Tuesday 9 September 2014

Sir Geoff Hurst's 49 Caps Still Beats James Milner's 50.

Last night saw the start of England's inevitable qualification for the finals of Euro 2016. Victory over Switzerland was a welcome opening result, achieved in fairly comfortable manner once the players took the advice of ITV's summarizing commentator, Andy Townsend, by scoring a goal.

The insightful commentating team also observed that by replacing the largely anonymous Jack Wilshere after 73 minutes, Manchester City's James Milner had not only gained a milestone 50th cap, but he had also eclipsed the 49 caps won by England's World Cup legend, Sir Geoff Hurst.

Without wanting to belittle Milner's excellent achievement in an era when competition for England caps is perhaps greater than when the then plain Geoff Hurst was winning his, many would consider the tallies of each player far from comparable.

For those not Born in the Fifties or earlier, Hurst's England career spanned seven seasons and was inextricably linked to matches against the then West Germany. He made his debut in a friendly against them in 1966, scored a World Cup final hat trick at Wembley later that year and limped out of international football with a single 1972 cap against the same side in the first leg of the European Championship quarter finals again at Wembley.

Nearly 50 years of hurt, but Jules Rimet still gleams in the company of two Stoke City World Cup legends.
His international career spanned an era when substitutes were not permitted and a side began and ended the match with the same eleven players. Fewer should serious injury occur during the game.

Limited substitutions had been introduced by the time Hurst won his 49th and final cap, but for a part of that career, gaining a cap meant you had to be selected in the best eleven and there was no option to gain a cheap cap in the final closing minutes from the bench.

In contrast, James Milner, no doubt because of his admirable versatility, has gained many of his 50 caps as part of the multi-substitutions that have become an irritating feature, particularly of friendlies. Or as a late defensive option to protect a lead in competition matches.

28 year old Milner's international career has currently lasted one fewer year than Hurst's, although Hurst only played in the opening international of 1972. And even with the retirement of Lampard and Gerrard, Milner would appear to be vulnerable to a new generation of midfielders.

Perhaps surprisingly, the number of internationals in which Hurst and Milner could have potentially played during Hurst's seven seasons or Miner's six to date are very similar.England played 64 matches from Hurst's debut in 1966 to the end of his international career in 1972. Winning the World Cup in 1966 of course helped.

And the side has played 61 during the course of Miner's international career which began in 2009.

So England played 5,790 minutes of international football from the moment they first capped Sir Geoff to the moment they discarded him for Rodney Marsh. And during that time Hurst played 4,371 of those minutes.

England has played 5,520 minutes during Milner's time as an international player and through either being replaced or coming on as a substitute or nor being selected at all, the Manchester City star has missed 1,771 minutes of potential playing time even when winning a cap, playing 2,819 minutes in total.

So proportionally, Hurst, as expected eclipses Milner, playing 75% of the available time compared to just over 50%, despite earning one fewer cap.

However, this approach doesn't address the longevity of both player's international careers. A one cap wonder could easily beat both figures, while playing at least 72 minutes in gaining just a single cap.

We can allow for this by measuring a player's international career, not in caps, but in the proportion of international years they represented their country. For example, in 1970, Hurst played in 11 of England's 12 matches, once as a substitute, replacing Mike Jones of Leeds after 73 minutes of a goalless, Wembley draw with the Netherlands.

Therefore, Sir Geoff played 917 of a potential 1080 minutes or 85% of England's 1970 international year. Over his career, If we repeat this process for all of Hurst's international years and sum them, we find that he played a total of 4.6 international years taking into account opportunity to play, as defined by the total number of England matches that year and actual playing minutes achieved.

James Milner's most successful international year was 2012, when he played in 11 of 13 games, many as a replacement, but his playing minutes accounted for just under 70% of England's 2012 international year.

Cumulatively, Milner's 50 caps have been gained through him playing 2.7 years of England football to date compared to the 4.6 years of international football gathered by Hurst.

In short, the opportunity to play international games was broadly similar across each player's career, but Hurst was on the field for proportionally much longer and gained more "international playing years", if fewer caps.

Milner may have one more England cap, but he has a long way to go to catch Sir Geoff in actual achievement, even discounting a World Cup hat trick.

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