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England’s Euro ’80 – Hopes go up in smoke

Today we look back at England’s fortunes in the 1980 European Championship. The competition marked England’s return to major tournaments after a lengthy absence, but they would make a quick exit – and the behaviour of a section of their followers would make all the headlines… 

England qualified in style for Euro ’80, winning seven of their eight matches to secure their place in the finals. This was to be the first European Championship to resemble a proper tournament, with the quarter-finals no longer played over two legs. Instead there would now be two groups of four teams in Italy, with the winners of each section progressing to the final. England were in the easier-looking of the two groups, having avoided a section which included holders Czechoslovakia, World Cup runners-up Netherlands and 1974 world champions West Germany. Instead, England’s main concern looked to be the hosts Italy, who they would face along with Belgium and Spain.

The qualifying campaign had raised expectations for England, along with an impressive 2-0 away win in a friendly against Spain in March 1980 and beating world champions Argentina in May. But four days later they were brought down to earth with a 4-1 loss to Wales at Wrexham. It was hard to be sure just how England would fare in Italy, but if Ron Greenwood could replicate the success of English club sides in Europe then they had every chance. While the national team had been experiencing a lean period, English clubs had dominated the European Cup for the past four years with Liverpool and Nottingham Forest each winning it twice. Both clubs would be well represented in the squad, including the goalkeepers of Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton. This tournament would see Greenwood let the goalkeepers share duties, as he would continue to do until he finally picked Shilton as clear number one for the 1982 World Cup. One unfortunate absentee was forward Trevor Francis, ruled out through injury.

England’s absence from recent major competitions meant for virtually all the squad this would be their first major tournament, with Emlyn Hughes the only player left who went to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico (he didn’t play in either competition). Kevin Keegan had become the star England player of his era, but this was finally his chance to appear in a major finals. There were injury concerns about him prior to the competition, but he insisted he was fit to play. “I’m ready for Italy. There are no excuses now if we don’t do well,” he said. The build-up seemed very low-key by today’s standards. The back pages were dominated by cricket until the tournament began and England flew out to Italy just two days before their opening match. England may have been back in the big time, but this clearly did not compare to the World Cup – although they visited 10 Downing Street shortly before the finals. Kevin Keegan seemed to see the funny side as he met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher!

Trouble in Turin

England would start their tournament against Belgium in Turin on June 12. The Belgians were quoted as saying they did not expect to beat England, but Greenwood wasn’t buying it. “We don’t in any way underestimate them,” he said ahead of the match. “They are a strong side, a side with experience even if they are unpredictable.” The tournament was blighted by poor attendances and just 15,186 were in the Stadio Comunale to see Ray Wilkins put England ahead after 25 minutes. Not a renowned goalscorer, Wilkins expertly played the ball over the Belgian defence and ran through to then chip goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff and score. Surely this goal would set England on their way to victory and potentially a place in the final? Sadly not. Just four minutes later Jan Ceulemans equalised for Belgium. 

It was then that England’s tournament was tarnished. Fighting broke out on the terraces, with tear gas fired by police in a bid to quell the violence. Goalkeeper Clemence briefly lost vision due to the spray, with the match stopped for five minutes. There had been disorder involving English hooligans before, but this incident marked a new low point – inside the stadium during a major tournament, with the match halted as a result. Greenwood fumed afterwards: “We have done everything to create the right impression, then these bastards let you down.” He added: “I wish they could all be put in a boat and dropped in the ocean.” If this was the normally diplomatic Greenwood speaking out like this, one can only imagine what Brian Clough would have come out with if he’d been in charge…

Tear gas was sprayed during England’s match against Belgium.

The match was always going to struggle to get going again after the trouble, but in the closing stages England thought they had regained the lead through Tony Woodcock. But his effort was controversially ruled out and the decision would prove significant in the final reckoning. The match ended 1-1, representing a point dropped for England but with them still in with a shout of reaching the final.

