27 March, 2008

The Centurians

Ok so David Beckham was pretty much playing right-back last night because he doesn’t really have the legs to get up and down the pitch at full pace anymore, but this shouldn’t detract from the magnitude of his international achievement. Swelling with pride after the game, he rightly extolled the virtues of the 100 Cap Club he has now joined; namely Billy Wright, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Peter Shilton. Now most of these guys were staring for club and country well before I was born, so this seemed like as good a time as any for a quick history lesson. No talking at the back!

Billy Wright was the first player in the world to reach the landmark of 100 appearances when he led out England against Scotland at Wembley in April 1959, and he held this record for more than a decade. An old-fashioned bruising centre-half, he was the epitome of English spirit and pride, also playing his entire club career of 20 years at Wolves where he finished with 541 appearances. Not only was he playing football during this period though, he was also in the army at the same time, serving from 1943 as a Physical Training Instructor and amazingly making more than 100 appearances in wartime football alone. In virtually every way he was the perfect footballing role model; captained his country a record 90 times, was never booked or sent off, and even married a pop star (Joy Beverley of the Beverley Sisters, whoever they are). He died in 1994 from stomach cancer aged 70 but his spirit lives on in an honorary stand and bronze statue at Molineux.

Next up is World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton, finishing with 106 caps, just one more than Wright managed. So much about Charlton was miraculous that it seems a bit insulting to just list a load of stats, but having survived national service and the Munich Air Disaster, he went on to become England’s leading ever goal-scorer with 49 international goals. During his 19 years with Manchester United, having been initially signed as a 15-year-old, he made a staggering 759 appearances and averaged a goal every three games in a variety of exemplary Busby Babes teams. With United he won the FA Cup, European Cup and several league titles, while also taking the honour of European Footballer of the Year in 1966 during the World Cup build-up. Obviously his World Cup win is the jewel in the crown, finally defeating West Germany in the final alongside his older brother Jack while hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst took most of the plaudits.

Surely no-one needs to be told that the successful 1966 team was captained by the iconic Bobby Moore, and that leads us nicely onto the next of our centurains. With 108 appearances (90 as captain), Moore is the most highly decorated outfield player in English history, so it seems appropriate that it was he who lifted our sole major international trophy 42 years ago now. An iconic gentleman and professional, he too achieved more than 500 club appearances for his home team, West Ham United, where he played for 16 years before ending his career in the newly set-up North American Soccer League in the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, a statue of the great man stands outside Wembley, and upon his death in 1993, a mass outpouring of emotion followed from the nation. A couple of quotes from perhaps his two greatest peers sum him up better than I ever can:

He was my friend as well as the greatest defender I ever played against. The world has lost one of its greatest football players and an honourable gentleman.” - Pelé

“Bobby Moore was a real gentleman and a true friend.” - Franz Beckenbauer

Long-serving goalkeeper Peter Shilton completes the century club with a phenomenal 125 caps to his name, along with more than 1000 professional club appearances in a career that spanned three decades. Admirably ambitious from a young age, he had perhaps the greatest keeper of all time in Gordon Banks as a friend and rival from the start of his professional career, and along with similar competition from Ray Clemence in the years that followed, it was this that kept him sharp at the highest level for so long. Undoubtedly the crowning glory in Shilton’s career came under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, winning the League championship once, and both the League Cup and European Cup twice in the late 1970s. In terms of individual honours, he received the MBE, and later the OBE, as well as being awarded the prestigious Order of Merit by the PFA on his retirement from international football in 1990.

Between the four of them, they won 444 caps and incredibly represented England at every World Cup finals we reached between 1950 and 1990.

So there you have it. Wright, Charlton, Moore, Shilton and now Beckham: the England Centurians (insert your own embarrassing pun about lions and roaring here). RESPECT.