England Qualifying Campaigns
Twenty years ago England were looking to qualify for their first World Cup since 1990, being involved in a straight contest for top spot with Italy. It all boiled down to an unforgettable decider in Rome in October 1997…
After the high emotion of Euro ’96, England were quickly back in competitive action as they focused on their next key task – getting to a World Cup finals after failing to make it four years earlier. They had a new manager, Glenn Hoddle having been announced as Terry Venables’ successor prior to Euro ’96. But any hopes Hoddle had of being able to spend plenty of time during the tournament with the side he was about to inherit were quickly dashed. “These are my finals. You get yours next time,” Venables later recalled telling him, accusing his successor-in-waiting of “arrogance” in his autobiography. Although it had been an open secret during the 1982 World Cup that Bobby Robson would replace the retiring Ron Greenwood and again in 1990 that Graham Taylor was to succeed Robson, there was no official announcement made until after England bowed out. But this time it was confirmed beforehand and Venables appeared particularly unhappy with the arrangement, a joint press conference feeling awkward despite the smiles on show.
Hoddle was therefore left looking in from the outside as England almost won Euro ’96, but he would have just two months to wait until his first match. The previous December had seen the 1998 World Cup qualifying draw made and it could probably have been kinder to England, with 1994 runners-up Italy the obvious main threat as group seeds. Poland were familiar opponents from recent qualifying groups, but Georgia and Moldova had never met England before. Both had enjoyed wins over Wales during Euro ’96 qualifying and England’s away trips could potentially be daunting trips into the unknown. Only one side would qualify automatically, but unlike when England had missed out on making it for 1974 to Poland and 1978 to Italy there would be a play-off place for the runner-up.
The new boss was only 38, but already had been in management for five years. He had won promotion with Swindon Town, before a three-year reign at Chelsea had yielded no major silverware but lengthy runs in both the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. Hoddle knew the international scene well from his playing days, where he had been capped 53 times (a criminally low figure in the eyes of his admirers). He also had experience of playing abroad and his stylish reputation as a player was mirrored in how he wanted this team’s to play. Even strong critics of his man-management skills have praised his coaching and technical abilities.
Hoddle, who set about seeking to get England playing a 3-5-2 system, inherited a buoyant side that Venables had rebuilt and it would need little tweaking. David Platt was the most noticeable player to never be capped again, while Stuart Pearce had intended to enter international retirement but would remain in the side. Hoddle’s first game was a qualifier on September 1 in Moldova and it would mark David Beckham’s England debut. The 21-year-old midfielder’s reputation had grown further with his incredible goal for Manchester United against Wimbledon two weeks earlier and Hoddle now believed it was time to give him his big chance. Also making his England bow was full-back Andy Hinchcliffe as a surprise occupant of the number 11 shirt, while Alan Shearer began his reign as England captain after a summer in which he had made a record £15m transfer to Newcastle United from Blackburn Rovers. Gary Pallister and subs David Batty and Matt Le Tissier all played after not being in the Euro ’96 squad.
The qualifying campaign starts with a win in Moldova.
England had rarely strayed from Wembley in the past couple of years and Hoddle would have presumably preferred a first game other than a qualifier and a potential banana skin. Mercifully it all worked out well on this Sunday afternoon in Chisinau, England overcoming a nervy opening to lead 2-0 inside 25 minutes through Nick Barmby and Paul Gascoigne. Shearer wrapped up a 3-0 victory, with the hosts then hitting a penalty against the woodwork after Pearce was adjudged to have handled. It wasn’t a classic, but this was a good way to start for Hoddle. As Glenn Moore wrote in The Independent: “The match, played in a low-key atmosphere, was unexceptional. The performance, apart from a cluster of highlights, workmanlike. But the points were the thing and England have got the first three of Group Two.”
The next match was at home to Poland in October, Hoddle pairing Newcastle United duo Shearer and Les Ferdinand in attack and playing just one natural central defender in Gareth Southgate as Hinchcliffe again took his place in the side. The spirit of the summer was on show as almost 75,000 showed up, but they saw England fall behind after just six minutes. By half-time it was 2-1 to England thanks to two goals from Shearer, with the side successfully seeing the game out. Played two, won two. It was a good start for England and Hoddle and already clear it looked a straight fight for top spot with Italy, who had so far beaten Moldova and Georgia.
Three out of three
A month later England fans would unusually find the side playing on a Saturday lunchtime (UK time) for an away qualifier in Georgia, being without Shearer but welcoming back Tony Adams who two months earlier had revealed his problems with alcoholism. Hoddle stood by Gascoigne despite reports he had attacked his wife, leading to some calling for Gazza to be dropped.
Tony Adams returned to lead England in Georgia.
Gascoigne repaid Hoddle by being involved in the build-up to Teddy Sheringham putting England in front, with Ferdinand adding a second before the break as England saw out the 2-0 win. “This is not an easy place to come and win,” said a satisfied Hoddle. “I showed the team a 45-minute video in which Georgia had torn teams apart. The tactics were right, the players agreed with them and the proof of it was in the performance.”
Hoddle had made a great start, but the real test lay three months away: Italy at home.
England went into the showdown with Italy having never lost a World Cup match at Wembley. The Italians were back on English soil after a poor Euro ’96, in which they were the most high-profile group stage casualty. England were without some key players including Adams, Gascoigne and David Seaman. Again England fielded just one natural centre back in Sol Campbell, while further up the field Le Tissier was given his chance to start.
Matt Le Tissier goes close against Italy, but is never capped again.
In many respects Hoddle and Le Tissier were kindred spirits, natural talents whose ability to pull off the spectacular was not enough to make them central to England’s plans. But Hoddle would show little patience with Le Tissier, hauling him off after an hour and never capping him again. A total of eight caps was considered pitiful in the eyes of the Southampton star’s admirers. Another selection of interest was goalkeeper Ian Walker, starting an international for the first time after two sub appearances. It was a big game to throw him into the side as England had to cope without the experience of Seaman.
Gianfranco Zola had arrived in England in recent weeks at Chelsea and he was to do the damage here, showing pristine control to take Allesandro Costacurta’s superb ball onto his right foot and fire out of Walker’s reach (aided by a deflection off Campbell). Le Tissier would head inches wide as England pursued an equaliser and Campbell had the ball hooked away from him in front of goal. The final chance fell to Shearer, but the impressive Italian goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi again thwarted him. The match was slipping away from England and the Italians saw the game out to win 1-0. England knew three vital points had been squandered to their main rivals for top spot. Hoddle tried to keep things in perspective, saying: “It’s a setback, not a disaster.”
March brought Hoddle’s first friendly, a 2-0 home win over Mexico. A few days later England were given some hope when Italy were held to a draw by Poland and in late April Hoddle’s side stayed in the hunt by beating Georgia 2-0. On the eve of Labour’s General Election landslide, the old Shearer and Sheringham double act did the trick as both scored, although it wasn’t until a cleverly worked indirect free-kick ended with Shearer scoring in stoppage time that the game was wrapped up.
Saturday night on Channel 5
It was to be a busy end to the season, beginning with England facing South Africa at Old Trafford in a friendly in which Ian Wright scored his first international goal since 1993 to earn a 2-1 win. But of far more concern was England’s qualifier in Poland seven days later, a match best remembered for being shown on the newly-launched Channel 5. “The channel that brings you England goals,” bemusingly proclaimed commentator Jonathan Pearce. Viewers would happily see two of them, the SAS pairing again coming up trumps as Shearer gave England an early lead – but later missed a penalty – before Sheringham wrapped up a 2-0 victory late on. It was an impressive triumph for England, who had cemented a top-two spot. It was now a question of whether they could overhaul the Italians to go through automatically, with everything to boil down to the final match in Rome.
The Shearer and Sheringham double act works again for England in Poland.
Before then the sides met again in France in the mini Le Tournoi competition, England turning in the style to win 2-0 and gain a degree of revenge for the result four months earlier. A 1-0 win over the French three days later meant England were surprise winners of the tournament before the final match against Brazil. Although England lost 1-0 to the world champions, there was pride and optimism as the team returned home with unexpected silverware. The question now was whether the team could repeat the success in France 12 months later at the World Cup. But first of all they had to qualify.
Ahead of the 1997-98 season beginning, England were dealt a blow when Shearer sustained an injury in pre-season with Newcastle United. It ruled him out for the remaining qualifiers – at home to Moldova in September, followed by the group decider in Italy a month later.
Paul Gascoigne slots home as England beat Moldova 4-0.
The build-up to the Moldovan match was totally overshadowed by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales 10 days previously. With little major football action taking place in the meantime, this was going to be an emotional night and the crowd paid its respects before kick-off. Candle in the Wind was played and some candles were on show in the crowd, with the minute’s silence impeccably observed. It evoked memories of when England had hosted Albania during Italia ’90 qualifying shortly after the Hillsborough Disaster. And there would be other similarities too: England won convincingly; Gascoigne was on the scoresheet; and the Three Lions moved a step closer towards qualifying. Ferdinand and Wright were paired in attack, the latter enjoying one of his best nights in an England shirt as he netted twice, with Paul Scholes having broken the deadlock in a 4-0 win.
