Why the end of a 62-year-old man’s marriage is in the public interest is anyone’s guess, but the newspapers nonetheless brought us the details of one such divorce this week. The man involved was Peter Shilton, who has played more competitive matches than any other professional footballer in the world and England’s most capped player. The legendary goalkeeper is a worthy addition to the England Greats series and his career is far more memorable than gossip about his private life will ever be.
Just before Christmas in 1996, I tuned into Sky Sports to watch Leyton Orient v Brighton & Hove Albion, a 2-0 victory for Orient that proved a fitting backdrop to the celebration of Shilton’s final remarkable achievement. Having joined the London club with a handful of games to go, Shilton reached 1,000 league games 30 years after making his debut for Leicester City. He would retire five matches later at the age of 47, bringing to an end an unrivalled career in terms of longevity and dedication.
His club career saw him play over 100 league games each for no fewer than five different clubs. Between 1966 and 1992, Shilton served Leicester, Stoke City, Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Derby County at length. He picked up the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award in 1978, when he helped Forest to the First Division title as they embarked upon the most decorated spell in their history under Brian Clough. With Forest, Shilton won two European Cups, a European Super Cup and a League Cup in addition to the 1977/78 title.
Plymouth Argyle was Shilton’s next destination after Derby, and was the last club where he made a fullsome impact. Between 1995 and the end of 1996, he totalled one league appearance for Wimbledon, Bolton Wanderers, Coventry City and West Ham United combined before moving to Brisbane Road to haul himself over the 1,000 game line. In spite of the scramble for appearances it was a dignified finale to a fine career, and supporters who remember the late-career journeyman would do well to look back into the 1970s and 1980s at an agile and wise goalkeeper who frequently kept his clubs in matches all on his own.
In many ways he often did the same for England. Making an impressive debut for his country against East Germany in 1970, Shilton’s England career lasted 20 years and made him an ever-present through the darkest spell in the national team’s history and its emergence back into the limelight. It’s amazing to think that Sir Alf Ramsey was the man who gave Shilton his debut and yet he also played in World Cup Italia ’90. The 1970s were a disastrous few years for England. Even with Shilton’s influence the team failed to qualify for the European Championships in 1972 and 1976 and the World Cup in 1974 and 1978. Don Revie’s spell as manager came to an ignominious end in 1977 and Ron Greenwood finally qualified England for the European Championships in Italy in 1980, marking our major tournament return.
Even in the face of such failure, Shilton established himself as England’s number one goalkeeper in spite of a determined challenge from Ray Clemence, with whom Shilton shared a gutsy rivalry, a close friendship and – for seven years – bedrooms on England duty. He was poised for greatness in the 1980s. Although England did not play in the European Championships in 1984, the decade provided redemption; on the pitch, at least. In 1982 England went out of the World Cup without losing a game and, by the time they reached the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, Bobby Robson’s England were back at the top table.
Mexico was the defining tournament of Shilton’s England career, and while he played a crucial part along with Gary Lineker in securing England’s path to the quarter-finals, it was his unfortunate part in two goals by Argentina’s Diego Maradona that came to represent his and England’s tournament in hindsight. In the Azteca Shilton could only watch as Maradona rose above him and handled the ball towards goal, the infamous Hand of God goal that became the image not only of that World Cup but of Maradona’s career. He was equally helpless as Maradona’s winding run took him beyond the England goalkeeper to score one of the World Cup’s best ever goals and send England home before the semi-finals.
Shilton also played a big part in Italia ’90 (after an appalling European Championships in 1988), where England finished fourth after a penalty shoot-out defeat to West Germany in the semis. In his 125th and final appearance, the third-placed playoff against Italy, Shilton’s error proved fatal to England’s hopes of finishing on the metaphorical podium. It was a sour end but Shilton could console himself with the knowledge that even in a career that took in an awful spell for England, such mistakes were a rarity.
Shilton clearly served his country as well as any other player in history. 125 caps is a record that may well be beaten if a precocious young player manages to avoid injury throughout his career, but it won’t be beaten easily. It certainly won’t be achieved over a span of 20 years, during which time Shilton represented England at five major tournaments, suffered the worst lows as well as enjoying the highs, and wore the captain’s armband 15 times.
What isn’t always considered when looking back upon Shilton’s career is the level of fitness required to play professional football for 30 years, and to play international football for 20. 1,005 league games and 125 caps does not come easily, and for much of Shilton’s career the English game was rife with alcohol and certainly didn’t have the nutritionists and dieticians that have so improved the levels of professionalism in the last 20 years. Peter Shilton was a force of nature and a true England Great.
England career: 1970 to 1990
England caps: 125
England goals: 0 (obviously)
Major championship appearances: European Championships 1980, World Cup 1982, World Cup 1986, European Championships 1988, World Cup 1990