Playing for your country is the pinnacle of many sports and pulling on the white shirt of England’s football team is what so many kids dream about. The reality is that very few children who love football will ever play professionally and from those that do, only a small proportion will represent their country.
Getting a single cap is, therefore, an incredible achievement, accomplished by very few who ever kick a ball. So the players on the list that follows, who have all played for the Three Lions 100 times or more, really are an incredibly small and privileged group, as well as being among the best players ever produced by England.
Note that this information is correct as of August 2022
Peter Shilton, 125 caps
Debut – November 25th 1970 vs West Germany (aged 21)
Final Game – July 7th 1990 vs Italy (aged 40)
Still England’s most-capped player some 30-plus years after retiring, Shilton was probably the best goalkeeper in the world at his peak. He represented the Three Lions over a 20-year period, beginning with a game against East Germany in 1970 and ending in the unwanted third-place play-off against Italy at the 1990 World Cup.
Shilton played well over 1,000 club games in a career that spanned 30 years. Born in Leicester, he played more than 300 games for the Foxes, also pulling on the shirt of local rivals Nottingham Forest and Derby too, as well as Stoke, Southampton, Plymouth, Wimbledon, Bolton, Coventry, Leyton Orient and West Ham!
Shilton was incredibly consistent and just a superb all-round goalkeeper, commanding his area superbly, possessing brilliant reflexes and being an excellent organiser. Among a small number of goalkeepers who have scored a goal, Shilton was an integral part of the hugely successful Nottingham Forest side of the late 1970s and won two European Cups with the club.
Early on in his career he competed for the England gloves with the brilliant Ray Clemence (61 caps); otherwise, incredibly, Shilton would have won many more caps. For a period in 1977 England boss Ron Greenwood alternated the two, previous managers having tended to prefer Clemence. However, by 1984, with Bobby Robson in charge, Shilton was essentially the first-choice goalkeeper and remained so until his last game for the Three Lions.
One cannot really mention “Shilts” without mentioning the time he somehow let a man seven inches shorter outjump him. We are, of course, referring to Maradona’s Hand of God at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Shilton reportedly remains bitter about the incident … but then aren’t we all?!
Wayne Rooney, 120 caps
Debut – February 12th 2003 vs Australia (aged 17)
Final Game – November 15th 2018 vs USA (aged 33)
Rooney is the leading goalscorer for England with 53 goals to his name, four clear of fellow 100-cap man Bobby Charlton (see below) and also the top marksman in the history of Manchester United. And yet, for those that saw him at his brilliant best when he first burst onto the scene there is a feeling of unfulfilled potential. Anyway, let’s celebrate rather than regret his legacy.
Everton fans had long heard about Rooney even when he was just 14 but the boyhood Evertonian announced his arrival to the rest of the world in 2002 by plucking a ball out of the sky, surging forward and then firing the ball past David Seaman from 30 yards to end Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run. Not bad at the age of 16.
A couple of years later he was taking the international stage by storm too as, at the age of 18 he was undeniably the star of Euro 2004, at least until injury curtailed his involvement. He became the youngest scorer in Euros history when he scored two against Switzerland, then added two more against Croatia and was named in the Team of the Tournament.
He moved to Manchester United for around £27m in August following the tournament and though he scored a Champions League hat-trick on his United debut, things never really got as good for England. It seems strange to say that given he is England’s top scorer (for now, though Harry Kane seems set to better his total) but sometimes playing for the Three Lions seemed to be too much for the older Rooney.
Perhaps he wanted it too much and put too much pressure on himself but a combination of various factors, plus some badly timed injuries, meant that we never really saw the very best of “Wazza” at a major tournament gain. Nonetheless, 120 caps, 53 goals and 20 assists (we won’t dwell on the two red cards on international duty) is an incredible record.
David Beckham, 115 caps
Debut – September 1st 1996 vs Moldova (aged 21)
Final Game – October 14th 2009 vs Belarus (aged 34)
David Beckham is another player who possibly seems to divide opinion more than he should. Like Rooney, his stats are impeccable, with 17 goals for his nation, a good number of assists and one of the best, most important goals in England’s recent history (a stunning free kick against Greece in stoppage time that meant England qualified for the 2002 World Cup). However, despite that, and a club career which took him to Man United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and PSG (oh, and LA Galaxy), there are those who feel he is overrated.
His off-pitch image probably has a lot to do with that but objectively the stats speak for themselves, as do the honours he won during a truly marvellous career. Six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, the Champions League and domestic league titles in Spain, France and the US prove that Beckham was undoubtedly a super footballer. In addition, he twice came second in the FIFA Player of the Year awards (1999 and 2001) and won numerous other individual honours as well.
