As England prepare to take on Spain in a Wembley friendly tomorrow night, interim manager Gareth Southgate has indicated Wayne Rooney will not start the game.
If, however, the Manchester United skipper overcomes a ‘minor issue’, in all likelihood he will win his 120th international cap from the bench and in doing so take one step closer to Champions Celebrity client Peter Shilton’s all-time record of 125 appearances for the Three Lions.
Shilton won his last England cap in 1990, fully 20 years after his debut. The fourth man ever to reach his tonne, Peter joined Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright in an exclusive club but, since the turn of the century, its ranks have been swollen by five further England heroes – Rooney himself, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard.
So, has England been blessed by the talents of five footballers, all of whom have coincidentally shown extraordinary longevity during the exact same period or is it just easier to amass lots of caps these days?
Competition for Rooney’s Spot?
For Wayne Rooney to have played international football for 14 years is an incredible achievement. In contrast to the likes of Paul Scholes who many say retired far too early, he is to be congratulated for showing such sustained commitment to his country. That said, the Old Trafford man, widely regarded as the most talented Englishman of his generation, has almost always been among the very first names on the teamsheet.
There have been injuries, of course, most notably the broken metatarsal that threatened to rule him out of the 2006 World Cup, and suspensions, such as the one he served for his quarter final stamp on Ricardo Carvalho at the same tournament, but Rooney has until now played 71% of the games for which he has been eligible.
Seen as the main man for so long, the former Everton tyro has faced little competition for a starting berth. Shilton on the other hand vied for his spot with Ray Clemence for a large part of the 1970s and early 80s, as manager Ron Greenwood alternated between the pair. The Liverpool keeper won 61 caps of his own and Shilton ended up playing in only 57% of the matches he might have.
Take Clemence out of the equation, then, and we wouldn’t be talking about Rooney as a potential record-breaker as Shilton would be out of reach on, conservatively, 170 or even 180 caps.
A Changing World
Since Peter Shilton’s final game in 1990, international football has changed beyond all expectation, sometimes due to the world around it and sometimes as a product of its pulling power.
In the intervening period, we’ve witnessed the break-up of the Soviet Union and, indeed, that of Yugoslavia. Where once that meant just two international teams looking for tournament qualification, UEFA must now accommodate the Azerbaijans and Montenegros of this world.
Add to that the bloating of international tournaments and it’s easy to understand why England played 49 qualifiers between 2000 and 2009, as opposed to just 31 between 1970 and 1979. The European Championships of 1972, for example, saw 32 teams compete for just 4 places at the eventual showdown in Belgium, whereas there will be 54 sides hoping to claim one of the 24 spots available at the 2020 Euros.
Much is made of the influence of finance on today’s game. Whether or not money lies behind the fact we have bigger tournaments is a moot point, but, generating millions in advertising revenues, lucrative friendlies, such as Tuesday’s match-up between England and Spain, add to the number of cap-winning opportunities.
In sum, England now play around 12 internationals each year. Back in the 1970s and 80s when Peter Shilton won his caps, they played roughly 10 over the course of the year but, since Rooney’s 2003 debut, they’ve actually played an average of exactly 11.9.
Moving the Goalposts
Football is also much more of a squad game today. Substitutions never used to be allowed in World Cup matches until 1970 and, even then, the manager was limited to a single change. He gained a little more tactical flexibility in 1988, when a second switch was sanctioned, and it took until 1995 for the authorities to allow for three replacements.
Tuesday’s game between Spain and England, however, as a friendly has the potential for six subs per side, so up to 34 players could acquire a fancy piece of headwear. In Charlton’s day, when you ran off an injury no matter how serious, it was 22, each game, every game. That’s an increase of just over 50%.
How Great is a Footballing Great?
While nobody is disparaging the achievements of, say, Ashley Cole (107 caps) or Frank Lampard (106) or, indeed, their qualities as footballers, it is doubtful either will be ever be favourably compared to some of the greatest names to have played the game.
Neither will be remembered in the same way as Johan Cruyff, for example, who only won 48 caps for the Netherlands in a career that spanned 12 years. By the same token, Portuguese striker Eusebio lit up the 1966 World Cup on these shores and is described by pundits as one of the most lethal attacking players of all time, yet he only racked up 64.
Two of Rooney’s contemporaries, however, who do fall into the category of bona fide all-time greats, 31 year old Cristiano Ronaldo and 29 year old Lionel Messi, have amassed 136 and 115 caps respectively and look certain to add more.
It all points to the same thing. It’s easier today than ever before to win scores of international caps and it’s no surprise to learn that, as of July 2016, over 88% of the 355 male footballers to have won 100 or more caps played at least part of their careers in the 21st century.
Rooney has struggled for game time under Jose Mourinho this season and, having naturally lost the rawness that characterised his younger days, his place in the national squad is now the subject of fevered debate.
Nonetheless, should England’s record goalscorer continue to be selected, he is likely to surpass Peter Shilton’s benchmark in the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia in September 2017, just short of 14 years after he made his Three Lions debut aged just 17 back in 2003.
Having signalled his intention to retire from international football after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a tournament for which England cannot surely fail to qualify, Wayne Rooney could end up pushing the 140-cap barrier.
But as Rooney approaches this wonderful landmark, let’s not forget Peter Shilton and his unique contribution to English and world football.
Recognised as the best goalkeeper on the planet for much of his career, Shilton not only won everything there was to win at club level but he provided a vital last line of defence that took England to within a whisker of the ultimate prize.
Goalkeepers are the unsung heroes of the game. Their mistakes are highlighted while their best saves are easily forgotten but all too often they prove to be the difference between victory and defeat.
As Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked, "a great goalkeeper is worth 15 points over the course of a season." England enjoyed 20 such seasons with Shilts.
Peter Shilton has not only a wealth of footballing experience but a lifetime of stories and anecdotes. As one of the most sought after keynote speakers on the circuit, he can lift the lid on just what it takes to deliver at elite level.
Available for media appearances and brand endorsements, Peter is as trusted by the public as he was between the sticks. To book him for your next event, call Amelia Neate at Champions Celebrity on 08453 31 30 31 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.