So, it’s almost time for the World Cup. One which could break an Albion record for most representation at a single tournament with Matty Ryan, Jose Izquierdo and new signing Leon Balogun all in line to make their respective international squads.
Only three players have represented their country at a World Cup prior to this one whilst with the Albion, all before my time. In fact, if you go to the museum at the AMEX, you’ll see a relatively modest list of Albion players to have represented their country whilst with the Albion. One which if you looked at a team like Chelsea or United would probably compare more closely to that of a single season.
The last Albion player to appear at a World Cup was Steve Penney at the 1986 Mexico World Cup playing for Northern Ireland. I’m now somewhat ashamed to say that he’s a player which until deciding to write this blog I knew little of.
He started the first two games for Northern Ireland against Algeria and Spain and would have been in line for a start against Brazil in the final game were it not for an injury he received against Spain. Penney had his best years with the Albion and during that period he won 17 caps for Northern Ireland, which makes him the most capped of any player while on Albion’s books. A record being challenged by current Albion striker Tomer Hemed.
Steve is highly regarded amongst many of the Albion fans who saw him play in the stripes. In Spencer Vines book ‘a few good men’, in which he picks his Albion dream team, he stated that Penney was one of the first names on his team-sheet. In the book Spencer says Steve Penney was: “a breath of fresh air, a flying winger whose close control and devastating pace left opponents and spectators alike lost for words.” Sadly, for Steve and those who enjoyed watching him, injuries like the one he received in Mexico 86 meant by the end of his time with the Albion, Steve was a diminished force and after a spell in the reserves, in 1992 he left on a free transfer to go to Burnley.
This was before the protection that attackers like Steve would receive in modern football. The type of challenge by Spanish hardman Emilio Butragueno that put him out of the Brazil game were common place and it was somewhat inevitable players like him would feel the effects of them in the long term. Just watch clips of Maradona from the 1982 and 1986 World Cup to see the sort of treatment attacking players of that time had to deal with.
Maradona was of course the star man of the 1986 tournament as Argentina won the trophy, but infamously he was brutally kicked and fouled out of the previous tournament in 1982. He like all attacking players of the time had to learn the hard-way how to deal with this type of treatment, whilst riding their luck so not to receive the type of challenge that could end a career, the type of tackle both Maradona and Penney dealt with on a weekly basis. The good old days some might say.
Prior to that, Albion had two players representing them at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Then captain and headband fashionista Steve Foster went to the 1982 World Cup with England, to date the only Brighton player to have played for England at a World Cup. Whilst Foster wore his famous headband to protect an old wound from opening when heading, it made him look the part nonetheless.
At the tournament Steve roomed with England’s star player Glenn Hoddle, sadly neither would have a lasting impact on the tournament as England went out in the second group stage. Steve made his England debut verses Northern Ireland, a 4-0 win in the British Championships in February 1982. Getting his second cap in a warm up friendly ahead of the tournament.
His inexperience and the relatively lowly stature of the Albion nationally meant he was a controversial pick by then manager Ron Greenwood. That said he was only ever going to be back up to first choice pairing Terry Butcher and Phil Thompson. Steve did get a game at the tournament in the win over Kuwait, but this was a dead rubber group game played after England had already qualified for the next stage. He didn’t play again for England after that.
Foster selection in 1982 was even a surprise to himself. He’s said of the day he found out about his selection: “I wasn’t expecting to go so when I hadn’t heard anything by the afternoon, I went out to play golf. I heard the news on television when I came off.”
That tournament also saw the Albion’s other World Cup representative Sammy Nelson who played for Northern Ireland. Sammy Nelson was approaching the end of his career when he signed for the Albion from Arsenal in 1981 but still made the squad for the 1982 World Cup.
Sammy went on to be capped 51 times for Northern Ireland but he went to the World Cup not being a first-choice player and didn’t make an appearance until Northern Ireland’s last of three group games, the famous 1-0 win over Spain where he appeared as a late substitute. He then started as Northern Ireland drew 2-2 with Austria in the second-round group stage but then wasn’t even on the bench when they lost 4-1 and went out of the tournament at the hands of France in their final game.
He played one more season for Brighton after the World Cup as the Albion were relegated from the top flight and lost that famous cup final to Man United at Wembley. Nelson wasn’t in the team for the final or the replay that followed and retired that summer. After spending the following season as a coach at the Albion under the newly appointed manager Chris Cattlin, he left football altogether.
