The Changing Profile of an England Player

Cuthbert Ottaway led England out in their very first international football match in 1872. Eton-schooled and son of the mayor of Dover, Ottaway read Classics at Oxford, going on to represent the university at five different sports. That remains a record. He married a clubwoman from Ontario, and descendants of his family still live in Canada today.

147 years later, Fikayo Tomori became the most recent player to debut for England, a Nigerian 22-year-old who moved to Britain when he was a toddler. Tomori was schooled at Chelsea Football Club’s academy, who he joined as a seven-year-old. He was born in Calgary and represented Canada at under-20 level.

But in the great many years and generations and events that separated their playing careers, the England national football team has changed dramatically. The world has evolved, and the Three Lions have moved with it.

Only after the Second World War did England first have a manager. Between 1872 and 1946, The FA used ‘selectors’ to pick which players were lucky enough to play for England. Of the 11 men who represented England in their first international, only two were not London-based or university-educated. Sport, and donning the Three Lions, was still largely for society’s elite until well into the 1890s and 1900s. The working man should get back to work and focus on providing for his family.

Slowly but surely, football opened up to the masses. The working classes gained a fervent interest in the sport as fans. Inevitably, Average Joe became rather good at playing football too. By the time England played in their first major tournament — the 1950 World Cup — every player was a professional and a local celebrity in his home town or city. Walter Winterbottom had become the first full-time England manager and was solely responsible for picking the team.

Oxford and Cambridge students who regularly toured as professional England international cricketers were no longer England football players. Football had now long been forging its own legacy. Its growth no longer required piggybacking on England’s ‘more popular’ sports. It was the most popular by now. A sport everyone could enjoy.

Stanley Matthews retired from England duty in 1958, left out of that year’s World Cup squad despite considerable pressure from the mainstream press. He last played for the Three Lions in 1957, at the grand old age of 42. His England career had lasted 23 years. In the decades that followed, both his age and longevity were to become anomalies at the top level of the game. The sport was producing talent so good and so often that great enigmas of the game wouldn’t survive by playing on and on like Matthews did. Academies were training top athletes. Diets were improving. Children were growing up now fully aware that ‘footballer’ was a job description all of its own. Many strived to hold it as their own job title.

Academies and scouts were in full flow as England entered the 1960s. The Three Lions won the 1966 World Cup with a squad of 22 players, only two of which had started their careers at non-league clubs. Regular trials were filtering the very best from pools of the very good, just as they do today. Needless to say, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst passed with flying colours.

Black footballers slowly began to pop up across the country and across its leagues. In 1978, over 100 years since their first international, a black footballer finally won a cap for England. Indeed, Viv Anderson’s debut against Czechoslovakia also made him the first non-white England player. Frank Soo, son of a Chinese sailor, had played nine times for England’s wartime side, but these are not deemed full-international caps.

By 1990, when England achieved their greatest major tournament result on foreign soil, 15 black players had represented the England senior team.

Three of the first seven black players to play for England hadn’t even been born in Europe, let alone on British shores. Luther Blissett and John Barnes were born in Jamaica, while Cyrille Regis came from French Guiana. Had FIFA not allowed players who moved to countries at a young age to represent them at international level, neither Blissett nor Barnes could have played for the Three Lions. Neither of them was English biologically. But both had lived all their adult lives and most of their childhoods here. They felt they were England players.

Sven-Göran Eriksson’s reign as England manager saw a number of caps awarded to players who had excelled at youth level but who had very little experience as a senior pro. Theo Walcott famously made the 2006 World Cup squad — one of England’s strongest of all time on paper — despite never having played in the Premier League. He was just 17 years old at the time.

St. George’s Park was on its way, and the England youth setup was finally beginning to resemble something vaguely like a pathway to the senior team. A cap at under-19 level finally felt like it meant something. It wasn’t just a gimme.

Only Eriksson gave England debuts to more black players than current boss Gareth Southgate – in the job for less than four years. Roughly half of England’s 2018 World Cup squad were BAME players, showing a considerable rise in the diversity of the England team since even their semi-final showing at Euro 96.

When Cuthbert Ottaway skippered England at Hamilton Crescent in November 1872, the Three Lions were almost exclusively drawn from upper-class Oxbridge students who had been privately educated. Many also represented England at international cricket.

Today, Gareth Southgate’s team are a much more diverse side who better represent the English population. The average England international today was educated and nurtured at a Premier League top six club’s academy. He may well be of mixed race, probably hails from a deprived area of a large city ­— London, Leeds or maybe Manchester — and has concentrated his entire life on becoming a professional footballer.

This is the changing profile of an England player.


Photo Credits: Getty Images [all photos]

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