A look back at the players who were sensations for their clubs but somehow never quite worked for the National Side, in no particular order here are the players who many expected to be England greats but barely figured and why.
1.Matt Le Tissier (Caps 8 Goals 0)
Le God to Southampton fans Matt Le Tissier was the most creative English forward of the 1990s. Blessed with skill, vision and a remarkable tendency to score spectacular goals Le Tissier never quite made it with England.
Le Tissier was named young PFA Young player of the year in 1990 but Bobby Robson overlooked Le Tissier for his Italia ’90 squad largely on the grounds he already had one maverick young talent in the squad in Gazza and couldn’t accommodate two. Sadly for Le Tissier, Robson was succeeded by Graham Taylor a man famous for direct long ball tactics and not a fan of creative strikers and in 3 years never called up Le Tissier.
Then Terry Venables rolled into Wembley, Le Tissier was in and surely this was the belated start of a great England career right, wrong! As Venables experimented to shape a more creative side he like Robson saw Le Tissier and Gascoigne couldn’t work in the same team and he only had room for 1 luxury player. Le Tissier lacked Gascoigne’s work rate and Venables soon hit on the stronger Teddy Sheringham in the deep lying forward role behind Alan Shearer.
When Glenn Hoddle took over after Euro ’96 many again expected Le Tissier to shine, after all Hoddle the player was cut from the same cloth and also struggled to make an impact in England teams who favoured industry over art. Le Tissier started a World Cup Qualifier against Italy at Wembley in the autumn of 1997 but again was frustrated and England crashed 1-0 and calls for Le God died down. But on the brink of France ’98 Le Tissier was thrown lifeline, a pre tournament call up to England B to play Russia B- this time Le Tissier delivered a sensational hat trick. And with Gazza out of shape Le Tissier looked like getting his World Cup chance, Sadly it was not to be and Hoddle didn’t bring him into his provisional 30 man squad never mind the final 22. I’ve always thought Le Tissier should have gone to that World Cup after Gascoigne was excluded, England looked short on artistry in the centre and whilst Le Tissier was hardly the man to bring on having gone down to 10 men against Argentina he could have played a tournament role as an impact sub.
What did for Le Tissier was his lack of pace and work rate so he will always be known as a great English player (and Goal of the month’s most frequent winner) but not a great England player.
2. Steve Bruce (0 Caps)
It represents a startling fall from grace to think England never called up Bruce but in more recent years had Chris Smalling, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott starting in central defence at major tournaments. Bruce formed one half of the best central defensive partnership (with Gary Pallister) in the early years of the Premier League, winning 3 of the first 4 titles.
So why no England career? Mainly because by the time Bruce emerged as a star defender (1991) Italia ’90 stalwarts Des Walker & Mark Wright had enormous credit in the bank whilst Bruce’s pacier partner Pallister & Arsenal skipper Tony Adams were also in the squad, by Euro ’92 Martin Keown was also in contention and at 32 Bruce was considered too old to start an international career.
Bruce not the best defender in possession wasn’t helped by the outlawing of the back pass rule which favoured defenders who were good in possession, at United Bruce had Peter Schmicheal in goal who’s long throws upfield and (sometimes ill advised) attempts to play the ball with his feet meant Bruce didn’t need to to be good on the ball, with England it may have proved more of a problem. Plus through the early 90’s England managers liked the cohesion provided by an Arsenal dominated defence (Seaman, Adams, Keown, Dixon).
Still a trophy laden playing career and successful twin careers in football management and literature (smirk) aren’t bad compensation.
3. Malcolm MacDonald (14 caps, 6 goals)
After Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer had taken Newcastle down in 2009, I really thought ‘Super Mac’ might be the next Geordie Messiah handed the managers job at St James Park, after Sting but before Jimmy Nail.
MacDonald was phenomenal for Newcastle in the early ’70s, a staggeringly quick forward he scored 95 goals in just 187 games for the Magpies before moving to Arsenal where he racked up another 42 in 84 games. But for England he never quite got going, first called up by Sir Alf Ramsey in 1972 he made his debut against Wales but made little impression under Ramsey or short term successor Joe Mercer. The reason being despite a lack of talented English players in that era one place England didn’t lack was upfront with Martin Chivers, Alan Clarke & Mick Channon.
When Don Revie took over Super Mac was initially left out again but Revie did bring him in during a hot streak in 1975. MacDonald repaid him with his first international goal (against World Champions West Germany!) Next up MacDonald was retained for a qualifier against Cyprus and set a post war record scoring 5 goals, woof!! But great as that sounds it was the footballing equivalent of a batsman scoring 200 against Bangladesh (Greame Hick probably did that?!) Super Mac played 5 more games for Revie without scoring and England looked elsewhere.
Perhaps MacDonald deserved better particularly early on in his career, might he have been the sub to break through the Polish wall in that infamous 1973 match? You never know.
4. Andy Cole (15 Caps, 1 goal)
The most device player of the Premier League era, some argue Cole’s goal scoring statistics stack up against anyone but then there are those of us who watched him play.
