Where are England's schemers?

Croatia's Luka Modric is probably the best schemer in the EPL right now.-AP

Today, Germany have the precocious Mesut Ozil. Barcelona rejoices in Xavi and Iniesta. Coming up is Denmark's young Christian Eriksen. Schemers live, but not in England. Bar Jack Wilshere, of course. Exception who proved the rule, writes Brain Glanville.

When Fabio Capello picked his England squad for the two European Cup eliminators against Bulgaria and Wales, one crucial name was missing: that of Arsenal's precocious 19-year-old “playmaker” Jack Wilshere. Injured. Examining the list, you wondered who was capable of doing what Wilshere does so well, making the intelligent sometimes inspired pass to keep his attack on the move, and the bleak answer was nobody. And though those two opponents were hardly of the highest capacity, tougher opposition would lie ahead were England to qualify for the European finals.

So why the extraordinary English famine? Why, in a country which once produced so many schemers, generals, playmakers, call them what you will, do they suddenly seem to have died out? Arguably the biggest general of midfield playing in the Premier League is Luka Modric, for whom Spurs, his London club, and Chelsea, the other London club which wanted him, just as he was so keen to join them, were locked in battle.

The little Croatian international had already shown his talents at the expense of the England defence when he came to London. Some, though I was not among them, believed he was too frail to survive in the fast and furious Premier League. He was to quickly prove them all wrong. Brave, deft, elusive and constructive, he was a living demonstration that for all the current emphasis, or over-emphasis, on speed and strength, football, physically, remains a democratic game.

Look back, however, and not so very far into the past, Spurs generals are numerous. The last of them was Paul Gascoigne, eccentric, self-destructive, but a supremely gifted inside forward, as they used to be called, before the sloppily all-embracing “midfielder” supervened. On the field at least, except when into the insane Wembley final tackle which put him out of football for a year, Gaza was phenomenal.

What could he not do? He had what is pretentiously termed “peripheral vision” in abundance. Meaning, that he had often virtually photographed the field before a ball even came to him. He had a magnificent right foot for shooting or cross field passing. And before him came his nemesis, Glenn Hoddle.

Nemesis, because Hoddle it was, as England manager in 1998, who kicked Gazza out of the World Cup squad because he had been unfit in training camp. But pre-Gazza, Hoddle had emphatically been called him the brain of the outfit, with his perfectly judged, deftly struck, long, searching, right-footed balls. And if there was Hoddle of Spurs, Monaco and Chelsea, but chiefly Spurs, then there was another London club star in Trevor Brooking, groomed by his local East End club, West Ham United. He was another gifted midfielder capable in the Italian expression of “inventing the game.” Had manager Ron Greenwood, his mentor decided to “start” him in England's final World Cup match in Madrid in 1982 — he was brought on too late to make more than a limited impact — it's arguable that England would have qualified for the semi-finals rather than having to go home without losing a game.

Go back to the later 1950s and sixties and there you find Johnny Haynes, even if his two World Cups, 1958 and 1962 when he was captain, didn't see him at his best. With Fulham, his club, Haynes was magisterial, master of the through pass or cut to the right wing. Though in Chile, in 1962, opposing teams knew how to hold England up by marking him tight.

When England won the World Cup in 1966, they decided to keep their most talented playmaker, George Eastham (Arsenal), son of a “schemer” of the same name, on the bench throughout, though there was never any doubt about his exceptional skills.

Way back in the 1960s, there was a tendency among Italian coaches to insist that the regista, the playmaker or director of play, was obsolete. That, just as an old English Army adage insisted that every “Tommy” had a Field Marshal's baton in his knapsack, happened only once, in World War I, with Field Marshal Robertson any and every player could be his own regista. Something proved wrong, not least by the constructive talents of such as Gian and Giancarlo Antognoni, both so successful as creators for country and for their clubs.

Even at the time of Total Football, I made Holland's hefty and unhurried left footer Wim Van Hanagem best man on the field in the 1974 World Cup final; when West Germany had clever Wolfgang Overath and, later, Gunter Netzer. Today, Germany have the precocious Mesut Ozil. Barcelona rejoice in Xavi and Iniesta. Coming up is Denmark's young Christian Eriksen. Schemers live, but not in England. Bar Wilshere, of course. Exception who proved the rule.