Month: April 2016

England’s Euro ’72 – The decline begins

Posted on Updated on

This week in 1972 England welcomed West Germany to Wembley for the first-leg of their quarter-final in the European Championship. It proved to be an uncomfortable night for the English, who were deservedly beaten on home soil. For the West Germans, a period of domination was about to begin and England would have to wait a long time to beat them again in a competitive match…

In January 1972, the quarter-final draw was held for the last eight stage of the European Championship. England, who had come through their qualification group as unbeaten winners ahead of Switzerland, Greece and Malta, were to draw one of the toughest-looking opponents as they were paired with West Germany.

Immediately there were concerns both in terms of England’s chances and practicalities. Firstly, West Germany were a good side who had beaten England at the 1970 World Cup. Secondly, the second-leg would be away which was seen as handing the advantage to the West Germans. Thirdly, the first-leg was scheduled to be played on April 29 – the last Saturday of the Football League season; and lastly, the home leg would clash with when Wembley was booked for non-league football’s showpiece occasion of the FA Trophy final. With professional football out of the question on a Sunday at the time in England, there were now headaches facing the Football Association which quickly needed resolving.

Eventually the Trophy final was played two weeks earlier than scheduled and several First Division matches on April 29 were postponed to accommodate England call-ups. As was quite often the case at the time, the First Division title race would have to be resolved during midweek rearranged matches. But for England manager Sir Alf Ramsey there was going to be no easy method to defeat the West Germans, although he sounded cheerful enough.

“It is a great draw from all aspects,” he said. “They are one of the finest teams in the world and the memories of our previous games will surely add to the occasion.” It was certainly hard to ignore the recent past contests at the World Cups of 1966 and 1970.

That latter meeting in Mexico still lurked in the mind, but there was a tendency to dismiss that defeat as a bit of a fluke – where circumstances such as Gordon Banks being ill and substitutions backfiring were perceived as the main causes of England’s downfall rather than the prowess of West Germany. Speaking about the sides being paired together once more, England captain Bobby Moore said: “It is nice to meet old rivals again and for those of us who were in Mexico there will be a score to settle. I think it’s a good one for England.”

There was an added incentive for England to progress, as they were among the front-runners to host the final stages (semi-final onwards) if they were part of it. If that happened, they would stand a good chance of winning major silverware given they seldom lost on home soil. As Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “Apart from the financial gain this would considerably strengthen our hand in an effort to win the trophy for the first time.”

Despite the significance of the West Germany matches, England went into them having not played for almost five months. Their absentees for the first-leg would include defender Roy McFarland who was withdrawn due to injury, although he would feature for Derby County in their vital title battle against Liverpool 48 hours later (prompting Ramsey to speak out against Derby manager Brian Clough). Ramsey instead paired Moore with Norman Hunter, a central defensive partnership that would not prove successful.

Five players remained in the England side from the 1966 final, but for Geoff Hurst this would be the final act. He was substituted and never selected again, finishing his England career against the side he made his debut against and enjoyed his most glorious match against in separate fixtures in 1966. The end was also drawing near for goalkeeper Gordon Banks, whose career would be curtailed by a car crash later in the year. For the remaining boys of ’66 – Moore, Alan Ball and Martin Peters, plus manager Ramsey – there would remain an England future but past glories would never be rekindled.

Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer shake hands prior to kick-off at Wembley.

One man who would leave his mark on the match would be midfielder Günter Netzer. The West German was 27 but not been part of the World Cup squad in 1966 and 1970. This was to be his night, thanks to his darting runs and pinpoint passes as England paid for not deploying a natural holding midfielder to deal with him. Also impressing was 20-year-old Uli Hoeness, who put the West Germans ahead in the first half.

If Moore’s England career is best defined by captaining the team to glory in 1966 and his unforgettable tackle against Brazil in 1970, then at the other end of the scale was his error that led to a vital goal being conceded against West Germany in 1972. He tried to dribble the ball out of the area, was caught in possession and Hoeness was able to score past Banks.

