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Six of the Best – England’s last game of the decade

Ahead of England’s final game of the 2010s away to Kosovo, we look back at how they have ended the last six decades…

England 2-1 Northern Ireland, November 1959

If England had gone into the 1950s believing they were the best in the world, then the decade saw them well and truly knocked off their perch. Their first three World Cup tournaments all ended prematurely and they suffered an infamous defeat to the USA in 1950. If that could be dismissed as a fluke, then the two thrashings dished out by Hungary in 1953 and 1954 most certainly were not. As the decade drew to a close, things were particularly bleak. The Munich Air Disaster had a devastating impact on the team, with the loss of England regulars Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor being felt as the side continually struggled on the field.

This was a particularly barren period for England, during a transitional period in which several younger players were being given their chance after the likes of Billy Wright and Tom Finney had left the scene. They went into their final home game of 1959 against Northern Ireland on November 18 having won just three times in their last 17 games. Nobody in the side for this game would go on to play in the 1966 World Cup final, although squad members Ron Springett, Ron Flowers and John Connelly appeared.

Captains Ronnie Clayton and Danny Blanchflower shake hands before the kick-off.

England would claim a rare win, but it wasn’t convincing. Joe Baker, a man born in England but who had grown up north of the border and played his club football for Hibernian, marked his international debut by opening the scoring for the hosts on 16 minutes as he netted past Harry Gregg. Another newcomer, Springett, would make an immediate impact by saving a Jimmy McIlroy penalty and that looked like it would see England home to a 1-0 win.

But a dramatic conclusion saw future Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham equalise in the 89th minute, only for England to go up the other end and win it through Ray Parry on his first cap after good work by Baker. “That last show of spirit was the best thing about them,” summed up The Times on England’s display. A better decade was soon to begin…

England 1-0 Portugal, December 1969

As the 1960s neared the end, England remained on top of the world after their glorious triumph in 1966. But this did not mean everyone was in awe of the side, with critics considering the style of play to be functional rather than flamboyant and believing their status as world champions owed much to home advantage and key decisions going in their favour. All this would give Sir Alf Ramsey added motivation to retain the World Cup in the following summer’s tournament in Mexico and his preparations were now in full swing.

The final game of the 1960s was a Wembley friendly on December 10 against Portugal, a rematch of the 1966 World Cup semi-final. This would be a pale imitator, with the likes of Eusebio not involved and the Portuguese having failed to qualify for the 1970 finals. But the fixture had sufficient pulling power for a crowd of 100,000 to show up. The fact that BBC highlights of the match could be viewed in colour – if you were one of the few at this point who had such a television – was further evidence that a new era was emerging as the end of the decade approached.

Jack Charlton heads in the winner for England against Portugal.

Portugal had every reason to curse Bobby Charlton when it came to Wembley trips. He scored twice against them on his home England debut in 1958 and repeated the feat in that 1966 semi-final, while he had played when England won a decisive World Cup qualifier in 1961 and, for good measure, scored twice for Manchester United against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final. Now he would play his part again, but the Charlton on the scoresheet wasn’t him. Midway through the first half Bobby took a corner, with brother Jack on hand to head home.

They were two of just four members of the 1966 final XI to start this game, due to a combination of the side having evolved and Alf Ramsey looking at who he should take to Mexico. Goalkeeper Peter Bonetti impressed as he pulled off a brilliant save to deny Portugal scoring from a free-kick, while at the other end a clear chance would be presented for England to double their lead after Jeff Astle was fouled in the box. Franny Lee blazed the spot-kick wide, although in mitigation he had endured a lengthy wait to take it after extensive Portuguese protests. England created enough chances to win more comfortably, but they had to settle for a 1-0 success.

“England perhaps must still learn to keep the ball moving along the lines of longitude if they are to strike a triumphal path through Mexico,” wrote Geoffrey Green in The Times. “At present it seems to be a case of the boffins’ tail wagging the football body. They have the skill, they have the heart and they have the cement. All that is needed is a happy marriage of the three inside the opponents’ penalty area.”

The dream of retaining the World Cup would die six months later against West Germany. A painful decade would follow…

England 2-0 Bulgaria, November 1979

The 1970s represented a particularly tough few years for England. From the moment they were dethroned as world champions in 1970 it had been a continuous story of despair, as the side failed to qualify for major tournaments and became increasingly isolated from global football’s elite. But as the decade drew to a close, there was at last a chink of light. They dominated their qualifying group for the 1980 European Championship and could at last look forward to gracing a major tournament.

The last game of the 1970s was due to be played against Bulgaria on Wednesday, November 21. But thick fog enveloped Wembley on the night and the game was called off, leading to it being rearranged for the following evening. This was not going to be without its problems, with the game to take place under 48 hours before a full programme of Football League matches and with Kevin Keegan having to return to Hamburg. But qualification was already secured and this was a chance for Ron Greenwood to assess who could cut it in international football, as he handed debuts to Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Reeves.

