Beckham and the Century-Makers

Although I’m not the only one pleased to see Beckham make it to his century of England caps, most commentators aren’t. In particular, it’s said over and over again that Beckham isn’t worth the honour when put up against his “colleagues” Shilton, Moore, Charlton and Wright.

That’s my instinctive reaction too. At least it is at first. Moore and Charlton were both World Cup winners, and but for illness might have been twice over. Shilton has Ray Clemence to thank for not passing 150 caps or more in his twenty years as an international. And Billy Wright.. has long been swallowed by the football nostalgia movement.

But add to that the suggestion that Beckham is long past his best, and should make way for a younger man, and add to that the suggestion that Beckham hasn’t been good enough for England for some time, and I part company.

I’m going to address these things in reverse order, beginning with the idea that Beckham is a long time past his best England performances.

The problem Beckham faces in this respect is that his best performance for England was the extraordinary, phenomenal one that it was. There is no doubt, in any sane minds, that Beckham v Greece in 2001 was the outstanding England performance of modern times.

Where’s the fabled John Terry performance? I can think of Sol Campbell ones, and Terry Butcher ones, but none for England from the slit-eyed man with scrub hair. Or the Gerrard one? Do we have to go back to “5-1” for that? Or the Lampard one? I can think of recent Michael Owen performances, but he’s another man the oafs want to defenestrate. Lampard’s relatively minor annus mirabilis was four years ago.

If Beckham isn’t good enough, who’s better? Which colleagues’ performances have left his so far behind?

What of the other century men? I’ll take them in turn.

Peter Shilton

He, and Gordon Banks before him, stand out not only in English goalkeeping history but world goalkeeping history. But even Homer etc., and Shilton was keeping in both of the matches against Poland in 1973-4 that saw England fail to qualify for the West Germany World Cup. It does feel harsh to suggest, 34 years later, that he might have done better at Wembley once Norman Hunter had missed his tackle, because Shilton was part of a quiet golden age in England’s defence between 1982 and 1990. There is no ball-between-the-legs-against Scotland, no famous flaps, just endless hard work and a reliability that was always taken for granted. Why Liverpool never came for him will always be a mystery to me.

Shilton was worth his caps, and retired from internationals at exactly the right time. Which brings us on to…

Billy Wright

Wright hails from an era that was strange in its giving out of caps. He wasn’t the best defender of his day. He played in both of the gigantic 1953-4 humiliations against the Hungarians, and his most remembered passage of play came in the first of the two, when Puskas sent him flying in the wrong direction. On the other hand, he skippered the best ever England international team, that serendipitous 46-48 group which also boasted Raich Carter, Stan Matthews, Stan Mortenson, Tommy Lawton, Tom Finney and Wilf Mannion. Later, he skippered the 55-58 side of Edwards, Byrne and Taylor that, but for Munich, would surely have starred in the World Cup in Sweden.

But what of himself? It’s almost as though he were captain in the cricketing sense, a fixture purely on those grounds, kept going by avoiding injury and delaying retirement. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s noticeable that of our centenarians, Wright is the only one who has never been considered one of the greats of the game, whereas he’s the one of the group who played alongside great players the most.

But he married a singer. No, Beckham’s done more, and been through more, for his hundred than Billy Wright.

What about…

Bobby Charlton

Bobby Charlton, of course, scored 49 goals for England, a record that sits waiting for Michael Owen’s next blue streak. Beckham’s only managed 17, the last one coming two years ago in the World Cup. But Charlton’s international goals come in a lump at the beginning of his international career. As a goalscorer, he thrived alongside Jimmy Greaves, not Geoff Hurst or Martin Peters. Charlton’s last 17 international goals took him six years to compile. Nevertheless, it was during this period, comparatively late in the day that Charlton truly came to be accepted as an international. Philip Larkin said of John Betjeman that his greatest achievement was to become Betjeman. Much the same could be said of Charlton, who did it during the 1966 World Cup. After his goals against Mexico and Portugal, all criticism of his inconsistency and selfishness on the pitch, so common before, fell away and were soon forgotten. So complete was his rehab that defeat to West Germany in 1970 is put down in part to his being taken off. Apparently, he’d kept Beckenbauer out of the game (Der Kaiser had in fact scored before Charlton left the field).

Did Charlton hang on too long? Three goals in his last nineteen internationals is comparable to Beckham’s three in his last 25. Charlton was 32 when he was retired by Sir Alf Ramsey, 35 when he eventually retired altogether, something he later felt he’d done too early (he was almost certainly right about this). No, in other words. There’d have been more, had he only realized it. Beckham knows there’s something valuable left in him, and won’t make Charlton’s mistake.

On the other hand…

Bobby Moore

Moore was Ramsey’s skipper as Beckham was Ericksson’s. He was England’s outstanding player in their outstanding performance, the 1-0 defeat to Brazil in 1970 at which international football peaked. He made England’s third goal in the 1966 Final with that last, long, sweeping pass for Hurst to run onto.

But he was only just into the nineties in terms of caps when the real rot set in for England. Moore skippered England against West Germany and Netzer in April 1972, and then there was this the following year – it’s at about 2:40 :-

Moore was dropped after that, only for Norman Hunter to repeat the error in the return match at Wembley. There’d be three more internationals, then an Indian summer at Fulham ending with a Wembley Cup Final. Life could have been fairer to Moore. He’d had to recover from cancer in his early career, which must have chopped years off his best playing days. Had any of the myriad chances gone in at Wembley, he’d have had an appropriate send-off at a World Cup Finals, as Charlton had had. (But for the string of injuries that raddled England in 2005-6, perhaps Beckham would have had his). But nevertheless, there is not the sense of unfinished business about Moore that there is with Beckham. Four months ago, this:

But there’s one piece of history that David Beckham can never claim. Because he wasn’t the first Englishman to score at the new Wembley. That was this man – and on that note..

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2 responses to “Beckham and the Century-Makers

  1. I saw little of Charlton on TV in Scotland, but what I did see left me pretty unimpressed – time after time he passed the ball square and bustled self-importantly upfield. He had a ripper of a shot but as a midfielder he wasn’t up to much on the evidence I had. Perhaps I missed his best years. Now, that Johnny Haynes – that’s a midfielder.
    PS is Mr Rooney going to disappoint everyone by being only a fine player rather than a wonderful one? Too early to tell?

  2. I always think that if Beckham had been able to tackle, he could have been the midfield general he sometimes seemed to want to be. And then he would have had his caps with perhaps less controversy. England have had “trouble on t’wing” for most of my football watching life. Much of that time it was the search (which Joe Cole only partially quells) for “someone who really belongs on the left” but the wing position on the right has equally been the receptacle of many people’s fantasies.

    Beckham’s popularity started to drain away in part because he couldn’t replicate that Greek performance (but as you note, who could?) in part because he was the symoblic player of a generation that were expected to bring more success than they did, but in part his popularity drained as he got older and slower.

    You see, Beckham has always had a fantastic cross and indeed were it not for some of his vital crosses, England would not even have come close to qualifying for Euro 2008. But, what people want in a wing, is well… Cristiano Ronaldo… or George Best… or Stanley Matthews… and Becks never had that pace or trickery.

    I think there’s almost a case to say that wing is where “creativity” is semi-accepted in the neanderthal English kick and rush, long ball, game. And so, Beckham, over time came to be seen as an older, slower player, blocking the possibility of a more romantic figure playing and entertaining us.

    In other countries, they invest the central midfielder with creative mythology (Riquelme springs to mind) and so they can see Beckham’s value more clearly because they are not busy wishing he was George Best.