He captained England on 59 occasions, with only legends (and fellow cap centurions) Billy Wright and Bobby Moore, plus Bryan Robson (90 caps) leading the Three Lions out on more occasions. Harry Kane may yet surpass Becks in this regard but he seems less likely to match his appearances, meaning Beckham should hold on to his number three spot for a good while yet.
Beckham played his last game of international football in 2009 and scored his last goal in 2006, the winner against Ecuador at the World Cup and a trademark freekick. He continued playing club football for a few more seasons and stated that he was available for international selection if needed. In total he played at three World Cup finals and two Euros and since retiring has joined a group of former United players in taking an interest in Salford City. In addition, he is also a co-owner of MLS franchise Inter Miami.
Steven Gerrard, 114 caps
Debut – May 31st 2000 vs Ukraine (aged 20)
Final Game – 24th June 2014 vs Costa Rica (aged 34)
Gerrard’s talent certainly deserved more silverware and, of course, he was never able to win anything with England. Like virtually all members of England’s 100 Club, he captained his country, doing so on 38 occasions, putting him sixth on that list, four ahead of Alan Shearer and John Terry. Captain Fantastic for Liverpool, with whom he won almost everything apart from the league, Gerrard was never quite the same player for the Three Lions. But then what English players have been over the past 40 years?
He made his debut for his country as a raw youngster the day after his 20th birthday. His last cap came just over 14 years later against Costa Rica during a hugely disappointing World Cup campaign where England had already been eliminated courtesy of losing their first two games. He announced his international retirement around a month later, calling time on an international career that brought him 21 goals.
He had one more season in the Premier League and one last attempt at winning the league but it wasn’t to be and he moved to LA to play for Galaxy. One of England’s most inspirational midfield leaders, Gerrard is (at the time of writing) the manager of Aston Villa in the Premier League having earned his stripes north of the border with Rangers. Surely a return to Liverpool is in his future and he certainly seems in with a real chance of one day managing England too.
Bobby Moore, 108 caps
Debut – May 20th 1962 vs Peru (aged 21)
Final Game – November 14th 1973 vs Italy (aged 32)
Bobby Moore has to go down as one of the greatest England players ever. There are many reasons to believe this, not least the fact that he was the man who, as captain, hoisted aloft the only piece of major silverware the Three Lions have ever won. Moore skippered the side in 1966 and in total led his nation out on 90 occasions, and no player has captained the national side more often.
Joint top in terms of caps as captain, fifth in overall appearances and a World Cup combine to make a strong argument but those that saw Moore play would no doubt focus more on his elegance, grace and supreme reading of the game. The West Ham icon was fast and comfortable on the ball but he always seemed to have time and rarely looked troubled because he anticipated what opponents would do so brilliantly well.
When none other than Pele lists you as the greatest ever defender it is safe to say you are doing a lot right and Moore was just so composed. A natural leader he was the youngest man to ever captain the Three Lions when he did so in just his 12th game for them in 1963, aged just 22. Sir Alf Ramsey, his manager for England in 1966 (as if you didn’t know!), said of Moore “My captain, my leader, my right-hand man. He was the spirit and the heartbeat of the team. A cool, calculating footballer I could trust with my life. He was the supreme professional, the best I ever worked with. Without him England would never have won the World Cup.”
Ashley Cole, 107 caps
Debut – March 28th 2001 vs Albania (aged 20)
Final Game – March 5th 2014 vs Denmark (aged 33)
Cole is the only player in this list not to have captained his country but that should not be used against him and he was a simply majestic defender at his best. Cristiano Ronaldo named Cole as the toughest full back he came up against and no wonder, because at the 2004 Euros in Portugal Cole gave possibly the best example of defending over a whole game you could ever wish to see. Ronaldo was only a youngster at the time but even so, the way Cole used his pace and excellent harrying skills to aggressively marshal the winger was a true masterclass.
Cole’s 107 caps were spread between March 2001 when he earned his debut against Albania and his last game in the same month 13 years on, against the Danes. He never scored for the Three Lions and whilst it would be unfair to label him an old-fashioned full back, he certainly did not maraud forward in the same way as Leighton Baines, often his England rival, or more recently the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James. However, defensively his game was superb, with pace, strength and superb positioning, whilst going forward he had plenty of energy and was a decent crosser of the ball.
He spent the vast majority of his career at Arsenal and Chelsea, controversially moving between the two in 2006 for a fee of £5m with William Gallas moving the other way as part of the deal. Cole would go on to play for Roma and LA Galaxy, also finding time to squeeze in a brief marriage to Cheryl Tweedy, as she was then, of Girls Aloud.
