14 June 2015

The 50 Cap Club

Chris Brunt on the occasion
of his 50th cap, vs Romania
13th June 2015
Last night Chris Brunt played his 50th game for Northern Ireland, becoming the 33rd player to reach this landmark. With no slight intended to Chris, statistically he is the "least regular" player to have reached that landmark, playing in just 54% of games since his debut against Switzerland in 2004.

50 caps used to be an incredibly difficult landmark to reach, the first person to so so was Danny Blanchflower in 1961, 79 years after we'd played our first international match. Up to the 1950s (Northern) Ireland, with only a few exceptions, played just three games a season, so a player would have had to not miss a match for nearly 17 years to reach the landmark. Indeed, prior to Blanchflower the record stood at 31 by Elisha Scott (1920-36) who, although his career almost stretched to the appropriate length, often struggled to secure his release from club duty. World War One also got in the way, he had made his First Division debut for Liverpool in 1913 but had to wait seven years to make an international appearance, years that might just have brought him to the magical mark.

The 30 caps won by Olphie Stanfield between 1887 and 1897 was perhaps more impressive as he missed just 3 matches in 11 seasons (playing 91% of the possible games) as an international, most, if not all, while an amateur player. When Stanfield started his international career Ireland's record cap holder (Billy Crone) had ten caps, and his record lasted 39 years until surpassed by Scott.

Since the 50 cap barrier was finally broken more and more players have been able to join the club, aided by World Cup qualifiers (and finals), the European Nations Cup/Championships and more and more friendlies. It is notable that the first three members of the club had the benefit of five World Cup finals appearances, though in reality, none of them needed these games to surpass the mark. Billy Bingham played in a remarkable 93% of the possible games during his international career, including a still record run of 43 consecutive games.
The first three members of the 50 Cap Club show off watches awarded to them by their former club, Glentoran in 1963
The 1970s presented just three more 50-cappers, but bear in mind that Northern Ireland rarely played a friendly match in this era and enjoyed no qualification successes. However, many of the players who went on to top 50 caps in the 1980s built a solid caps foundation in the otherwise fruitless '70s, notably Bryan Hamilton who was gifted his landmark, and final, cap during the IFA's Centenary tour of Australia despite having barely played a club game the previous season. Also, pity poor Pat Rice who's career stalled at 49 caps in 1979, despite still playing another 5 years as a regular for Arsenal and Graeme Taylor's successful Watford.

The 1980s saw ten players awarded their half-century of caps, with three of those players only reaching that landmark courtesy of appearances at the 1982 and/or 1986 World Cups. Only four of those ten played in more than 80% of the available matches, with Sammy Nelson playing in just 60% games during his 11 year international career as he scraped over the line to 51 caps in Spain courtesy of Mal Donaghy's red card against the hosts. Other than that blot, Mal played in 91% of possible matches, a figure only bettered by Bingham and Blanchflower who both played during a very different era.

As the quiet late-80s ticked into the even quieter 1990s a a couple of stalwarts of the World Cup sides joined the club. Notionally, Alan McDonald would not have made it if not for those three games in Mexico in 1986, but then Bryan Hamilton may have taken sympathy and offered Big Mac a couple more run outs, remembering he was still a regular for QPR in Premier League at the time of his last appearance and would enjoy a few more seasons in the first team in the lower leagues with QPR and then Swindon.

Maik Taylor
In 1998 Iain Dowie became the first post World Cups "Anglo" to reach the magic-fifty and he was soon joined by three players who had been blooded as youngsters in the early-90s - Michael Hughes, Gerry Taggart and Jim Magilton. Each of these three could have reached higher totals if not for various fallings out with club and country managements.

The golden era of the mid-2000s saw a clutch of new club members. The remarkably loyal Anglo/German import Maik Taylor played in 81% of possible matches having had to initially share goalkeeping duties with Roy Carroll and latterly Lee Camp. David Healy played 86% of possible matches, including a run of 38 consecutive appearances - he would surely have surpassed Bingham's record of 43 had he not been ridiculously red-carded in a World Cup qualifier against Wales.

James Quinn also limped over the line with a "sympathy appearance" as a late sub against Latvia in 2006. This illustrates another factor that eases players towards higher cap totals, for 15 of Quinn's caps were won as a substitute, while this was not an option at all prior to the 1960s, and even then initially only a single substitute was allowed, whereas nowadays virtually the entire team can be replaced during friendlies.

Of the current players, particular kudos must go to Steven Davis who has played in 85% of possible matches in the past decade. The next players who might join the club are Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans, both of who currently hold 43 caps. The real question might be, can anyone join Pat Jennings in the 100 Cap Club?
Pat Jennings, the only member
of the "100 Cap Club"

50 Cap Club Members (by year joined)
1960s
1961 Danny Blanchflower (total 56 1949-62) 91.8%
1962 Billy Bingham (56 1951-63) 93.3%
1962 Jimmy McIlroy (55 1951-65) 76.4%
1970s
1972 Terry Neill (59 1961-73) 86.8%
1974 Pat Jennings (119 1964-86) 81.0%
1979 Allan Hunter (53 1969-79) 82.8%
1980s
1980 Bryan Hamilton (50 1968-80) 65.8%
1981 Sammy McIlroy (88 1972-86) 82.2%
1982 Sammy Nelson (51 1971-82) 60.0%
1982 Martin O'Neill (64 1971-84) 67.4%
1982 Jimmy Nicholl (73 1976-86) 90.1%
1983 Chris Nicholl (51 1975-83) 73.9%
71 caps, but Michael Hughes
could have won many more
1983 Gerry Armstrong (63 1977-86) 84.0%
1985 David McCreery (67 1976-90) 66.3%
1987 Mal Donaghy (91 1980-94) 91.0%
1988 John McClelland (53 1980-90) 67.9%
1990s
1994 Nigel Worthington (66 1984-97) 78.6%
1995 Alan McDonald (52 1985-95) 77.6%
1998 Iain Dowie (59 1990-99) 86.8%
1999 Michael Hughes (71 1991-2004) 73.2%
2000s
2001 Gerry Taggart (51 1990-2002) 57.3%
2001 Jim Magilton (52 1991-2002) 64.2%
2003 Keith Gillespie (86 1994-2008) 74.8%
2005 Maik Taylor (88 1999-2011) 80.7%
2006 David Healy (95 2000-13) 86.4%
2006 Aaron Hughes (96 1998-2015) 68.6%
2006 James Quinn (50 1996-2007) 58.1%
2009 Damien Johnson (56 1999-2009) 64.4%
2010s
Emma Higgins' 50th cap
2010 Stephen Craigan (54 2003-2011) 74.0%
2011 Chris Baird (72 2003-15) 69.9%
2011 Steven Davis (74 2005-15) 85.1%
2014 Gareth McAuley (53 2005-15) 63.1%
2015 Chris Brunt (50 2004-15) 54.3%

In the women's internationals six players have reached the fifty mark. Kelly Bailie, Nadene Caldwell, Emma Higgins, Ashley Hutton, Julie Nelson and Demi Vance.

Since this article was written, Aaron Hughes has surpassed 100 caps and Kyle Lafferty, Jonny Evans and Niall McGinn have joined the 50 cap club.

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