Month: September 2014
This month marked Graham Taylor’s 70th birthday and also the anniversary of his first England match in September 1990. In the third in our series recalling past England qualifying campaigns we recall the road to Euro ’92 in Sweden as Taylor took charge shortly after England’s dramatic run to the World Cup semi-finals in Italy with football’s popularity soaring again.
As the 1990-91 season got under way, ‘Gazzamania’ had taken hold the return of English clubs to European competition added to the feel good factor. Bobby Robson had bowed out as a hero after Italia ’90 and now Taylor was entrusted with the role. He inherited a strong set of players with age mostly on their side, although veterans Peter Shilton and Terry Butcher had retired from international football after the World Cup with more than 200 caps between them. Bryan Robson was to play on for his country but injury would keep him out of action for several months, with Gary Lineker taking on the captaincy.
It had been the worst-kept secret Taylor was to be England’s new manager, spending the World Cup working for ITV without it being announced he would replace Bobby Robson. His appointment attracted mixed views. Taylor had held three managerial roles since his late 20s and done a tremendous job at Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa. Although he had never won a major honour, he had achieved five promotions as well as two First Division runners-up spots (beaten only by a dominant Liverpool) and an FA Cup final appearance. He had also played a big role in the development of John Barnes and David Platt at club level, both going on to be regulars for England.
But there were concerns too. Unlike most of his predecessors he had no direct experience of international football as a player or manager and his involvement in European club competition was limited to three rounds in the UEFA Cup. His direct style of play had not always been well received, Taylor seeming to be often at pains to defend it in interviews. But he was certainly not given the savage ‘Turnip’ press treatment upon his appointment that would follow in the coming years as English football began to look forward with excitement.
The draw for the qualifying stages of the 1992 European Championship provided little in the way of originality for England followers. The Three Lions were placed in a four team group with Republic of Ireland, Poland and Turkey, having met all of them in competitive matches in recent years. It wouldn’t be easy either. Only one side would definitely go through and Ireland had already got under England’s skin by beating them at Euro ’88. Poland were not regarded as the same force as a few years earlier but could not be discounted either. Turkey would find the group too hard to compete but would prove more difficult opposition than previously.
Taylor inherited the basis of a good squad, with players of quality like Platt, Paul Gascoigne, Stuart Pearce and Des Walker having established themselves and with age on their side. Lineker was still a couple of months away from his 30th birthday and expected to go on to break Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 England goals. But we would soon see Taylor appear keen to give as many players as possible a chance, handing out a plethora of new caps and suddenly recalling discarded players from the international wilderness. It was a trend that would continue throughout his reign and with dubious rewards.
Off to a Good Start
Taylor’s first game in charge was effectively a celebration of the World Cup achievements, more than 50,000 seeing them beat Hungary in a friendly at Wembley thanks to a goal from captain Lineker. Taylor basically stuck with Bobby Robson’s team, Lee Dixon the only player to appear who had not gone to the World Cup on a night when Barnes gave an encouraging display. After years as a patient deputy and occasional caps, Chris Woods could now emerge from Shilton’s shadow as the regular goalkeeper with David Seaman his main rival for the number one spot.
In October, the first round of qualifying matches for Euro ’92 took place. Ireland thrashed Turkey 5-0 in the afternoon to lay down a marker, before England beat Poland 2-0 at Wembley. A Lineker penalty set them on their way, although it wasn’t until the closing moments they sealed the win with a brilliant curling goal by substitute Peter Beardsley. The true significance of the result would be seen 13 months later.
Taylor’s first real test would come the following month, when they travelled to Dublin to take on the Republic of Ireland. It was a match high on importance but never likely to be one for the purists. The match kicked-off at 1.30pm on a Wednesday (which seemed an antiquated idea even then) and the new manager controversially dropped Gascoigne to the bench as Aston Villa’s Gordon Cowans returned to the international fold after almost five years away. He also recalled Arsenal’s Tony Adams two years on from his most recent cap.
