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.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.