The ten greatest uncapped Premier League players ever

Date published: Wednesday 18th November 2020 8:15 - Matthew Stead

Mikel Arteta for Spain. Or England.

10) Lee Clark

“The stats back me up,” Lee Clark once said. “They tell you I shouldn’t have been dropped. From the beginning of January, we won five, drew one, lost one, scored 12 and conceded five. In the 11 games that followed without me: we won five, drew two, lost four, scored 14 and conceded 12. We’d only lost four in the previous 27 Premier League games so why try to change something that isn’t broken?”

One of the more functional Newcastle Entertainers perhaps had a point. Clark had been a midfield regular in the side Kevin Keegan had dragged from a Second Division relegation battle to the brink of the English championship in a matter of years. His loss of a first-team place to new signing David Batty coincided with an era-defining collapse in form; it’s certainly a better explanation than Faustino Asprilla rocking the boat.

A Le Tournoi squad place was the closest Clark came to a senior international reward for his quietly impressive performances. But he at least proved his top-flight mettle further over six accomplished years at Fulham and is still fondly remembered at Craven Cottage as the captain that struck the opening goal in a famous 3-1 win over Manchester United in October 2003.


9) Mark Noble

There was no clamour for a teenage Mark Noble to make Sven Goran Eriksson’s 2006 World Cup squad, although he did have five Premier League appearances to Theo Walcott’s none, as well as 21 caps for an assortment of England youth teams. The Euro 2008 ship sailed with Steve McClaren at the haphazard helm. The Capello Index failed to correctly identify Noble – or any other player or inanimate object – as more likely than Gareth Barry to stop Mesut Ozil in 2010. Roy Hodgson overlooked him for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup. But Noble’s two best opportunities to wear the Three Lions would soon present themselves.

The first came at Euro 2016, immediately following a Premier League season in which he had missed one game for an exciting West Ham side that finished seventh. Gary Neville, England assistant at the time, later explained that “we invested in Ross Barkley” instead of Noble, a player “in better form”. Then Hodgson’s post-tournament demise offered hope when all seemed lost. His replacement, Sam Allardyce, had made the 29-year-old an integral part of his team over four years at Upton Park. But while his only England squad withdrew investment in Barkley by dropping him, it featured only one England virgin. That it was Noble’s Hammers teammate Michail Antonio must have been a kick in the impeccable haircut.


8) Carlo Cudicini

Allardyce, of course, spent much of his time in charge of England trying to figure out if he could call up future France World Cup winner Steven Nzonzi. “We did explore it, but it was impossible, and it’s dead now,” he was soon forced to concede.

It was the sort of question so often asked of Carlo Cudicini, who was publicly advised to “choose England” by Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri if the rules permitted as such in February 2003. That technically might have worked by August of the following year, by which point he qualified for a British passport as a permanent resident. But the home nations agreement prohibited Cudicini from swapping his allegiance to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. There was one Italy call-up shortly after the 2002 World Cup but Gianluigi Buffon and Francesco Toldo were not to be moved by Chelsea’s reigning Player of the Year.

Carlo’s father, Fabio, was arguably even better and similarly uncapped. Those poor Cudicinis.


7) Kevin Nolan

‘One player who I expected to be in the squad is Bolton’s Kevin Nolan,’ wrote Alan Hansen in February 2006, suggesting the Bolton talisman ‘could muscle his way in’ ahead of that summer’s World Cup. The 23-year-old had no such luck and would, in truth, never get particularly close at any point.

Six years later a more seasoned veteran would open up on his “hurt” at constantly being ignored by his country. “I don’t know what more I can do to be quite honest,” he said. “I’ve scored goals consistently for a number of years, I dropped down a division but consistently scored goals down there.” With five top-flight seasons of eight goals or more it is difficult not to feel a modicum of sympathy for a player who still holds the record of 401 Premier League games without being capped by England.


6) Steed Malbranque

One of the last players to win a trophy with Tottenham remains one of the best never to be capped by their country. Malbranque ostensibly had three chances to gain international honours but, rather typically, faltered when the time came to convert them. If only Tony Blair had been in charge.

