England One Cap Wonders

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. 

One Cap Wonders – Steve Perryman

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Although regarded as a household name in English football at the time, Steve Perryman was 30 when he earned his one and only England cap during this month in 1982. Sadly for him, few would remember his solitary England outing for 20 minutes in Iceland.

Perryman was a true stalwart at Tottenham Hotspur, making a club record 866 first-team appearances between 1969 and 1986. His years at White Hart Lane included lifting the FA Cup for Spurs in 1981 and again 12 months later, part of a climax to the 1981-82 season that brought a hat-trick of personal successes. Perryman was also named the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year and he finally earned his chance to represent England at senior level.

To B or not to B…

The Spurs stalwart had previously been a regular at under-23s level but was uncapped by the seniors when he was named on Ron Greenwood’s 40-man shortlist for the 1982 World Cup squad, with slim hopes of realistically making it. But he was named in the England party for a friendly in Iceland on June 2, two days before the final 22-man squad for the finals in Spain was confirmed. The trip to Reykjavik was a bit of a strange one, as it was effectively an England ‘B’ team picked. Greenwood was making noises to the contrary and pushing for full caps to be awarded, but it was hard to ignore that the team he would be fielding in Finland the following day looked extremely like the one he would want to start the World Cup finals with (it effectively was, although injuries to Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan meant the manager had to reshuffle his pack a bit).

With Greenwood in Helsinki, Bobby Robson and Dave Sexton looked after a makeshift side in which Glenn Hoddle was the standout figure. His Spurs colleague Perryman was on the bench and with 20 minutes left he entered the fray when he replaced Alan Devonshire. Fellow debutant Paul Goddard scored for England in a 1-1 draw in cold conditions, in a match that went untelvised in the UK and received minimal publicity.

It perhaps came as little surprise that Perryman was not named in the World Cup squad and neither were some other players to feature including Dave Watson, whose long-service to his country ended rather anti-climatically in Reykjavik. But some consolation for Perryman came with the confirmation full caps were being awarded for the Iceland fixture. 

Iceland Revisited

Perryman never featured again after Robson replaced Greenwood after the World Cup, but three years later the Iceland match would rather controversially be revisited when the player published his autobiography. In his own World Cup Diary published the following year, Robson recalled what he saw serialised in the Sunday People. “I’ve played only once for an England team under Bobby Robson and I was horrified by what I saw and heard,” said Perryman. “Everything about it was so amateurish I could not believe that was how England did things.”

Robson retorted: “Ron Greenwood picked the squad and the team and I just met them at the airport on the way out to Iceland. One of my instructions from Ron was to bring Perryman on for a cap in the second half because he had been such a good honest professional for many years without being quite talented enough to make the international grade. Perryman’s response was to say that playing for England was a laugh and, on the strength of those few minutes in Iceland for a ‘B’ team, he had learned enough to state ‘it seems to me that since Sir Alf Ramsey was in charge there has been a lack of organisation and direction’.”

It was an unfortunate difference of opinion, coming at a time when Robson was feeling pretty sensitive to media criticism amid a tabloid circulation war. But perhaps the one nice touch from it all is that – if Robson’s account is accurate – Greenwood appears to have genuinely wanted Perryman to have an England cap to his name, so he would not remain one of the ‘great uncapped’ like players such as Billy Bonds, Howard Kendall and, later, Steve Bruce. 

But Perryman clearly believed he warranted more caps on merit and saw Robson as a barrier to his remaining international ambitions. On his official website, Perryman states: “The time when I felt I should really have got my foot in the door was after the 1982 World Cup. But for a couple of little reasons, rather than anything major, I ended up being the only person who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Bobby Robson and it just didn’t happen.”

Perryman later went into management himself, making an impression with a good run to the FA Cup quarter-finals with Brentford before a spell at Watford and success in Japan. He has gone on to enjoy a long stint as director of football with Exeter City, where mercifully he survived after requiring heart surgery 30 years on from his solitary England cap. An appearance for his country was certainly merited by a man who has served football in different capacities for almost five decades and is fondly remembered by Spurs fans – most of whom will believe he deserved more than 20 minutes in the world of senior international football.

One Cap Wonders – Danny Wallace

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The 1980s was a good time for Southampton, with players like Kevin Keegan choosing to ply their trade at The Dell and Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer later coming through the ranks. They finished second in the First Division in 1984 and twice came close to repeating their 1976 FA Cup success. And one of the players to shine through the decade was homegrown youngster Danny Wallace.

Wallace emerged through the Saints’ youth ranks to make his debut at 16 in 1980. It was the start of nine years playing for Southampton, that would include him scoring the BBC Goal of the Season against Liverpool in 1983-84 and lining-up alongside younger brothers Ray and Rod. There were also 14 England under-21 caps for winger Danny to collect, playing his part as they finished as European champions in 1984.

