Don Revie and England – an unhappy marriage and a messy divorce

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This week marks 40 years since Don Revie controversially left England to manage the United Arab Emirates and is also the 90th anniversary of his birth. Today we assess an England reign in which Revie could never quite recapture the success or happiness he enjoyed at Leeds and would end with him ostracised from English football

On the morning of July 12, 1977, readers of the Daily Mail were stunned to find the front page headline screaming out that ‘Revie quits over aggro’. Although England were not in good form and in serious danger of failing to qualify for the 1978 World Cup, this was still shock news – including to many who knew him or worked with him. Football Association secretary Ted Croker was surprised the night before to receive a flurry of calls from media members who had caught a glimpse of the Mail’s sensational exclusive and wanted to know if it stacked up. He was caught on the hop and knew nothing about it. Revie had told journalist Jeff Powell about his plans before his employer. A resignation letter would duly arrive by post after the newspapers hit the stands. Revie spoke of how he and wife Elsie had agreed the job was no longer worth the aggravation and “it was bringing too much heartache to those nearest to us”. He added: “Nearly everyone in the country wants me out, so I am giving them what they want.”

It quickly came to light that Revie had agreed a lucrative contract to take over as manager of the United Arab Emirates, a deal negotiated while still employed as England boss. Revie had endured a troubled working relationship with FA chairman Sir Harold Thompson and there would be a messy, acrimonious divorce that had lasting recriminations. A legal battle saw the FA seek to ban Revie sine die from English football for 10 years and initially get their way. Revie successfully fought to overturn that ruling, but he became depicted as a greedy man who had turned his back on his country. The dispute was such that, when Revie sadly died just 12 years later after being afflicted with the dreadful motor neurone disease, the FA was not represented at his funeral. 

When Revie departed his beloved Leeds United for England in the summer of 1974, he was the meritocratic choice having led his club to the First Division title just weeks earlier. There had been a number of major honours won and he could feasibly have doubled the tally, so often were they in the reckoning. But he was not everyone’s cup of tea. The ‘Dirty Leeds’ and ‘Don Readies’ jibes would be hard to shake off and there were some who loathed him and the club he built – not least the man who would controversially be replacing him at Elland Road, his arch-rival Brian Clough. Revie and his family would find Clough’s assertion that he was a “cold man” laughable, but the new boss of England would never develop the charismatic public persona of contemporaries such as Clough and Bill Shankly. And there would be various allegations made about his managerial practices which, while remaining unproven, did nothing to help his reputation and built the perception among some that he literally had a win-at-all-costs mentality. Mud can indeed stick.

Revie may not have been loved nationally, but at Leeds he was almost God-like and remains adored by fans more than 40 years later. He faced a tug-of-love between club and country in the summer of 1974, deciding that the chance to lead England was one he could not turn down – even though he would have to sacrifice the chance to potentially win the European Cup with Leeds in 1974-75. “Any Englishman that is worth his salt would want to manage the England team,” he said as the former England player was unveiled as team manager. As he departed Leeds, Revie spoke of how it was like leaving behind a family. And over the next three years he would rarely seem as settled or happy with his lot as as he had at Elland Road. 

Sir Harold Thompson, a man with whom Don Revie had a difficult relationship.

Continuing with the family analogy, it was a bit like leaving your wife and kids to set up home with your childhood sweetheart but then quickly discovering you would be inheriting a father-in-law you couldn’t stand – while your stepchildren would never bring the same love and affection as the ‘real’ ones you left behind. The proverbial father-in-law was Thompson, an Oxford chemistry don who had very little in common with former bricklayer Revie. He did not become FA chairman until 1976 but held plenty of sway before that, being seen as a key figure in Sir Alf Ramsey’s sacking in 1974. Thompson – a man widely described as an autocrat – would bluntly insist on addressing Revie by his surname, not even affording him the courtesy of ‘Mr’. One suspects that Revie may even have found some common ground with Clough had his rival succeeded him as England manager in 1977 and had to deal with the FA chief. Revie must certainly have longed for the days of  serving under the likes of Manny Cussins at Leeds.

And the proverbial stepchildren were the players, who unlike Revie’s great Leeds side would never come close to major silverware. There was no transfer market for Revie to utilise in international football and he was left to try and find English players to achieve what he wanted. When Revie left the England role, Daily Mirror sports journalist Frank McGhee wrote of the lack of class players available to him over the previous three years. He said: “Although Revie never moaned about it publicly – he had the same fiercely protective attitude towards his players as Ramsey – I know that privately he was disturbed and distressed by this lack of class. He found it even harder to understand the lack of technique and professionalism in players from clubs who hadn’t organised as he had in his 13 outstandingly successful years with Leeds.”

Showing an innovative streak, Revie would introduce a new Admiral-produced England team strip – a bold move at the time – and got the Wembley crowd singing Land of Hope and Glory before kick-off. McGhee would call him “a superb public relations man for the Football Association” for the way he whipped up interest in matches at Wembley and over the commercial deals he struck. But while his reign would initially bring plenty of hope, there was limited glory. Until Steve McClaren three decades later, Revie was the only ‘permanent’ England manager never to lead the side in the finals of a major tournament…

No Leeds repeat

If Revie was expected to make England clones of Leeds, then that was going to be impossible from the word go. Many players in his Leeds machine were not English, a number instead heading to the 1974 World Cup with Scotland. And for the English contingent, the clock was ticking on their careers. The likes of Allan Clarke, Terry Cooper and Norman Hunter would only briefly figure, while Paul Madeley was far from an ever-present. Trevor Cherry was the one man to emerge from Revie’s Leeds empire and break into the England ranks – but even then his first cap did not arrive until 1976. The point is that vast majority of the personnel Revie managed at Leeds were not there to choose and he was going to have to get used to working with a vastly new group of players. 

Over the years many England managers have struggled to adapt to the routine that goes with international management compared to club level. Revie arguably found it tougher to make the change than any of them. At Leeds he had spent hour upon hour at the club, forging strong relationships with everyone from star players to the tea ladies. Now he moved into a different world where he could go weeks or even months without spending time with the players and there was none of the intimacy or family atmosphere he built up with his charges at Elland Road. Leeds players taking part in activities such as carpet bowls would attract intrigue from outsiders, but it was helping with team bonding. Now with England such ideas would be met with more resistance and Revie struggled to replicate the Leeds spirit.

Not that Revie was totally blameless on that score, as constant chopping and changing made it difficult to build a club-like atmosphere. Paradoxically he seemed to find the pool of players available both too limited and too wide – he privately rued the talent that was available to achieve what he wanted, but then seemed to fall into the trap of trying too many players in a bid to resolve matters. A get-together of about 80 English footballers shortly after he took the job was done with the right intentions, but to critics he was casting the net too wide by keeping so many individuals in mind. 

Captain Alan Ball was sent a letter informing he was not being selected for a trip to Switzerland in 1975, the 1966 World Cup winner hurt that Revie did not even afford him the courtesy of a phone call to discuss the matter as his international career came to a sad close. Fellow senior player Emlyn Hughes – the captain when Revie first took the job – would also harbour a grudge for many years afterwards, having been axed shortly into the reign (although he was later recalled). Even after Revie’s death Hughes would put the boot in, laying into him in the BBC series Match of the 70s during the mid-1990s. “I think he was virtually money-ruled,” said Hughes, slamming Revie for significantly increasing the players’ appearance money as the Liverpool star believed it was irrelevant when representing your country, 

Emlyn Hughes and Don Revie – a pairing that would soon end with Hughes bitter towards the manager.

The 1970s Maverick flair players had struggled to win over Ramsey and would make limited inroads with Revie too, men such as Stan Bowles, Charlie George and Alan Hudson enjoying only the briefest of international outings under him. Hudson shone on his debut in a friendly win over West Germany, then won just one more cap. It should also be noted that Revie was to unfortunately lose key players to injuries, particularly midfielders Colin Bell and Gerry Francis who both looked impressive early in his reign when the side seemed to offer a real goalscoring threat from midfield. It was a genuine blow to Revie and undid his plans.

While the relationship between Revie and certain players may have inevitably fallen short of the bond he enjoyed at Leeds, it was not without mutual affection. In his resignation letter, Revie said of his players: “They have been magnificent. Many of them have been upset on my behalf and have tried too hard to get results for me, and the pressure has sometimes produced the wrong results.” One player who certainly took a shine to Revie was Kevin Keegan, who flew in from Spain to attend his former England manager’s funeral in 1989. “He was like a father figure to me,” he said during a TV interview, one of a minority of footballing personnel present who had not been part of his Leeds empire. Keegan had extra reason to be grateful to Revie, a man who forgave the player’s decision to walk out on the England squad after being dropped for a game against Wales in 1975. Had it been someone else in charge, Keegan’s international career could have ended there and then.

A promising start

Revie’s England reign was certainly not a great success, but it was not some catastrophic failure either. He was unbeaten in his first season, which included beating world champions West Germany 2-0 in a friendly, not conceding in his opening six games and thrashing Scotland 5-1. His first match in charge was particularly memorable, as the side beat Czechoslovakia 3-0 at Wembley in a European Championship qualifier. The nation felt buoyant, a new sense of belief emerging a year after the pain of failing to qualify for the World Cup. But Henry Winter’s excellent book Fifty Years of Hurt contains a particularly insightful interview with Revie’s son Duncan – who has sadly recently died at a similar age to when his father passed on – about how the new manager looked solemn rather than euphoric afterwards. “We just haven’t got the players,” said Revie Sr, which seemed a strange time to make such comments after a good victory.

But maybe he was already wondering if he’d made the right decision to leave Leeds for England. The 3-0 win had probably raised expectations higher than he knew they realistically should be; he was struggling to strike up a positive relationship with certain FA bigwigs such as Thompson and encountering obstruction from the Football League as he sought to rearrange club fixtures for the benefit of the national team; and he’d seen his beloved Leeds taken over by his arch-nemesis Clough and then plunged into disarray, the man lasting just 44 days at Elland Road as the near-invincibles of the previous season lay well down the table.

But there wouldn’t be many grumbles over the next few months about Revie and England, although a dismal 0-0 home draw with Portugal in his second game removed some of the initial optimism. The turning point in Revie’s reign came exactly a year after his first game, when England lost the return match against the Czechs 2-1 and ultimately failed to qualify for the last eight. It was Revie’s first defeat and came when he could least afford it. There were fine margins, the Czechs going on to eventually win the tournament when it could so easily have been England in the finals instead. While England’s qualifying exit lacked the pain and drama of the failure to make the 1974 World Cup, it was still a black mark against Revie’s name. He wouldn’t be hounded out for missing out on the Euros but would be judged on whether England could make the 1978 World Cup. It had been his aim since day one – actually declaring early on he believed they could win it – but now there was increased pressure on him to deliver.

