Home Sports What’s behind managerial failures of England’s ‘Golden Generation’ of players?

What’s behind managerial failures of England’s ‘Golden Generation’ of players?

What’s behind managerial failures of England’s ‘Golden Generation’ of players?


England‘s so-called “Golden Generation” probably thought the struggle to live up to that moniker ended with their playing days. Shortly after Sven Goran-Eriksson’s side went to Munich and thrashed Germany 5-1 in a 2002 World Cup qualifier, a slightly giddy Football Association chief executive named Adam Crozier coined the phrase to describe a team with seemingly boundless potential.

Frank Lampard, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen would soon be joined by Wayne Rooney bursting onto the scene to increase the hype around a group of individuals excelling at club level.

Between 1999 and 2012, English clubs won the Champions League four times with only Spain winning more (five) in that period. Premier League titles were contested with English players at the vanguard of the race as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea tussled at the top. Yet that undeniably talented group fell short at both Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup — exiting both tournaments at the quarterfinal stage — before failing to qualify for Euro 2008 and, as if to complete the circle, by 2010 they were hammered 4-1 by a youthful Germany side in a World Cup last-16 tie.

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The Germans did it when it mattered and four years later in Brazil, they were world champions.

Reflecting on that England team’s shortcomings, Gary Neville said in 2014: “If people ask, ‘What is the biggest regret of your career?’ my answer never changes. I always say: England. But if I could return to one moment and make it different — change a small event to produce a happier outcome — it would be 27 minutes into the England vs. Portugal Euro 2004 quarterfinal, when Rooney limped off with a broken metatarsal. We drew 2-2 after extra time in that game but lost 6-5 on penalties.

“Euro 2004 could have been ours. Of all the tournaments I played in during the 2002 to 2010 period, that was the one we could have won. In that first half-hour Rooney was ripping Portugal to shreds. They couldn’t handle him. We were in control of the game, with a starting XI of: David James, Neville, Terry, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Owen and Rooney.”

If that team — celebrating its 20th anniversary this year — was the apotheosis of the “Golden Generation” era, it serves as a reference point for the relative failure that followed.

Many went on to be highly decorated at club level — Neville, Terry, Cole, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes and Rooney all won the Champions League. That lineup can count 44 Premier League winners medals among them. Owen won the 2001 Ballon d’Or. Yet this talented group was never able to translate that success to the international stage, and the evidence is mounting that they face a similar uphill battle as managers.

Rooney became the latest in this select group to endure another managerial failure, sacked by Birmingham City last week after just 83 days and 15 games in charge. Neville, Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes have all struggled in the dugout as they did playing for England. So were the “Golden Generation” always fated to live in the shadow of that nickname, or is there a deeper reason behind their shortcomings?



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By 2009, Lampard felt sufficiently irritated by the tag to speak out. “The whole golden generation thing is quite frustrating for us players,” Lampard said in November that year. “We didn’t make it up. It is difficult. People talk about the golden generation because we have a good crop of players. They are very talented individuals, but we have not made the most of it.

“The golden generation should only be said once you have won something…once we have finished playing and, hopefully, have won something, then we can talk about generations and, at the moment, we are in better shape than we have been,” added Lampard.

Fast forward eight years and with the benefit of hindsight, Lampard, Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand — who became the Britain’s most expensive defender when joining Manchester United from Leeds for £29m in 2002 before establishing himself as a key centre-back for England — went into unprecedented detail about why the “Golden Generation” could not end the country’s wait for silverware (now 58 years and counting).

“I don’t think we had a manager brave enough to sort out our midfield,” Ferdinand said. “On paper, we had the best midfield players in the world at the time: Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Beckham, [Owen] Hargreaves, you can go on. Even below that you had more players. The depth of talent in there was ridiculous. We played a rigid 4-4-2.”

Gerrard responded: “I don’t think we had a manager who really had a philosophy or a way of playing that worked in terms of constructing possession to keep the ball long enough. I felt as if most of the time with England, you picked the team and you went out and tried to play. We played very individually, I didn’t feel like we were part of a team that played a certain way, and that’s the way we stuck to.”

Lampard added: “We’d comfortably get through the group, and 4-4-2 was fine. Then you’d go in a really hot country and play against Paraguay and they’ve got four little fellas in midfield playing one-twos around you. Me and Stevie slightly out of position, I’m used to being a bit freer to get forward, but all of a sudden I have to defend against four.”

All three acknowledged their own culpability and dressing room cliques as factors in England’s underperformance at tournaments, but their view on managers feels relevant when assessing their own performances in the dugout.

For a start, none of these English managers could be described as tactical innovators. Since Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, the Premier League has become more sophisticated through the influence of foreign managers like Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Lampard spoke of the “freer” role he revelled in, and the same was true of Gerrard and Rooney.

