This article has been updated as part of The Athletic’s coverage of Euro 2024 and the Copa America, having originally been published in 2019.

Jimmy Bullard was starting to feel desperate. He looked down the line of England substitutes and wondered if they were feeling the same. Then he started going through a series of elaborate stretches in the hope it would get him noticed. He pulled on his shinpads to make the point he was ready to go on. He swung his arms above his head and, as the clock ticked down, he leant over for the umpteenth time in an attempt to catch the manager’s eye. Fabio Capello continued to look straight forward.

The date was November 19, 2008. Germany vs England, in the Olympiastadion, Berlin. The score was 2-1 to England and Bullard was feeling twitchy. His family were watching back home on television. At the One Bell in Crayford near Dartford, where they had a party when Bullard was called up, his friends had packed into the bar, all hoping to see him win his first international cap.

It was a friendly, meaning England were allowed to use 11 substitutes, but Capello had decided against wholesale changes. Two substitutions were made at half-time: Scott Carson and Darren Bent replacing David James and Jermain Defoe. In the 77th minute, Ashley Young came on for Gabriel Agbonlahor and, soon afterwards, Bullard started thinking about seriously asking Capello if it was his turn next.

He decided against it and, with the game ticking into stoppage time, Capello turned to the bench again. England’s fourth substitute of the night: Peter Crouch for Shaun Wright-Phillips. And Bullard, wearing a pristine No 18 shirt, sank back into his seat. Crouch was on the pitch for no more than a minute. As Bullard put it: “Another bloody cap for him, then.”

And that was the end of what passed as Bullard’s England career, never to be called up again. Capello did at least apologise. Then Bullard was consigned to the band of players who know what it is like to report for England duty, to pull on the shirt and stand for the national anthem without ever qualifying for one of those tasselled caps.

The players who fell short of being one-cap wonders.

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“The unlucky ones,” Tony Coton, whose own exclusion reeked of Football Association scandal (more of that later). “Or maybe, the not-quite-good-enough ones.”

Or, in the case of Micky Hazard, the forgotten man… literally.

In May 1984, Hazard was earning high praise for his stylish performances in Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield when he was called up for the Home Championship game against Scotland at Hampden Park that saw a young Gary Lineker make his England debut.

Between them, Hazard and Lineker would go on to accumulate a combined 80 caps. Unfortunately for Hazard, 80 of those belonged to Lineker.

“I was one of the subs at Hampden Park and at half-time, Bobby Robson told me to start warming up,” Hazard says. “I still remember his instructions: ‘I want you to run the game for England the way you ran the UEFA Cup final for Spurs’. I was buzzing. It was exactly what I wanted to hear.

“Everyone was there. My dad watched me everywhere but, for that Scotland game, I’d got as many tickets as I could for family and friends. My mindset was: ‘Get me on, just give me the opportunity, let me show what I can do’.

“I knew I’d be fresh and there would be space for me to create something. If I could get on the ball I could make things happen. And, while I was warming up, I was also thinking that if I did take my chance, if I could create a goal or, even better, score one, I might end up getting 50, 60, 70 caps.

“I’d been playing in a UEFA Cup final three days earlier and the sweat was pouring off me. It was a scorching hot day. The Scottish fans were giving me all sorts of grief. I ran up and down that touchline, up and down, up and down… I warmed up for the full 45 minutes. But the call never came. I went into the dressing room afterwards and Bobby apologised. ’Oh sorry, Micky’, he said. ‘I forgot about you’.”

Hazard can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t quite so easy to see the funny side.

He was 24, with an eye for a pass, a classy first touch and the kind of vision that made him a natural fit for Spurs in the era of Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Chas and Dave and some of the more thrilling cup nights ever seen at the old White Hart Lane. “I look back at my first full season (1981-82). We won the FA Cup, reached the League Cup final and semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. We finished fourth in the league. I scored 11 goals and I was up for Young Player of the Year and all I got picked for was the England Under-21s. It’s a lot different to what we have nowadays when an 18-year-old can have three decent Premier League games and get called up.”