England were second best on the night and could have gone further behind, but with 15 minutes left they drew level as Francis Lee scored past Sepp Maier from close range. Now the momentum should have been with them to go and get a result. But West Germany were to regain the advantage six minutes from time. Moore struggled to keep pace with Siggi Held – one of the West German survivors from 1966 – and brought him down for a penalty, although replays would later suggest contact initially took place outside the box. Netzer scored the goal his performance deserved, despite Banks getting a hand to the penalty.

Despair for Gordon Banks as he concedes against West Germany at Wembley.

Ramsey’s men were staring defeat in the face but things would get even worse before the finish. The gulf in class was underlined as a delightful ball by Hoeness was neatly converted by the lethal Gerd Müller. West Germany led 3-1 and there was surely no way England were going to turn it round two weeks later in Berlin. Green reflected in his match report: “Basically England were beaten in midfield. Without Mullery there to win the ball, Ball, Peters and Bell were a street behind Netzer, Hoeness and Wimmer as a creative, productive force. Netzer in particular, his mane flowing in the breeze, time and time again broke excitingly like the Bobby Charlton of old.”

England’s approach had seemed outdated, whereas West Germany had offered vibrancy and flair that went against the ‘efficient’ stereotype. The French publication L’Equipe described them as playing “dream football from the year 2000”. The performance remains revered in Germany and the result confirmed they at last held the upper hand over England, having now won three meetings in succession against them (they hadn’t beaten them until a friendly in 1968). It was England’s most sobering home defeat since losing 6-3 to Hungary in 1953 and it was hard to argue with the outcome, Ramsey conceding afterwards: “We didn’t get hold of it until the second half. By then West Germany had all the confidence in the world because of the freedom we let them have in the first half.”

Ramsey now had two weeks to somehow devise a plan to get England back into the tie with a two-goal victory in Berlin to force a play-off. He was keeping his cards close to his chest, except to say: “I am no gambler. Why should I be? This is a testing occasion demanding experience. But I do have a plan to meet the Netzer threat which will be revealed in due course.”

Think English footballers from the 1970s and two types spring to mind. One of them is the mavericks, a group of free-spirited, flair players that Ramsey seldom picked; and the other is the hard men who would happily chop down their opponents. Ramsey would make use of the latter in Berlin, bringing Hunter into midfield along with Peter Storey, who had a reputation as a ‘hatchet man’.

Ramsey was clearly looking to avoid a repeat of the first leg by giving England defensive bite in midfield. But it was a move that offered England little attacking threat and did nothing to alter the perception among the critics that Ramsey was a defensively-minded manager. He did show some acknowledgement of the mavericks by picking Rodney Marsh in attack, but he was taken off before the hour mark and won just nine caps in total.

England attempt to gain possession in Berlin.

In some respects the tactical plan worked well in the Berlin rain, as England were not embarrassed like they had been at Wembley and earned a 0-0 draw. Had England gone there needing a draw to progress, Ramsey might have earned plaudits for finding a system to stop the Germans. But instead his detractors felt the approach smacked of damage limitation, England offering little attacking zest to overturn the aggregate deficit.

Their physical approach to stop the West Germans won them few admirers. “The whole England team has autographed my leg,” complained Netzer. Manager Helmut Schön condemned England for “brutal tackling aimed at the bones”. The England players hit back, with Alan Ball saying: “I never thought the West Germans would act like cry babies. They tried to make villains of us.”

Gordon Banks faces a free-kick in Berlin.

The inquests were well under way into what had gone wrong for the England team, as the criticism poured in. Frank Taylor wrote in the Daily Mirror: “English football was revealed in the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the fraud it is. The world saw our players looking as cultured as a clog dancer in a ballet class… I am sick of the excuses, tired of the tactical explanations. If this was a victory for tactics, give me the glory of adventurous defeat.”

However, Taylor’s colleague Ken Jones offered some support for Ramsey over his tactics in Berlin: “Had he thrown his team at the Germans, then the Germans would merely have emphasised the skill superiority they displayed at Wembley. There would have been no sympathy for a gamble that failed.” Jones also voiced his fear that “England could be discredited totally as a power in world football” if steps were not taken to reduce the amount of fixtures English clubs played.

