For any footballer, captaining your country is one of the proudest moments of your career. Some Englishmen have received that honour earlier than others, but not many are made skipper before their 20th cap. Since the 1960 there have been 13 men who fall into this category. These include players who are natural born leaders, a few who the manager saw potential to grow into a great captain, and then some who were just in the right place at the right time. So here are those England players, by the amount of appearances they made before receiving the armband for the first time. In reverse order…
13. PETER BEARDSLEY
Caps When Given The Armband: 19
Match: vs Israel – 1988
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 1 (59)
One of the more surprising names on this list, Peter Beardsley led England out for the only time in a friendly against Israel in February 1988. With the absence of regular skipper, Bryan Robson, Beardsley was given the armband as he was the most capped player in an relatively inexperienced team to play in Tel Aviv that night, where both Steve McMahon and Mick Harford made their debuts.
The match itself finished as a 0-0 draw, starting the worst year of manager Bobby Robson’s tenure, which included losing all three group games at the European Championship that summer. Beardsley eventually went on to become club captain for Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side in the mid-90s, leading the Magpies to 2nd place in the 1995/96 Premier League campaign. But despite playing for England until the age of 35 – when he was unlucky to be dropped from the squad just before Euro ’96 – the striker never captained the national side again.
12. COLIN BELL
Caps When Given The Armband: 19
Match: vs Northern Ireland – 1972
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 1 (48)
Ranked above Beardsley because he had less opportunities to captain his country, Colin Bell was a permanent fixture in the England side towards the end of Sir Alf Ramsey’s reign as manager. An important member of the side since his appearances in the 1970 World Cup, the Manchester City midfielder was given the armband in the absence of Bobby Moore for the 1972 friendly against Northern Ireland. Vice- captain Martin Peters was left on the bench, leaving Bell to lead the team out for the first time in the 1-0 defeat in Belfast. This was also the first England match not to feature one of the World Cup winning players from six years earlier.
Widely regarded by fans across the country and his footballing peers as one of the great players of the 70s, Bell unfortunately never skippered England again. His manager Ramsey was sacked in 1974 and following a serious knee injury a year later, his international career was over. However, Bell’s legacy continues at Man City’s Etihad Stadium, where he has a stand named after him in his honour.
11. SOL CAMPBELL
Caps When Given The Armband: 18
Match: vs Belgium – 1998
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 3 (73)
A first team regular for his country and captain of his club (Tottenham) by the age of 23, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Sol Campbell’s first outing as England skipper just before the 1998 World Cup was going to be the first of many. With Alan Shearer, Tony Adams and Paul Ince all rested before the tournament, Campbell became the third youngest post-war England captain.
The friendly match is more memorable for the Three Lions losing on penalties, following a 0-0 draw – an ending that would repeat itself during the World Cup a few weeks later. It was also the final international appearance for Paul Gascoigne, who was famously dropped by Glenn Hoddle from the World Cup squad at the training base in La Manga after this game. With Shearer staying on as skipper until the year 2000 under Hoddle and Kevin Keegan, plus David Beckham taking over the armband when Sven Goran Eriksson took charge in 2001, Campbell was restricted to just 3 matches as captain of the national side; this match, vs Czech Republic later that same year and against USA in 2005. Sol Campbell remains one of the most underused leaders England has ever had at it’s disposal, a fact that he still talks about to this day.
10. PHIL THOMPSON
Caps When Given The Armband: 18
Match: vs Bulgaria – 1978
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 6 (42)
Between 1979-1981, Phil Thompson was club captain of Liverpool, bang in the middle of their late 70s – early 80s domestic and European dominance. Indeed he lifted the European Cup, League Championship and League Cup during that time, before he was relieved of the duty, replaced by Graeme Souness. Despite his leadership skills, Thompson was still behind the likes of Emlyn Hughes, Kevin Keegan and Mick Mills for captaining his country.
He still managed to receive the honour on six occasions though, mainly stepping in when all the above were unavailable. In fact Thompson’s first match as skipper came about because Keegan’s flight from Hamburg was delayed for 24 hours due to fog! The match in question was the 2-0 win European Championship qualifying win over Bulgaria at Wembley, in November 1979. The game was also Glenn Hoddle’s debut and he duly scored a cracker to start his international career in style. Shortly after the 1982 World Cup, Phil Thompson lost his place in the Liverpool side and was no longer selected for England. After years of coaching on and off at Anfield, you’ll now find him every weekend on the Soccer Saturday panel.
