Nobody enjoys feeling like they’re second best. A solid reserve choice. Good, but not quite good enough. Unfortunately, this was the space occupied by players called up to the England B team, which first came into existence for an end-of-season friendly in 1947.
Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortenson were part of an FA XI that took on their Swiss equivalents in Geneva. The game ended in an unremarkable 0-0 draw and the oft-contested notion of the England B team was born. A year later the same two nations met again, with Mortenson bagging a hat-trick in a 5-1 win.
The B team has a long yet sporadic history. It was first introduced by Walter Winterbottom as a stepping stone to the senior squad, a means to bridge the gap to full international recognition in the days before a calendar of competitive age-group fixtures was compiled. The UEFA Under-23 Championship (later revised to Under-21) wouldn’t come into formal existence until 1972.
The idea has evolved over time depending upon the manager in charge and how they have deemed it best to blood new talent. In total, 57 matches have been played by the England B team, many during the late 1980s and early 1990s, enabling Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor to test out potential options in a more forgiving environment. Brian Deane was one of the players to benefit, picking up three B team caps under Taylor’s assistant, Lawrie McMenemy.
“At that time I think the B squad was for people who were on the edge of the first team and they wanted to have a look at more closely,” says the former Sheffield United and Leeds striker. “They wanted to be able to scrutinise them at a more elite level than playing for their clubs. You’re looking at character. Realistically, not everyone from that group is going to be stepping up but there will be one or two on the edge. One or two who might surprise the staff and merit being fast-tracked.”
It had another purpose too: keeping more experienced players, many of whom had recently recovered from injury, motivated and involved. Peter Beardsley and Gary Pallister were among those to drop down to the B team around this time.
“There were players in there who hadn’t really had many opportunities to play,” Deane adds. “That was to still make them feel part of things. It might not be with the first team but they should be more senior in that group because they’d been around the first-team squad a lot more than the others.”
When Deane earned his chance with the England B team, he was a promising youngster starting to make waves in senior football. Having begun his career at Doncaster Rovers, he’d come to wider attention with Sheffield United. His goals helped propel the Blades to two successive promotions and comfortable survival back in the First Division. After scoring 13 times in his first season in the top tier, England came calling in April 1991.
“My B team debut came against Iceland at Watford. I had a lot of support personally. A lot of Sheffield United fans came down and probably made up the biggest contingent there. It was a good way to be bedded in. We then had another game at the Bescot Stadium in Walsall against Switzerland,” he says.
With Graham Taylor keeping a keen eye on proceedings, Deane played his part in two victories. He was soon rewarded with a senior call-up for a tour of Oceania, alongside other members of the B team squad like David Hirst and Earl Barrett. Their progress was aided by the fact that clubs had priority over their players that summer, and many England regulars were held back.
It might not have been the most high-profile match, but Deane was immensely proud to make his senior debut in a 1-0 win over New Zealand, coming on for David Batty as a half-time substitute. It was the culmination of a long journey, with the B team a key staging post along the way.
“I remember thinking I’d finally got where I wanted to be in terms of reaching that level,” he remembers. “That was because I’d gone through the process. Nothing was handed to you. I went from the Under-21s, to the B team, to the first team. It should be like that. Nothing should just be given to you.”
Another cap followed against the same opponents a few days later, and one more in a friendly with Spain in September 1992. Deane was often on the fringes of the England setup due to the fierce competition for forward places – Alan Shearer, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham and Alan Smith were among those playing and scoring regularly for their clubs – but he still feels he benefited from the B team experience, and others could too.
“You always learn things when you’re playing against a different opponent, particularly one from a different country,” he says. “It was very beneficial. It comes back to my argument about why we always seem to collapse when we get to a certain stage or meet a different level of opponent. We don’t have a Plan B. We don’t seem to have players who can adapt, perhaps by going and playing abroad.”
“If you look at the World Cup semi-final against Croatia, they had players playing at top clubs in Spain and Italy. We’ve just got players playing in the Premier League. All we know is how to play Premier League football. So the more games you get against foreign opposition, the more chance you get to figure it out. That’s the nearest you get to preparing for those kind of tournaments.”
The B team was once considered a useful way of helping players become accustomed to the unique demands and rhythms of international football, testing them out and seeing who could make the step up to the senior squad. But now it feels like something of a forgotten relic from a bygone age.
It’s more than a decade since England were last involved in a B international. Back in May 2007, an Alan Smith goal and a Stewart Downing brace secured a 3-1 win over Albania at Turf Moor. Michael Owen, Gareth Barry and Aaron Lennon were also on show that night in front of a crowd of 22,500.
That was the highest attendance for a B team game on home soil since Scotland were comfortably beaten at St. Andrew’s 50 years previously. It also showed that, depending on the venue, there is still an appetite to watch England’s second string after all.
Poor attendances and supporter apathy had contributed to the decline of the B team, with the five-figure mark rarely breached. For Deane, an advocate of the old system, that shouldn’t be a consideration as long as it aids the senior squad.
“I don’t think we should be worried about attendances; it’s about experiences. If fans don’t want to buy into it then the FA have got to make a decision on how they prepare their teams for tournament football at a more senior level. We’re talking about men’s football now, not the Under-21s and so on. This is about the next level between the Under-21s and the senior team. If it’s all about attendances then take it somewhere else, to a smaller ground.”
An even bigger obstacle is the ongoing power struggle between club and country, a dynamic which has shifted massively since Deane’s days as a footballer.
“The problem you’ve got is simple. Clubs don’t want to release players. The FA, the Premier League and the Football League have got to work more closely together on that, depending on what they want for the development of players in this country. That’s where the first stop is.
“For me, you should always want to play for your country. From the player’s point of view it’s simple as well. If you played for your country it meant that your valuation went up. Nowadays people are on big money without playing for their country. You’ve got players like that in the reserves, who’ve never even played for the first team. Maybe their objectives are different, and their hunger. There are some things that have changed because the footballing landscape has changed.”
Indeed, the relative paucity of homegrown talent in the Premier League, even compared to 20 years ago, has made the B team a much less compelling proposition than it once was. But the debate about the depth and quality of English players in the Premier League, and whether they’re getting enough game time to develop, will continue to rage regardless.
It could be argued that some youngsters, such as Mason Mount and James Maddison, have been promoted prematurely, and would perhaps have benefited from the stepping stone a B team provides. Others, like in-form Brighton striker Glenn Murray, aren’t being given a chance in the senior squad because it’s felt that they don’t suit international football and England’s new direction. They would no doubt like a chance to prove otherwise.
“A lot has changed in football. Whether people would have the appetite for a B international I don’t know, but I think it’s a great idea,” says Deane.
“It’s great exposure. If I was playing and I had the chance to play for the B team I’d take it with open arms. It’s not the same pressure as you get with the senior squad, but it will give you a taste of what it’s like.”