IT’S EASY to mock Tony Hibbert. It’s also very, very tempting. But let’s face it – partisan dislike apart, there’s something weirdly admirable about Hibbo.
In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby described the tragedy of the career of Gus Caesar. Gus, Hornby reasoned, had his spirit crushed by the realisation that, having been the best of the best at every level up until the top flight, the music had stopped.
Caesar must have been an outstanding player at school, in junior and reserve team football, yet he became a figure of derision for Arsenal fans – a very, very good footballer elevated to one rung above his level of competence.
Hornby saw a tortured soul driven to despair by his own relatively minor failings.
Tony Hibbert would’ve probably seen a soft lad who thought about things too much.
Through a combination of stubborn determination, loyalty and a degree of steady unobtrusiveness, Hibbert has overcome the same situation with what from another player you might call panache.
The Costcutter Cafu’s made himself a decent career despite his limitations. In fact he’s embraced them, fashioning a style somewhat akin to an out-of-form opening batsman leaving everything outside off-stump and sticking it out till the close of play.
He has one other distinction – Hibbert is among the only Englishmen to have played at such a high level without ever attracting even the hint of an international cap.
We’re not talking about narrowly missing out here – Hibbert wouldn’t get a game outside of a friendly in the wake of a nuclear holocaust which had left Huyton mysteriously untouched.
In a world where Michael Ricketts, Seth Johnson and Steve Guppy have played for their country, that takes some doing.
But Hibbo’s not the only one. Not by a long way. Here’s my current shadow England XI, all still playing in the Premier League and all very unlikely ever to grace the inside of Fabio Capello’s Moleskine notebook.
1 Steve Harper
Finding a keeper to fit the bill was a nightmare, as English football over the last decade is littered with callow, begloved youths thrust prematurely in to the England spotlight, only to scuff a clearance in off the back of Serbian striker and go into a slow-motion career tailspin.
Steve Harper spent season after season being the one at Newcastle who looked a bit like Shay Given from a distance (like the David James/Tony Warner double act Liverpool had going for a while, which definitely could have fooled a few managers at the Dave Bassett end of the spectrum). Despite his vast experience of efficient bench-warming, and one FA Cup final appearance, Harper was never considered for even the third-choice keeper spot for his country.
Having been backup to such variously talented keepers as Given, Shaka Hislop and Pavel Srnicek over the best part of 20 years at St James’s, Harper was widely expected to inherit some of the most overworked gloves in English football when Given moved on to City.
A couple of seasons on and it looks like it wasn’t to be, as Tim Krul has looked impressive and picked up two Dutch caps, effortlessly overtaking the man who gave us this in the St James’s pecking order.
2 Tony Hibbert (captain)
Ah, the wonder that is Hibbert. If he scores, they riot, apparently. No wonder Everton’s game at Tottenham was cancelled in August.
One day it will happen, and when it happens we will all die a little inside. The purity of Hibbert’s record, the sheer beauty of a career record taking in nearly 300 appearances unblemished by a single goal, must never be sullied.
3 Paul Robinson
A man for whom the disambiguation button on Wikipedia might have been invented, this Paul Robinson is not the one who plays in goal for Blackburn, or at the back for Millwall. Neither is he a roguish former Erinsborough hotelier.
Here we’re talking about Paul Robinson, a left-back slower than a Tarkovsky film who nevertheless was a consistent fixture at West Brom for years before being lured away to Bolton by Gary Megson.
Robinson has survived the white heat of Owen Coyle’s Reebok revolution (now looking a bit more tepid, admittedly) and could be seen on Sunday doing his bit for Daniel Sturridge’s international prospects by making the Chelsea man look like Garrincha crossed with God.
If Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines, Stephen Warnock, Wayne Bridge, Joleon Lescott, Kieran Gibbs, Stuart Pearce, Ray Wilson and Shaun Ryder were all injured Robinson would still be overlooked. Even if he were selected, there’s a fair chance one of the other Paul Robinsons would be given the news instead.
4 Scott Dann
Ah, let’s face it, Dann’s one of those players just waiting to move to somewhere half-decent, when he’ll suddenly be drafted in to give a competent if limited performance against Moldova before Phil Jones shoulder-charges his way into the England defence FOR EVER.
5 Jody Craddock
A player always seemingly on the brink of being ‘found out at this level’. You suspect this would apply at any level from about the Ryman League up, but it takes a certain kind of character to forge a top-flight career out of nothing more than being a bit bigger than you’d expect of a man called Jody.
6 Steve Sidwell
Scott Parker and Shaun Wright-Phillips may have set themselves back years by joining Chelsea at the wrong time, but spare a thought for Steve Sidwell.
Sidwell had grown up at Arsenal and made his name at Reading, but at Stamford Bridge his career ran in to a massive brick wall. Then another brick wall fell on top of it.
He’s salvaged a decent enough post-Chelsea career but has missed the England boat entirely.
7 Jermaine Pennant
Many of the players in this side represent something of a dying breed in the Premier League. A number wouldn’t look out of place in the 70s or 80s, probably with a bandaged head and a warm can of Skol waiting in the dressing room.
Pennant, though, is the definitive product of the alcopop generation. Flashy, cocky, seemingly entirely lacking in self-awareness, he nevertheless pursued the noble footballing tradition of pissing away extravagant talent at breathtaking speed.
Now undergoing a minor career resurrection at Stoke, Pennant should look at the fact a player as one-dimensional as Wright-Phillips has 36 more caps than him and punch himself repeatedly in the face.
He did do this though.
8 Kevin Nolan
A yard more pace and Nolan would surely have won a cap or two. Strong, direct and with an eye for goal, he never quite made the jump. Challenges Hibbert as king of the no-cap wonders, except for two U21 appearances which blot his copybook slightly.
9 Cameron Jerome
Actual proper, good players never score goals like this against us, do they?
10 Leon Osman
Everyone’s favourite Mike Skinner lookalike isn’t actually that bad a player. But he does do a good impression of one quite often. Had he played for Spurs he’d have had a chance in a meaningless friendly, but then so would I.
11 Matthew Etherington
If you’re a Championship Manager fan reading this in 1999, buy Etherington and his Peterborough team-mate Simon Davies NOW*. On the game Etherington will be a lithe, silky winger who scores and creates, not a tubby little fella who occasionally looks half decent during the 32 seconds Stoke allow the ball to stay on the floor.
*Gareth Jelleyman may also be worth a punt, but caveat emptor applies in his case.