A bad day in Rome

England’s decline meant they were no longer seeded and they paid for it by being grouped with Italy, only one side being able to reach the finals in Argentina. D-Day for England and Revie came in November 1976 against the Italians in Rome. With the other teams in the group being the minnows of Finland and Luxembourg, it was likely to boil down to the head-to-head battles between Italy and England, plus possibly goal difference. A narrow 2-1 home win over Finland the previous month did nothing to help Revie or raise confidence. England could not afford to lose in Rome. Revie, a man famed for his dossiers at Leeds, was diligent in his research as he watched the Italians multiple times. But his selection would be criticised as he made a series of changes and the team had an unfamiliar line-up and shape (including a back four that had not played together before), set-up with the intention of trying to stop the Italians. The Revie plan didn’t work.

By contrast Italy were almost like a club side, the bulk of their side playing together at Juventus. It showed. “They murdered us 2-0,” said the recalled Hughes, after a match in which only the most partisan of England followers could claim they had deserved a result. Trevor Brooking, who played in the defeat, would reflect years later: “I think even coming off the pitch it wasn’t a great surprise [to have lost], because going out there you were hoping it was going to happen but you didn’t quite have that belief.”

The loss marked the beginning of the end. Things would get worse with the Netherlands, Wales and Scotland all winning at Wembley between February and June 1977. The defeat by the Dutch emphasised how far England now lagged behind the top sides. The only positive result at Wembley during the run, a 5-0 win over Luxembourg, was considered merely European football’s equivalent of squatting a fly. Even when England won 2-1 away to Northern Ireland in May, Revie would be told that it it had been “a load of rubbish” by Thompson. It was hardly a classic England display, but the comments summed up the chasm that existed between Revie and his employer. By then the end was in sight, a job offer emerging in the United Arab Emirates. Revie oversaw a draw-laden tour of South America that did give a degree of cause for optimism as England matched Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. But he was already planning his way out, secretly heading off to the UAE to finalise the deal during the tour.

Don Revie during his England reign.

On July 10, Revie celebrated his 50th birthday at the start of a hectic week. The following day he posted his resignation letter and that night the first glimpse of the following day’s Daily Mail front page led to sports journalists desperately playing catch-up. On July 12 the news broke that Revie had quit, amid some initial speculation he may be heading for Manchester United. But 24 hours later the Mail broke yet another major exclusive, revealing he was taking up a very well-paid job as the United Arab Emirates team manager. A storm was brewing and the FA were seething over Revie’s conduct, while critics perceived him a traitor to the national cause and a man who had been unwilling to ride the storm and try and turn fortunes around.

But had Revie really been that or was he simply jumping before he was pushed? He would maintain he knew the axe was coming and wanted to get out while there was a job offer and security on the table. He also claimed the FA had approached Bobby Robson behind his back (an allegation Robson vehemently refuted in his 1986 World Cup Diary, although another source suggests the approach was made to Robson’s Ipswich Town chairman John Cobbold). If true, it does seem a bit like branding a man a homewrecker for moving out after discovering his wife had been having an affair with another man. 

If the FA were really planning for life after Revie, then they should have been upfront with him. And he too should not have gone behind his employer’s back. Both parties could certainly have avoided a lot of aggro had they simply agreed to part amicably. The ideal solution would have been for Revie to leave by mutual consent, saving him the indignity of being sacked butalso offering the comfort of having a well-paid job to go to without any legal wrangles to negotiate. Or the deal with the UAE could have been done through the right channels (given the money Revie would reportedly be paid, his new nation could certainly have afforded to pay compensation). 

Instead the departure was rich in controversy, with it being reported Revie had skipped part of the South American tour to get the deal sorted while officially claiming he was off to scout Italy against Finland; it was also claimed he had made enquiries to the FA about resigning but still wanted to have his salary paid up (leading the FA to feel he had tried to deceive them, given he had another job offer on the table) while it did not help that he had only recently declared he would be seeing the job through until at least after the home game against Italy in November.

Unfortunately, the combination of Revie having sold his story and taking a job in a nation rich in finance but not football heritage did nothing to stem the perception he was money-obsessed. Doing an exclusive deal with one tabloid also inevitably irked rival football correspondents and the publications they worked for, few offering much support for Revie. “To be blunt he doesn’t deserve sympathy,” wrote McGhee. “Pressure, criticism and unpopularity are his basic reasons for quitting. But all three are part of the deal for any manager, particularly one in the England job. Alf Ramsey and Walter Winterbottom can testify to that. And they weren’t paid anything like Revie’s £25,000 a year to take it, live with it and shrug it off.” Wherever you looked with Revie, money seemed to creep in.

But McGhee’s article assessing Revie’s reign was more balanced than that of David Miller’s in the Daily Express, who seemed particularly keen to get one back on the outgoing manager for selling his story to the paper’s main rival. Without naming him directly, Miller scathingly branded Powell “an acolyte journalist who touchingly still believed in the myth of Revie’s infallibility.” He also cast doubt upon the reasons Revie gave for quitting, writing: “Revie has said his resignation came because his family were upset by the pressure, but his daughter’s appearance, straight from boarding school, to sing in a Luton nightclub was hardly the action of a sensitive, publicity-shy girl.” Miller went on to list all sorts of reasons why Revie should be viewed as a failure, including his high turnover rate of players and the changes he made for the game in Italy.

For Revie there remained a legal contest with the FA. Even when he was successful in overturning a hefty 10-year ban from working in English football, it proved something of a Pyrrhic victory as the judge came out with a series of damning comments in his summing up that further sullied Revie’s reputation. The High Court was told that Revie had shown “disloyalty, breach of duty, discourtesy and selfishness” and that his conduct had led English football to “a high level of disrepute”. By the time of the verdict in December 1979 Revie was well-settled in the UAE and enjoying life out there. His managerial work did not reap obvious rewards at the time but the side ultimately went on to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, his reign almost certainly helping move things forward. Sadly Revie would not live to see it, his painful struggle with motor neurone disease blighting the last couple of years of his life before he died in May 1989. It was merely 15 years since he had taken charge of England, when hope briefly grew before it all went sour.

Revie did not find life easy as England manager and some mistakes were made. But one can’t help wondering if he might have found things easier as England boss if he had been born in a different era and was around today. He would hardly be alone in today’s football world in being associated with making money (Sven-Goran Eriksson certainly was); he would have the benefit of international breaks, which he tried unsuccessfully to introduce; finishing second in qualifying groups would not leave England in the wilderness as happened in Revie’s days; and he would surely find the current FA bosses preferable to Thompson. Even if things did not work out, he would almost certainly be able to part on more amicable terms than he experienced in 1977. Some of his successors, such as Eriksson and Sam Allardyce, had messy departures which – while not exactly the same circumstances as Revie’s – did not see them have to fight just for the right to work in English football again.

In many ways the Revie England reign reminds us of Graham Taylor’s. Both men took charge of England after plenty of club success but they seemed unable to replicate the same spirit at international level. However, they began amid national optimism with an unbeaten first season but then suffered a costly defeat in the second. Things would turn sour in the third season and leave both men knowing England were unlikely to qualify for the World Cup and they were facing the axe. Each would receive criticism for dropping senior players and over some of those they called up as they handed out a plethora of new caps, while both men had the misfortune to lose key men due to injuries. 

But for all the comparisons, the way they would be perceived in later years was vastly different. When Taylor died earlier this year, the Football Association voiced its deep sadness and most seemed to recognise him as a decent man who gave his all; when Revie died in 1989, the FA steered clear of his funeral. It summed up the messy way that the Revie years ended – whereas Taylor saw it out until the bitter end, Revie jumped before he was pushed and, while he enjoyed a good standard of life in the United Arab Emirates, found himself ostracised from English football. It was a sad situation that perhaps summed up Revie and England – it was a relationship that could have worked so well, but seemed fated never to turn out happily.

Faces of ’66 – Hugh Johns

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This week sadly marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Hugh Johns, the man who commentated for ITV on the 1966 World Cup final. But there was far more to his career than simply being the answer to a pub quiz question…

On the afternoon of July 30, 1966, Hugh Johns completed his live commentary for ITV on England’s World Cup final win over West Germany. It had been job done. ITV were heavily beaten by the BBC in the ratings but Johns – so exhausted from describing the drama that he retired to bed early after a few gins – could feel satisfied at having described such a famous and dramatic occasion. 

And then, at some point in due course, Johns would be made aware of what the BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme had said in the dying seconds of extra-time. “They think it’s all over. It is now…” would become immortalised and known by generations to come. It meant that whatever Johns had said during the afternoon became totally’ overshadowed by Wolstenholme’s words as Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick. But not that Johns’ description of the moment has been ignored. A certain intrigue has built up over what was being said on ITV. And here it is:

“Here’s Hurst, he might make it three. He has, he has… so that’s it. That is IT!”

While the line may have lacked the impact of Wolstenholme’s, it still told the viewer what they needed to know (save for mentioning that fans thought the final whistle had already sounded) in just a few words. Simplicity and repetition – helping to emphasise the significance of what was happening – would be two of Johns’ trademarks and he utilised both to describe the much-recalled moment .

 

Hugh Johns in later years.

In the BBC’s shadow

ITV’s football coverage has, rightly or wrongly, come in for its fair share of stick down the years and in 1966 it was certainly not winning many plaudits. In 1962 they opted not to cover the World Cup in Chile at all – in fairness they could only have shown delayed coverage a couple of days later, but this did not deter the BBC – and then in October 1965 the channel missed Austria’s winning goal over England at Wembley, an error compounded by commentator Gerry Loftus offering the double entente of “Alf Ramsey will need to get his chopper out” when summing up the game. Then come the World Cup in England the commercial channel would allow the BBC to steal a match in securing viewers as ITV often joined big matches either later than their rivals or didn’t show them live at all – possibly fearful of alienating the non-football audience in the days when viewers had just the BBC and ITV to choose from. There was little to persuade football fans to switch over to ITV during the tournament.

But for the minority who did opt to watch the World Cup on ITV, Johns would become the most familiar voice over the three weeks. He was joined by Wales manager Dave Bowen as summariser (co-commentator in today’s money) to cover the opening match against Uruguay and the same partnership would remain in place for the rest of the tournament. It was one compensation for Welshmen after seeing their country fail to qualify.

Over on the ‘other side’, Wolstenholme was the lead voice and synonymous with football coverage. Johns knew that trying to directly take on the broadcasting great by mimicking him would not work; he would have to develop his own distinctive style. “There’s no doubt about it, he was great. And so if you were going to do it you had to find a way of beating Ken, or doing something Ken hadn’t thought of,” Johns said many years later. He would offer affectionate respect rather than resentment towards his BBC counterpart, despite the national obsession with Wolstenholme and his “they think it’s all over” line. 

