With England having qualified with games to spare for Euro 2016, we look back at a previous occasion when they made light work of a European Championship qualifying campaign. When England embarked on trying to reach the 1980 finals in Italy it was just over 12 years since they had won the World Cup, but they had since suffered a depressing series of failures to qualify for major tournaments. They would end the long wait to qualify in style, in a campaign that brought a couple of superb goals and the debuts of several players who would go onto serve their country well through the 1980s…
Shortly before Ron Greenwood was confirmed as permanent England manager in December 1977, the qualifying draw took place for the 1980 European Championship. It had been a bleak 1970s for England, having failed to qualify for four successive major tournaments (although they reached the quarter-finals of the 1972 European Championship, that was played over two legs so technically they didn’t qualify for the finals). They desperately needed a stroke of luck to help them on their way to major tournament and it came with this qualifying draw. Considering their poor recent qualifying record, England were fortunate to be seeded and then to land a group not appearing to contain any major threat.
Had England been drawn a few years later in a group containing Bulgaria, Denmark, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it would have been called the group of you know what. Every side would subsequently advance beyond the World Cup group stage by 1990, but in the late 1970s they mostly had relatively limited pedigrees – Bulgaria had the best track record after making it to four successive World Cups from 1962 to 1974. In The Times, Norman Fox wrote the group was one that “England should consider a springboard to better days”. But he sounded a word of caution. “Unless there is continued rapid progress England cannot seriously believe there is any such thing as an easy match,” he wrote. “The draw is favourable but is not a passport to Italy.”
With the Danes starting their improvement towards being a stylish force in the 1980s there was no whipping boy in the group and this proved to be to England’s advantage. The other four sides would continually take points off each other as England kept on winning. An interesting subplot to the draw was the presence of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the same group. As well as providing derby matches for England, this group would produce the first ever meetings between the two Irish nations. The prize for the group winners would be a place in the first European Championship finals to resemble a proper tournament, with Italy hosting the group stage before the final (previously only the semi-final onwards was played in the host country).
Despite failing to make it to the 1978 World Cup, England went into their first qualifier in Denmark in September 1978 in good form. Since losing successive home matches in the 1977 Home International Championship towards the end of Don Revie’s reign, they had been beaten just once in 12 games. Greenwood may have not had the public support for the manager’s job of Brian Clough but he had made a good start, with a 4-1 friendly win over Hungary in May 1978 particularly encouraging. Liverpool had won successive European Cups and provided several players in the squad, while Nottingham Forest would go on to match Liverpool’s achievement and also have a number of men in the England set-up. If the success in Europe by English club sides could be carried through into the national set-up, then England would stand a chance of going on to win the competition. But for now simply qualifying for something at last was the basic aim.
Goals galore in Copenhagen
England began their road to Italy with a goal feast away to Denmark in September 1978, in which they almost contrived to throw away victory. Goals from Kevin Keegan (2), Bob Latchford and Phil Neal helped them win 4-3 against Denmark, in a match that saw the Danes keep snapping at England’s heels. It really depended on whether you were a glass half full or empty person as to how you felt about England winning by such a scoreline. Journalist Frank McGhee was evidently in the latter camp, writing in the Daily Mirror: “Some of the joy of last season’s success under manager Ron Greenwood evaporated last night. And a victory over Denmark must not blind the team manager, who will have to accept much of the blame.” But Greenwood was pleased with the attacking display, saying: “The object of football is to score goals. I don’t think anyone could go away from here saying they hadn’t enjoyed it. I’m sure it is what the public want to see.”
A month later England struggled to sparkle when they drew 1-1 away to the Republic of Ireland, leaving them with three points from two games. Latchford scored their goal, on a day when Liam Brady ran the show for the Irish in midfield. In November Wembley was packed for a friendly against European champions Czechoslovakia, with the match best remembered for Viv Anderson becoming the first black player to appear at full level for England (a feat disputed by those who believe Paul Reaney had fitted this description). England won 1-0 with Anderson playing his part in a goal by Steve Coppell, although some critics felt the team’s performance still gave cause for concern. McGhee wrote: “England fans saw the football of the future – as promised by manager Ron Greenwood – at Wembley last night. The one considerable snag was that most of it was provided by the Czech opposition.”
Strong start to 1979
1978 had been a positive year for England and they served notice of what 1979 might bring when they welcomed group leaders Northern Ireland to Wembley in February for their next qualifier. Despite their physical approach attracting criticism from Northern Irish manager Danny Blanchflower, England enjoyed a good night as they triumphed 4-0. Latchford was not without his critics when he pulled on an England shirt but he scored twice, on a night when Keegan was particularly influential. It left Greenwood’s side looking a good bet to qualify.
There was then a break of three months before England took to the field again in May for the Home International Championship, which they won after beating Northern Ireland (2-0) and Scotland (3-1) and drawing with Wales (0-0). The Wales match was significant for marking the England debuts of Kenny Sansom and Laurie Cunningham. Sansom went on to win 86 caps and be a near-permanent fixture in the left-back slot over the next nine years, while Cunningham’s call-up confirmed more black players would be following Anderson into the England side.