In windy conditions England went ahead through David Platt during the second half, before Ireland made use of their aerial power with Tony Cascarino heading in a late equaliser as the sides inevitably drew 1-1. “A fair result in a highly predictable game. Everything we thought would happen, happened,” said ITV pundit Jimmy Greaves. The result played into the hands of Poland, who won 1-0 away to Turkey.
By the time England next took to the field in February 1991, Great Britain had a new Prime Minister in John Major and the Gulf War had broken out. In freezing conditions Cameroon were beaten in a Wembley friendly, the only real comparison with the previous summer’s dramatic World Cup meeting being Lineker scored twice. Ian Wright made his international debut, on a night when Bryan Robson returned and regained the captain’s armband.
A Familiar Pattern
March brought the crucial return clash with the Republic of Ireland at Wembley, following a very familiar pattern. Lee Dixon’s shot was deflected in off Steve Staunton to give England an early lead, but they allowed Ireland to dictate the game at times and Niall Quinn equalised before the break. If either side was going to win it thereafter it was Ireland, Jack Charlton being disappointed afterwards they hadn’t won. Lee Sharpe came off the bench for his England debut, having enjoyed a season shining for a resurgent Manchester United. It was the third time in less than a year Charlton’s side had come from behind to draw 1-1 with England.
The following month saw Poland beat Turkey 3-0 and the top three sides were all locked on four points (under the two points for a win system). May Day was to be crucial. Ireland drew 0-0 at home to Poland, while England travelled to face Turkey in Izmir. Taylor dropped Robson and midfielders Geoff Thomas and Dennis Wise were handed their debuts, while fellow starters David Seaman, Gary Pallister and Alan Smith all had less than five previous caps. England won few plaudits in scraping a 1-0 victory thanks to a strange goal by Wise in the first-half, as they were made to sweat with the Turks growing in confidence. But at least they were now a point clear at the top of the group.
No time to rest
A year after a demanding World Cup campaign, this should have been a quiet end of season for England but instead they still faced six more games before packing up for the summer. The one-off England Challenge Cup was won after a win over USSR and draw with Argentina, before they headed Down Under and – despite a struggle at times – beat Australia, New Zealand (twice) and Malaysia. New caps were being handed around rather generously, with David Batty, David Hirst, John Salako, Brian Deane, Earl Barrett, Mark Walters and Gary Charles making their debuts in the end of season matches. Taylor had already started to dismantle Bobby Robson’s squad – Steve Bull, Chris Waddle, Bryan Robson and Peter Beardsley all found themselves discarded, while Paul Gascoigne would be a long-term absentee through injury.
England completed the season unbeaten, but in September they finally lost under Taylor as Germany came to Wembley and won 1-0. England gave a decent display, with substitutes Paul Merson and Paul Stewart becoming the latest debutants. But the following month brought more important matters with round five of the qualifying matches, as Turkey arrived at Wembley. Robson and Waddle were recalled, but it was to be a low-key end to England careers after 90 and 62 caps respectively as they would never feature again. Defender Gary Mabbutt also returned to the England side after a four-year absence. In a telling indicator of Robson’s fading power, Lineker retained the captain’s armband. An Alan Smith header from a Stuart Pearce cross proved decisive, but England really did not perform and they were never going to enhance their goal difference. But the result of the other game in the group produced the best result possible as Poland and Ireland drew 3-3.
A Three-Way Fight
With one round to go, England were two points ahead of Ireland and Poland with the three sides all in with a realistic chance of claiming the one qualification spot. If England won or drew in Poland they would be through, if they lost they would be out – the Republic of Ireland going through if they won in Turkey, otherwise Poland would take top spot on goal difference. Once more England’s fate boiled down to a decider against Poland.
Taylor bravely threw two uncapped players into the starting line-up in midfielder Andy Gray and winger Andy Sinton – the latter being substituted by another new cap in Tony Daley. Of the 13 players England used on the night, only four had made appearances in the World Cup finals less than 18 months earlier. Taylor had overseen a dramatic change in the side but the same sparkle and spirit of the summer of 1990 did not seem to be there – just the ability to grind out results.