Over the years, when the BBC and ITV have gone head-to-head and shared live coverage the latter has usually come off well-beaten in the ratings war. As a result, the nation tends to recall more readily Barry Davies describing Argentina against England in 1986 than Martin Tyler; John Motson’s on England’s Italia ’90 semi-final against West Germany more than Brian Moore; and Davies describing the epic Euro ’96 semi-final between England and Germany instead of Moore. It generally applied in the days they both showed the FA Cup final live too. For example, Motson’s description of Ricky Villa’s amazing goal in the 1981 replay for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City is still regularly recalled. Few seem to reel off Moore’s words at the same moment.

And so in that respect Johns – whose name led to him being affectionately known as  ‘Huge Ones’ – was always going to struggle to make a lasting impact with his commentary on the 1966 World Cup final. Indeed, hypothetically speaking had Johns been the one to come out with the “they think it’s all over line” it’s questionable if it would have passed into national folklore like it has thanks to Wolstenholme. We will never know. But watching the 1966 final with ITV commentary is a bit like seeing a film remade – the outcome is the same, but yet it also feels very different to what you are used to. A fair chunk of the nation can recite at least a couple of Wolstenholme’s lines from that day; sadly, the same does not apply to the work of poor old Johns.

So good he said it twice

It has to be said Johns did not give a faultless display on the final. Prior to kick-off he said England had won the cup when he meant the coin toss (he chuckled on air over that one); he bemusingly spoke of “Harold Ramsey” as England’s manager came into view ahead of extra-time; and he erroneously identified the England player bearing down on goal in the dying seconds as Martin Peters, but quickly corrected himself as he realised it was Geoff Hurst. It wouldn’t be the last time in his career he mixed up the duo.

One trademark of Johns’ commentary on the final was to repeat himself, stressing the significance of what had just happened.  “A goal. A goal,” was the simplistic description of West Germany’s opener; “It’s there. It’s there,” he roared as Hurst equalised: “It’s Martin Peters. Martin Peters,” came the cry as Peters put England 2-1 up. “It IS a goal. It IS a goal,” he proclaimed as the third England goal was eventually given. And so on, including his description of Hurst completing his hat-trick (“He has. He has.”). It was parodied when Martin Peters appeared on Fantasy Football during Euro 2004 in a Phoenix from the Flames sketch. “He said bloody everything twice,” joked Peters.

For all the differences with Wolstenholme’s commentary, there were similarities too. The words offered by Johns over Hurst’s ‘did it cross the line?’ goal followed the same pattern as those of Wolstenholme, switching between it being a goal to not being so and back again before it was finally awarded. And Johns would also refer to the Jules Rimet Trophy as being “only 12 inches high” as Bobby Moore went up to collect it from The Queen. 

Covering the decline

Despite his strong Welsh heritage, war veteran Johns was actually born in England and like many of his contemporaries served as a print journalist before landing his broadcasting opportunity. The nation of his birth would continue to feature prominently in his TV career beyond 1966. 

Unlike Wolstenholme, Johns would commentate on England matches at the 1970 World Cup – a tournament where he enjoyed increased exposure thanks to ITV unusually winning the ratings war amid the popular studio panel back home. Johns seemed to have grown as a commentator in the four years since 1966, although the tournament saw him again confuse Hurst and Peters – this time crediting the former with putting England 2-0 up against West Germany before quickly realising it was Peters! Johns was left to describe England’s shock collapse in the same game, a week after covering the iconic match against Brazil. “And that’s a fantastic save by Banks,” he proclaimed after that unforgettable save was made.

Three years later, Johns found himself covering the antithesis of the 1966 World Cup final. England had to beat Poland to qualify for the World Cup and it was being shown live on ITV. As is well-known. England were held to a 1-1 draw and failed to make it. Johns was left to provide the words as the nation watched with disbelief when the final whistle sounded. “It’s over. It’s all over,” he uttered, as he again used repetition to emphasise the significance of what was happening. “And for England, one of the blackest days they’ve ever had.” In a broadcast best remembered for the comments of Brian Clough about Jan Tomaszewski, Johns had also played his part.

With lead commentator Brian Moore continuing to stay at home to present the tournaments, Johns remained ITV’s choice to cover the World Cup Final in 1974 and 1978 – competitions which England were sadly absent from. They were there in 1982 but by then Johns had made way for Tyler as lead commentator at the finals and he was restricted to just covering highlights on a few games, as he slipped well down the pecking order. 

1982 also saw Johns turn 60 and make way for Peter Brackley as ITV’s man in the Midlands, but the ensuing years saw him still regularly hold the microphone. He would work for more than a decade for HTV Wales and in the mid-1990s he was still regularly covering matches involving Cardiff City, Swansea and Wrexham for the station’s Soccer Sunday programme, with the nation catching glimpses of the veteran’s efforts on Football League Extra – a show which broadcast the delightful feature below about him. In an era where Sky Sports, the Premier League and “a whole new ball game” were taking hold, it was refreshing to hear there was still room on our screens for an old-school commentator who could utter an “oh, good gracious me” after a goal was scored. 

And in September 1994. Johns was called upon to commentate on highlights for regions including Central and Granada on Port Vale hosting Manchester United in the League Cup. It was a night that saw a new generation of English players really start to come to the fore, with youngster Paul Scholes scoring twice and others including David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville all starting. Having Johns covering it seemed as much an unlikely generational crossover as it would be to hear Clive Tyldesley commenting on members of England’s 1966 side in action. But on a night otherside about the future, Johns was rolling back the years with the disctinctive and charming style still there. It was a bit like watching football with your grandad – one who freely admitted to smoking more than 20 fags a day for decades and who loved drinking Banks’s Bitter. He even managed a trademark “one-nothing” when Vale took the lead that night. Memories of his heyday came rushing back.

Johns was now in his 70s and would end his commentary duties later in the decade, but he had left a fine legacy. Dismissing him as simply the ‘other’ commentator on the 1966 World Cup final would be unfair. He covered the next three as well and his years working for ATV (and briefly Central) coincided with Midlands football thriving, with Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa being First Division champions and the latter two lifting the European Cup – plus such characters as Brian Clough and Derek Dougan were operating in the region and there was the celebrated West Bromwich Albion side under Ron Atkinson. It was certainly a far greater era for the region than the ensuing 35 years.

Johns provided the soundtrack for that and other famous moments in that era such as Manchester United winning the European Cup in 1968. He wasn’t Wolstenholme, he didn’t claim to be. He was Hugh Johns and he had the honour of describing England winning the World Cup for ITV (something to elude successors such as Moore, Tyldesley and Tyler). He did. He did.

England on tour – South America 1984

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This month in 1984 England headed to South America for a three-match tour against Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. It would mark a welcome turning point for under-pressure manager Bobby Robson and be forever remembered for a wondergoal by John Barnes…

Bobby Robson’s rollercoaster England reign contained some low points amid the highs, but arguably the lowest moment for him arrived on June 2, 1984. England were playing the Soviet Union in a friendly at Wembley, with Robson desperately needing a good result to silence the critics. In recent months the side had failed to qualify for Euro ’84, looked second best in losing a friendly against France and endured a mediocre final Home International Championship campaign which included a defeat to Wales. Not helped by a high number of players being unavailable, England slumped to a disappointing 2-0 loss to the USSR and it was the final straw for some fans.

As the side left the field, loud chants of “Robson out” could be heard. It was far from every fan at Wembley shouting it, but it certainly wasn’t a tiny minority either. It would be hurtful for Robson, under pressure just two years into the job. But the patriotic Englishman wasn’t going to call it a day, revealing he had rejected an approach from Barcelona as he sought to rectify matters. Terry Venables would move to the Nou Camp instead.

But there was a fear that the pressure on him and England was about to get much worse. They were now heading to South America for an end-of-season tour, made possible by their absence from the European Championship in France. During an interview after the USSR game, the BBC’s Jimmy Hill would suggest to Robson that the tour should be cancelled amid the potential embarrassment of heavy defeats. Robson went on the defensive as his former Fulham team-mate put him on the spot, but there was little doubt the knives were out. Few were expecting England’s youthful side to avoid defeat against Brazil eight days later.

Bobby Robson was under pressure as England headed out to South America.

A combination of circumstances, England being in a period of transition and the approach Robson wanted to take meant they would be taking a largely inexperienced side to South America. “I was gambling with my future – and knew it,” wrote Robson in 1986. “I looked around the aircraft at my young wingers, John Barnes of Watford and Mark Chamberlain of Stoke, and thought how much rested on their youthful shoulders.” 

Robson was seeking for England to be more adventurous, but they were desperately short of forwards. Several were unavailable for various reasons and there were fitness doubts over Tony Woodcock, with uncapped QPR pair Clive Allen and Simon Stainrod being called up at literally the last minute as they prepared to fly out to Asia on club duty. Also off to South America was tall Portsmouth forward Mark Hateley, who had made his England debut as a substitute against the USSR. This was to be a life-changing trip for him, as he went from being known mainly as the son of Tony Hateley into a forward recognised on the continent – swapping the Second Division for Serie A.

Robson spent the flight out to Brazil weighing up whether to go for it or play it cautious for the opening game of the tour in the Maracana. He was to opt for the former and use genuine wingers. “I was going to persist with the gamble and to hell with everyone who said it was suicidal,” he recalled two years later. “I made the decision in the full knowledge that we could get a fearful roasting if it went wrong.” It was certainly a gamble, but one that helped to salvage his England reign.

Barnes scores THAT goal

It has to be conceded this was not one of the great Brazil sides. Many of the key players from the much-loved 1982 World Cup team such as Eder, Falcao, Socrates and Zico were absent for this game. But it was still Brazil, the nation millions looked up to and they were considered almost unbeatable in the Maracana. Most recent meetings between the sides had been close, but England had not beaten the Brazilians since the first meeting at Wembley in 1956.

The England side was not totally devoid of experience, with five of the starting line-up – Woodcock, Bryan Robson, Kenny Sansom, Peter Shilton and Ray Wilkins – having played in the 1982 World Cup. But nobody else had more than 10 caps to their name and neither Hateley nor defender Dave Watson had ever started a full international before. Watson would partner Terry Fenwick who made his England debut the previous month and the only substitute used, Allen, was uncapped. Mick Duxbury, who had been at fault for one of the goals conceded against the USSR, was earning his sixth cap at right-back. England’s cause had not been helped by defender Graham Roberts sustaining an injury that curtailed his involvement on the tour.

What happened that night is well-known. England’s young side coped admirably and the match would forever be remembered for one moment in the dying seconds of the first half. Barnes collected the ball on the left flank and cut inside, memorably weaving his way between opponents before joyously placing the ball into the net for an astonishing goal. Stuart Jones, reporting for The Times, correctly forecast that it was a goal that would “be remembered forever”. It was a most un-English goal and the fact it had come against Brazil in the Maracana added to the magic of it.