That night in Rome
The national mood was boosted further with the news that Italy had been held to a draw in Georgia, meaning England now topped the group. All they had to do was avoid defeat in Rome a month later and they would be through as group winners. It was sure to be a major occasion. Some of the spirit of the summer of 1996 seemed to be resurfacing, with the match getting a pretty huge build-up. “The whole of England is behind you,” Prime Minister Tony Blair told Hoddle and his players. ‘By George We’ll Do It’ declared the front page of the Daily Express with many other tabloids going down a similar line. Sky were showing it live, ITV in full on delay almost immediately afterwards. It may have seemed a lot of fuss over a qualifying match, but a combination of England’s failure to make it four years earlier, the quality of the opposition and the fact there was no guarantee the runners-up would go through in the play-offs had made this a big deal.
Fears about trouble off the field were sadly realised, although much of the criticism was directed towards Italian police. It was always going to be a highly-charged night where England needed to keep their heads to qualify. Paul Ince, who had played in Italy for two years, was handed the captain’s armband. Ince would evoke memories of another stand-in captain, Terry Butcher, as he played on with his head bandaged and his shirt covered in blood during a vital World Cup qualifier and led by example. “I played a lot of games for England, including Euro ’96, but I think the Italy game is probably still the stand-out one,” Ince said in 2015. “At the time it was so important.”
England showed discipline in both matching the Italians and seeing the game out, on a night which was always going to seem a long 90 minutes as long as it stayed at 0-0. But during the first-half England came closest to breaking the deadlock, Ince’s powerful volley saved by Peruzzi and Beckham firing just over after excellent hold-up work by Sheringham. Italy stepped it up a gear after the break, sub Enrico Chiesa being denied by Seaman before a heart in mouth moment as Alessandro del Piero went down over Adams’ outstretched leg in the area. But there was a growing sense this was going to be England’s night when del Piero was booked for diving, before Angelo de Livio picked up his second booking following a challenge on Campbell.
England simply needed to keep their heads and see the game out as the seconds ticked away. The match moved into stoppage time for an unforgettable few moments. England caught Italy on the break and Wright, who had run his heart out all night, suddenly found himself rounding Peruzzi but hitting the post from an acute angle. Sheringham was dispossessed and Italy swept away, England seeming to lose concentration for the first time in the game. Del Piero got to the byline and crossed into the area, where Christian Vieri was lurking. It looked like the most heartbreaking ending for England but he headed inches wide of the goal. Every England fan, whether in Rome or back home, breathed a huge sigh of relief. “You’ve had the drama of top-level sport encapsulated in those last few seconds,” proclaimed Sky commentator Martin Tyler.
Seconds later the final whistle sounded and England were back in the World Cup finals, clinching their place on a momentous night. The Italians may have had the better head-to-head record but England’s consistency had seen them through with the most points. Their defence had been breached just twice in eight games (never on foreign soil) and Hoddle’s tactics had paid off. He shared in a jubilant group hug with his coaching staff as the final whistle sounded. On the field Wright sank to his knees in joy, having finally appeared to have booked his place in a squad for a major tournament. Sadly for him fate would intervene, as it would – for different reasons – with his mate Gascoigne who was equally ecstatic at the time qualification was clinched. Various newspaper headlines about England having achieved ‘The Italian Job’ were inevitable, but also merited.
The match in Rome would mark about the midway point between Hoddle’s announcement as England manager and his departure. And it was really as good as it got, a performance that is still hailed two decades later. The qualifying campaign had been the calm before the storm so far as his regime was concerned – controversies such as omitting Gascoigne from the France ’98 squad, the publication of Hoddle’s World Cup Diary and views on reincarnation that ultimately proved his downfall were still to come. Hoddle had made an excellent start, his tactical beliefs proving vindicated. The Italy game was not a totally happy time in his life as he revealed in his diary he was planning to end his marriage upon his return home. But football-wise there would be few occasions that would rank as highly as that unforgettable night in Rome.
December marked the 25th anniversary of the draw being made for the qualifying stages of the 1994 World Cup. The campaign would become infamous as England, semi-finalists at Italia ’90, failed to make it to the USA and Graham Taylor’s managerial reign ended in ignominious fashion.
The weekend of December 7-8, 1991, was certainly one for draws being made. On the Saturday lunchtime, Saint & Greavsie viewers saw a certain Donald Trump help make the Rumbelows Cup quarter-final draw. That night, Match of the Day broadcast the FA Cup third round draw – with title protagonists Leeds United and Manchester United paired together for the second time in a day. And the following day the 1994 World Cup qualifying groups were decided. Few could have envisaged just what a calamitous campaign lay ahead for England.
For the first time England were placed in a group of six sides, European football having welcomed an influx of new countries following the break-up of the Soviet Union. But England would not meet any of them, and apart from minnows San Marino – entering only their second major qualifying tournament – there was little in the way of originality. The Dutch, who seemed set to provide the sternest test, had met the English at both Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 (and it was a distinct possibility they could also face each other at Euro ’92). Poland were in England’s group for the third qualifying tournament in succession, while Turkey had been paired with the English in three other campaigns in the past decade. You had to go a bit further back for the last clashes with Norway, England infamously losing to them during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup.
If the draw lacked in novelty for England fans, then at least on paper it looked like the side had a strong chance of progressing. The Three Lions only had to finish second to qualify, having always finished at least that high in every previous qualifying group even when they failed to make it. The Dutch were an obvious threat, but no other side in the group had qualified for a major tournament since Poland reached the 1986 World Cup. But as with the Poles 20 years earlier and Denmark a decade before, England had landed a joker in the pack who were about to represent their undoing. Norway had beaten Italy in Euro ’92 qualifying and they would pose a serious threat to the established order.
At the time the draw was made, Graham Taylor was enjoying a decent reign as England boss having lost just once since taking over in the summer of 1990 and qualified for Euro ’92. But then came the turning point of the European Championship in Sweden, a negative England crashing out in the group stages as the ‘Turnip’ taunt began against the boss. He had seemed tetchy when dealing with the media during the competition and now faced a tough challenge to win over the doubters, not helped by his controversial decision to sub Gary Lineker in defeat by the Swedes.
It was the forward’s last act for his country before retiring, as Taylor now sought both a new captain and star striker. Alan Shearer – fresh from a big-money move from Southampton to Blackburn Rovers – would be the ideal man to fill the latter role, while Stuart Pearce became captain. But injuries would deprive Taylor of both men for part of the campaign, midfielder David Platt taking the captain’s armband and often being the main goal threat. One man back in the picture was Paul Gascoigne, returning to action after more than a year out injured and now playing in Italy for Lazio.
Pegged back by Norway
By the time England next took to the field in September 1992, the new Premier League was under way. Paul Ince was handed his debut as he began his lengthy England career in a 1-0 defeat. But it was Taylor’s last chance to experiment for the qualifiers. The expansion of the qualifying programme meant competitive football would dominate the agenda in the coming months, starting with a home qualifier against Norway in October. In an era before the international calendar as we know it now, Norway had already played three qualifiers and won them all – laying down a marker by thrashing San Marino 10-0 and beating the Netherlands 2-1. They were not to be underestimated.
Paul Gascoigne returned for England against Norway in October 1992.
The build-up was overshadowed by Gascoigne’s ill-judged jokey response when asked by a TV interviewer to say hello to Norway. As the words “f*** off Norway” left his lips they were clearly going to create headlines, assistant boss Lawrie McMenemy trying to limit the damage as he reprimanded the player for his actions. For Taylor it was imperative England got off to a good start and they looked set to do just that when Shearer gave them a second half lead. But as England looked set to see the game out, they were undone by a long-range equaliser from Kjetil Rekdal. It ended 1-1, representing a point dropped by England (UEFA were still applying the two points for a win system) on a night when they had created more chances than the visitors. “Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve from life and this was one of those nights,” reflected Taylor, who remained confident of qualification.
Five weeks later, Taylor expressed his wish for England to give him an early Christmas present by delivering at home to the Turks. Although Turkey had been thrashed by England three times during the 1980s, they had looked much-improved in two narrow defeats during Euro ’92 qualifying. The old order was to be re-established here, the impressive Gascoigne scoring twice in a 4-0 win as England ended a difficult year in better spirits. The resurgence of Gazza was a pleasing sight, but Taylor issued some words of caution: “Gascoigne is not fully fit yet. He knows that himself and the difference could be as much as another two goals out of him.” Rarely did Gascoigne seem as happy or loved under Taylor as he did during the reigns of Bobby Robson or Terry Venables.
John Barnes was abused by a section of the Wembley crowd during England’s win over San Marino.
A joyless 6-0 win
In February England hosted the whipping boys of San Marino, amid the sad news about the legendary Bobby Moore being seriously ill with cancer. He was at Wembley to co-commentate for radio, just a week before he would lose his fight for life. It was not a glorious match for Moore to say farewell to the Twin Towers, England only holding a 2-0 lead until midway through the second half. The floodgates then finally opened, England eventually winning 6-0 with Platt scoring four of them. There would also be a solitary international goal for Carlton Palmer (memorably met with Taylor asking “what was he doing in the f***ing box?”) and a debut strike for Les Ferdinand.
Platt could have equalled Malcolm Macdonald’s achievement of scoring five times in one match for England, only to have his late penalty saved. But the night had already been soured by the jeering of England’s John Barnes. England had won comfortably, but there was little to feel buoyed about. Gascoigne’s display had concerned Taylor, who said: “There is something there with the player that isn’t right and it is affecting his fitness.”
