How International Football Became a ‘Dead Fortnight’: Who Isn’t An International Footballer These days?

(Part One can be found here)

One of the most noteworthy differences between English football today and from years gone by is the number of players who have been picked as an England international on several occasions in recent seasons, despite being widely considered to have had something of an underwhelming career, especially in compared to scores of talented stars from yesteryear who went uncapped, or were barely capped for their national side. It seems to be the case these days that any English player who gets something of a run within the first team of a Premier League side, or on the fringes of the first team of a top six side, is almost a shoo-in for an England call-up. No clearer example of this is shown by the fact that Arsenal’s Calum Chambers has never really commanded a first team place within Arsenal’s currently much maligned back four and yet has still managed to win three England caps.

Chambers was nineteen at the time of his full England debut in September 2014. Steve Bould in contrast spent over a decade as a mainstay within Arsenal’s famed back four of the late 1980s and 1990s, yet won just two full England caps.  He had to wait until the age of thirty-one for his first cap under Terry Venables in 1994. His Arsenal colleague Nigel Winterburn may have ousted England’s reigning left-back Kenny Sansom for his Arsenal shirt back in 1988, but had spent much of his career stuck behind Stuart Pearce and Tony Dorigo in the pecking order for an England call-up, winning just two England caps during his career. Kieran Gibbs however, who’s just left Arsenal for West Brom after falling third in the pecking order for the left back spot, has ten England caps to his name.

Even the Greats had to Earn Their Spurs

Arsenal’s North London neighbours – Spurs – have had six players called up for England since the start of this calendar year, including a cap for Kieran Trippier who has spent much of the last two season as understudy to the recently departed Kyle Walker. Even former Spurs winger Andros Townsend, who has since moved on to Crystal Palace, has managed to clock up as many as thirteen appearances in an England shirt. Contrast that with former Tottenham Hotspur captain Steve Perryman, who made over eight hundred appearances for Spurs over seventeen years, captaining two FA Cup winning sides in successive years. Despite this, he only won just the one England cap, making his debut away at Iceland in a friendly just ahead of the Espana ’82 World Cup, at the age of thirty.

Perryman’s defensive colleague at White Hart Lane, Graham Roberts, made over two hundred appearances for Spurs in the early to mid-1980s and then moved north of the border to partner Terry Butcher within Graeme Souness’s Rangers side, which came to dominate the Scottish game at the end of the 1980s. Despite this, Roberts only managed six appearances for the Three Lions between 1983 and 1984. Also from the Spurs’ side of the 1980s, Clive Allen scored as many as forty-nine goals for Spurs in 1986/87 and in the process broke the record set by Jimmy Greaves back in the 1960s for the most goals scored for the club in one season.  Despite this, during his career Allen won just England two caps during his ‘annus miribulus’ season in 1986/87.

At Manchester United in recent years, Chris Smalling has managed to win as many as thirty-one England caps in stark contrast to two key members of United’s 1968 European Cup winning side.  Goalkeeper Alex Stepney got just one cap against Sweden in May 1968 and was an unused sub goalie in the Mexico ’70 World Cup. Man United goal scorer in Matt Busby’s only European Cup Final victory – Brian Kidd – was also a Mexico ’70 provisional squad member. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, he went on to play for Arsenal (as seen below), Man City, Everton and had a career in which he scored 215 goals in 545 games (an impressive rate of a goal every 2.5 matches). Despite this he gained just the two caps for England in a Home International fixture against Northern Ireland and a friendly against Ecuador, both games just ahead of the World Cup in 1970.  Kidd went on to spend longer with the England squad as assistant manager during the reign of Sven Goran Eriksson in the early noughties.

England’s Barely Capped ‘Mavericks’ of Yesteryear

The 1970s saw several instances of talented English players overlooked for the national side by first Alf Ramsey and then Don Revie.  In Arsenal’s double side of 1970/71, despite an Arsenal career bagging 149 goals, John Radford played just twice for England in a friendly against Romania in January 1969 and a Euro ’72 qualifier against Switzerland in October 1971. Charlie George, who scored Arsenal’s winner in the 1971 FA Cup Final was once tipped to be England’s future equivalent of Alfredo Di Stefano by Dutch legend Johann Cruyff after facing Ajax in the Semi Final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1970.  On moving on to Derby County in 1975, George scored a hat-trick against Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup.

It was during his Derby days when George got his only cap for England against the Republic of Ireland in September 1976 under Don Revie.  He lasted only sixty minutes and was subbed by Revie after being played out of position and allegedly after coming off told Revie in quite colourful language what he thought of him.  Sadly George was never called upon for his country again.  Allegedly, Don Revie during his time as England boss was biased against southern players – in particular those who played for Chelsea – which worked to the disadvantage of Alan Hudson.  The Chelsea midfielder’s full debut had already been delayed until 1975 due to being banned by the FA for refusing to tour with the England Under-23 side.