For all the jokes levelled at Cole his scoring record for Newcastle was phenomenal; 55 goals in 70 games! Cole’s club form earned him a call up from Terry Venables but he drew a blank and didn’t make the cut for Euro ’96.
But by that time Cole had moved to Manchester United where despite playing alongside Cantona, Giggs & Beckham he mustered 17 goals in his first 2 full seasons . Eventually Cole rallied to score 93 goals in his Man Utd career, but his misses were amazing most notably his barn door performance at West Ham that ultimately cost his side the 1995 League title.
His England career was acutely summed up by Glenn Hoddle who claimed he needed “6 or 7 chances to score.” Predictably he never found the net for Hoddle or Kevin Keegan (for whom he’d performed so well at Newcastle) and he missed out on the ’98 World Cup and Euro 2000.
Sven-Goran Eriksson offered Cole a fresh chance but predictably he missed it. Cole started in Eriksson’s early World Cup qualifiers and actually scored (but it was only against Albania). By the time qualification was secured Cole was dropping down the pecking order. Finally Eriksson omitted Cole from his World Cup squad and laughably within an hour of the announcement Cole declared he was retiring from International football (only 60 minutes after Sven had done it for him, very thoughtful!). Andy’s record of 1 goal from 15 caps really says everything, still he’s got a nice medal collection.
5. Stan Bowles (5 Caps, 1 Goals)
There aren’t many true facts in the ‘Damned United’ but the scene where Billy Bremner asks Brian Clough the game plan against QPR and Clough replies ‘Stop Stan Bowles!’ is at least a true fact (not necessarily that Clough said it).
One of the trio of English footballs ’70s mavericks (along side Alan Hudson & Charlie George) Bowles star burned brighter and surprisingly longer than his peers. At QPR is outrageous skill made him a legend, with England it raised suspicion. He made is debut aged 25 in Sir Alf’s final game as manager. He went on to make only 4 more appearances and scored just once.
It’s a shame given his undoubted talent but a maverick on and off the pitch didn’t really fit with England or Don Revie, Bowles later recalled he and Hudson broke curfew on England duty much to Revie’s annoyance and it’s hard to believe he had much time for the managers dossiers on opposition players. Bowles eventually played for Clough at Notts Forest but the two fell out and Bowles only played 19 times for Forest (it seems Stan was the one thing Revie & Clough did agree on).
His liking for a pint didn’t do Bowles any favours with England, never the fittest player Bowles’ appearance on ‘Superstars’ saw him lose to James Hunt- a man who had sex for breakfast and sat in a car for a living! Maybe that’s not the man you need to take on Franz Beckenbauer; sad but probably true.
Bowles is currently struggling with Alzheimers disease, every football fan with a heart must wish him well.
6. Lee Bowyer (1 Cap, 0 goals)
Bowyer emerged in the late ’90s as a dominant midfielder with the work rate and skill to rival Steven Gerrard. Bowyer scored an impressive 6 goals from midfield in Leeds’ unlikely run the Champions League semi finals as David O’Leary’s young side turned heads around Europe. At the time England had a settled first choice midfield with Beckham, Gerrard & Scholes but behind them options were thin on the ground (even Kieron Dyer was called up!) Yet Bowyer remained absent.
The reason for Bowyer’s exclusion was a controversial court case where Bowyer and teammate Jonathan Woodgate stood trial for GBH. Remarkably Bowyer played whilst the trial was ongoing and produced some of his best football. Bowyer was cleared of the charges but with his reputation stained (not helped by previous incidents in Leeds & London). Whilst the case was ongoing (and it lasted almost 2 years) the FA barred Bowyer from England selection, after the trial he was finally called up.
He was picked to play a friendly against Portugal and provided the cross for Leeds teammate Alan Smith to score, it seemed Bowyer had finally arrived with England. Unfortunately it turned out he was finishing off with them; in the aftermath of the trial Bowyer fell out with Leeds over a fine and was soon shipped out to West Ham and eventually settled with Newcastle. But Bowyer couldn’t rekindle the form that made him one of the best midfielders in the country and his career sank into mediocrity.
One way or another it would seem that infamous night out in Leeds cost Bowyer an England career.
7. Dave Beasant (2 Caps)
Beasant’s career was real Roy of the Rovers stuff. Starting at Edgware Town he moved to 4th division Wimbledon in 1979. He would stay for the whole Crazy Gang ride from the bottom of the football pyramid to the first division and finally FA Cup winners. And it was Beasant Wimbledon had to thank- making history by saving a penalty from John Aldridge as they ran out 1-0 winners at Wembley.
Beasant developed a reputation as a great penalty stopper and was consistently amongst the top ‘keepers in the first division during the late ’80s. Eventually England came calling and in 1989 Beasant aged 30 made his debut against Yugoslavia. He was initially left out of the Italia ’90 squad but an injury to David Seaman meant he got in as the number 3 ‘keeper. Beasant spent the entire tournament (even the 3rd place playoff game) on the bench, after the tournament he never represented England again.