Paul Gascoigne scores for England in their win in Turkey.
Next up was England’s trip to Turkey the following month, goals from Platt and Gascoigne providing a 2-0 win in a hostile atmosphere in which the players were struck by coins. Taylor’s side had seven points from eight and all looked positive going into the huge game at home to the Netherlands in late April.
A crushing blow
Barnes enjoyed a far more positive response from the Wembley crowd than a few weeks earlier and within two minutes had scored a delightful free-kick to break the deadlock. When Platt doubled the lead midway through the half all seemed good in the world, England giving one of their best displays under Taylor. But a touch of class by Dennis Bergkamp reduced the deficit and England would lose the injured Gascoigne thanks to Jan Wouters’ elbow. Taylor later fumed: “It was a premeditated assault, utterly disgraceful. And he didn’t even get a caution.” It wasn’t the last time Taylor would rue refereeing decisions during the qualifying process. But it looked like England would see the game out until five minutes from time. Des Walker had been immense for England at Italia ’90 but was now suffering a dramatic loss of form.
England were frustrated when the Dutch visited Wembley.
Walker panicked into pulling back Marc Overmars, the referee pointing to the spot with Peter van Vossen levelling as the game finished 2-2. The smart money would have been on a draw beforehand and England still stood a good chance of making it, but it was a crushing blow to have squandered victory. They had now been pegged back in home games against their main two rivals. “We played very well in both of those games and if we had won just one, which we deserved to, we would have been ok,” reflected Taylor 20 years later. Mathematically his statement wasn’t quite correct, but things may well have panned out differently had England seen out either of those games.
The nightmare in Oslo
The first serious doubts that England would make it came at the end of the season. During fixture negotiations England had been handed away trips to Poland and Norway within five days, in an era when double headers were rare. If England could take three points or more they would look favourites to make it to the USA, but a defeat in either clash would be worrying. The first match was a Saturday night trip to Poland, England showing their limitations as they trailed at half-time and almost fell further behind. They got out of jail with a first England goal for substitute Ian Wright to salvage a 1-1 draw.
Ian Wright rescues England in Poland.
If that had been disappointing, then what followed over the next fortnight would go a long way to sealing Taylor’s fate. England went into the away game against Norway having not lost a World Cup qualifier since their previous visit in 1981, but they produced a performance that sadly merited that run coming to an end. A decision to switch to three centre backs failed to help matters and England missed the combative presence of the suspended Ince, as the side slumped to a costly and deserved 2-0 defeat. For the first time England were in real trouble, while Norway moved closer to qualifying. They would duly top the group.
England or the Netherlands would miss out, with most predicting the former. Taylor was taking a hell of a beating from the press, ‘Norse Manure’ being one standout headline. In The Independent Joe Lovejoy wrote: “For England to qualify they will probably need maximum points from their last three games, which means beating the Dutch away – a task which looks light years beyond them. They were second-best throughout against the group leaders, who might easily have had more than the two goals they scored either side of half-time, through Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen.”
From bad, to worse…
Feeling low from the Norway defeat, England now headed off to the USA to compete in the US Cup against Brazil, Germany and the hosts. If the main aim of the trip was to help England prepare for the World Cup in America a year later then it was already looking a futile exercise. But they did get one piece of positive news while out there, with the Netherlands being held to a draw by Norway in a World Cup qualifier to keep England in with a shout. Any pleasure from that result quickly evaporated on the same evening as Taylor’s side sank to a 2-0 defeat to the USA. It provided more ammunition for Taylor’s critics, ‘Yanks 2, Planks 0’ the latest headline to scream out how badly things were going. Goalkeeper Chris Woods would be a fall-guy, never being capped again.
To their credit, England picked themselves up and produced much-improved displays in drawing 1-1 with Brazil and narrowly losing 2-1 to Germany. But the damage had already been done and the Norway and USA defeats were what the summer would be remembered for. A run of six games without a win meant Taylor urgently needed a response from his side as they prepared for the final three qualifiers. The first was at home to Poland in September, as England at least beat another of the top four sides. The win was wrapped up inside an hour as Ferdinand, Pearce and Gascoigne scored in a 3-0 success. The one downside was Gascoigne picking up a caution to rule him out of the following month’s showdown in the Netherlands, while they would also be without Pearce.
A night of controversy
It wasn’t quite going to be winner takes all in Rotterdam, but to all intents and purposes it was. The sides were level on points so whoever won would need just a point from their last game (the Dutch away to Poland, England taking on San Marino in Bologna) to be sure of going through. If it was a draw then things would get complicated, England needing to beat San Marino by a sufficient score to take them through on goal difference (assuming the Dutch beat Poland). It was a scenario that would suit Taylor’s team. The build-up saw Taylor have an infamous exchange with journalist Rob Shepherd at the press conference, captured in the fly-on-the-wall documentary about the campaign that would soon make headlines (we will save assessing that show for another day).
Given how much was at stake, if you look at it as a neutral for a minute then this was actually a bloody good game of football in which both sides went in search of the result they needed and created several decent chances. The Dutch were always a threat with wingers Marc Overmars and Bryan Roy continually a danger, while at the other end Tony Dorigo and Paul Merson both hit the post and Tony Adams had an effort cleared off the line.
But controversy and key incidents were never far away, not all to England’s detriment given Frank Rijkaard’s goal was dubiously ruled out in the first half. During the second half the same player was somehow denied by David Seaman. Yet those moments would not live in the memory. Instead it would be the lasting sight of Ronald Koeman hauling back goalbound David Platt at 0-0. The referee initially appeared to award a penalty, eventually determining it was a free-kick on the edge of the box. But more contentious was the decision not to dismiss Koeman. “Is that not a sending off offence?” asked ITV co-commentator Ron Atkinson, rhetorically. Taylor was understandably livid on the touchline.
Graham Taylor experiences a painful night in Rotterdam.
As is well-known, Koeman duly scored a retaken free-kick with Taylor’s wounds deepened by England not having the chance to themselves retake a free-kick after being charged down in similar circumstances. Bergkamp wrapped up the 2-0 Dutch victory to effectively seal England and Taylor’s fate, as the manager told the linesman that his mate had cost him his job. “That blond man should not be on the field,” he said angrily when interviewed by ITV immediately afterwards. The man’s fury and pain was clear for the nation to see, knowing he would now face even more calls to leave.
The inevitable becomes reality
It was a low point, but – although criticism was pouring in over England’s impending absence from the World Cup – there wasn’t the same level of disappointment over England’s display as there had been in Norway. But the damage had been done. England needed the Dutch to lose in Poland and for them to beat San Marino by at least seven goals (assuming Poland only won by a one-goal margin). A big England victory was feasible, and it was possible that the Netherlands could could unstuck in Poland. But most were resigned to the inevitable, the Dutch good enough to get the result they needed against a side already out of the running.
Captain Stuart Pearce leaves the field after England fail to qualify for the World Cup.
England duly scored seven in front of a sparse crowd in Bologna (four netted by Ian Wright), but all their game against San Marino would really be remembered for was for embarrassingly going 1-0 down within seconds to one of the world’s football minnows. It was the final humiliation, symbolic of a campaign of failure. And before the end the BBC sacrificed live coverage to switch to Wales against Romania, as they clung to the hope of seeing a British side reach the USA. By then England’s chances were long gone, the Dutch winning 3-1 in Poland. Only at the moment when the Poles had levelled it at 1-1 had there ever been a glimmer of hope. Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “There was no act of God to provide the miracle for England – just a parable of painful failure as the dream died in the bitter cold of Bologna.”
Taylor’s departure was inevitable, but it would not be confirmed for almost a week. ‘That’s Yer Allotment’ proclaimed The Sun’s front page, again accompanied by a picture of his head as a turnip. The man had failed to take England to the finals, but the joke had gone too far. It was now getting extremely personal and generating an unnecessary level of hatred against a decent man. Taylor’s record in itself was not bad, but in three matches that had really mattered – against Sweden at Euro ’92 and then the World Cup qualifiers in Norway and the Netherlands – England had been beaten and that was sadly what many would remember his reign for.
England would not be at the finals and for Taylor – so successful with Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa – it constituted his first real failure in football management. He had taken stick for his style of football before but now it was for his inability to get results. The flack he had taken – along with predecessor Bobby Robson – created the impression managing England was no longer seen as quite the dream job it once was, as the FA began looking for a successor.
On the night of the qualifying failure, Terry Venables was a pundit on the BBC’s Sportsnight. He remained non-committal when questioned by Des Lynam if he wanted the job, but within weeks he would be in the role as England looked towards Euro ’96 on home soil after a painful World Cup qualifying campaign. The failure under Taylor was a distant memory by the time of Euro ’96, but it would never be totally forgotten…
Today marks the 35th anniversary of England facing a decisive World Cup qualifier at home to Hungary. It had been a fraught qualifying campaign, but all would end happily for Ron Greenwood’s men as they made it through to the 1982 tournament in Spain…
On September 9, 1981, all hopes seemed lost of England reaching the 1982 World Cup in Spain after suffering an infamous defeat in Norway. With favourites Hungary and Romania – plus outside bet Switzerland – having games in hand, it was out of England’s hands. Things got even worse two weeks later, when Romania and Hungary drew 0-0. This meant that if Hungary took maximum points from their games against Norway and Switzerland and Romania picked up a win and a draw from two meetings with the Swiss, then it would be game over for England before they played their last match at home to Hungary on November 18. All the nation could do was hope.
