Remembering the England B team

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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the last match played by England B, a team which often struggled to capture the public imagination and could disappear from view for several years…

Long time, no B

Since the 1950s England B have taken to the field only sporadically. They went more than 20 years without playing before being revived under Ron Greenwood in 1978 and not many of his successors would frequently make use of the team. They played just once in the first five years under Bobby Robson before a semi-regular revival ahead of Italia ’90, while the next incumbent Graham Taylor regularly had the team playing games in his first two years in charge before abandoning the idea. Since 1992 the team has played just six times, last appearing in 2007. An official total of 57 matches for England B since 1947 is low, but as we will soon see this does not tell the story of the number of times when England’s ‘reserves’ have taken to the field.

To B, or not to B…

As said, the England B name could often disappear from view for a long time. But this did not mean the basic notion of the side did not exist as various ‘FA XI’ teams fitted the bill. In 1969 England met Mexico two days after they had done so in a full international with a significantly changed team that was very much a ‘B’ side. But this would instead be deemed an unofficial international, as would a match played against Colombia by the second string in 1970 immediately before a full international between the sides.

Steve Perryman turns out for England B, which turns out to be the A team…

And there have been instances where sides that England fielded were dubiously classed as A rather than B teams, such as the significantly weakened side that visited Australia in 1980. Perhaps the most striking example was the B side England took to Iceland in 1982, with manager Ron Greenwood not even present as the A team were playing Finland the next day. And yet it would be upgraded to a full international, at least allowing players including Steve Perryman the chance to say they had earned a full cap. It is debatable though that if this match was deemed an ‘A’ fixture, why a similar match against Belarus at Reading prior to the 2006 World Cup wasn’t when every member of England’s starting XI would be going to the finals.

Nobody seems to B here

Even when – as now – England’s senior side never strayed from Wembley for home games, the public rarely turned out for B team matches across the country regardless of how strong the team was. Not helped by the fact the side could disappear from view for years, coupled with the fact they only played friendlies and the side was perceived as the ‘reserves’, low crowds were the norm. A reasonably attractive looking B international between England and the Republic of Ireland in December 1994 at Anfield, with local favourites including Robbie Fowler featuring, attracted a crowd of just 7,431. And that was a relatively big turnout compared to some, such as 3,854 at the City Ground in 1984 to see Gary Lineker come off the bench against New Zealand or just 3,292 at St Andrews in 1980 to see England B beat Australia.

But there were occasional exceptions, mainly when the side ventured to traditionally lower division grounds and it became a big deal to stage such a fixture. More than 10,000 packed into Walsall’s new Bescot Stadium in 1991 to see the side play Switzerland, and almost as many watched Glenn Hoddle score against New Zealand at Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road in 1979 shortly before his first full cap. The side’s brief revival in the mid 2000s with strong sides picked saw crowds of more than 22,000 attend games at Reading and Burnley against Belarus and Albania respectively. Just as the concept seemed to start appealing to the public, it vanished again.

This will B as good as it gets

For many players, a B team cap would be the pinnacle of their international careers as they fell just short of the A side. Steve Bruce was a prime example, captaining England B against Malta in 1987 but never earning a full cap. He would join plenty of other members of the ‘great uncapped’ over the years – such as Adrian Heath, Paul Lake, Dennis Mortimer and Derek Mountfield –  in turning out for the B team but never the A, when in another era they would almost certainly have made it.

Steve Bruce playing for England B, but no full caps would be forthcoming.

With hindsight, some past B team line-ups look like Fantasy Football teams where a couple of makeweights have been included alongside star names to meet the budget limit and it can be surprising to recall that they were ever in the England fray. The England B side that met Iceland during an end of season tour in 1989 is a good example of the diversity on show. Steve Bull, Tony Dorigo, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker and David Platt all went on to feature during Italia ’90, but their colleagues who enjoyed gametime that day included Tony Ford, Terry Hurlock, Tony Mowbray, Andy Mutch, Stuart Naylor and David Preece. They would never win a full cap between them and some spent much of their career below the top-flight.