One Cap, One Goal
in 1986, Wallace earned his big break with England. Just days after his 22nd birthday he was called up to the full side for a friendly in Egypt. The rare January fixture had not been met with universal support from club managers, but it afforded Bobby Robson’s side the chance to meet African opposition before facing Morocco in the World Cup finals. With FA Cup replays and League Cup ties clashing with the trip, England were under-strength in Cairo.

The match would be best remembered for Peter Beardsley beginning his successful England career, but Wallace was to make the most tangible impact by scoring from close range (see above pic) in the comfortable 4-0 win. As he tucked the ball home, Wallace must have started believing he could be on the plane to Mexico that summer. At the very least, scoring would surely earn him another cap.

But it wasn’t to be and Wallace would never be picked again, seeing players such as John Barnes and Chris Waddle dominate the wing positions. But at club level his reputation was strong enough for Alex Ferguson to fork out more than £1 million in September 1989 to sign him for Manchester United, helping them win the FA Cup that season. But most of United’s successes in the 1990s would be achieved without him, as he wound down his professional career with Millwall (loan), Birmingham City and Wycombe Wanderers.

In 1996 Wallace was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but he showed great courage in going on to complete the London Marathon in five and a half days in 2006 for the Danny Wallace Foundation to help others with the condition. A great achievement that puts any football success or frustration into perspective.

One Cap Wonders – Peter Davenport

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In March 1985 Gary Lineker netted his first England goal in a 2-1 win over the Republic of Ireland. It was set-up by substitute Peter Davenport, who had come on in place of Mark Hateley. But while Lineker was given the chance to go on and score almost 50 goals for his country, Davenport was never picked again. His England career lasted less than 20 minutes.

Davenport had been snapped up by Nottingham Forest from minnows Cammell Laird in his native Birkenhead and emerged as a key forward under Brian Clough. The friendly against (a pre-Jack Charlton) Ireland came two days after Davenport’s 24th birthday and afforded Bobby Robson a rare chance to try things out a bit as England took a break from their World Cup qualifying campaign. Goalkeeper Gary Bailey and winger Chris Waddle were also handed their first caps – Bailey earned just one more, but Waddle would be a regular for several years.

Big move to Old Trafford
There would never be another England chance for Davenport, but he didn’t disappear off the radar. He warranted a £750,000 move to Manchester United a year later. His record of 22 goals in 92 league appearances at Old Trafford wasn’t great, but not a total failure either and he would score brownie points with the fans by banging in a late winner against Liverpool in 1987. But as Alex Ferguson focused on rebuilding the side Davenport was a casualty and he moved to Middlesbrough late in 1988. Cup runs would be a highlight of his later playing years, helping ‘Boro reach the ZDS Cup Final at Wembley in 1990 and retuning there with Sunderland for the FA Cup Final in 1992. He would go on to briefly manage in the Football League with Macclesfield Town.

Would things have turned out differently if it had been Lineker supplying Davenport to score against the Irish?

One Cap Wonders – Nigel Spink

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In the first of a new series looking back at players to win just one England cap, we recall the solitary international appearance of goalkeeper Nigel Spink from Aston Villa in 1983.

Some players finally get their rewards towards the end of a long career. They may at last pick up a cup winner’s medal, or be recognised as Player of the Year for the first time. And that long-overdue England cap may arrive while the 30th birthday celebrations are being planned (or gone!).

And then there are others for whom the process seems to happen in reverse. Spink was a fine servant to Aston Villa though much of the 1980s and 1990s, helping them finish runners-up to the last dominant Liverpool team in 1990 in the First Division. But his true career highlights would come little more than a year apart in the infancy of his long career.

Very much the understudy to stalwart Jimmy Rimmer, Spink had just one senior appearance to his name when he came off the bench to replace the injured regular in the 1982 European Cup final against Bayern Munich. The 23-year-old kept a clean sheet as Villa enjoyed their greatest triumph.

Big Chance Down Under
A year later and by now more established, Spink was to get his big chance when he was selected for the England squad visiting Australia for a three match tour at the end of the 1982-83 season. England were severely under strength, with the likes of Spink, Danny Thomas, Nick Pickering and Mark Barham given the opportunity to join the remnants of the regular squad for the long haul Down Under.

First choice goalkeeper Peter Shilton was on the tour and played as England drew their first match and edged their second with the Aussies. who at the time were not regarded as strong opposition. It was in the third match Spink was handed his 45 minutes of international action, coming on for Shilton in a 1-1 draw at the end of a forgettable tour that received minimal TV coverage. Both goals were scored before Spink entered the fray.

Spink was never realistically going to oust Shilton as number one but he could consider himself unfortunate not to feature again or at least be in contention to go a major tournament as backup. The international retirement of Shilton and appointment of Spink’s former Villa boss Graham Taylor as England manager at the same time in 1990 did provide a glimmer of hope and Spink made two England B appearances in 1991. But there would be no full recall for Big Nige.