Hudson pulled off a star performance in a 2-0 friendly win over reigning World Cup holders West Germany in 1975, but clashes with Revie meant his time with England was limited to just nine caps.  Revie’s predecessor also never looked favourably upon another of Chelsea’s greats.  A young Peter Osgood was called up for the original forty-man squad for England’s 1966 World Cup campaign, however was eliminated from the final twenty-two.  Osgood also received a call-up for the Mexico ’70 World Cup four years later and did feature as a substitute against Czechoslovakia and Romania in the group phase.  His perceived playboy image was what led to Alf Ramsey only awarding Osgood four caps for his country. Another maverick player from the era who fell out with Ramsey was QPR and Man City star Rodney Marsh.

‘Marshy’ played for England on nine occasions between 1971 and 1973. On his final appearance for England, Marsh explained that the final straw with Ramsey came when in a pre-match talk the England boss said to him: ‘if you don’t work hard I’m going to pull you off at half-time’. Rodney Marsh’s response to Ramsey had been ‘Christ, at Man City all we get is a cup of tea and an orange’ As Marsh explained: nobody laughed. And not only that, but it was the last time I ever got picked. There was a direct correlation between that sarcastic remark and me not playing again’. Another former QPR legend – Stan Bowles – was given an England debut in Ramsey’s final game as England boss against Portugal in April 1974.  Bowles also played under Joe Mercer as caretaker boss and Don Revie, but could only manage a total of five England caps.

But at least the aforementioned players actually attained England caps. The roll call of English talent who never clocked up a single appearance for their national side raises just as many eyebrows.

‘Your Country Doesn’t Need You!’

Over the last decade at Arsenal, among players who have been accused in many quarters of not fulfilling their full potential are Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere.  Collectively, however, they’ve managed clocked up as many as 110 England caps between them.  The latter midfield trio have not one league title win between them.  In contrast, a Midfield mainstay of George Graham’s Arsenal side which won two league titles and Vice-Captain to Tony Adams – Paul Davis despite spending fifteen years at Highbury and being party to a side which won six trophies in eight seasons, never once got to represent his country as a full international.

Davis did receive an England call-up in 1988/89, before infamously breaking the jaw of Southampton’s Glenn Cockerill in an off the ball incident, where Davis subsequently received a nine-match ban.

Despite otherwise having an exemplary disciplinary record, Davis never received another call-up from England (meanwhile bad boy and serial offender Joey Barton actually did receive one cap for England in 2007).  Another astonishing instance of a distinguished Arsenal player of old managing to go through an illustrious footballing career uncapped by their country include the winger from Arsenal’s 1971 Double-winning side – George Armstrong.

‘Geordie’ Armstrong made over six hundred appearances wearing the Gunners’ famous red and white in all competitions over sixteen years.  Also among that Double side, Centre Half Peter Simpson played three hundred and seventy times for the Gunners over fourteen years and though called up a few times for England by Alf Ramsey, he was never once capped for England.  Meanwhile, the defensive anchor behind Alex Ferguson’s first Double Winning side of 1993/94 – Steve Bruce (below) – somehow managed to go his entire career without ever having received a full England cap at senior level, despite winning eight caps at England Youth level and one cap for England B.

As for other uncapped stars, Howard Kendall may be a Goodison legend for playing in Everton’s 1970 League title-winning side and then managing the Toffees to glory in the 1980s, as a player however he was never once capped by England boss Alf Ramsey.  Despite spending nineteen years at Stamford Bridge making nearly eight hundred appearances for the famous Chelsea side of the 1960s and 70s, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris was never once picked for England.  Billy Bonds spent over twenty years at West Ham and played at Upton Park into his forties, yet also never received an England call-up.

Jimmy Greenhoff played over seven hundred times for Don Revie’s Leeds United, Stoke City and Man United during the late 1960s and the whole of the 1970s, but was never once capped. Also, Ron Greenwood picked for England seven players from Bob Paisley’s famous European Cup winning Liverpool side of the late 1970s, but never gave a cap to Kop midfielder Jimmy Case. However, there isn’t just a disparity between who was capped and who wasn’t, but at what age does a teenage prodigy get the England call-up and establish themselves on the international scene, wearing the famous Three Lions on the shirt.

If You’re Good Enough, You’re Old Enough… 

From the all-time fifteen youngest players to play for the English national side, outside of five players from the very earliest days of the national side in the nineteenth century, all other players within that list had made their debuts within the last twenty years, aside from the tragic Busby Babe Duncan Edwards who made his debut against Scotland in 1955.  The most recent teenage England star is another Man United youngster in Marcus Rashford, whose big chance came at the age of 18 years and 208 days against Australia in May 2016.  His Man United debut occurred just three months prior against Midtjylland in the Europa League.