The BBC only joined live coverage at half-time and viewers discovered England were 1-0 down, a free-kick by Roman Szewczyk deflecting past Woods. The Poles briefly held the group leadership but Ireland went on to win 3-1 in Turkey to sit on the brink of qualification. With 15 minutes left Woods appeared to commit a foul in the area and a goal then would surely have killed off Taylor’s men. Nothing was given and two minutes later England were level. David Rocastle’s corner was nodded on for Lineker to volley home and put England back on top of the group, as they saw out the draw needed to qualify.
Taylor had led England to a place in Sweden. It had not been a memorable qualifying campaign and the Three Lions had done the job required rather than flourished. It was easy to point to how the Irish perhaps should have been the team to qualify, but they had squandered points and failed to beat anyone apart from Turkey. Ultimately the decisive match in the group had been England’s first against Poland, the only time a game was won in matches between the top three.
England would play a further six matches before the finals, Taylor seeming determined to try and give every candidate a game as Rob Jones, Martin Keown, Alan Shearer, Nigel Martyn, Keith Curle and Carlton Palmer joined the list of new caps and Mark Hateley had a one-off return after nearly four years off the scene. England did not lose any of the friendlies and they went into the finals with just one defeat in 21 matches under Taylor, who was still yet to receive the ‘Turnip’ treatment. But his reign was about to take a turn for the worse and never properly recover…
This entry was posted in England Qualifying Campaigns, European Championship and tagged Bryan Robson, David Platt, England, Euro 92, Football, Gary Lineker, Graham Taylor, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley, Poland, Qualifying, Republic of Ireland, Turkey.
The qualifying stages for Euro 2016 began last week and the expansion to 24 teams has led to a feeling in some quarters that there is little danger of European football’s big names failing to make it (although Portugal’s defeat by Albania may suggest otherwise). But the Euro qualifying stages have not always been like this. In one of our blogs looking back at more general international football matters, we recall six sides who were noticeably absent from the finals since they grew to eight sides in 1980.
(To clarify, this is not intended as a list of which six teams I think were the best who failed to qualify in terms of what players they had at the time etc – it is based mainly on reputations from recent tournaments. I’ve limited it to a maximum of one entry per nation and per tournament).
World champions in the summer of 1982, the Italians were out of the running to reach the 1984 European Championship within months. Golden memories of beating Brazil and West Germany in Spain were rapidly replaced by being held to a draw by Cyprus and losing 3-0 at home to Sweden. Italy headed a notable list of absentees from the finals including England, the Netherlands, USSR and Poland (third at the 1982 World Cup). The Italians were entering a period of transition and won just one match out of eight, finishing well behind Romania, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. World Cup winning manager Enzo Bearzot stayed at the helm and the Italians would qualify for the 1986 World Cup. The Italians would miss out again on Euro ’92, finishing behind USSR in their qualifying group.
In 1984, Michel Platini inspired France to the European Championship crown on home soil. Four years later they weren’t even at the finals to defend the trophy and they had barely even turned up in qualifying. Unlike the World Cup at this time there was no automatic qualification for the Euro winners at the next tournament and France paid for it. Having been World Cup semi-finalists either side of their Euro ’84 triumph, France were regarded as a genuine force and entertaining with it. But the good days were coming to a close, with the great Michel Platini about to end his career and this side not matching what had gone before. Within three games it was as good as over, having drawn with Iceland and East Germany and lost to USSR. In the end they trundled home in third spot with just one win to their name, seven points behind USSR. To prove this failure was no fluke, France would miss out on the 1990 World Cup finals as they lost out to Yugoslavia and Scotland in their qualifying group.
If qualifying for the European Championship today is perceived as getting too easy, it’s worth remembering less than 25 years ago it was harder than making the World Cup finals. As recently as Euro ’92, there were just seven places up for grabs with the host nation automatically taking up the other slot. One of the most significant absentees was Spain. Despite their reputation until recent domination as under-achievers, they were consistent in getting to major tournaments and this was the sole exception since the mid-1970s. They had the misfortune to be in the same group as an invincible France and a decent Czechoslovakia, finishing well behind both of them and losing to Iceland along the way. They did beat Albania 9-0, but the academic away game would never even take place. It had been a campaign to forget for the Spaniards.
