Month: March 2016

England’s Euro ’96 demolition of the Dutch

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On Tuesday England welcome the Netherlands to Wembley for a friendly. In June it will be 20 years since one of England’s greatest nights in recent decades, when they beat the Dutch 4-1 during Euro ’96. We look back at that game today…

In December 1995, the Netherlands booked the 16th and final spot at Euro ’96 by beating the Republic of Ireland 2-0 in a play-off at Anfield. The match was shown live on the BBC and the football the Dutch played was met with great acclaim. Many now believed their side – containing young blood such as Patrick Kluivert and a strong presence from the Ajax team that won the Champions League in 1995 – was capable of winning Euro ’96 and becoming revered like the great mid-1970s side starring Johan Cruyff (RIP) and the Euro ’88 winning team.


Guus Hiddink was manager of the Netherlands during Euro ’96.

But manager Guus Hiddink was playing down their chances, pointing out they had lost to Belarus during qualifying (they only scraped into the play-offs by beating Norway in their last qualifying group match). Yet when England were paired with the Dutch in their group at Euro ’96 it looked a daunting prospect for the hosts. Two years of friendlies under Terry Venables had offered few real clues as to just how good England were. A competitive clash with the highly-rated Netherlands would provide a much better indicator.

The match at Wembley fell in the final round of group stage matches, with both sides on the brink of going through to the last eight. England had drawn 1-1 with Switzerland before beating Scotland 2-0, while the Dutch had been held 0-0 by the Scots before defeating the Swiss 2-0. With head-to-head records applying, England could only be eliminated if they lost and Switzerland won against Scotland at Villa Park and made up the goal difference; likewise, the Netherlands were only at risk if they were beaten and Scotland won and overturned the goal deficit. It all seemed pretty unlikely and the smart money was probably on a draw, which would take England through as group winners.


Memories of England’s controversial defeat to the Netherlands in 1993 were still fairly fresh as the sides met again during Euro’96.

As well as seeking to prove themselves against a highly-fancied side, England had another good incentive to want to beat the Dutch. Just three years earlier a controversial night in Rotterdam had ended with the Netherlands beating England 2-0 and effectively ending Graham Taylor’s side’s hopes of making the World Cup finals, while the Dutch – the eventual winners – had also beaten them 3-1 during a crucial match in the group stage of Euro ’88. You had to go back to 1982 for England’s last victory over the Netherlands and it would mean a lot if they could get it during the European Championship on home soil.

The Dutch squad was certainly not one happy family, as there were reports of divisions within the camp and midfielder Edgar Davids was sent home after speaking out of turn about Hiddink. Clarence Seedorf also had his say after being substituted early on against the Swiss following a booking. England, by contrast, seemed to have a good team spirit that had grown with the win over Scotland after a barrage of press criticism over matters both on and off the field. That togetherness would grow further on a never-to-be-forgotten night.

For Venables, this was a match he had planned for over the six months since the draw was made. Although he kept the same starting XI as in the previous two matches, he adjusted England’s formation. He outlined this in his autobiography, writing: “The Dutch were expecting us to play with two up front, with [Teddy] Sheringham just behind [Alan] Shearer, and four in midfield, as we had done in the previous two games. They liked to play with three at the back, with Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger lining up quite narrowly either side of skipper Danny Blind in the centre. In this way they would have been able to stifle our front men.” 

Instead England would operate a 4-3-3 system, with Shearer in the middle and Sheringham and Steve McManaman either side of him. Venables added: “By doing this I believed the Dutch plan to stifle our attack would be in trouble, and I was sure they would be forced to play an extra defender, which would reduce their attacking threat. Until they adjusted, the Dutch defence was left with a dilemma as defences hate it if they don’t have a numerical advantage.”


Alan Shearer sets England on their way against the Netherlands.

The tactical tinkering by Venables would pay off. In the opening minutes Shearer saw an effort diverted away by Richard Witschge as England sent out a message that they were up for this. Midway through the first half came the breakthrough, Paul Ince being felled in the area and Shearer converting the spot-kick past Edwin van der Sar. Shearer had gone into the finals without an England goal since September 1994, but now he had netted in three successive games. The match remained delicately poised until the break, David Seaman producing an excellent save to deny his Arsenal team-mate Dennis Bergkamp an equaliser. It’s perhaps easy to forget that the Dutch looked the stronger side as half-time approached, although England crucially held the lead.


Teddy Sheringham doubles England’s lead.

It was in a 12-minute period in the second half that the night turned from a decent one for England into a momentous occasion. Sheringham headed in Gascoigne’s excellent corner on 50 minutes and seven minutes later a delightful third goal featuring both players sealed victory. Gascoigne, in one of his best post-Italia ’90 England displays, powered his way through and found Sheringham, who teed up Shearer to unleash a powerful drive into the net. On 62 minutes van der Sar could only parry Darren Anderton’s shot and Sheringham pounced to score. ‘Netherlands 0, England 4’ proclaimed the Wembley scoreboard (England were technically the away side for this match) and it was a ‘pinch me’ moment.

Not just for England either. The Scots were for once delighted to hear of English success, as they were handed a serious chance of progression. Ally McCoist’s goal meant they led 1-0 against Switzerland and as England were 4-0 up, Scotland were now above the Netherlands on goal difference. Would this finally be the moment when Scotland advanced from the group stage at a major tournament? Alas no. Kluivert scored what was merely a consolation in terms of the match against England but was of great importance so far as deciding who went through was concerned. England’s position was now so comfortable they had withdrawn both goalscorers and Paul Ince – who faced suspension in the next round after picking up his second booking of the competition – with David Platt and youngsters Nick Barmby and Robbie Fowler entering the action.