The problem here was spending his early career in the lower divisions meant he stayed off the international radar and it took a few years in the top division before he was truly recognised as a top ‘keeper rather than a lower league player got lucky. By that time Peter Shilton was unshakable as number one and Bobby Robson had Chris Woods earmarked as the long term replacement as early as 1985. It’s a tough ask to break into a national side at goalkeeper and Robson was a man who rarely rotated in goal.
At the 2014 World Cup Louis Van Gaal took the odd decision to substitute his goalkeeper purely for the upcoming penalty shoot out. The move worked and Tim Krul saved a spot kick sending Holland to a World Cup semi final. I’ve always thought Robson should have done the same in that Italia ’90 semi; Beasant might just have got to one and who knows- it couldn’t have been worse than Shilton’s cunning plan to wait until the German player fired his missile at the top corner before reacting!
8. Tony Cottee (7 caps, 0 goals)
Tony Cottee was hailed England’s next big thing after emerging from West Ham’s famed academy in the mid ’80s. The problem for Cottee was his game was very similar to England’s current big thing of the time; Gary Lineker.
In 1986 aged 21 Cottee was named PFA young player of the year following a prolific season at West Ham bagging 20 goals at the Hammers reached the giddy heights of 3rd place in Division 1. In the same year Lineker scored 30 for Everton who finished 2nd and reached the cup final. Lineker went to the World Cup won the Golden Boot and signed for Barcelona.
At the start of the following season Cottee made his England debut as a sub and he managed 22 strikes for West Ham in a deadly partnership with Frank McAvennie. But with Lineker almost never injured or out of form further England chances were thin on the ground.
Two years on Cottee finally left West Ham for Lineker’s old gig at Goodison Park- surely his chance at the bigtime. Unfortunately he joined Everton a year too late and the Howard Kendall glory era was starting to fade. Cottee did score a respectable 72 goals in 6 seasons on Merseyside but it wasn’t quite the prolific stay he needed. Cotten finally made his first England start in 1989 against Scotland at Hampden Park, but he didn’t find the back of net, unfortunately for him England debutant Steve Bull did score that day and got the final forward’s spot in the Italia ’90 squad.
Cottee never played for England again, he did play on in the Premier League all the way until 2001 (aged 36) before dropping down the divisions and retiring. His last 3 premier league seasons were spent at Leicester City with Walkers Crisps emblazoned on his jersey, the irony.
9. Michael Bridges (0 Caps)
Some reading this will say Michael who? Bridges is on this for what he promised to be rather than what he achieved. Emerging in 1998 at then high flying Sunderland, Bridges had the vision to play as a number 10 but the pace and finish to be a number 9 drawing early comparisons to Dennis Bergkamp.
His talent didn’t go unnoticed and aged just 21 he was signed by David O’Leary’s Leeds for £5 million. O’leary claimed Bridges was a long term project but after selling Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink that summer Bridges was in the first team and immediately bagged a hat trick. He finished his first season with 21 goals as Leeds made an unlikely title challenge and UEFA cup semi final.
An England call up was mooted for early next season (many of his young teammates were by now full internationals) but then disaster struck. Bridges was stretchered off in a Champions League group game in October and didn’t play again that season. An endless cycle of injury and rehab began and he made only 10 appearances over the next 4 years.
After that Bridges began to drop down the divisions even faster than Leeds and was last seen playing at the beautifully named Lambton Jaffas in his native North East. For England Under 21s he played 11 times (all in those 2 seasons at Sunderland & Leeds) netting 3 times. Injury has wrecked many a career but few in such frustrating circumstances as with Bridges who showed so much in such a brief period.
There are a few other examples of young English players most notably Manchester City’s Paul Lake who showed immense promising leading Citeh out of the Second Division aged just 21, hailed by some as a successor to Bryan Robson as an all action midfielder Lake suffered a anterior cruciate ligament (sounds painful), played 4 games in 6 years and Robson was succeeded with England by Carlton Palmer, something we should all mourn.
10. Wilfried Zaha (2 caps, 0 goals)
The only current player on this list Zaha first emerged at Crystal Palace aged 18 and over 3 seasons built a reputation as a dynamic winger, so much so he was given a senior England debut and a transfer to Manchester United. He turned out to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing at United before being loaned back to Palace.
The problem was by the time he arrived at United David Moyes had taken over and Zaha’s risky exotic style no longer fit in Manchester. He was soon loaned and eventually sold back to Palace and demoted back down to the Under 21’s. There he had a punch up with Ravel Morrison and showed an attitude that allegedly saw him fall out with Pearce and teammates alike.
At the start of last season Zaha’s stock had fallen and few saw him as an potential England player after falling behind new young attackers Marcus Ashford & Demarai Gray but a sudden return to form had many thinking recall and then something unexpected happened, Zaha switched allegiance to the Ivory Coast.
Zaha was born in the African republic and qualified for both nations and as both of his senior caps were in friendlies FIFA approved the switch. Whether of not Zaha goes on to be a true world class player remains to be seen but he has the raw talent despite occasionally being let down by a lack of focus. It’s a shame we won’t get to find out with England, but at least he can entertain at the Cup of Nations.
Football fan, follower of England, Leeds and will watch any game possible (between raising twins!)