by Richard Brook

This is an impassioned plea in the interests of justice. Every four years, when the small matter of the FIFA World Cup comes around, at least one person in either the broadcast, print or online media thinks themselves to be highly witty and original in producing either a team or list comprised of the ‘worst’ players ever to pull on England’s famous three lions. This time the culprits are BBC Three, offering an updated rehash of a programme they made in 2010. Yet it is not the unimaginative, contrived and formulaic nature of producing England’s worst ever XI that is the issue in hand for the purposes of this article. Instead the subject is the acute unjustness of a one particular perennial selection for the dubious honour of a place in this lazily, imagined side.

Carlton Palmer is a particular hero of mine. I was not quite eight years old, and a year shy  of attending my first football match, when Palmer signed for my beloved Sheffield Wednesday, on February 1st 1989. When I finally was allowed to go to a game we saw the elegant skills of John Sheridan and Trevor Francis eloquently combine as Wednesday comfortably beat Plymouth Argyle 3-0. Yet as we walked back to the car all my parents and I talked about was Carlton Palmer.

I was fortunate to grow up at a time when the Owls were among the absolute heavyweights of English football. Rivals and neutrals alike remember Wednesday reaching both cup finals in 1993, only to lose both to Arsenal and some remember Wednesday beating Manchester United in the 1991 League Cup final. In my experience however, virtually no-one remembers that the Owls finished third in the top flight in 1991/92, and indeed were in with a shout of the title up until the last fortnight of the season. Palmer was an integral part of this team and these achievements.

There are no illusions here: Palmer was not a flair player, but that has been said of other accomplished, defensively-minded centre midfielders, who are more celebrated. Claude Makelele, whose name became synonymous with the position of central defensive midfielder, was famously spoken of in disparaging terms by Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez, as he left Madrid for Chelsea:

“We will not miss Makelele. His technique is average; he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres.”

The role is rarely the most eye-catching on the pitch, but depending on how the team is set up, both in terms of tactics and the skill set of the rest of the side it can be crucial one.

Palmer’s physique may have made the sight of his ceaseless running look like an awkward, ungainly blur of limbs, but the midfielder’s game was anything but clumsy. In truth the last statement features two of Palmer’s biggest assets. Firstly, his tireless engine was paid tribute to in Paul Carrack’s 1991 League Cup Final song It’s A Praise For Sheffield Wednesday, as he sings “Big Carlton covers every blade of grass”. A clichéd description of a hardworking footballer’s performance – that is beyond doubt. Strange then that it would never have occurred to me to write this of Palmer, but it is because I never saw him give any less than to cover every inch of turf, for the cause. Secondly his already long legs, at times appeared positively telescopic at times, appearing to unfailingly grow the required inched to break up opposition attacks with a last ditch interception or challenge.

“Ungainly? Leave it out”

Another facet of Palmer’s game is interestingly viewed as a damning criticism by Perez. Palmer knew his own game’s limitations. Palmer did not have the attributes to be a flying winger, or the range of passing to be a playmaker, any more than the object of Perez’s tirade. Whether breaking up play or supporting attacks Palmer would always look to play the simple ball first. This is not a reason to fault a player. It would be unfair, however, to paint the player’s game as one dimensional. Few Wednesday fans will have forgotten Palmer scoring a hattrick against QPR in August 1991.   That said the midfielder consistently evidenced that he knew not only his own best attributes, but also the strengths of those around him. He would bust a gut to break up the play and then strive to get the ball to someone better able to hurt the opposition than himself. Not necessarily the most glamorous of jobs, but not to be casually dismissed either.

Fiercely patriotic, Palmer’s commitment to England could never be called into question. Ahead of Euro 2012 Palmer and I exchanged views in relation to the rights and wrongs of retiring from international football, and refusing places on standby lists. Palmer recalled that he would never turn down the chance to represent his country whatever the circumstances, or pressures. He explained that in the run up to the all Sheffield FA Cup semi final in April 1993, he was asked by Sheffield Wednesday manager Trevor Francis, not to play for England days before the FA Cup game. Palmer characteristically ignored the request, and sustained a cut to his foot while on international duty. He played the semi final with the aid of a painkilling injection. This is testament to pride and commitment that Palmer feels for his country.

Palmer, to his credit, always shrugs off the type of criticism levelled at him in the programme in question. His response via his twitter account was:

“The facts are I have played for under 21, England B and have won 18 full international caps. They can say what they like I have done what every school kid dreams of and am very proud to have done so. You can say I was one of the worst players to play for England but I did, time and time again.”

Put simply it is untrue to say that Carlton Palmer was amongst the worst players to ever play for England. He was a very talented defensive midfielder that was able to read the game exceptionally, break up play and give the ball to his own side’s danger men. Football team selection and tactics has to do with achieving the correct balance in a side, and a strong defensive midfielder is an integral part of that balance unless your team is blessed with two or three complete all-rounders to fill the centre of the park. Sheffield Wednesday would not have been the team they were in the early 1990’s with two John Sheridans any more or less than if they had two Carlton Palmers. The same is true of England: two Paul Gascoignes would not have provided enough bite and at times the midfield looked devoid of flair with two of David Batty, Paul Ince and Palmer being played together.

Palmer himself points, with some justification, to a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands in April 1993 as a validation of his international credentials. Netherlands coach, Dick Advocaat praised the midfielder’s performance, as he put in a man of the match performance against the likes of Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard and Frank De Boer. By no means was Palmer a one cap wonder. He played 18 times for his country and cannot possibly be rated amongst those who have won a single cap, purely because England no longer has a B team. England were unquestionably underperforming at the time, reflected by the fact that Palmer finished on the losing side as often as the winning side during his time. Such underperformance is never the fault of a single player.

The criticism Carlton Palmer receives is wholly unwarranted by the ability he possessed to play his position, and by his total commitment to his country. It is a commitment that many players since then would have done well to seek to emulate.