Even for some players who did earn a few full caps, the B team would provide a welcome opportunity to boost their international experience as their path was otherwise blocked. Goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, who had the misfortune to be around at the same time as Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton, would earn a record 10 England B caps – one more than his tally for the A side.

It will soon B the A team

For some players, B team success would immediately followed by a call-up to the senior squad. Bull was a prime example of this, as his elevation to stardom in May 1989 looked like it had come from the pages of Roy of the Rovers. After a prolific season in the Third Division with Wolves, Bull – who had already played for England under-21s – and strike partner Andy Mutch were called into the England B side for matches against Switzerland, Iceland and Norway on the aforementioned tour. For Mutch the tour was to be as good as it got, but for Bull it would immediately lead to better things. Goals against Iceland and Norway didn’t go unnoticed and he was called up to the senior squad for the Rous Cup match against Scotland just days later, famously coming off the bench to score while technically still a Third Division player.

Steve Bull – the prime example of a player to thrive on a B team call-up.

Even for some already capped players, they needed to prove themselves with the B team before properly establishing themselves. One example was Paul Gascoigne, who in November 1989 found himself slumming it for the B team against their Italian counterparts in Brighton rather than playing in a glamour friendly between the A sides at Wembley 24 hours later. The bumper crowd of more than 16,000 who the saw the 1-1 draw at the Goldstone Ground could feel smug a few months later at having seen two of the standout players of Italia ’90 on the same field – Gascoigne and Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci.

Getting a B in the bonnet

Like reserve football, for some players the B team would represent a big step up on the way to the full ranks while for others it was an unwanted reminder they were not first choice for their country. Probably the best remembered outburst came from Chris Sutton, who in February 1998 snubbed his England B selection against Chile as he took umbrage over not being in the main squad to face the same opponents. “If someone doesn’t want to play for their country at any level I won’t force them. That’s his decision,” said England boss Glenn Hoddle, having seen the forward effectively end his international career by pulling out. Sutton would later concede he should have acted differently.

Chris Sutton would see his England career curtailed by his refusal to play for the B side.

One of the stronger England B line-ups travelled to Algeria in December 1990, the majority of the side being capped at full level. One eye-catching selection was Bryan Robson, who had captained England for eight years under Bobby Robson but now faced the challenge of convincing new boss Graham Taylor he was worthy of a place in the senior squad after six months out injured.

“What the hell do you want to go there for?” Robson recalled his Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson asking him, while the veteran midfielder was left asking the same question as he was moved around in defence. Playing in atrocious conditions and with his team-mate Neil Webb being sent-off, the 0-0 draw was a sobering experience for Robson. “For me the whole trip was a waste of time,” he wrote in his autobiography, seeing the clock tick towards the end of the international career.

It just won’t B enough

A few weeks on from Sutton snubbing the England B team, he was probably left feeling justified in his actions when he saw the fate that befell Matt Le Tissier. The Southampton star’s international career had proved frustrating and he had not been capped at full level for more than a year when he was picked for the B side against Russia in April 1998.

Matt Le Tissier in fine form for England B, but it counts for nothing.

If he was to make the plane to France for the World Cup, then he had to produce in this audition in front of a sparse crowd at Loftus Road. He did just that. In front of the watching Glenn Hoddle, Le Tissier scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. But the call from Hoddle never came. “Looking back I do wonder why I was even there,” he said in 2014 about his B team experience. “I had the best game of my career, scored a hat-trick and it still wasn’t good enough to get in the squad. It made a bit of a mockery of the idea. I can understand why people said it was a waste of time, as it turned out to be.” He would never be capped again.

Will we B seeing the team again?