John Barnes celebrates a goal still fondly recalled today.

Barnes would see it almost as out-of-body experience, admitting later he could recall little of it apart from collecting the ball and the finish. But it was a wonderful moment for the nation to enjoy, or it should have been anyway. ITV would only start broadcasting live at half-time, moments after the goal went in. Viewers instead had to endure Surprise, Surprise before the broadcast began, with technical problems then meaning they had to be told about the goal before they saw it. Coupled with just two matches out of 15 at the European Championship being shown live that summer in Britain, it’s a reminder of where football stood at the time compared to today.

But over in the Maracana the only concern was England stayed in front. Hateley had helped set-up Barnes and the favour would be returned on 65 minutes. Barnes put over an excellent cross and Hateley headed in to double England’s lead, one which they protected throughout the remainder of the game. A trophy was presented at the end, with young players such as Duxbury, Fenwick, Hateley and Watson forever able to say they had done something such greats as Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Kevin Keegan never did – play for England in a win over Brazil.


The England side that beat Brazil.

Little more than a week after England and Robson were taking a real slagging off, they were now being heavily applauded. “England came here as boys to play in the biggest stadium in the world,” wrote Jones. “They left as men, bulging with pride and holding a prize that was beyond anyone’s imagination. Since the arena was built 34 years ago, Brazil have only lost three times and all of those defeats, by Uruguay, Czechoslovakia and Argentina, were achieved in the 1950s. The last was 27 years ago.”

In the Daily Express, Steve Curry wrote: “John Barnes gave Bobby Robson glorious vindication last night for his belief that England’s future lies in bold, attacking football.” He added: “I hope that those fans who booed England boss Robson off at Wembley nine days ago will now applaud him for holding his nerve in a situation that would have had other managers crumbling.”

Captain Bryan Robson also spoke passionately about the manager, saying: “That result was for him. He has taken so much criticism and, though there are times when he could have blamed us, he has always protected us. It’s a pity that we can’t all pack up and go home after that performance.” If Robson feared the rest of the tour could be a bit of an anti-climax, then he would to some extent be right. And one deplorable incident would follow to take some of the shine off beating Brazil…

A sour taste in the mouth

England’s most two recent foreign visits to Luxembourg and France had been blighted by yobs running riot, further tarnishing the reputation of English fans. But it was to be hoped that travelling as far away as South America would deter the hooligans. While that was largely true, there would be another reminder of the problems England faced off the field as racist behaviour was on show from people supposedly supporting the side.

As England prepared to board a flight during the remainder of the tour – Bobby Robson recalled it being from Brazil to Uruguay, this article says it was from Uruguay to Chile – individuals believed to be National Front members were heard shouting abuse at Barnes and proclaiming England had only won 1-0 against Brazil as a goal scored by a man of his skin colour shouldn’t count. Robson would certainly never forget the incident. “How sick can you be?” he said of those responsible during the excellent BBC documentary Three Lions 16 years later.

The racism in itself was disgraceful and the fact that any individual would chose to effectively discount such a marvellous goal because of a player’s colour was sickening. There was also hypocrisy on show as those responsible seemed to be overlooking that Barnes made the other goal for Hateley. But sadly it was indicative of the racism rife on the terraces in that era, with monkey noises still unfortunately heard. If the great goal by Barnes and presence of Chamberlain on the opposite flank had helped strengthen the reputation of black England players, then incidents such as this immediately acted as an unfortunate reminder of the work still do to be done to silence the racists. It would certainly leave a sour taste in the mouth. 

John Barnes in action against Uruguay.

The second game of the tour against Uruguay promised to be tough. Although the Uruguayans had been absent from the 1982 World Cup, they were South American champions and in 1980-81 had won the Mundalito competition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first World Cup. Manager Robson knew this was going to be a difficult game, warning that “we cannot get carried away” after the Brazil success. This time viewers back home could watch the whole match live on the BBC, although they would have to stay up until nearly 1am to witness its conclusion.

Allen came into the starting line-up and squandered a glorious opportunity to score early on, which was soon punished as a penalty was controversially awarded against Hateley and scored by Luis Acosta. England continued to create chances without taking them – with Allen out of luck – and the contest was settled when Wilmar Cabrera scored the second on 69 minutes. It was a result that would have increased the pressure on Robson had England lost to Brazil, but instead there was recognition that the side was making progress. Curry wrote: “This was defeat with a degree of honour, for England did not play so badly against the South American champions.”

Jones perceptively summed it up by writing: “Like the gambler who hits the jackpot on the first visit to the roulette table and then spends the rest of the evening waiting for the next win, England’s youths are learning about the wheel of fortune. It spun for them in Rio de Janiero and against them in Montevideo.”

And that luck would elude them in the last match of the tour…

The ball just won’t go in

Usually England would have faced Argentina when visiting South America. But the Falklands War just two years earlier made that possibility a non-starter, so the Three Lions were left to look beyond the continent’s traditional ‘big three’ to complete the tour. A match against a Chile side preparing for the Olympics was selected. Although the weakest-looking opposition on the tour, England’s manager knew Chile – who had played in the 1982 World Cup – could pose a threat and his side needed to guard against complacency. “In many ways this could be our hardest game,” said Robson. “Attitudes can soften and there can be a tiredness factor at the end of a tour. So we have got to avoid being turned over on those two issues.”

The final game of the tour looked like the ideal chance to give a game to some of the players who had travelled to South America but yet to appear, such as Stainrod, David Armstrong, Steve Hunt, Alan Kennedy, Gary Stevens (the Tottenham version) and Chris Woods. But apart from Sammy Lee who came on as substitute for his last cap, every player who featured had already played during the tour. It was clear Robson wanted to end with a victory and he was keen to build a familiarity to his side ahead of World Cup qualifiers in 1984-85. One player who was absent was Woodcock, who had flown home injured.

Mark Hateley battles for possession in Chile.

In front of a small crowd in Santiago it was another case of England failing to take their chances, with Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas in inspired form. England should have won on the balance of play but they had to be content with a goalless draw. “If we had won 6-0 no one could have complained,” said Robson, while Curry wrote: “It is a long time since an England side has had quite so much possession on foreign soil. But it is not too often that they have come across a goalkeeper quite so acrobatic and apparently impassable as Roberto Rojas, the man they nickname Peter Shilton in this South American outpost.” The real Shilton was called upon to make one impressive save in the second half, as Chile made a rare foray forward. At the other end England could not take their chances, with Allen having the misfortune to see a series of chances go towards his head rather than feet.

One man to emerge with great praise from the Chile match was captain Bryan Robson, whose namesake and manager wrote in his World Cup Diary in 1986: “The one player who deserved a goal was our skipper Bryan Robson. I do not think I have ever seen him cover so much ground, he must have tackled each and every one of the Chile team, including their three substitutes. There was not a blade of grass in that stadium that did not receive the imprint of his boot. He went round the park like a man possessed and had eight or nine attempts at goal on his own without the slightest luck… Bryan Robson really came of age on that trip.”

Captain Robson’s leadership was giving cause for optimism, as was England’s use of wingers and the young talent that was emerging. Manager Robson could arrive back in England feeling far less pressure than when he had departed for South America. With England’s cricketers spending the summer being thrashed by the West Indies, the nation’s football fortunes seemed positive by comparison. The side would go into the 1984-85 season with a new-found optimism and a succession of wins would follow in qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. There is no doubt that the trip to South America, and in particularly Brazil, had been justified. It certainly proved more worthwhile than the trip to Australia a year earlier.

But in some ways the trip to South America was a false dawn for the personnel involved. When England met Argentina in the 1986 World Cup semi-final, only Fenwick, Sansom and Shilton would start having been in the side that beat Brazil. Chamberlain and Duxbury were never capped after 1984, while Allen would have to wait until 1987 to appear again. Watson and Woodcock would stay involved over the next two years but miss out on the 1986 finals squad. Wilkins and captain Robson would of course go there as the midfield duo but see their tournaments end prematurely for different reasons, while Hateley was left watching the Argentina match from the bench. His goal against Brazil in 1984 had thrust him into the spotlight and earned him a move to AC Milan, while he became a prominent player for his country. But England’s poor start to the 1986 World Cup led to him being sacrificed for Peter Beardsley and he would never regularly start internationals again.

But for the other goalscorer against Brazil, the moment became a little bittersweet. It would remain a moment to treasure but it was hard to shake off the feeling that it would be something of a burden during the rest of his England career. Expectations went through the roof and he would struggle to replicate both the moment and his club performances when playing for England – his supporters believing he was not used correctly when appearing for his country. Despite being regularly called up to the squad, he didn’t start an international during 1985-86 and his involvement in 1986 World Cup was restricted to just 16 minutes. That would come against Argentina, as during that cameo Barnes gave one of his few England performances that the public viewed in the same light as when he shone against Brazil.

But more than 30 years later, that goal against Brazil remains fondly remembered across England. What a shame it couldn’t be enjoyed live on TV.

When England won Le Tournoi – 20 years on

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June marks the 20th anniversary of England getting their hands on silverware when the side won Le Tournoi in France. Today we look back at that competition, as Glenn Hoddle’s side surprisingly triumphed in a four-team tournament that included strong Brazilian, French and Italian teams. Something to get excited about or merely glorified friendlies?

These days the Confederations Cup is used as the warm-up competition for the World Cup, being staged by the host nation a year before the main act. But back in 1997 the French were left to their own devices and planned their own mini-tournament called Tournoi de France – more commonly known as Le Tournoi – similar to what had happened in England in 1995 with the Umbro Cup (played 12 months before Euro ’96) and in the USA in 1993 with the US Cup. Both those mini-tournaments saw England fail to beat Brazil and they would hope to make it third time lucky in France, with both sides joined on the guest list by Italy. There was no shortage of attractive opposition facing England out in France.

Such tournaments serve several purposes. They are essentially trial runs for the following year, helping the hosts get a flavour for the real thing and offering the home nation a welcome chance to play something approaching competitive matches in a tournament environment. And for the other sides involved it helps in their preparations for the following year’s competition, both in terms of the tournament experience and making plans for 12 months down the line. England certainly did just that in France, manager Glenn Hoddle liking the The Golf Hotel in La Baule so much that he decided they would return there during the World Cup – provided they qualified.

England headed out to the tournament in good spirits after winning a vital World Cup qualifier in Poland on May 31. The main game during the end-of-season programme had been won, now they could focus on Le Tournoi. The real pressure was off, but the next task was about showing England could compete with three excellent sides and using it as proper preparation for a year later. Hoddle was keen to stress there would be no repeat of the antics that had blighted England’s trip to Hong Kong shortly before Euro ’96, with the focus for the week-long trip to France on preparing for the real deal.