For England, there would be no place in the finals tournament, which Belgium would now host. West Germany went on to beat the hosts and USSR to win the tournament, following it up by lifting the World Cup on home soil. England wouldn’t even qualify for that, as Ramsey’s England reign ended ignominiously.

With hindsight at least Ramsey probably should have stepped down after the Euro ’72 exit, with England clearly no longer dining at international football’s top table but with him having led England to at least the last eight in four successive competitions. The West Germany defeat showed England now lagged behind the world’s best and set the trend for the years that followed, with things about to get even worse.

England’s Euro 2000 – Millennium Misery

Posted on Updated on

In the latest of our recollections on England at past European Championships, we turn the spotlight on Euro 2000. The competition co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands is widely remembered as one of the most entertaining major tournaments in modern times – but not one in which England could be proud of what they achieved. And once more the nation looked on in shame as the hooligans stuck…

As previously recalled, England had endured a turbulent qualifying campaign for Euro 2000 and almost contrived to throw away a 2-0 first-leg lead when they hosted Scotland in the return play-off match at Wembley. But they were at least heading to the Low Countries for the finals and in December 1999 the draw took place just days after the 2002 World Cup qualifying draw was held. That had placed England in the same group as Germany and, almost inevitably, they were now also drawn together at Euro 2000. With the nations also competing for the right to host World Cup 2006 – with the vote to take place shortly after the European Championship concluded – there was going to be no shortage of Anglo-German rivalry on show in the coming months.

“It was predictable. Call it fate,” said English football legend Sir Bobby Charlton after the draw was made. “I think we’ll beat them in all three: the World Cup bid, the World Cup qualifiers and here (Euro 2000). If we do I’ll be a very happy man.” But even though this was not a vintage German side, few would totally share Charlton’s optimism. England hadn’t beaten the Germans during a major tournament since 1966 and there were clear signs they weren’t likely to be selected as 2006 World Cup hosts either.

A tough group

England were among the lowest seeds for Euro 2000 and they were placed in a tough-looking group. As well as Germany, they would have to play Portugal and Romania. The Portuguese were appearing at only their second major tournament since 1986 but boasted a ‘golden generation’ of players such as Luis Fugo who could pose a real threat, while Romania had beaten England during the 1998 World Cup. Kevin Keegan, who took over as England manager from Glenn Hoddle during the qualifying campaign, knew it wasn’t the ideal draw but tried to stay positive. “My first thought was that it was a tough draw but all groups are tough,” he said.

The next five months brought just one match, a goalless friendly against Argentina at Wembley. Keegan focused on a series of warm-up matches directly before the tournament. In the space of a week they drew with Brazil and beat Ukraine at Wembley, before winning away to Malta. The Ukraine match saw Steven Gerrard win his first England cap and the Liverpool midfielder was picked for the Euro 2000 squad along with fellow internationally inexperienced youngsters Gareth Barry (Aston Villa) and Richard Wright (Ipswich Town).

But England’s party was perhaps defined more by those at the other end of the age scale. Striker and captain Alan Shearer had announced he would be retiring from international football after the finals, while midfielder Paul Ince would never be capped again after England returned home. Defender Tony Adams would not be picked again after the year 2000 concluded and nor would Dennis Wise, who featured prominently for England at the finals.

Reality bites

England’s first match was against the Portuguese in Eindhoven and it could barely have begun better, Paul Scholes and Steve McManaman giving them a 2-0 lead inside 18 minutes as both converted excellent David Beckham crosses. So far, so good. Then reality bit. Figo scored an excellent long range shot after receiving the ball on the halfway line, although he was afforded too much space by the English players to run and shoot. By half-time the scores were level as Joao Pinto headed past David Seaman and it was clear the way the contest was heading.

