The Great Uncapped
The recent appointment of Sam Allardyce as England manager has led to speculation that Mark Noble will win his first international cap, having played under Allardyce at West Ham United. But should the call never come then Noble can probably take some comfort in not being the first Hammer to be thwarted in his international ambitions. Club legend Billy Bonds would come closer than most, but ultimately take his place in many people’s England uncapped XI…
There are a lot of names put forward whenever the subjects of England’s most notable uncapped players comes up, but one you can guarantee will be mentioned is Billy Bonds. The man who turned 70 last week played 758 Football League matches in a 24-year professional career with Charlton Athletic and, mostly, West Ham United. While giving extraordinarily long service to the latter he captained them to two FA Cup triumphs and he was called up to the England squad. But Bonds would just fall short, never pulling on an England shirt after under-23s level.
Bonds had a fairly fearless reputation on the field but off it he was seen as a quiet man. His friend Trevor Brooking, who played alongside him at West Ham for many years, believes this probably helped cost Bonds his England chance. “Had he pushed himself to the forefront more I believe he would have played for England. He’s one of the best players of my generation never to have won an England cap,” wrote Brooking in his autobiography.
Harry Redknapp, who played and worked with Bonds at West Ham before the pair fell out when he replaced him as manager in 1994, also hailed Bonds’ playing ability. “Billy Bonds was the most fantastic player,” he wrote in his autobiography. “What would West Ham United, or any other club for that matter, give to have him now? He could play central midfield, centre-back, full-back; he was fearless in the tackle, he could run all day.” As we will see though, not everyone thought quite so highly of Bonds.
Greenwood calls up Bonds
Bonds would twice look set to be capped, only for the dream to cruelly be dashed. He had played for England twice at under-23 level, but he was 31 when his first real chink of light emerged. His old West Ham boss Ron Greenwood was appointed caretaker manager in 1977 and in November Bonds was called into the full squad for the final World Cup qualifier at home to Italy. All looked to be going well for Bonds, who had missed much of the season through injury but was now back in action.
The call-up for Bonds was not met with universal approval, Norman Fox in The Times rather dismissively describing him as “a player who probably has many equals who would not be considered”. But Greenwood was keen to play down any suggestions he was handing out favours to a player who had served him well previously, insisting Bonds had been picked after recommendations from others. The fact he was versatile and could operate in midfield or defence helped Bonds’ cause.
The player found support from Daily Mirror sports writer Frank McGhee, a man who tended to shoot from the hip. “Ron Greenwood has done something daft, delightful and possibly inspired in what could be his final act as England manager,” he wrote. “He has put into his squad to play against, and probably lose to, Italy at Wembley next week, a 31-year-old unranked but very effective person whom he will remember from his West Ham days – a guy called Billy Bonds. You wouldn’t rate Bonds a particularly good player, but then neither are many of the other 22 players Greenwood named yesterday. England just don’t happen to have many good players. What Bonds happens to have is something special. It is called character and I have always been convinced that this quality is the surest way of bridging the considerable gap between club and international football.”
Bonds was left watching on as England beat Italy.
And then came a club match against West Bromwich Albion just four days before the Italy clash. Greenwood would unfortunately see Bonds find the going tough in a 3-3 draw. David Miller wrote in the Daily Express: “The message to Ron Greenwood as he sat watching a 3-3 draw at Upton Park was crystal clear: his call to Billy Bonds comes several years too late for the rugged warhorse.” On the eve of the game the team was announced, with Bonds only on the bench. Greenwood insisted Bonds had only been selected for the squad as defensive cover, with his first-choice selections given the green light to play.
Bonds watched on as England beat Italy 2-0, a result that proved uplifting but insufficient for the team to reach the World Cup finals. Greenwood was given the job permanently but Bonds would stay uncapped as he moved towards his mid-30s. West Ham’s relegation in 1978 did not help his cause either. But then came the 1980-81 season, an Indian summer for Bonds. A year on from lifting the FA Cup for the second time, Bonds captained West Ham to the League Cup final against Liverpool, played in Europe and helped his side to a dominant Second Division title. And in May 1981 another call came from Greenwood.
The cap that almost was
England had a decimated squad for the friendly against Brazil and the Home Internationals that would follow, with their defensive options particularly limited. Greenwood looked towards his former club, believing Bonds and promising youngster Alvin Martin could fill the void. Just a few months short of his 35th birthday, Bonds was in line to become one of England’s oldest debutants. “I thought my chance had passed by years ago,” admitted Bonds, who added that he would be particularly pleased for his father if he was capped at last. It was reported Charlton stood to scoop a belated £2,500 bonus if Bonds played, owing to a clause in the deal when he left them in 1967.
All that was left was one end-of-season match for West Ham on a Friday night at Sheffield Wednesday, with the title already long wrapped up. Just 90 more minutes of club football to get through and then he could at last represent his country at full level. West Ham won, but Bonds injured his ribs after a clash with goalkeeper Phil Parkes. He played on and was adamant that he, along with Martin who had also picked up a knock, would be fit for the Brazil match. “I’m 99% sure we will be ok for the internationals. But we will know for sure in the morning,” Bonds said, having helped his side finish 13 points clear at the top (a huge amount under two points for a win).
Was he trying to put a brave face on it or did his injury seem less severe than the reality? Because Bonds would duly be ruled out of representing his country, as Martin (the only recognised central defender in the side) duly made his debut during a 1-0 defeat to Brazil. For Bonds there was a feeling his last realistic chance had passed. And so it proved. No caps would come his way.
But Bonds continued to serve West Ham well, playing for them beyond his 40th birthday in the top-flight until he finally called it a day in 1988 (later becoming manager). That year also saw him appointed an MBE and collect the PFA Merit Award in recognition of his contribution to the sport. Bonds may not have won any full England caps, but he had enjoyed a career to be proud of.
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.