Next month sees England participate in the new UEFA Nations League. With that in mind we look back at when they first entered the Euros, during qualifying for the 1964 tournament. They wouldn’t last long, but the matches would be significant for marking the end of one era and the start of another…
New football competitions tend to be met with scepticism on these shores. There was no home presence in the first three World Cup tournaments in the 1930s (and nor were the British sides even FIFA members at the time); English champions Chelsea were absent from the first European Cup in 1955-56 after their planned participation encountered opposition from the Football League; a number of leading clubs boycotted the Football League Cup when it was introduced in 1960; and none of the UK sides entered the first European Nations’ Cup from 1958-60, in a competition which has evolved from its humble beginnings into the large-scale European Championship today.
They weren’t alone in shunning it, with the likes of Italy and West Germany also not taking part. But the qualifying process for the 1964 tournament brought increased interest with England, Northern Ireland and Wales all participating (Scotland remained among the absentees). It was to follow a simple – and rarely seen – qualifying format in which a knockout system would apply, with matches played over two legs. England would enter in the preliminary round and they were handed a tie with France.
The French had been semi-finalists at both the 1958 World Cup and 1960 Nations Cup, but they were now enduring a barren run of form and had missed out on a place at the 1962 World Cup after losing a play-off to Bulgaria. England had been there but had yet again struggled to make a great impact, losing to Brazil in the quarter-finals.
It marked the end of the road for manager Walter Winterbottom, who in August announced he was stepping down from the role. But not immediately. As the Football Association set about finding a successor, Winterbottom was to remain at the helm for the three remaining matches in 1962. The first of them would mark England’s initial foray into the Nations’ Cup. With Wembley unavailable, Hillsborough had the honour of hosting the first-leg against France on October 3.
A dreary showing
Winterbottom remained at the mercy of the selection committee when it came to picking the side and he was given a new-look attack to field, as eyes started to turn to the 1966 World Cup on home soil. Mike Hellawell, Chris Crowe, Ray Charnley and Alan Hinton were all handed their England debuts, but all four would only have brief international careers. The only established forward in the side was Jimmy Greaves, while the other six players had all played regularly during the World Cup in Chile – Ron Springett (who would be playing on his club ground of Hillsborough), captain Jimmy Armfield, Ray Wilson, Bobby Moore, Maurice Norman and Ron Flowers.
Played on a day when the country was affected by a rail strike, a crowd of 35,000 showed up at Hillsborough – little more than half the attendance recorded when the stadium hosted an FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United earlier in the year. It’s fair to say the European Nations’ Cup had yet to catch on and the spectacle that was served up wouldn’t help one bit. Not only did England look way off being capable of becoming European champions, their quest to win the World Cup four years later seemed an unlikely one as they toiled against the French in an uninspiring contest.
Yvon Goujon gave France the lead after just eight minutes. Although a penalty from Flowers in the early stages of the second-half restored parity and earned England a 1-1 draw, the performance had produced more reasons to be negative than positive.
“They were given the slow handclap and sarcastic whistles – and no wonder,” wrote Eric Todd in The Guardian, damningly describing it as “one of their most unconvincing displays in years”. In The Times, ‘Association Football Correspondent’ (Geoffrey Green) went further as he wrote: “This was, without equivocation, the dreariest display I have seen from an England team in the past 15 years, and what a tragedy that this should be the last time that Mr Winterbottom should have led his company into the field against overseas opposition. A sad farewell, indeed.”
England were left to dwell upon a disappointing night. And they would have a lot of time to do so, given the second-leg was not scheduled until almost five months later. But there would be plenty to discuss in the meantime, not least who Winterbottom’s successor would be.
Jimmy Adamson had turned the down chance to manage England, so the FA moved for Ipswich Town manager Alf Ramsey. It was certainly a meritocratic choice, given the former England player had led Ipswich from the Third Division to First Division champions. Before October was out it was confirmed Ramsey would be taking over. “Our loss is England’s gain,” said Ipswich’s charismatic chairman John Cobbold.
But Ipswich wouldn’t be losing Ramsey just yet. He wouldn’t take over as England manager until the new year and would then combine both roles for this season, as the selection committee temporarily remained before being binned off for good as Ramsey rightly insisted on having total authority over who was picked. Winterbottom was left to oversee his last two matches. A 3-1 away win over Northern Ireland on October 20 saw debutant Mike O’Grady score twice, but he was not capped again until 1969. Also winning their first caps in that game were Brian Labone and Fred Hill.
Winterbottom’s final match at the helm the following month was a low-key affair, just 27,500 turning up at Wembley to see England host Wales. At least he signed off with a 4-0 win, with Bobby Tambling becoming the latest debutant and Alan Peacock netting twice during his fourth cap.
Feeling the chill
Ramsey’s preparations for the France game could barely have been more difficult. Not only was he still preoccupied by matters at Ipswich – where the magic of the previous season had well and truly faded – but English football effectively ground to a halt for two months. The ‘Big Freeze’ struck, meaning many clubs went weeks without playing a game. There was never quite a total whiteout, but each weekend the list of matches on in England was considerably shorter than that of those postponed and it wasn’t uncommon for just a handful of professional matches to go ahead. It would not be until March that the FA Cup third round was completed.
On February 23 there was finally a Saturday in which the majority of games were played. This was just four days before England played the return game in Paris, with many players desperately short of match practice. Ron Henry was given his only cap in the left-back slot, while Bobby Charlton and Bobby Smith returned to the side after several months out. The winter weather was still in evidence as England arrived in Paris, but the game went ahead in the bitter cold. England would wish it had not.
Just three minutes had gone when Maryan Wisnieski broke the deadlock and by half-time it was 3-0 as Yvon Douis and Lucien Coussou struck. Although Smith scored a trademark header and Tambling reduced the deficit to 3-2 with 16 minutes left, England’s hopes were swiftly ended as Wisnieski and Coussou both scored again. The Times reported: “Where England goes henceforth is anyone’s guess.” Certainly any prospect of World Cup glory in 1966 seemed remote after such a lamentable defensive display.
“It was one of the biggest blows to England’s pride for a number of years,” wrote Todd in The Guardian, noting that the French had not won for 11 matches prior to taking England apart. “There is, one fears, very little that can be said in extenuation of England’s sad performance,” he added.
The defeat was certainly an eye-opener for Ramsey, who asked Armfield afterwards if England always played as badly as that. Upon being reassured that they did not, Ramsey replied: “That’s the first bit of good news I’ve had all night.” His last match for England as a player had been in the 6-3 humiliation at home to Hungary a decade earlier. Now his first game as manager had brought a similarly emphatic loss. It served to emphasise that England had no right to consider themselves among the world’s elite.
The man to perhaps emerge worst out of the game was Springett, who would take at least some of the blame for most of France’s goals. The next match against Scotland in April saw Gordon Banks handed his first cap and he would establish himself as the new regular number one and forever trusted by Ramsey. Although Springett remained on the scene, he was now reduced to the role of backup.
And it was a pattern gradually replicated elsewhere on the field. Of the revered side that beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, just Charlton and Moore played during Ramsey’s bow against France – with Wilson and Roger Hunt the only other men so far capped. Ramsey faced a rebuilding exercise to develop the side he wanted and the defeat in France underlined the work required if he was to lead England to World Cup glory.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.