In the decade since the side last played, the B team has faded from view with few lamenting its absence. One notable exception was David James, who in 2010 called for the side’s revival as he believed there was a “massive void” between the under-21s and senior side and the B team was the answer – particularly for late developers. James wrote: “It’s not glamorous, it won’t get you a big-money contract anywhere, not many people bother turning up to watch you and you get a funny coloured cap when you play, but I would argue that it does help the England coaching staff to identify talent for the senior side. And it helps the player by giving him a chance to be involved in the national set-up – from playing international football to just being part of an England camp. Best of all, there is no age discrimination.”

And there is a pretty good summing up of England B. It lacked in glamour but served a purpose and in some cases definitely helped players progress to the full ranks.

RIP Graham Taylor

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We were extremely sorry to learn yesterday of the death of former England manager Graham Taylor at the age of 72.

Graham Taylor enjoyed great success as a club manager with Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa – winning a total of seven promotions and coming close with the latter two clubs to becoming champions of England . His career included giving the first chance in professional football to such a talent as John Barnes. He was widely regarded as a nice man who made time to help people. And his co-commentaries for matches on BBC Radio 5 Live were enjoyed by many. And yet for some people, all that he would be remembered for was his three years managing England and writing him off as a downright failure because of it. Browsing one discussion forum yesterday , the first reply to a post about Taylor’s death was someone pointing out what an awful England manager Taylor was. No “but he seemed a nice man” or “but he did very well at club level”. Just bitterness and remembering ‘Turnip’ as a catastrophic failure when in charge of his country.

Sadly, of course, Taylor failed to steer England to the 1994 World Cup – the only time they’ve not qualified for the tournament since 1978. Mistakes were made along the way including the tactical approach in certain games and some dubious team selections, as well as some of the old guard such as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle appearing to be sacrificed prematurely. Substituting Gary Lineker in the crunch defeat by Sweden during Euro ’92 attracted criticism from press and public, while Taylor would not enjoy the same rapport with Paul Gascoigne as either his predecessor or successor. There were much-criticised losses to Norway and the USA within days in June 1993. And the infamous fly-on-the-wall documentary about the World Cup qualifying campaign would do Taylor’s reputation few favours. Did he not like that indeed?

But his reign wasn’t quite the all-out nightmare it is often portrayed as. Taylor didn’t lose a match in his first year at charge and his side were beaten just once prior to Euro ’92. England qualified unbeaten for that tournament and during his reign they only lost once on home soil. Taylor could forever claim the controversial refereeing display during defeat to the Netherlands cost him both qualification and – as he told the linesman – his job. For all their disappointments in that campaign, England would probably have still got to the USA had Norway not suddenly emerged as a force. 

Four years earlier England had qualified for the World Cup by just the width of the crossbar against Poland in the decisive qualifier, Bobby Robson going on to depart a hero after reaching the semi-finals. Taylor would rue how things went against him that night in Rotterdam, plus the late equaliser conceded in the home meeting. It’s a game of fine margins and he knew once his side failed to make it to the USA that he would never get a chance to turn things around. Taylor might also have felt expectations were inflated to unrealistic levels when he took the job amid the post-Italia ’90 euphoria.

The Impossible Job documentary about the qualifying campaign would lead to more mocking of Taylor, but the perception of him as a foul-mouthed individual was unfair. Yes the evidence was there that he used a lot of expletives, but it has to be put into the context of a man under great pressure and in an environment where “industrial language” is applied to get through to many players (if Gazza’s autobiography was anything to go by, then even Sir Bobby Robson frequently spoke in such a way when in a football environment). So many people who met Taylor say what a nice man he was, while his reign at Watford saw him work to achieve more than just success on the field. In an era when crowd trouble was rife, Watford were the ultimate family club – the staff putting on productions for young fans to enjoy and families happily flocking to games and sitting in the safety and comfort of a dedicated enclosure. He was also an early champion of black players, men such as Barnes and Luther Blissett thriving under him at Watford. As England boss he would also give a number of black players their chance at international level.