In 1984, though, Hazard still envisaged a long international career. He had played a key role in both legs of the UEFA Cup final against Anderlecht and, though Robson might have had a lapse of memory during the Scotland game, England also had a match against Russia at Wembley the following weekend.

“The problem was Spurs were going on tour to Swaziland (to play Liverpool in two friendlies) and had a lot of injuries,” Hazard says. “So the manager, Keith Burkinshaw, rang Bobby Robson. ‘Bobby, are you going to be starting Micky on Wednesday? Because if not, we need him in Swaziland, we’re getting paid a lot of money and we need some names with us’. Bobby said he wasn’t going to start me, so I was withdrawn from the squad. And that really was that for me and England. I never got another chance and I don’t know why because, in that era, I was one of the more creative footballers in the country.”

Did he ever think about approaching Robson on the touchline at Hampden Park? “I was a newcomer. I knew my place. I didn’t want to be disrespectful towards the manager or disrespectful towards the players who came on instead of me,” he says. “I never thought I had a right to play. But yes, I wish I had got on. I wish I could have created, or scored, a goal. I do wish Bobby hadn’t forgotten about me.”

England manager Bobby Robson in 1984 (Jack Kay/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to the archives of England Football Online, more than 100 footballers have been in a similar position since the national team played their first international in 1872.

That number features Matt Jansen, David Stockdale, David Wheater, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Jack Colback, Charlie Austin and Michail Antonio from the past 25 years.


For most cases, however, it goes back to the the 1950s, or earlier, when the substitution rules were different and long before there was such a thing as squad rotation (or resting players in case their club managers threw a wobbly).

Spare a thought, in particular, for Joe Kennedy of West Bromwich Albion, bearing in mind his involvement spanned 1952 to 1955 without ever making it onto the pitch. Or how about William Page of Charterhouse School, whose first call-up arrived in 1877 and who was still classified as a “reserve” (twice) five years later?

For Jansen, the story goes back to 2002, just a couple of weeks before Sven-Goran Eriksson was due to name his World Cup squad, when the Blackburn Rovers striker was called up to play in England’s final warm-up match: Paraguay at Anfield.

“My dad said that would be the only time I would ever see him cry,” Jansen tells The Athletic. “And not that I’m sadistic or anything, but I would have loved to have made him cry.

“England was everything. And it was happening. I had made it to the England squad. I was going to play. I was playing up front with Michael Owen in training. I would have made my debut. I had trained really well, scored a few goals. And then that night, I was out of it. Sick, shivering, shaking. It was like being hit by a sledgehammer.”

The diagnosis was a severe bout of gastroenteritis and when Owen woke the next day his wannabe strike partner had been taken home. “Sven was brilliant with me,” Jansen says. “The doctor came to my hotel room and said they had to get me away because I was going to infect the rest of the squad.

“The newspapers were saying I shouldn’t have pulled out and that I should have played anyway. But it was ridiculous. I couldn’t even stand up. So what did they want me to do? Refuse to go home? Infect the rest of the squad and play terribly?”

Jansen was one of the hottest properties in English football, coveted by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and regarded as a dead-cert to play for England.

On the day before Eriksson announced his World Cup squad, the Swede had told Graeme Souness, then the Blackburn manager, that Jansen was in. The player’s partner, Lucy, was making arrangements to delay her university exams so she could go to Japan and South Korea to cheer him on. “I had already had my World Cup suit measured, which I’ve still got somewhere,” Jansen says. “I had my invite to David Beckham’s party. I was going.”

Jansen (right) in England training in 2002 (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Instead, Tord Grip, England’s assistant manager, persuaded Eriksson at the last minute to select another defender. Martin Keown was called up and Jansen was the one to drop out.

“Even then, I tried to stay positive,” Jansen says. “I was 24. It wasn’t the end of the world. I was certainly confused and deflated but I knew I was going to play for England. I got over the disappointment quickly because I was certain my chance would come. I knew, worst-case scenario, I would play two or three games. Or best-case scenario, that I would be a success and play loads of games, which is what I firmly believed would happen.”

