David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Phil Neville: looking at those who are about to take their last touch in competitive football this weekend, you’d think England must have had quite a team at one stage. Sure, most of them have been engaged in a long ceremonial departure for much of the last five years, but at their peak they represented some flowering of talent.
Add in those senior thirtysomethings who will still be playing next season - Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and the Cole boys, Joe and Ashley - and the international trophies surely must have piled up high enough to fill Wembley. Didn’t they?
It was Adam Crozier, the former chief executive at the FA, who coined the term “Golden Generation” to describe the bubbling up of excellence in the English game at the end of the nineties. Crozier was an adman, so we have to accept he was not necessarily the most rigorous of judges.
Hyperbole was the language in which he was schooled to communicate. But you could understand why he felt moved to predict there was something of a future in the air when he took over the organisation. So inspired was he, the potential of the young players was allowed to dictate official policy.
Certain that they would be reaching trophy-gathering maturity at precisely that moment, the FA risked international ignominy by going against previous agreement and bidding for the 2006 World Cup. They wanted it at home because they thought they could win it. Sven-Goran Erkisson was brought into England largely on the promise of what he had to work with.
And what happened? The FA lost its international reputation for principle, the World Cup went to Germany where Eriksson’s England were ejected as was customary in the quarter finals on penalties. The term Golden Generation became a point of mockery. Or worse: it became a curse.
2006 was as close as the gilded ones ever came to a trophy. Knocked out in the quarters was the limit of their success. Their failure made it easy to sneer. The self-styled glory boys were anything but. Except looking back at that time, looking at the players now retiring from the scene, you have to think it was the most monumental failure of management that did not school them to greater prominence. These were players good enough to have delivered something, surely.
Indeed, Owen apart, every one of the list above will head to their dotage with a Champions League medal in their collection. Terry, for instance, is so decorated as a club player he has built a museum at his home to display his booty. Yet, amid the mannequins modelling his shirts and the photos of him arriving late on the scene to lift various European baubles, there is not a single international gong in his collection.
And the more you think about it, the more ludicrous that is. Why did these players not at least come close to achieving? How did we allow such a substantial national resource to be squandered?
Looking back, there were always excuses. Untimely injuries didn’t help. Tiredness at the end of a lengthy season that – unlike many of their principal rivals – came without a mid-winter break was a factor. But largely it was down to a failure of nerve, a failure of management.
Just look at the players Roy Hodgson can pick in his increasingly forlorn attempt to get to Brazil next summer and compare them to those from whom Eriksson could choose. The Swede’s selection headache was who from Terry, Ferdinand, Carragher and Ledley King to send out at centre back.
Hodgson is reduced to crossing his fingers that Phil Jagielka is fit. No wonder he has spent much of his time in the job trying to persuade Terry and Ferdinand to turn out for him. Without them the cupboard is bare.
Eriksson could field a midfield of Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes. If Jack Wilshire isn’t fit, Hodgson has nothing anywhere to match that quartet.
Looking back, as the stalwarts of that time hang up their boots, there is only one conclusion we can reach: England blew it. I’m not suggesting they should have – or even could have – emulated the current Spanish team and won every competition they entered. But three quarter finals? Was that really all they had to show for all that potential?
Mind, in one way that generation was indeed golden. Driven by our collective thirst for a great team to call our own, they were showered with marketing opportunities. Beckham was not the only one to exploit the moment financially. I recently visited Phil Neville’s home to interview him, and let’s put it this way: he is not short of a bob.
As they all move on to the training pitch or the television sofa, none of them will have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.
For those of us left behind still watching, more with hope than expectation, the current England side attempt to make it to Brazil 2014, there can only be one emotion on their departure: regret. It will be a while before we see anything to compare with them again.
And if it ever happens that the English game simultaneously produces such abundance of local talent, let’s hope we are better prepared properly to exploit it.