That spell at Watford really brought Taylor to national attention, following an almost-invincible Fourth Division title success at Lincoln City. But as Watford rose from the Fourth Division to runners-up in the top-flight in just six seasons, not all the publicity was positive. His direct style attracted critics, Taylor being at pains to defend the approach. “I hate sophisticated football,” he told John Motson in one interview – and he could say with justification that the old-school directness worked well. 

But that criticism would seem gentle compared to what he had to endure, particularly from The Sun, in the second half of his England reign. ‘Swedes 2, Tunips 1’ was a witty headline. But much of what happened subsequently was anything but. The ‘Turniphead’ images became a nasty and tired joke, merely intensifying some people’s hatred of the man. Even when he resigned as manager there was a spiteful front page. It’s little surprise Taylor later rejected the chance to present a retirement gift to the responsible sub-editor. The son of a sports journalist, Taylor would have good reason to resent some of the individuals within the industry.

After the public humiliation with England the easy option for Taylor would have been to go abroad for a well-paid, low-pressure job. But it was to his immense credit that Taylor would within months take the manager’s job at Wolverhampton Wanderers, becoming the first ex-England manager to manage again at club level on home soil (excluding Sir Alf Ramsey’s caretaker stint at Birmingham City). Although the Molineux reign was perhaps not as successful as hoped, Taylor did lead the side to the First Division play-offs. 

But it was a return to his spiritual home of Watford where he would really re-establish himself, the old Vicarage Road magic – with old mate Elton John again at the helm – resurfacing as successive promotions were achieved to take the Hornets to the Premier League. Although relegation was suffered the next season, Taylor could take pride in what he had achieved and feel he had proved some of his critics wrong. Even though he ‘retired’ in 2001, there was clearly still hunger there as he would the following year again take charge at Aston Villa.

After all the flack he took as England manager, one might have thought the last people he would want for company were the English press. But his role as a radio summariser would regularly see him in their company, many sports journalists having tweeted what a nice man he was and how much he will be missed. Taylor’s assessments of matches were enjoyed by many. Former BBC TV commentator Barry Davies pondered in his autobiography that, having heard Taylor’s analysis and read his thoughtful columns, if things might have worked out differently for the manager if his chance with England had come later. With the benefit of hindsight he would almost certainly have done some things differently.

Taylor was a patriot, pointing out that he was a fan at club level of Scunthorpe United and he grew up with England as his “big team”. He found it hard to grasp why others could not view the national team as such a priority. Tony Dorigo, who played under Taylor, tweeted last night that “there wasn’t a more committed Englishman and for that he had my admiration”. Like Bobby Robson before him, Taylor really longed to succeed with his country. It didn’t work out as hoped, but the man’s overall career and other qualities in life were appreciated by many. The many tributes paid in the last 24 hours are full evidence of that.

RIP Graham, a good, honest man who will be sadly missed.

Football and Team GB at London 2012

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With the Olympics currently taking place in Rio, today we broaden our horizons slightly from our usual recollections about England and instead focus on the presence of Team GB in football at London 2012. For any England fan, the tournament carried a familiar feeling as Team GB’s men exited on penalties. The competition helped raise the profile of the women’s game, but the British would again fall during the last eight…

We’ll come to the women in a minute but Olympic men’s football struggles to capture the imagination on these shores for several reasons. It is not perceived as the pinnacle or even remotely close in status to the World Cup; Team GB are not normally able to enter a team (this is perhaps the key turn-off here in the UK); the restriction for all bar three players to be under-23 means few nations are fielding their strongest possible side; it takes place just after the European Championship so many star names are absent even if they are eligible for it; and it regularly clashes with the start of the domestic season so is viewed as a bit of an inconvenience by clubs.