The worst-case scenario, as it turned out, involved the moped accident on holiday with Lucy that threw him across the cobbles of a Rome street and into a coma.

Jansen visited the site of the crash with The Athletic’s Oliver Kay and, plainly, an accident of that seriousness was always going to affect his priorities.


Yet there are still the old urges. He still remembers his father’s words about how he had never seen him cry, and how that would change on the day he played for England. He hasn’t forgotten what it was like to pull on the training kit: the navy shirt, the name of the sponsor, Nationwide, in white, the Umbro logo, the Three Lions. He will always wonder whether he and Owen would have hit it off as he imagined.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to play for England just once, I would have wanted 50 caps or more. But because of what happened to me, if I had just managed to play once, and never again, even that would have made such a difference.”

There will always be regrets. “The thing that frustrates me is that there are players who got a few caps and I feel like, without being big-headed, I was better than them. But I can’t prove that. They got their caps, fair play to them, and now they get invited to play in England Legends’ games and tournaments all around the world.

“They go to Dubai, to Spain, four or five trips a year — a few quid and a nice trip, a nice ego boost and being part of the camaraderie that you miss after you have stopped playing professionally.

“I got invited to play in one through Michael Gray (a former Blackburn team-mate) but because I had never actually won an England cap that felt more awkward than it should have done. You know how you get a line in front of your name? Michael gets ‘Sunderland, Blackburn and England’. Mine is ‘Crystal Palace, Blackburn and Bolton’. I will never have ‘and England’.”

It has been 50 years since the Professional Footballers’ Association introduced its end-of-season awards and, in that time, 22 goalkeepers have been named in the top division’s team of the year.

It is quite some list if you consider the number of international caps they have amassed together.

Pat Jennings (119), Peter Shilton (125), Ray Clemence (61), Neville Southall (92), David Seaman (75), Peter Schmeichel (129), Tim Flowers (11), David James (53), Nigel Martyn (23), Fabien Barthez (87), Shay Given (134), Brad Friedel (82), Tim Howard (121), Petr Cech (124), Joe Hart (75), Edwin van der Sar (130), David de Gea (45), Ederson (25), Nick Pope (10), Alisson (63), Aaron Ramsdale (four).

And Tony Coton (zero).

It is no wonder Coton is often described as the best England goalkeeper never to win a cap.

When he won the PFA accolade in 1992 his peers included Schmeichel, Seaman, Southall, Flowers, Martyn, Chris Woods, Dave Beasant, Bruce Grobbelaar and Mark Bosnich. It was a golden era of goalkeeping in the English top flight. Coton was No 1 and for a long time he wondered whether it was held against him at FA headquarters that, as a young pro at Birmingham City, he had been in trouble with the police.

Coton was probably justified in feeling that way because Bobby Robson, writing his diary of the 1986 World Cup, had already explained why it was difficult to include him as one of Shilton’s understudies. “Since the Football Association chairman had laid down a strict code of conduct,” Robson wrote, “I could hardly select a young man with a suspended sentence hanging over his head.”

Yet that tells only part of the story and, of all the old pros nursing a grievance on England’s zero club, Coton is the only one who can justifiably call it a scandal, bearing in mind what he subsequently discovered about the true reasons the elusive England cap remained out of reach.

Coton might, after all, have considered that everything had turned in his favour when Graham Taylor took the job, Shilton wound down an international career spanning two decades and Peter Swales was chairman of the FA’s international committee. Taylor had previously been Coton’s manager at Watford and helped to spare him a possible prison sentence, on a charge of assault, with a personal reference from the witness box of Tamworth magistrates’ court. Swales, meanwhile, was the Manchester City chairman who had just sanctioned Coton’s £1million ($1.3m at today’s rates) transfer to Maine Road.

Coton was playing out of his skin, making a solid case to be regarded as the best in the country, and fiercely patriotic. He would have travelled to the ends of the earth for the chance to play for England and, in the summer of 1991, he did just that on a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Brian Deane, John Salako, Earl Barrett, Mark Walters, Gary Charles and David Hirst all came back as fully-fledged England internationals. For Coton, watching Woods play every minute of every game, the jet lag was not quite so worthwhile.

