The Best Number Ones England Never Had

By Robert McHugh

News • Apr 26, 2024

The Best Number Ones England Never Had

Which goalkeepers never got their fair shot at the national team number one spot?

Header image: Watford Football Club

It has often been said that, while he may not be at the very highest level, Jordan Pickford has never let England down. Throughout his time as England’s number one, he has reserved his best performances for the big stage, and has produced huge saves, particularly in penalty shoot outs, when it matters most. 

But when England met Belgium, back in March 2024, Pickford made the perhaps the biggest mistake of his England career, allowing Youri Tielemans to score. Though not solely his fault, the Everton man wasn't blameless.

The mistake opened a can of worms that Gareth Southgate did not need on the verge of the Euros in Germany later this year. 

There has been a core group of Pickford critics among the England fan base, whose voices have got louder since the error. But with Nick Pope on the long-term casualty list, along with Sam Johnstone, and Aaron Ramsdale frozen out of the Arsenal first team, Southgate does not have a wealth of other options to choose from. 

Some would argue that the alternatives available to Southgate are still fairly plentiful. James Trafford was called up to the senior squad for the first time in the Spring to replace the injured Johnstone, Jack Butland has been in fine form for Rangers, and Dean Henderson is now once again getting Premier League minutes - including a stand out performance vs Liverpool a few weekends back. 

Over the years, England have had strength in depth in the goalkeeper department, but not all who could have been picked always were. This article looks back at some of those who can count themselves unlucky not to h ave won more caps.

Tony Coton

For many people, Tony Coton is the best English goalkeeper to never win a cap. In a career spanning three decades with Birmingham City, Watford, and Manchester City, amongst others. Coton won a host of individual honours, including being named in the PFA First Division team of the year in 1992. 

His competition for the award that year included Peter Schmeichel, who would go on to inspire Denmark to win the European Championship that summer, David Seaman, Neville Southall, and several other greats of the era.

The reason for Coton’s ongoing omission from the England side was revealed in an interview with the Athletic in 2019. In an era where the power politics at the FA was notoriously influential, Peter Swales, then chairman of the FA’s international Committee and Manchester City, had agreed a £350,000 bonus in Coton’s contract when signing him from Watford, which would be payable if Coton made his England debut. 

According to Coton, Swales had pressured then England manager, Graham Taylor, not to select Coton on an England tour of Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia so that he would not have to pay the clause. That year, Coton had been playing the best football of his life. He succinctly sums the feeling up, in the interview with The Athletic, as “a real kick in the b*llocks”.

Steve Ogrizovic

Another giant of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Steve Ogrizovic’s career started at Liverpool; however he is most famous for his association with Coventry City, making over 600 appearances for the club. Whilst there, he was part of the famous side who lifted the FA Cup in 1987, beating Tottenham 3-2 in the final.

Ogrizovic was a regular in England squads at the time but was never able to force his way past Peter Shilton to make his full England debut. He did play 45 minutes for English Football League XI, against a Rest of the World XI, replacing Shilton at half time, as part of the English Football League’s centenary celebrations. But this was as close to a full cap as Ogrizovic would manage. 

He retired in 2000, as a Coventry legend and inductee to their hall of fame. The only thing missing from a stellar career was his England cap. 

Jimmy Rimmer

Thought of by many as Aston Villa's greatest ever goalkeeper, Jimmy Rimmer only ever received a solitary single cap for the Three Lions under the management of Leeds United legend Don Revie.

Having made over 100 appearances for Arsenal, being voted their Player of the Season in 1975, Rimmer joined Aston Villa upon Pat Jennings' arrival at Highbury. He would make more than double that number of outings in the second city. During his time with Villa, Rimmer became the first English player ever to win a European Cup with two different clubs - Manchester United in 1968 and Aston Villa in 1982.

There is some irony in the fact that in those two cup finals, Rimmer only actually played 10 minutes of football. He was on the bench for United, and came off due to a recurring shoulder injury in the 1982 edition for Villa in Rotterdam. Nigel Spink, his replacement off the bench that night, would become the first goalkeeper (by date of debut) picked by Revie's England replacement, Sir Bobby Robson. 

Rimmer's debut - and final match - for England came in 1976, in a 3-2 victory over Italy. He got no more than 45 minutes for the national team in a particularly odd game played at the New York Yankee Stadium during the USA Bicentennial Cup Tournament that year.

Alex Stepney

Imagine producing a save so good in a European Cup final that one of the greats of the Benfica side stops to applaud you. Alex Stepney, who started ahead of the aforementioned Rimmer, experienced this in the 1968 European Cup Final, when denying Eusebio on the way to Manchester United’s first European Cup triumph. 

Stepney played 433 times for Manchester United, during a career which saw him lift the First Division, the FA Cup, the European Cup and a Charity Shield. However, he only made one appearance for England, in a friendly win against Sweden in 1968. 

He had Gordon Banks, arguably England’s greatest ever goalkeeper, ahead of him in the pecking order, more experienced choices Peter Bonetti, Gordon West and Ron Springett, as well as a young contender by the name of Peter Shilton. 

Carlo Cudicini

This is a pick from leftfield, but there was a point in the early 2000s where Carlo Cudicini was the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. He also never received an Italy cap, due to the dominance of Gianluigi Buffon and Francesco Toldo at the time. 

Then Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri, spoke in the press, advising Cudicini to turn his back on Italy and switch international allegiance to England. Cudicini’s agent once asked whether he would consider switching allegiance to England, once he qualified through residency, and he did not rule it out. 

However, when Cudicini was playing his best football for Chelsea, he had not lived in England for long enough to qualify. By the time he did, the world had moved on, and his chance never came. By the time he would have qualified on residency grounds, Ranieri had been replaced by Jose Mourinho, and Cudicini had been replaced by Petr Cech as first choice Chelsea goalkeeper. 

He spent the rest of his time at Chelsea as understudy to Cech, before joining Tottenham on a free transfer in 2009, where he was also a back up choice. He never won an international cap, for either England or Italy. 

Of course, this is just a selection of the goalkeepers who were unlucky not to make the number one spot their own. You could even argue that someone like Ray Clemence, with 61 caps to his name, was unlucky not to win more caps due to competition from Shilton. 

But one thing is certain, Gareth Southgate would love to be in a position to call on one of these players from another era, to bolster a position where England may soon need more strength in depth.

Shop featured products
Related Editorials
Read All Posts

Copyright 2022 Goalkeeper. All Rights Reserved.