On the hour mark, Nuno Gomes duly completed the comeback by putting Portugal 3-2 up. Almost 30 years to the day of England’s infamous 3-2 loss to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup, England had again been beaten in a major tournament after leading 2-0. The night would end with Beckham raising his middle finger at a section of England followers, after a match when he had come in for abuse from a small minority. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was ashamed,” said Keegan of the abuse handed out, as he defended the player.

Paul Scholes gives England an early lead against Portugal.

It has been a captivating match for the neutral. But for England fans it was a night of disappointment. If England’s start had embodied Keegan’s passion and desire, their collapse had raised serious question marks about the manager’s tactics and belief in playing 4-4-2 as they looked over-run in midfield . “We took a blow but we will come back from it,” vowed Keegan, as England now prepared for a Saturday night showdown with Germany in the Belgian city of Charleroi. The Germans had looked unimpressive in their opening 1-1 draw with Romania and this really did represent a golden opportunity for England to beat them.

Hooligans strike again

Soon things became far more concerning for the nation than simply whether England could beat Germany. Pre-tournament fears about hooliganism were realised as scores of England followers were arrested as violence flared in Brussels and Charleori in the build-up to the clash with Germany. Coming just weeks after violent scenes in Copenhagen when Arsenal met Galatasaray in the UEFA Cup final, it was another blow for English football and now UEFA considered what action to take. During the Euros of 1980, 1988 and 1992, England had crashed out in the group stage and their hooligans had brought shame on the nation. It seemed history was repeating itself.

Alan Shearer scores the winner for England against Germany.

Unusually for a group stage game, the match was live on both the BBC and ITV as almost 18 million tuned in back home. “Are you sitting comfortably? Neither am I,” said ITV’s Clive Tyldesley as he began his commentary. If four years earlier England and Germany had produced one of the best games of Euro ’96, now they were serving up a candidate for the worst during Euro 2000. But few England fans were complaining about the lack of quality on show when Shearer headed in Beckham’s free-kick early in the second half to give them the lead. For once good fortune seemed to be on England’s side against the Germans as their opponents squandered the chance to level and Keegan’s men grabbed a joyous victory. Now they needed just a draw against Romania, again in Charleroi, to progress.

But the joy of victory was quickly soured, as the following day UEFA threatened to expel England from Euro 2000 if there was further trouble. It was a stark warning and meant that, even if England got the result they needed against Romania, they could be coming home. The government came under fire for not having done more to stop potential troublemakers travelling to the Low Countries and something was clearly going to have to be done to prevent similar violent scenes in the future.

It was though questioned if the punishment fitted the crime. Kevin Miles, of the Football Supporters Federation, said: “While all genuine supporters deplore any trouble caused by anyone following the English team, UEFA’s proposal would seem to punish the innocent to an extent that even the Belgian police haven’t managed.” All-round it was a depressing state of affairs.

Paying the penalty

England suffered a blow shortly before kick-off against Romania when Seaman was injured and had to be replaced by Nigel Martyn. Cristian Chivu’s cross-cum shot went in off the post to give Romania the lead, although by half-time England led 2-1 thanks to Shearer (penalty) and Michael Owen – the latter scoring from an acute angle in the final seconds of the half. England were fortunate to be ahead, but they simply had to see out the last 45 minutes without conceding twice and they would go through.

It was to be a frustrating tournament for Kevin Keegan.

Three minutes into the second half, the task looked less simple as Martyn punched into the path of Dorinel Munteanu and the Romanian player took advantage to equalise. It had been an avoidable goal to concede and England now faced more than 40 minutes of trying to see the game out. They came within three minutes of doing so. With England seemingly on course for the point they needed but hadn’t particularly warranted, Phil Neville lunged in on Viorel Moldovan in the area.

Four years later referee Urs Meier would be a tabloid target after England exited Euro 2004, but there were few complaints over his decision to award Romania the late penalty at Euro 2000. Substitute Ioan Ganea kept his nerve to score and put Romania through. It was the second successive tournament Romania had beaten England in the dying moments, this time administering a fatal blow.