His former Man United teammate, Wayne Rooney, was even younger when making his debut against Australia in February 2003 at the age of just 17 years and 110 days.  His England debut came just ten months after his Premiership debut for Everton.  Another former Man United teammate – Luke Shaw – came into the England set-up at 18 years and 236 days having only made his League debut for Southampton just over two years prior.  The youngest ever England call-up was another product of the Southampton youth set up – Theo Walcott – at 17 years and 74 days back in 2006, before he’d even played top flight football at Arsenal.

Walcott had only just made his League debut for Southampton against Wolves at the start of that very same season in August 2005.  Following the same path as Walcott out of Southampton to Arsenal was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who got the England call in May 2012 at 18 years and 284 days.  His Premier League debut for Arsenal came at the beginning of the very same season with the infamous 2-8 thumping at Old Trafford against Manchester United.  His former Arsenal teammate Jack Wilshere made his debut for England came a couple of years prior in August 2010 at the age of 18 years and 222 days.  Wilshere made his Arsenal debut just under two years prior, however only just became a regular in the Arsenal starting eleven at the start of the 2010/11 season and almost instantly found an England call-up.

Other young England debutants include Micah Richards against Holland in November 2006, at the age of just 18 years and 143 days.  His Man City debut came just thirteen months prior in October 2005 (albeit the pre-Sheikh Mansoor incarnation of the Blues).  Current day Man City star Raheem Sterling’s debut came in November 2012 at the age of just 17 years and 341 days, while playing for Liverpool.  His debut for the Reds came just seven months prior in a Premiership game against Wigan Athletic.  Among the current England line up, Dele Alli made his England debut eight months after his debut for Spurs at the age of 19 years and 180 days.

It’s with this in mind that it must be remembered that twenty-nine years prior, Paul Gascoigne received his England Senior call-up against Denmark in 1988 at the age of twenty-one, after receiving as many as twelve Under-21 international caps and nearly three and a half years after making his first team debut for Newcastle United in April 1985. Also making his debut in the very same game was the late David Rocastle, who also had to wait until the age of twenty-one for a first cap nearly three years on from his Arsenal debut. One of the reasons that it took ‘Gazza’ and ‘Rocky’ so long to receive an England call-up was because ahead of him in the midfield pecking order was ‘Captain Marvel’ Bryan Robson. ‘Robbo’ went on to captain England for nine years and received as many as ninety caps for the national side.

With this in mind, it is surprising that it took ‘Robbo’ as long as five years after his league debut for West Brom before receiving his first England call up against the Republic of Ireland in 1980, at the relatively old age of twenty-three in comparison to the modern examples of England debutants stated above. A midfield partner of Bryan Robson throughout the 1980s was Glenn Hoddle, who made his goal-scoring England debut in 1979 against Bulgaria, which occurred at the age of twenty-two and over four years on from his debut for Tottenham Hotspur in 1975. Another major figure for England in the 1980s was Gary Lineker, who made his debut for Leicester City on New Years’ Day 1979. His England debut however did not come until five years later in 1984 in the very last ever British Home International Championship fixture against Scotland at Hampden Park. Lineker at the time was at the relatively ripe age of twenty-three and a half.  He went on to bag an astonishing record of 48 goals in just 80 games.

Much of what these examples tell you about what has become of the England side in recent years is that there has become a marked decline in the calibre of players receiving an international call-up. It also shows that young quality players get thrown into the full England set up a lot earlier, as well as the fact that far more mediocre players remain within the England set-up for much longer and hence, certainly collect far more caps than what they would have done had they been around twenty plus years earlier.

Room at the Top

One notable counter argument raised against this point is that the England side have traditionally underachieved over the last fifty years, so have they ever really had that much in the way of quality? There is also the fact that England had failed to reach a single international finals throughout the 1970s, in comparison to qualifying for all but three of the last nineteen international tournaments since 1980.

What this point overlooks however, is that during the 1970s, far fewer nations qualified for World Cups and European Championships than is the case today.  Currently, thirty-two sides qualify for the Finals of the FIFA World Cup, while twenty-four sides now qualify for the European Championship Finals. Throughout the 1970s however, only sixteen nations qualified for the World Cup, while just four nations participated in the finals of the Euros. England’s qualification record over the last twenty plus years therefore clearly masks an obvious decline in quality which has occurred during this period.

Arguably, for much of English football’s history the national side were drawing on the best English talent from the English league and were probably more than able of beating most club sides should they have faced them on the pitch.  Over the last twenty years or so however, it seems that most of the top six English club sides are a lot stronger than the English national side. In fact, if the England side was a team competing within the Premier League, it would be difficult to see them bag even a Europa League spot.

Not only that but as will be seen in the third and final part of this series of articles, there has also developed an air of predictability over the fortunes of the English national side with regard to both the qualification process and England’s performances at international finals during the 2010s, which may well explain a growing apathy among English football fans to their national side.

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