As the final whistle sounded at Wembley to seal England’s 4-1 victory, play was still going on at Villa Park. ITV headed straight there to show the final moments live, but the Scots could not get the second goal. They had achieved the same points, goal difference and head-to-head record as the Dutch, but crucially had scored fewer goals. As in the 1978 World Cup they had come close to unlikely progression when all had seemed lost, only for the Dutch to end the dream. Not that there was much celebrating among the orange contingent at Wembley, their side having been well beaten. They now faced a quarter-final clash with France at Anfield. England could look forward to meeting Spain at Wembley, with the nation now increasingly expectant after this triumph.


Teddy Sheringham puts England 4-0 up against the Dutch.

It had been a glorious night for England against the Dutch, as fans joyously sang Three Lions with its ‘Football’s Coming Home’ chorus. For once after an England match, there was high praise for the team from the media afterwards and their showing made the front pages as well as the back pages. In The Guardian, David Lacey wrote: “Nothing is impossible for England after their most famous victory at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. Beating Holland, the champions of 1988, to reach the quarter-finals of Euro 96 was not entirely unexpected, but sweeping past them amid such a cannonade of goals had surely crossed few people’s minds.”

Lacey’s colleague Richard Williams wrote: “England were, in a word, amazing. Against the best side they have so far met in this competition, they made those of us who have scorned their chances bend their knee to a performance in which they looked throughly credible candidates to win the Henri Delaunay Trophy. And even if they stumble at the next hurdle, or the one after that, at least Terry Venables and his team gave us a night we never expected, and will never forget.”

In the Daily Express, Steve Curry exclaimed: “Football came home all right last night in a torrent of irresistible English play. Holland, hailed as the team of the millennium, had the blueprint of their futuristic football screwed up and flung back at them by the men with three lions on their shirts.”

In The Independent, Glenn Moore wrote: “England’s performance was certainly the finest since the halcyon days of Italia ’90. It may even be the best since the days of Sir Alf Ramsey, though Bobby Robson could point to the 1986 World Cup win over Poland and a 4-1 win in Yugoslavia that earned European Championship qualification a year later. England outplayed the Dutch in every area of the game and were four goals up in barely an hour.”

There were notes of caution too, but euphoria was now gripping the nation. Four days later England looked far less potent against Spain and rode their luck as they drew 0-0 and won on penalties – still their only shoot-out triumph. The Dutch, who like England have endured their fair share of spot-kick heartache, duly went out that way to France. Destiny seemed on England’s side but those two familiar foes of Germans and penalties would end the dream in the semi-final. It was heartbreaking for the nation as the 30 years of hurt continued, but the memories of beating the Netherlands 4-1 remain special 20 years on.

England’s World Cup 2006 – winks, WAGs and woe

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This weekend England visit Germany for a friendly in Berlin. With that in mind and as this summer marks 10 years since the 2006 World Cup on German soil, we take a 10-step look back at England’s involvement in the tournament. Expectation was higher than ever, but the end result was all too familiar…

The hype

There have been plenty of occasions when England have been built up going into a major tournament, but the 2006 World Cup in Germany was the daddy of them all. England had won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 and finally regained The Ashes in cricket in 2005. Now there was expectation that the football team could end their 40 years of hurt. The ‘Golden Generation’ tag wouldn’t go away, with England billed as possessing one of the best sets of players around and a 3-2 friendly win over Argentina the previous November had heightened expectations. “We had a complete team,” wrote manager Sven-Göran Eriksson in his autobiography.

The fact it was the 40th anniversary of 1966 added to the hype, with Sir Geoff Hurst canvassed for his opinion. “I think we’ll be very disappointed if we don’t get at least to the semis,” he told the BBC before England’s opening match against Paraguay. The fact England were in a group with Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago increased the optimism, coupled with the fact they would probably have a very winnable second round tie provided they topped their group.

England’s ‘Golden Generation’ were much-hyped going into the 2006 World Cup.

The reality of what England could achieve was more dubious. England had suffered a 4-1 friendly loss to Denmark the previous year and then been beaten by Northern Ireland in World Cup qualifying, showing they were far from invincible. Questions were being raised about how well Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard could link up together in midfield. Eriksson was no longer seen as the messiah who had steered England to momentous wins over Germany and Argentina a few years earlier, with his revelations to the ‘Fake Sheikh’ having marked the final straw for the FA. He would be departing after the finals.

There was also great media hype over Wayne Rooney’s fractured metatarsal, as the participation of England’s main attacking threat in the finals was in doubt. Although he recovered to feature in four matches, he failed to score or reach the same level of performance as at Euro 2004 and his tournament would end in controversial circumstances.

The support

One area where the English nation could feel proud at the World Cup concerned the number of fans making the journey to Germany. More than 100,000 were reported to have travelled to support the team, many knowing they would have no chance of getting a ticket but wanting to part of the World Cup party. This would be one long beerfest for many.

England fans travelled en masse to Germany.

Back home the interest in the tournament was also very high, borne out by big screens being installed in city centres so matches could be shown. Unfortunately, some screenings were blighted by violence. Meanwhile, countless individuals sang an England World Cup song as the hype grew. Stan Boardman was one of the dozens to do so; Tony Christie was another. The honour of recording the official England song went to Embrace. The vast majority have long since been forgotten, in keeping with how England were generally uninspiring on the field.