Romania would go on to face Italy in the quarter-finals, as England prepared to fly home. The competition would continue perfectly well without them, with matches such as Spain’s dramatic 4-3 win over Yugoslavia helping make it one of the best tournaments in modern times. England had led in all three games yet emerged with two defeats, as stinging criticism was directed towards the team and the tactics used by Keegan – who admitted playing 4-4-2 “didn’t work”.

“They came, they swore, they were conquered,” wrote Henry Winter of England’s tournament in The Telegraph, adding: “With some honourable exceptions, like Martin Keown, England’s most impressive player, and the thousands of decent fans whose good behaviour was a refreshing counterpoint to those hundreds who offended their friendly hosts, England have been an embarrassment at Euro 2000. It is one thing falling at the first hurdle, but it is quite another tripping up without even a glimmer of glitz.”

Phil Neville concedes the last-gasp penalty against Romania.

The only crumbs of comfort for England were they had at last beaten Germany and finished above them in the group, the holders crashing out with a mere point to their name. But even that relative success couldn’t be enjoyed for long. On July 6 the vote took place to determine the host nation for the 2006 World Cup. Germany pipped South Africa to the prize, with England a distant third. It summed up England’s summer, having also been nowhere near winning Euro 2000.

And in October the Germans were the last visitors to Wembley for a World Cup qualifier, duly winning 1-0. It marked the final straw for Keegan, who quit shortly after the final whistle. The man’s passion was unquestioned, but unfortunately his tactical shortcomings had been exposed in recent months – particularly during Euro 2000.

Faces of ’66 – Tofiq Bahramov

Posted on Updated on

In the latest of our recollections on individuals who became synonymous with the 1966 World Cup, we turn the spotlight on the man who would forever known as the ‘Russian linesman’ – Tofiq Bahramov, from Azerbaijan.

During the first period of extra time in the 1966 World Cup final, a linesman by the name of Tofiq Bahramov was elevated from being a footnote in the match into playing a major role that would long be recalled. With the game locked at 2-2, Geoff Hurst’s shot struck the underside of the bar and bounced down and out amid confusion over whether it had crossed the line.

“No, no, the linesman says no,” said BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme amid the uncertainty. Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst went over to consult Bahramov with nobody still any the wiser what was going to be decided. Wolstenholme referred to “the linesman who can only speak Russian and Turkish” as he waited for the decision (a delay probably not helped by language barriers). And so it began. The goal was given, England went on to win and the never-ending legend of the ‘Russian linesman’ was born.

The moment that changed Tofiq Bahramov’s life.

We have previously reflected on how differently the 1966 World Cup final would be remembered if West Germany hadn’t equalised in the dying seconds to force extra-time. One of the key differences was Bahramov would have barely been recalled for his involvement in the final, in keeping with how counterpart Karol Galba from Czechoslovakia’s contribution is long forgotten. But the second Hurst’s shot bounced down and out, Bahramov’s life was never to be the same again. By virtue of being from the USSR, he was dubbed the ‘Russian linesman’ – and far more would he be called that than by his real name. Take this passage from the match report in The Times for example: “The referee consulted his Russian linesman. The wait was agonising. The answer was ‘goal’.”

But as those in the know will like to point out, Bahramov (or Bakhramov as some sources name him) was not, in today’s terms at least, Russian. He came from Azerbaijan. However, it should be remembered that at the time it was part of the Soviet Union and there was a tendency to refer to anyone from the USSR as ‘Russian’ and the nation’s football team would often be called Russia in match reports etc. It is little wonder then that the ‘Russian linesman’ tag stuck, even after the break-up of the USSR.

Bahramov checks his watch before the 1966 World Cup final.

The standing in which Bahramov is held in Azerbaijan was made clear when England visited in October 2004 for a World Cup qualifier in Baku. Not only would they be playing in a stadium named after the former match official, but a statue was being unveiled in his honour. In a nation of limited footballing repute, Bahramov assumed star status having reached the global stage. But getting people from other countries to realise Bahramov’s true nationality wasn’t easy. “In 1966 it was the USSR and people confused the country with Russia,” Tofiq’s son Bahram said ahead of the statue being unveiled. “We want all the world to know he was Azeri, and not just from the Soviet Union.”