And all this adds up to a perception in the UK that football isn’t really an essential part of the Olympics. It is perhaps the opposite situation to normal, with football considered a bit of a minority sport during the Games and tucked away on the red button channels. Some might argue that if rugby sevens is a part of the Olympics, then alternative versions of football such as six-a-side might be a better option than the current offering.

But having been contested at every Olympics bar two, the heritage of football at the Games isn’t in question. “Just because the Olympics is not part of our footballing DNA in Great Britain does not mean it is not very important,” said BBC pundit Garth Crooks in 2012. Nor should we forget that Great Britain won gold in both 1908 and 1912 before the World Cup had been conceived, while Matt Busby managed the amateurs to fourth place in the 1948 Olympics on home soil – an achievement worth hailing as most squad members were playing lower league or non-league football, whereas some opponents could field their full international side if professional football was not permitted in their homeland.

Hope Powell (women’s) and Stuart Pearce (men’s) were in charge of Team GB’s footballers at London 2012.

In 2012 Team GB would be entering teams in the football competitions, the first time for 40 years when the amateur era was still in place (professionals were first allowed to play in 1984). From the moment London was selected as host in 2005 the team’s revival became a source of debate, the football associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales concerned at the potential ramifications if their players were part of the  Team GB football team. It seemed a sport editor’s go-to subject for a slow news day, with someone invariably speaking out about it.

After a lot of talk, eventually the men’s team would consist predominantly of players from England with five from Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland were not represented. With England having gone to Euro 2012 a few weeks earlier, manager Stuart Pearce – who was also the boss of England under-21s – was left to pick a fairly inexperienced squad containing some players such as Scott Sinclair and Marvin Sordell who have never been capped at full level.

Perhaps the main intrigue concerned the selection of the three over-23 players. Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs of Wales would finally get the chance to appear in an international tournament as they neared retirement, while discarded England defender Micah Richards was the other ‘veteran’ at the ripe old age of 24.

Becks is axed

But the main talking point over the squad choice concerned the non-selection of David Beckham, some adamant he merited his place for his efforts over London 2012’s bid and for the experience he would provide. Respected football writer Henry Winter certainly takes Beckham’s side in his new book Fifty Years of Hurt. “It’s a snub for a popular footballing figure whose persuasive qualities helped bring the Olympics to London,” he writes. “It’s a no-brainier, a tap-in. Beckham will bring substance to GB football, an ersatz operation at the best of times. The former England captain deserves a place on footballing grounds.”

Winter notes the unhappy reaction of some FA personnel to Beckham’s snub, but he believes the subject should have been raised with Pearce when he was offered the job. The manager had the final say and would not budge. Pearce said: “In regard to ticket sales or merchandising or whatever, I’m a football man. I pick solely on footballing ability and I have to back my opinion. I feel very sorry for David, I know how much it meant to him.”

Big turnouts

Despite the perception that football in the Olympics carries limited appeal, some of the attendances suggested otherwise. On the first Sunday of both Euro ’96 and London 2012, this blogger was at Old Trafford to watch matches. In 1996 there was a crowd of 37,300 at the stadium to see Germany beat the Czech Republic, the two eventual finalists; in 2012 more than 66,000 watched Brazil’s men beat Belarus in an Olympic group game at the same stadium (with Egypt against New Zealand in the first part of a double header also well-attended).

Even accounting for Old Trafford’s capacity having grown since 1996 and ticket pricing issues during Euro’96, that was still a major increase in attendance – particularly considering the Olympics is generally viewed as a less prestigious football tournament than the Euros. The rare chance to see two matches back-to-back and the eternal pulling power of Brazil helped, but perhaps more significantly football was the one event that people in the north-west could easily access – and the same applied elsewhere in the country too. So many people simply wanted to say they had been a part of the Games, without necessarily having the time or resources to head to London. Three of the four men’s quarter-final matches attracted official attendances of more than 70,000. Olympic football might be easy to dismiss, but the public turned out in big numbers on plenty of occasions.