The call-up of Walcott

There have been plenty of controversial selection choices made when England World Cup squads have been announced over the years – dropping Paul Gascoigne in 1998 perhaps the prime example – and Eriksson’s decision to pick 17-year-old Theo Walcott in 2006 is one of them. The forward had not played a match for Arsenal since moving from Southampton in January and had never been capped by England when the squad was announced. But Eriksson made the shock decision to call him up for the World Cup. “It’s a big gamble. I know it is,” admitted Eriksson, who seemed genuinely excited by Walcott’s pace.

Theo Walcott would spend the World Cup watching on from the bench.

Walcott was destined to establish himself more with England in the future but the 2006 selection baffled many, mainly because he was one of just four strikers selected – with fitness concerns surrounding Rooney and Michael Owen. Leaving proven strikers such as Jermain Defoe at home did indeed look a gamble and it didn’t pay off. Owen was carried off just moments into the third match against Sweden. Even though England were already through, Eriksson refused to bring Walcott on in his place and he would never enjoy any action at the finals, leading to increased criticism of the player’s call-up in the first place. Gerrard was among the most vocal. Despite having initially backed the decision, Gerrard laid into Walcott’s selection in his autobiography published shortly after the finals. “He had no right to be in Germany. None at all. I was gobsmacked to find him on the plane,” he ranted.

And having been left out of the squad for the 2010 World Cup and then injured for the 2014 tournament, Walcott has still yet to make an appearance at a World Cup.

The WAGs

Perhaps what defined England’s 2006 World Cup more than anything was the attention given to the squad’s wives and girlfriends – forever to be known as the WAGs. When England triumphed in 1966, the wives and girlfriends weren’t even allowed to sit in the same room as their partners during the celebration banquet. Now, under the liberally-minded Eriksson, the WAGs stayed near their partners during the tournament in Baden-Baden and the socialising and shopping activities of Victoria Beckham and friends attracted widespread media coverage. Critics felt the WAGs were a distraction for the players, with disciplinarian Fabio Capello making sure there was no repeat when in charge of England at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Much media attention was afforded to the England WAGs at the 2006 World Cup.

We can also safely assume there will be no similar fun and games on away trips at Valencia either under Gary Neville, having been critical of the situation that developed with the WAGs. “It was the one farcical issue of Sven’s reign,” he said in 2011. “What people overlooked was that the situation had been brewing in 2004. WAGs had been regular visitors to the team hotel in Portugal. If it was a minor irritation then, it had grown into a monster by 2006.”

The underwhelming wins

Three minutes into England’s opening match of the 2006 World Cup, Paraguay’s Carlos Gamarra turned David Beckham’s free-kick into his own net. England have a tendency to score early in their first game at a major tournament, but don’t always build on the lead. That was the case here as they toiled rather than excelled in the Frankfurt heat, struggling to a 1-0 win.


Steven Gerrard’s goal for England against Trinidad and Tobago sealed an unconvincing 2-0 win.

The performance in the second match against Trinidad and Tobago in Nuremberg was even less convincing. John Terry had to hook an effort off the line and just seven minutes remained when Peter Crouch appeared to pull Brent Sancho’s dreadlocks as he climbed above him to head home. Gerrard’s excellent strike sealed a 2-0 win and for the first time since 1982 England were through before their final group game at a major tournament. But, given the expectation levels, few were rejoicing. At least though they were still winning even when not playing well.

The goal by Cole

England’s stuttering showings continued in their third match, as defensive lapses meant they were held to a 2-2 draw by Sweden. But the night did produce England’s one real highlight of their five games at the World Cup. With the game in Cologne goalless during the first half, midfielder Joe Cole chested the ball before unleashing a stunning volley from 35 yards that flew into the net.


Joe Cole scores his superb goal against Sweden

It would be celebrated as one of England’s greatest World Cup goals. Despite winning a host of major honours while with Chelsea, some feel Cole never quite fulfilled the potential shown when he first burst onto the scene as a teenager at West Ham United. But the goal for England against Sweden was one that any player would be proud to score. The result ensured England finished top of their group and avoided the hosts in the second round.

The last knockout victory

England took on Ecuador in the last 16 in sunny Stuttgart. Again Eriksson’s side seldom sparkled against moderate opposition and it took a free kick from David Beckham to earn a 1-0 win and a place in the quarter-finals. But they had still yet to give a display that made them look like potential champions and they could have easily fallen behind before Beckham’s goal – the captain defying illness to play and take England through.

David Beckham scored the winner as England beat Ecuador.

Going into Euro 2016 this summer, England’s men have not recorded a single knockout victory since the Ecuador win. It is a poor record which sums up their limited achievements in the past decade.

The wink

England were now ready for their last eight showdown with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portugal – just weeks after he had looked set to named as Eriksson’s successor only to turn it down. Scolari had managed Brazil to victory over England at the 2002 World Cup and Portugal to success against them at Euro 2004. But now Eriksson had his chance for revenge, with Portugal being without midfielders Costinha and Deco who were both suspended after a card-laden second round tie against the Netherlands.

Wayne Rooney is red carded against Portugal.

A dull first half in Gelsenkirchen was followed by Beckham limping out of the action early in the second, in what would be his last match before relinquishing the captaincy. Shortly after the hour mark came the match’s key moment, Rooney being adjudged to have stamped on Ricardo Carvalho. Rooney’s Manchester United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to encourage the referee to brandish the red card, before being caught on camera winking at the Portuguese bench.