When Romania took the lead during the second half at home to Switzerland on October 10, it looked just about the end for England and manager Ron Greenwood. But then the Swiss unexpectedly fought back to win 2-1 and throw England a sizeable lifeline. Whatever happened in the other qualifiers, matters were in English hands again. Hungary duly won their next two qualifiers to book their place as one of the top two – and end Swiss hopes at the same time – while a draw in the return game between Switzerland and Romania meant the picture had now totally changed from a few weeks earlier. Suddenly, England needed only a point at home to Hungary to qualify. They had much to thank the Swiss for.
So too did the Football Association. England’s lifeline had seen ticket sales escalate from about 30,000 to a 92,000 midweek Wembley sell-out, meaning the match could be shown live on television (quite a rarity for home games at the time apart from when Scotland visited). The BBC would have the rights, Jimmy Hill hosting live from the stadium in the company of pundits Bobby Charlton, Lawrie McMenemy and Bob Wilson. England looked to finally make it through to a World Cup finals after their failures for the 1974 and 1978 tournaments. Having qualified automatically in 1966 (hosts) and 1970 (holders), it was some 20 years since the Three Lions had last successfully come through a World Cup qualifying group. Missing out again didn’t bear thinking about, particularly now the expanded finals contained 24 teams.
Memories of ’73 evoked
Comparisons were being drawn in the build-up to England’s often-recalled costly draw against Poland at Wembley eight years earlier, not least because Peter Shilton would again be in goal for England. But the situation was not quite the same or as worrying. This time around a draw would be sufficient for England and it was not a head-to-head fight, given Hungary were already through and guaranteed top spot. England had been the only side to beat the Hungarians so far, their excellent 3-1 win in Budapest in June 1981 being at odds with much of the rest of their stumbling qualifying campaign. Now it remained to be seen how determined Hungary were to help out their Eastern European rivals Romania – a side who could unbelievably qualify having scored just five goals in eight matches (two of them against England).
Certainly Hungary did not seem to be sending out the message that they were determined to win at Wembley. “It will be a very nice result for us if we get a draw and I’m sure that will suit England as well,” claimed manager Kalman Meszoly. But Greenwood wasn’t buying such thoughts. “It would be a very clever and far-reaching mind that sent a team out just to get a draw,” he said. “The object of football is to win and score goals. To imagine they would let us win is just not on.”
Do or die for England
And so the nation anxiously waited for this do or die match, willing to forget about the turbulent qualifying campaign if the team could get the result needed to go through. Needing a draw at home is not always to a side’s advantage, as they can seem caught between a natural instinct to attack the visitors and a fear of conceding a vital goal. The situation was effectively identical to when England played Croatia in the infamous Euro 2008 qualifier 26 years later – the visitors having already qualified and England needing just to draw – and like on that painful occasion England would be having to make defensive changes, with young West Ham United defender Alvin Martin stepping into the breach at centre back to replace Dave Watson.
The smart money was on a draw, given that’s what England needed, considering their poor recent form and in recognition of Hungary’s qualities. England had never lost a World Cup match at Wembley – they could ill-afford for it to be now when that record ended. Not that Wembley was quite the fortress it once was, with England having failed to win any of their five home games in 1981 so far. Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “I think England will go to Spain, though the nation may have to endure a night of torture and tension in a low scoring draw. What I am certain of is that every England player knows what the nation expects and is prepared to run himself to exhaustion to achieve it.”
It promised to be a tense night in the Wembley rain, but much of the anxiety eased as Paul Mariner scored after 14 minutes. Terry McDermott floated a free-kick into the area, with goalkeeper Ferenc Meszaros unable to claim in a crowded area. It fell to Trevor Brooking, who fired away from goal into the path of Paul Mariner. The Ipswich Town forward seemed to stumble as he shot, but he managed to divert the ball into the net. It was a slightly strange goal to sum up a surreal qualifying campaign, but also a vitally important one. Wembley erupted, several players mobbing Mariner while old campaigners Brooking and captain Kevin Keegan embraced each other a few yards away. They had waited their whole careers to play at a World Cup – now it was finally within sight.
Seeing the game out
England now effectively had a two-goal cushion in terms of what was needed to qualify, something that would only have been taken away if Hungary had scored with both shots they managed during the night as they offered little going forward. Shilton dealt competently with both efforts, as the shots poured in at the other end towards Meszaros – who had recently helped his Sporting Lisbon side knock Keegan and Southampton out of the UEFA Cup.
England could have won by a big score as they looked to wrap up the win in the second half, with players including Keegan, McDermott, Bryan Robson and substitute debutant Tony Morley all going close. Yet the real issue was England didn’t throw it all away and thankfully they were not troubled, the only disappointment being they didn’t add to their goal tally. Although the pessimists couldn’t relax until it was over, the match wasn’t quite the anxiety-fest that had been anticipated with the England defence holding firm. Keegan picked up a cut lip for his troubles, but he wasn’t complaining. Like several of his colleagues, he was set to finally grace a World Cup finals when it was probably going to be his last chance (butthings wouldn’t go to plan quite as much as he hoped – a story for another day).
The atmosphere at Wembley was frenzied, TV viewers able to hear the passionate singing as the referee prepared to blow the final whistle. Thousands roared as the 1-0 win was confirmed and England had finally made it. “England are back” chanted the crowd, while Greenwood was given a belated 60th birthday present – a week after reaching the landmark – as he could look forward to bowing out from management on the greatest stage.
The media reaction to England’s progression was positive, Alan Thomson writing in the Daily Express: “Don’t look for heroes this morning – just salute them all. Last night England played with a new-born pride and passion, with fury and with skill. But most of all they played their football from the heart and by doing so they restored to us our dignity.” Stuart Jones began his report in The Times by writing: “England have reached the World Cup finals in Spain. These nine words cannot begin to tell the tale of the last 14 torturous months, but in years to come they will be all that matters. For now the disappointment of Switzerland and despair of Norway are forgotten, pushed to the back shelf of the memory by the events that unfolded in the drizzle of Wembley last night.”
It had been a joyful end to a campaign that had been extremely stressful at times, England losing more World Cup qualifiers in this series than in total previously. Yet a combination of good fortune and making the most of a second opportunity that was unexpectedly handed their way meant Greenwood and his players – affectionately dubbed ‘Dad’s Army’ – could look ahead to a summer in Spain…
This month 50 years ago England returned to action for the first time since winning the World Cup three months earlier. They now moved onto their next challenge, looking to win the 1968 European Championship. To be in with a shout they would have to come through a qualifying group containing UK rivals Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales…
Think 1966 and any England fan will instinctively think of the World Cup. But as the dust settled on England’s triumph, the side were quickly back in competitive action. On October 22 England were heading to Northern Ireland for their opening qualifying match for the 1968 European Championship. While retaining the World Cup in 1970 would be the primary goal, in the short-term there looked the serious possibility England could simultaneously hold the three available titles of World Cup, European Championship and Home International Championship.
The latter two competitions would be linked, as the 1966-67 and 1967-68 Home International series would double up as a qualifying group for Euro ’68. England had been the only UK side present at the 1966 World Cup, although the other three had all finished just one place off qualifying from their respective groups. The chance to claim the scalp of the world champions would appeal to the other British sides, particularly Scotland. The Scots had never entered the European Nations Cup before, while England’s only previous foray had lasted just two matches against France in qualifying for the 1964 tournament.
The second-leg defeat against the French in February 1963 had marked the start of Alf Ramsey’s reign. Since then he had built a side to win the World Cup and the soon-to-be knighted manager would stick with his trusted and familiar XI when England travelled to Belfast in October 1966, the day after the tragic events in Aberfan. England paraded the Jules Rimet Trophy prior to kick-off, as they faced a side including promising youngsters George Best and Pat Jennings. Roger Hunt gave England a half-time lead, with Martin Peters wrapping up the 2-0 win on the hour mark.
A scrappy game concluded with the Irish having Billy Ferguson sent-off. England had triumphed, but their performance had won few admirers and it did nothing to silence those who believed they were somewhat fortunate to be world champions. Ken Jones wrote in the Daily Mirror: “The way in which they won the World Cup has already been forgotten in three months of tumultuous acclaim that has given their talent a sheen it never had. Their efficient, if at times inelegant, football left an Irish crowd cold on Saturday.”
Back at Wembley
England’s Wembley homecoming on November 2 produced an anti-climatic 0-0 friendly draw with Czechoslovakia. But two weeks later they faced a more important clash when they hosted Wales in their second qualifying match. The Welsh had drawn with Scotland in their opening game but they were to be well-beaten at Wembley. Fielding the World Cup XI for the last time after six successive matches, goals from Geoff Hurst (2), brothers Bobby and Jack Charlton and Terry Hennessey (own goal) brought England a 5-1 victory. The result meant Ramsey’s side had been unbeaten throughout 1966 and they now had five months off until they played again.