Hoddle said: “It will be relaxed but professional. Any relaxing away from football will be controlled. We are there for business reasons. The players would not want it any other way, they don’t want a Fred Karno’s Army with nightclubbing and so on. This is experience for 12 months down the line. If we are to win the World Cup, we will have to make sacrifices.”

Class show against the Italians

England’s first game was in Nantes against Italy, who four months earlier had won at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier – the only blemish on Hoddle’s record so far. The return game would take place in October, so this was to be seen as the least important of the three meetings in a year. But what the game lacked it status it would make up for in English success. Hoddle rang the changes from the previous game but it was perhaps a measure of the depth of talent available at the time that such a different side could play with such confidence.

And that was because England were blessed in terms of the players at their disposal compared to some other eras. Experienced men such as Martin Keown, Ian Wright and stand-in captain Paul Ince were joined for the night by a batch of young players from Manchester United who had won successive league titles. They would further prove to Alan Hansen that you could win things with kids, with one of them particularly instrumental to this triumph.

Paul Scholes (above) was starting an international for the first time and he delivered a pinpoint pass for Wright to open the scoring after 26 minutes. Shortly before the break the favour was returned, Wright feeding Scholes to fire past Angelo Peruzzi. England weren’t just winning, they were turning it on and looking un-English in their one-touch style. David Beckham, winning only his eighth cap, beamed afterwards: “The way we played in the first half, with our one-touch football, has made people sit up.”

England saw the game out to win 2-0 and it wasn’t just young heads who were getting excited by what had taken place. David Lacey, a veteran with The Guardian, wrote: “Glenn Hoddle’s highly experimental side blended a caucus of Manchester United youth with some Premiership wrinklies to produce one of the most stylish performances seen from an England team since Ron Greenwood’s side went to Barcelona shortly before the 1980 European Championship and defeated Spain by a similar score.” This was high praise.

Was it a one-off or were England now really capable of beating everybody? Two big tests that lay ahead…

Beating the French

England fielded a more familiar-looking side against France in Montpellier, with senior players including Paul Gascoigne, David Seaman and Alan Shearer returning to the starting line-up. England’s performance lacked the sparkle of three days earlier, but it was still an encouraging evening wih captain Shearer scoring the only goal in the closing minutes as he pounced after Fabien Barthez spilt Teddy Sheringham’s cross. It was a notable result, given it ended a lengthy unbeaten run at home for the French.

Alan Shearer scores a late winner for England against France.

As Glenn Moore reflected in The Independent: “Saturday showed a different side of England’s game, the ability to eke out wins without playing particularly well. They were not poor but they must now be judged by the standards they set against Italy and by that mark they disappointed. The impressive elements were the defensive strength, the ability to recover from a poor start, and the thoroughness of the preparation.”

The friendly nature of Le Tournoi meant games were being judged as much on displays as scorelines by the media, but for those preferring to view this as a competitive tournament things were looking good for England. They had six points from two games, with France unable to catch them and Italy unlikely to do so given their goal difference. Only Brazil realistically remained a threat, as they prepared to face Italy ahead of playing England 48 hours later. If they won both then the world champions would pick up yet more silverware. But whatever happened it had been an excellent week for England.

On Sunday, June 8, two unusual things happened. England’s cricketers went ahead in an Ashes series for the first time in more than a decade by comfortably beating Australia in the opening test at Edgbaston. And a short time later the nation’s footballers enjoyed winning a tournament with a game to spare, as Italy and Brazil drew 3-3 in Lyon to leave England four points clear with a game to go. For the first time since the 1983 Home International Championship, England’s seniors would win a tournament containing at least four sides.

Winners and losers

Paradoxically, England’s last game in Paris did not matter so far as the outcome of the tournament was concerned but was also their biggest, and arguably most important, test. Brazil were the world champions and widely backed to repeat the feat in France a year later. Although they had drawn both games so far at Le Tournoi, hints of their class and goal threat lingered and Roberto Carlos had scored a jaw-dropping free-kick in the opening game against France. If England looked distinctly second best against Brazil, then a bit of the gloss would be removed from an excellent end to the season.

In some respects that turned out to be the case, as Moore wrote in The Independent of England’s 1-0 defeat: “England can be congratulated for earning the right to joust with the best but last night they discovered that they still have some way to go to match them. While the figures in the Tournoi de France table shows them to be the leading team, the tournament’s football told a different tale. That impression was confirmed on a humid Parisian night as Romario’s 61st-minute goal brought Brazil a victory which was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.”

England were given a reminder of the scale of the task facing them 12 months later, knowing that in all probability they would have to beat Brazil at some stage if they were to win the World Cup. The result was fair but it hadn’t felt quite like the Brazilian masterclass of two years earlier when they turned it on to beat England 3-1 at Wembley to win the Umbro Cup. Even so, Moore wrote that the England players “looked suitably sheepish when they had to pose and parade with their trophy as We are the Champions rang out and the Brazilians looked on”.

It was perhaps typical of England’s fortunes that, even in winning a tournament, there was an instant reality check. But even so, the sight of Shearer stepping forward to collect the unusual-looking trophy – that appeared to be designed by someone desperate to point out it was a football competition – was a pleasing moment, albeit a long way off the joy that comes with winning a ‘proper’ tournament.

Alan Shearer holds aloft the tournament trophy despite England having lost to Brazil.

We’re not going to overhype Le Tournoi and make it out to be the equivalent of England winning a major tournament, because it wasn’t. This was a one-off competition and the games could easily be dismissed as just glorified friendlies. It’s doubtful anyone in Brazil, France or Italy ever thinks about their failure to win it. But silverware has been thin on the ground for England in recent times and this contained surely the strongest set of opponents of any competition won by the team since 1966. The two victories achieved during Le Tournoi were pleasing, with the performance against Italy particularly hailed.

Perhaps the other key significance was the contrast from England’s experience four years earlier at the US Cup, when they went there off the back of a painful World Cup qualifying defeat to Norway and followed it up by finishing bottom in the four-team competition and suffering a much-criticised loss to the United States. This time around they had enjoyed a precious qualifying win immediately beforehand and then given themselves a psychological boost by triumphing in the mini-tournament.

Now the big challenge awaiting England was to ensure they were back in France for the summer of 1998 for the World Cup and then to go in search of that long-awaited major honour…

England’s 2002 World Cup – 15 years on

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This summer marks the 15th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup, a tournament that brought the all-too-familiar feeling of quarter-final disappointment for England. But there had at least been the joy of a memorable group stage win over Argentina to enjoy…

The start of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s reign in 2001 had been close to perfect, England’s fortunes being transformed as the side qualified as group winners for the following year’s World Cup and won 5-1 away to Germany. Now suddenly the young team were being hyped-up as a potential threat at the finals in Japan and South Korea. However, the final qualifying match at home to Greece had provided something of a reality check as Eriksson’s side struggled and famously needed a David Beckham equaliser in the dying seconds to clinch a place in the final. It was the start of a continual pattern of hopes being raised and dimmed in the coming months.

At the start of December the draw was made and it dealt England a tough hand. They were not seeded and were placed in a group with old rivals Argentina, touted as one of the tournament favourites. To compound matters, the group also contained Eriksson’s homeland of Sweden – a side England had long struggled against – and Nigeria, who had won admirers when making the knockout stage at the last two World Cups. There was no minnow and the inevitable ‘Group of Death’ cliches followed. To make matters worse, it seemed likely whoever finished second would end up playing holders France in the second round.

Eriksson, staying diplomatic but dropping hints of disappointment, said: “We are in the most difficult group, there is no doubt about that. We will have to be very well prepared if we want our World Cup to last longer than three games. The draw is the one part of the process we have no control over, but at least we have a chance of staying in the same country for the whole of the tournament, which is good.” England would be in the Japanese half of the draw and would dream of making the final in Yokohama. But simply a prolonged stay in the tournament looked a decent return as things stood.

Injuries mount up

The months before the tournament included friendly draws with Sweden – played prior to the draw pairing them together in Japan – and the Netherlands, in which debutant Darius Vassell scored a cracker on his debut, and a 4-0 thrashing of Paraguay. But problems never seemed far away. Eriksson’s love life was making front page news, while his side would be hit by a succession of worrying injuries. Regular right back Gary Neville was ruled out of the finals with a broken foot, while midfielder Steven Gerrard – who had come to the fore in the qualifying campaign – limped out of Liverpool’s final match of the season and was to stay at home for the summer.

England’s World Cup side in 2002, a line-up affected by injuries.

England were already two key players down, while also having to cope with a dearth of talent on the left flank as Steve McManaman was overlooked. Trevor Sinclair would end up operating there for much of the tournament, but he only made the final squad after Danny Murphy – called up to replace Liverpool team-mate Gerrard – was himself ruled out. Sinclair had flown home from Japan after seemingly missing out on the finals, only to then make the return journey after being given his second chance. It was a trip worth making.

But the biggest injury hype would concern captain Beckham, the man whose goal had clinched England’s place in the finals. He broke a bone in his foot playing for Manchester United in April, as suddenly the nation became familiar with the term ‘metatarsal’. He faced a race against time to make the finals. As with Kevin Keegan in 1982 and Bryan Robson in 1986 there was now great concern about the captain’s fitness – but this time it had become a major talking point beyond football circles. Now you had Uri Geller trying to play his part to get Beckham fit and the subject was cropping up everywhere. Beckham would make it to Japan, but the attention given to his injury was threatening to send out a message that England were a one-man team who would be unable to cope without him.

David Beckham sustains his metatarsal injury and a nation becomes obsessed about it.

That was very debatable but the squad was certainly lacking in tournament experience. The year 2000 had marked the end of an era for England, with the likes of Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer ending their international careers and the departure of manager Kevin Keegan paving the way for Eriksson to be appointed as the side’s first foreign boss. Although some of the old guard remained from previous tournaments – such as Sol Campbell, David Seaman and Teddy Sheringham – this was essentially an inexperienced side that was building towards the future.

After heading to South-East Asia, England drew matches with South Korea and Cameroon as they continued to send out mixed messages over what they were capable of. The general consensus was this tournament may be a stepping stone to the 2006 World Cup when many of the side would be at their peak, but the class of 2002 couldn’t be totally discounted. The 5-1 win over Germany had certainly raised expectations and shown that, if England clicked, they could achieve results. They had clearly made progress since flopping at Euro 2000 under Keegan.

Struggling against the Swedes

England’s first match was against Sweden, as millions back home unusually settled down to watch a football match on a Sunday morning. There was also good support out in Japan, the reputation of England fans showing signs of improvement from the dreaded hooligan image of previous years. They were celebrating as Sol Campbell headed in a corner during the first half, but the second period saw England stagnate and increasingly allow the Swedes back into it. They conceded an equaliser through Niclas Alexandersson after an error by Danny Mills and England could have few complaints about failing to pick up three points as the game ended 1-1, with David Seaman called upon to deny the Swedes a winner.