He retired in 2019 after a brief stint with Derby County and remains the player to have won the FA Cup the most times, claiming an incredible seven wins with the Gunners and Chelsea. Only five clubs have more FA Cup victories than that! Since retiring he has coached at Derby, Chelsea, England under 21s and is currently the first team coach at Everton, alongside former Chelsea colleague Frank Lampard.
Bobby Charlton, 106 caps
Debut – April 19th 1958 vs Scotland (aged 20)
Final Game – June 14th 1970 vs West Germany (aged 32)
Whilst Cole scored no goals for his nation, Bobby Charlton was England’s leading goalscorer for many years, notching 49 times in 106 games. Given those goals came from what, in modern parlance, would be called an attacking midfield role, the stats are even more impressive. Sir Bobby, who captained the Three Lions on three occasions, still sits third on that list, behind Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney and ahead of the likes of Gary Lineker, Jimmy Greaves, Michael Owen and Alan Shearer.
Charlton was, of course, part of the World Cup-winning team in 1966 and will be forever associated with that triumph. He scored three goals at the finals, including both in the 2-1 win over Portugal in the semis and was renowned for his powerful shot. His ball-striking was immortalised in the Three Lions song with the lyrics “Bobby belting the ball” (the song also referenced England’s other Bobby, Moore, with “But I still see that tackle by Moore”). Many of his best strikes can be seen online and the power with which he struck the old, heavy ball, really is impressive.
The Northumberland lad spent most of his club career with Man United, playing for the Red Devils for 20 years including as a youth. Only Ryan Giggs has represented the club on more occasions (963 games in total compared to 758 for Charlton), whilst in terms of goals he also sits second, behind Rooney.
Charlton was on board the plane that failed on take-off at Munich airport and was hospitalised for a week following the disaster. The incident affected him for life but he was a key part of United’s successful team that rebuilt following the tragedy. He was central to the team that won the European Cup in 1968, a decade after the crash.
Charlton scored twice in the final as United beat Benfica 4-1 after extra time. He also won the FA Cup and three league titles with United and won the Ballon d’Or in 1966, coming second in 1967 and 1968. With England he came third in the 1968 Euros and was part of the World Cup squad on three occasions in what was a truly glittering international career.
Frank Lampard, 106 caps
Debut – October 10th 1999 vs Belgium (aged 21)
Final Game – June 24th 2014 vs Costa Rica (aged 36)
Frank Lampard was a different type of player to Bobby Charlton but they shared much, both being superb strikers of the ball and scoring a lot of goals from advanced midfield positions. Like Charlton, “Lamps” was also very much associated with one club, in his case Chelsea, though he came through as a youth at West Ham, playing in east London for six years before moving west to the Blues.
Thirteen years with Chelsea followed where he won pretty much everything there was to win, including three Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, two League Cups, the Champions League and the Europa League. During this period he also established himself as an England regular and though the issue of how to get the best out of Lampard and Gerrard in the same team was never really resolved, the pair formed a key part of the national team’s midfield for much of the century’s first decade.
The Chelsea man scored 29 goals for his country, the first of those coming against Croatia in a friendly in 2003. He scored three goals at Euro 2004 but they were his only strikes at the finals of a major tournament and ultimately, like just about all players since 1966, his career with the Three Lions was ultimately unsuccessful.
Lampard ended his time as a player with a season at Man City, before moving to the States and playing a couple of seasons in MLS for New York City FC. He was not away for football long, taking over as manager at Derby in 2018 before his dream job as boss of Chelsea came knocking. In reality it was probably a little too early for him and despite a strong start in the Blues dugout he was sacked after around 18 months in charge. At the time of writing he is rebuilding his career as the manager at Everton and if he is successful a return to Chelsea, and perhaps the national manager’s role, could certainly be on the cards.
Billy Wright, 105 caps
Debut –September 28th 1946 vs Ireland (aged 22)
Final Game – May 28th 1959 vs USA (aged 35)
Of the nine centurions on our list Billy Wright is probably the least familiar to most fans, his first cap for the Three Lions coming back in 1946. Wright was a defender and scored three goals before bowing out at international level after playing against USA in 1959. The first international footballer to reach 100 caps for any side, Wright made his name at Wolves where he spent his entire career as a pro.
He captained the side from the Black Country and fulfilled the same role with the Three Lions a record-equalling 90 times. Technically a half back, in modern football he would be seen as a centre back, and though only 5ft 8in, his excellent leap and ability to read the game made him a brilliant defender. Energetic and a player who led by example and by gaining the respect and belief of others, Wright has a stand named after him at Wolves.
In the 1950s he won the league three times with Wanderers and won the FA Cup in 1949. In 1957 he came second in the Ballon d’Or and was inducted into the International Football Hall of Fame in 1997. After his playing career he managed Arsenal between 1962 and 1966 before becoming a pundit. He died in 1997 at the age of 70.