Mad cap plans

Cris Freddi looks back at players whose England caps may have owed more than a little to their club's place at the top of the league

Let’s make it clear from the start: these are exceptions. It’s more than likely that a player who helps his club to the top spot deserves a chance with England. But one or two seem to have been dragged up by those around them – or were found out at international level. Names and pack drill follow.

It happened at three clubs who haven’t won the League for years. The young Chelsea team of 1954-55 owed a lot to their 22-year-old captain Peter Sillett, a very straightforward full-back. A month after converting the penalty that clinched the title, he conceded another with a clumsy chall­enge on Jean Vincent in Paris. Raymond Kopa scored the only goal of the game and Sillett’s international career lasted a week, during which England lost two matches and drew the other.

Only two of the Burnley team of 1959-60 were cap­ped the following year, and only once each. Left-back John Angus and Brian Miller, a midfield ball-winner who was later the club’s manager, were thrown in against Austria, sinking without trace in England’s only defeat of the season.

Miller might have done better if the rest of the half-back line in Vienna had been more creative. Instead, he was saddled with one of the umpteen Wolves midfielders who emerged from their successful teams of the Fifties. Ron Flowers eventually won 49 caps spread over 11 years, and the club provided England’s entire half-back line in the 1958 World Cup finals. Billy Wright was worth his place once he moved to centre-half, but Eddie Clamp and Bill Slater were typical of the Stan Cullis era: OK defensively, unremarkable going forward. England went a record seven matches without a win and Clamp won only four caps.

The Ipswich side that shocked everyone by winning the title in 1962 was such a ragbag of odds and ends, held together by Alf Ramsey’s strategic nous, that only one of the team played for England, the rugged centre-forward Ray Crawford. Crawford scored early on in his second international, but his shot was deflected in by a defender, he had a hard time against Austria’s veteran stoppers, and wasn’t capped again, even when his old club manager took the England job.

Even Manchester United have provided their share of iffy internationals. Of the team who won the title in 1967 and then the European Cup, David Sadler was lucky to win even four caps (England were struggling to find a replacement for Jack Charlton). Of their sides who topped the table but not at the end of the season, Brian Greenhoff somehow won 18 caps as a midfielder of all-round anonymity, and Gordon Hill did nothing in his six matches. Cocky and exasperating, he was capped, incredibly, before his right-wing United counterpart, Steve Coppell. Later, Mike Duxbury was a fixture for a year despite allowing crosses to float over his head for Michel Platini and Mark McGhee to head in, and treading on the ball for Sergei Gotsmanov to score for the USSR at Wembley.

Even the excellent Leeds team which finally won the title in 1969 had a bit of blunt instrument up front in Mick Jones. Sir Alf gave him a third cap four years after his second, against the Dutch in 1970, then substituted him with Geoff Hurst, who was similar but better. Arsenal’s Double team of 1970-71 included Peter Storey, arguably the dirtiest player in the dirtiest football generation. He was given 19 caps by Ramsey, who must have been really struggling. In 1972 he descended into the pits by picking Storey alongside Hunter in midfield to neutralise Gunter Netzer; England salvaged a useless goalless draw in Berlin having lost the first leg of the European Championship quarter-final 3-1 at Wembley. Storey even played at right-back against the USSR, giving away a penalty (the closest Bobby Charlton ever came to being rude on TV). Meanwhile Peter Simpson and Geordie Armstrong, who were just as important to the Arsenal cause, weren’t capped at all. Small mercies.

In 1975-76 QPR lost the title on the last day, after topping the table several times. They had skill and flair (Bowles, Masson, Gerry Francis, Dave Thomas) but the defence included two full-backs who should never have won caps: Dave Clement and especially Ian Gillard, whose nightmare in Bratislava eliminated England from the 1976 European Championship.

When Liverpool won the European Cup and retained the league title in 1977, it prompted new England manager Ron Greenwood to pick six of them for the same game, plus Kevin Keegan who had just moved to Hamburg. This involved recalling 35-year-old Ian Callaghan after an international absence of 11 years. England struggled to a 0-0 draw with a poor Swiss team at Wembley, then won only 2-0 in Luxembourg, and Callaghan was put out to pasture for good.

In that Luxembourg match, which cost England a place in the World Cup finals, Greenwood threw on Trevor Whymark, more living evidence that Bobby Robson’s Ipswich, before the arrival of Thijssen and Muhren, was made of too, too solid flesh. In 1976-77 they were twice top of the table before finishing third. Brian Talbot’s caps could be blamed on Don Revie’s scattergun approach – but even Greenwood fell into the trap of thinking a lumbering centre-forward would be enough to frighten the part-timers. Whymark, whose international career lasted 26 minutes, was proof that no player in the top division would look out of place in an England team – against Luxembourg.

Greenwood also brought back Larry Lloyd, after nearly eight years, when Nottingham Forest succ­eeded Liverpool as champions. Big Larry only had to stay on his feet to go to the 1980 European finals, but instead had the worst comeback of any England player: booked, injured and substituted after scoring what looked like an own goal. Wales won 4-1, the last time England conceded more than three goals in a game, and Lloyd wasn’t capped again.

His team-mate Garry Birtles was also picked that season, most controversially for the vital European match in Rome. Playing in only his second international, he did nothing and won only one more cap.

Ron Saunders’s no-frills Aston Villa side of 1980-81 threw up few England players. Gordon Cowans was a class act, Tony Morley worth a chance, but big Peter Withe, another Clough old boy, took seven games to score his first England goal, a record until Ian Wright. Liverpool owed their four titles in the Eighties to assorted Scots, Welsh and Irish, plus English fringe players like cherubic little Sammy Lee, who had a big heart, a big engine, and scored on his England debut, but wouldn’t have won 14 caps if Bobby Robson hadn’t also been handing them out to the likes of Blissett, Osman, Graham Roberts, John Gregory, David Arm­strong, Steve Hunt…

Robson also had to cast an eye over the muscular Everton team which won the title in 1985 and 1987. Trevor Steven was a skilful find, but Paul Bracewell was injured before his lack of international class could be exposed, his midfield partner Peter Reid did little more than fill up the midfield against Maradona’s Argentina in the 1986 World Cup – and you have to wonder about Gary Stevens’s 46 caps at right-back.

George Graham’s Arsenal, twice champions at the turn of the Nineties, didn’t so much flood the England market with substandard material as sprinkle it with players who didn’t add much to its quality: Nigel Winterburn, Brian Marwood (albeit for only eight minutes), Alan Smith, Michael Thomas – and only Graham Taylor could have given Lee Dixon 21 caps.

Since then, relatively few poor players have moved from the top of the table into the England team, though I can’t be the only one with reservations about David Batty, Jason Wilcox, Rob Lee and Dion Dublin. Ano­ther title for Man Utd wouldn’t add to the list – the class of their young players isn’t in much doubt – but Arsenal retaining it carries the threat of that elusive first cap for Ray Parlour.

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month