Sol Campbell celebrates scoring for England against Sweden.

Only five of the 13 players used by England during the match had played at a World Cup before, with that level of inexperience seen as contributing to the young side fading as the game wore on. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “Unless England rapidly acquire some further education over the next five days they may be back home watching the World Cup on television from the second round onwards. For the moment, at this level, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team look like fourth-formers who have wandered into a sixth-form college.” Argentina beat Nigeria on the same day and England would be deep in trouble if they lost to the South Americans five days later.

Revenge is sweet

In the build-up to the indoor showdown in Sapporo it was hard to escape the past, as the controversial World Cup meetings of 1966, 1986 and 1998 all loomed over the fixture. Certainly the latter had not been forgotten by England, not least the celebrations from the Argentine players on the bus afterwards when parked next to that of Glenn Hoddle’s side. In the intervening four years the film Mike Bassett: England Manager had depicted England beating Argentina 1-0 in the group stage to stay in the World Cup thanks to a controversial goal. Real life was about to imitate fiction…

Regardless of whether the average Englishman was most bothered about revenge over Argentina or simply staying in the World Cup, they would have been delighted following a memorable victory, This time it was England’s turn to get a decision in their favour, referee Pierluigi Collina pointing to the spot after Michael Owen went down in a move that opponent Mauricio Pochettino (yes, that one) still insists was a dive rather than a foul. Four years after being portrayed as the villain following his sending-off against the same opponents, Beckham was the hero as he put England ahead from the spot on the stroke of half-time.

David Beckham puts England in front against Argentina.

Unlike against Sweden, England continued to play with vibrancy and belief after the break and almost scored a superb goal as an impressive move ended with Sheringham going close with a volley. But there was a nagging feeling that if the second goal didn’t come England may be punished as Argentina upped the tempo, with Campbell and Ferdinand thankfully having impressive games to keep them out and Seaman on hand to make important stops. It was tense and only when Collina blew his final whistle could the celebrations begin, as England pulled off one of their most joyful victories in years.

There was certainly a triumphant tone in our newspapers the following day, Beckham’s face on the front of most of them. Rob Shepherd began his report in the Daily Express by writing: “Gotcha! Let’s not beat about the bush, it doesn’t get any sweeter than beating Argentina. That England did so with style and dignity made it all the better. The nation should quite rightly be proud of a victory which turned the England dressing room from the funeral party it had been last Sunday, into a house party.” In an amusing irony following the events of four years earlier, Sinclair would inadvertently step aboard the Argentina team coach afterwards. This time the Argentine mood was rather more sombre, as one of the favourites stood on the brink of potential group stage elimination.

After the gloom of the inquest into the Sweden game, suddenly it was back to England being hyped up as being able to beat anyone in the world and a feeling that maybe, just maybe, this young side could go all the way…

Expectations fall – then rise again

After the euphoria of beating Argentina, the next game against Nigeria proved an anti-climax and brought expectations back down to a more realistic level. The Nigerians were already out and were struggling to match their group displays in the last two World Cups, but they were determined to depart with a good result. The millions watching back home over breakfast saw a forgettable goalless contest in the heat of Osaka, in which Sheringham squandered a golden opportunity to win it. But a point was always going to be enough to advance if not win the group, with Sweden having that honour on goals scored after getting the point they needed to eliminate Argentina by drawing 1-1.

The basic target for England of getting out of the group had been achieved and pre-tournament fears of a second round showdown with France had been averted. The world champions joined Argentina in being home before the postcards, with Denmark topping the group after beating them 2-0 and lying in wait for England. The Danes were not to be underestimated, but England had a good chance to advance. The main downsides of being second were a gap of just three days between matches and favourites Brazil being the likely opponents in the quarter-finals. Had England topped the group then they would have played surprise package Senegal, followed by Japan or Turkey in the last eight.

Most England knockout wins over the years have been tense, so it was a welcome relief that the clash with the Danes would be surprisingly done and dusted by half-time as Eriksson’s side led 3-0 in Niigata. The Danes had looked strong in beating France four days earlier, but they seemed nervous here and made a costly error just five minutes in as Ferdinand’s header was fumbled into his own net by Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. Nicky Butt capped an impressive tournament by setting up Owen to double the lead, before Emile Heskey slotted home shortly before the break. As with when England beat Poland 3-0 at the 1986 World Cup, the job was done in the first half and the remainder of the match saw them prevent any hopes of a Danish comeback.

Celebration time for England as Denmark are beaten 3-0.

Once more expectations were lifted and it seemed quite feasible that England could go all the way – particular as the second round fallers included Italy, meaning three major nations had gone home – although there were also those who felt the scoreline flattered England a little. “I don’t think we got enough credit for how well we played in that game,” reflected Eriksson in his autobiography. But the main thing was the side were through to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1990. Lacey wrote that “the idea of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team reaching the final or even winning it no longer seems as fantastic as Danny Mills beating Harry Potter at quidditch”. There was certainly a belief that if England could beat Brazil, then they could win it. It was a big IF though.

It may be simplifying things a little to assume the trophy would be England’s if they could overcome Brazil, but the lack of a dominant side in the finals meant they would hold every chance. Yet the task immediately in front of them was major. Brazil were the favourites, World Cup winners in 1994 and runners-up in 1998 and boasting the ‘three Rs’ in attack of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. However, they had struggled during qualification – finishing 13 points adrift of Argentina – and not looked invincible in their four tournament matches so far despite winning them all. Their reputation compared to past great Brazil sides had not been helped by Rivaldo’s antics when he feigned injury against Turkey during the group stage.

A sad end for Seaman

The day before England met Brazil in Fukuroi City it rained and that would suit the English fine, but 24 hours later the sun was back out as Eriksson’s side faced a gruelling afternoon. But midway through the first half the nation rejoiced as Owen capitalised on defensive hesitancy to score as the forward – who had been an injury doubt for this game – evoked memories of his rise to fame at the World Cup four years earlier. Now the acid test for England was being able to see the game out, but on the stroke of half-time they were undone. Rivaldo ended a Brazilian move that had begun when Beckham appeared to pull out of a challenge in the opposition half and was followed by Paul Scholes also missing a vital chance to intercept. It was a measure of Brazil’s attacking abilities that they could sweep forward and score so quickly, as Ronaldinho ran through the England defence to feed Rivaldo. But criticisms would also be levelled at the English defending.

Conceding so late in the half was a crushing blow for England and Eriksson now faced the job of lifting the side. The current incumbent of the role was unimpressed by what he heard, substitute Gareth Southgate infamously coming out with the “we were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith” line. The game would generate the first significant criticism of Eriksson in his England reign, just a fortnight after being hailed for masterminding the win over Argentina. He would come under fire for his choice of substitutes, including keeping creative youngster Joe Cole on the bench.

David Seaman is beaten by Ronaldinho and England are on their way home.

With the second half still in its infancy, England were dealt a fatal blow. Whether it was meant a cross or shot, Ronaldinho’s free-kick ended up deceiving Seaman from way out and for the first time in the tournament England were behind. Despite the goalscorer controversially receiving a red card a few minutes later for a challenge on Mills, England never looked like getting back in the game and failed to make anything of their extra man. All hope had realistically gone before the end, as yet another major tournament finished with England losing a game they had led in. Seaman was devastated by his error and at 38 it was always realistically going to be his last major outing for his country. He wouldn’t retire from international football, but took further criticism for a goal conceded against Macedonia in October and was never capped again.

The loss to Brazil represented a disappointing conclusion to a tournament that had produced some highs for England. It was a tournament where, depending on whether you were a glass half full or empty person your lasting memory was likely to be either Beckham’s joy against Argentina or Seaman’s pain against Brazil. The big thing now was that England pushed on and won either Euro 2004 or the 2006 World Cup. England had lost to Brazil in the 1962 World Cup quarter-finals and won it four years later. They had to hope history repeated itself 40 years in.

But as we all know it didn’t. Had England fulfilled the potential that appeared to be building and soon afterwards won a major tournament then the 2002 World Cup would probably be fondly recalled as representing a big step forward. But unfortunately it followed exactly the same narrative as the next two tournaments, Eriksson being beaten by Luiz Felipe Scolari in the quarter-finals each time. Given the draw they had been handed England could feel some sense of achievement in reaching the last eight in 2002 and the Argentina game had brought widespread delight, but regret also lingered. Had England beaten Brazil then the path would have been the clearest it had arguably ever been. It would have been Turkey in the semi-final, then a Germany side they had thrashed 5-1 less than a year before in the final. Although aided by a kind draw that saw them avoid any leading football nations until the final, Germany had once more gone further than England at a major tournament.

It wasn’t just that England had lost to Brazil that represented disappointment, there was also the concerning sight of Eriksson’s side never looking like getting back into the game when up against 10 men. The tournament had seen England score six goals, but none came in the second half. It wasn’t an issue in the games against Argentina and Denmark where England impressed, but against both Sweden and Brazil there has been a sense that they were off the pace and the Nigeria game was something of a non-event.

Reflecting years later in his autobiography, Eriksson wrote: “The truth was that it was not Seaman’s fault that we were knocked out of the World Cup. Brazil were better than us. It was that simple. But we had played a very good tournament and we had a young team. We were not ready yet. It was the next World Cup that we were going to win.” And Eriksson knew full well it didn’t turn out that way. The Brazil game sent out a warning sign that England still had work to do to be on a par with the world’s best. But there had been good moments in Japan too, one of which would forever be fondly recalled.

England’s Euro ’92 – 25 years on

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This summer marks 25 years since the 1992 European Championship. England went into the finals having lost just once in two years, but as with four years earlier it would end in bitter disappointment and leave the manager a target for the tabloids…

To the many youngsters who fell in love with England and football during Italia ’90 or older fans whose passion was rekindled that tournament, Euro ’92 was to represent the difficult second album. There would be none of the Gazzamania or nerve-jangling excitement that left millions across the nation on the edge of their seats two years earlier, nor was there an England side to feel proud of. Instead, they simply limped out of the tournament after two forgettable 0-0 draws and a defeat to hosts Sweden. For manager Graham Taylor it was a tournament that marked a turning point in his reign for the wrong reasons and his reputation would unfortunately never recover during his time in charge.

England achieved two points more than when they were whitewashed during Euro ’88, yet it is held up as a comparable failure. It would be simplifying things somewhat to say England’s failures in West Germany in 1988 were down to bad luck, but in their first two defeats to the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands they’d at least had a proper go with several chances somehow not going in. That story would have a happy ending, Bobby Robson recovering from being lampooned to bowing out a hero two years later.