Rooney was adamant when interviewed afterwards that he shouldn’t have been dismissed, as English venom was directed towards Ronaldo. ‘Get lost Ronaldo’ screamed The Daily Mail, claiming few would mourn his probable departure from English football. BBC pundit Alan Shearer said he would not be surprised to see Rooney “stick one on him” when he next encountered Ronaldo.

In You’re Off!: The talkSPORT Book of Red Cards, Adrian Besley took a different stance, writing: “You have to wonder about the English collective football brain sometimes. Having treated David Beckham like a latter-day Lord Haw Haw for a petulant snipe, only eight years had passed before Wayne Rooney was instantly forgiven for a far more serious offence and the blame was laid firmly at the eye of Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous wink.

Ronaldo did not leave Old Trafford or England that summer. He remained and enjoyed his best season since arriving in 2003, playing a major part as both he and Rooney won the Premier League for the first time in 2006-07.

The same old story

England’s 10 men battled well and took the tie to penalties, two years after losing to the same opponents that way at Euro 2004. The past record from the spot did not generate confidence but England had players in their squad such as Gerrard and Lampard who were used to taking penalties at club level. But neither converted in the shoot-out, while Jamie Carragher did but was ordered to retake it after taking it too early. He duly missed the second effort. Only Owen Hargreaves – one of the few England players to excel at this World Cup  – scored from England’s four penalties. The Portuguese failed to convert their second and third penalties but – thanks to goalkeeper Ricardo – still had the luxury of wrapping it up before England’s final kick, Ronaldo inevitably having the final word.

England players yet again experience defeat on penalties.

England’s performances had not warranted trophy glory, but that did not soften the blow. The sinking realisation for many was they may not see England win the World Cup again for a very long time – possibly never in their lifetime – and that such a glorious chance to at least make the semi-finals had been spurned.

The end for Sven

England’s exit meant Eriksson departed after a third successive quarter-final loss to the same opposing manager. His reign tends to divide opinion between those who believe he failed miserably given his high salary and set of players at his disposal and those who defend him, believing a record of three successive quarter-final spots was an acceptable return on balance – particularly given England’s subsequent failings.


Eriksson leaves as England boss, while Beckham stands down as captain.

But at the time there was little sympathy coming his way and Erkisson himself conceded this last eight exit was not good enough. “Sorry,” he repeatedly said at the following morning’s press conference. The BBC’s Phil McNulty wrote: “It was a comprehensive apology for an apology of a World Cup campaign. Eriksson’s words cut little ice and did not bear close examination, because events in Germany have summed up his reign and ensured his apologies had a distinctly hollow ring. England’s hopes were hyped to the maximum, by the players as well as the media, and yet Eriksson presided over a failure that was not even heroic compared to past exits on penalties.”

But if things seemed bitterly disappointing now for England, they were soon going to get much, much worse…

Faces of ’66 – Pickles

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In the third entry in our series focusing on those whose lives were changed forever by the 1966 World Cup, we turn our attention to the animal world. Fifty years ago this month the Jules Rimet Trophy was infamously stolen, before a dog called Pickles came to the rescue…

On March 20, 1966, the Jules Rimet Trophy was stolen while on display at a rare stamp exhibition at Westminster Central Hall in London. The lapse in security that had led to the World Cup being snatched did not reflect well on the English nation and over the next seven days the question of the trophy’s whereabouts filled many column inches around the world. The trophy had been handed over to the Football Association in January 1966 ahead of that summer’s World Cup in England and the theft of the item was an embarrassment to the FA and tournament organisers.

A week on from the theft, Thames lighterman David Corbett, 26, took his mixed breed collie Pickles for a walk near their home in South Norwood, London. It proved to be one of the more eventful moments in both the dog and owner’s lives.

David Corbett with Pickles in 1966.

Mr Corbett said in 2006: “Pickles drew my attention to a package, tightly bound in newspaper, lying by the front wheel (of a neighbour’s car). I picked it up and tore some paper and saw a woman holding a dish over her head and disks with the words Germany, Uruguay, Brazil.” He soon realised that in his hands was the World Cup, which his beloved dog had just found.

A night of questioning

If Mr Corbett felt a rush of excitement over the discovery, then soon his feelings briefly changed to almost wishing he had never come across the trophy. Reporting the find to police, he was taken to Scotland Yard and endured a night of questioning. “I was suspect number one,” he recalled years later. “They questioned me until 2.30am. I wondered if I should have chucked it back into the road. I was up at 6am the next day for work.”

Finally free to go and eliminated from enquiries, Mr Corbett was duly rewarded for the find made by Pickles and he could again feel proud about his dog’s endeavours. He received at least £4,000 in rewards (a lot of money at the time). Speaking to the Daily Mirror two days after the World Cup was found amid speculation he may not receive the offered reward money, Mr Corbett said: “If I get the rewards the first thing I would buy is a house.” He duly moved to his new home in Lingfield, Surrey. 

The fact a dog had made the discovery added to the global intrigue in the story. For Pickles – and Mr Corbett – the invites kept coming. Numerous TV appearances were enjoyed, along with the dog being invited to perform in the comedy film The Spy With a Cold Nose. When Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy four months later at Wembley, Pickles was invited to the celebration banquet.

There were also offers for Mr Corbett to take his dog overseas, with the story having attracted great interest far beyond Britain. But those offers were turned down. “I would have had to put Pickles into quarantine for six months and he was only a pet so I didn’t think I could do that,” said Mr Corbett in 2006. Any dog lover would have felt the same way, but sadly Mr Corbett and his family would only have a short time left to enjoy with Pickles.