Girl power

The other main beneficiary of football in the Olympics was the women’s game. Without the age restrictions of the men’s tournament, it effectively acts as a second World Cup and a chance for women’s football to enjoy a place in the spotlight. Team GB had never participated in the Olympics before.

Team GB’s women come unstuck in the quarter-finals against Canada.

This was virtually the England side under a different name, manager Hope Powell’s squad being entirely English apart from two Scottish players. She resisted picking any Welsh players despite the team’s first two matches being at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. With England having reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2007 and 2011 and the final of Euro 2009, the team would fancy their chances of earning a medal on home soil.

The team had the honour of kicking off the Olympics with a win over New Zealand, then defeating Cameroon before more than 70,000 saw them beat Brazil at Wembley as they advanced with a 100% record from the group stage. But until last year the quarter-finals were England’s nemesis round at the World Cup and it would spread to Team GB at the Olympics, as they lost 2-0 to Canada at Coventry. “We wanted to be in it for the long run,” said Powell. “We have raised awareness but we would have liked to take it further.” Canada then lost to USA, who would beat Japan in the final in front of more than 80,000 at Wembley. 

The same old story

Think the night of Super Saturday in 2012 and the first names that come to mind for most people are Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford. Not too many will say Daniel Sturridge, who as the nation was rejoicing over triumphs in athletics was missing the decisive penalty as Team GB’s men went out to South Korea at the Millennium Stadium. It was the same old story for anyone who considered the team as an extension of the England side, with Team GB crashing out on spot-kicks in the last eight. For Pearce it was yet more international heartache from penalties, having played in defeats to the Germans in 1990 and 1996 and as a manager his England under-21 side had lost an epic shoot-out to the Netherlands at the 2007 European Championship.

Team GB had topped a group containing Senegal, United Arab Emirates and Uruguay (featuring Luis Suarez) before their shoot-out disappointment in Cardiff. The defeat denied them a glamour semi-final with Brazil at Old Trafford, a match which might just have triggered national interest in the football competition. Brazil comfortably beat South Korea but lost the final to Mexico, meaning the Brazilians have still yet to win the football tournament as they look to end the hoodoo on home soil this time around.

For most of the English members of the party it was not the passage to international success they might have hoped for, although Sturridge, Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose would all be part of England’s Euro 2016 squad. But for the young Welsh contingent the tournament experience arguably proved more vital.  Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Neil Taylor would all go on to help Wales reach the semi-finals of Euro 2016. Allen had inadvertently been listed as ‘English’ in the first programme for the tournament, although the fuss over that was nothing compared to the blunder committed when the South Korean flag appeared rather than North Korea’s on the scoreboard before a women’s match at Hampden Park! 

He may be wearing Team GB’s colours but Daniel Sturridge gets to experience what plenty of his England predecessors have been through over the years.

For both manages of Team GB, the tournament should have provided welcome experience for them to build on in their roles with England. But for Pearce and Powell things would soon get  far worse. Dreadful European Championship tournaments in 2013 for England under-21s and the women would see both leave their respective positions. Powell had been touted as a potential manager in the men’s game a relatively short time earlier, but she would be left watching on from afar as Mark Sampson led England’s women to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 2015.

When people get misty-eyed about London 2012, it is unlikely to be about football – particularly the men’s team. The Games brought countless moments to savour and, ultimately, football struggled to register in the same way that so many moments of British glory did. But as we’ve seen it did allow a wider audience to attend Olympic events and helped the profile of women’s football. For that it served a positive purpose and there has been criticism over the women being absent in 2016. If Team GB are to be represented in football at the Olympics again any time soon, we suspect it won’t be the men doing it.

The Success of ‘Three Lions’ – 20 years on

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Twenty years ago Euro ’96 was approaching and the single Three Lions had already gone straight in at number one in the UK charts. Today we take a look back at the song’s success and how it came to be synonymous with the tournament.