When Bahramov arrived in England to officiate at the 1966 World Cup he was 41 years old, having become a referee after his playing career was curtailed by injury. As was the case until relevantly recently, match referees at the tournament would double up as linesmen in other games. Bahramov was referee as Spain beat Switzerland in the group stage, but it would be while running the line that his tournament was best remembered.

He performed the duty at the tournament opener between England and Uruguay and almost three weeks later was back at Wembley for the final. Bahramov could quite feasibly have been blocked from participating in the final due to the Soviet Union’s progress in the tournament. They reached the semi-finals and met West Germany at Goodison Park, where they lost. Out of the USSR’s exit came the chance for Bahramov to grace football’s biggest match. And that one moment would catapult him into the spotlight.

The debate has continued for the last 50 years over whether the ball crossed the line. Earlier this year Sky Sports claimed they had proved it had, but that will never silence the naysayers. Modern technology has also been used previously to suggest the ball didn’t cross the line. There’s never likely to be an end to the debate.

The statue in Bahramov’s honour in Baku.

Whatever decision Bahramov made would have been criticised, so fine were the margins. But like Hurst, plenty of Englishmen would have happily shaken Bahramov’s hand if they had the chance. During that trip to Baku in 2004, England fans wore red shirts with ‘Bahramov 66’ on the back in his honour.

Bahramov died in March 1993, a few weeks after the death of Bobby Moore. In different ways both men made a big contribution to England’s success in 1966. And in their respective homelands, the pair continue to revered today more than 20 years after they died. The ‘Russian’ linesman from Azerbaijan will never be forgotten.

The last Home Internationals (1983-84)

Posted on Updated on

This week in 1984 saw Wembley stage a match in the Home Internationals for the final time. Today we recall the demise and final series of the annual competition between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as the curtain was pulled down on the tournament after a century.

August 19, 1983 marked the day when 100 years of history was effectively brought to a close. The Football Association’s international committee voted in favour of England withdrawing from the British Home Championship – also regularly referred to as the Home International Championship – after the 1983-84 season. It was not totally surprising news, but that did not soften the blow for Northern Ireland and Wales who both understandably felt snubbed and were concerned at losing out on the revenue from hosting matches in the competition. England’s annual match with old rivals Scotland – the blue riband event of the Home Internationals – would be continuing, with this adding to the woes of the jilted duo.

England’s decision to withdraw and effectively end the competition’s existence was not universally supported, although – outside Northern Ireland and Wales at least – there was not the same outcry there would be if, say, the FA Cup was scrapped. The tournament carried plenty of tradition but did not boast the reverence of its near-equivalent in rugby union of the Five Nations (as was). Over time the competition had gone from being a major event to a distant third behind the World Cup and European Championship in terms of priorities.

And it appears in the eyes of certain individuals in the FA hierarchy that the matches carried less weight than glamour friendlies against the sort of sides they would be facing in major tournaments – not least the fact that some of the more attractive continental sides would usually draw a bigger crowd to Wembley than Northern Ireland or Wales, with the latter’s visit in February 1983 attracting just 24,000. When Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Wrexham in May 1982, a staggeringly low 2,315 attended. Although this was undoubtedly affected by clashing with the FA Cup final replay, it gave a strong indication of the competition’s low standing by the 1980s.

There were just 24,000 in attendance when England hosted Wales in 1983.

This fall in attendances in recent times was cited as one of the reasons behind the demise of the competition. The sad irony though was that Northern Ireland and Wales both had far stronger sides at this point than at other times in the past and future and matches against them would offer a reasonable test for England and Scotland. Both also came perilously close to qualifying for Euro ’84, but like England they missed out in the final round of matches. With no UK side at the finals, their only hope of silverware at senior level in 1984 would be by winning the last Home International Championship.

Ted Croker said the matches were “no longer the major attractions and crowd-pullers they once were”.