In April 1967 the World Cup winners faced their biggest match since the final, as Scotland visited Wembley. Since being thrashed 9-3 at Wembley in 1961 the Scots had enjoyed the upper hand in the derby clashes, winning three of the last five meetings. They now had the added incentive of trying to stop England qualifying for the quarter-finals of the European Championship, as well as seeking to end their 18-month unbeaten record. Plus the match would decide who won the 1966-67 Home International Championship, with the Scots having three points and England boasting four as they headed into the contest.
Scotland celebrate a famous win over England.
Jimmy Greaves returned to the England side for the first time since injury curtailed his participation in the 1966 World Cup. It was a day that would go down in infamy, the Scots revelling in their 3-2 success. England were hampered by Jack Charlton suffering an early injury and having to be stuck upfront in the absence of substitutes, but that did not detract from the Scottish victory which was thoroughly merited as Jim Baxter indulged in a spot of ‘keepy-uppy’ to rub England’s noses in it.
Denis Law gave Scotland the lead on 27 minutes, with the scoreline not changing until Bobby Lennox doubled the advantage 12 minutes from time. A late flurry saw Jack Charlton defy the pain barrier to score and give England hope, Jim McCalliog put the Scots 3-1 up and Geoff Hurst again put England back in it. But Scotland saw the game out to claim the victory, their fans invading the pitch at the end in delight. The Scots were already growing tired of hearing about England being the world champions and would now delight in the fact that they had done what sides such as Argentina, Portugal and West Germany couldn’t the previous summer and beaten them at Wembley. England had won the World Cup, but Scotland were the first team to beat them afterwards so that meant they were the new world champions in the eyes of some north of the border!
For Ramsey defeat to the Scots would hurt, but perhaps more painful would be some scathing match reports and suggestions the good times were over. In the Daily Mirror, Ken Jones said that “England ought to have been massacred” and expressed his belief they had been let off the hook in only losing 3-2. “I am left only with the thought that Sir Alf Ramsey’s World Cup team might have been destroyed beyond all repair,” he concluded. It was less than nine months since the World Cup triumph and just one defeat had been sustained, but already doubts were being cast.
The summer of 1967 was much quieter for England than a year before, the season concluding with two friendlies in May (although Ramsey would then lead a strong FA XI through a tournament in Canada). Greaves scored in an impressive 2-0 home win over Spain, but his last cap for his country came three days later as Austria were beaten 1-0 in Vienna. He would remain involved in the squad, but effectively retired from the international scene once his request for him to only be called up if he would be playing was inevitably rejected by Ramsey. The Spain game had seen John Hollins win his only England cap, while Alan Mullery was picked for the first time since 1964 and Keith Newton earned only his third cap. The latter two would become regulars, as Ramsey looked towards the future and some of the 1966 heroes found their places in jeopardy.
Regaining the advantage
In October the European Championship qualifiers resumed when England travelled to Cardiff to face Wales. A goal from Martin Peters gave England a first-half lead, but victory was only assured when Bobby Charlton and Alan Ball (penalty) scored in the last five minutes to wrap up a 3-0 win. But of greater significance was Northern Ireland’s 1-0 win over Scotland on the same day, handing the initiative back to Ramsey’s men. A win and a draw from the next two games would be sufficient.
England meet Wales in October 1967.
Northern Ireland visited Wembley in November without key players George Best and Derek Dougan, with England getting a 2-0 win to preserve top spot. Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton scored, but Scotland’s win over Wales meant the qualification battle would go to the final round of matches. George Cohen made his final appearance for England in the win over Northern Ireland, while David Sadler won his first cap and Peter Thompson featured for the first time since the corresponding match two years earlier. It had not been a vintage England display and they could have gone behind early on, Ramsey conceding that “too many players were too casual”. But the win that was needed had been achieved.
The decider against Scotland
A rare December friendly saw England make hard work of a 2-2 draw with USSR at a snowy Wembley, in which Cyril Knowles became England’s latest debutant. But the key date was February 24, 1968, as Scotland met England at Hampden Park. It was going to be winner takes all, although for Ramsey’s team a draw would be sufficient. England were the World Cup holders, but Scotland held the Home International Championship crown and could also boast the European Cup title at club level after Celtic’s triumph the previous season. It was certainly a huge game and a staggering 134,000 crowd would be in Glasgow to watch it. There have been plenty of big games between the sides down the years, but this was one of the biggest. And yet the English domestic programme would continue on the day, matches such as Arsenal against Manchester United being played at the same time as clubs coped without their internationals.
“I doubt if the Scots have the flair or the teamwork to match England,” wrote Mirror man Jones as he revealed Mike Summerbee was to win his first cap in place of Roger Hunt. Although cynics may have believed England’s 1966 triumph owed much to home advantage, it is worth nothing they went into this game having not lost away from home since 1964.
England started brightly and went ahead after 20 minutes through a well-taken goal by Peters. But with Charlie Cooke impressing for the hosts the next goal went to the Scots, John Hughes heading them level on 39 minutes. England still headed the group if things stayed as they were, but a goal for the Scots would swing the advantage their way. Ultimately they had few opportunities to do so after the break, England looking the more threatening with Peters hitting the post. Whereas Scotland had deserved to win at Wembley, it was widely felt England were the better side here. They couldn’t regain the lead, but didn’t need to as they safely saw out the match to its conclusion and gained the point required to advance – while also meaning they were outright British champions for 1967-68.
Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “If there was anything to be learned from the occasion it was that the reigning world champions cannot in the future afford to dabble in a similar show of brinkmanship. They should have taken outright victory by two or three goals long before the end, a comfortable position which would not have brought their supporters’ hearts to their mouths as the Scots fought to steal a snap victory in injury time against all the run of the second half.”
England had achieved their basic target of topping the group and could now look ahead to playing Spain in a two-legged quarter-final, which they won to advance to the finals in Italy before losing to Yugoslavia in the semi-final.
England’s qualifying campaign is under way for the 2018 World Cup. Forty years ago they were seeking to reach the 1978 finals in Argentina, but they would once more miss out on making it to a major tournament…
England had begun the 1970s with serious aspirations to retain the World Cup in Mexico. But a quarter-final loss to West Germany started a decade to forget, including failing to progress from the qualifying group for the 1974 World Cup and 1976 European Championship. Now they would try to make it to the 1978 World Cup, but few Englishmen were making plans to spend that summer in Argentina. England’s recent decline meant they were not a seeded nation in qualifying and they would have the misfortune to be paired with Italy. With only one nation going through, a previous World Cup winner would definitely be missing out.
The Italians would be favourites, but they too had endured a lean recent period. They had gone out at the group stage of the 1974 World Cup and then failed to make it to the 1976 Euros – albeit after being placed in the mother of all hard qualifying groups including the Netherlands and Poland (second and third respectively at the 1974 World Cup). Italy had been surprisingly held to a draw by Finland, who would be in England and Italy’s qualifying group for the 1978 World Cup along with European football’s whipping boy of Luxembourg. It looked a clear two-horse race between England and Italy.
At the end of the 1975-76 season England gave themselves a psychological boost for the qualifying campaign when they beat Italy 3-2 in the US Bicentennial Cup. It put them in good heart for the opening qualifier in June 1976 away to Finland. It was an unusually early start to an England qualifying series and they laid down a marker by winning 4-1, with Kevin Keegan scoring twice. It was just the sort of convincing result manager Don Revie needed to get the nation believing that England would get to Argentina.
England enjoy a winning start in Finland.
As the scorching summer of 1976 finally started to draw to a close, England drew 1-1 with the Republic of Ireland in a September friendly before Finland visited Wembley for the next qualifier in October. If the away win had generated belief, then this match would see pessimism resurface as fans voiced their displeasure over England’s display.
England had started brightly and quickly forged ahead through Dennis Tueart, but they failed to make the most of their early dominance. Kalle Nieminen drew the Finns level early in the second half, and though Joe Royle quickly regained England the lead there would be no further scoring. The 2-1 victory was seen as a missed opportunity in terms of the goal difference and confidence, with Revie unimpressed and sympathising with supporters. “I want to apologise to them on behalf of myself and the team… We lost our rhythm, our passing, our thinking, our positional sense – in fact, everything.”
Roberto Bettega ensures England are beaten by Italy.
The key date in the group was November 17, 1976, as England made the daunting trip to Rome for a huge qualifier. Revie contentiously made a series of changes from the previous game, including recalling Emlyn Hughes after 18 months in the wilderness. England seemed to lack the belief they could go and win. The Italians were a good side with a heavy Juventus influence, seeming far more settled than England. It appeared a draw at best would be England’s reward. Trevor Brooking recalled in his autobiography that he was the only attacking midfielder selected. “It was a team designed to contain the Italians,” he wrote, adding that Revie had watched the Italians seven times in preparation.
They held out for 36 minutes before Giancarlo Antognoni’s free-kick was deflected in off Keegan. Revie’s side stayed in with a glimmer of hope until 13 minutes from time, Roberto Bettega’s diving header sealing a deserved 2-0 win for the hosts. “They murdered us 2-0,” recalled Hughes 20 years later. It left the Italians as clear favourites to qualify, England knowing they would have to win the return 12 months later to stand any chance. But Bettega’s goal would symbolise England’s failure. “We knew then that we had almost certainly blown our chances of qualifying for Argentina,” admitted Brooking.
England’s 5-0 win over Luxembourg failed to silence the critics.