Pickles attracted widespread media attention after finding the World Cup.

A tragic ending

Pickles would only live to enjoy the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. A few months after the 1966 glory, he choked to death on his lead while chasing a cat near his home. It was a tragic ending, but his discovery of the World Cup would never be forgotten. Every World Cup or landmark anniversary sees Mr Corbett approached for interviews, which he seems happy to provide. “My family love Pickles,” Mr Corbett told the Croydon Advertiser earlier this year. “My grandaughter did a presentation on him at school the other day and my children in Australia live on the fame too.” It seems the story of Pickles will never lose its magic.

We are focusing here on Pickles and Mr Corbett, although there was obviously more to the story than that. To simplify matters, a replica of the trophy was commissioned after the theft and FA chairman Joe Mears – whose death in July 1966 from a heart attack has been linked in some reports to the stress caused by the trophy being stolen – received a £15,000 ransom note for the original. Only one person, a 46-year-old man named Edward Betchley who insisted he was merely a middleman in the process, was ever prosecuted in relation to the World Cup’s disappearance. He was convicted of demanding money with menaces with intent to steal and jailed. The Jules Rimet Trophy was permanently awarded to Brazil after they won it for a third time in 1970, but in December 1983 it was again stolen. This time it would never be recovered.

Pickles remains fondly remembered almost 50 years after he died.

The lasting fame of Pickles

The odds are that, in due course, someone would have discovered the World Cup lying where it was and handed it over. But there is no guarantee of that and it should not detract from the contribution Pickles made in finding it. As Martin Atherton writes in the book The Theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy: The Hidden History of the 1966 World Cup: “It is perhaps fortunate that it was found in the circumstances it was. It could just as easily been driven over if the car had been moved or been found by someone who would not have handed it in to police. Being found by Pickles the dog was certainly a godsend for the World Cup organising committee, bringing some much-needed good publicity to the story and helping to deflect criticism from those responsible for its loss in the first place.”

On Sunday, March 27, the South Norwood Tourist Board is holding ‘Picklesfest’ as the region pays homage to Pickles on the 50th anniversary. Mr Corbett has also called for a statue to be built on Wembley Way in the pet’s honour. “It’s the world’s most famous dog that saved the FA’s bacon,” said a proud Mr Corbett as he pressed the case for the statue. Regardless of whether one is created, Pickles’ discovery of the World Cup 50 years ago will never be forgotten. As with others including Sir Geoff Hurst and Kenneth Wolstenholme, he is synonymous with the 1966 World Cup. And quite deservedly too.

England’s Euro ’68 – Mullery makes unwanted history

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In the latest of our recollections of how England performed at past European Championships, we turn the clock back to 1968. England came perilously close to becoming European champions just two years after winning the World Cup. But their involvement in the competition would mainly be recalled just for Alan Mullery going into the history books as their first player ever to be sent off…

Ask any English-loving football fan who is old enough where they were when England won the World Cup in 1966, or played unforgettable semi-finals during Italia ’90 or Euro ’96, and they could probably give you an instant answer and start recalling the emotions they felt at the time. Yet there has been one other occasion when England have reached the last four of a major tournament, but it barely ever gets mentioned other than when referencing England’s first ever sending off. Two years after winning the World Cup, England made it to the semi-finals of the 1968 European Championship. It was only the third time the competition had been staged, having been renamed from the European Nations Cup.

We’ll pick up the story in the quarter-finals (technically this was part of qualifying, but it seems wrong somehow to class it as such here when sides at Euro 2016 will have to win through two rounds just to reach this stage). England had been beaten at home by Scotland in qualifying but had gone on to top the group to face holders Spain over two legs in the last eight. Sir Alf Ramsey’s England were World Cup holders and Home International champions. Now they could complete the treble by adding the European crown if they won through the next three rounds. With Manchester United soon to lift the European Cup, there was a sense that English football was enjoying a real period of success and England could cement that reputation by winning Euro ’68.

But not everyone was in awe of England. Although they had lost just once since October 1965, their style of play was not universally loved and critics felt the World Cup triumph had only been achieved thanks to home advantage and crucial refereeing decisions going in their favour. If England could become champions of Europe, it could help silence many doubters.

Seeing off the Spanish

England welcome Spain to Wembley for the first leg of their European Championship quarter-final.

The boys of ’66 still dominated England’s team two years on, although some new blood had broken into the side. Cyril Knowles, Alan Mullery and Mike Summerbee were in the team at home to Spain, with George Cohen, Nobby Stiles and Geoff Hurst the three players missing from the 1966 triumph. Cohen had been Ramsey’s first casualty of the 1966 XI, while Stiles was left watching on as Mullery assumed his midfield role. England had beaten the Spaniards twice in friendlies in recent years but this time around it looked like they may fail to make the breakthrough as chances went begging. With six minutes left, Bobby Charlton – hoping to end the season as a European champion for club and country – gave England a much-needed lead. The goal meant Charlton equalled Jimmy Greaves’ record tally of 44 England goals and gave them hope of progression as they won 1-0 on the night.

Bobby Charlton takes a bow after giving England the lead against Spain.

But in an era when home advantage was still seen as very significant, there was a concern they could be eliminated in the return in Madrid five weeks later. Hurst again missed the game due to injury, while goalkeeper Gordon Banks could have been a significant absentee as Peter Bonetti deputised (with greater success than at the same stage of the World Cup two years later against West Germany). Brian Labone, Norman Hunter and Keith Newton all came into the side, for a match in front of a frenzied 120,000 crowd.

