It was once looked upon as the ultimate prize for any professional footballer: a full England cap, formal recognition you were one of the best 11 footballers in the country. That blue velvet cap with gold trim is a reminder that players were once identified by their colour of headwear. Indeed, for those honoured on a single occasion, the cap has become a precious commodity.
The early years of England as an international side were littered with one-cap wonders, mainly due to the methods of selection. The first team that lined up against Scotland in 1872 contained six players who made a single appearance. It was primarily invitation based with little thought given to coherent team selection.
Legendary amateur side Corinthian-Casuals were invited to form the England side on two occasions – against Wales in 1894 and 1895. Unbelievably, five of the players involved were awarded just one cap. John Veitch scored a hat-trick in the 1894 fixture, which obviously wasn’t good enough to retain his place.
Frank Bradshaw of Sheffield Wednesday repeated the same feat during a European tour in 1908, contributing three goals in an 11-1 annihilation of Austria. That tour produced four wins and 28 goals and seemed to vindicate the FA’s methods, no matter how arbitrary they appeared. The FA International Selection Committee (FAISC) was all-powerful; comprised of club chairmen it was often a convenient way of pressing their own players’ claims for recognition. Single caps were awarded just to satisfy the whim of a committee member.
In ten years following the Great War, 62 players were capped just once. Many footballers perished during the war and that certainly impacted on the national side, but it didn’t fully explain the rapid turnover in team selection. In May 1923, England fielded five one-cap wonders against France and won the game 4-1. Two weeks later, Sweden was defeated as goals from Harold Miller and Billy Moore helped England to a 3-1 victory; it was their only full international appearance.
The selectors clearly thought the fixture that really mattered was the annual stand-off with Scotland. They casually tossed caps around when confronted with opposition they perceived as inferior. In May 1925, England played France again and fielded a team that included another four singletons in a 3-2 win.
Perhaps the unluckiest one-cap wonder was West Ham centre-half Jim Barrett, who turned out against Northern Ireland in 1928. Four minutes into the game he was carried off injured and never selected again. He holds an unwanted record that will surely never be beaten and it’s difficult to imagine an England career lasting less than four minutes. That said, sometimes even 90 minutes doesn’t seem long enough to prove whether you’re international class.
As the 1930s dawned, the number of one-cap internationals halved to that of the previous decade. Perhaps the most curious singleton of the pre-war era was Joe Payne. Playing for Luton in April 1936, he scored ten goals in a 12-0 win against Bristol Rovers. A staggering 55 league goals would later secure promotion for the Hatters. In the following year, Payne was capped against Finland and scored two goals in an 8-0 win; oh the price of success: he never crossed the selectors’ minds again.
In 1946, Walter Winterbottom was appointed England manager. Although nominally a member of the FAISC, it had at least been accepted that a manager was necessary for the development of coaching at national level. However, Winterbottom had to contend with a Committee that constantly outvoted him.
During his tenure, 27 one-cap wonders were selected. Tottenham legend Bill Nicholson won his only cap during this time as did West Brom playmaker Ray Barlow; a player on whom Bobby Moore modelled his game. David Pegg would undoubtedly have added to his sole cap against Ireland had he not died in the Munich Air Disaster. The real booby prize goes to forwards George Robb and Ernie Taylor, who earned their only cap in England’s humiliation against Hungary in 1953.
With the appointment of Alf Ramsey in 1963 came a more club-oriented approach to team management. He insisted on unfettered control of team selection and the long-overdue demise of FAISC, nurturing a settled squad based on a gradually evolving tactical plan. Such conditions made one-cap wonders less likely.
During Ramsey’s 11 years as manager, only 14 players made a single appearance. One of his early choices was Tony Kay of Everton, a talented midfielder who received a prison sentence and lifetime ban for his part in an infamous betting scandal. Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney regularly made the England squad, but only gained one cap in 1968 against Sweden. Similarly, Liverpool hardman Tommy Smith gained a solitary cap in the Home Internationals against Wales. That match also featured striker Tony Brown, who averaged a goal every other game for West Brom but never got past his first outing.
After a short spell with Joe Mercer as caretaker, Don Revie was appointed manager in July 1974. He selected five one-cappers, most notably the gifted but wayward Charlie George. The mercurial forward had forced his way into the reckoning with some scintillating performances for Derby and won his only cap in a friendly against Ireland in 1976. However, for some inexplicable reason, Revie insisted on playing him out of position on the wing that day. They quarrelled at half-time and George was subbed after an hour and sadly never seen in an England shirt again.