Republic of Ireland 1996
The expansion to 16 teams from Euro ’96 meant fewer big names were missing out on a place in the finals. Perhaps the most obvious side to not get there were Sweden, semi-finalists at both Euro ’92 and USA ’94. But looking at things from an English perspective the failure of Jack Charlton’s the Republic of Ireland stood out, making for an anti-climatic end to his otherwise excellent reign. In his decade in charge they had become established on the international scene by reaching two World Cups and one European Championship and narrowly missing out on another with an unbeaten qualifying record. But this would be his first true failure with Ireland and reinforce the belief he should have left at the natural end of the cycle – after the 1994 World Cup. They had the double inflicted on them by Austria, were crushed 3-0 in Portugal, embarrassingly drew away to Liechtenstein and finished level on points with neighbours Northern Ireland (not considered in the same class as them at this time). They scraped second place and as the side with the worst runners-up record entered a play-off with the Netherlands at neutral Anfield. They were outplayed at times by an excellent Dutch side, who deservedly won 2-0 and Charlton inevitably departed shortly afterwards. He would not be leading his adopted country to a major tournament in his homeland 30 years on from the World Cup triumph.
Big Jack’s reign ends in disappointing fashion
Incredibly at every World Cup from 1982 to 2002 the third place team came from Europe and then would not qualify for the European finals two years later. Poland (1984), France (1988 – see above), Italy (1992), Sweden (1996), Croatia (2000) and Turkey (2004) were all quickly brought down to earth and each could have warranted a place in our top six. But Croatia had looked good in their first major tournament in Euro ’96 and then shone at the 1998 World Cup, beating Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals. Now they moved onto the Euro 2000 qualifying campaign, with fate conspiring them to be drawn in the same group as Yugoslavia and Macedonia just a few years after the break-up of the old Yugoslavia. They were in trouble after losing their opening game to the Republic of Ireland and had to win their final match at home to Yugoslavia to make it. They drew 2-2 and finished in third place to miss out (despite having a better record than England did in coming second in their group and going on to qualify).
Surely the most high-profile failure to not qualify since the finals were expanded to 16 teams in 1996. England had been very lucky to make it to Euro 2000 but they would not be so fortunate eight years later. With the so called ‘golden generation’ at their disposal, there had been a sense of disappointment at three successive quarter-finals in major tournaments. But those achievements suddenly started to look all the more impressive as England quickly found themselves in trouble. A 0-0 home draw with Macedonia and a 2-0 away defeat to Croatia early on set alarm bells ringing, but results improved and when they led Russia away from home in October 2007 during the second half they were almost there. They proceeded to lose 2-1 and looked all but out, but were then thrown the ultimate lifeline as the Russians lost in Israel. England now needed merely a draw at home to Croatia to qualify automatically in second place. But it was to be an infamous night in the rain at Wembley, as Steve McClaren earned the ‘Wally with Brolly’ tag and England sank to a 3-2 defeat – the younger generation’s equivalent of Poland in 1973 but without the same feeling of bad luck, just cursing where it had all gone wrong.
A night to forget for England
This entry was posted in England Qualifying Campaigns, European Championship, Six of the Best & Worst and tagged Croatia, England, European Championship, Failures, France, Italy, Qualifying, Republic of Ireland, Spain.
As England prepare to get their campaign to reach Euro 2016 underway in Switzerland, let’s recall six of their most memorable qualifying matches from past European Championships (limited to no more than one per qualification campaign).
