Month: January 2016

England’s Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’76: Staying in the Wilderness

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England are currently preparing for Euro 2016, having qualified with ease for the finals. But 40 years ago the final stages of the European Championship took place without them, England having failed to progress beyond their qualifying group. Coming after missing out on a place at the 1974 World Cup finals, it added to the gloom for England fans and proved a big disappointment for new manager Don Revie after he appeared to have started well in the job…

In October 1973, England infamously drew with Poland and failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. In the ensuing months the Football Association parted company with Sir Alf Ramsey, with Joe Mercer looking after the shop for seven matches as he sought to help restore national pride. In July 1974 the FA unveiled the new manager, as Don Revie left First Division champions Leeds United to lead his country.

Although Revie may not have had the public support of Brian Clough and his Leeds side were far from universally loved, he had a track record for success – either winning major honours or coming perilously close to doing so. Now the nation hoped he could restore that winning mentality, with England having lost the aura they had held when they won the World Cup in 1966. Their recent record at Wembley, where once they had been almost invincible, was a particular concern. They had been beaten there by West Germany in the European Championship quarter-finals in 1972 and then failed to beat Wales and Poland beneath the Twin Towers in qualifying for the 1974 World Cup. Revie’s first challenge would be to lead England to the final stages of the 1976 European Championship, although he quickly made clear what his real priority was in an era when the World Cup dwarfed the Euros. “The main object must be to build up to the World Cup of 1978,” he said upon his appointment. “Four years seems a long way off, but it isn’t.”

But there was no time like the present and England would be in a Euro ’76 qualifying group with Czechoslovakia, Portugal and Cyprus. None of the four sides had made it to the 1974 World Cup finals. The Czechs had come unstuck against Scotland; England and Portugal were pale shadows of their great sides of 1966; and Cyprus were seen as just making up the numbers. When the draw was made in January 1974, Geoffrey Green in The Times described the group as “a comparatively mild sector at present-day values” given the sides would all be absent from the World Cup. Only the group winners would progress to the two-legged quarter-finals.

  

Don Revie with his first England captain, Emlyn Hughes. It proved a short-lived partnership.

Revie’s first England match would not be until October 30. However, his first get-together was at a Manchester hotel in September when more than 80 established and potential players were invited to attend. Many of them – such as John Beck, Micky Horswill, Kevin Lock and Denis Smith – would never be capped by England at full level but Revie was certainly going to look far and wide for men who could bolster the squad. However, the rather generous number of debuts he handed out while in charge would attract criticism. So too would be the decision to axe established players, including captains Emlyn Hughes and Alan Ball. Like Ramsey, Revie showed a reluctance to pick the flair ‘Maverick’ players who had burst onto the scene and this also gave ammunition to his critics.

The great start for Revie

Although the late date for his first game afforded Revie time to prepare, he would not have the luxury of a friendly to ease his way into the role. His opening match would be the first qualifier against Czechoslovakia at Wembley. It felt like the dawn of a new era, with a new manager in charge who was bringing in Land of Hope and Glory as a pre-match anthem and England were donning a new-look Admiral kit that divided opinion.

The Czechs held out for more than 70 minutes before Mick Channon and Colin Bell (2) found the net as England won 3-0. “It was a match with a beginning and ending but little in the middle to excite us,” wrote Green, adding a note of caution amid the delight over the result. It was though an encouraging evening, where the introduction of substitutes Trevor Brooking and Dave Thomas had helped push England on. Making effective use of substitutes had not been Ramsey’s forte but his permanent successor had made a double change that had paid off. His decision to hand a first cap to midfielder Gerry Francis had also been rewarded with a good display, with the player going on to be a central part of Revie’s plans.

Back to reality

Revie’s honeymoon would last just three weeks, before being brought back down to earth. Portugal visited Wembley for England’s second qualifier, with the hosts expected to make it two wins out of two – particularly after Portugal were beaten 3-0 in a friendly by Switzerland the week before. A big crowd at Wembley saw the Portuguese adopt a defensive approach that England were unable to breach, although visiting goalkeeper Vitor Damas would pull off some good saves to keep them out. The celebrations of Damas and his colleagues at the finish were an indicator they had exceeded expectations with a goalless draw, while England left the pitch to a loud chorus of ‘what a load of rubbish’.

  

Dave Thomas in action for England against Portugal.

Revie did not try to hide from the crowd’s disappointment. “No excuses. We didn’t play at all,” he told the media. “It was a bad performance, we didn’t deserve anything more than a draw.” In the Daily Mirror, Frank McGhee wrote: “Quite the worst feature of the whole affair was that England produced so pitifully few ideas during the game to change a course that gradually became inevitable.” To put the result into a gloomy perspective, Portugal would lose 5-0 when they visited Czechoslovakia during the qualifying series.

England’s next match was due to be an away qualifier in Cyprus in February, but it was postponed due to concerns over political unrest. Instead their first game in 1975 was a home friendly against world champions West Germany in March, marking England’s 100th match at Wembley. The night rekindled optimism about Revie’s reign as Colin Bell and Malcolm Macdonald scored in a 2-0 win. Ball was the new captain after Hughes was controversially axed, although ‘Crazy Horse’ would make further appearances under Revie (a man he would regularly criticise in later years).

Malcolm Macdonald 5-0 Cyprus

In April England were in must-win territory as group outsiders Cyprus visited Wembley. Fresh from netting his first England goal the previous month, Macdonald showed his potency by continually being in the right place to score on the night. He scored the lot as England crushed their opponents 5-0. But not everyone felt euphoric about the win or Macdonald’s goal blitz. In the Daily Express, reporter David Miller wrote: “This was Third Division stuff in international terms. Let us keep the champagne for the moment when the English bull does the same against Argentina, Brazil or Holland.”

  

Malcolm Macdonald helps himself to five goals against Cyprus.

England had unusually played all their three home qualifiers before any of the away ones took place, but in May they finally ventured onto foreign soil under Revie for the return game in Cyprus. An early goal from Kevin Keegan looked like it may open the floodgates, but it was to be a disappointing afternoon for the Three Lions as they had to be content with a 1-0 win. Macdonald couldn’t score and indeed would never find the net for his country again, Miller’s comments the previous month sadly bearing fruit. But England had at least ground out a result. David Lacey wrote in the Guardian: “If their performance was unspectacular, at least they avoided the sort of catastrophe that can easily occur when teams have to encounter weak but spirited opponents in alien conditions.”