England had looked second best in Rome and they would again be well-beaten when an excellent Dutch side visited Wembley for a friendly in February 1977 and won 2-0. The inquests were continuing into what had gone wrong with English football, but they stayed in with a shout of making the finals with a 5-0 win over Luxembourg at Wembley. Mick Channon scored twice on a night when John Gidman won his only England cap and Paul Mariner came off the bench for his international debut. Even after a big win, the criticism poured in with the result put into context by the opposition’s limitations. Norman Fox wrote in The Times: “It was another unsatisfactory performance, too stunted by unimaginative, mundane football that persistently threatens to stop them qualifying for the final tournament in Argentina next year.”
The end for Revie
Liverpool’s European Cup victory at the end of the season began a period of domination for English clubs in the competition, but the national team remained away from international football’s top table. The gloom for Revie continued during the Home International Championship, England losing at home to both Wales and Scotland. The side now headed off to South America for their end-of-season tour. If it was intended as preparation for the following year’s World Cup finals in Argentina, then it was increasingly looking a futile exercise. While there, Italy won 3-0 away to Finland – leaving them as firm favourites to qualify. England returned home unbeaten after draws with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – the middle match having been particularly brutal with Trevor Cherry sent-off and losing two of his front teeth after being punched.
The results on tour seemingly represented an improvement for Revie (pictured below), but the manager was already looking towards his next challenge. The following month The Daily Mail ran an exclusive story that he was quitting the England job, with it coming to light he was taking up a role in the United Arab Emirates that offered high earnings if not necessarily top class football.
The Football Association hierarchy were infuriated to learn of Revie’s defection via the media before they received his resignation latter. It was a messy divorce that sadly left the former Leeds United boss ostracised from the English game. He would maintain though that he jumped before he was pushed, fearing the sack was inevitable if England did not reach the World Cup. “Nearly everyone wanted me out. So I’m giving them what they want,” was Revie’s parting shot.
With Revie gone, the FA was now left to find a successor. Amid the public clamour for Brian Clough, a less outspoken figure was selected as 55-year-old Ron Greenwood became caretaker manager. Greenwood had moved upstairs at West Ham United but he had admirers at the FA who saw ‘Reverend Ron’ as the right man to manage England in the circumstances – appreciating his coaching methods and diplomacy. He had his fans among the players too, Brooking – who knew him well from West Ham – describing him as “the most imaginative and thoughtful coach I worked with in my career”.
Greenwood made a bold statement in his first friendly against Switzerland when he named six Liverpool players in the side (plus Kevin Keegan who had just left the European champions for a new challenge with SV Hamburg). The decision to select Ian Callaghan was most intriguing, 11 years having elapsed since his last cap against France during the 1966 World Cup. Unfortunately the match saw England continue their poor Wembley run, being held to a 0-0 draw.
Hopes fade away
If England’s chances of qualifying looked bleak going into October, then they would soon slip towards non-existent. Away to Luxembourg, England needed a big victory to stay in with a realistic chance and they could only win 2-0 (with a section of their followers making headlines for the wrong reasons). “Our finishing and composure was not good,” admitted Greenwood. Italy then thrashed Finland 6-1 and England now needed a miracle to qualify. The Italians had the same points as England but a goal difference four better and a game in hand. England would have to beat Italy convincingly and then somehow hope Luxembourg could keep the score down away to the Italians. It was a forlorn hope.
To make things genuinely difficult for the Italians, England would probably have to beat them by at least five goals – an unlikely scenario that would leave the Azzurri needing to beat Luxembourg by seven. But even then Italy would still be capable of getting the required score, so limited were Luxembourg. Whatever England did, there would be a feeling it wasn’t going to be enough. Most had accepted it was already over and just wanted to see a win on the night to restore pride. Greenwood sought to get maximum use out of wingers, with debutants Peter Barnes and Steve Coppell both coming into the side and giving cause for optimism. Forward Bob Latchford was also handed his first cap.
England’s 2-0 win over Italy proved too little, too late.
They duly got it. Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking scored as England atoned for their 2-0 defeat a year earlier by beating Italy by the same scoreline. Although the result meant Italy needed only a win of any scoreline against Luxembourg to qualify, there was a sense of satisfaction around England about the performance. Fox wrote that England supporters saw “something for the future beyond present disappointments”, while conceding the side had “less than a slim chance” of making it to Argentina.
But the evening had helped Greenwood’s chances of becoming manager full-time. On December 3 only the most optimistic of Englishmen clung to the tiniest hope that whipping boys Luxembourg could somehow hold out against the Italians to take the Three Lions through to Argentina. Within 11 minutes they were 2-0 down, Italy eventually easing home to a 3-0 win as they took their regular spot in the finals.
For England it was disappointing, but less devastating than their other failures to make the World Cups of 1974 and 1994. There had been no game as painfully dramatic as the infamous draw with Poland in October 1973, nor one as controversial as the costly defeat against the Netherlands in October 1993. They had matched the Italians head-to-head, won five games out of six and fallen just three goals short of making it. But the failure to win the group surprised few, many younger fans having yet to see them qualify for a major finals.
England had paid for losing away to Italy and a lack of goals in the victories at home to Finland and away to Luxembourg. In some respects they were unlucky, and they were certainly no less deserving of qualifying than when they scraped through four years later (after the competition had expanded to 24 teams). But they had ultimately fallen short and looked second best when it really mattered in Rome, always unsuccessfully playing catch-up after that.
The one consolation for England was they once more only missed out to a side who made an impact at the finals. Italy would finish fourth in Argentina, beating the hosts and eventual winners along the way. By then Greenwood was firmly installed as permanent England manager, as he sought to finally lead the country to a major tournament.
This week marks the 15th anniversary of England’s famous 5-1 win away to Germany in September 2001. To celebrate that, and also with England about to embark on their qualifying programme for the 2018 World Cup, we look back at England’s campaign to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. It was a qualifying process that brought the end of the old Wembley, the arrival of England’s first foreign manager and the most dramatic of climaxes…
As the 2000-01 season began, England were at their lowest point since they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. They had struggled to make it to Euro 2000 and at the finals they made a quick exit after losing two games out of three. Doubts were being cast about the extent of manager Kevin Keegan’s tactical astuteness, both defeats coming in games which they had led. With English hooligans again making headlines during the tournament and then England losing the vote to host the 2006 World Cup, there wasn’t much to smile about.
The one high point from the summer was a rare win over Germany, who flopped even more than England during Euro 2000. The sides would now be meeting twice more during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, in a group also containing Greece, Finland and Albania. It looked a straight fight for top spot between England and Germany, with the runner-up to face a play-off. It was widely considered to be one of Germany’s weakest teams, but England were hardly receiving rave reviews either. The side’s chances were not helped by the international retirement of Alan Shearer, while the exit gate also beckoned for some of the other older members of the set-up. Paul Ince would be called into the squad again but never win another cap, while Tony Adams would soon make his final appearance.
The end for King Kev
After the gloom of the summer there was a chink of light as England drew 1-1 away to World Cup and European Championship holders France in September thanks to a Michael Owen goal. But the acid test was the opening qualifier the following month. After 77 years the curtain was coming down on the old Wembley, England against Germany seeming an appropriate way to bid farewell to the Twin Towers. But amid all the nostalgia about past matches at the stadium, Keegan was coming under increasing scrutiny. “If it doesn’t go too well at Euro 2000 it might not be me as coach in 2002,” he said the previous December. He was still there after the Euros, but his position looked more vulnerable as the ‘cheerleader rather than coach’ jibes grew. News leaked that Keegan was planning to deploy defender Gareth Southgate as a holding midfielder against Germany, in a surprise move that was met with scepticism.
Germany provided the opposition for the last match in front of the Twin Towers.
There were a couple of comparisons with the 1966 World Cup final: England played in red and the Germans, wearing white, took an early lead. But that was it. England failed to recover from Dietmar Hamann’s free-kick beating David Seaman after 13 minutes and lost 1-0. On a wet and miserable afternoon, Wembley’s farewell was a damp squib so far as England were concerned and a number of fans voiced their displeasure at the end as Keegan made his way towards the tunnel.
It was the final straw for the England manager, who decided to call it a day. Things became rather farcical as Keegan had to be locked in a toilet cubicle with the Football Association’s David Davies as he confirmed he would be stepping down – Davies revealing it was the only place he could think of to hold such an important conversation privately. For all the nostalgia over the old Wembley, a stadium with improved facilities was a necessity.
“I’m blaming nobody but myself. I wasn’t good enough,” admitted Keegan, who was refreshingly honest about his shortcomings as a manager. But FA chief executive Adam Crozier described the timing of the resignation as “not ideal”, something of an understatement given England faced a tricky away qualifier in Finland four days later. As with after Glenn Hoddle’s sudden departure in February 1999, Howard Wilkinson would step into the breach for one match.
The match was controversially only being shown live on pay-per-view television in the UK and anyone who paid up to £10 for the privilege would have felt short changed by what they saw from England. They again struggled to make inroads as they drew 0-0, although Ray Parlour’s late effort appeared to cross the line without being given. But the performance had won few plaudits. It was still early days but England were the only side in the group yet to win after Albania surprisingly defeated Greece. David Lacey in The Guardian wrote: “The chances of England qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in the Far East are still no more than a dim light on the horizon. They are now two points behind Albania and Greece at the bottom of their group. As poor starts go this is the pits.”