Ron Greenwood’s five-year reign as England manager featured five single cap players, all appearing in friendlies against Luxembourg, Iceland and Australia – Trevor Whymark, Alan Sunderland, Peter Ward, Steve Perryman and Paul Goddard. In reality, they felt more like reserves who accidentally strayed into the first-team lounge.
Bobby Robson was cut from the same cloth as Alf Ramsey with a pool of trusted players. However, there were eight players who passed through his team with only one cap. Danny Wallace is without doubt the most unfortunate member of this select band. He won 14 caps at under-21 level and looked set for a long international career, but persistent injury problems subsequently revealed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
Graham Taylor took over as England manager in 1990 with an enviable record at club level. Of the four players he selected on one occasion, Mark Walters is the real stand out. Capped at schoolboy and under-21 level, he was one of the great unfulfilled talents of the era. Terry Venables’ brief but exciting reign as manager featured central defenders Neil Ruddock and David Unsworth, both of whom failed to add further caps. They had ability, no doubt, but fell victim to other options in their respective positions.
The FA’s failure to back Venables in an ongoing legal battle forced him to resign after the Euro 96 campaign. He was succeeded by Glenn Hoddle who had a tempestuous relationship with his players; all of which came to the fore when a spat with Chris Sutton left the striker with just one cap. Sutton made his debut as a 79th-minute substitute against Cameroon in November 1997. However, a row relegated Sutton to the margins. In a fit of pique, he refused to play for the B team and a 21-minute England career ended there and then.
Kevin Keegan was probably the most ill-fated appointment as England boss. He took the helm in May 1999 but was tactically naive and little more than a cheerleader. He capped Steve Guppy of Leicester but, surprisingly for a naturally left-footed Englisd wide player, he failed to add further appearances.
The FA appointed England’s first overseas manager in 2001. Sven Göran-Eriksson certainly had the right credentials and reached the World Cup quarter-finals twice. During his tenure, Eriksson capped a number of players on one occasion, including Lee Bowyer, Francis Jeffers and David Dunn, the latter of whom should surely have had a more substantial England career. However, that heady mixture of ill-discipline, injuries and loss of form sealed their fate.
Steve McClaren was the unexpected choice as manager in 2006. He was previously assistant to Eriksson and Sir Alex Ferguson’s number two at Manchester United, neither of which prevented a wave of raised eyebrows. Joey Barton was his most notable singleton neatly slipping into the wasted talent category.
Fabio Capello’s four-year reign as England manager began in 2008 and began to capture players who are still active participants. Dean Ashton was awarded his only full cap against Trinidad & Tobago in the same year. He had originally been called up to the England squad two years earlier but broke his ankle while training. The gifted and likable Ashton had wretched luck with injuries and retired at the painfully young age of 26.
Jay Bothroyd, the very definition of a journeyman footballer, won his only cap against France in 2010. Bothroyd was in fine form for Cardiff and became the first player in the club’s history to be capped for England, which is even more remarkable considering he achieved the feat while playing in the Championship.
In May 2012, Roy Hodgson became England manager and signed a four-year contract. He finally succumbed to the FA’s advances after being wooed for what seemed like an eternity. Hodgson had a high ratio of one-cap wonders with no less than ten players anointed with the dubious honour. All but one – Ryan Mason – are still playing and relatively young. Danny Ings, Martin Kelly, John Ruddy, Steven Caulker, Carl Jenkinson, Jon Flanagan, Jay Rodriguez, Ryan Shawcross and Fraizer Campbell were all capped by Hodgson in an undistinguished spell for the England team.
With the appointment of Gareth Southgate, we’ve all learnt to love the England team again. All of the players awarded one cap by Southgate are active and likely to move out of this unique hall of fame, especially James Maddison. The list also includes Nathan Redmond, Jack Cork, Dominic Sloanke, Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Cook, Lewis Dunk, Alex McCarthy and Fikayo Tomori.
The frequency of one-cap wonders invariably depends on a number of factors: the quality of players available, injuries and managers actually knowing their best team. A player who stays part of the England set-up is now less likely to be stuck on one cap. The liberal use of tactical substitutions will almost certainly provide a player with half a dozen caps. A paucity of talent may give fringe players a shot at the big time, but they remain at the mercy of a manager pecked by a voracious media and fans who think they know better.
To represent one’s country is the greatest honour any athlete can receive. Three Lions on a shirt; the closest most people get is a scratchy overpriced replica. These lucky guys got to wear the real thing – even if it was only once.
By Brian Penn