When the cap doesn't fit
For some, seeing the words "Bruce tipped for England" was being transported back in time, to an age when a craggy-nosed centre-back had to spend the international breaks training with the youth and reserve teams and to a time when Manchester United could possess an automatic choice who never won a cap. Instead, it transpired that the Burnley boss Owen Coyle had suggested Steve Bruce, his Sunderland counterpart, could manage his country.
But it was a reminder of Bruce's unwanted status. He may be England's greatest uncapped player; he was certainly the finest of his generation. In earlier eras, footballers such as Jimmy Case, Howard Kendall, Billy Bonds and Jimmy Adamson were similarly unfortunate to be overlooked. And now?
As with much else, the parameters have changed. The wholesale importing of foreign talent has raised the standard of the Premier League beyond question. It also means that any English player who represents a title contender is soon capped. Discounting Manuel Almunia on the grounds that whatever nationality he may soon hold, he is essentially Spanish, the closest to an uncapped English player at any of the established Big Four is Kieran Gibbs, who has started a mere seven Premier League games.
Outside the ranks of the internationals, Arsenal may provide the greatest talent. However, Jack Wilshere is surely a future England player. So, for that matter, is his contemporary Jack Rodwell; neither appears likely to follow Bruce's unenviable path. Tom Huddlestone has already attracted Fabio Capello's attention, while it is too early to anoint Lee Cattermole or Mark Noble; at 21 and 22 respectively, both could have an international future.
So the search has to be extended. In part, it is a look down the division: Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell helped Aston Villa finish sixth, but neither is a fixture in Martin O'Neill's side. Everton provide a trio of candidates to reflect the consistency that has seen them come sixth, fifth and fifth. Leighton Baines has already been in the senior squad and remains the likeliest of the three to attract Capello's attention. Tony Hibbert can appear a throwback, the kind of no-nonsense full-back whose interests rarely appear to extend beyond defending. Had, say, Howard Wilkinson enjoyed a lengthy spell with the national team, he may have been selected but the demands of full-backs to be additional attackers probably rules out a call-up for the Scouser.
Then there is Leon Osman, whose equaliser against Stoke on Sunday indicated that he possesses a level of quality that could equip him for international football. Yet although David Moyes has advocated his case in the past, no bandwagon has developed around Osman. He may, like players of earlier generations, simply be unfortunate. Talent is not democratically distributed across the pitch and the competition for places on the right of midfield - where David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Bentley, among others, have operated - can account for his continued absence.
At 28, Osman is likely to remain unwanted by his country. In contrast, though approaching his 26th birthday, Sunderland's recent signing Michael Turner's career still appears to be on an upward trajectory. The defensive equation also has to include mention of two Championship defenders, Steven Taylor and David Wheater, which lends credence to the suggestions there are not enough Englishmen in the Premier League.
Stoke's Ryan Shawcross is another who has been mentioned in dispatches, which is more than can be said for his team-mate Matt Etherington. It is the sort of detail that can easily be forgotten, but Jimmy Bullard was among the England squad for the 4-1 win in Croatia last year. Joining Hull might have proved a poor career move, however (as, of course, has being injured for most of the subsequent time): no City player has ever been capped by England.
And other clubs have been overlooked. Michael Ricketts won the sole cap given to a Bolton player in the last 46 years. It is a pertinent point given the form of Gary Cahill, Matt Taylor and Kevin Davies. The central defender is the youngest, at 23, and the most likely to replace Ricketts in the record books at the Reebok: he has been a late addition to Capello's last two squads. Like Baines, he has grounds to imagine an international career.
Davies and Taylor, however, are headed for the category of the great uncapped. The left-winger's sense of the spectacular and habit of contributing goals from midfield (ten last season) makes his continued omission something of a surprise, especially in a position where England have often been deemed deficient. Joe Cole, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young apart, Capello has been prepared to use players such as Gerrard out of position on that flank.
At 32 and without ever being a prolific scorer, Davies has never become a cause celebre. With Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch, Darren Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Carlton Cole and Wayne Rooney in goalscoring form, his case is ill-timed now. Yet his uncompromising effectiveness has been a constant over the last six seasons and there has been no more consistent English target man since he signed for Bolton. Like Taylor and Osman, he has the misfortune of being the Bruce of his generation.