It was too early to panic, but England now faced a five-month wait until the next qualifier to get their first win. In the meantime there was the question of who would become England’s new boss. With a significant lack of top English managers emerging, the FA effectively were left with considering reappointing a former boss or bringing in the national team’s first foreign manager.
A nostalgic return for Sir Bobby Robson on a short-term basis was ruled out by Newcastle United, as it became increasingly clear who the favoured candidate was. Sven-Göran Eriksson was being courted by the FA, but the situation was complicated by the Swede being under contract with Lazio for the rest of the season. Eventually in late October it was announced Eriksson would take over the following summer, although the FA expressed hope he would manage the side before then. In the meantime Peter Taylor and Steve McClaren looked after the team for a friendly in Italy, Eriksson watching on as David Beckham captained the side for the first time in a 1-0 defeat.
In January the FA got the news they wanted as Eriksson prematurely left Lazio and was free to start his work with England. The appointment of a foreigner was not met with universal approval. A John Bull figure would follow Eriksson around in protest at his appointment, while journalist Jeff Powell expressed his vehement opposition in The Daily Mail. “We sell our birthright down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer throwers who spend half their year living in total darkness,” he infamously wrote. “There were a lot of errors in that sentence,” replied Eriksson in his autobiography, branding Powell – without naming him – an “idiotic journalist”. By his standards it was outspoken stuff.
If Eriksson was bothered about silencing the critics then he went about it the right way. His first game brought an encouraging 3-0 friendly win over Spain at Villa Park, as England began their six-years ‘on the road’ without a proper home. But the crucial test was the next qualifier against Finland on March 24 at Anfield. They had to come from behind to achieve it but goals from Michael Owen and Beckham earned a 2-1 win to at last get a victory in the group.
Ashley Cole makes his England debut in Albania.
Four days later they had two after winning 3-1 in Albania. It wasn’t a vintage England display but the victory was vital, a flurry of late goals including Andrew Cole’s only strike for his country seeing them through. Cole’s namesake Ashley made his senior international debut at left-back, impressing but being struck by a missile for his troubles.
Eriksson retained his 100% record in May when England beat Mexico 4-0 in a friendly at Pride Park, Derby. Belief seemed to have returned to the side and that was clear as they safely negotiated a potentially tricky qualifier away to Greece to end the season. Paul Scholes broke the deadlock in the second half, with a trademark David Beckham goal securing the 2-0 win. With five games gone England had 10 points on the board and they were chasing Germany. The qualifier in Munich on September 1 was looking increasingly decisive.
THAT night in Munich
A 2-0 friendly defeat by the Netherlands at White Hart Lane in August ended Eriksson’s perfect start, but it would be quickly forgotten if the Three Lions could triumph in Munich. Eriksson was getting an uncomfortable first insight into Anglo-German rivalry as he read newspapers ahead of the game. “Everything that was written alluded to the war. I did not understand it. To me it was a game like any other,” he wrote in his autobiography.
He may have been bemused by how much the match meant to the English nation (dismissing it as “a one-sided rivalry” in his book), but he would find himself hailed as a hero for what happened over the course of 90 minutes. Fielding a starting XI containing players only from the Premier League’s top four in 2000-01 of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leeds United, England enjoyed a never-to-be-forgotten night that sent the country into raptures.
Michae Owen scores for England against Germany.
And yet it began with Carsten Jancker putting the Germans ahead, with Sebastian Deisler squandering a great chance to restore the lead after Owen had equalised. The crucial moment came when Steven Gerrard drove England ahead on the stroke of half-time. From then on it was all England, Owen scoring twice more to complete his hat-trick. “This is getting better and better and better,” proclaimed BBC commentator John Motson, with the drama not finished yet. An excellent ball from Scholes allowed Emile Heskey to make it 5-1 with 16 minutes left. It was ‘pinch me’ stuff, England humiliating their old nemesis. Few England victories over the years have been as widely celebrated as this one, a result that was particularly significant as the Germans had previously only lost one World Cup qualifying match.
MIchael Owen celebrates as England run riot against Germany.
England had a largely young side, several of whom would be part of the ‘golden generation’ set-up in the ensuing years, and there now seemed much to get excited about. Eriksson was being hailed as a hero, his success so far having silenced most who criticised his appointment. ‘Sven-sational’ was the sort of headline gracing just about tabloid. His sex life wasn’t filling column inches as much as in the ensuing years, his tactics weren’t being questioned and nor was too much criticism flying around over his reported salary after the win over Germany like it later would. This was really as good as it got, the man being hailed as a saviour of the England team. It certainly wouldn’t always be like this.
Now it looked just a formality that England would get the two wins needed against Albania and Greece to ensure qualification. The nation was in party mood as Albania arrived at St James’ Park four days after the Germany game, but it threatened to be an anti-climax. England had to wait until the 44th minute to go ahead through Owen, with the killer second not arriving until the closing minutes from Robbie Fowler. But the 2-0 win meant England topped the table with one game to play. If they matched Germany’s result at home to Finland when Greece came to Old Trafford then they were through.
Albania were England’s first opponents after thrashing Germany.
In the month between England beating Albania and welcoming Greece to Old Trafford, the world was rocked by the events of September 11 which put football firmly into perspective. But there was still plenty of attention given to the decisive qualifier in the build-up to it, the BBC starting its live programme two hours before kick-off. It wasn’t quite win or bust, as the runners-up would have a second chance in the play-offs. In a curious move, the play-off draw was made some weeks before the groups concluded – England knowing they would have a fairly favourable tie with Belarus or Ukraine if they slipped up. But there were no guarantees they would defeat them. A win over Greece would make things far more straightforward.
Becks to the rescue
England were without Owen and Seaman against Greece, as Fowler and Nigel Martyn deputised. Eriksson’s side were still widely expected to prevail, but they toiled in the October sunshine. The match provided the first hints of some of Eriksson’s shortcomings, as well as the improvements Greece were making under Otto Rehhagel that would lead to them sensationally winning Euro 2004. They were to stun Old Trafford by taking a half-time lead, with England not striking back until the 67th minute. Seconds after coming on, veteran Teddy Sheringham headed England level. That should have been the springboard for England to go on and get the victory, but two minutes later the Greeks were back in front.
It was now starting to look increasingly ominous for England, whose fans were keeping tabs on events in Gelsenkirchen. Earlier in the campaign Finland had drawn with Germany and now they were doing so again. If they could keep it goalless, then an English equaliser would be enough to send Eriksson’s side through. The Finns duly did their bit, but where would England’s goal come from?
It had been a frustrating afternoon for captain Beckham, who had worked tirelessly but his free-kicks had failed to trouble the Greek net. But deep in stoppage time England won another free-kick outside the area. Beckham at last curled it brilliantly into the net and Old Trafford erupted. The anticipated ‘Greek tragedy for England’ headlines could be spiked and Eriksson had led England into the finals. Paul Wilson wrote in The Guardian: “This was not a great England performance but it was a display of great character, and it was fitting that David Beckham should secure the all-important point in the third minute of stoppage time. At times the captain was almost playing Greece on his own, and no one worked harder in twice bringing England back from a goal down.”
“Even I threw my arms up in the air and jumped up off the bench,” wrote Eriksson, almost appearing to mock his usual lack of animation on the touchline. But this was a goal worth celebrating – it had come down to virtually the final kick and England had done it. They’d done it the hard way and also had Finland to thank for getting them out of jail. But they had made it all the same. German celebrations were curtailed as news broke of England’s goal, although they would beat Ukraine in the play-offs and go on to reach the final as England went out to Brazil in the quarter-finals. But the qualifying campaign had for once seen England come out on top, with that unbelievable night in Munich being the standout result.
This summer England will make the short trip to France to compete in Euro 2016. But when the French last hosted the European Championship in 1984, England failed to make it. Today we look back at what went wrong, as Bobby Robson’s reign began in difficult fashion.
Bobby Robson’s appointment as England manager was confirmed shortly after Ron Greenwood’s men were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. His reign at Ipswich Town had earned many plaudits and yielded two major trophies, with the proud Englishman now tasked with leading his country. He would have little time to dwell on the task in front of him, as his first match in September 1982 was the opening European Championship qualifier away to Denmark.
On paper, England had been handed a reasonable qualifying draw, with their opponents being Hungary, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg. Hungary had finished above England in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup but England had done the double over them and progressed further at the finals; Greece had qualified for the 1980 European Championship but had little other pedigree; and Luxembourg were the whipping boys of Europe. The joker in the pack came from pot four. Denmark had enjoyed limited past success but something was stirring in Scandinavia. Manager Sepp Piontek was building a side that would soon be talked about across Europe, but – despite beating Italy in World Cup qualifying in 1981 – had yet to come into the spotlight. Robson though knew just how talented they were and he probably cursed whoever had agreed for England to start with a trip to Copenhagen – particularly as the average man in the street would assume England were going to win there.
