Under-capped? Five players overlooked by England in the 1990s


I was recently looking through my collection of Corinthian Figurines. These were one of the must-have collectables of the 1990s and beyond. Initially released in 1995, small representations of England internationals were produced. With Euro 96 around the corner, this was the perfect time to launch such a product and they immediately proved to be popular with fans. Known for having abnormally large heads, the figures would go on to be released in club attire later in the 1990s and were around for years to come.

As I picked through my own collection, I found myself with Andy Cole in one hand and Tim Sherwood in the other. Neither went to Euro 96 and their sculpts being in England attire seemed optimistic at best. But why? Cole was one of the great goalscorers of the ’90s whilst Sherwood captained Blackburn Rovers to the Premier League title. Surely they were worthy of more appearances? Especially in a time where so many friendlies were scheduled due to England‘s automatic qualification to Euro 96.

With that, an article was spawned. Here are five players who were criminally underused or just plain unlucky during the 90s.

1) Andy Cole (six ’90s caps)

He gets the ball he scores a goal, Andy, Andy Cole!

Kevin Keegan took Andy Cole to Newcastle and he was an instant hit with the Newcastle faithful. After helping secure promotion for the Magpies with 12 goals in 12 games, Cole struck up a great partnership with Peter Beardsley as Newcastle made light work of the step up to the Premier League. By the time Manchester United came calling in January 1995, Cole had plundered 68 goals in 85 games. The move to the current champions would surely open up the chances for International honours?

Two months later, Terry Venables handed him an England debut with 30 minutes from the bench in the 0-0 friendly draw with Uruguay. This is perhaps most noted for Teddy Sheringham not shaking hands with Cole when replaced – an argument that would rumble on for 15 years. It also seems Corinthians used this match for the template of their squad with the unlikely figures of Rob Jones, Barry Venison and Nick Barmby getting figurines on the back of appearances here.

Cole’s main obstacle to International minutes was Alan Shearer. Despite his goal drought heading into Euro 96, he came into form at the right time and won the Golden Boot. Shearer had developed an excellent partnership with Teddy Sheringham at International level and Les Ferdinand at club level. Ferdinand was often the next in line and when Shearer was injured in the summer of 1997, it was Arsenal’s Ian Wright who took over striking duties.

Cole wasn’t even selected in an England squad again until the summer of 1997, missing out on Euro 96 in the process. Cole’s form had suffered following the return of Eric Cantona, whom the team was built around. The goals dried up a little and despite a recovery towards the end of the season, 13 in 42 in all competitions was well below what had been expected. Although Man Utd won the double, it wasn’t enough for Cole to earn a spot in the Euro 96 squad. Illness and injury then disrupted his chances during the following season but he was selected for Le Tournoi under new manager Glenn Hoddle. Despite England playing three fixtures, Cole’s involvement was limited to just 14 minutes against Italy.

Other than an unused sub appearance in November 1997, Cole wasn’t even getting into Hoddle’s squads. This was despite Man Utd’s new number nine boasting a one in two record for both the 97/98 and 98/99 seasons. Once Hoddle resigned, caretaker Howard Wilkinson called up Cole for the friendly with France in Feb 99. He was afforded 26 minutes in a 2-0 defeat but the appointment of former manager Kevin Keegan would surely bring about better times.

Sure enough, Keegan’s first game saw Shearer partner Cole as two of his greatest forwards at club level could combine in a home game against Poland. As it turned out, Cole nor Shearer scored as a Paul Scholes hat-trick saw England win 3-1. Winning the treble should have established Cole as a force in English football but a 0-0 draw with Sweden saw Cole complete 90 uninspiring minutes. The trio of Shearer, Sheringham and Robbie Fowler were preferred as Keegan switched to a front-three in a search for goals. 23 minutes against Scotland in the Euro 2000 play-off rounded off Cole’s International decade. 6 caps, 0 goals.

Cole had scored over 100 Premier League goals in the ’90s but had barely been given a chance to play for his country. He missed out on the Euro 96 and World Cup 98 squads and each of his first four caps came under different managers. To round off a thoroughly unlucky time, he missed out on Euro 2000 due to injury.

Was it misfortune or was he just short of reaching the next level? His partnership with Dwight Yorke had been telepathic at times, just as it had been with Beardsley years earlier. Did his spat with Teddy Sheringham cost him? If it was a choice between Sheringham and Cole, Sheringham was the ideal partner for Shearer which was never going to be interrupted. When Sven Goran Eriksson gave Cole his chance in the early 2000s it is perhaps fitting that he was eventually replaced by Emile Heskey – somebody without the scoring prowess but was seen as the ideal partner for Michael Owen.

2) Tim Sherwood (three ’90s Caps)

Sherwood is seen as a bit of a figure of fun these days. A slightly promising managerial career unravelled at Aston Villa and now some ill-advised media comments have done nothing to help his cause. However, Sherwood was a title-winning Premier League captain in 1995. With this came the famous quote from Blackburn owner Jack Walker when Kenny Dalglish asked for funds to buy Zinedine Zidane. “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?

Why indeed. Sherwood and David Batty were the engine room for a Blackburn side that thrived on having two wingers who could cross a ball and two predatory strikers in Shearer and Sutton. Come to think of it, Ripley, Wilcox and Sutton only got six caps between them. But surely the captain of a title-winning side would be worthy of a squad place at least?