After 47 minutes as Amancio Amaro put Spain ahead on the night. But England stirred as Martin Peters restored their aggregate lead, before Hunter made it 2-1 on the night and 3-1 overall. Ramsey was proclaiming it as England’s best display since the World Cup triumph, with such a strong showing on foreign soil helping silence the critics. Ken Jones of the Daily Mirror wrote: “England’s faith in the football that won them the World Cup was vividly confirmed by a memorable victory. They are through to the semi-finals of the European Nations Cup, their reputation untarnished, still a team to be envied and admired. Let there be no doubt, argument or debate. This was a truly magnificent England performance.”

The finals of Euro ’68 would mark the midpoint of the cycle between England winning the World Cup in 1966 and their bid to retain it in 1970. The performances they would give in Italy for the final two matches would offer some indication of how good they really were.

Losing at last

After winning in Spain, a buoyant Sir Alf said of England’s great run of form: “This must end some time. But where, and who is good enough to do it?” It was the kiss of death as he wouldn’t have long to wait for an answer. Although England beat Sweden 3-1 in a Wembley friendly, they then lost 1-0 away to West Germany shortly before the finals began. It was the first time the Germans had defeated England and marked a turning point in fortunes between the sides, while also representing England’s first away defeat for four years (a record that that tended to be overlooked by those knocking their 1966 success as being purely down to home advantage).

Of more pressing concern was the European Championship semi-final, as England arrived in Italy for a clash with Yugoslavia.  Although the Yugoslavs had been absent from the 1966 World Cup, they had finished above West Germany in qualifying for Euro ’68 and then beaten France 6-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals. This was certainly not going to be an easy test for England, in front of less than 22,000 fans in Florence.

It was hardly a match for the purists, an ill-tempered game remaining goalless until the closing five minutes. Then a high cross evaded Bobby Moore and Dragan Džajić struck past Gordon Banks. Tensions had been building all night and a hard tackle on Mullery led to the player retaliating. He kicked his opponent Dobrivoje Trivic just yards from the referee and Mullery took his unwanted place in the history books as he was ordered off. England would almost certainly have lost anyway but the sending off effectively confirmed their exit, as they were beaten 1-0.

Alan Mullery becomes the first man to be sent off against Yugoslavia in 1968.

No England player had been sent off before and Mullery feared his manager was going to read the riot act. Mullery recalled years later: “I was expecting the biggest roasting any player has had when the door burst open and Alf came in, grim-faced. He looked at me and shouted, ‘if you hadn’t done it, I would have’.”

Mullery would also later say the FA fined him £50 – a decent sum of money at the time – for his sending off but Ramsey insisted on paying it on his behalf. Ramsey had stuck with Stiles amid condemnation for his challenge on France’s Jacques Simon at the 1966 World Cup and now he was standing up for Mullery. He was certainly a man who would defend his players.

Ramsey would lay into Yugoslavs in a manner that rekindled memories of his infamous “animals” comment after England had beaten Argentina in the 1966 World Cup. “I have never seen anything like that. I don’t think even the Argentines in the World Cup were worse,” he said about Yugoslavia, amid criticism of his own team’s physical approach. “We are hard – when we go for the ball. But the ball is always there to be won. These people do their worst when the ball is away. It is evil.”

Sir Alf Ramsey spoke out about Yugoslavia after England lost to them in the semi-finals.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of England’s display, they were not going to be champions of Europe. Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “It is something of a comedown for the world champions. Sadly, victory in Europe has faded – the one thing Ramsey and his men wanted so much to still the whispers of the past two years. But now the unfriendly critics who always pointed to Wembley as the reason for England’s global victory in 1966 are hugging themselves.”

For Mullery, the night in Florence would forever be associated with his name. “I can never get rid of it. I played more than 700 games in my career between the age of 15 and 34,” he said in 2012. “People always remember that game – or another one when I scored a volley against Leicester in the cup and it was on Match of the Day every Saturday night for a year. People just remember those two games, they don’t remember the other 698.” His sending off did not open the floodgates for other England players to be dismissed, as just three more would be sent off before David Beckham was red carded 30 years later in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina.

Third place secured

For England there remained the third place play-off against the Soviet Union in Rome, to be played before the final between Italy and Yugoslavia. The Russians had only been denied a place in the final on the toss of a coin after drawing with Italy and had posed England problems the previous December during a 2-2 friendly draw at Wembley. Stiles took advantage of Mullery’s suspension to return to the side after more than a year out and he put in a sound display as England won 2-0 with Bobby Charlton and Hurst on target. The performance had rekindled optimism about what the team could achieve at the 1970 World Cup.

Green wrote: “Of the four teams on show yesterday England left the best impression. Indeed, Moore and his men might well have won the title itself had the championship been held on a league basis. As it was, they might have still pulled it off had not three or four players been out of form the night we lost so narrowly to Yugoslavia in Florence.”

Stiles, who came into the side in place of Mullery against the USSR, wrote in his autobiography of the encounter: “It was, given the fact neither team could win the championship, a tremendously hard game and I had several collisions with a big, tough Russian.” It had been a tournament defined by physicality rather than flair.

Italy went on to beat Yugoslavia after a replay, while England returned home not looking quite as unbeatable as they might have seemed beforehand. Being third in Europe seemed a very modest achievement compared to winning the World Cup. But only once since then have England again reached the Euro semi-finals, meaning their run in 1968 should not be underestimated.