The season wound down with the Home International Championship. A 0-0 draw away to Northern Ireland meant Revie’s team had not conceded in six games, a sequence that ended in the next match. Although a 2-2 draw at home to Wales was disappointing, the two debut goals for David Johnson gave encouragement. But England saved their best until last, crushing Scotland 5-1 at Wembley. Francis (2), Bell and Johnson joined Kevin Beattie on the England scoresheet, as they completed the season unbeaten and as Home International champions. Revie appeared to be rehabilitating England and putting the painful memories of 1973 behind them. Sadly, things were about to fall apart.

Ball axed

England were to start the 1975/76 season with an away friendly in Switzerland. But the build-up was overshadowed by Ball discovering he had been dropped and stripped off the captaincy, which was handed to Francis. Ball claimed he received an unsigned letter from Revie informing him of the decision, the player revealing his hurt at the manager not speaking to him in person about the matter. It marked a sad end to Ball’s international career and meant all of England’s World Cup winning XI were no longer playing for their country. The row over Ball coincided with Stoke City manager Tony Waddington speaking out over Revie’s decision to not pick ‘Maverick’ Alan Hudson, with the England boss learning what an unforgiving world international football management could be. But he wasn’t going to cave in.

  

Alan Hudson and Alan Ball were controversially dropped by Don Revie.

Speaking about players having been axed, Revie said: “I feel particularly sad in the case of Emlyn and Alan, but although I wrote each of them a letter I suppose I shall have to wait until they become managers before they appreciate what I had to do. I haven’t had time for sitting on the fence and postponing unpleasant decisions.”

England won 2-1 in Switzerland, but the most important internationals still lay ahead. They faced away qualifiers in Czechoslovakia and Portugal. England were in the driving seat but they could ill-afford to lose either game. Their game in Bratislava against Czechoslovakia was abandoned at 0-0 after 17 minutes due to fog. The match would start again the following afternoon – a year to the day of when Revie’s reign had begun in style against the Czechs.

  

England’s hopes faded with defeat in Czechoslovakia.

All seemed to be going to plan as Channon put England in front, but Revie’s unbeaten run came to an end when the result most mattered as the Czechs came from behind to win 2-1. After an ill-tempered contest, England were fuming towards Italian referee Alberto Michelotti for how they felt he had handled the match. Revie, who hailed the way his players had performed despite the result, said: “I saw the worst provocation in this game that I have ever seen in an international match, certainly worse than Argentina against England in the 1966 World Cup.” It was fair to assume he wasn’t blaming his own team for the said provocation. 

The following month, the group picture remained murky after Czechoslovakia drew 1-1 away to Portugal. England led the group by virtue of having a goal difference one better than Czechoslovakia, but that wasn’t much of an advantage in the circumstances. It now basically came down to who got the best result from their final match – England in Portugal, Czechoslovakia in Cyprus. The Czechs faced the easier task and would also know exactly what they had to do as they would be playing four days after England’s match. To believe they would do it, England were realistically going to have to record a big win in Portugal. It was a tall order.

Missing out again

A stunning free-kick from Rui Rodrigues put Portugal ahead and although Channon equalised before the break, England could not snatch a winner and drew 1-1. Their only hope now was for the Czechs to fail to win in Cyprus, which seemed unlikely. According to Green, Revie saved “time, petrol and expense” by cancelling the executive jet to take him to see the match. He seemed to have accepted the inevitable. Any hopes England had of advancing to the last eight were duly extinguished by half-time, as Czechoslovakia led 3-0. Even the most optimistic of English fans would have abandoned hope, with the Czechs duly seeing the game out to go through.

Lacey wrote of England’s latest failure: “An outcome which first emerged as a possibility when Portugal forced a goalless draw at Wembley a year ago, became a probability with the defeat in Bratislava last month, a near-certainty with last week’s draw in Lisbon and actuality when Czechoslovakia beat Cyprus 3-0.” 

 
Czechoslovakia beat West Germany on penalties to win Euro ’76.

For the second major tournament in a row England had been eliminated in the qualifying group stage, paying the price for losing away to their rivals for top spot. Although there was more far melodrama over England failing to make the 1974 World Cup, this latest disappointment in some ways sent out the greater warning message. England were no longer among the elite and their previous failure could not just be written off as a fluke because of the heroics of a Polish goalkeeper. The Czechs surprisingly went on to win the final against West Germany in Yugoslavia, but that provided little consolation to England. Ten years on from winning the World Cup they were increasingly retreating from international football’s frontline and Revie knew he could not afford to fail again during the next qualifying programme.

Faces of ’66 – Jimmy Greaves

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With 2016 marking 50 years since England won the World Cup in 1966, we will be focusing on some of the individuals who would forever be associated with the tournament – and not just England’s 11 players who beat West Germany in the final. We begin by recalling how fate would conspire against Jimmy Greaves, who infamously missed out on playing during England’s finest hour.

“I was one of the few people who believed we would win it… and what I never ever thought was we would win it without me being in the side,” said Jimmy Greaves in the 1986 BBC documentary series Summer of ’66. It’s a sentiment he has often repeated over the years about the 1966 World Cup, making similar comments in the excellent Boys of ’66 programme broadcast on Sky Sports this month (he was interviewed prior to sadly suffering a severe stroke last year).

Such views may seem rather arrogant to the uninitiated, but it wasn’t just Greaves (pictured below) who couldn’t envisage he wouldn’t be part of England’s success. The charismatic 26-year-old Tottenham Hotspur striker was one of the best-known footballers in the country, among the most established players in the England side and a prolific goalscorer – one of the best finishers the nation has produced. England achieving success in the World Cup wasn’t a guarantee, but Greaves leading the attack for them surely was. If it was goals you wanted, Greaves was seemingly the best bet to get them.

   

The first hint that the 1966 World Cup may not go smoothly for Greaves came during the previous season, when he was struck down with hepatitis and ruled out for about three months. This inevitably set him back in his preparations for the finals and he wasn’t quite his usual potent self in the closing stages of the season as he fought to regain his full sharpness. But any fears seemed to be allayed when he scored four times for England against Norway shortly before the World Cup began. Having been a part of the side in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, Greaves now looked to help his nation win it on home soil under Alf Ramsey – a man who like Greaves hailed from Dagenham.

Frustrating group stage

Greaves duly took his place in the England side for the tournament opener against Uruguay, but it proved a frustrating evening for both player and country as the hosts were unable to break down the South Americans in a goalless draw. The next game yielded a 2-0 win over Mexico that is best remembered for a stunning goal by Bobby Charlton, but Greaves was again not on the scoresheet. That would be the case once more in the third and final group game as England beat France 2-0. But for Greaves another incident on the night would ultimately end his tournament involvement.

  

Jimmy Greaves in action for England.