Tony Coton on an England tour in 1991 (Ben Radford/Allsport)

After remaining on the fringes for the next couple of years, Coton did tackle Taylor one day about why he kept leaving him out. The manager told him that it was still difficult, politically, because of Coton’s criminal record and the reaction of the FA bigwigs. Which left one obvious question: how could that be the case when Tony Adams, who had been to prison for drink-driving, was an established England international?

“At the time, I still thought I was in with a real chance,” Coton says. “For every game, I used to think, ‘Maybe it might be this trip, maybe this time’.

“Just getting the letter from the FA — ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected for the forthcoming England matches’ — and seeing your name on the list, getting the instructions about where to report and what time to be there, was a real honour.

“But people don’t realise what it’s like to be travelling around the world and then be stuck in the stand. It’s great if you play. You come back on a high and you’re feeling great when it comes to playing on Saturday for your club. But when you’ve been travelling those kind of distances, not playing or not even being on the bench, it’s a kick in the b*llocks, to be honest.”

The truth finally emerged in October 2016 during a chance encounter at Aston Villa’s training ground with Steve Harrison, formerly Taylor’s right-hand man.

Harrison was in the office of the technical director, Steve Round, having a coffee with some of the staff when Tommy Mooney spotted Coton from the doorway. “Hey, TC, your ears must be burning because we’ve just been talking about you,” he said. “Steve, tell TC what you’ve just told us.”

Harrison then proceeded to explain the real reasons Coton never played a single minute for England.

“Graham wanted to give you a cap. He knew you deserved to play for England and he planned to give you a game in Malaysia — but he was asked not to by Peter Swales. The problem was, Man City would have to pay Watford a £350,000 bonus if you ever played for England and Swales didn’t want that to happen. So he put the squeeze on Graham. It was agreed that you’d get a game at a later date, but the opportunity never materialised. I know Graham has regretted it ever since.”

A carve-up, in other words.

“I was stunned,” Coton says. “At least it vindicated my belief that I was good enough to play for England. But I didn’t know any of this at the time. I had always thought I was being left out because I had a bit of a mischievous past. Instead, it was all because Peter Swales was high up at the FA and tight with his money.

“In hindsight, I might have preferred it to have been about my past rather than the real reason. That Peter Swales didn’t want to owe Watford any more money. And that it was about money, not morals.”

All Coton has now when he reflects on his international career is a sense of injustice, an England B cap that he regards with little affection and, more than anything, a list of unanswered questions.

Why would Taylor, a man he held in the highest esteem, allow himself to be strong-armed that way by one of the FA’s suits? Why would Taylor cave in over the golden rule that a manager should always be entitled to pick the team he wants? Especially when it meant depriving his beloved Watford of a six-figure bonus?

Coton never saw his former manager again. Taylor passed away in January 2017. Swales had died in 1996 and, knowing what he does now, Coton looks back on his years with England as a waste of time.

“The final straw was when I got back from a trip to Russia and my car had been stolen from my drive,” he says. “Manchester City were my bread and butter. I’d had enough of the endless disappointments with England and I just thought ‘How many more years do I want to be doing this?’.

“The police did at least find my car, even if it was resting on bricks. I had left the boot filled with tracksuits, T-shirts from sponsors, goalkeeping gloves and all sorts of other gear. There was a chequebook in the glove compartment.

“But they never took anything apart from the alloys and they left a note for me on the steering wheel. ‘Sorry, TC, we only wanted the wheels. Hope this hasn’t caused you too much trouble ‘cos we’re City fans, good luck, mate’. I had to laugh.”

Coton called time on his would-be England career after the game against San Marino in 1993 that also happened to be Taylor’s final match in charge. He now has a chapter called “Your Country Doesn’t Need You” in his autobiography, There To Be Shot At, and he tries not to let it fester too much.

