The lower-league legends who played for England

THEY came from nowhere… Meet the lower-league legends who graced the highest stage of all.

Wilfried Zaha’s call-up to the full England squad has raised eyebrows among those accustomed to the Premier League closed shop that has become the norm in recent times. But there are historical precedents for the Crystal Palace wide man’s sudden rise to fame – and not all the lower-league debutants are from the dim and distant past…

The Palace pantheon

With Crystal Palace about to clinch promotion to the old first division, Kenny Sansom received the England call in May 1979, and made his debut at left-back against Wales – the first of his 86 caps. A coy young Kenny reacts to the news on ITV’s The Big Match

Sansom followed in the footsteps of Palace’s Peter Taylor, a tricky winger who won four full caps in 1976 while playing for the Eagles in the old third division. His debut was also against Wales, when he came on as a second-half sub to grab the winning goal.

Taylor in turn followed in the footsteps of Palace legend Johnny Byrne, who also won his first full cap while playing in the third tier, winning his first cap in 1961. His goal-scoring record for Palace and then West Ham was phenomenal, but he played a mere 11 games for England, despite scoring eight goals. Here we see Johnny with the England squad just before the 1966 World Cup…

…and standing next to the great Jimmy Greaves, the reason he rarely got a look-in…

Away from Palace, a handful of players have made the step up from the second and third tiers, but none went on to establish themselves as England regulars…

1956: Reg Matthews

The Coventry keeper won five caps for the full national team, all in 1956 when the Sky Blues were languishing in the old Third Division (South). He kept goal for a famous 4-2 victory at Wembley. The one against Brazil, that is…

1971: Rodney Marsh

Rodney Marsh made his England debut against Switzerland in 1971, while Queen’s Park Rangers were in the old second division, and went on to win a total of nine caps, scoring one goal. He often told the story of how national manager Sir Alf Ramsey threatened to pull him off at half time, to which he replied: “Crikey, Alf, at Manchester City all we get is an orange and a cup of tea.”

The anecdote, needless to say, is completely untrue.

1989: Steve Bull

Bully made the grade at the end of the 1988-89 season, when Wolves won the old third division, and he scored on his debut against Scotland. The Tipton terror went on to win 13 caps and score four goals.

1999: Kevin Phillips and Michael Gray

The Sunderland pair made their debuts in the same game, under Kevin Keegan away to Hungary, while their club was still in the second tier. Phillips started and came off towards the end, while Gray came on as a sub. Phillips won eight caps in all; Gray, just three.

2007: David Nugent

While at Preston North End in the Championship, Nugent made his England bow as a sub in a European qualifier against Andorra, and scored in injury time by deflecting a shot from Jermaine Defoe – who tried to claim the goal. His record of one game and one goal is matched by just two other players: Paul Goddard and Francis “Fox in the Box” Jeffers.

2010: Jay Bothroyd

Bothroyd, of Championship side Cardiff City, was called up to the England squad for the friendly against France, and came on as a second-half sub. He is the only player in the Welsh club’s history to play for England, but he hasn’t done so since.

And finally…

Spare a thought for Brighton & Hove Albion goal machine Peter Ward. In 1977, after scoring a hat-trick against Norway for the under-21s, the third-division striker was called up for the senior squad the following month, but failed to get on during the World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg. He finally got his chance in 1980, by which time Brighton were in the top flight. Ward came on as a substitute in the 85th minute and never played for his country again. He thus holds the record for the shortest ever England career.

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