It was argued that the Home Internationals used up dates that could have been better utilised by playing friendlies. This seems to have mattered more to the decision-makers than playing matches in a competitive and tournament environment, which the championship offered. FA secretary Ted Croker said at the time: “The reality in this instance is we do just not have enough gaps in the fixture list to play the top teams in the world, such as West Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy or the South Americans and continue the Home Internationals. The matches against Northern Ireland and Wales are no longer the major attractions and crowd-pullers they once were, even when played in Belfast or Wales, and so it was felt a halt had to be called.”

Hooliganism often seems to be quoted as a key factor in why the competition folded but this was not said at the time by the FA – and the fact the Scotland match was continuing also suggests it was not a primary reason. It could also be argued that the tournament’s future had not been helped by events in 1981, a year when it was declared void after England and Wales withdrew from matches in Belfast amid The Troubles with the competition’s remaining four games taking place only as friendlies.

  

Bobby Robson would later say England had “outgrown” the competition.

England manager Bobby Robson was reported at the time to have been in favour of a compromise where the competition would only be played in odd-numbered years when there would be no World Cup or European Championship tournaments. But in his World Cup Diary published in 1986 he offered a more damning view of the competition and seemed to feel little sadness over its demise. He wrote: “Naturally, the Welsh and Irish were bitter about it for the revenue from the competition was important to their day-to-day running but, in truth, these games provided little unless they were part of the European Championship or World Cup. We had outgrown them and I felt that foreign opposition would be more beneficial to us and to the Welsh and Irish as well, because both have the talent to attract top teams to play in their countries and bring in the crowds.”

Although England took most of the blame for the competition’s demise, Scotland did not escape criticism either for following their lead and withdrawing. The confusingly-named Wales manager Mike England had a pop at the Scots, accusing them of performing a “double turn”. He said in December 1983: “Everyone believes it was England alone who dropped Wales and Northern Ireland, but Scotland have done the dirty on us as well.”

With Irish FA president Henry Cavan writing in programme notes for the opening match of the tournament that “we are gravely disappointed and sad that 100 years of genuine friendship, sporting traditions and close co-operation seems to have been sacrificed for financial expediency”, there was certainly tension in the air ahead of the last British Championship.

Windsor Park’s farewell to the Home Internationals brought a 2-0 win for Northern Ireland over Scotland.

On December 13, 1983 the final series of Home Internationals began with Windsor Park hosting a match in the competition for the last time as Scotland visited. It was earlier than usual in the season for such a match to be played and came in an era when Northern Ireland were enjoying a purple patch. They had won the tournament in 1980, famously beaten hosts Spain during the 1982 World Cup and done the double over West Germany in qualifying matches for Euro ’84. Norman Whiteside, who was only 18 but had already accomplished many of life’s dreams, opened the scoring before Sammy McIlroy completed a 2-0 win for Northern Ireland. The result would carry significance in the final reckoning.

Scotland beat Wales 2-1 at Hampden Park in February 1984.

In late February Scotland were again in action in the championship, Hampden Park welcoming Wales who the Scots would also face in World Cup qualifying for Mexico ’86. Watford forward Mo Johnston marked his Scotland debut by coming off the bench to score in a 2-1 win, with Davie Cooper and Robbie James – both sadly taken from us far too soon – also on target. The match report in The Glasgow Herald the following day began with Jim Reynolds writing: “Not content with telling the Welsh that they do not want to play them in any more British International Championship matches, Scotland gave them a farewell kick in the pants at Hampden last night in the 99th official meeting between the countries.”


The England side that faced Nothern Ireland in April 1984.

On April 4, Wembley staged a Home Internationals match for the last time, Northern Ireland providing the opposition for England. Sadly, the poor attendance and a low-key atmosphere helped justify the decision for England to pull out of the competition. Stuart Jones wrote in The Times: “The size of the crowd, a mere 24,000, confirmed again how unattractive the domestic matches have become and the overall atmosphere was as lively and as animated as a private tea party.”

Liverpool’s Alan Kennedy was handed his England debut, on a night when Tony Woodcock headed the only goal. But England had been enduring poor fortunes lately and the match had done little to silence the critics.

