As England’s preparations for the delayed Euro 2020 are stepped up by playing friendlies this week, we look back at six warm-up games of significance prior to England’s European Championship campaigns from 1968 to 2000…
1968 – West Germany’s revenge
Imagine a world when England were world champions, they had qualified for a major tournament that West Germany were going to be absent from and had never lost to the Germans. That was how things were as June 1968 dawned. England’s biggest week since their 1966 World Cup triumph would end with them looking to become European champions, but start with a reunion with West Germany in Hanover. It was a friendly, but a significant test.
England’s form as world champions had been strong, but this would mark a turning point. Fielding a side containing just four players who had appeared in a World Cup final, they were undone by a late goal by Franz Beckenbauer. The Germans had some revenge for the events of two years earlier and had finally beaten England. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time. But for Sir Alf Ramsey’s men the focus remained on their European Championship semi-final against Yugoslavia four days later.
“Defeat had to happen sometime,” wrote Geoffrey Green in The Times. “Better on this occasion at Hanover yesterday with nothing at stake beyond a reputation, than this coming Wednesday, when England meet tough and technical Yugoslavia in Florence in the semi-final of the European Nations football championship. That is a competition which Moore and his men so want to win to underpin their rank as world champions and provide a fresh launching pad for Mexico two years hence.” Alas, England were beaten by Yugoslavia as Alan Mullery suffered the indignity of becoming the team’s first sending off.
1980 – Robson’s long flight home
England’s preparations for the 1980 European Championship were a mixed bag to put it mildly. A rousing win over world champions Argentina was immediately followed by an abject thrashing by Wales. After failing to win the Home International Championship, England had one more game left before heading off to Italy for the Euros. As would become a recurring theme, they made a trip that was greeted with puzzled looks – travelling all the way to Australia for a friendly in Sydney on May 31.
This was a glorified England B team, with many of the seminal names of the era such as Kevin Keegan absent for this match to help mark Australia’s footballing centenary. But full caps were awarded, with five players making their England debuts including future regular Terry Butcher. The game would allow Ron Greenwood to decide who claimed the final places in his 22-man squad, with emerging midfielders Glenn Hoddle and Bryan Robson vying for a midfield spot.
Hoddle and forward Paul Mariner found the net in England’s 2-1 win and they would both make the cut for the finals. But Robson would not be so lucky. The West Bromwich Albion midfielder would have plenty of time to dwell on his omission after learning the bad news shortly before the flight home. “That was a long trip back from Australia to England when you’ve just lost your chance of going to a European Championship,” Robson recalled a decade later. England would fail to get beyond the group stage, in a tournament blighted by the antics of hooligans during the team’s first game against Belgium.
1988 – Annihilating Aylesbury
Aylesbury United against England. It looked a curious fixture in June 1988, it looks even more curious when recalled more than 30 years later. Just eight days before their Euro ‘88 campaign began, England were not pitting their wits against leading European opposition. Instead they were playing a public practice match at a side that had just earned promotion to the Vauxhall Conference. A few weeks after Bobby Gould had won the FA Cup with Wimbledon, now brother Trevor enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame as Aylesbury’s manager.
Veteran sports journalist Frank McGhee took much of the credit for the fixture taking place, seemingly planting in Bobby Robson’s mind the idea that chalking up a few goals against non-league opposition could help boost confidence for the European Championship. Giving virtually all their squad a run out, England duly scored seven without reply. Peter Beardsley bagged four of them, later getting the chance to relive the achievement on Fantasy Football’s ‘Phoenix From the Flames’.
Had England done well at the European Championship then such a fixture could have become a staple of the team’s tournament preparations – a goodwill gesture to help promote grassroots football before heading overseas, while also getting the side in confident mood for the finals. But instead it became held up for ridicule. England lost all three games in West Germany, with Beardsley never getting on the scoresheet and a game against Aylesbury considered insufficient preparation for facing the likes of the Netherlands. But for the Buckinghamshire club it would be a day to fondly remember, having shared the field with the national team.