On Sunday, May 26, 1996, England were grinding out an unconvincing 1-0 win over a Hong Kong Golden Select XI on their infamous pre-Euro ’96 trip to the Far East – a tour overshadowed by incidents off the field. Back home that day there was better news for England and the Football Association, as their newly-released official song of Three Lions went to number one in the UK charts. For comedy duo David Baddiel and Frank Skinner – who had recorded the song with Ian Broudie of The Lighning Seeds – being part of a number one single was an unlikely dream realised. But the song’s true success was still to come.

In 1996 Baddiel and Skinner were at the height of their Fantasy Football League double act fame, with the show having run for three series since 1994 on the BBC and with more episodes to be aired during Euro ’96. It was also a golden point for Britpop, including The Lightning Seeds. Liverpool fan Broudie, whose Life of Riley tune was regularly heard on Match of the Day for goal of the month/season competitions, was approached by the FA about writing its official England song for Euro ’96. He in turn sought the help of Baddiel and Skinner, adding lyrics seeking to capture the emotions that go with following England. The tournament slogan of ‘Football Comes Home’ would effectively provide the chorus – being changed to ‘Football’s Coming Home’ so it would scan better. It proved a good move.

The song genuinely set out to convey what supporting England can feel like. Although the glory of 1966 was referenced a few times, the invariable pain and frustration that goes with following them also figures strongly. It is more about hoping glory could happen than the usual guff about how it’s our time to triumph. ‘I know that was then but it could be again’ smacks of hope more than expectation.

With it being the official England song, the FA did insist on certain lyrics being changed. ‘They don’t know how to play’ became the more upbeat ‘but I know they can play’; ‘Terry Butcher at war’ in reference to his famous bloody image against Sweden was taken out, being replaced by ‘Bobby belting the ball’ about Bobby Charlton. But the song was still mainly the one Baddiel, Broudie and Skinner had originally penned.

Skinner recalled in his autobiography taking a recording of the song, with Baddiel and Broudie, so the England squad could hear it after training. It seems the single failed to make an instant impact, Skinner remembering the players just carrying on eating as it was played without seeming bothered. Boss Terry Venables then tapped his keys as he listened to it and described the song as “a real key-tapper”. Considering Venables had made forays into the musical world, it was hardly a ringing endorsement. But Skinner wrote: “Compared to the players’ response, it was virtually hysterical.”

One player who did fall in love with Three Lions was Paul Gascoigne, who insisted on it being played on the coach to matches and was reported to have requested to DJ mate Chris Evans that it featured prominently on the playlist at his wedding reception shortly after the finals. Putting this into context, one doubts any England player tying the knot in the wake of Euro ’88 was dancing away to the much-mocked team song of All the Way afterwards!

Frank Skinner and David Baddiel enjoyed big success as a partnership in the mid-1990s.

The song’s initial success was not due to how the team were performing as it became number one prior to the tournament, occupying a top spot previously reached with Back Home (1970) and World in Motion (1990). But its growing popularity and return to number one on June 30 – against general trends – almost certainly was, being boosted by sales in the week England appeared in the semi-final.

As England made progress, Three Lions was sung with increasing gusto at Wembley after memorable wins over Scotland, Netherlands and Spain. It culminated in the scenes shortly before the semi-final against Germany, as the crowd sang it word for word in a fervent atmosphere. The BBC had gone unusually early to commentator Barry Davies and he let the pictures and noise of the crowd do the talking. “Everyone knew the words of Three Lions and they were able to hear it in its entirety,” he said in an interview in 2011. “It was just a very special atmosphere.”

The cameras zoomed in on Baddiel and Skinner joining in with everyone else, no doubt feeling immense pride. Baddiel’s singing ability was the subject of ridicule, but he could forever point out that he’d performed on a number one single and heard thousands of others singing it in unison. As Skinner would joke: “Dave is one of the worst singers I’ve ever heard. Just think of all the great singers and bands who never had a number one record. It’s very unfair, isn’t it?”