The Wales side that beat England in May 1984 at Wrexham.

Wales were the only one of the four sides at the time not to play virtually all their home games at the same ground, with the stadiums of Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham each staging matches. It was Wrexham who had the honour of hosting England’s visit on May 2, the visitors still haunted by a 4-1 thrashing at the same ground four years earlier. Manchester United youngster Mark Hughes scored the only goal on his Wales debut as they deservedly defeated England, whose inexperienced side failed to shine. Kennedy, David Armstrong, John Gregory and Paul Walsh were all never capped again. Robson wrote in 1986 of the team’s display: “They were quiet in the hotel before we left, their heads were down as we walked into the ground and we never got going on the pitch. They played badly and hardly created a chance all night, with Paul Walsh and Tony Woodcock looking a lightweight pairing… We performed like a team going nowhere fast.” Not for the first or last time in his reign, Bobby Robson greatly missed his namesake Bryan.

Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Swansea for the last game both sides played in the championship.

The competition was now put on hold until three days after the FA Cup Final, when Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Swansea’s Vetch Field. A win would give either side a decent chance of the title, while Northern Ireland would still be in with a shout if they drew. Hughes again gave Wales the lead, but Gerry Armstrong headed Northern Ireland level as the match finished 1-1. Northern Ireland’s veteran goalkeeper Pat Jennings, who 20 years earlier had made his international debut in the same stadium, had to leave the action early after Ian Rush’s boot caught him in the face. “You’d better ask the other fellow if it was an accident,” he told the media afterwards.

The draw meant Northern Ireland and Wales had both finished with three points (two points for a win), with Northern Ireland’s goal difference of +1 meaning they topped the table. Whoever won between Scotland and England at Hampden Park would keep the trophy; if it was a draw then Northern Ireland would be the final winners. But history did not appear to be on their side, considering no clash between Scotland and England had finished all-square since 1970.

Tony Woodcock equalises for England against Scotland.

On Saturday, May 26, 1984, the curtain came down on a competition that had begun on January 26, 1884. England’s preparations were not helped by a shortage of key players, due to injuries and club commitments. Speaking four days before the match, Bobby Robson said: “I could scream. I’m left with just one centre-half, Terry Fenwick, who has yet to have a full game for us.” Manchester United trio Mick Duxbury, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins flew in from Hong Kong in the days leading up to the game after a club tour, while the Tottenham Hotspur contingent appeared in the UEFA Cup final just three days before the match. No Liverpool players were involved as they were preparing to play in the European Cup final against Roma.

A downward header by Mark McGhee gave Scotland the lead, but England – playing with two genuine wingers in John Barnes and Mark Chamberlain – pulled level before the break. Tony Woodcock collected the ball some distance from the goal, cut inside and unleashed a spectacular left-footed drive into the net. It would be the final goal ever scored in the British Championship and it was a tremendous effort to conclude the competition. The second half saw Peter Shilton keep England level with some important stops as the rain fell in Glasgow, while substitute Gary Lineker made his England debut.


The Northern Ireland squad pictured after winning the final championship.

Neither side could find a winner, with the match ending 1-1. And so the competition finished with all four teams locked on three points. Northern Ireland took the honours thanks to having a goal difference one better than England and Wales and two better than Scotland. Wales were second by virtue of having scored more goals than England, as the ‘big two’ occupied the bottom spots in the table. The trophy was Northern Ireland’s to keep, as England and Scotland continued their annual clashes in the Rous Cup. But that would only last five years before the plug was pulled.

In the ensuing years there would be occasional calls for the Home Internationals to return, most seriously after all four sides failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Three years later there was again talk of the competition being revived to mark the FA’s 150th birthday in 2013. This came to nothing, although England did meet Scotland in a friendly. A similar competition, the Nations Cup, was played in the Republic of Ireland in 2011 featuring the four British Isles nations except England. But this would prove short-lived amid low attendances, with the competition’s failings perhaps confirming that there would be no comeback for the Home Internationals either.