9. JIMMY ARMFIELD
Caps When Given The Armband: 18
Match: vs Luxembourg – 1961
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 15 (43)
Blackpool’s one-club man, Jimmy Armfield, first captained England in 1961, for the World Cup qualifying match against Luxembourg at Highbury. After playing every single minute during the World Cup in Chile the following year, Armfield skippered his country in the last three games of Walter Winterbottom’s managerial reign. When Alf Ramsey took over in 1963, he immediately installed Armfield as his first choice captain and he went on to lead England out in 9 of Ramsey’s first 10 matches. However, a serious groin injury meant he missed two years of international football. In this time, he lost his place at right-back to George Cohen and the armband to the great Bobby Moore.
Armfield was recalled just before the 1966 World Cup, playing in two warm-up games before the tournament. However, this was the last that we saw of him in an England jersey, because despite being a member of the squad, Armfield didn’t play a single second during the home competition. In later years, he spoke with nothing but admiration for his teammates and what they achieved, despite watching it all from the side-lines. In 2009, he and the rest of the squad who didn’t play in the final were finally awarded their World Cup medals, as FIFA changed the rules on all past winners, giving Armfield the greatest honour of all.
8. HARRY KANE
Caps When Given The Armband: 18
Match: vs Scotland – 2017
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 24 (45)
Due to England’s success in last year’s World Cup, it feels like Harry Kane has been captain of the national side for more than just two years. His first match as skipper was a fiery qualifier with Scotland at Hampden Park in June 2017 and in true captain style, he saved the day for England, scoring a last minute equaliser in the 2-2 draw. Kane didn’t keep the armband straight away either, as Southgate used the qualifiers and the friendlies leading up to the tournament in Russia as an audition process.
He got the nod on the eve of the competition and the role seemed to take him to new heights from the very first game. A brace in the opening win over Tunisia was followed by a hat-trick in the 6-1 win over Panama – only the third English hat-trick at a World Cup. Two important penalties in the second round match against Colombia (one in normal time and one in the shootout) helped England progress further. By their semi-final defeat to Croatia, Kane was spent, exhausted from leading the line so well and taking punishment from the opposition in every match. He did, however, go home with the Golden Boot; only the second English winner of the trophy after Gary Lineker. Kane’s strike record as captain is phenomenal, with 27 goals from 24 games as skipper. And long may that continue.
7. KEVIN KEEGAN
Caps When Given The Armband: 18
Match: vs Wales – 1976
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 31 (63)
With Don Revie’s history of being a difficult club manager by not allowing his Leeds players out on international duty, many bosses in the English First Division seemed to use this as an excuse to pull their players out of Revie’s England squads. This was never more true than the FA of Wales Centenary Match against the Three Lions in March 1976. Revie had to give debuts to SEVEN players in this match, which coincided with Kevin Keegan‘s first game as England captain. His side won 2-1 and it gave Keegan a taste for leadership that he would retain a further 30 times during his international career. Both Revie and his successor, Ron Greenwood, made Keegan their number one captain during their reigns.
Keegan lead his country at the 1980 European Championships, where they were knocked out at the group stage. The most drama during his captaincy however, was just before the 1982 World Cup, when Keegan was named in the squad despite suffering from a chronic back injury. Ipswich skipper, Mick Mills, took over the armband for the tournament while Keegan recovered, but his injury wasn’t healing quick enough for any game time. In a last desperate attempt to play in a World Cup, Keegan secretly hired a car and drove through the night from Spain to Germany to see a specialist he knew for intensive treatment. It worked and he finally got on the pitch for the final 26 minutes of the second round group game against the hosts Spain. In a match England needed to win to progress, Keegan missed an easy header and his team went home. That was his final appearance in an England shirt after the next manager, Bobby Robson, dropped him from his first squad. A snub that Keegan never got over.