England’s Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’84: Dazzled by the Danes

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This summer England will make the short trip to France to compete in Euro 2016. But when the French last hosted the European Championship in 1984, England failed to make it. Today we look back at what went wrong, as Bobby Robson’s reign began in difficult fashion.

Bobby Robson’s appointment as England manager was confirmed shortly after Ron Greenwood’s men were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. His reign at Ipswich Town had earned many plaudits and yielded two major trophies, with the proud Englishman now tasked with leading his country. He would have little time to dwell on the task in front of him, as his first match in September 1982 was the opening European Championship qualifier away to Denmark.

Bobby Robson took over as England manager a year after leading Ipswich Town to UEFA Cup glory.

On paper, England had been handed a reasonable qualifying draw, with their opponents being Hungary, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg. Hungary had finished above England in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup but England had done the double over them and progressed further at the finals; Greece had qualified for the 1980 European Championship but had little other pedigree; and Luxembourg were the whipping boys of Europe. The joker in the pack came from pot four. Denmark had enjoyed limited past success but something was stirring in Scandinavia. Manager Sepp Piontek was building a side that would soon be talked about across Europe, but – despite beating Italy in World Cup qualifying in 1981 – had yet to come into the spotlight. Robson though knew just how talented they were and he probably cursed whoever had agreed for England to start with a trip to Copenhagen – particularly as the average man in the street would assume England were going to win there.

Out with the old guard

Robson had difficult decisions to make prior to the Denmark game, having inherited an ageing side. Robson was primarily setting his sights on success at the 1986 World Cup and he knew time would have to be called on the international careers of several players. As we’ve previously recalled, Robson controversially dropped Kevin Keegan and came under fire before he’d even led his team into battle for the first time as the former captain took exception to not being told the news directly. A decision that probably was harder for Robson to make on a personal level was to leave out his former Ipswich captain Mick Mills, while other old heads including Trevor Brooking, Joe Corrigan, Terry McDermott and Dave Watson would never win another cap. Ray Clemence would be selected just twice more as Peter Shilton became fully established as number one goalkeeper.

Robson’s first year or so in charge would see a high number of debutants given their chance. Players such as Luther Blissett, Mark Chamberlain, Gordon Cowans and Sammy Lee would briefly shine before fading from the international scene. Only John Barnes would break into the set-up during the period and remain involved throughout Robson’s reign. Robson’s cause was not helped by injury woes for key men he inherited, with his favoured midfielders of Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins all spending time on the sidelines during the qualifying campaign. To compound matters, winger Steve Coppell would sadly soon have to retire due to his injury troubles.

England’s Bryan Robson in action against his future Manchester United team-mate in England’s opening Euro ’84 qualifier against Denmark.

If Bobby Robson was under any illusions about the size of the task facing him, then the first match in Denmark would have shattered them. Firstly, the fallout with Keegan meant he had attracted negative publicity in his opening weeks in the job. Secondly, England were shaken by the Danes who duly looked the real threat Robson had feared. And thirdly, there was widespread fighting on the terraces. It was the third year in a row that an England match overseas had been blighted by serious crowd trouble and Robson was left knowing that his time in charge would see him regularly being asked about a section of England’s followers and not matters on the field.

England came within moments of snatching a 2-1 win thanks to two Trevor Francis goals in Copenhagen before Jesper Olsen waltzed through to equalise, but it was felt afterwards that England were the team who had been let off the hook during the 2-2 draw. The Danes were certainly no longer the low-achieving amateurs of a few years before. ‘England are lucky to escape defeat’ screamed the headline in The Times, with the new manager admitting it would have been a “travesty of justice” had they won.

Blissett’s debut hat-trick

England players had nine goals to celebrate against Luxembourg in December 1982, including a hat-trick for Luther Blissett.

Robson’s first home match in charge produced a 2-1 friendly defeat to West Germany, but a month later came the second European Championship qualifier away to Greece. Bryan Robson captained England for the first time and he would never relinquish it whenever he played under his namesake. Tony Woodcock scored twice and debutant Lee got the other in an excellent 3-0 win. Just 10 days before Christmas England welcomed Luxembourg to Wembley and Watford forward Blissett marked his first cap with a hat-trick in an emphatic 9-0 victory – he never scored again for his country – that meant they boasted a goal difference of +12 after only three qualifying matches.

England began 1983 with a 2-1 win over Wales in the Home International Championship, before welcoming Greece to Wembley in March for their next qualifying match. It proved an extremely frustrating night for England as the Greeks did not come bearing gifts and defended deeply. England were unable to break the visitors down and were booed off after a 0-0 draw. “I counted seven of Greece’s players who never even crossed the halfway line,” said Robson as he reflected on a frustrating night. The night had marked the first real low point of Robson’s reign but all looked good again when England won 2-0 at home to Hungary the following month, Francis and Peter Withe scoring. After five matches in the group England had three wins and two draws and were still firmly in the qualifying picture. “Within a month the tune has changed dramatically for Bobby Robson,” wrote Stuart Jones in The Times.

The Home International Championship was won after drawing 0-0 away to Northern Ireland and winning 2-0 against Scotland. The latter match took place on the same day as a vital qualifying clash between Denmark and Hungary. The Danes won 3-1 and it was now clear they would provide the most serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. England ended the 1982-83 season with a three-match tour of Australia, which brought a plethora of new caps and an unbeaten record but precious little else to shout about. Robson and his under-strength side returned home with a three-month break in store before their next match – a huge qualifier at home to Denmark in September 1983.