But for Taylor and Euro ’92, there would be no such recovery and the tournament represented the start of things going horribly wrong. England’s cause was not helped by injuries to key personnel but they were criticised for their negativity in Sweden – they weren’t the only culprits – and Taylor was becoming a target for sections of the media. He had lost just twice in two years when Euro ’92 ended but he was under pressure and now needed to enjoy a turnaround similar to Robson’s at Italia ’90 to win over the doubters. Sadly, he would never get the chance as England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

But it could have worked out differently. Taylor had led England to the finals as unbeaten group winners in a tight section including the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Turkey. Their only defeat under him so far was in a friendly to Germany and England certainly couldn’t be discounted in Sweden, for the eight-team European Championship. With only the group winners from each qualifying section having made it, this was a tournament promising high standards and little margin for error.

At the draw in January, Taylor hoped to avoid Germany, the Netherlands and neighbours Scotland who had qualified for the Euros for the first time. He got his wish, England being placed in the preferable-looking group with Sweden, France and Yugoslavia. His mood was lifted further by the draw allowing them to stay in Malmo and Stockholm as he had wished. “We couldn’t ask for much more than we got,” beamed Taylor.

Certainly, many seemed to share the view that England had got what they wanted and a place in the last four was the minimum target. “Graham Taylor rode his luck as England were given a European Championship draw that should give them at least a semi-final place,” proclaimed Steve Curry in the Daily Express. But being placed in the ‘easier’ group at the European Championship and avoiding the Germans was not a good omen. In both 1980 and 1988 England had received favourable draws only to crash out.

No game looked a given either. France had rebuilt after being absent from the last two major tournaments and were enjoying a lengthy unbeaten run, seeing them touted as a favourite to win it. Sweden had home advantage and had finished above England in qualifying for Italia ’90. And Yugoslavia could boast an impressive collection of players who had won admirers during the 1990 World Cup. But even as the draw was being made doubts were being cast upon Yugoslavia’s participation in the finals amid civil conflict back home. Just 10 days before the start of Euro ’92 it was confirmed qualifying group runners-up Denmark would take Yugoslavia’s place.

Any planning by Taylor for England’s first game against Yugoslavia could now go out of the window, but they were tipped to beat Denmark who were not held in quite the same esteem as their swaggering side of the mid-1980s. The Danes had not, contrary to the myth, needed rounding up off the beach to head to nearby Sweden but they would only have less than a fortnight to psychologically adjust to definitely being in the finals. But goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel sounded a warning to Taylor and his men. “England could make the mistake of underestimating Denmark,” he said.

Injuries plague England

Underestimating opponents was becoming the least of England’s concerns. Injuries were mounting, with several players ruled out of the finals. Paul Gascoigne had not played for more than a year since the 1991 FA Cup final, while at right back England seemed cursed. In quick succession Taylor lost Rob Jones, Lee Dixon and Gary Stevens, the latter’s hopes ending after England’s final warm-up match in Finland. But he wasn’t the only casualty that day, with John Barnes going down injured and immediately ruled out. “I’ve known him for a long time and I desperately wanted John to play for me in a major championship,” rued Taylor. “The seriousness of the injury to Barnes has hit everybody hard. He’d worked like hell to get himself fit.”

Graham Taylor was left to contend with a mounting injury list.

With players such as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle having controversially been axed, England were now left short of both flair and tournament experience. The seasoned trio of Terry Butcher, Bryan Robson and Peter Shilton had all retired from international football and England were much-changed from two years earlier, but sadly not for the better. As the injuries mounted Keith Curle and Andy Sinton were drafted into the squad, but things then got worse as it came to light Mark Wright was a doubt.

A club versus country row broke out over whether the injury had been held back from Taylor, but ultimately Wright was the latest to be ruled out and England failed in their bid to call Tony Adams up as a late replacement. England’s 20-man squad was already a player light and particularly short of defensive options. Although England have often been hit by injury concerns ahead of major tournaments, it is hard to think of another occasion when they had it as bad as this.

England went into the finals having avoided losing games, but without convincingly winning them either. A 2-0 victory over France in February had been impressive and provided a big lift ahead of meeting the same opponents in Sweden, but since then England had drawn with Czechoslovakia, CIS and Brazil and narrowly edged past Hungary and Finland. The goalscoring form of captain Gary Lineker was proving a concern ahead of the finals and his impending international retirement. In three successive friendlies he had failed to get the goal he needed to equal Bobby Charlton’s England record and he seemed to lack some of his old predatory instincts. But it was hoped he would recapture his past form on the big stage.

Struggling against the Danes

The tournament began with Sweden and France drawing 1-1, which suited England who would go top if they beat Denmark 24 hours later. Taylor was adamant things were going to go well. “Let me do the worrying. That’s what I’m paid for. Just sit back and enjoy it,” he declared prior to the Denmark game. But there were things to worry about, not least the lack of a recognised right back. Curle, a central defender, would play there against the Danes in Malmo for only his third cap. At the other end Lineker would partner Alan Smith, rekindling memories of their Leicester City days.

Keith Curle performed as a makeshift right back for England against Denmark.

Once again, England struggled in their opening game when fancied by many to get a victory. They almost came totally unstuck, as John Jensen hit the post for the Danes during the second half. “That was our moment of good fortune,” reflected Taylor after a night in which Curle had struggled playing out of position (he would never be capped again) as England laboured to a 0-0 draw. Asked afterwards to sum up his feelings, Taylor told the BBC he was “satisfied” – drawing criticism from pundit Jimmy Hill who believed the performance had been a demonstration of players earning a lot of money to demonstrate they were not masters of their craft. Taylor would later hit back at Hill, one of several instances of the England camp and media being at odds out in Sweden.

“All is not lost by any means,” wrote Curry. “But Taylor has to be asked again just what he is playing at with his team selections and tactical switches.” England stayed in Malmo for their next match against France three days later, with violence in the city once more blighting an England European Championship campaign. On the field Taylor again made changes, midfielder David Batty came in for Curle, while Alan Shearer became the latest forward to be paired with Lineker. Sinton, who had so nearly missed out on the finals, replaced Paul Merson. Carlton Palmer was to play as sweeper.

Sterile and goalless

“The most sterile defensive international I’ve ever covered,” was commentator Barry Davies’ description of the France match in his autobiography and the cagey contest certainly lacked in attacking enterprise. Eight years earlier Michel Platini had inspired France to European Championship glory in style as captain. Now, as manager, he seemed to have fallen into the same trap as others in fearing losing during the last major tournament to apply the two points for a win system. It was also the last act before the backpass rule was introduced, with a fear of losing stinking the place out during the first few days of the tournament. England didn’t escape criticism but emerged with marginally more credit following yet another 0-0 draw, in which Stuart Pearce’s free-kick rattled the woodwork.

Stuart Pearce managed to keep his cool after an incident with Basile Boli.

But that wasn’t what Pearce’s afternoon was mainly remembered for. Blood poured from his face after he appeared to be headbutted by Basile Boli, in an incident which went unpunished. Asked afterwards, Pearce told the media it had been an innocent incident but years later he explained why he said this when he knew full well what had happened. “Common sense told me that if I’d said it was deliberate, then the first thing they would have done is dig out all the footage of me over the years and I’d be crucified,” he said, adding he received a thank you fax from Boli for his sportsmanship.

But that gesture was little consolation for England as they stared potential elimination in the face. For the fourth major tournament running they had no wins on the board after two games. “In my mind there are two games gone and three still to go,” Taylor optimistically told the media, as he remained defiant England could go all the way. To do that they would definitely have to score against the Swedes, who led the group after beating Denmark 1-0. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian that a third goalless draw would see England “flying home amid a barrage of criticism approaching the intensity of that which greeted Bobby Robson and his side after all three matches had been lost in the 1988 tournament”.

Swedes eliminate Turnips

The foreign invasion of English football had yet to properly take hold by the summer of 1992, but a growing number of overseas players were plying their trade on these shores ahead of the Premier League launching a few weeks later. In their opening game of the tournament England had been unable to score past Manchester United’s goalkeeper Schmeichel, while Eric Cantona of Leeds United was in attack for France in the second match. Now Arsenal’s Anders Limpar was gearing up to face England and seemed to want to play mind games beforehand, as he launched a stinging attack on goalkeeper Chris Woods who had been the regular number one since Shilton’s retirement in 1990. “It’s incredible Woods gets in the side,” declared Limpar. “He let in seven goals playing for Sheffield Wednesday at Arsenal. Woods is weak on crosses and for me he is the weak link in the team.”

But Woods was not the only player whose performances were of concern to England. Lineker had seldom looked like ending his drought during the previous two games as rumours grew that all was not well in his relationship with the manager. “He contributed in exactly the way I thought he would,” said Taylor rather cryptically after the France game. The goalscoring record was ebbing away along with England’s chances in the tournament. The match against Sweden could be his last chance. In yet another shift of system and personnel, Lineker now had no other natural forward alongside him for the Sweden match. Shearer and Trevor Steven made way for Tony Daley and Neil Webb.

England had to attack and they made a marvellous start through their main goal outlet besides Lineker – attacking midfielder David Platt, who scored after four minutes. Now they had to negotiate the next 86 minutes and they would be through to the semi-finals. As Denmark were surprisingly beating France, England held top spot in the group. They successfully got through to the break with the lead intact.

But half-time would offer a worrying warning sign to Taylor. In an interview 20 years later, he recalled asking the players at the break if any of them had anything to say. “They looked shattered,” he said. “The only player who said anything was Nigel Clough, who was a substitute. It really hit me at the time that we do take tired players.” Taylor’s case was not helped by the First Division having reverted to 22 teams the previous season, meaning players faced four extra games on top of multiple cup demands. Apart from the Premier League having reduced in size to 20 clubs, many of the same concerns apply 25 years later.

England go behind against Sweden.

Where England had excelled in the first half, they wilted after the break. The Swedes have made a habit of scoring headers against the Three Lions over the years and Jan Eriksson duly netted that way after 51 minutes from a corner. A 1-1 draw would be enough for Sweden to advance, but it would eliminate England and Taylor could see the game slipping away. Ten minutes later he made a decision that would pass into infamy. Captain Lineker was substituted, making way for Smith. England had needed to change things and Lineker was not looking his old self, but it would be a decision that led to Taylor coming under fire. If England didn’t get a goal without Lineker, then the player would never get another chance to equal the goalscoring record.

To make things worse for Taylor, England seldom threatened and on 82 minutes they fell behind. A delightful link-up between Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin ended with the former gracefully placing the ball beyond Woods’ reach. “Brilliant. Brilliant goal,” exclaimed commentator Davies. It was a move that perhaps underlined how far this England side lagged behind, being beaten by an effort of quality.