Greaves was on the receiving end of a crunching tackle by Joseph Bonnel, feeling the Frenchman’s studs drag down his shin. Greaves played on in the Wembley rain, recalling in his autobiography Greavsie (2003): “Towards the end of the game I thought I’d got a hole in my boot because I was aware that my sock was soaking. It was only when I bent down to do some running repairs that I realised it was soaked with blood and the entire sock was crimson.” Reality would soon bite for Greaves as he returned to the team’s hotel at Hendon Hall after receiving stitches. He wrote: “I realised there and then that, should England reach the final, I wouldn’t be playing. In the darkness of my room I realised my World Cup was over.” 

The injury ruled Greaves out of their next match against Argentina, as West Ham United’s Geoff Hurst came into the side. Hurst may not have been quite as prolific as Greaves, but he offered greater aerial prowess and the welcome capability to hold the ball up. Hurst’s qualities complemented those of the hard-running Hunt and he fitted into Ramsey’s system, while he also had a good understanding with West Ham United colleagues Bobby Moore and Martin Peters.

  

Jimmy Greaves was an idol to many schoolboys – but that was not enough to earn him a place in the World Cup final side.

England succeed without Greaves

In much the same way that England seemed to come into form after losing captain Bryan Robson through injury at the World Cups of 1986 and 1990, the absence of Greaves was not negatively felt by Ramsey’s men in 1966. Hurst headed in the winner against Argentina, sending them through to a semi-final against Portugal. Bobby Charlton scored both goals in a 2-1 win, but Hunt and Hurst each contributed in the build-up to a goal. Now England were through to the final and Greaves was fit and ready to play. But would Ramsey consider changing things to accommodate him?

There was still public support for Greaves to get his chance. In The Times on the morning of the final, ‘Football Correspondent’ (Geoffrey Green) wrote: “It is the snatching of that half-chance which Mr Ramsey will have in mind if he decides to recall Greaves, now fit again, when he announces his team this morning. He is keeping Germany guessing until then. Although Greaves failed to score in his three earlier games in Group A it would be typical of him to impishly squeeze a winner now.” In the Daily Mirror, Ken Jones speculated that Ramsey may opt to field Greaves, Hunt and Hurst together in a change of formation. “The disappointment of missing this final of finals may be facing another player,” he pondered.

In his thorough biography of Alf Ramsey, Sir Alf (2006), Leo McKinstry wrote of the dilemma the manager faced concerning selecting Greaves: “The problem for Greaves was that England had been playing better without him. The team had looked more balanced, solid and dangerous. 4-3-3, or, more accurately, 4-1-3-2, was a style that required the hard running of Hunt and Hurst rather than the mercurial unpredictability of Greaves. Moreover, both had proved effective in front of goal, Hunt scoring three times in five games, Hurst once in two. In the England camp there was a near universal feeling for the current striking pair, though Bobby Moore did stick up for his room-mate and fellow East Londoner.”

The final

Despite having scored three goals along the way, Hunt did not feel assured of his place in the final. It was only when the team went to the cinema on the night before the final and Ramsey whispered to him that he would be playing that he knew he was in. Hurst also feared losing out, but he too was told by Ramsey he would play. England had fielded a winning XI in the previous two matches that he did not wish to interfere with. Greaves was left to figure out the inevitable, subsequently revealing he sensed all hope was realistically gone when he asked England assistant boss Harold Shepherdson if he might play. He could tell by Shepherdson’s uncomfortable reaction that he wasn’t in. Confirmation was provided by Ramsey on the morning of the final.

Greaves spent the World Cup rooming with his friend Moore. But the pair’s contribution to the tournament would forever be remembered for very different reasons. Moore captained England to their greatest glory; Greaves cut a rather forlorn figure as England triumphed and he wasn’t involved in the knockout stages. On the morning of the final, Moore found Greaves packing his bags so he could “make a quick getaway” once the match was over. Greaves clearly had little wish to join in the party after missing out on playing in the match. As everyone knows, Hurst scored a hat-trick as England won 4-2 and Ramsey’s selection had paid off. Greaves watched on in his suit, offering his congratulations to the players who had won it but understandably feeling the pain of not being directly involved on the day. He later recalled: “I danced around the pitch with everybody else but even in this moment of triumph and great happiness, deep down I felt my sadness.”

  

jImmy Greaves offers his congratulations to Alan Ball after the World Cup triumph.

Greaves was particularly unlucky with the timing, as this was the last World Cup before substitutes could be brought on. Given how the game panned out, the odds are he would have come on at some point and then he could forever say he had played in a World Cup final. Today even the third choice goalkeeper sits on the bench at a major tournament with a chance – albeit extremely slim – of being called upon. But as the final began Greaves was left knowing that his only vague hope of still playing a part would be if it went to a replay and Ramsey opted to put him in the side ahead of Hunt or Hurst. It was pretty unlikely to happen.

The other big difference from today was only the 11 players to appear in the final received their medal at the end. Within a few years the rules were changed so every squad member received one and in 1990 England’s squad were all presented with medals for finishing fourth. Greaves and his colleagues eventually received their 1966 medals retrospectively in 2009, some 43 years after their triumph. He subsequently sold it in 2014.

Speaking in 2003 to The Telegraph, Greaves reflected on how he felt left out – both literally and metaphorically – on the day of the final. He said: “It’s unfortunate because had it been now, then I’d have probably been at least a substitute and been involved in it all from the bench. What I found hard to take was to be one of the ‘forgotten 11’ because we lived with the rest of the team in the hotel and trained together but after that you weren’t involved. Even on the great day itself, we sat up in the back of the stand in our civvies; these days even the water-carrier would receive a medal but there was no such honour for us. Actually, even Alf didn’t get a medal, it was the 11 players on the pitch and those 11 players only.”

The growing obsession with 1966 and all that

The other thing to rub salt into Greaves’ wounds was the way England’s success in 1966 grew into an obsession in the ensuing years, meaning he would constantly have his non-selection rammed down his throat. He told The Guardian in 2003: “The interesting fact about the World Cup in ’66 is that when we won it, it was quite a low-key affair. If we won it now, the country would come to a stop for a week and every player would become an immediate superstar. When we won it in ’66, everybody cheered, a few thousand came out to say well done, and within a week everybody had disappeared, we’d all gone on our way and we’d starting playing the next season. That was the end of it. Now you get all this aura surrounding ’66, but it was never quite like that.”

  

Jimmy Greaves and Norman Hunter finally receive their World Cup medals in 2009.

Greaves was at pains in his autobiography to stress his World Cup disappointment did not trigger his well-publicised descent into alcoholism. To his great credit he shrugged off the pain of missing the final by scoring regularly in the opening stages of the following season for Spurs, including a run where he netted in seven successive league games. He helped them win the FA Cup in 1967 and worked his way back into the England side to win three more caps. But he grew frustrated at often being a non-playing squad member and eventually asked Ramsey if he could only be called up if he was going to play. The request effectively spelt his international retirement after 57 caps and 44 goals.

