Paul Ince rejects the notion that the England’s crop of players in the 2000s were the country’s ‘Golden Generation’, insisting the sides he was involved with in the 1990s were much more befitting of that moniker.
There were high hopes for the group of players which represented England between the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, with many members of those teams considered among the best in the world in their respective positions.
But the furthest England reached in any tournament during that time was the quarter-finals, in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
“People talk about the Gerrard and Lampard team as being the Golden Generation for England, but that is nonsense,” Ince says.
“The team I was a part of was the Golden Generation and I think we proved that with the performances we put in when it mattered most, in major tournaments.
“I look at the 2002 and 2006 World Cup performances from the so-called Golden Generation and they were not comparable to the way we played against Holland and Germany at Euro 96 or the performance we put in against Argentina in 1998.
“That was the Golden Generation and the FA messed it up by sacking two excellent managers in Venables and Hoddle.
“Some of things England managers have been getting up to in the years since have put into perspective the so-called reasons why the FA got rid of those two managers, but the damage was done and it cannot be repaired.
“Hoddle was so inventive as a manager. We all respected him as a great player, but working with him was fascinating.
“He spent time with Wenger at Monaco and brought all that experience with him into the England job, and you can only learn from someone like that, whatever level of the game you might be working at.
“He was a manager before his time. Some of things he brought to the England squad were introduced to Premier League clubs a few years later and people only realised how good he was when he was gone.”
Ince, who won 53 caps for his country, was part of two England sides which managed to capture the imagination of the country.
At Euro 96, Terry Venables’ Three Lions came excruciatingly close to beating Germany in the semi-finals, missing two gilt-edged opportunities to score a golden goal in extra-time – robbing the sport of what would have been one of the great celebrations.
And two years later England were beaten again on penalties, this time by Argentina, after a backs-to-the-wall, Michael Owen-inspired performance following David Beckham’s controversial red card.
“Maybe Euro 96 was most disappointing because we got through to the semi-final and it was there for us to win the competition,” Ince says.
“Once we beat the Spanish in the quarter-finals on penalties, I felt we were on course to win it because they were the best team in the tournament for me.
“Germany were decent, but we had chances to beat them in the semi-final at Wembley and the Czech Republic would have been waiting for us in the final.
“We were right on the edge of winning England’s first tournament since the 1966 World Cup and in truth, England haven’t got that close to challenging for a trophy in the 22 years since then.
“The fact that it was in England, that the nation went football mad, there were flags hanging out of the windows of every pub and car, it felt like it was our moment and it was cruel the way it was taken away from us.
“I still think about that Germany game. We should have won that. Everyone remembers how close Gazza was to scoring what would have been a golden goal when he had the goal at his mercy in extra-time, but we should have had it won before that.
“Darren Anderton should have scored when he hit the post and that made the defeat on penalties all the harder to take.
“It was a sickener and I remember the let down after that game. We all just felt so flat.”
Ince received criticism in the wake of the defeat to Germany for not taking a penalty in the shoot-out, meaning it was left to the current England manager Gareth Southgate to step forward and miss the decisive spot-kick.
Two years later, the midfielder put his name forward to take the second penalty against Argentina, but saw his effort saved as England crashed out in the round of 16 after a brilliant 10-man display.
“In 1998, I felt we had a team to go and win the World Cup,” says Paddy Power ambassador Ince. “It was in France, not far from home, we had a great manager in Glenn Hoddle and a team that had so much going for it.
“We came top of a qualifying group featuring Italy and that gave us confidence.
“When I look at that squad, we had it all: real leaders in Tony Adams, myself, Shearer. Then we had a young and hungry Michael Owen who was frightening everyone with his pace and it just felt set-up for us to have a real go at winning it.
“We sensed that around the camp, we sensed it in training and before games. You looked around that dressing room and we had everything you needed in a top team.
“Beckham’s sending off was a killer for us against Argentina. Would he have got sent off for that little flick now? I’m not so sure as it was hardly violent.
“I believe to this day that if we had 11 men on the pitch for that Argentina game, we would have gone on to win that game and the World Cup.
“There were no outstanding teams in that competition and even though the French were at home, I’d have fancied us beating them if we had got that far.”
England head to this summer’s tournament in Russia amid much lower expectations than either ‘Golden Generation’ had to deal with.
A growing sense of goodwill surrounds Gareth Southgate’s young squad, with many supporters becoming tired of the levels of media criticism the players have to deal with – a part of football Ince is no stranger to himself.
“There was a feeling around some of the England camps I was involved with that the media were waiting for us to fail,” he says.
“I look back on the dentist chair incident before Euro 96, and the way we were castigated by the media for it, and smile. It was ridiculous, but it brought us closer together.
“I can understand where the press were coming from to an extent, but it gave us a unity that helped us in the tournament.
“It was a good time to be part of the England set-up and I can’t imagine we will see this current England team being part of a night out like that any time soon! Times have changed and it is all a lot more serious now.
“There may be limited expectations among England fans going into this World Cup, but from the perspective of the players and Gareth Southgate, you have to go out there with the mindset that you can win it.
“Whether people believe you can win it or not, that’s not an issue really. There is no point in an England team going to a World Cup unless they believe they can win it and while they might not say that too loudly in public, that is the way they will be thinking.”
Paul Ince is an ambassador for Paddy Power and will be a guest on Paddy’s Boat Party which will be broadcast live on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube throughout the World Cup. Watch the first episode on June 13 at 6pm.
By Kevin Palmer