In June 1979, England faced what had appeared to be their most difficult looking qualifier away to Bulgaria. But it was a day when things went to plan for Greenwood, as a well-taken goal by Keegan was added to by efforts from Dave Watson and Peter Barnes as England triumphed 3-0 in Sofia. The match formed the start of England’s end of season tour, being followed up with friendlies away to Sweden and Austria. They drew 0-0 in Stockholm, before the 1978-79 season ended as it had started with England being involved in a seven goal thriller. However, in Vienna it was England on the wrong end of a 4-3 defeat as their attack minded line-up was punished and brought their first defeat for 15 games.
In September, England resumed their quest to reach Italy with a 1-0 win over Denmark at Wembley, a match that went untelevised due to ITV being off the air. Viewers missed little of note, Keegan’s goal giving England an unconvincing 1-0 win as the Danes again suggested they may be more of a force going into the 1980s. “The match was more of a plodding exercise than an inspiring adventure,” rued an underwhelmed McGhee in his match report, reflecting on the lack of chances to keep spectators entertained.
Kevin Keegan scores England’s winner against Denmark in September 1979.
Not a one man team
Although England had not been firing on all cylinders, they were still on course to qualify and they could realistically start the party in October after they visited Northern Ireland. They once more proved too strong for Blanchflower’s men, Trevor Francis and Tony Woodcock both scoring twice in a 5-1 win. Despite his record-breaking transfer the previous season from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest, Francis had struggled to earn a regular starting place for England as Greenwood had previously persisted with Latchford (who would never be capped again).
But both Francis and Woodcock had come into the side and taken their chances, leaving England needing just one point to be certain of making it. They could only now fail to qualify if they lost at home to both Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland, who would also have to beat Northern Ireland and make up the goal difference in the process. Incidentally, this was the only time in the eight qualifiers that Peter Shilton was in goal for England rather than Ray Clemence (although they shared goalkeeping duties, it is a slight myth that they usually played alternate matches). Greenwood was pleased to see the goals being shared around the squad: “After our match against Denmark last month it was said we relied too much on Kevin Keegan. [The Northern Ireland match] proved that we are not a one-man team and Kevin is as pleased as anyone about that. Though Francis and Woodcock played very well indeed, they received an excellent service.”
Qualification was sealed without playing on November 21, as the Irish derby was won by Northern Ireland to end the Republic of Ireland’s hopes. That night the fog fell at Wembley and England’s home match against Bulgaria was called off as thousands of fans waited outside. Most of them were back 24 hours later for a rare Thursday night international, by which time the fog had lifted. Keegan was a victim of the postponement, as he was called back to Hamburg. Indeed, England were without their first three choices of captain as Emlyn Hughes and Mick Mills were also absent, leading to Phil Thompson wearing the armband.
Glenn Hoddle enjoyed a dream debut against Bulgaria in November 1979.
Coming into the side were stylish Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Glenn Hoddle and Norwich City forward Kevin Reeves. It was 22-year-old Hoddle who hogged the headlines, providing a genuine cause for optimism with his creativity. He floated in a lovely ball for Watson to open the scoring and then memorably wrapped up a 2-0 win when he scored with a delicious sidefooted effort. Not that everyone was jumping through hoops about England’s prospects, Mirror man McGhee beginning his report by writing: “Before England celebrate their victory over the nonentities of Bulgaria last night, they should start reflecting that in the finals of the European Championship in Rome next summer they will be in with the big boys of Italy, West Germany and Poland. Perhaps when that reality sinks in their fans won’t be quite so cocky and exultant as they were at the end of last night’s match at Wembley. Beating Bulgaria was easy, competing against the best in Italy next summer will be slightly different.”
That brought the curtain down on the 1970s so far as England were concerned, but their qualification campaign would unusually span two decades. Just four months before the finals were due to begin, Greenwood’s men hosted the Republic of Ireland for their final qualifier in February 1980. By now much of the emphasis was on preparing for the finals, but England also had the motivation of finishing the group unbeaten, with no goals conceded at home and just one point dropped along the way if they won. That remained the case as Keegan scored twice, the second goal being a glorious chip to complete a 2-0 win. The match saw West Bromwich Albion midfielder Bryan Robson became England’s latest debutant, winning the first of his 90 caps. Returning to the side after more than four years was Liverpool’s David Johnson, although he would go off injured after a clash with Irish goalkeeper Gerry Peyton.
And so England finished the qualifying group with seven wins and a draw from eight games, finishing six points clear and having regained the winning mentality. But such is life that the England qualifying campaigns most frequently recalled are those when they either failed to qualify or only got there after it went to the wire. This was an instance when England qualified with comfort, but it is seldom talked about. They went into the finals of Euro ’80 (or Europa ’80 as it was generally known at the time) as one of the favourites, but the tournament would be a disappointment as England failed to advance from their group and their hooligans brought shame on the nation. The one consolation was England were finally back at a major tournament. And they had got there with conviction.