Despite this modest history of international representation, in recent years things looked to be changing with a growing trend for a diverse group of nationalities playing for the Albion. Of last season first team squad eleven of them held international caps.
This was highlighted when at the 2016 European championships Jiri Skalak was included as part of the Czech Republic squad. Jiri signed for the Albion in the January of that year and made a positive impression in the months leading up to the tournament scoring twice in twelve games, as the Albion challenged unsuccessfully for promotion.
At the 2016 tournament he was an unused substitute for the Czech’s opening defeat to Spain. He then started the next game against Croatia but after failing to make an impact was brought off after 67 minutes with his country 2-0 down. Following some crowd trouble that disrupted the game the Czech’s completed an unexpected comeback that looked unlikely when Skalak was on the pitch to draw 2-2. After that Skalak then didn’t feature in the Czech’s final match as they went out with a whimper in a 2-0 defeat to Turkey. Hardly a story for the ages but an appearance for an Albion player in a major tournament nonetheless.
He’s certainly had a mixed experience for the Albion since then being a big part of the team that won promotion in the 16/17 season but was then notably absent from the team this season, only making 3 appearances in domestic cup competitions as the Albion reinforced its attacking options.
His appearance at Euro 2016 felt like a milestone for the club in my eyes, especially as prior to this my personal memory of any Albion interest in international tournaments was lived through former players. Be it Gareth Barry at the 2010 World Cup with England, whilst the great Bobby Zamora missed out through injury. Or be it the ‘Coca Cola Kid’ Colin Kazim Richard’s appearances for Turkey in the 2008 Euros, when they made a surprise run that ended in a narrow semi-final defeat to Germany.
There was some hope there would be future Brighton representation for England too for a while, particularly in the shape of Jake Forster-Caskey. In 2010 Jake became the Albion’s youngest ever player as a late substitute in an end of season league game against Yeovil. By that point Jake had already represented England at Schoolboys level and had built a reputation for himself as a hot prospect at the club.
Jake went on to represented England in the 2011 u17s World Cup, the 2012 u17s Euros and in 2013 was named in the u20s World Cup 35-man long list but didn’t make the tournament squad, however his England journey wasn’t over. He was soon redrafted amongst his u21s squad by the then manager Gareth Southgate and in 2014 he was a contender for u21 player of the year. He subsequently won a place in Gareth’s squad for the 2015 u21 European championships alongside now England senior team internationals like Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Jack Butland.
Gareth Southgate liked him a lot. Saying at the time: “He is a very mature footballer, he reads the game really well. He is a good technical footballer.” As a result, Southgate controversially included Jake in the squad for the 2015 tournament ahead of taking established internationals like Jack Wiltshire and Ross Barkley and asking him to dictate the midfield, something many pundits at the time were baffled by. Ultimately Jake only started one of the three group games as England went out in the group stages finishing bottom of their group.
Southgate later admitted he should have taken Barkley, maybe an admission Jake was in over his head, maybe throwing Jake under the bus to mask other mistakes that he made. Whichever was true, it was tough for Jake. He’d spent that season playing in a Brighton team struggling at the foot of the Championship table until Hughton came in, at which point he quickly lost his place in the team altogether and was then later sent out on loan.
This experience will no doubt have shaped Southgate’s approach to the upcoming World Cup but it wasn’t the catalyst for Jake’s career that either would have hoped for. Jake had a loan spell at Milton Keynes the following season coupled with spells on the side-lines for the Albion. The following year he went on loan to Rotherham but this was cut short due to further lack of game time. After which he then left the Albion permanently in January 2017 for a move to Charlton in League One where he’s been a regular fixture of the first team. A sad ending to a promising career with the Albion, but whilst Jake is also no longer a part of the England setup, he seems to be rebuilding his career with regular first team football after a tough period.
All the three players who have represented their country at a World Cup whilst at the Albion did so for a home nation country, whereas the three set to do the same this time around are all representing countries from outside of Europe. A sign of the globalised football market the Albion are now very much a part of.
Barring injuries or surprise team selections, there is little doubt that the Albion’s all-time representation at the World Cup will be increased to four at this summer’s tournament, most likely when Australia play France on Sunday 16th June and could increase to five when Nigeria play Croatia later the same day. However, whether that total will increase to six later in the tournament and break an Albion record held for 36 years will depend on the selection choices of Columbia manager Jose Pekerman.