Typical. You wait 20 years for an England player to win 100 caps – and then three come along at once. Steven Gerrard has been rightly lauded for his achievement in reaching this landmark against Sweden on Wednesday night, though it seems likely that once the fanfare has faded away the elevation of Gerrard and Ashley Cole (on 99) to the select band of 100-cap England internationals will be used as yet another stick with which to swish away at the all but departed "golden generation" – a phrase coined by Sven-Göran Eriksson, an England manager rather too obviously in thrall to the riches of the Premier League, which should perhaps only ever have been taken semi-seriously.

All the same, this is a relative downpour of centurions. Billy Wright was first to the mark in April 1959. Bobby Charlton followed 11 years later, followed in turn by Bobby Moore in 1972. Then came another long wait until Peter Shilton in 1988, Shilton's 100th cap arriving in the Marco van Basten-inflicted 3-1 defeat by Holland at Euro 88. With David Beckham next up – reaching the milestone almost exactly 20 years later – the pattern is fairly clear. Only once before in England's history have two players been ushered beneath the velveteen rope of the 100-cap VIP lounge within two years of each other (both of them World Cup winners). Now we're on the verge of adding three in four years, bumping up the total number from four to seven in the process.

Why is this happening? With the two-yearly rotation of World Cup and European Championships entrenched as long ago as the mid-1970s there is no noticeable uplift in the number of international matches being played. Instead the current mini-era has produced unprecedented longevity, not to mention managerial loyalty, for a small but significant group of players: bear in mind, too, that Frank Lampard is still active on 93 caps while Wayne Rooney has 78 at the age of 27 and could yet go on to be the cap-daddy of them all when it comes to outfield players.

And so it is tempting to conclude that the current rush of cap centurions is just another symptom of the indulgence extended to the good-time boys of England's celebrified Baden-Baden clique. Once again the World Cup win of 1966, the austere excellence of Moore and Charlton, can be used to emphasise the relative failings of a group who have only ever been quarter-final losers, their magnified status built on achievements at club level and fuelled by the furiously pizzazz-laden self-promotion of the Premier League.

Though this may be a tempting hypothesis, it does not always fit the facts. A look at the relative cap-total league tables of other nations suggests that this is perhaps simply the modern way, that football across Europe has entered an age of greater centralisation, arranged around a clutch of elite players within a Champions League roster of ever more powerful headline clubs who will also tend to dominate international football . It is not only England in the grip of a 100-cap landslide.

Germany have seven international centurions, six of whom have come in the last 14 years, with four players in Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger on at least 94 not out (only Franz Beckenbauer made it in pre-modern times). Spain have six, with only Andoni Zubizarreta (last cap 1998) not still playing. Holland have five, all players who made their debut after 1990.

Perhaps this is aided by advances in diet and training: excellent players can remain excellent players for longer. Plus, the entire infrastructure of international football is easier on the mind and body now: hotels are uniformly five-star, flights are business only, downtime and recuperation are paramount. Players are treated like sickly kittens, where once they were asked to tote their own luggage, wait on the bus, turn up at the airport on their own and generally sit down and stop talking at the back. In addition, the financial rewards are so huge that there is unavoidable pressure to stay active at the top level. Missing a World Cup for family/political reasons as Johan Cruyff did in 1978 seems harder to do. Another year on the top stage for club and country is another few million pounds in the pocket. Why stop now?

In this context it starts to look slightly odd, not that Gerrard, Cole and Beckham should crack the 100-cap barrier so close together, but that England should have had so many centurions in pre-modern times. It is Shilton, Moore, Charlton and Wright who stand out as the oddity here, their longevity a tribute not only to their dedication, and to the relatively large number of international matches England played during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but also their own peculiar gifts. If these four have anything in common beyond talent it is perhaps a notably dutiful quality.

Wright was less a sergeant-majorish England captain, more a head prefect to Walter Winterbottom's energetic headmaster. A fine and consistent, rather than great defender, he was memorably described by Geoffrey Green of the Times as resembling "a fire engine going to the wrong fire" in his vain rush to stop Ferenc Puskas during England's 6-3 defeat by Hungary at Wembley in 1953. He won the vast majority of his caps under Winterbottom, just as Moore and Charlton did under Alf Ramsey, the longevity of England's first two proper managers perhaps also a vital contributory factor here. Moore and Charlton were also figures of quiet and constant authority within the unusually ordered environment of an England dressing room. Not for England the internal shemozzles, the periodic stormings-out of, say, their Dutch contemporaries.

Similarly Peter Shilton was a cap-machine so uncomplainingly prolific that it seemed to pass unnoticed that he was reaching the end of his mechanical life until his last meaningful action with England, a fatally dead-legged performance against Germany in the Italia 90 semi-final.

Beyond this it seems the cap-centurion is simply an increasingly commonplace footballing phenomenon, an essentially meaningless landmark set to become even more so by the simple fact of dilution. And here at least England may soon rule the world. Currently the US has the most centurions with 11. If Gerrard, Cole and Lampard all make it, England will be equal second, level with South Korea, Egypt and Germany. Whether they are tournament makeweights or not, longevity remains an achievement in its own right and on this score England's gilded generation might just deliver right at the last.