Czechoslovakia (h) 3-0, October 1974
A game significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was a victory during Don Revie’s first game at the helm as a new era was ushered in at Wembley. And secondly, this result would go on to look particularly impressive two years later as the Czechs went on to win the European Championship. A year to the month of their World Cup failure against Poland, England appeared to start turning the corner as goals in the closing stages from Mike Channon and Colin Bell (2) gave them a 3-0 success. Another highlight would come the following April when Malcolm MacDonald scored all five goals as Cyprus were thrashed at Wembley. But England let qualification slip through their grasp, the Czechs getting their revenge with a 2-1 win in Bratislava the following October.
Bulgaria (h) 2-0, November 1979
The 1970s had been grim for England fans. After losing in the quarter-finals of the 1970 World Cup and 1972 European Championship to West Germany, they fell at the qualifying stage of the next three major tournaments. By the time the 1980 European Championship qualifiers began, there was a sense of desperation for England to end their exile from major tournaments. They did so in emphatic fashion, enjoying big wins away to Bulgaria and Northern Ireland to wrap up qualifying. They were able to celebrate qualifying early and this match saw the nation cheer them towards the finals. Fog postponed the match by 24 hours, but when it took place Dave Watson opened the scoring early on. In the second half came the most memorable moment, as young debutant Glenn Hoddle scored a brilliant side-footed shot to wrap up the victory. The nation was now looking forward to Hoddle starring in midfield during the 1980s. It didn’t always work out quite like that, but more than 50 caps would be won by the Spurs player.
Luxembourg (h) 9-0, December 1982
By the early 1980s, the cliche “no easy games in international football” was being dished out with increased frequency and England’s shock defeat to Norway the previous year was still fresh in the mind. But there was one true exception to the rule in an era before the likes of Andorra and San Marino came on the European national scene and that was Luxembourg. Played just 10 days before Christmas, England tore the minnows to shreds and Luther Blissett helped himself to a hat-trick. They led 4-0 by half-time but it will still only 6-0 with five minutes to go, as some gloss was added to the scoreline with three further efforts – the last coming from a Phil Neal cross that the visiting goalkeeper failed to deal with. But Bobby Robson would come unstuck in his first qualifying tournament, England finishing second to an excellent Denmark side, who won 1-0 at Wembley the following September to move to the brink of qualification.
Yugoslavia (a) 4-1, November 1987
England had one of their best qualifying campaigns in reaching Euro ’88 with some clinical displays in front of goal including an 8-0 win over Turkey. However, they went into their final match in the group needing to get a result in Yugoslavia to ensure their place in West Germany. Within 25 minutes all doubts had been shattered as England led 4-0 against a decent side thanks to goals from Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams. The hosts pulled a goal back late on but it was a mere consolation in a game that would stand out as one of the best matches of Bobby Robson’s reign in charge. Sadly, the tournament itself would prove a particular disappointment for England.
Scotland (a) 2-0, November 1999 (play-off, first leg)
Probably the most hyped-up European Championship qualifying matches involving England were their play-off fixtures against Scotland in November 1999. The sides had met just once in the previous decade, as a new generation of England players prepared to make their first trip to Hampden Park. It had been a poor qualifying campaign from England in which they won just one match out of six against the other top four sides (beating Poland in Kevin Keegan’s first game in charge, the only other wins in the group being against Luxembourg) and they had been reliant on Poland losing their final match to Sweden to scrap into the play-offs. Further good fortune helped them over the qualifying line against the Scots. The first-leg at Hampden Park saw them triumph 2-0 with Paul Scholes getting both goals to leave them firmly on course for the finals. Kevin Keegan’s side should have been home and dry but proceeded to lose the return leg 1-0 at Wembley four days later, almost throwing away their Hampden Park success.
Turkey (h) 2-0, April 2003
In the qualifying campaign for Euro 2004, it was clear from the start it would be a head-to-head fight for top spot between England and Turkey. The Turks had made massive strides from their thrashings by England in the 1980s and had just finished third in the World Cup. Sadly not all the headlines from this meeting at the Stadium of Light were made by what happened on the pitch, but the match brought a priceless win for England. 17-year-old Wayne Rooney shone on his first start for England and he helped the Three Lions triumph 2-0 thanks to late goals from Darius Vassell and David Beckham (penalty), going on to win the group with a 0-0 draw in the return game in October that again attracted plenty of talking points.