“Sometimes I do tell a little white lie,” he says. “If anyone asks if I played for England I say, ‘Yeah’. I don’t tell them it was 45 minutes of an England B game. I am cheating. But I feel like I’m entitled to cheat when I have been all over the fucking world trying to get one of the proper ones.”

Jamie Vardy tells a story about his first England cap earning him £100,000 to go with the shirt, signed by all his new team-mates, he took away as a permanent souvenir.

Vardy had it written into his contract at Leicester City that he was entitled to the bonus if he started for his country or came on before the 75th minute.

The clock was on 74:03 when he ran onto the pitch during England’s goalless draw against the Republic of Ireland in 2015 and his agent had a photograph of that precise moment, taken from television, with the time showing in the top corner.

Yet there was an awkward period when Leicester, perhaps thinking his England career might never go past the one-game mark, would not accept the clause had been triggered, arguing that 74:03 was, strictly speaking, the 75th minute. The owners had to get involved, along with the director of football, Jon Rudkin, and eventually the dispute was settled in Vardy’s favour.

Jamie Vardy

Vardy playing for England in 2016 (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

All of which is a reminder for England’s nearly men that there can be financial repercussions, too, for missing out.

Jansen, for instance, stood to get a £1million bonus from Adidas if he won an England cap.

“I’m certain that he would have played against Paraguay, whether from the start or during the game, to see if he would remain in our plans for the tournament,” Eriksson writes in Jansen’s 2019 autobiography, What Was, What Is and What Might Have Been. “It was a real pity that he got sick — a pity for everybody, and especially for Matt, that he did not have that great opportunity.”

As for Lee Clark, he also lost out on a considerable sum, despite his best efforts to cash in on the England experience.

Clark was tipped off about his call-up to Glenn Hoddle’s squad for the 1997 Tournoi de France on the day he was due to sign for Sunderland from Newcastle United.

The paperwork for the transfer was not fully completed and there were still a couple of days before the FA made the official squad announcement, so Clark saw his opportunity — his agent, Paul Stretford, went back to Sunderland to request a bonus clause for England appearances.

“There were a few verbals from Peter Reid,” Clark says, remembering the moment his new manager heard about the call-up. “We’d just finished the press conference. We went back to his office and the ticker bar was flashing on television … ‘Lee Clark named in the England squad’. Reidy’s face was a picture. He’d said to me he would get me in the England squad, but he didn’t think it was going to be that quick.”

Clark never got that bonus: he was an unused substitute for England’s three games against France, Italy and Brazil and never called up again. Though it is not the money that makes that the biggest disappointment of his career.

“I was successful at all my clubs. I played and captained every England team from under-15s to under-21s and then, to get called up to the senior squad but never get on the pitch, was the hardest thing to take,” he says.

“Even if I had got 30 seconds, it would still have been enough to get that elusive cap. But I wasn’t needed again. Paul Ince, David Batty, Paul Gascoigne were all on the scene, with Paul Scholes and the younger ones coming through, and I guess it counted against me that I had dropped down into the Championship.

“I was gutted, to be honest, especially when Sven-Goran Eriksson took over and started throwing caps around like confetti. I wish I had been knocking around during that era.”

As it was, Clark can remember going through the same kind of routine in France that Bullard repeated years later in Germany, watching from the substitutes’ bench while going through a series of over-elaborate stretches in the hope of catching the manager’s eye.

Bullard, meanwhile, tells a story about how that little scene stayed with him and one game in particular, as a player at Ipswich Town, when he was stuck on the bench in a pre-season fixture against Southend United.

With a quarter of an hour to go, Bullard’s patience was wearing thin and he went over to the assistant manager, Chris Hutchings, to ask who was in charge of substitutions. Hutchings pointed to where the manager, Paul Jewell, was sitting in the stands. “I need to go on,” Bullard announced.

It earned him a dressing-down from Jewell the next day but it seemed to do the trick and Bullard was brought on for the last 10 minutes. Plus it makes a great story now. “I may not have won an England cap but I played in that Southend friendly — nobody could ever take that away from me.”

(Photo: Owen Humphreys – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)