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England’s flying start to the 1982 World Cup

England’s opening matches at major tournaments have not always turned out happily, the side more often than not dropping points. But this week in 1982 they flew out of the blocks against France and started the World Cup in style. Today we recall that scorching day in Bilbao and reflect upon how England could not sustain the momentum for the remainder of the tournament…

Mention the 1982 World Cup to fans of a certain age and they are likely to get misty-eyed about that Spanish summer. It was a tournament that contained an adored Brazil team who scored some wonderful goals but ultimately lost out, two of the most dramatic matches of any World Cup (Italy against Brazil and West Germany against France) and some notable shock results. It was a competition also not without its fair share of controversy.

And then we come to England. A long 12-year wait had been endured since they had last appeared in the finals back in 1970 and they had made heavy weather of reaching Spain under Ron Greenwood. But they had scraped in after other results went in their favour and Paul Mariner scored the winner against Hungary to clinch qualification. It was the first time a whole generation of youngsters had seen the nation represented at the World Cup.

If their qualification had been fortunate, the decision to grant England seeded status for the finals was even more debatable. The 1966 triumph still evidently carried weight despite the two recent failures to qualify and even goalkeeper Ray Clemence admitted “we’re very lucky to be seeded” when asked his opinion in the ITV studio ahead of the draw taking place in January. But the opportunity was being grasped and England would be based in Bilbao, facing Czechoslovakia, France and Kuwait. The main hope about Bilbao was it would be cooler than elsewhere.

England had struggled to qualify, but their run of form in the months leading up to the finals acted as a more positive indicator of their capabilities. They won six of their last seven full internationals before the tournament, the only draw being away to Iceland when a B side was fielded. Previously written off, now England were being built up and the lyrics to the side’s single This Time (We’ll Get it Right) certainly conveyed a belief that they could make an impact in the tournament.

But then, as so often is the case, complications set in. Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan, two of the most famous players of their era, both became beset by injury woes that would rule them out of the start of the tournament. This would realistically be their last chance to play at a World Cup and Keegan would even resort to driving through the night so he could catch a flight to be seen by a specialist in West Germany.

A goalkeeping dilemma

England’s talents were not restricted to Brooking and Keegan. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Clemence and Peter Shilton continually shared goalkeeping duties, in a move that carried some logic in terms of trying to appease both but it attracted criticism. But for the tournament there was finally going to be a first choice and it was Shilton, with his friendly rival and room-mate Clemence staying diplomatic as the news broke on the brink of England’s tournament opener against France.

“Naturally I am bitterly disappointed. Only one of us can play and as long as the one who plays does well then that is the important thing,” he told the media shortly after learning Shilton had got the nod. But who would keep goal for England wasn’t dominating too many headlines back home.

Less than 48 hours before England were to meet France on June 16, Argentina surrendered in the Falklands War. The conflict had for a time threatened the participation of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland in the finals and the war had certainly put the World Cup’s significance into perspective (UK viewers missed out on seeing the tournament’s first match as Argentina were playing in it). But now the news that the war had ended meant there was hope a national feel-good factor would spread to the UK’s football teams. “Our players, along with the rest of the world, welcome the news,” said Greenwood.

But a bit of national euphoria was not going to defeat the French on its own. Unlike England, France had qualified for the 1978 World Cup and in Michel Platini they boasted a star midfielder. There was plenty of other quality to be found in their ranks, such as the diminutive Alain Giresse. This was going to prove a major test of England’s capabilities.

In Keegan’s absence the captain’s armband went to Mick Mills at right back. Operating on the opposite side was Kenny Sansom, with Terry Butcher – winning just his fifth cap – and Phil Thompson paired in the centre of the defence. England’s midfield would contain Manchester United colleagues Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins, along with their team-made Steve Coppell on the right flank and Arsenal’s Graham Rix on the left. There would be no place for the gifted Glenn Hoddle.

The attack would contain Trevor Francis and the in-form Paul Mariner, who had netted in the last four matches he had played for England. Not one member of England’s squad had been to a World Cup before, although a good number had gained tournament experience two years earlier at the European Championship.

The heat is on

The match was played on a Wednesday afternoon in scorching heat in Bilbao, as hopes of it being a cooler venue were dashed. For many young fans back home a key recollection would be rushing home from school to make the 4.15pm (BST) kick-off time. Those that did were rewarded by seeing the most sensational of starts. As is well-known, from the kick-off England earned a throw-in deep in the French half. Coppell launched a long throw into the area, with Butcher flicking it on into the path of Robson. The midfielder found space to break the deadlock just 27 seconds in. “What a start for England. Amazing,” purred BBC commentator John Motson.

Although evidence was put forward that quicker goals had been scored at previous tournaments, it would at the time hold the official record for the fastest ever World Cup goal and Robson was awarded a gold watch for his lightning quick strike. When Manchester United splashed out a record £1.5million the previous autumn to sign Robson, manager Ron Atkinson insisted he was buying “solid gold” and now the midfielder – who was still relatively unknown by foreign audiences – was proving it by making an impact on the world stage.

But most significantly he had given England the lead and after 12 years of waiting they had made up for lost time by scoring instantly at the World Cup. England have a history of striking early in their first match at a major tournament but then getting pegged back and that would be the pattern here on 24 minutes. Francis attempted to play a ball through but it was intercepted, with a direct pass forward finding Gerard Soler who converted past Shilton.