Greaves would become as well-known to younger generations as a television personality as for his football career, but he would forever be remembered for missing the final in 1966 and watching on as his replacement Hurst scored a hat-trick. The failure of England to progress so far since then means 1966 remains the most talked-about event in the nation’s football history and leaves Greaves as the man who came closest to playing for the country in a World Cup final without actually doing so. 

Although it may be heartbreaking for a player to miss out on playing in an FA Cup final, to use an old adage there’s always next year to stand another chance. But with the World Cup final, a player faces a four-year wait – a long time in football terms and it is hard for the team to go all the way again. One only had to see Paul Gascoigne’s tears when he picked up his second yellow of the tournament in the Italia ’90 semi-final – ruling him out of the final if England got there  – to be reminded what a big deal it is to get to play in the World Cup final. Poor Greaves would always be reminded of that and how he came so tantalisingly close to doing so.

 

 

Six of the Best – England under Sven-Göran Eriksson

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This month marks 15 years since Sven-Göran Eriksson arrived in England to begin his reign as national team manager and a decade since it was announced he would leave after the 2006 World Cup. With that in mind we cast our minds back to six games when all went well for England under Eriksson.

 

Germany (a), September 1, 2001, World Cup qualifier, 5-1

Following Sven-Göran Eriksson’s arrival at the start of 2001 – after leaving Lazio earlier than anticipated – England had made a blistering start. Initial misgivings by many over England appointing their first foreign manager had largely eased as they pulled themselves back into contention to qualify for the World Cup. But the real test would be how England fared in their World Cup qualifier against Germany in Munich in September. England had every chance of beating their old nemesis, given the Germans had one of their poorest sides in years. However, Germany had triumphed 1-0 the previous October in the final match at the old Wembley and were in the driving seat in the group. They also boasted a formidable qualifying record, particularly on home soil.

  

Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard celebrate one of England’s five goals.

When Carsten Jancker put Germany ahead after just six minutes nobody could have envisaged just what was to follow. Michael Owen drew England level, before Steven Gerrard’s excellent drive put them in front just before the break. Owen scored twice more and Emile Heskey put the seal on the night by making it 5-1 to England. “This is getting better and better and better,” exclaimed BBC commentator John Motson. 

It would forever be remembered as an incredible night for English football and elevated Eriksson to hero-like status at the time. In his autobiography, he recalled: “I turned to the huge scoreboard. It read: Deutschland-England 1-5. Even I had a hard time believing that.” The following month David Beckham’s free-kick equaliser against Greece took England through to the finals as group winners.

Argentina (n), June 7, 2002, World Cup group stage, 1-0

Having beaten one old rival in Germany, Eriksson now had the chance to lead England to victory over another when they met Argentina in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. An uninspiring 1-1 draw with Eriksson’s native Sweden in England’s opening game did not give much cause for optimism, as they now went into a match in Sapporo that they could not afford to lose. Argentina were considered one of the favourites to win the competition, but England hoped to exact revenge for their controversial defeats in 1986 and 1998.

  

David Beckham gives England the lead against Argentina.

The decisive moment came shortly before the break, Michael Owen being fouled in the area. Four years after being sent-off against the same opponents, David Beckham stepped up to put England ahead from the spot. “I have rarely heard a noise louder than the cheer after Beckham scored the penalty,” Eriksson would later recall. England nearly doubled their advantage after the break, an excellent team move ending with Teddy Sheringham’s volley being kept out. England duly held firm to achieve a momentous victory that was wildly celebrated by fans in the stadium and back home.

Denmark (n), June 15, 2002, World Cup second round, 3-0

A forgettable 0-0 draw with Nigeria was enough to see England through to the last 16, where Denmark stood in their way. The Danes had won their group after defeating World Cup holders France and it appeared a close encounter was in store in Niigata. England would certainly have to play better against the Danes than they had against fellow Scandinavians Sweden in the group stage.

 

Rio Ferdinand celebrates as England take the lead against Denmark.

But by half-time it was realistically all over as England led 3-0. Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen fumbled Rio Ferdinand’s effort into his own net in the opening minutes before Michael Owen and Emile Heskey left England well in command. They comfortably saw the game out, England fans for once spared the usual finger-biting tension when watching them in major tournaments. Although England’s performance was not without its faults, a 3-0 win against a fellow European side in the last 16 of the World Cup was no mean feat.

With favourites including Argentina and France having already departed, it suddenly appeared a genuine possibility that Eriksson’s side could go all the way – provided they overcame the sizeable obstacle of Brazil in the quarter-finals. The Guardian reporter David Lacey observed that the prospect of England winning the competition “no longer seems as fantastic as Danny Mills beating Harry Potter at quidditch”. Alas they would exit the tournament with a 2-1 defeat, failing to threaten Brazil’s 10 men in the closing stages as the first noticeable doubts were cast by some about Eriksson.

Turkey (h), April 2, 2003, European Championship qualifier, 2-0

England faced a battle with World Cup semi-finalists Turkey to qualify for Euro 2004. Realistically one would win their qualifying group, the other would have to settle for the play-offs. Their head-to-head record was likely to be decisive. England had already been held to a disappointing home draw by Macedonia when they welcomed the Turks to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. 

 

David Beckham celebrates clinching England’s victory over Turkey.

Wayne Rooney, 17, started an England match for the first time and he showed he was not overawed by the occasion as he produced a confident display that gave hope to the nation. England had to wait until 15 minutes from time to forge ahead through Darius Vassell, with David Beckham wrapping up the 2-0 win with a penalty shortly before the final whistle.

The one disappointment was the conduct of some England followers, which led to negative headlines and the FA turning down tickets for the return game the following October in a bid to avoid further trouble. That night saw England produce a disciplined display in a hostile atmosphere to claim the 0-0 draw they needed to qualify as group winners. It was another high point of the Eriksson years.

Croatia (n), June 21, 2004, European Championship group stage, 4-2

As we recently recalled, England went into Euro 2004 with a good chance of finally achieving success. They had a good crop of players establishing themselves and no side at the finals looked unbeatable. Although they had lost in the dying seconds to France in their opening game, a 3-0 win over Switzerland left them needing just a draw against Croatia to reach the quarter-finals.

 

Wayne Rooney scored twice for England against Croatia.

Backed by a tremendous support in Lisbon, England enjoyed a high-scoring win to leave the nation believing the long wait for glory could finally be about to end. Four years earlier England had gone out in similar circumstances against Romania when only needing a draw but this time around they would advance with a victory. Despite falling behind to an early goal by Niko Kovač, England led by half-time as Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney found the net. The teenage star was now coming to international prominence and another well-taken goal after the break effectively sealed England’s progress. Although Igor Tudor reduced the deficit to 3-2, Frank Lampard wrapped up an entertaining 4-2 win for Sven’s men.