The aftermath of the match was overshadowed by the crowd trouble and the FA being fined £8,000, which was considered a token gesture amid fears of possible expulsion. Under the headline of ‘Softies’, Frank McGhee angrily wrote in the Daily Mirror: “That is roughly the equivalent of a slap on the wrist with a wet lettuce leaf, or trying to starve a rich man to death by stealing a single potato from his plate. No one among the England officials out here is actually saying so, but you would have to nail their feet to the floor to prevent a dance of delight at the decision. I could belabour the metaphor forever because I am so cross about it. Punishment should hurt – and this one doesn’t.”

Hopes end after two games

England fans were now being urged to hide their colours en route to their next match – a Sunday night showdown with Italy in Turin. It was a match of vital importance, both in terms of England’s hopes of winning the tournament and the need for their fans to behave themselves. Off the field there was mercifully no repeat of the scenes three days earlier, with most England fans having walked together from the railway station in a bid to avoid attacks. On the pitch, whoever lost was staring elimination in the face. Italy had drawn 0-0 with Spain in their opening game, with the Spaniards then losing to Belgium. The Belgians were emerging as a surprise package, but the match between Italy and England was the blue riband fixture of the group and a crowd of 59,649 was the highest of the tournament. Italy’s preparations for the tournament had been hit by a bribery scandal, with forward Paulo Rossi banned as a result.

England and Italy prepare for their group stage showdown.

Greenwood handed a start to young Nottingham Forest forward Garry Birtles. An even contest ensued, settled 11 minutes from time with Phil Neal taking the blame for failing to win a tackle against Francesco Graziani. He put over an excellent cross for Marco Tardelli to score from close range past Shilton. Earlier Ray Kennedy had struck the woodwork for England, as they suffered a 1-0 defeat which made it impossible for them to win the competition. Their only hope now was they could win through to the third place play-off if they beat Spain. Trying to remain upbeat, Greenwood said: “We have got to keep our sights on that target and I’m proud that the spirit in the team is still sky-high. Phil Neal is blaming himself but no one else is blaming him.”

Pride restored

Greenwood again made changes for the Spain game, meaning 19 members of the squad enjoyed gametime in Italy. Trevor Brooking gave England the lead, but three minutes into the second half Dani equalised from the spot. He strode up to beat Clemence with another penalty a few minutes later, only for the referee to spot an infringement and order a retake. This time around Clemence saved and England were off the hook. They took advantage of this with Woodcock restoring their lead to give them a 2-1 victory. England had created a series of chances in the match with Spanish goalkeeper Luis Arconada continually denying them. But Greenwood wasn’t overjoyed with the win. “We played much better against Italy,” he admitted.

Ray Clemence saves a penalty as England beat Spain.

England now basically needed a team to win between Italy and Belgium later on to reach the third place match, certainly if the Belgians lost by at least two goals. But it wasn’t to be. Italy could not make the breakthrough, with the 0-0 draw meaning Belgium were surprisingly through to the final against West Germany. Italy’s dreams of glory were over, the only goal in any of their three group games being their winner against England. 

For England, the tournament set the trend for their other overseas European Championship appearances over the next 20 years. They would make a swift return home and with the conduct of a section of their fans having brought shame upon the nation. We have previously recalled how Euro ’80 – or Europa ’80 as it was generally known at the time – was not considered a success amid low crowds, negative tactics, criticisms of the competition’s format and the hooliganism seen during England’s match against Belgium. That would unfortunately be the tournament’s lasting image in England. The ‘English Disease’ was taking hold and further violence would follow on several occasions when England travelled abroad in the ensuing years.

On the field it had been a mixed bag for England. In today’s world a record of a win, a draw and a defeat from matches against Belgium, Italy and Spain would probably be considered a good return. Even at the time it represented disappointment over an early exit rather than abject failure. In keeping with Greenwood’s reign as a whole, England were neither good nor bad really. Yet it might have all been different. Had Woodcock’s disallowed goal against Belgium been allowed to stand and subsequent results stayed the same, England would have topped the group and been in the final. How differently we might look back at this tournament if that goal had been allowed…

englandmemories View All

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

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