6. FABIAN DELPH
Caps When Given The Armband: 17
Match: vs USA – 2019
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 1 (20)
The most recent entry on this list, Fabian Delph’s one game as England captain certainly caused some controversy in November of last year. Firstly was the dismay amongst fans that Delph didn’t deserve the honour, having barely played for his club that season – he only made 11 league appearances for City during the whole 2018/19 campaign. Gareth Southgate defended his decision, stating that Delph was a ”huge leader within our group”. Despite the lack of domestic games for his club, Southgate continued to play Delph, starting him in the crucial Nations League qualifier against Croatia a couple of days later and in both matches at the tournament itself the following summer.
The second point that didn’t sit well with fans about this friendly against the USA, was that Wayne Rooney had announced that he was coming back to make one final appearance for England. It was later agreed that Rooney would start on the bench but would take the armband off Delph for the final 20+ minutes. Not the ideal scenario for Delph’s first (and maybe only) game as captain. A move to Everton in the summer of 2019 has given the midfielder regular first team football again, meaning Southgate will continue to stick with his man. It’s often forgotten that Delph played in 4 matches during the World Cup run last year and even went home halfway through to witness the birth of his third child. So regardless of whether he should have captained England that night, his commitment to his country can never be in question.
5. MICK MILLS
Caps When Given The Armband: 16
Match: vs Wales – 1978
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 8 (42)
Appointed captain of Ipswich Town in 1971 at the age of 22, Mick Mills was more than ready to step up to national skipper when manager Ron Greenwood gave him the call seven years later. It was a time when England were inundated with leaders in the side, with players like Emlyn Hughes, Kevin Keegan and Phil Thompson vying with Mills for the job. The match in question against Wales was part of the old Home International Championship that took place every year between the four countries of the UK – England won 3-1 in Cardiff.
Between 1978-82, Ipswich Town finished in the top five of the First Division for 5 consecutive years, peaking in 1981 when they finished runners-up to Aston Villa in the league and beating AZ Alkmaar in the final of the UEFA Cup. This obviously meant Ron Greenwood had no hesitation in giving Mick Mills the captain’s armband for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when it was apparent that squad skipper Kevin Keegan wasn’t fit to start the tournament. Despite failing to qualify for the semi-finals from the second group stage, England still ended the competition unbeaten. Not a bad way for a defender and a captain to end his international career.
4. BOBBY MOORE
Caps When Given The Armband: 12
Match: vs Czechoslovakia – 1963
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 90 (108)
Following an injury to regular captain Jimmy Armfield, West Ham’s Bobby Moore became the youngest player in England’s history to wear the armband, at just 22 years and 47 days – a record that still stands to this day. Despite his young age, manager, Alf Ramsey, saw potential in Moore to lead his country to greatness and he was proved right three years later. Moore’s first game as captain his was side’s 4-2 win in Czechoslovakia, but he had to wait another 12 months to get the armband full time.
From the summer of 1964, to November 1973, Bobby Moore missed just 12 matches as England skipper, in the end matching Billy Wright’s record of 90 appearances as captain. Lifting the World Cup in 1966 was the highlight of Moore’s international career, and from then on he became a national icon, but it could have been so different. On the eve of the final, right-back George Cohen had heard Ramsey and his coaching staff consider dropping Moore from the biggest game of his life, in favour of Leeds United centre-back, Norman Hunter. The thinking was that Moore’s lack of pace (probably his only weakness) may be exposed by West Germany’s fast attackers, and Hunter would be more suited playing next to his club partner, Jack Charlton. Fortunately, Ramsey decided against this and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s hard to think of anybody lifting the Jules Rimet trophy that day, except the great Bobby Moore.
3. SCOTT PARKER
Caps When Given The Armband: 11
Match: vs Netherlands – 2012
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 1 (18)
It’s a match that is often forgotten in England’s history, but in February 2012, following the shock resignation of manager, Fabio Capello, the national side had a fixture at home against the Netherlands to fulfil. Under-21 coach, Stuart Pearce, took over as caretaker manager for one game only, stating he could not manage the team at Euro 2012 that summer due to his commitment to the Team GB side at the London Olympics. Pearce made a few surprising selections for his squad to take on the Dutch – giving Fraizer Campbell a debut for one – but the biggest shock was to make Scott Parker his captain. This was made even stranger by the fact that Capello’s skipper and England’s most experienced player, Steven Gerrard, was also in the team. Parker’s international career had taken it’s time to get going, as his first four caps were earned while playing for four different teams such was the gap between appearances, but now he had the greatest honour.