The quarter-finals saw England lose on penalties to hosts Portugal, as serious question marks began to be raised against Eriksson and his tactics. A few weeks later the ‘Fariagate’ scandal threatened to cost Eriksson his job, but he remained in the role for qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

Argentina (n), November 12, 2005, Friendly, 3-2

England friendlies under Eriksson could often be a frustrating experience, multiple substitutions making it hard to read much into the results. But this match against Argentina in neutral Geneva was a notable exception, a rare instance where a friendly was genuinely compelling and fiercely contested. England had qualified with a game to spare for the World Cup but recent results included a 4-1 friendly loss to Denmark and a shock 1-0 defeat against Northern Ireland during World Cup qualifying – the first time England had lost a qualifier under Eriksson. A good result was needed against Argentina to boost morale. 

  
Michael Owen scored twice in a dramatic climax against Argentina.

Hernan Crespo gave Argentina the lead before Wayne Rooney pulled England level. Walter Samuel restored Argentina’s lead and that looked set to be the winner. But for once in an England friendly Eriksson kept his substitutions to a minimum, while Argentina replaced four key players in the closing stages. One of the few changes Eriksson made was to bring on Peter Crouch with 10 minutes to go and his introduction seemed to galvanise England. With three minutes left Michael Owen headed England level and in the dying moments he repeated the trick to give England a much-celebrated 3-2 victory.

Suddenly there was widespread optimism again and Eriksson would lead England into the 2006 World Cup with the nation believing their 40 years of hurt could be about to end. By the time they came along it was long known that Eriksson was on his way after they finished, the final straw coming when he was caught out by the ‘Fake Sheikh’. There was much hype surrounding England going into the competition but they seldom rose above the ordinary en route to the quarter-finals. Once there, Luiz Felipe Scolari got the better of Eriksson for a third successive major tournament as England lost to Portugal on penalties.

Erikssons’s England reign tends to divide opinion. There are some who believe his record of steering England to three successive quarter-finals was impressive, particularly given their subsequent failings. However, there are others who feel he squandered a glorious opportunity to achieve success with the Golden Generation at his disposal and that he did not merit his reportedly very high wages – as he failed to even lead the side into a semi-final. Whatever one’s view, it was certainly a memorable era and as we have seen there were some captivating wins to enjoy.

When Roy Race managed England

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This month in 1978 Wembley was packed as an England side featuring Trevor Francis and Malcolm Macdonald thrashed the Netherlands 5-1. Remember it? Well unless you read the comic Roy of the Rovers then the answer would be no. In a break from our usual nostalgic recollections of how England fared in real-life, we delve into the world of fiction and look back at when the legendary Roy Race was in charge of his country for one match…

  

Between 1954 and 1993 millions of football fans enjoyed following the fortunes of star footballer Roy Race in his Roy of the Rovers storyline (originally in Tiger, later graduating to his own comic). Although the vast majority of his adventures concerned his club Melchester Rovers – and briefly Walford Rovers – there would occasionally be a chance to follow Roy in action for England. The most memorable such instance came in January 1978, Roy taking temporary charge of the national team after the manager was injured in a car crash. As at Melchester, he was to be player-manager.

The 13-man squad Roy picked would have been familiar to regular comic readers, given that eight of the players selected came from Melchester Rovers and featured regularly in Roy of the Rovers. Johnny Dexter was lead character in The Hard Man in Roy of the Rovers while Nipper Lawrence and Mike Bateson were from the Nipper storyline which appeared in sister title Tiger and Scorcher. At least Roy stopped short of calling up the eternally 12-year-old Billy Dane of Billy’s Boots fame!

And there were two other players selected who were of particular interest…

When two worlds collide

The vast majority of the time, Roy existed in a clearly fictional world which comprised of make-believe people and teams. But there were occasions when this wasn’t totally the case and in his England squad were Birmingham City forward Trevor Francis and Arsenal striker Malcolm ‘Supermac’ Macdonald – the latter having not played for England since 1976. Other real-life stars such as Kevin Keegan were nowhere to be seen. But there was a good reason why Francis and Macdonald were named in the side – they each had a column in Tiger and Scorcher. If you took their selections literally then everyone was now living in the same universe, in which Arsenal co-existed alongside Melchester Rovers and where Trevor Francis could appear with Roy Race.

  

Sir Alf Ramsey becomes caretaker manager of Melchester Rovers in 1982.

And the willingness to mix the two worlds would continue in the coming years. Sir Alf Ramsey took over as Melchester Rovers caretaker manager in 1982 after Roy was shot; Bobby Robson featured in the storyline as he considered whether to select Roy for his England squad in the mid-1980s; cricketer Geoffrey Boycott became Melchester chairman during the same period and then came the infamous decision to have Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and Steve Norman in the Melchester side along with the retired duo of Emlyn Hughes and Bob Wilson (the latter having last played professionally 11 years earlier!). It didn’t sit comfortably with loyal fans of the comic, including Frank Skinner.

Later there would be characters – albeit under different names – who couldn’t have been more obviously based on Jimmy Greaves and Paul Gascoigne. It all made a mockery of the small print that all characters appearing in the storylines were fictional and any resemblance to real people was coincidental. Meanwhile, Mr Squeaky Clean met Mr Squeaky Clean as Roy and Gary Lineker struck up a friendship that led to them releasing a single together

But going back to 1978, was the average schoolboy reader bothered about having real stars joining the storyline regulars to play for England? Probably not. They no doubt just wished that things could work the other way round and Roy could play for England in real-life!

Roy becomes the national hero

The choice of the Netherlands as England’s opponents was probably not coincidental. They had won acclaim in real-life with their run to the 1974 World Cup final and in 1977 had looked a class above in winning 2-0 at Wembley in a friendly. This would effectively be a rematch, although unlike with England the Dutch side would be totally fictional – as Roy was reunited with an old “chum” in Dutch captain Johan Seegrun.

  

Soon ‘Supermac’ would break the deadlock as England gloriously went on to win 5-1. Fans depicted watching the match at Wembley or on TV were shown looking delighted with the result, including one armchair viewer who – having earlier been castigated by his wife for criticising Roy’s decision to pick himself – was declaring the new manager had done the country proud. The night really had been ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’.

 

Malcolm Macdonald sends England on their way to a 5-1 win.

Club over country for Roy

There then followed a tug of love as Roy considered whether to become full-time manager of England or remain at Melchester. Club would ultimately win over country in the battle for Roy’s heart. He later played a couple of times for England under Bobby Robson in the mid-1980s. That proved to be the end of his full international career, although he would spend the summer of 1992 leading the England B team to success in a mini-tournament as player-manager. 