This entry was posted in England Qualifying Campaigns, Sir Bobby Robson, Six of the Best & Worst and tagged Bobby Robson, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Don Revie, England, European Championship Qualifiers, Luxembourg, Scotland, Six of the Best & Worst, Turkey, Yugoslavia.
With England’s new season about to begin with matches against Norway and Switzerland, it seems the right time to recall when both sides featured in England’s qualifying group for the 1982 World Cup. In the second blog in the series recalling past England qualifying campaigns for major tournaments, we look back what surely must rank as their strangest ever. More than 30 years on, it still remains something of a mystery how they got through it to reach the finals in Spain – but they did…
To say this was an unusual qualifying campaign would be an understatement. England advanced despite losing three matches out of eight; they lost to all the bottom three sides in the group but did the double over the otherwise unbeatable group winners; they went from being all but out to odds on to go through without kicking a ball in the process; and had they lost their final game then Romania would have gone through with just two wins and five goals from eight matches. Throw in one of the most iconic commentary lines ever and some odd fixture scheduling and you’ve got one crazy football cocktail all told.
It had been a long wait for England to appear in the World Cup finals. Their last appearance was in 1970 and the last time they had come through a qualifying group to get there was 1962 (they qualified automatically as hosts in 1966 and holders in 1970). But now it seemed very likely they would finally get there, from a group containing Hungary, Romania, Switzerland and Norway.
An end to the exile?
There were three reasons why England were firm favourites to end their long exile from the World Cup finals. The first was the World Cup was expanding from 16 to 24 teams, meaning they would go through if they finished second (for all their recent failings, they had never finished outside the top two in a qualifying group). Secondly, to achieve that top two spot seemed all the more likely once the qualification draw was made in October 1979. Although only Norway of the five teams in the group had not appeared at a World Cup finals since 1966, there seemed little to fear with only Hungary having a recent track record to suggest they could top the group at England’s expense. It might not look a particularly easy group by modern standards, but in an era before the likes of San Marino joined the party sides such as Norway were rated among the worst in Europe. Switzerland’s reputation was not particularly strong either.
“I would dearly love to take England to the World Cup finals. We have a good draw and must have a good chance of qualifying. But remember, there are no easy internationals these days,” England manager Ron Greenwood after the World Cup qualifying draw was made.
The third, and perhaps most important reason, was England at last seemed to have turned the corner after a miserable decade that had brought continual failures to qualify for major tournaments. Things finally went in their favour in the qualifying campaign for the 1980 European Championship, easily topping the group to end their exile from major finals. Under Ron Greenwood, a new confidence and blend of players was developing. There were experienced players like Peter Shilton (continuing to alternate with the similarly established Ray Clemence), Phil Thompson, Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan, while promising players including Glenn Hoddle and Kenny Sansom had broken into the international fray the previous year.
Greenwood’s first tournament with England was Euro ’80. Like ‘Reverend Ron’s’ reign as a whole it was a bit of a curate’s egg as England neither did particularly well or badly. They went out at the group stage (effectively the quarter-finals) with a win, draw and defeat, in a tournament overshadowed by disturbing trouble on the terraces from their followers in their opening match against Belgium. It was sadly to be an all too familiar tale when England went overseas in the 1980s.
Start as you mean to go on, but won’t do…
England got their campaign under way in a convincing style at odds with the rest of the group, beating Norway 4-0 at Wembley in September 1980. It wasn’t a vintage display, but it would be the biggest margin of victory in the whole group against the lowest rated side in it. England gave Eric Gates and Graham Rix their debuts while Bryan Robson (with just two previous caps to his name) was also in the starting line-up and properly embarked on his long international career in the heart of the midfield. He would be the only player to start all qualifying matches and moved to Manchester United from West Bromwich Albion for a record £1.5 million before the qualifying campaign ended.
England appear to lay down a marker in their opening World Cup qualifying match against Norway.
