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England: The best player per decade from 1950 onwards

The England national team has featured some of the finest players ever to grace international football.

While the Three Lions only have one major trophy to their name, it has not been for the want of trying by many of the nation’s top footballers.

With that in mind, we have gone back in time to identify who we think were the best England players in each decade from 1950 onwards.

We also assess which player has shone during the early part of the 2020s and whether they will stay at the top of the tree until the end of the decade.

Stanley Matthews – 1950s

Pele once famously said that Stanley Matthews ‘taught us the way football should be played’ and it is difficult to argue with his viewpoint.

Matthews played for England in two World Cups and was widely heralded as one of the best wingers ever to grace the game.

He gained legendary status for his exploits at club level with Stoke City and Blackpool and is undoubtedly England’s top player from the 1950s.

Bobby Charlton – 1960s

Several players could justifiably claim to being England’s best player during the 1960s including Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greaves and Alan Ball.

However, Bobby Charlton just about edges the accolade, given the role he played in the Three Lions’ World Cup success in 1966.

The former Manchester United star’s range of passing and eye for goal made him a formidable force for club and country over a sustained period.

Kevin Keegan – 1970s

The 1970s were not particularly memorable for England, with the team failing to qualify for the World Cup in 1974 and 1978.

Picking the best player from that miserable era is no easy task, with many of the country’s top stars failing to replicate their club form at international level.

Kevin Keegan gets the nod after captaining his country on 31 occasions and for being one of a handful of bright sparks from that era.

Gary Lineker – 1980s

Now better known for being a television presenter, it is easy to forget that Gary Lineker was once England’s main attacking threat during the 1980s.

He won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, netting six goals as the Three Lions progressed to the quarter-finals.

Lineker was denied the chance to equal Charlton’s goalscoring record in his last international appearance, with manager Graham Taylor hauling him off in an ill-fated game against Sweden.

Paul Gascoigne – 1990s

A strong case can be made for Alan Shearer to be considered England’s top player of the 1990s following his exploits at the 1996 European Championships.

However, we prefer Paul Gascoigne’s claims in this decade, with the mercurial midfielder unquestionably one of the finest players ever to represent England.

His goal against Scotland at Euro 96 when he left defender Colin Hendry on his backside remains one the most iconic moments in English football history.

David Beckham – 2000s

Although he was part of England’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’ that failed to deliver major silverware, Beckham can look back on his international career with pride.

Beckham won more caps (115) than any other England outfield player and is the only English player to have scored in three separate World Cups.

His commitment to England’s cause cannot be questioned, making him the undisputed top player of the 2000s.

Wayne Rooney – 2010s

Off-field controversies made Wayne Rooney a divisive figure among football fans, but no one can deny his contribution to the national team.

He was often made the scapegoat for the Three Lions’ underachievement despite being someone who cared passionately about the national team.

Rooney was unquestionably a victim of his versatility, but a tally of 53 goals tells its own story about his ability. Only Harry Kane is ahead of him on the all-time list.

Harry Kane or Jude Bellingham – 2020s

As things stand, Kane has been the standout performer for England during the early part of the 2020s. However, we believe the 30-year-old may be usurped by an emerging Three Lions star.

Jude Bellingham has already established himself as a key performer in England’s midfield and has many more years to become the best player this decade.

The only thing that may prevent him from achieving the feat is if current manager Gareth Southgate fails to correctly utilise his talents. England fans will hope that does not happen.

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