Malbranque captained France to the final of the U21 European Championships in 2002 yet did not feature on the two occasions he received a senior call-up: in March 2004 and November 2012. Malbranque’s frustration at watching club teammate Steve Marlet represent Les Bleus while he continued to be disregarded manifested itself in a fluttering of the eyelashes at Belgium, the country of his birth. Unimpressed at being a blatant second choice, they soon ruled out the prospect. Then it was revealed that Eriksson had asked for his England eligibility to be explored to no avail, alongside Cudicini, Louis Saha and Edu. Malbranque is still just 40 and playing in the fifth tier of French football; make it happen, Gareth.


5) Aymeric Laporte

While England scramble around for three competent centre-halves, France float serenely in a ludicrously deep pool of talent. Dayot Upamecano finally became a full international earlier this year but Abdou Diallo, Ibrahima Konate, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Willy Boly, Benoit Badiashile and Wesley Fofana are among those waiting for that honour to be bestowed upon them.

Most strange of all is Aymeric Laporte’s ongoing battle to convince Didier Deschamps of his credentials. A player with 51 caps at youth level, a captain of France’s U21, U19, U18 and U17 teams, a two-time Premier League champion once the subject of a £57m transfer, still has no international cap to his name. The defender was part of France squads in 2016, 2017 and 2019 but injuries derailed each opportunity and speculation persists that he is considered too insular to mix with the personalities in an established group. Eliaquim Mangala, with his eight France caps, must have been a hoot in comparison.


4) Paolo Di Canio

It is unknown whether Paul Alcock secretly sat on the board of the Italian Football Federation during the late 20th century and early part of the 2000s. That would go some way to explaining how Paolo Di Canio never got his shot with the Azzurri.

There are a couple more obvious explanations. The striker notably struggled in Serie A in the nascent stages of his career, scoring 21 goals in 195 games for Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and AC Milan. By the time he had carved out a niche for himself in Scotland with Celtic and England at Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham, there was already a mark against his name. Italian minds had long been made up. Sir Alex Ferguson pursued Di Canio but the U21s was as far as a player deemed more trouble than he was worth got for his country.


3) Sylvain Distin

One thing is for certain: Sylvain Distin would not have been short of character references had he decided to relentlessly pursue an international career. The Frenchman played for a wide variety of managers in the Premier League, from Sir Bobby Robson to Kevin Keegan, Stuart Pearce, Harry Redknapp, Tony Adams, Paul Hart, David Moyes and Eddie Howe.

Come to think of it, his only non-British boss was Roberto Martinez. That probably explains a lot.

Yet campaigns of consistency and seasons of stability never attracted the attention of his home country; even a year at PSG before moving to England did nothing to enhance his chances. Distin won an FA Cup with Portsmouth, was named Player of the Year at Manchester City and claimed a Player’s Player of the Season award with Everton but might forever hold the record for most Premier League appearances (469) without ever being capped at international level. At least he has taken it well.


2) Mikel Arteta

“We were probably a centre-forward away from being contenders for the Premier League,” claimed David Moyes in September 2018, before reeling off a list of Everton players that included Distin but started with Mikel Arteta. More than six years on Merseyside earned the Spaniard a move to Arsenal in August 2011 but his home country never took much notice.

They could afford not to, of course. Arteta finds himself locked in an infernal rivalry with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard in 2020 but his contemporaries as a player were Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Antonio Nunez and Sergio Busquets. The 1999 U16 Euros champion “was half ready to go to war” to qualify as an England option before quite justifiably deciding it wasn’t at all worth it.


1) Steve Bruce

There will forever be a strand of football supporter that rages at a player for their club not being given international recognition while those at more illustrious teams are automatically selected. Steve Bruce exists as a perennial counterpoint to the suggestion that one game for Manchester United is enough for at least five or so England caps.

Gary Pallister, himself an Old Trafford stalwart who only pulled on that jersey 22 times, recalled how Sir Bobby Robson once apologised to Bruce after a game between United and Benfica in 1992. “He said: ‘Look lads, I just want to have a moment of your time. I just want to say sorry to Steve Bruce because I really should have given him an England cap. You were so well worth an England cap – I just want to apologise for not giving you one.'”

Graham Taylor famously resented even making Bruce the leader of an England B team that faced Malta – “For me you’d never be captain” – while the centre-half rejected “a sympathy cap” from Terry Venables at 35. His son Alex made up for it by representing both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland twice, the elder Bruce once admitting he considered an approach from the latter before turning it down because “we were going to be hindered as a club at Manchester United with the five-foreigners rule”. He retired with three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, a European Cup Winners’ Cup and a European Super Cup but fewer England caps than Keith Curle or Zat Knight.

Matt Stead

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