A month later came the first ringing of alarm bells, as England went down 2-1 in Romania. But the qualifying games were coming thick and fast and they saw 1980 out with a 2-1 home win over Switzerland in November, Greenwood’s side making much harder work of the win than they should have after being 2-0 up. It was not considered an impressive win, with the Swiss having already lost at home to Norway. England now had a four month break until their next game, as domestic club commitments led to them not taking part in the Gold Cup tournament in Uruguay at Christmas to mark the 50th anniversary of the World Cup. They were the only past winner to miss the competition.
From bad, to worse, to despair
1981 was about as grim a year as England have ever had. They played nine matches (six of them at Wembley) and won just twice. They failed to score in four successive matches and went six games without a win, while they would also suffer one of their most embarrassing defeats that appeared to have left their World Cup qualification hopes in tatters. With the conduct of England followers attracting even more negative headlines, it really wasn’t a proud year. And yet it would all end in happiness, somehow.
A 2-1 friendly home defeat to Spain in March set the trend, being memorable only for a cracking Glenn Hoddle goal. That would be the last goal England fans could enjoy for a while. A month later Romania came to Wembley in the next qualifier and ground out a 0-0 draw, as the sense of uncertainty over England’s World Cup finals spot grew. In May Brazil triumphed 1-0 in a Wembley friendly, on a night when Alvin Martin and Peter Withe won their first caps. The Home International Championship was effectively null and void due to the political situation in Northern Ireland leading to England’s trip there being called off, but they played their remaining two games. Wales drew 0-0 at Wembley, three days before Scotland claimed a 1-0 win there. The pressure was mounting on Greenwood, who had presided over England’s worst run for more than 100 years.
It was about to get worse. The month ended with England heading to Switzerland, a night that dragged the nation’s football reputation further into the gutter. More trouble on the terraces was sickening to see and made front page headlines, while the back pages were full of England’s 2-1 loss in Basel. A Terry McDermott goal to end the goal drought was scant consolation. England had played five games in the group, won two and lost two. It was looking ominous and Greenwood had seen enough, privately deciding the time was right to leave.
Restoring hope and changing Ron’s mind
His planned departure would be on hold for a week, by which time things could be even worse. During fixture negotiations England had either been bullied into playing two away qualifiers on successive Saturdays at the end of a long, domestic season (in which Ipswich Town and Liverpool had gone all the way to European glory and Aston Villa barely changed their team all campaign in winning the First Division) or someone believed it was a good option in place of the unusual end of season tour. They now faced the most daunting game of the qualifying series, away to qualification favourites Hungary. Almost 70,000 were present in Budapest to see one of England’s best performances under Greenwood as they achieved a memorable 3-1 victory, with Trevor Brooking scoring twice and Kevin Keegan netting the other from the penalty spot. Greenwood announced his resignation to the players on the flight home, but was talked out of it. He would be sticking around until the conclusion of a World Cup qualifying programme that would go to the wire.
A priceless win for England in Hungary.
One problem with this qualifying process compared to today was the total lack of an international calendar, meaning matches were played in isolation on all sorts of odd dates. Nations were also pretty much free to decide if they wanted to play several matches close together, creating a situation in this group where Hungary were continually left with numerous matches in hand as they had an intensive spell of games near the end of the group. As a result it made it hard to call exactly how the group was panning out. But England had just seven points from six games, while the Romanians had six from five and Hungary had five from four. A 1-1 draw between Norway and Switzerland later in the month meant the Scandinavians had three points from five games and were all but out, while the Swiss had four from five.
Taking a hell of a beating
September 9th, 1981. A date that resonates as a true low point for English football. After the high of Hungary came the utter low of the away game in Norway. A win for England was expected and would put them on course for a place in the finals. They had dished out thrashings to Norway in the past and Scandinavian sides were not really taken seriously (apart from Sweden), a view that would change considerably in the early 1980s. Bryan Robson scored his first England goal to give them the lead, but by half-time they trailed 2-1. If there was a game that made Greenwood’s mind up about who should be his first choice goalkeeper for the following summer’s World Cup, it was probably this as Clemence could take a fair chunk of the blame for Norway’s goals (along with Terry McDermott who helped gift Norway their winner). England never recovered, running out of ideas as Norway held out for a famous win.