The England midfield was absolutely packed at this point. David Platt, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne had all proven their worth by plying their trade in Italy during the early 90s. Jamie Redknapp, Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton were all emerging as young talents to further occupy the midfield positions in Venables’ squad. Even the combative skills of his former teammate Batty were preferred under new manager Hoddle, leaving Sherwood well and truly out of the picture.

He did eventually get three caps in 1999 under Kevin Keegan. Sherwood had just moved to Tottenham but his three appearances weren’t enough to secure a spot in the Euro 2000 squad. League-winning captain or not, he simply didn’t have the pedigree that his rivals offered.

3) Steve Bruce (no caps)

Say what you want about Steve Bruce as a manager, Steve Bruce as a player was a warrior. It is difficult to comprehend how a central-defender at the heart of a multiple title-winning side couldn’t get even an England cap. It is especially surprising when you consider what a mess the national side was in the early 90s, where caps for Carlton Palmer and Keith Curle were acceptable.

His one brush with the England squad came when he was selected for England B duty in 1987. Although Bobby Robson had selected the squad, Graham Taylor managed the team and told Bruce in no uncertain terms he was not his choice. It is maybe no surprise then that Taylor didn’t pick Bruce for England when he took over as manager in 1990.

In the 1990/91 season, he even helped himself to 19 goals in all competitions, but the established trio of Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Mark Wright were not for moving. Relative newcomers Martin Keown and the aforementioned Keith Curle were also preferred. For whatever reason, Taylor just didn’t fancy Bruce and by the time he left in 1993, Bruce was approaching the end of his career. Planning was now underway for Euro 96 and with no qualifiers to play, younger players were given the chance to impress and the opportunity had passed for Bruce. I would argue he is England’s greatest uncapped player of the 90s.

4) Matthew Le Tissier (eight ’90s caps)

The man affectionately known as “Le God” almost carried Southampton during the 90s. A team built around his talent punched above their weight consistently and even finished tenth in 1995. It was during this season that Le Tissier was voted into the PFA Team of the Season. Terry Venables had taken over as England manager in January 1994 and immediately gave Le Tissier his first cap, albeit from the bench in March of the same year. Two further sub appearances in the summer of ’94 lead to Le Tissier’s first start in October, a friendly with Romania.

Buy an iconic poster of Matt Le Tissier from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy an iconic poster of Matt Le Tissier from the Football Bloody Hell shop

The fact he completed 90 minutes in a midfield that included John Barnes, Paul Ince and Rob Lee would surely bode well as Le Tissier hit peak form as the season continued. Although limited to a sub appearance against Nigeria, Le Tissier was back in the starting lineup for the away match against the Republic of Ireland in February 1995. This was the ill-fated game where crowd trouble caused the match to be abandoned after 27 minutes. It was decided that caps would be honoured, much to the relief of Warren Barton who was making his debut.

That was the last time Venables selected the Southampton man. He made the squad for a friendly with Colombia but didn’t get off the bench. It would be the first game of the Glenn Hoddle era before we saw Le Tissier in England colours again as he was afforded nine minutes off the bench in Moldova. However, Hoddle turned to Le Tissier for the crunch game with Italy in February 1997. With Teddy Sheringham unavailable, Le Tissier was selected to play just off Alan Shearer. His impact on the game was minimal, England lost 1-0 and that was the end of his International career.

The wrong era? An unfashionable club? Low work-rate? Le Tissier himself has gone on record as saying he believes he would have received more international recognition had he moved clubs. However playing a “number ten” wasn’t really Terry Venables’ style and with Sheringham working well with Shearer, Le Tissier was expected to play as a midfielder. At least Le Tissier knew how to score a penalty…

5) Robbie Fowler (11 ’90s caps)

Much like Andy Cole, Robbie Fowler was a goal machine in the mid-1990s. The Liverpool striker passed 30 goals in a season in three consecutive campaigns from 1994-97. His reward? Seven England caps.

His form did at least earn him International recognition in time for Euro 96. His first cap came from the bench in a friendly against Bulgaria in March 1996 and that was followed by his first start in a warm-up against Croatia a month later. It would be March 1997 before he would start for England again and Fowler would have to wait until June 1999 for a start in a competitive International fixture.

He did at least get minutes from the bench during Euro 96. A brief cameo against Holland was followed up by an extra-time appearance against Spain in the quarter-finals. Would Fowler have taken the decisive fifth penalty if it had gone that far?

Injury ruled him out of World Cup 98 and although he was selected for Euro 2000, he watched all three games from the bench. Why was one of England’s most prolific goalscorers at club level overlooked at International level for so long?

In many ways, the blockades were the same as Andy Cole’s. Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham were the preferred partnership and it is perhaps telling that Fowler’s International career improved once Shearer retired following Euro 2000. Fowler was also part of the “spiceboys” tag which perhaps did him no favours. It clearly didn’t affect his goal scoring but with established pros such as Shearer, Sheringham, Wright and Ferdinand ahead in the queue, Fowler and Cole couldn’t force their way in. Ironically, Fowler’s injuries in the ’97/98 season really opened the door for Michael Owen at both club and International level and the rest is history.

Fowler did get three consecutive starts in 1999 under Kevin Keegan but no goals and some poor results on the way to Euro 2000 led to him losing his place. It wasn’t until the Sven era that Fowler would enjoy his most successful International year (2001) but injuries were beginning to take their toll by this point and England would never see the best of Robbie Fowler.