Would Bobby Charlton, Peter Shilton and Ashley Cole still be England legends if they hadn’t played in major tournaments? Almost certainly.
Would Paul Gascoigne or Geoff Hurst? Perhaps not.
The history of England — the oldest international football team on earth — has been pushed and pulled in different directions over the last century-and-a-half. Major tournaments have signalled more strongly than anything else whether England are world beaters or in dire straits.
Predictably, the story is much the same for individuals. Only a select few players get to experience a major tournament as an England player. And quite often, that will determine how they are remembered. How a player performs in a major tournament matters; you can’t rewrite history.
The Munich air disaster of 1958 saw the death of three internationals likely to compete for England at the World Cup that year — fullback Roger Byrne, prolific centre-forward Tommy Taylor and the best defensive midfielder the country ever had: Duncan Edwards. The national team was tragically deprived of three true English talents there, even if all three were already seasoned internationals.
But players that have slipped through the net since are often less accounted for.
One of the most talented internationals never to try his hand at tearing up a major tournament was Southampton darling Matt Le Tissier.
The Guernsey great was tricky, intricate, almost South American in his audacity on the field of play. But for England, his was a story of what might have been.
After he scoring a hat-trick for the England B team in 1998, Glenn Hoddle took some stick for not taking ‘Le God’ to the World Cup in France. In the end, a teenaged Michael Owen announced himself to Argentina and to the world. Le Tissier could have shone for England at that World Cup or at Euro ’96, but his international career was thwarted by a number of more favoured strikers at the time.
His longest period in the team came in 1994 — precisely the time anyone hoping to reach their first tournament with England was to be left disappointed by Ronald Koeman, Graham Taylor, San Marino and all that.
One of the saddest stories among players never to compete on the biggest stage of all is the larger-than-life Ian Wright — whose 33 appearances all came in non-tournament matches. Wright wore his heart on his sleeve as a player, and still does to this day — evident through his passionate and emotional style of punditry.
For England, Wright was underused, underappreciated and underestimated by a succession of managers. The 1994 and 1998 World Cups would have presented his best chances to don the white and red in a major tournament, but first England failed to qualify and second his recurring hamstring injury resurfaced at the worst of times.
The Arsenal and Crystal Palace favourite scored nine goals for England, but we’ll never know how he would have fared at the likes of Euro ’96 or France ’98.
Only one man pips Wright to be the most capped retired England player without having made a tournament squad, and that man is Mick Channon. A legend at Southampton, and briefly a regular goalscorer at Manchester City too, Channon was just around at the wrong time. The 1970s offered promise to England fans, but little else. Channon’s 21 international goals would have made him tournament worthy… had England qualified for any.
Among players given few or no chances to represent England, perhaps one-cap wonder Chris Sutton could have done some damage had he been taken to a tournament. Two of the best uncapped players in the country’s history — current Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce and West Ham United captain Mark Noble — would also have surely made an impact. At Euros 2012 and 2016 particularly, the Three Lions could have done with a calming yet creative matchwinner like Noble.
Lee Dixon, for a long time the best right-back in the English game, never represented England at the pinnacle of the international game either. The owner of 22 caps spread across nine years, his best chances came at Euro ’92 and World Cup ’94 in the United States. First he suffered a freak injury that kept him out in ’92, before the nation failed to qualify two years later.
A few seasons on, Dixon’s teammate at Arsenal, Ray Parlour, joined the list of talented Englishmen never to appear at a major tournament. Although his international career was a little underwhelming overall, as he only earned ten caps in total. Gary Pallister, long-term servant to Manchester United, was played in 22 England matches spread across eight years. He was another to be consistently overlooked when it came to squad-naming day.
Les Ferdinand made the squads for both Euro ’96 and France ’98, but sat on the bench for every single minute of all nine games. Given what he did for the club game, that really does seem harsh. But competition is competition. Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham and Michael Owen were all preferred.
