In the first of an occasional series, we look back at players who surprisingly never earned a full England cap. We begin by focusing on probably the most obvious example in recent decades – Steve Bruce.
It would seem inconceivable in the present day that the English captain of Manchester United could go through his entire career without picking up a single full cap for his country. But that was the fate to befall Steve Bruce. He may have lifted several major trophies in the 1990s with United, but not even once was he to pull on an England shirt at the top level. It is open to debate if Bruce was worthy of a high number of England caps – critics will point out his relative lack of pace compared to some contemporaries and he faced competition from players such as Tony Adams, Des Walker and Mark Wright – but few would dispute his career warranted at least one appearance for the national team.
One suspects training with United must have been quite a lonely experience in international weeks for Bruce, as most of his team-mates went off to play for their various nations. Bruce saw his Norwich City central defensive partner Dave Watson called up several times and then the same happened with Gary Pallister while at Old Trafford. Two years after Bruce moved from Norwich to Manchester, Mike Phelan followed him and won an England cap a few months later. It all just seemed to be a cruel world for Bruce where he must have felt a bit like an invisible man at times. Bruce had the misfortune to come from the last era when an English player realistically could play regularly for a leading club for a sustained period of time without ever being called up to the senior England squad.
Bruce wasn’t Taylor-made
In an interview with The Journal in 2011, Bruce gives an indication of why Graham Taylor may not have chosen to pick him when the Manchester United player really started to come to the fore in the early 1990s. In October 1987, Bruce had been named captain for England B when they played Malta, with Taylor placed in charge of the team by Bobby Robson.
Bruce recalled: “Graham said, ‘you’re captain by the way, but it’s not my choice, it’s Bobby’s. For me you’d never be captain.’ In other words I had been given the biggest accolade I ever had and the manager in charge was telling me I wasn’t good enough, in his eyes, to have that role… it was obvious he didn’t like me and, when he became England manager, I didn’t play again. He didn’t rate me. Some managers don’t like you, but I did find it strange.”
If Bruce’s account is accurate, then things may add up more as to why Taylor didn’t pick him. In a period when Gary Mabbutt was recalled to the fold and other defenders such as Keith Curle were given a chance, Bruce would probably have felt it was a time when he deserved a cap. He had become a key source of goals for Manchester United and was forming a noted central defensive partnership with Pallister, who was part of the England set-up. But perhaps his age didn’t count in his favour, being the wrong side of 30 and without a cap to his name. Given Bruce had played for England Youth while at Gillingham it would be wrong to label him a late developer, but his best years arguably came at an age where players may be ending their international careers rather than starting them.
Taylor might take the blame for not picking Bruce during the period when his form most merited it, but the managers both immediately before and after him are also key to the story. Bruce would reveal Bobby Robson subsequently apologised to him for not giving him a full cap, with that B team appearance in Malta being as close as he came. The door was certainly open to new centre backs in the period after Euro ’88 as Robson looked to rebuild in that area, but the call never came for Bruce. After making a big-money move to Old Trafford in December 1987 he might also have been in with a shout of a cap in place of the injured Terry Butcher prior to the Euro finals – particularly given his recent appearance for the B team – but the door remained closed.
Turning down a “sympathy cap”
When Terry Venables became England manager in 1994, Bruce was 33 and seemingly any lingering hope had gone of making that England debut. But late in the year – Bruce recalls it being the match against Nigeria in November, which would add up given Steve Howey and Neil Ruddock both made their debuts – the approach finally came. At last Bruce could lay the uncapped curse to rest. But he turned down the offer, refusing to accept what he regarded as a token gesture rather than a genuine offer to make his mark in international football. Evidently, he felt he would not really figure in Venables’ plans beyond this. It was as close as Bruce ever came.
In an interview with the Daily Express in 2014, Bruce said: “He [Venables] rang me and said, ‘I want to give you a cap’. I declined. My best mate, Bryan Robson, was Terry Venables’ assistant and he was desperate for me to get a cap. I turned it down. I was close to 35 and I said, ‘I’m sorry I would rather not have had an international career than just a sympathy cap.”
No luck of the Irish
At a similar stage in his career, Bruce was offered an alternative route into international football when Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton approached him about becoming the latest English-born player to represent them. His parentage meant he would normally have been eligible to do so, but there were two complications. Firstly, although that B cap for England was not an issue as it came in a friendly, by having played for England Youth in a competitive tournament he was effectively ineligible to represent anyone else. Secondly, if he had played for Ireland then he would have been deemed a ‘foreigner’ when Manchester United played in Europe at a time when there were limits on how many non-English players could be picked. In this interview with The Guardian in 2006 he recalls the latter reason as being why he didn’t go ahead with it. And so Bruce remained uncapped at senior level by any nation.
As if to compensate for the fact Steve failed to make it to full international level, there has been a Brucie bonus as his son Alex (above) has won international caps for two countries! He initially opted to play for the Republic of Ireland, before later accepting the chance to appear for Northern Ireland. His father, currently in charge of Hull City, has been touted every so often as a future England manager. Although it looks unlikely for now, if that ever happened it might make up somewhat for missing out on that elusive England cap.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.