As Denmark were 2-1 up against France, an English equaliser would lead to lots being drawn to decide who went through with Sweden. But it was never likely to come and the side meekly exited the competition. In 45 minutes England had gone from top to bottom of the group. Of the 11 players England had on the field at full time, only Pearce, Platt and Des Walker had featured in the World Cup semi-final two years earlier. Injuries, international retirements and players being dubiously axed had left England looking a weak side. To compound England’s misery, they returned home outshone by Scotland who beat the CIS 3-0 and had played with honour in losing to the Dutch and Germans. As England crashed out, a previously tepid tournament seemed to spring into life with the goals now flying in and Denmark defying all expectations to win the tournament.

Taylor deservedly received many tributes when he sadly died earlier this year, but the morning after the Sweden defeat saw him and England heavily criticised. Curry wrote: “England learned last night that when it comes to illuminating the world of football they carry not so much a burning torch as a flickering candle.” Lacey afforded Taylor some sympathy over the injury situation, but added: “Despite the unavailability of Paul Gascoigne, the loss of John Barnes and a complete absence of suitable right backs, the England manager was always going to face severe criticism if his team failed to reach the semi-finals. But his decision to take Lineker off half-an-hour from the end with the score at 1-1 will surely stoke up the critical furnaces further still.”

Even those at the heart of the England camp could see the problems Taylor was creating for himself by hauling off Lineker, regardless of whether he thought it was the right decision. Assistant Lawrie McMenemy later wrote in his autobiography: “It was quite simply the wrong decision. I could not believe what Graham had done, how a manager of his experience would not see the danger to himself, if nothing else, from the decision.”

But ultimately, it was a witty play on words that created the most lasting damage for Taylor. The manager saw the funny side of the ‘Swedes 2, Turnips 1’ headline in The Sun, but what followed went beyond a joke and did nothing to help his reputation in the eyes of the average man in the street. He was now being portrayed as ‘Turniphead’, the coverage increasingly vitriolic.  Euro ’92 had not been a success for him and mistakes were made, but the personal attacks were unwarranted and they would unfortunately get worse in the months that followed.

All told it had really just been a typical England European Championship campaign, as they have so often ended early and in bitter disappointment. Euro ’92 felt worse because of what had been achieved two years before in Italy and given the group England were placed in, but ultimately various factors made it one to forget for all involved. There was plenty of nostalgia in England for the 25th anniversary of Italia ’90 two years ago. We suspect we won’t be seeing much this June to mark a quarter of a century since Euro ’92.  Try Denmark instead.

  • For a more detailed look back at how Gary Lineker missed out on becoming England’s record goalscorer during the tournament, see here
  • To read the tribute we wrote to Graham Taylor when he sadly died earlier this year, see here

Remembering the England B team

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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the last match played by England B, a team which often struggled to capture the public imagination and could disappear from view for several years…

Long time, no B

Since the 1950s England B have taken to the field only sporadically. They went more than 20 years without playing before being revived under Ron Greenwood in 1978 and not many of his successors would frequently make use of the team. They played just once in the first five years under Bobby Robson before a semi-regular revival ahead of Italia ’90, while the next incumbent Graham Taylor regularly had the team playing games in his first two years in charge before abandoning the idea. Since 1992 the team has played just six times, last appearing in 2007. An official total of 57 matches for England B since 1947 is low, but as we will soon see this does not tell the story of the number of times when England’s ‘reserves’ have taken to the field.

To B, or not to B…

As said, the England B name could often disappear from view for a long time. But this did not mean the basic notion of the side did not exist as various ‘FA XI’ teams fitted the bill. In 1969 England met Mexico two days after they had done so in a full international with a significantly changed team that was very much a ‘B’ side. But this would instead be deemed an unofficial international, as would a match played against Colombia by the second string in 1970 immediately before a full international between the sides.

Steve Perryman turns out for England B, which turns out to be the A team…

And there have been instances where sides that England fielded were dubiously classed as A rather than B teams, such as the significantly weakened side that visited Australia in 1980. Perhaps the most striking example was the B side England took to Iceland in 1982, with manager Ron Greenwood not even present as the A team were playing Finland the next day. And yet it would be upgraded to a full international, at least allowing players including Steve Perryman the chance to say they had earned a full cap. It is debatable though that if this match was deemed an ‘A’ fixture, why a similar match against Belarus at Reading prior to the 2006 World Cup wasn’t when every member of England’s starting XI would be going to the finals.

Nobody seems to B here

Even when – as now – England’s senior side never strayed from Wembley for home games, the public rarely turned out for B team matches across the country regardless of how strong the team was. Not helped by the fact the side could disappear from view for years, coupled with the fact they only played friendlies and the side was perceived as the ‘reserves’, low crowds were the norm. A reasonably attractive looking B international between England and the Republic of Ireland in December 1994 at Anfield, with local favourites including Robbie Fowler featuring, attracted a crowd of just 7,431. And that was a relatively big turnout compared to some, such as 3,854 at the City Ground in 1984 to see Gary Lineker come off the bench against New Zealand or just 3,292 at St Andrews in 1980 to see England B beat Australia.

But there were occasional exceptions, mainly when the side ventured to traditionally lower division grounds and it became a big deal to stage such a fixture. More than 10,000 packed into Walsall’s new Bescot Stadium in 1991 to see the side play Switzerland, and almost as many watched Glenn Hoddle score against New Zealand at Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road in 1979 shortly before his first full cap. The side’s brief revival in the mid 2000s with strong sides picked saw crowds of more than 22,000 attend games at Reading and Burnley against Belarus and Albania respectively. Just as the concept seemed to start appealing to the public, it vanished again.

This will B as good as it gets

For many players, a B team cap would be the pinnacle of their international careers as they fell just short of the A side. Steve Bruce was a prime example, captaining England B against Malta in 1987 but never earning a full cap. He would join plenty of other members of the ‘great uncapped’ over the years – such as Adrian Heath, Paul Lake, Dennis Mortimer and Derek Mountfield –  in turning out for the B team but never the A, when in another era they would almost certainly have made it.

Steve Bruce playing for England B, but no full caps would be forthcoming.

With hindsight, some past B team line-ups look like Fantasy Football teams where a couple of makeweights have been included alongside star names to meet the budget limit and it can be surprising to recall that they were ever in the England fray. The England B side that met Iceland during an end of season tour in 1989 is a good example of the diversity on show. Steve Bull, Tony Dorigo, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker and David Platt all went on to feature during Italia ’90, but their colleagues who enjoyed gametime that day included Tony Ford, Terry Hurlock, Tony Mowbray, Andy Mutch, Stuart Naylor and David Preece. They would never win a full cap between them and some spent much of their career below the top-flight.

Even for some players who did earn a few full caps, the B team would provide a welcome opportunity to boost their international experience as their path was otherwise blocked. Goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, who had the misfortune to be around at the same time as Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton, would earn a record 10 England B caps – one more than his tally for the A side.

It will soon B the A team

For some players, B team success would immediately followed by a call-up to the senior squad. Bull was a prime example of this, as his elevation to stardom in May 1989 looked like it had come from the pages of Roy of the Rovers. After a prolific season in the Third Division with Wolves, Bull – who had already played for England under-21s – and strike partner Andy Mutch were called into the England B side for matches against Switzerland, Iceland and Norway on the aforementioned tour. For Mutch the tour was to be as good as it got, but for Bull it would immediately lead to better things. Goals against Iceland and Norway didn’t go unnoticed and he was called up to the senior squad for the Rous Cup match against Scotland just days later, famously coming off the bench to score while technically still a Third Division player.

Steve Bull – the prime example of a player to thrive on a B team call-up.

Even for some already capped players, they needed to prove themselves with the B team before properly establishing themselves. One example was Paul Gascoigne, who in November 1989 found himself slumming it for the B team against their Italian counterparts in Brighton rather than playing in a glamour friendly between the A sides at Wembley 24 hours later. The bumper crowd of more than 16,000 who the saw the 1-1 draw at the Goldstone Ground could feel smug a few months later at having seen two of the standout players of Italia ’90 on the same field – Gascoigne and Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci.

Getting a B in the bonnet

Like reserve football, for some players the B team would represent a big step up on the way to the full ranks while for others it was an unwanted reminder they were not first choice for their country. Probably the best remembered outburst came from Chris Sutton, who in February 1998 snubbed his England B selection against Chile as he took umbrage over not being in the main squad to face the same opponents. “If someone doesn’t want to play for their country at any level I won’t force them. That’s his decision,” said England boss Glenn Hoddle, having seen the forward effectively end his international career by pulling out. Sutton would later concede he should have acted differently.

Chris Sutton would see his England career curtailed by his refusal to play for the B side.

One of the stronger England B line-ups travelled to Algeria in December 1990, the majority of the side being capped at full level. One eye-catching selection was Bryan Robson, who had captained England for eight years under Bobby Robson but now faced the challenge of convincing new boss Graham Taylor he was worthy of a place in the senior squad after six months out injured.

“What the hell do you want to go there for?” Robson recalled his Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson asking him, while the veteran midfielder was left asking the same question as he was moved around in defence. Playing in atrocious conditions and with his team-mate Neil Webb being sent-off, the 0-0 draw was a sobering experience for Robson. “For me the whole trip was a waste of time,” he wrote in his autobiography, seeing the clock tick towards the end of the international career.

It just won’t B enough

A few weeks on from Sutton snubbing the England B team, he was probably left feeling justified in his actions when he saw the fate that befell Matt Le Tissier. The Southampton star’s international career had proved frustrating and he had not been capped at full level for more than a year when he was picked for the B side against Russia in April 1998.

Matt Le Tissier in fine form for England B, but it counts for nothing.

If he was to make the plane to France for the World Cup, then he had to produce in this audition in front of a sparse crowd at Loftus Road. He did just that. In front of the watching Glenn Hoddle, Le Tissier scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. But the call from Hoddle never came. “Looking back I do wonder why I was even there,” he said in 2014 about his B team experience. “I had the best game of my career, scored a hat-trick and it still wasn’t good enough to get in the squad. It made a bit of a mockery of the idea. I can understand why people said it was a waste of time, as it turned out to be.” He would never be capped again.

Will we B seeing the team again?

In the decade since the side last played, the B team has faded from view with few lamenting its absence. One notable exception was David James, who in 2010 called for the side’s revival as he believed there was a “massive void” between the under-21s and senior side and the B team was the answer – particularly for late developers. James wrote: “It’s not glamorous, it won’t get you a big-money contract anywhere, not many people bother turning up to watch you and you get a funny coloured cap when you play, but I would argue that it does help the England coaching staff to identify talent for the senior side. And it helps the player by giving him a chance to be involved in the national set-up – from playing international football to just being part of an England camp. Best of all, there is no age discrimination.”

And there is a pretty good summing up of England B. It lacked in glamour but served a purpose and in some cases definitely helped players progress to the full ranks.