Although two of its players, Ray Wilson and soon-to-be-signed Alan Ball, were part of the 1966 World Cup winning team, there is a sense that throughout the national team’s history Everton players have been under-represented and overlooked. William Ralph ‘Dixie’ Dean made just 16 national team appearances and none at all after his 25th birthday. Colin Harvey was picked just once for England and Howard Kendall never. Brian Labone’s England debut against France in 1962 was the first time in nearly a quarter-century that an Everton player was selected for the national side.
More recently that ambivalence has been returned by Everton fans and there is an inevitable sense that a national team call-up is bad news for the club’s players. Such apprehension is not misplaced and there is a long list of players who have sought moves elsewhere after allegedly having their heads turned in the England dressing room. Gary Lineker, Martin Keown, Nick Barmby, Wayne Rooney and Joleon Lescott have all departed elsewhere soon after impressing for their country.
ENGLAND PLAYED their first international in 1871, but Everton had to wait until March 1890
for Johnny Holt to became its first international when he was selected against Wales. Fred Geary followed him into the national team later that year against Ireland. Over the next quarter- century most of Everton’s great players were recognised by their country, including Harold Makepeace, Jimmy Settle, Bertie Freeman and Edgar Chadwick
This was an era when international football was defined by Home International matches and gaining a regular stint or hatful of caps was difficult. Although Chadwick and Makepeace were regularly picked for the most important match on the calendar – that versus Scotland – it would be difficult to describe any Everton player as a long-term international regular until Wilson and Ball in the 1960s.
EVERTON’S relationship with the national team was given explosive momentum by the ascent of Dean. In February 1927, aged 19, Dean marked his debut against Wales in Wrexham with a brace of goals in a 3-2 win. Seven weeks later, England travelled to Hampden to face Scotland where England were without a win since April 1904. It was a miserable run that everybody south of Hadrian’s Wall was desperate to bring to an end. England, nevertheless, got off to a nervous start and fell behind. Dean, however, was never a man to pass up the opportunity of a goal. When Sidney Bishop sent him free in the 65th minute, he had no hesitation in hitting an equaliser past Harkness. As the minutes passed, a draw seemed the most likely conclusion, until Dean once more intervened. ‘One defender came for him,’ wrote the Daily Express’s ‘Broadcaster’, ‘and then another, and then another. They all seemed around him, but although he did not seem to be travelling much faster than they were,nhe stuck to the ball like a leech, kept them off somehow, and, as the goalkeeper came out, slipped the ball neatly past him for the winner.’
The Scottish crowd were dumbstruck.
You’ve heard all about the Hampden roar,’ recalled Dean. ‘Well, when our first one went in you could have heard a pin drop. And when I got the second in the old onion bag I thought I was playing in a cemetery.
On England’s summer tour, Dean hit hat-tricks against Belgium and Luxembourg and a brace against France. Not even 21, he had struck 12 goals in his first five games. He played five more times in 1928, but in the last 11 years of his professional career just four more times for England. His fate was characteristic of an era when selection of the England team was privy to the whims of remote selectors, often biased towards players at London clubs.
The next generation of great Everton players – Cliff Britton, Joe Mercer and Tommy Lawton – all seized chances to shine for the England team. But after that there was the hiatus before Labone’s arrival on the international scene. Even that represented a strange kind of glory for the defender, who turned down the chance to play at the 1966 World Cup finals – and possible football immortality – in order to get married. Instead it was left to Ray Wilson to become the first Everton player to appear in the World Cup finals (Roy Vernon, Alex Parker and Billy Bingham all played in 1958 before joining the Blues) and the only serving player to win the greatest prize of all: the World Cup.
Many tipped England to retain the trophy in 1970 when players – Labone, Ball, Keith Newton and Tommy Wright – from Everton’s League Championship winning side dominated the ranks. It was a similar story when England returned to Mexico 16 years later. Four Everton players – Gary Stevens, Trevor Steven, Peter Reid and Gary Lineker – starred for England, with Lineker winning the Golden Boot after scoring six goals. But the outcome was the same and England fell, as they had done in 1970, at the quarter-final stage. Strangely, no Everton player has appeared in an England World Cup squad since.
Not every Evertonian would mourn this fact. Among some there is a suspicion, perhaps paranoia, that their players’ heads are inevitably turned when put in a dressing room with better paid colleagues from more ‘glamorous’ clubs. Certainly this has been borne out by experience and a string of high-profile defections that have followed England call-ups. Even 140 years after the first England international only Wilson and Ball have enjoyed careers as bona fide regulars over the course of more than three years.
ONE PLAYER who has enjoyed a lengthy England career is Wayne Rooney. As an Everton player his England debut came as a substitute in a friendly against Australia in February 2003, making him the youngest ever England player, at 17 years and 111 days. This broke a record that had stood since 1879, although it was subsequently broken again by Theo Walcott. Still only mid- career, Rooney threatens to break all manner of international records and the finest England player of his generation may go on to be his country’s greatest ever servant. The tragedy is that his contribution to this record as a Manchester United player will inevitably overshadow that as a young Everton star.