One Cap Wonders – Mike Phelan

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In the latest in our occasional series looking back at England players to earn just a solitary cap at full level, we recall the only England appearance by Mike Phelan – exactly 26 years ago in a friendly against Italy.

Best known to younger fans as the former assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Mike Phelan enjoyed a decent enough playing career – usually operating in midfield. After starting out with Burnley, Phelan came to prominence while playing for Norwich City from 1985 to 1989. This spell saw the club promoted back to the First Division, briefly lead it in 1986-87 and then two seasons later look a serious contender for the most unlikely of doubles going into April. Although they would fall away in the title race and be beaten by Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, it had been a season to remember at Carrow Road.

Their success hadn’t gone unnoticed by England manager Bobby Robson, who in May 1989 selected Phelan as part of the squad to play in the Rous Cup against Chile and Scotland. With several key players unavailable, this looked the ideal time for 26-year-old Phelan to forge his way into the side. But cruelly he had to withdraw through injury shortly after the squad was announced. During the summer he returned to his native North-West and joined Manchester United as part of a big summer of spending at Old Trafford. 

  
Mike Phelan after joining Manchester United in 1989.

Robson had evidently not forgotten about Phelan and in November the moustachioed midfielder took his place in the England squad as World Cup hosts Italy visited for a glamour friendly (no doubt compounding the misery for Steve Bruce, who had made the same move from Carrow Road to Old Trafford two years earlier but remained uncapped). Some of the non-selections here look particularly interesting with hindsight, given that Paul Gascoigne and Toto Schillaci – two of the stars of Italia ’90 a few months later – were instead picked to play in a B international between the nations at Brighton the night before. With England having already qualified for Italia ’90, every player was now effectively auditioning to make Robson’s 22-man squad for the finals.

A game of two halves

The old cliché of a match being a game of two halves rang true here, as in the first half Robson named a familiar and strong side. But during the second half five substitutes – including four debutants – were brought on, including Phelan and Dave Beasant at half-time for Bryan Robson and Peter Shilton respectively. Nigel Winterburn and David Platt would soon join them in earning their first caps, while the more established Steve Hodge also entered the action. Of the four newcomers, only Platt would earn more than two caps but on the night it was Phelan who came closest to hogging the headlines. A man not known as a goalscorer, he came within inches for doing so for his country just minutes after coming on.

 

Mike Phelan during his only England cap.

In his match report in The Guardian, David Lacey wrote of how Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga came out a long way to punch a cross clear. “The ball flew straight to Phelan, who spotting the Italian goalkeeper near the edge of the penalty area, lobbed the ball high towards the empty net,” Lacey wrote. “For a moment [Peter] Beardsley thought it was going in and started celebrating – but the shot sailed just wide.”

Never getting another chance

It was a case of so near, so far. As we have previously seen with Danny Wallace, there is no guarantee a debut goal would have led to Bobby Robson giving Phelan another chance. But had he scored, Phelan would have been the first player to find the net for England in 1989-90 – they had drawn 0-0 with Sweden and Poland in their final Italia ’90 qualifiers and did so again here, as the lack of goals became an increasing concern. It would have been hard to overlook Phelan having scored a goal from outside the box, regardless of Zenga having strayed far off his line to make things easier.

Phelan was named in the England squad for the next friendly against Yugoslavia in December, but he didn’t feature. Sadly for Phelan he would find himself out of the picture by the time the World Cup squad was announced and there would be no recall under Robson’s successor Graham Taylor. At club level, Phelan contributed to United’s initial early 1990s revival under Ferguson but he was to find himself increasingly on the fringes as new talent emerged and the club became dominant in the Premier League. A total of 102 league appearances over five years at Old Trafford was lower than he would have hoped for, prior to ending his playing career with West Bromwich Albion. Although he may not have always been able to earn a place in Alex Ferguson’s team, he would later become his assistant and was quoted as claiming he was manager in all but name in the later years of the partnership.

Since leaving Old Trafford in 2013, he has returned to Norwich and then more recently assisted Steve Bruce at Hull City. While Phelan may sit back and reflect with disappointment that he only won one cap for his country, he need only look along the dugout for a reminder that being capped at all wasn’t a given for every decent English footballer of his generation. 

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