Jude Bellingham played a blinder for England against Scotland in their friendly match on 12th September 2023, but how would the Real Madrid ace measure up against some of England’s best midfielders? In this article, we’ll run through our pick for the five greatest England midfielders ever. For us, it’s too early to include Bellingham in such a list, but it’s surely only a matter of time. In the meantime, here we have – in no particular order – the top five England midfielders ever. Let the debate begin!
Paul Gascoigne – 1988 to 1998 (caps 57, goals 10)
Given the impact Gazza had on the England team (when he was on his game), it’s perhaps surprising that he only scored 10 goals for his country. He also never scored a goal at a World Cup finals, but he won and took the freekick that set up David Platt for his brilliant volleyed winner in the last minute of extra time against Belgium at Italia ‘90. Gazza also scored a sublime solo effort against Scotland at Euro 1996, arguably one of the best England goals at a major tournament ever.
For many, Gascoigne will be remembered as that bloke who cried at the World Cup and then went off the rails. But for those who saw Gazza at his jinking, inventive best for England, he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. Sadly, Gascoigne’s England career came to a premature end when Glenn Hoddle left the mercurial maestro out of his squad for the 1998 World Cup. The reason? A week before the squad announcement, pictures appeared in the tabloids of Gazza enjoying a kebab late at night (while perhaps having enjoyed a shandy or two). And that was enough for Hoddle to leave Gazza at home (and England went out on penalties to Argentina in the Round of 16).
Stanley Matthews – 1934 to 1957 (caps 54, goals 11)
The great Stanley Matthews played in the “outside right” position in formations that would look rather strange (or brave!) today, including the WM or the trusty 2-3-5. But to all intents and purposes, he was a right winger and hence, in our books, a midfielder. Given the longevity and greatness of Matthews, there’s no doubt that had it not been for the interruption to football caused by World War Two, he would have played and scored many more times for England.
As it was, he still had a fantastic international career and though he never led the Three Lions to World Cup glory, he won a whopping nine British Home Championships (including those shared with other Home Nations). He still holds the records for the player with the longest England career (22 years, 228 days) and the oldest player to have represented England (42 years, 103 days). He’s also the oldest England scorer, having hit the net against Northern Ireland at the age of 41 years and 248 days back in October 1956. There might be hope for us yet!
Bryan Robson – 1980 to 1991 (caps 90, goals 26)
Known as Captain Marvel, the tough-tackling and attack-minded Bryan Robson featured 90 times for England and was captain for 65 of those (with only Billy Wright and Bobby Moore having captained the Three Lions on more occasions). We can only guess what might have happened had Robson not had tournament-ending injuries at both the 1986 and 1990 World Cups – England could certainly have done with his fighting spirit against Germany in the semi in 1990. And it would have been interesting to have seen how he’d have dealt with Maradona’s antics in ’86!
Up against the likes of David Platt, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes to make it onto our list, Robbo gets the nod for his battling spirit and winning mentality. It should also be noted that the England team during the majority of the 1980s was not full of world-beaters, and Robson would often inspire the Three Lions to victory even when they were not the better side.
David Beckham – 1996 to 2009 (caps 115, goals 17)
Love him or hate him for his possibly attention-seeking life off the pitch, there’s no doubt that Beckham was a great servant to the England team… and he wasn’t a bad player. Aside from his excellent passing range, the ability to beat players (at least in the first half of his career) and his leadership skills (in his later years), he had one of the best freekicks in the game. He also proved himself a true Brit when observing and enduring the queue to pay his respects to the Queen!
At the time of writing, Beckham has the third-highest number of England appearances (behind Wayne Rooney and Peter Shilton). His 17 goals for his country often came at crucial moments in games, and he’s one of relatively few players to have scored at three different World Cups (1998, 2002 and 2006).
Bobby Charlton – 1958 to 1970 (caps 106, goals 49)
We’ve saved the best (in our view) until last, and Bobby Charlton’s England scoring record of 49 goals lasted until 2015 (when Wayne Rooney finally surpassed it). That Charlton is the only midfielder to have scored more than 30 goals speaks volumes for his eye for goal. And though some people would classify him as a “forward”, we think he better fits the midfielder description.
Among many other highs (and lows) throughout his amazing career, Charlton will of course be remembered for his significant contribution to England winning their only World Cup back in 1966. He scored three goals at the tournament, once in England’s 2-0 group game victory over Mexico, and then both goals in England’s 2-1 triumph in the semis against Eusebio’s brilliant Portugal. He may not have found the back of the net in the final itself, but without Charlton’s poise, skill and goalscoring ability, England might well never have got that far. A class act on and off the pitch, Charlton is the benchmark against which all future England greats should be measured.