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Glenn Hoddle starred on his debut for England against Bulgaria.

Hoddle would make an instant impact. He provided the assist for Dave Watson to head in the first, then displayed his flair and confidence to score with a memorable sidefooted effort to clinch a 2-0 victory. All the talk afterwards was about Hoddle. “English football will always have a chance when it can produce a player of the class and quality of Tottenham’s Glenn Hoddle,” Frank McGhee wrote in the Daily Mirror. “His was perhaps the most impressive debut I’ve seen in international football since young Bobby Charlton’s.”

Barry Davies, a man who never hid his admiration for Hoddle, was commentating for the BBC and declared: “We’re seeing the start of a man who is going to be a very big name during the ’80s.” He was right, although a total of 53 England caps would be confirmation that his international career did not quite pan out as hoped for reasons that would require a dedicated blog post to explore.

England 2-1 Yugoslavia, December 1989

England in the 1980s would be largely about the Robsons. Manager Bobby was in charge from 1982, riding the storm to remain at the helm as the decade drew to a close and with a World Cup in Italy to look forward to the following year. Central to his plans was his midfield general Bryan, who held the captaincy from early in his reign. By December 1989 the clock was ticking on his international career, but he was still highly regarded by his manager and leading the side as captain.

England has been due to end 1989 with a friendly away to the Netherlands, but this was called off three months beforehand due to the threat of trouble. Instead a home game was arranged on December 13 against Yugoslavia, who had also qualified for Italia ’90. England went into the match looking to end an unprecedented run of three successive goalless draws.

But fans wouldn’t have to wait long to see a goal, captain Robson scoring a first minute header that broke the record for the fastest England goal at Wembley. He would help them register their 100th win there too, his second half goal sealing a 2-1 victory after Hans Skoro had equalised with an impressive run and finish for the visitors.

Bryan Robson scored twice for England against Yugoslavia.

They were to be the final goals Robson scored for his country and they extended the side’s unbeaten run since being whitewashed at Euro ’88. We will look back at this game in more detail shortly in our ‘From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion’ series.

England 0-1 Scotland, November 1999

The final games of the 1990s for England had plenty of hype attached to them, after being paired with old rivals Scotland in the Euro 2000 play-offs. Kevin Keegan’s side had been rather fortunate to even reach this stage, relying on Sweden to beat Poland to finish runners-up in their group. But England were given a helping hand and then seemed almost certain to qualify after winning 2-0 away to the Scots.

England were beaten on the night by Don Hutchison’s header.

But the return game at Wembley on November 17 was to represent a significant backwards step. England almost contrived to throw away their advantage, despite starting the brighter and having a Michael Owen goal ruled out. Don Hutchison’s header turned the course of the night in Scotland’s favour and they would almost level the aggregate score when David Seaman had to deny Christian Dailly from point-blank range.

And so it was a strange feeling at the end. England had won the war but lost the battle, as Scotland could at least take some pride at having triumphed in the last meeting of the sides at the old Wembley. For the first time since the 1880s, England had been beaten in their final match of the decade. With hindsight at least, it would mark the beginning of the end for Keegan. The warning signs were there of England’s shortcomings and they would duly struggle at Euro 2000. He would leave his role after the final game at the old Wembley, a miserable defeat to Germany in October 2000.

Brazil 1-0 England, November 2009

The 2000s had promised much for England with the presence of their ‘Golden Generation’, but it had brought nothing better than quarter-final appearances and there had then been a humiliating failure to qualify for Euro 2008. But qualification was achieved in style for the 2010 World Cup under Fabio Capello and the side’s preparations for the finals were under way when they prepared for their final game of the decade against Brazil on November 14. In a taste of things to come, it would take place in Qatar.

Wayne Bridge in action for England against Brazil. It would be his final cap.

England were without several regulars and Wayne Rooney was handed the captain’s armband for the first time. Most of the key action occurred in the infancy of the second half, as Nilmar put Brazil ahead and then was brought down by Ben Foster in the area. Luis Fabiano missed from the spot, but England were unable to find an equaliser as they suffered only their fourth defeat since Fabio Capello took over as manager almost two years earlier.

It was not a game to rank high in the history of meetings between England and Brazil. “Just before kick off this state-of-the-art stadium was plunged into the darkness of the Gulf night as the floodlights went out for a laser display,” wrote Duncan White in The Telegraph. “They might as well have left them off – there was nothing much worth watching when they came back on.” The following year’s World Cup would be a joyless experience for England and it marked a difficult start to the decade, which brought limited cheer until they reached the semi-finals in 2018.

englandmemories View All

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

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