FOR a player boasting a long list of honours, the experience of appearing in a major finals for his country was something Gary Pallister never had the pleasure of savouring.

He is among the finest defenders never to have played for England at a World Cup or European Championships and that is something, even some 13 years after retirement, which leaves him slightly frustrated.

It is at this time of the year when missing out on a summer showpiece comes up in conversation. As Roy Hodgson’s men prepare for tonight’s World Cup warm-up with Honduras, the sense of anticipation nationally increases as the Brazil finals nears.

Loading article content

The same feelings arrive every four years, whenever a World Cup is on the horizon. Pallister, who earned 22 caps for his country, might not have got to play, but he always looks forward to seeing how England fair.

The four-time Premier League winner and three-time FA Cup winner knows he had an extremely successful career, but coming close a few times to a major finals appearance left him feeling slightly short-changed for someone possessing his ability.

“I was very close to playing in Euro 1996,” said Pallister, who also got his hands on the League Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup, Super Cup and Charity Shield during his nine-year stint with Manchester United.

“That was the year I started to have problems with my back. I had a decision to make to play in the Euros that year and at the time I did not feel as though it was right for me, having missed so many games. I had to get myself right for the following season.

“That was a great year for England and should have got to the final. It is one of life’s regrets. I never played as much for England as I would have liked. Achieving what I did, though, means it is hard to have any regrets at all. But that is one.”

He is also likely to have played at the Euros in ’88 having earned his first cap a couple of months earlier in a goalless draw with Hungary in Budapest, only for his Middlesbrough career to intervene. That was the year Boro had to play Chelsea in a promotion/relegation play-off, so Bobby Robson had to overlook him for warm-up friendlies.

The closest he ever came to a World Cup appearance was under Graham Taylor. He was at the heart of the defence in Rotterdam in October 1993 when Holland won a qualifier 2-0 to prevent England from appearing at USA ’94.

“We didn’t qualify because Ronald Koeman should have been sent off for the foul on David Platt and then went and scored the free-kick,” said Pallister, with the memory still vivid as he chatted in the Middlesbrough club store yesterday promoting the club’s new home and away kits.

“We should have qualified that year, had we got a result there. Everything seemed to conspire against me before a major championships, it just wasn’t to be. Funnily enough my daughter asked me this morning if I’d played at a World Cup, she was a little disappointed when I said no.

“To play for your country is a great feeling and it’s those memories you cherish forever, with the national anthem belting out as you stand in the centre of the pitch. I can’t be too disappointed given what else I achieved during my career.”

Pallister will never be bored of watching World Cup football, however. And, like the rest of the country, he will hoping rather than banking on anything dramatic and historic from England over the course of the next month.

“I am looking forward to it because I have no expectations unfortunately,” said Pallister. “That might help them in a way. We have gone in to the last three or four World Cups with everyone suggesting we could win, with a good generation of footballers coming through in their prime.

“This time I don’t think there is as much expectation. Realistically I think they will do well to get out of the group stage. Then it will be a case of seeing how these young kids grow, the likes of Ross Barkley. He reminds me so much of a young Gazza (Paul Gascoigne). He has all the talent there. He has so much talent and is different to what we have had in there for a number of years. Roy Hodgson has a big decision whether to unleash him on the Italians.”

When England start their campaign with a date with Italy a week today, a good start is seen as crucial if Hodgson’s side are to qualify from the group stage where they also face Uruguay and Costa Rica. As a regular at his former home ground, Old Trafford, he is well aware of the importance of an in-form Wayne Rooney turning up in Brazil.

“Everyone is looking at Wayne and it’s happening again like it has before ahead of the World Cup,” said Pallister, aware of the focus turning on Rooney, who has not scored at a World Cup so far.

“He didn’t finish the season because of injury and he needs games to get the best out of him. We go overboard on some of the stuff written and said about him. His performances for Manchester United warrant him playing.

“In a season when United have struggled, I think he has been one of the stand-out players for us this year after his struggles of the previous season. It would be nice for him to be able to go out without everyone saying that everything depends on Wayne Rooney in a World Cup.

“I don’t necessarily believe that is the case, but if he is fit and firing then Wayne Rooney is so important to an England team. We also have a couple of others who can really light up a World Cup.”

While Rooney and Danny Welbeck’s performances will be monitored closely, two other Manchester United players hope to figure at some stage during the finals. Neither Phil Jones nor Chris Smalling are expected to start for England against Italy and Pallister can understand why.

Generally speaking, however, Pallister is also concerned that, regardless of who Hodgson plays at the back, England could have problems in the absence of both Rio Ferdinand and John Terry for the first time in more than a decade.

“It’s going to be Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka who will start in the back four, but that is the weakest part of the team,” he said. “We have seen that over a number of games just in qualifying and in friendlies. We have given away some cheap goals.

“We have not got that dominant figure of a Rio or John Terry. Smalling and Jones haven’t played enough games at centre-half for Manchester United. That area is a concern. We do look as though we can concede goals, but I also think we have got goals in us.”

* Gary Pallister was speaking at the launch of Middlesbrough’s new home and away kits at the Riverside Stadium yesterday. Both strips are now on general sale at the club store.

Pallister said: “I do like it. It reminds me of the Peru strip in ’74 when they played Scotland in the World Cup. Everyone will be pleased with the outcome. I like the away kit as well. It reminds me of the Chelsea one a couple of years ago.”