Out with the old guard
Robson had difficult decisions to make prior to the Denmark game, having inherited an ageing side. Robson was primarily setting his sights on success at the 1986 World Cup and he knew time would have to be called on the international careers of several players. As we’ve previously recalled, Robson controversially dropped Kevin Keegan and came under fire before he’d even led his team into battle for the first time as the former captain took exception to not being told the news directly. A decision that probably was harder for Robson to make on a personal level was to leave out his former Ipswich captain Mick Mills, while other old heads including Trevor Brooking, Joe Corrigan, Terry McDermott and Dave Watson would never win another cap. Ray Clemence would be selected just twice more as Peter Shilton became fully established as number one goalkeeper.
Robson’s first year or so in charge would see a high number of debutants given their chance. Players such as Luther Blissett, Mark Chamberlain, Gordon Cowans and Sammy Lee would briefly shine before fading from the international scene. Only John Barnes would break into the set-up during the period and remain involved throughout Robson’s reign. Robson’s cause was not helped by injury woes for key men he inherited, with his favoured midfielders of Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins all spending time on the sidelines during the qualifying campaign. To compound matters, winger Steve Coppell would sadly soon have to retire due to his injury troubles.
England’s Bryan Robson in action against his future Manchester United team-mate in England’s opening Euro ’84 qualifier against Denmark.
If Bobby Robson was under any illusions about the size of the task facing him, then the first match in Denmark would have shattered them. Firstly, the fallout with Keegan meant he had attracted negative publicity in his opening weeks in the job. Secondly, England were shaken by the Danes who duly looked the real threat Robson had feared. And thirdly, there was widespread fighting on the terraces. It was the third year in a row that an England match overseas had been blighted by serious crowd trouble and Robson was left knowing that his time in charge would see him regularly being asked about a section of England’s followers and not matters on the field.
England came within moments of snatching a 2-1 win thanks to two Trevor Francis goals in Copenhagen before Jesper Olsen waltzed through to equalise, but it was felt afterwards that England were the team who had been let off the hook during the 2-2 draw. The Danes were certainly no longer the low-achieving amateurs of a few years before. ‘England are lucky to escape defeat’ screamed the headline in The Times, with the new manager admitting it would have been a “travesty of justice” had they won.
Blissett’s debut hat-trick
England players had nine goals to celebrate against Luxembourg in December 1982, including a hat-trick for Luther Blissett.
Robson’s first home match in charge produced a 2-1 friendly defeat to West Germany, but a month later came the second European Championship qualifier away to Greece. Bryan Robson captained England for the first time and he would never relinquish it whenever he played under his namesake. Tony Woodcock scored twice and debutant Lee got the other in an excellent 3-0 win. Just 10 days before Christmas England welcomed Luxembourg to Wembley and Watford forward Blissett marked his first cap with a hat-trick in an emphatic 9-0 victory – he never scored again for his country – that meant they boasted a goal difference of +12 after only three qualifying matches.
England began 1983 with a 2-1 win over Wales in the Home International Championship, before welcoming Greece to Wembley in March for their next qualifying match. It proved an extremely frustrating night for England as the Greeks did not come bearing gifts and defended deeply. England were unable to break the visitors down and were booed off after a 0-0 draw. “I counted seven of Greece’s players who never even crossed the halfway line,” said Robson as he reflected on a frustrating night. The night had marked the first real low point of Robson’s reign but all looked good again when England won 2-0 at home to Hungary the following month, Francis and Peter Withe scoring. After five matches in the group England had three wins and two draws and were still firmly in the qualifying picture. “Within a month the tune has changed dramatically for Bobby Robson,” wrote Stuart Jones in The Times.
The Home International Championship was won after drawing 0-0 away to Northern Ireland and winning 2-0 against Scotland. The latter match took place on the same day as a vital qualifying clash between Denmark and Hungary. The Danes won 3-1 and it was now clear they would provide the most serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. England ended the 1982-83 season with a three-match tour of Australia, which brought a plethora of new caps and an unbeaten record but precious little else to shout about. Robson and his under-strength side returned home with a three-month break in store before their next match – a huge qualifier at home to Denmark in September 1983.
Despair against the Danes
The Danes arrived at Wembley with the backing of a tremendous away support. With only one side going through to the finals, this match was likely to be decisive. England led the group by a point but Denmark had a game in hand. Whoever won would be clear favourites to progress. If the match was a draw then matters would be in Denmark’s hands but with little margin for error. England were without the injured Bryan Robson and, controversially, Hoddle, with Bobby Robson opting instead to field John Gregory. “I wanted someone a bit spikey,” said the manager as he tried to justify his selection. But it proved a bad call, England’s midfield operating deep and creating little for the forwards to feed off.
From the moment teenager Michael Laudrup almost gave Denmark an early lead, it was clear that this was going to be a long and torturous night for England. Bobby Robson seemed to have become too concerned about the threat of the Danes for his own side’s good, as England played with fear rather than belief. Phil Neal’s handball in the area on his 50th and final cap allowed Allan Simonsen to put the Danes in front in the first half and they continued to boss the game, albeit without creating many clear-cut chances. “We are red, we are white, we are Danish dynamite” was the song ringing out at Wembley.
Allan Simonsen scores the winner for Denmark against England from the penalty spot.
They deservedly protected their 1-0 advantage, with England posing little threat until injury time. Suddenly a chance was made by Blissett, but he was denied by Ole Kjær from point blank range just seconds before the final whistle sounded. Prior to the emergence of Peter Schmeichel it was generally felt that goalkeeper was the weak position for the Danes, but Kjær had proved his worth with such a priceless save. It was the first time the Danes had ever beaten England and the win left them firm favourites to reach France.
For Bobby Robson, the defeat was painful. He later revealed he offered to resign after the loss, but he was given the green light to carry on. He wrote in 1986: “Whatever I may or may not achieve in my football career, the blackest day will remain as September 21, 1983. It was the worst moment I had experienced at any level of football, no question about it… The 1-0 defeat was only part of it. The way the team played; the walk back to the dressing room afterwards; the abuse of the crowd; the feeling of total confusion all contributed to the desolate feelings.”
The defeat was bad enough, but for England to play so tepidly when the stakes were so high meant criticism poured in on the England manager. In the magazine Football Monthly, it was stated that “this was without doubt England’s worst-ever performance at Wembley”. Piontek certainly believed his opposite number’s approach had helped the Danes, with Robson having made several visits to see them in action. “England were afraid to attack us,” he said. “I think it was good for us that Mr Robson watched us so many times in Denmark. Sometimes it is not always good to see opponents too much.”
Three days later Robson was booed when he went to watch Aston Villa against Southampton, while Hoddle scored a superb goal for Tottenham Hotspur at Watford. The decision to leave him out of the Denmark game looked to have been the wrong one.
Hope restored and then removed
Matters were now well and truly out of England’s hands. They would have to win away to Hungary and Luxembourg and hope Denmark took no more than three points from as many games (under two points for a win) – with it being a given they would beat Luxembourg at home in one of them. They duly did so by a 6-0 scoreline on October 12, the same day England visited Hungary. Hoddle was recalled to the side and he responded with a superb free-kick in the 3-0 win, which gave England a glimmer of hope. But so comfortably had they beaten the Hungarians that it was hard to see the Eastern Europeans doing England a favour by getting a result against Denmark two weeks later.
But that was just what they did, Denmark suffering their first defeat of the qualifying series as they went down 1-0. England had been bailed out during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup when all seemed lost and now it looked like history might repeat itself. Denmark were a point ahead of England but had an inferior goal difference. If Denmark failed to win away to Greece in their final match then England would go through by beating Luxembourg on the same night. The pressure was on the Danes.
The matches did not kick-off simultaneously, Denmark decisive contest in Athens finishing before England’s contest in Luxembourg began. According to Bobby Robson, as England’s squad arrived at the stadium “some wally of a fan shouted out to us that Greece were ahead”. Within moments they learned the crushing news that the Danes were actually winning, going on to claim a 2-0 victory to deservedly win the match and the group. “It’s rather like asking soldiers to go on firing bullets after a peace treaty had been signed,” said Robson, as he was left trying to motivate his players for a dead rubber match. He duly did that as England produced a professional performance in beating Luxembourg 4-0, leaving them with the best goal difference of any side in Euro ’84 qualifying with +20.
Denmark were the side celebrating at the end of qualifying for Euro ’84.
But all anyone was talking about was the fact England hadn’t made it, along with yet more trouble involving the hooligan fringe. The hosts had been concerned about England’s visit after previous trouble in 1977 and unfortunately the antics of some individuals in both the stadium and on the streets had justified those fears. “They had disgusted us all by giving those lovely people a bad time for our second successive visit,” said a despairing Robson.
It was not a time when the English nation was covering itself in glory when it came to football, with the hooligans continually causing trouble off the field and the players struggling to hit the heights on it. Whereas Euro 2016 in France will contain four sides from the British Isles, the finals of Euro ’84 went ahead without any of them. TV viewers in Britain saw just two live matches from one of the most highly-regarded tournaments of all-time, with the Danes playing with a swagger as they reached the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Spain. France won it on home soil and it was a competition that we missed far more than the rest of Europe missed us.
And yet if the same qualifying criteria had existed for 1984 as it did for 2016, then – in theory at least – we would have had plenty of British Isles representation at the finals. England, Northern Ireland and Wales would have all qualified automatically; the Republic of Ireland would have been in the play-offs; and Scotland would have failed to make it at all after finishing fourth in their qualifying group. The more things change…