The Premier League’s third top scorer in history, Andy Cole never went to a tournament with England, again hard to believe. Cole’s best football came in his extraordinary and all too often underplayed club career. But while injury prevented an appearance at Euro 2000, he wasn’t selected for either of the World Cups that sandwiched it. His goalscoring record at international level wasn’t good, with his manager during 1998 Glenn Hoddle saying Cole needed six chances to score one goal. Hence, he wouldn’t pick him for France ’98.
Legendary Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift represented England in the late-‘40s, an era overlooked as one of the best periods in the team’s 148-year history. He retired in 1949 as a world class 35-year-old, one year away from getting the chance to appear in England’s very first major tournament – the 1950 World Cup. Again, it’s a tale of what might have been.
In the same mould, rampant goalscorers like Tommy Lawton — whose England career overlapped with the Second World War — and even earlier stars in Steve Bloomer, Eddie Hapgood, Roy Goodall and Vivian Woodward were never going to appear at such tournaments. The World Cup started in 1930, stopped for the War, and only returned in 1950. It wasn’t until a decade later that the European Championships were first born. Players up until this point had to make do with the British Home Championships, friendly internationals, and short tours on the continent.
Malcolm Macdonald scored more goals against Cyprus in a Euro 1976 qualifier than any other England international ever had or has in a single game with five. The prolific poacher’s peak fell at a bad time though, and he never appeared at a tournament.
When England won the World Cup in 1966, midfielder George Eastham of Arsenal never played a minute. The son of another England-playing George, he earned 19 caps for England, but was never gifted the chance to take to the pitch that sacred summer. The players keeping him out of England’s midfield were quite exceptional, it has to be said.
A long-term servant to both Southampton and later Tottenham, Martin Chivers never appeared at the World Cup or Euros either. An international career that spanned two years, his best football overlapped with a barren period in England’s history: the 1970s. 13 goals from 24 caps is a great effort considering his short time involved with the national side. His international retirement came a whole seven years before the Three Lions made their next tournament.
A highly surprising inclusion is Emlyn Hughes. The 1977 Football Writers’ Player of the Year, no player has ever amassed more caps than Hughes’ 62 without ever gracing the pitch in a Euros or World Cup match. Alf Ramsey took him to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and then Ron Greenwood capitalised on his experience to take him to Euro 1980. Despite establishing himself as England captain and a go-to England player, he didn’t play a minute in either tournament, which shows a level of rotten luck we haven’t come across yet. Again, the 1970s were not kind to England, and Hughes well and truly slipped through the net.
More recently, the performances that Andros Townsend put in during his short run in the team were undoubtedly of tournament quality. Townsend found the back of the net three times from 13 caps, playing his best football under Roy Hodgson, his club manager today at Crystal Palace. He was unlucky to miss the 2014 World Cup with an ankle injury, and it was perhaps harsh looking back for Hodgson to omit him from his final squad for Euro 2016. Raheem Sterling and James Milner hardly made their selections ahead of him count.
Kieran Gibbs gave five years of irregular but solid service to England, playing ten times. Hardly a pivotal member of the England team, but a relatively experienced one without a tournament appearance to hark back to.
Even harder is to predict which players may end up qualifying for this unwanted club in years to come.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did play at Euro 2012 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old, but he has since missed out on the next three major tournaments. His father Mark Chamberlain only played eight matches for England and never in a tournament, but was regarded by a select few to be a better winger than the more capped and more acclaimed John Barnes.
Michael Keane’s ten England caps have all come in non-tournament games just like Gibbs’. Ropey form at the back end of England’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign looks like it will cost Keane future openings under Gareth Southgate though.
Jack Butland isn’t the first England goalkeeper whose tournament hopes have continually been dashed by their preferred contemporaries. Struggling these days in the Championship with Stoke, Butland’s hopes of making another major competition squad look unlikely, let alone the odds he’ll one day wear the No 1 shirt as first-choice. Stranger things have happened though.
The lengthy history of the Three Lions is weighted to celebrate those that play and star at World Cups and European Championships. It leaves players like these and hundreds of others undervalued, trivialised and, worst of all, at times completely forgotten about.