It has to be said that, given how prolific and skilled Roy was, he made a surprisingly low number of appearances in an England shirt during his 39-year playing career (during which he aged remarkably well!). There are probably three reasons for this. Firstly, the title of the storyline was Roy of the Rovers and therefore his club endeavours were always intended as the main focus. Secondly, constantly switching between what Roy did for Melchester and England would have disrupted the flow of the story. And thirdly, a fair proportion of readers were not English. Whereas everybody would get behind Roy when he donned the Rovers shirt, those from other parts of the UK or overseas may have not felt the same desire to see him firing them in for England. 

  

Roy Race teams up with Gary Lineker in 1989.

Roy’s playing career ended with a helicopter crash in 1993, the underlying reason being falling sales of his weekly comic. Revivals of the storyline – with son Rocky now playing up front for Rovers – in a new monthly Roy of the Rovers comic and the magazines Shoot! and in Match of the Day all proved fairly short-lived, with the last official new storylines appearing on the shelves as far back as 2001. But those who have missed their regular ROTR fix can enjoy regular adventures at at ‘Storky Knight’s’ website containing fresh storylines, including some set in past seasons. Looking at the site, the newest story sees Melchester managed by Johan Seegrun – the Dutch captain during that 5-1 defeat by Roy Race’s England in 1978. In a hectic era when he got married, became a father to twins, suffered the most unlikely of relegations and was almost killed after being shot, Racey’s time in charge of his country stood out as another memorable moment for Roy of the Rovers.

England’s Euro 2004 – Rooney’s emergence

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In the run-up to Euro 2016 this summer, we will look back at how England have fared when they previously qualified for the European Championship. Today we turn the clock back 12 years to Euro 2004 in Portugal, a tournament that saw teenager Wayne Rooney come to international prominence with some blistering performances. For England the tournament represented a golden opportunity to at last win a major competition, but the penalty-shoot-out curse would strike once more…

  

Wayne Rooney’s performances would be the standout memory of England’s Euro 2004.

England headed to Portugal having won their qualifying group with an unbeaten record, clinching their finals place with a tense 0-0 draw away to Turkey in the final game. There was a belief England could challenge for Euro 2004 glory, with a settled squad of players who mostly had age on their side. Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard, who had both missed the 2002 World Cup through injury, were fit this time around and a new star had burst onto the scene. Eighteen-year-old Everton forward Wayne Rooney was proving a genuinely exciting talent and by the time of the Euros he had already been playing for his country for 16 months. Now he had the chance to become well-known across Europe. Other players to have broken into the set-up in the past two years included Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and John Terry.

Veterans such as David Seaman and Teddy Sheringham had left the international scene since the 2002 World Cup, but the most significant absentee from England’s Euro 2004 squad was Rio Ferdinand. The Manchester United defender had been banned from playing football since missing a drugs test the previous September, with the controversy having overshadowed the build-up to the decisive qualifier in Turkey. Terry and Ledley King would contest the right to partner Sol Campbell in the centre of defence in Ferdinand’s absence.

   

England would be without the banned Rio Ferdinand for Euro 2004.

Since Sven-Göran Eriksson had taken over as England boss in January 2001 – initially attracting opposition from some quarters as he wasn’t English – there had become a feelgood factor surrounding the national team, with joyful wins against Germany and Argentina recorded along the way. Thousands of England fans were heading to Portugal for the finals, making most games feel like home fixtures. 

Euro 2004 appeared to represent as good a chance as any for the new-found ‘Golden Generation’ to end the long wait. To help their cause, no side at the finals looked unbeatable. France were favourites and holders but they had lost their armour of invincibility with group stage elimination at the 2002 World Cup; Germany were in transition and had looked unusually vulnerable in recent years; Italy were unpredictable, having lost to Wales during qualifying; and Spain were still considered underachievers with their glory years yet to come. England could be placed in the same bracket as nations including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and hosts Portugal – they were in with a decent shout provided all went to plan.

After qualifying in October, England’s results had been patchy as they prepared for the finals. A 6-1 thrashing of Iceland was their only win, having drawn with Portugal and Japan and lost to Denmark and Sweden. The Euro 2004 draw placed England in Group B with holders France, Croatia and Switzerland. Although starting with a game against the French was probably not what England would have wished for, they stood a good chance of progressing to the quarter-finals and potentially further.

Zidane strikes twice at the death

On the second night of the tournament, England took on France in Lisbon. As England so often do in their opening games at major competitions, they struck first as Lampard headed in Beckham’s free-kick. All was going to plan and in the second half they were handed the perfect chance to wrap up the win after a powerful run by Rooney ended with him being fouled in the area. But Beckham’s spot-kick was saved by his former Manchester United team-mate Fabien Barthez.

  

Frank Lampard puts England ahead against France.

Despite this blow, England still seemed on course for a memorable victory against a side containing Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley jumped the gun, pointing out how France’s Tottenham Hotspur-bound boss Jacques Santini could be taunted with “1-0” chants in the coming season. It was the kiss of death. In the final minute, Emile Heskey conceded a free-kick just outside the box. Zidane underlined his ability by curling the ball into the bottom corner of the net with David James stranded.

  

Zinedine Zidane scores France’s winner from the penalty spot.

England seemed shaken by the goal and deep in stoppage time Gerrard played a fatal backpass towards James. Henry got in first and James brought him down in the area. Zidane scored from the spot and England had somehow contrived to lose 2-1 in a game they had looked destined to win.

 “Afterwards my head was pounding with ‘what ifs’. We were devastated. I still am. In the post-match press conference I said we hadn’t been shown any footage of Zidane taking free-kicks or penalties. I don’t think the FA thanked me for saying that, but it was the truth. It wasn’t a premeditated comment, I just responded honestly to the question. In some ways it took the focus off the result – if the media hadn’t had that to go on they would have found something else to pick at.” David James speaking in 2012 as he reflected on the aftermath of the France match.

Rooney comes of age

With Croatia and Switzerland having drawn their opening game, England still stood a strong chance of progressing – but they needed to get a result against the Swiss in their second match in the heat of Coimbra. England began nervously and it was against the run of play they took the lead on 23 minutes. Michael Owen crossed for Rooney to head home from close range – in the process becoming the youngest ever scorer in the European Championship, although he would only hold the record for four days.

In the second half Switzerland were reduced to 10 men when Bernt Haas was red-carded. Rooney would seal the win, although his effort could have been classed as an own goal as it struck the post before going in off Swiss goalkeeper Joerg Stiel. A third goal from Gerrard added gloss to England’s victory. Although 3-0 flattered them, England had claimed a win when they most needed it. Croatia and France drew that night to leave England needing only a draw in their final game against the Croatians to advance, while still having a chance of topping the group.