France for a time looked like they might go on to win the game as some of the early English momentum was lost. But this was to be England’s day. Amid excitement in the crowd over the news that West Germany were losing 2-1 to Algeria, midway through the second half Francis crossed into the box where Robson timed his run to power in an excellent header for his second goal of the game. The win was secured when the ball fell kindly for Mariner to continue his scoring streak in the closing minutes.

There would be praise coming England’s way as they left the field in Bilbao. Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “It was a superb performance, because at one stage the French were teasing and testing us with imaginative football. But England finally triumphed by sheer guts and some superbly skilled soccer of their own in an exhilarating final half-hour.”

Curry believed the match was won in midfield, especially hailing Robson “who is developing into a player of world class”. The decision to leave Hoddle out of the starting line-up was controversial and one his legion of fans could not understand, but Greenwood could argue the choice was justified by how well the midfield had functioned.

After months of British uncertainty over the Falklands, at last there were happy headlines dominating the news. The conflict had reached a successful conclusion, Prince William was about to be born and England had made a flying start to the World Cup – with Scotland and Northern Ireland also looking to impress out in Spain. Robson’s world was a particularly happy one, as the following day his wife Denise gave birth to their daughter Charlotte.

The momentum was now firmly with England and four days later they ensured progression with a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia thanks to Francis and an own goal, although the performance did not quite hit the heights of the France game. It was followed up with a dull 1-0 win over Kuwait, with an excellent Francis finish being out of context with the forgettable match. England had achieved a 100% group stage record and they would be sorry to be moving on from their adopted home of Bilbao.

Three’s a crowd

The 1982 World Cup was the first to include 24 teams and one drawback to the expansion was the struggle to find a format that worked as well as when the tournament included 16 sides. FIFA settled on having two teams going through from each of the six groups to the second phase, where there would be four groups of three. Only one side would go through from each to the semi-finals and the round had the potential to be brutal.

If England had been fortunate to qualify and then be seeded, then this is where their luck ran out. France, after finishing second, were placed in a winnable group with Austria and Northern Ireland. England, who had topped the group, now found themselves alongside West Germany and hosts Spain. It was going to be tough and England were not alone in getting a dubious reward for winning a group – Brazil now found themselves in a mouthwatering section with Argentina and Italy.

England and West Germany met in their group’s opener in Madrid. The German reputation had been sullied by the manner of their progression against Austria and it wouldn’t be improved by this dire contest as both sides seemed more concerned about not losing than going for the win. “The goalless draw was only marginally less cynical than the ‘agreed’ victory of Germany’s with Austria and was an insult to the 90,000 who whistled them off at the finish,” wrote an unimpressed David Miller in the Daily Express. Greenwood’s tactical choices were being questioned, as those who knew him well such as ITV pundit John Bond found it hard to believe he would adopt such a cautious approach – believing assistant boss Don Howe was calling the shots.

Before England took to the field again, Spain were beaten 2-1 by West Germany. It meant Spanish hopes were over and England would have to both win and score at least twice to progress. The failings of the format were illustrated by the fact that if England won 2-1 then lots would have to be drawn to determine if they or West Germany reached the semi-final (maybe it would have been preferable to penalties for England!).

On the afternoon of July 5 the world watched enthralled by Italy’s 3-2 win over Brazil. Viewers would be less captivated that night by England’s meeting with Spain, as Greenwood’s men struggled to make the breakthrough against a side already out but looking to salvage some pride on home soil. The night would be remembered for Brooking and Keegan finally appearing as they came off the bench and both missed chances, with a lasting image being Keegan heading wide with the goal at his mercy.

It ended 0-0 and England’s dream was over. To some fans this is remembered as a successful tournament for the side and they would consider it unfair that England could be eliminated without losing. They conceded just one goal in five games and for the only time enjoyed a 100% record in the first group stage. And after five matches England had won three times and drawn twice, while it was the other way round for eventual winners Italy. “We couldn’t help but feel there was something wrong with a system that eliminated a team with a record like that,” wrote Robson in his autobiography.

But not everyone at the time was taking the view that England had suffered some sort of injustice. “The lessons of the last decade have clearly not been learned as we again wrestled with a continental defence like a blind man groping for a shaft of light,” wrote Curry after the Spain game. “The truth is that when we are confronted by a defence employing a sweeper and tight marking, we have neither the skill nor imagination to surmount it.”

The 1982 World Cup would become an ‘if only’ tournament for England. If only Brooking and Keegan had been fit throughout; if only the competition’s format had been more favourable; if only Keegan had buried that chance. But nothing could change the reality that England were out before the last four, while France had recovered from their opening loss to reach the semi-finals. They would lose out in dramatic and controversial circumstances to West Germany, as England were left wondering what might have been.

Greenwood headed off into retirement, with Bobby Robson replacing him in surely the most amicable handover of the England manager’s job. He would face a rebuilding exercise and many of Ron’s 22 would be on their way out. This time, just like so many other times, England didn’t get it quite right and they were home earlier than hoped. But the win over France in Bilbao still remains fondly remembered.

  • A more thorough account of England’s 1982 World Cup campaign can be read in Gary Jordan’s book Out of the Shadows. Read our review here.

englandmemories View All

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

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