Despair against the Danes

The Danes arrived at Wembley with the backing of a tremendous away support. With only one side going through to the finals, this match was likely to be decisive. England led the group by a point but Denmark had a game in hand. Whoever won would be clear favourites to progress. If the match was a draw then matters would be in Denmark’s hands but with little margin for error. England were without the injured Bryan Robson and, controversially, Hoddle, with Bobby Robson opting instead to field John Gregory. “I wanted someone a bit spikey,” said the manager as he tried to justify his selection. But it proved a bad call, England’s midfield operating deep and creating little for the forwards to feed off.

From the moment teenager Michael Laudrup almost gave Denmark an early lead, it was clear that this was going to be a long and torturous night for England. Bobby Robson seemed to have become too concerned about the threat of the Danes for his own side’s good, as England played with fear rather than belief. Phil Neal’s handball in the area on his 50th and final cap allowed Allan Simonsen to put the Danes in front in the first half and they continued to boss the game, albeit without creating many clear-cut chances. “We are red, we are white, we are Danish dynamite” was the song ringing out at Wembley.

Allan Simonsen scores the winner for Denmark against England from the penalty spot.

They deservedly protected their 1-0 advantage, with England posing little threat until injury time. Suddenly a chance was made by Blissett, but he was denied by Ole Kjær from point blank range just seconds before the final whistle sounded. Prior to the emergence of Peter Schmeichel it was generally felt that goalkeeper was the weak position for the Danes, but Kjær had proved his worth with such a priceless save. It was the first time the Danes had ever beaten England and the win left them firm favourites to reach France.

For Bobby Robson, the defeat was painful. He later revealed he offered to resign after the loss, but he was given the green light to carry on. He wrote in 1986: “Whatever I may or may not achieve in my football career, the blackest day will remain as September 21, 1983. It was the worst moment I had experienced at any level of football, no question about it… The 1-0 defeat was only part of it. The way the team played; the walk back to the dressing room afterwards; the abuse of the crowd; the feeling of total confusion all contributed to the desolate feelings.”

The defeat was bad enough, but for England to play so tepidly when the stakes were so high meant criticism poured in on the England manager. In the magazine Football Monthly, it was stated that “this was without doubt England’s worst-ever performance at Wembley”. Piontek certainly believed his opposite number’s approach had helped the Danes, with Robson having made several visits to see them in action. “England were afraid to attack us,” he said. “I think it was good for us that Mr Robson watched us so many times in Denmark. Sometimes it is not always good to see opponents too much.”

Three days later Robson was booed when he went to watch Aston Villa against Southampton, while Hoddle scored a superb goal for Tottenham Hotspur at Watford. The decision to leave him out of the Denmark game looked to have been the wrong one.

Hope restored and then removed

Matters were now well and truly out of England’s hands. They would have to win away to Hungary and Luxembourg and hope Denmark took no more than three points from as many games (under two points for a win) – with it being a given they would beat Luxembourg at home in one of them. They duly did so by a 6-0 scoreline on October 12, the same day England visited Hungary. Hoddle was recalled to the side and he responded with a superb free-kick in the 3-0 win, which gave England a glimmer of hope. But so comfortably had they beaten the Hungarians that it was hard to see the Eastern Europeans doing England a favour by getting a result against Denmark two weeks later.

But that was just what they did, Denmark suffering their first defeat of the qualifying series as they went down 1-0. England had been bailed out during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup when all seemed lost and now it looked like history might repeat itself. Denmark were a point ahead of England but had an inferior goal difference. If Denmark failed to win away to Greece in their final match then England would go through by beating Luxembourg on the same night. The pressure was on the Danes.

The matches did not kick-off simultaneously, Denmark decisive contest in Athens finishing before England’s contest in Luxembourg began. According to Bobby Robson, as England’s squad arrived at the stadium “some wally of a fan shouted out to us that Greece were ahead”. Within moments they learned the crushing news that the Danes were actually winning, going on to claim a 2-0 victory to deservedly win the match and the group. “It’s rather like asking soldiers to go on firing bullets after a peace treaty had been signed,” said Robson, as he was left trying to motivate his players for a dead rubber match. He duly did that as England produced a professional performance in beating Luxembourg 4-0, leaving them with the best goal difference of any side in Euro ’84 qualifying with +20.


Denmark were the side celebrating at the end of qualifying for Euro ’84.

But all anyone was talking about was the fact England hadn’t made it, along with yet more trouble involving the hooligan fringe. The hosts had been concerned about England’s visit after previous trouble in 1977 and unfortunately the antics of some individuals in both the stadium and on the streets had justified those fears. “They had disgusted us all by giving those lovely people a bad time for our second successive visit,” said a despairing Robson.

It was not a time when the English nation was covering itself in glory when it came to football, with the hooligans continually causing trouble off the field and the players struggling to hit the heights on it. Whereas Euro 2016 in France will contain four sides from the British Isles, the finals of Euro ’84 went ahead without any of them. TV viewers in Britain saw just two live matches from one of the most highly-regarded tournaments of all-time, with the Danes playing with a swagger as they reached the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Spain. France won it on home soil and it was a competition that we missed far more than the rest of Europe missed us.

And yet if the same qualifying criteria had existed for 1984 as it did for 2016, then – in theory at least – we would have had plenty of British Isles representation at the finals. England, Northern Ireland and Wales would have all qualified automatically; the Republic of Ireland would have been in the play-offs; and Scotland would have failed to make it at all after finishing fourth in their qualifying group. The more things change…