Arsenal Ladies star Yankey overtakes Shilton record with 126th England cap but neither achievement should be compared

It will be a quiz question that will perplex even the geekiest of football fans: ‘Who is England’s most-capped player?’

‘Easy, Peter Shilton,’ the chaps in the pub will say, scribbling down the name of the twice European Cup-winning goalkeeper, a man who played 125 times for his country during a 20-year international career.

Wrong. Sorry fellas, you didn’t even manage to get the gender right: it’s Rachel Yankey now.ht2

Most people will not even have heard of Yankey, the Arsenal midfielder who made history by winning her 126th England cap in a 1-1 draw against world champions Japan, but the accolade is now – strictly speaking – hers and hers alone.

Congratulations to Yankey on a remarkable achievement, but consider this: Shilton’s last game was the 1990 World Cup third-place play-off defeat by Italy. Yankey’s record-breaking feat came in a friendly in front of 4,500 school children taking advantage of free tickets at Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium. Please let us not do either player a disservice by trying to compare the two.

I involuntarily cringe when I hear television and radio presenters ticking the equal opportunities box by lauding Yankey as England’s ‘most-capped player of all-time’. It might be technically true, but it is downright respectful to assume Shilton’s 23-year-old record should just be scrubbed out and forgotten. If Shilton ventured this opinion he would no doubt be labelled as a sexist lout, so I’m going to argue on his behalf.

Yes he was a goalkeeper, but he also happened to be a professional sportsman vying to be his country’s No1 in the same era as Ray Clemence. It is insulting to see those memories – the three World Cups, two European Championships and 65 clean sheets – erased in the rush to be politically correct. The tenuous comparison with Yankey’s career is almost painful.

This is, however, in no way intended to disparage Yankey’s achievement. She is a stunningly talented player in her own right; a footballer who has been at the forefront of a quiet revolution in women’s football during her 17-year career in an England shirt.

She has gone from being handed an extra-large men’s shirt for her debut against Scotland in 1997 to being paid for plying her craft for Arsenal and England. Watch her play, cutting in from the wing and dinking her sleight frame past defenders, note her exquisite dead-ball technique and hear her quietly-spoken assertiveness off the pitch and you will not fail to be impressed. She is England’s most-capped female footballer, an Olympian and an athlete showing no signs of slowing down at 33. So why not celebrate that achievement in its own right?

I do not see the constant need to pit the men’s game against women’s football. Their delights, after all, are in their differences. Female players like Yankey have spent decades decrying the lazy old argument that says a men’s XI would always beat a women’s team. They probably would, but that is of no detriment to a game where 11 women line up against 11 other women. Men’s and women’s football might be played to the same rules, but the games are distinct and stand alone. So too, therefore, should the achievements of those who play them.

Yankey herself seems faintly embarrassed by this bizarre need to hammer home unnecessary comparisons with Shilton.

‘Peter Shilton is a legend and I am not going to compare myself in any way with anything he has done,’ she said ahead of Wednesday’s match, ‘but, in my own right, I have done well.’ Quite.ht2

When I congratulated her on equalling Shilton’s record last month she displayed the same sense of unease.

‘To equal a record set by Peter Shilton, someone I grew up watching and was massive in the game, is just fantastic,’ she said. ‘To think I have played as many 11-a-side matches for my country as he did…’

She trailed off. Those 11-a-side matches, after all, are completely different. The context, the profile, the number of players Yankey and Shilton had to beat to win that shirt are different. Each player confronted the challenges of their sport head-on and won, but they were and are different challenges in different games.

So please, let’s stop tip-toeing around an issue that does a disservice to both Yankey and Shilton. She has won more caps for England than any other female footballer; he has won more than any other man.

Let’s just celebrate both legendary figures of English football rather than trying to shoehorn them into an uneasy union that is disrespectful to both. Those blokes at the pub quiz could have had a point for writing Shilton or Yankey if I had been in charge.

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