With the latest round of international fixtures now upon us, United legend Alex Stepney looks back on the time that he spent with the England squad.
Alex could be forgiven for feeling a tad unlucky when he looks back on his international career, despite amassing 539 appearances in goal for United between 1966 and 1978 he only ever won one cap for England. Suffering the misfortune of being around at a time when the national side was blessed with a wealth of top quality goalkeepers.
“There was about five or six of us who were in the mix at the time. I joined United in 1966, 50 years ago this year. England had just won the World Cup and Gordon Banks was the goalkeeper, a fantastic goalkeeper. He played a lot of games for England before his accident at a time when there wasn’t as many fixtures as there is now.
“If he was injured, I picked up one cap and Peter Bonetti got a few. After that Peter Shilton came along and so did Ray Clemence, once you had the number one spot it was yours but I think I was on the bench about 20 times altogether. It’s part of your career and an honour to play for your country.”
Alex did finally get a chance to make his England debut in May 1968, the week before the European Cup final, in a 3-1 victory over Sweden at Wembley: “I’d been on the bench and a few trips with them before as well as playing in three under-23 games. You had to earn your cap and I was playing well, we’d got to the European Cup final at United and won the league the year before. I was probably at the peak of my career.
“So Alf probably thought it was worth me having a game in case Gordon was injured in the future and walking out at Wembley was a boyhood dream because back then you wanted to win the FA Cup and play for your country and I had the honour of doing both. We won 3-1 and Bobby Charlton scored.”
Of his relationship with Alf Ramsey Alex says: “He was a disciplinarian and an honest man. He’d obviously been a top-class professional footballer who had played for his country and he knew how to go about things and make sure everything was in order.
“Having said that he wasn’t as strict as a lot of people think, the great Bobby Moore was captain and would often go speak to him and discuss any issues. Alf was a bit like Sir Matt Busby and would tell us to go out and enjoy ourselves before games and that’s what it’s about.
“Six weeks in Mexico for the World Cup in 1970 could be a bit of an ordeal when you’re out there and playing games in South America but Bobby Moore was a great ambassador, not only for the country but for us as players and he would suggest ideas that would keep us on our toes and help us enjoy it. There were no computers or mobile phones in those days. Alf would make sure that Bobby represented us and he would agree to certain ideas to prevent us from becoming bored.”
Stepney came close to picking up another cap during the 1970 World Cup when Banks was struck down with food poisoning before the quarter final against West Germany, but ultimately, Alf Ramsey preferred the slightly more experienced Peter Bonetti who didn’t have the best of games as England lost 3-2 after being 2-0 up.
Alex had the job of delivering the news to a bed-ridden Banks in their hotel room: “We were staying right across the road from the stadium and Gordon was so ill, he had watched some of the game and thought it was over at 2-0 so when I got back and he saw my face I told him we got beat 3-2 he couldn’t believe it. The sad thing was in those days it meant you were on the next flight home.”