1992 – Taylor’s Helsinki hell
A combination of injuries, international retirements and controversial non-selections meant a number of established players would not be involved in Graham Taylor’s England squad for the 1992 European Championship. The events of the last full international ahead of the finals meant the squad was further decimated, left bereft of both creativity and a natural right-back.
The friendly in Finland on June 3 did at least produce a 2-1 England win, meaning they had so far lost just one game in almost two years under Taylor. But victory came at a cost. Already limited in creative options, Taylor now had to face a tournament without John Barnes as the Liverpool star went down injured early on and didn’t continue. Things would get even worse when Gary Stevens became the third different right-back to be ruled out through injury following the game. Gareth Southgate has alternative options to Trent Alexander-Arnold; but Taylor was going to have to improvise at the Euros.
England’s hopes were receding, not helped by captain Gary Lineker enduring a poor run of form as Bobby Charlton’s goals record continued to elude him. Now things were about to get even worse. Mark Wright would complain of a recurrence of an injury and England would be denied permission to bring in Tony Adams as a replacement. Barnes, Stevens and Wright had all played in more than one major tournament previously and their absences meant England were crucially lacking in experience. The makeshift side Taylor fielded would fail to win a game at the European Championship, as the tide turned against him.
1996 – England’s China crisis
After two years of primarily playing home friendlies under Terry Venables, England opted for a change of scene prior to Euro ‘96 by heading to the Far East. The decision to play games against China and a Hong Kong Golden Select XI raised a few eyebrows. Not just among Englishmen. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard where you were going,” UEFA president Lennart Johansson told the English media. Events on the tour would provide further ammunition for its critics.
A 3-0 win over China in the last full international before Euro ‘96 was positive enough, but the Hong Kong match would provide less fulfilment. No caps were awarded but this certainly wasn’t some widely-ignored practice match, with the game receiving substantial television coverage back home. A laboured 1-0 victory didn’t exactly get the nation believing that glory lay ahead. “England’s last public performance before the European Championship was as dull as the skies which drenched the prosaic proceedings in luke-warm rain,” wrote an unimpressed David Lacey in The Guardian.
But the trip would not really be remembered for matters on the field. Instead ‘Cathay Pacific’ and ‘dentist’s chair’ would be terms forever associated with the tour, as media criticism poured in over the conduct of a section of the squad. A man who steered clear of getting involved in the trouble was Stuart Pearce, who wrote in his autobiography: “It was very naive; the lads should have known better. It is not a lot to ask to keep your heads down for two weeks.” The tour may not exactly have been an overwhelming triumph, but it did yield Paul Gascoigne’s memorable celebration following his goal against Scotland during Euro ‘96.
2000 – An ominous warning sign
“If we play like that in Euro 2000 we’ll be on the first plane home,” said a frustrated Kevin Keegan after seeing England toil to a 2-1 win away to Malta little more than a week before their involvement in the tournament began. His fears would come true as England crashed out in the group stage, having repeatedly been exposed defensively.
Once more England’s last game before a Euros was not one that too many would have picked, with Malta lacking a footballing pedigree comparable with what Keegan’s side would be facing during the tournament. The game on June 3 came ahead of a summer in which England wanted success on two fronts – doing well at the Euros before winning the vote to host the 2006 World Cup. They would not come close to realising either ambition. If, as was reported at the time, the Malta friendly had been arranged to help secure a vote in the World Cup bid process then it was a rather futile gesture.
The match brought an England debut in goal for Richard Wright, just five days after helping Ipswich Town win the First Division play-off final against Barnsley. He would be on the winning side for England despite giving away two penalties, conceding the first one (which rebounded in off him after hitting the woodwork) but saving the second late on to spare Keegan’s side from an embarrassing draw. Martin Keown and Emile Heskey scored for England, but the warning signs were there that this wasn’t going to be a joyful summer.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.