The trio still had to be intelligent footballers to excel for their clubs — and make no mistake, they were — but they benefitted from playing within systems that played to their strengths. Critics would argue that egos developed, ones that have not adapted to the subtleties management demands. Although Rooney often sacrificed his natural instincts to allow Cristiano Ronaldo to take centre-stage at Manchester United, it was his tireless work ethic, rather than his acumen, that made it a success.

Rooney’s brief tenure at Birmingham was a strange occurrence from the outset. The club’s U.S. owners, Shelby Companies Limited, clearly wanted a glamour name, but their approach revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what sort of league the Championship is: a physical marathon requiring spirit perhaps more than swagger.

The former England forward had previously spent 17 months at Derby and amid difficult financial circumstances, his combative style helped galvanise the group. But a similarly robust approach at Birmingham — which extended to dispensing with several key coaching staff members — only alienated the playing staff.

D.C. United, where Rooney spent 14 months, are also a difficult club to manage and his time there was mixed, his side missing out on the playoffs. While there was a pragmatism in his tactics, many were left unconvinced of his ability to inspire the squad to anything like the extent he could as a player.

Many of the great managers are master communicators, whether that is internally or through the media. Talk of “projects” and “philosophies” can often feel grandiose, but there are a set of principles visible in the best that allow them to impose a style on a club almost independent of their circumstances.

Unai Emery’s radical transformation of Aston Villa places Gerrard in a particularly awkward light. Villa were 17th in the Premier League when Gerrard was sacked in October 2022 after 11 months in charge. With largely the same group of players, only champions Manchester City (93) took more points in the calendar year of 2023 than Villa’s 85 under Emery. Gerrard spent around £80m on new players, but the football was turgid and his success at Rangers, winning the 2021 Scottish Premiership title by 25 points from Celtic, was quickly forgotten.

Gerrard is currently working at Al-Ettifaq in Saudi Arabia, where speculation persists over his possible sacking, having won seven of his 21 games in charge.

Lampard took Derby to the Championship playoff final in 2019, where they lost to Villa, and that achievement was enough to earn him the chance to manage Chelsea, albeit in tough circumstances with the club serving a transfer ban.

In a departure from the norm at Stamford Bridge, Lampard promoted young players including Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham and guided Chelsea to a fourth place in the Premier League and an FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. However, there were often grumblings about his tactics and sources told ESPN that several players complained about his man-management, believing they received insufficient explanation why they were not in the team. Chelsea spent heavily when the FIFA ban was lifted, and expectations increased even as performances did not.

Lampard would later help steer Everton away from the relegation zone, but he won just 12 of his 43 matches in charge and was sacked, resurfacing at Chelsea on an interim basis to preside over a dismal end to the 2023-24 campaign, winning one of his 11 games.

Again, the club was in limbo under new ownership and awaiting a permanent appointment as manager, but Lampard’s inability to organise a disparate group casts doubt over how successful he could ever be in the dugout. As a player who continued well into his mid-30s and consequently had his game-time managed, it remains a surprise his communication skills were criticised by so many.

Others from the “Golden Generation” tried and failed with lightning speed. Gary Neville was sacked by Valencia after four months in charge, later admitting he did not sufficiently understand LaLiga, the Spanish culture or the language. Paul Scholes managed League Two side Oldham Athletic — his boyhood club — for 31 days before resigning amid complaints he was not given the level of control he anticipated. John Terry has worked effectively as an assistant coach at Aston Villa and briefly at Leicester City before returning to work in Chelsea’s academy, where Ashley Cole has also been employed.

Sol Campbell left League Two side Macclesfield Town after eight months amid the club’s financial difficulties after avoiding relegation on the final day of the 2018-19 season. He dipped his toe again at Southend United in Oct. 2019, but left the following June by mutual consent after they were relegated from League One. David James managed Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters — where he finished his playing career — in two short spells.

Perhaps Beckham had it right all along, eschewing the pitfalls of management to become a team owner with inter Miami making waves in Major League Soccer with Lionel Messi‘s arrival heralding a new era for United States football.

All in all, it is an extremely modest post-playing list of achievement for some of the game’s finest talents from the 2000s. It is not an affliction consigned to England — Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo and Fabio Cannavaro are just three examples of supremely gifted players elsewhere in Europe who have not had the managerial careers many anticipated.

Ultimately, the correlation between playing ability and managerial ability is not a straight line. Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti, Diego Simeone and Guardiola prove a high level can be sustained across the two disciplines, but Klopp, Mourinho and Lionel Scaloni had modest playing careers only to win some of the game’s biggest prizes as managers.

Guardiola, Xavi and Mikel Arteta came through together at Barcelona and are all competing at the highest level in the dugout. Simeone had Mauricio Pochettino for company in the Argentina team which lost to England in the 2002 World Cup group stage. Yet England’s “Golden Generation” is still waiting to produce a truly elite, successful manager.

Crozier and that nickname still have a lot to answer for.


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