The match itself was quite an entertaining affair, with the Netherlands going 2-0 up, then two late England goals from Cahill and Young seemed to earn a draw, before Arjen Robben’s 92nd minute strike snatched a victory for the Dutch. Parker stayed in the England squad that summer for the European Championship under new boss Roy Hodgson, and played in all four matches at the tournament before the Three Lions went out on penalties to Italy in the quarter-finals. He played one more game for England the following season before his international days were done. But by captaining his country on just his 11th cap, Scott Parker showed that he was trusted to step up when needed, no matter how inexperienced he was at that level.
2. PAUL INCE
Caps When Given The Armband: 7
Match: vs USA – 1993
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 7 (53)
In the summer of 1993, the USA hosted a warm-up tournament featuring Brazil, Germany and England (The US Cup) before the following year’s World Cup there. The Three Lions had just come off a couple of terrible results in their World Cup qualifying group, by drawing in Poland and losing 2-0 to Norway in Oslo. In the latter of those matches, Manchester United midfielder Paul Ince was suspended and after a long title-winning season with United, he was ready to pull out of the US trip. Manager, Graham Taylor, talked him round, promising to give Ince full game time in all three group matches. Little did Ince know then, that agreeing to go would make him a pioneer for all young black footballers in England. Following injuries to David Platt, Tony Adams and Stuart Pearce, Ince, whilst winning just his 7th cap, was given the armband in their first match of the competition against the hosts, the United States. This made Paul Ince the first black player to captain England, breaking down a barrier that had lasted for decades.
Unfortunately for Ince, this match turned out to be one of the most embarrassing defeats in England’s history, as they lost 2-0. He regained the captaincy for the next match against Brazil, where England played much better, drawing 1-1. From that summer onwards, Ince became a regular for his country in centre-midfield, and despite only captaining the side on seven occasions, he was leader on the pitch and clearly played an important part in England’s Euro ’96 success. And who can forget his Terry Butcher style heroics during the 0-0 draw in Rome against Italy in 1997, which secured qualification for the 1998 World Cup; the captain playing on with blood pouring from a head wound. Solid performances and leadership skills are what Paul Ince is remembered for in an England shirt. He put his body on the line in every one of his 53 caps, of that there is no doubt.
1. GERRY FRANCIS
Caps When Given The Armband: 5
Match: vs Switzerland – 1975
Total Matches as Captain (Total caps): 8 (12)
Known more these days for still having his 1970s hairstyle, Gerry Francis had an England career which can definitely be described as ‘short but sweet’. At the age of just 23, manager, Don Revie, shocked the media and fans alike by making Francis captain in only his 5th appearance for the national side. What made the appointment even more sensational, was that Revie also dropped his previous captain, Alan Ball, from the squad altogether. Ball was the last of the 1966 World Cup winning side still playing for his country, so his expulsion was certainly the end of an era. This was an unfortunate time for Francis to receive the armband, as while trying to stamp his authority on the team, Revie was already losing the dressing room with his surprise selections.
The friendly match against Switzerland ended in victory for England, and the QPR midfielder kept the armband for a further six games. However, his international career stalled as quickly as it had begun, as Francis sustained a serious back injury which forced him out of the game for two years and he never regained his form to add to his 12 caps. In the early 80s, Ron Greenwood did call Francis back up to the squad, but kidney stones forced him to withdraw once again. Over the last 60 years, there can’t be many players in world football who can claim to have been captain of their country after just five matches. However, Gerry Francis can, and if it wasn’t for injury, he could have been one of the England greats.
POST-WAR – 1946-50
Just after the second World War, England started up the national team again. In the period between 1946-50, there were also four more players who captained their country before reaching 20 caps. Middlesbrough‘s George Hardwick, was made skipper on his debut in their first match back after seven years. Goalkeeper Frank Swift was given the armband after just 14 caps in 1948. England legend Billy Wright had the first of his 90 appearances as captain also that year after 16 caps, and World Cup winning manager Alf Ramsey captained his country after just 10 matches in 1950. All great players for England in their time and with Ramsey getting the captaincy so early, it’s no surprise then that he had an eye for spotting a future national skipper when he became manager.
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