  

Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring against Croatia.

If there was excitement over Rooney after the Switzerland game, then it turned into hysteria after the match against Croatia. Backed by a tremendous support in Lisbon, England enjoyed an enthralling 4-2 win with Rooney scoring two well-taken goals. Although they fell behind early on, England recovered to achieve their win with Paul Scholes ending his three-year international scoring drought and Lampard wrapping up the success.

It had been a good night that emphasised England’s attacking strengths, the only downside being they missed out on top spot after France beat Switzerland 3-1. But for the first time England had progressed from a European Championship group on foreign soil, with all the talk being about their 18-year-old star who seemed totally unfazed by the challenges of a major tournament. “I don’t remember anyone making such an impact on a tournament since Pele in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden,” purred Eriksson about Rooney. Now came the next challenge: a quarter-final clash with hosts Portugal three nights later in the same stadium.

Penalty pain 

Portugal had come close to bowing out at the first hurdle, needing to beat rivals Spain in their final group game to stay in the competition. Both England and Portugal had reason to believe this could be their year, with Portugese star Luis Figo knowing this might represent his best chance to win silverware at international level. Four years earlier he had scored as Portugal came from behind to beat England 3-2 at Euro 2000. This match would again see Eriksson come up against Luiz Felipe Scolari, who had been in charge of Brazil when they knocked England out at the same stage of the World Cup two years earlier. Sharing the stage with Rooney was another much-hyped teenager – Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

With the game just three minutes old, Owen instinctively flicked the ball past goalkeeper Ricardo to put England ahead as he scored for the fourth major tournament in a row. But before the half-hour mark Rooney went off injured and some of England’s momentum seemed to go with him. They appeared increasingly defensive as the game progressed, unconvincingly holding on to their one goal lead. With seven minutes left they were finally undone. Helder Postiga, brought on for Figo, headed past James – this coming after he had scored just one league goal during the previous season with Tottenham Hotspur.

For the second time in the tournament, England had been punished when seeking to protect a 1-0 lead late on. But they went back on the attack and they thought they had snatched victory in the final minute, as Swiss referee Urs Meier took centre stage. Owen struck the crossbar from Beckham’s free-kick and Campbell forced the ball home. But Meier ruled that Terry had impeded Ricardo and the effort was ruled out. It was cruel on Campbell, who had also had a ‘winner’ disallowed against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.

  

Frank Lampard equalises for England against Portugal.

England now had to raise themselves for extra-time, having already brought on three substitutes. After a goalless first period of extra-time, England fell behind with 10 minutes left. Rui Costa fired an unstoppable shot off that went in off the underside of the bar. But again conceding seemed to galvanise England, Lampard scoring his third of the tournament to pull them level five minutes from time. Once again, penalties would be needed to settle an England tournament match.

  

That familiar painful feeling as England once more bow out on penalties.

By England’s poor standards this was one of their better shoot-outs, twice putting Portugal in a position where they had to score to stay in the contest. But that was of little consolation as for the fourth time they exited a major tournament on spot-kicks, losing 6-5 in the shoot-out. Beckham continued his dismal recent penalty record by firing England’s first effort over, amid suggestions the penalty spot had moved (‘Sod It’ screamed the back page headline in the Daily Mirror). During sudden death, Vassell saw his effort saved by Ricardo – who then in turn scored past opposite number James to end England’s dream. Portugal reached the final but they came undone against Greece, as the outsiders surprisingly lifted the trophy.

The aftermath

One man who probably wished England had prevailed was referee Meier, given the abuse he was about to receive. His decision to disallow Campbell’s goal would have been largely forgotten and forgiven had England progressed, but their exit led to the inevitable hunt for a scapegoat. The tabloid press swiftly chose one, as Meier found himself facing a barrage of criticism – particularly from The Sun which overstepped the mark by encouraging readers to send him emails (Meier claimed he found thousands in his inbox the morning after the match). He had to go into hiding with police protection after saying he received death threats

Although it was open to debate whether Meier had got his decision right (UEFA insisted he had), he certainly did not deserve to have to put up with such threats and The Sun continued its campaign against him by placing a giant English flag near his home. Eriksson wrote in his autobiography of Meier’s treatment: “When I heard what had happened, I called him on behalf of the England team. There was no excuse for that kind of behaviour.” In a tournament where their fans had largely conducted themselves well, it was a section of the tabloid press which had dimmed England’s reputation.

 

Urs Meier felt the full force of the English tabloids after the nation’s exit from Euro 2004.

Not everyone believed Meier was the sole culprit for England’s exit. Although there had been the odd murmuring before – mainly after the loss to Brazil at the 2002 World Cup – Euro 2004 really represented the first time question marks were seriously appearing about Eriksson and his tactics, particularly given the excessive wages he was reputedly earning in the role. England had increasingly retreated against Portugal and been punished for it and many experts were unimpressed with what they had seen. In The Guardian, Kevin McCarra wrote: “He [Eriksson] got it badly wrong in the Euro 2004 quarter-final and in future his wisdom will not be taken on trust by the public at large. Eriksson is experiencing a small taste now of what it was like to be his predecessor, Kevin Keegan.”

Despite the individual talent available, finding the correct midfield combination was proving difficult and the tournament really marked the start of the Gerrard/Lampard conundrum that would remain unresolved for years. Successfully resolving the left-sided problem in midfield also continually appeared a challenge to Eriksson. Captain Beckham’s performances came in for criticism and not just because of the missed penalties.

  
Doubts were starting to be cast about Sven-Göran Eriksson.

Had England advanced they would have had to play out the rest of the tournament without Rooney, whose foot injury would rule him out until September. By that point he had moved on to Manchester United in a big money move, his stock having risen during the Euros. But one of his new club team-mates would no longer be playing alongside him for England, as Paul Scholes announced his international retirement at the age of 29.

And to cap everything that summer there was ‘Fariagate’, a scandal which did the FA no favours. Eriksson remained in charge after being cleared of any wrongdoing but there was now increasing pressure on him to succeed with England at the 2006 World Cup. Euro 2004 had represented a golden opportunity for England to finally win a major tournament again and it had been squandered. 

1966 World Cup draw – 50 years on

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup draw taking place. The occasion saw England given a favourable draw as hopes grew for what might be achieved in the summer.

