution – a dipping volley from distance in a 4-4 draw against his former club in the north London derby.

David Bentley

 

He retired at just 29 having fallen out of love with the game, and now runs a restaurant in Marbella.

Francis Jeffers 

Some people in football are permanently, and inexplicably, linked with certain phrases. If we say ‘dentist chair,’ ‘good feet for a big man,’ or ‘naked shower headbutt’, you’ll know we’re referring to Paul Gascoigne, Peter Crouch and Tony Pulis.

Francis Jeffers

For Jeffers, the label ‘fox in the box’ became a millstone around his neck during a difficult spell at Arsenal. He’d broken through at Everton as a goal-poaching striker, with 18 goals in 49 games for the Toffees persuading Arsene Wenger to splash £8m on him.

It didn’t work out, and Jeffers ended up slipping down the divisions, moving to Australia with Newcastle Jets, and never really recapturing the form he showed in his early days at Everton. He ended his career at Accrington Stanley.

Lee Sharpe

Lee Sharpe

The exciting winger was one of the stars of Fergie’s early days at Manchester United, but had his head turned by the playboy lifestyle and was eclipsed by Ryan Giggs and the rest of his contemporaries. He made his United debut at 17, and established himself as the first choice left-winger before he lost his place to Giggs due to injury and illness.

Sharpe could play on both wings, but with Beckham breaking through on the other side and Ferguson growing increasingly exasperated, he was shipped out in 1996 at the age of 25.

He moved to Leeds, then Bradford, then Portsmouth – and announced his retirement from football at 32, after a season with Icelandic side Grindavik.  

Kieron Dyer

Kieron Dyer

Along with Darren Anderton and Wilshere, Dyer is arguably more famous for his injuries than anything he achieved on the football pitch – his most memorable moment is probably getting sent off for fighting his own team-mate, which says it all really.

The dynamic midfielder started at Ipswich, and had a good spell under Bobby Robson at Newcastle in the early 2000s, but the remainder of his career was blighted by a series of long-term injuries. He made fewer than 50 league appearances in the last six years of his career, which were spent at West Ham, Ipswich, QPR and Middlesbrough.

He somehow made it to both the World Cup in 2002, and Euro 2004 – where he played a total of just seven minutes.

Jonathan Woodgate

Jonathan Woodgate

The complete defender was described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Leeds United when the cash-strapped club were forced to sell him to Newcastle, but in truth his best years were already behind him. He played well for the Magpies, but long-term injuries hampered his time there and the reaction when he signed for Real Madrid was one of shock and confusion – especially as he was carrying an injury which kept him out of his whole first season.

When he finally made his debut, it was the fans who were shocked and confused – Woodgate scored an own goal and was sent off. He played for Middlesbrough, Tottenham, and Stoke but never became the talismanic centre-back England really wanted. That honour went to Rio Ferdinand, another former Leeds player.

In July 2007, Woodgate was voted the worst signing of the 21st century by readers of Spanish sports paper Marca.

Robbie Fowler

Robbie Fowler

Now, this might strike you as a controversial choice. Fowler scored 120 goals in 236 league games in his first spell at Liverpool, and sits sixth on the all-time Premier League top scorers list between Thierry Henry and Jermain Defoe.

But he was such a natural, instinctive finisher that it’s hard to shake the feeling he could have done so much more. At the end of the 1996/97 season, at the age of just 22, he’d had a third successive 30+ goal season in a row. Talk of him going on to break every Liverpool goals record you can imagine didn’t seem far-fetched. Yet after that, he’d never hit 20 goals in a season again.

Injuries and a clash of personalities with Gerard Houllier impacted on his form, Liverpool sold him to Leeds in 2001 and he never quite lived up to the hype after that. His international career is a case in point: he was one of this country’s most gifted ever strikers, but he made just 26 appearances for his country, with seven goals. That’s fewer than Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and even Joe Cole.  

Robbie Fowler

 

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