John Bond tries to keep morale up as the nation plunges into despair after losing to Norway.
The contrast in moods between the two nations was stark. Brian Moore conveyed the sense of desolation on ITV, while Norwegian television would enjoy post-match lines from Bjørge Lillelien that have gone down in folklore. England had indeed taken a ‘hell of a beating’, although whether Margaret Thatcher could hear him was another matter! But it really looked all over for England. They had to hope for results to somehow go their way. In the ITV studio, Manchester City manager John Bond seemed to briefly switch from critical pundit to England cheerleader as he tried to convince presenter Jim Rosenthal that they still had a chance of making the finals. It seemed a forlorn hope, rational thinking going out of the window. There would be 10 weeks until they concluded their qualifying programme against Hungary, in which time five other matches would be played. By then their hopes could already be over.
England were now left to just watch and hope. On September 23th, it got worse as Romania and Hungary drew 0-0. A win for either would have been bearable but this was the worst scenario. Romania were level on points with England with a game in hand, while Hungary were one point behind with two games to spare. To stand a chance Greenwood’s men needed either Romania to slip up in their double-header against Switzerland, or Hungary to drop points in home games against Switzerland and Norway.
Thank you Switzerland
The most joyous day for England was really October 10th, the day the door to the finals opened for them again. Switzerland went to Romania and fell behind in the second half. Incredibly they turned it round to win 2-1 and keep alive their own slim hopes, but more importantly from an English perspective they had thrown the Three Lions a lifeline. There was still work to do, but a collective sigh of relief was blown. Whatever now happened, they would be through by beating Hungary.
The Hungarians then proceeded to comfortably beat Switzerland and Norway, wrapping up their qualification before the final match at Wembley. On November 11, Switzerland and Romania drew 0-0. It was a result that suited England fine. Romania were only one point ahead of them and with an inferior goal difference. Incredibly, despite having lost three times England would only need a point from their final match a week later against Hungary. But as would be seen 26 years later when England met Croatia in almost identical circumstances to determine if they would qualify for the European Championship, there would be no guarantee of things working out.
With England back in with a chance, ticket sales went from slow to a 92,000 midweek sell-out and the match was also shown live on the BBC (a relative rarity for home matches). A highly charged atmosphere, a true desire from the players to get through and a fairly uninspired performance from the visitors all added up to make it a night when England did what was required. Indeed, the tension was arguably less than it should have been given the nature of the group as England took an early lead through a slightly clumsy Paul Mariner goal, typifying the stumbling nature of the qualification process. Hungary rarely threatened to equalise and did not offer much help to Eastern European neighbours Romania, on a night when Tony Morley came on for his international debut (capping a memorable year when he had won the BBC’s Goal of the Season, his house had burnt down and he won the First Division with Aston Villa).
England make it – just feel the relief around Wembley.
When the final whistle blew the sense of joy around Wembley was tangible, it had been a long wait but England were at last in a World Cup finals. It was their first win at Wembley for almost exactly a year. They had finished with worse records than Wales and the Republic of Ireland, who both missed out. But this whole group had been a bit of a abnormality, with no whipping boy unlike most other sections. It was far from the Group of Death in terms of being full of excellent sides, but it was so far as no weak ones were concerned. Norway were certainly a stronger team than the likes of Luxembourg, Cyprus and Malta.
Somehow England would find themselves seeded for the World Cup finals, seemingly based on nothing other than their 1966 glory. It wasn’t quite the end of the drama, as the Falklands War threatened to put England’s place in the finals in jeopardy again. But they went to Spain and in contrast to their losing record in the qualifiers, they were unbeaten in five games but their goals dried up. It was disappointing not to go further, but after all the qualifying commotion it was just a relief for England to at last be back in the World Cup finals.