The first week of 1966 proved a big one in the build-up to the World Cup finals in England six months later. The Jules Rimet trophy was handed over by holders Brazil to remain in England until after the tournament- potentially staying here for another four years if England could triumph. Harry Miller wrote in the Daily Mirror that the trophy had been “brought into Britain under strict security precautions” and was insured for £2,500, with it being locked away in the safe of a London hotel. Surely nothing could possibly go wrong concerning the trophy being securely looked after in the coming months?!

On Wednesday, January 5, England played their earliest ever match in a calendar year when they welcomed Poland to a muddy Goodison Park for a friendly. If the hope was that foreign delegates visiting for the World Cup draw would go home fearful of how good England looked, then it backfired. It took an equaliser from captain Bobby Moore to salvage a 1-1 draw for England against a side who had failed to qualify for the World Cup. However, manager Alf Ramsey remained positive. “In the conditions I think this was an extremely good performance,” he said afterwards.

England started 1966 with a 1-1 draw against Poland, on the eve of the World Cup draw.

But the week’s key event was to be the World Cup draw on the evening of January 6, an event televised for the first time and screened live by the BBC. More than five years had passed since England were selected as hosts and now they could finally start to plan for the opposition they would face on home soil. FIFA’s English president Sir Stanley Rous was in charge of proceedings at the Royal Garden Hotel in London.

England get ‘easiest group’

As the draw was made, England – one of the four seeds with Brazil, Italy and West Germany – hoped for a decent-looking draw that would leave them favourites to progress. They weren’t disappointed. Joining them in the London-based Group One were France, Uruguay and Mexico. If such a draw was made in today’s football world then it would no doubt take on the overused ‘Group of Death’ mantle with no obviously weak nations in it, but back in 1966 there was a feeling England had landed an easy draw. ‘It’s lucky old England’ hailed a headline in the Daily Mirror, with reporter Ken Jones writing: “Uruguay. France. Mexico. The easiest group. Everyone’s idea of a perfect draw.”

In The Times, ‘Association football correspondent’ wrote: “Taking a bird’s eye view of the whole picture, it would seem that England can have no complaints. They should certainly reach the last eight with either France or Uruguay. Whether Moore and his men can go beyond that and reach the semi-final round for the first time in history is something that duly will be unfolded.”

Bar the odd motormouth, football people are nearly always diplomatic after a draw is made and refuse to make outspoken comments that could come back and bite them on the backside. Captain Moore though made it pretty clear he felt England had landed a desired group. “It’s a great draw for us.  Everyone in the country should be delighted,” he told the media.

Although England had lost 5-2 to France in Alf Ramsey’s first match as manager in 1963 and Uruguay had won the World Cup as recently as 1950, they were considered more beatable opponents than some Ramsey’s men could have faced. As World Cup hosts in 1970, Mexico would look to make an impression in England but they had been thrashed 8-0 at Wembley in 1961 and were one of the outsiders. The other positive was England’s quarter-final – assuming they got there – would see them kept apart from highly-rated nations including Brazil, Portugal and USSR, who were in the other half of the draw.

The rest of the draw

Group Two – which would provide the quarter-final opponents for Group One’s winner and runner-up – looks incredibly strong by today’s standards, with West Germany, Argentina and Spain all involved along with Switzerland. However, the general consensus at the time was England could feel satisfied at meeting any of them in the last eight compared to what they could have landed. Group Three looked arguably the strongest of the four groups, containing 1958 and 1962 winners Brazil, an emerging Portugal and Eastern European sides Hungary and Bulgaria. Completing the draw was Group Four, with USSR and Italy joined by the unfancied North Korea and Chile. A subplot to this draw was Chile and Italy would meet again four years after their infamous Battle of Santiago clash at the 1962 finals.

The Times’ correspondent nailed their colours to the mast on who they believed would advance, but they would not get everything right. “Group Two would seem to belong to Argentina” (they finished second); Brazil “should take Group Three in a trot” (they went out in the group stage); and it was going to be a case of “Italy and Russia taking things in their stride” in Group Four (USSR progressed but Italy crashed out after embarrassingly losing to North Korea).

But all that was still to come. Brazil were still being quoted as favourites after the draw, but England’s odds were cut by a leading bookmaker from 5-1 to 4-1. Ramsey had insisted England would win the World Cup in 1966 and now six months of preparation remained to ensure that his proclamation became reality…

2016 – A year of anniversaries

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Happy New Year and welcome to 2016 – a year that sees England make the short trip to France for Euro 2016 but it will also contain landmark anniversaries for three tournaments that frequently crop up in conversation in this country…

The first is Euro ’96, which took place 20 years ago in June. England were hosts and it remains the last time they reached the semi-finals of a major tournament. It could have been so much more as well, as they looked to end their 30 years of hurt. A never-to-be forgotten semi-final against Germany ended in heartbreak and since then the wait has gone on and on. But the tournament brought good memories too, including Paul Gascoigne’s wondergoal against Scotland, the 4-1 demolition of the Dutch and England actually winning a penalty-shoot-out against Spain.

England celebrate Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland during Euro ’96.

This year will mark 30 years since Mexico ’86, a World Cup fondly recalled by those old enough to remember it. For England it was another case of what might have been, with controversy right at the heart of it during the quarter-final defeat against Argentina and Diego Maradona. His ‘Hand of God’ goal has been discussed over and over again, as has his supremely taken second. But England did have the consolation of boasting the tournament’s top scorer in Gary Lineker. England’s exploits at Mexico ’86 may not be talked about quite as much as Italia ’90, but the competition still attracts plenty of nostalgia – with the tournament as a whole generally considered more entertaining than what was served up four years later.

The infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal by Diego Maradona against England in 1986.

And there is of course one other landmark anniversary this year – 50 years since the greatest day for England, when they won the World Cup. The first, and sadly only, major silverware they have ever got their hands on. It has been a long wait for glory since then, made worse by the fact they have never even appeared in another final. The 1966 final is well remembered for numerous reasons, but perhaps less so was England’s tournament as a whole – with their strong defensive record helping steer them towards glory. Kenneth Wolstenholme’s words have gone down in folklore as Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick in the final to seal a momentous victory.

Bobby Moore holds aloft the World Cup in 1966 – England haven’t even reached a major final since then at senior level.

During 2016, we will look back at these three tournaments particularly closely, as well as reflecting on England’s past efforts or failings at the European Championship. This year also marks 10 years since England’s fairly uninspiring showing amid much anticipation at the 2006 World Cup – but it remains the last occasion they won a knockout match – and 15 years since the sensational 5-1 win away to Germany in a World Cup qualifier. It will also be 40 years since the 1976 European Championship, which seemed to cope perfectly well without non-qualifiers England, and 60 years since England first met Brazil.

It has been 50 years of hurt for England since the glory of ’66 – but there have still been some happy moments along the way amid the pain. We look forward during 2016 to continuing to reflect on the past highs and lows…