The match against Germany of course ended in penalty heartache for England, one line in the song of ‘all those oh so nears get you down, through the years’ ringing true perhaps more than ever. Baddiel and Skinner stood there numb at the end, in keeping with how millions of others felt.

The dream dies for England.

“I was so sure we were going to win it,” reflected Skinner in his book. “Imagine how they would have sung the song at the final. I have many a time. Football did come home, but someone had parked a big Audi across the driveway.” It had been an almost perfect summer for Skinner, but there would forever remain that nagging pain that it hadn’t quite been complete. At the end of the final episode of Fantasy Football on the BBC broadcast two nights later, there was another rendition of the Three Lions – sung in a more downbeat manner to reflect the disappointment over England’s loss.

But England’s exit wasn’t the end of the song’s popularity. Further requests to sing it would follow, including at the BBC’s Sports Review of the Year. It would also gain a surprising fanbase in Germany, with Three Lions almost becoming an anthem for the competition (poor Mick Hucknall would find his official tournament song swiftly forgotten). Two years later came Three Lions ’98, providing updated lyrics for the World Cup in France – “no more years of hurt” among them. By focusing more on the current crop than two years earlier the song would unfortunately already seem out of date by the time of the finals, as Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce – both referenced in the song – were not part of the squad.

Yet Three Lions – which this time around was not the official England song – would enjoy further success as it again roared to the top of the charts amid a growing number of competing England singles including Vindaloo by Fat Les. Yet for Skinner and plenty of others, the magic of two years earlier wasn’t there. “To be honest, I wish we hadn’t bothered,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Respect to everyone who bought the ’98 version, but Three Lions was all about a specific moment in time: one hot summer in ’96 when England suddenly started playing like winners again, and the crowd had their own, specially written party piece so they could provide the perfect soundtrack.” The tournament’s slogan is certainly far better remembered because of the song’s chorus. Would we be having books and retrospective TV programmes entitled ‘When Football Came Home’ but for Three Lions? It’s debatable.

In the same way that Christmas hits are played every December, Three Lions still gets airtime come major tournaments. But as Baddiel himself reflected in 2014, it isn’t sung as much these days by England followers. The continued failures of the team have hardly fostered a belief that they will finally deliver, with 30 years of hurt having made way for the current 50 years and potentially more. The ’30 years’ line is the one thing that really dates the original song and reminds us that it was written for Euro ’96. And that is what this blogger will always remember it for, helping make the tournament particularly special.

England’s St Valentine’s Day massacre of Scotland (1973)

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Today we look back to February 14, 1973, when Scotland welcomed England to a snowy Hampden Park for a friendly to help celebrate the centenary of the Scottish FA. But it proved a Valentine’s Night to forget for the Scots, as England crushed their old rivals 5-0…

A decade after the Football Association had celebrated its centenary in 1963, the Scottish FA reached the same milestone. To begin the celebrations they wanted an extra helping of the oldest international fixture, with England making the trip to Hampden Park in February 1973 for a friendly. The match was to take place on Valentine’s Night, and what could stir the passions of the average Scot more than the visit of the loathed Sassenachs from south of the border? But ultimately it was to be a night to forget for the Scots and one to savour for the English.

To add to the celebratory spirit of the occasion, England captain Bobby Moore was to win his 100th cap in the days when that was a rare achievement. However, this was never going to be some testimonial-esque kickabout to celebrate that and the Scottish FA centenary. Most Scotsmen relished any chance to beat England – something they hadn’t done since 1967 – while England boss Sir Alf Ramsey was not exactly renowned as a lover of the Scots. It was to be a friendly in name only, with Scottish players keen to impress new manager Willie Ormond. He had replaced Tommy Docherty, who had been lured by First Division strugglers Manchester United.

Bobby Moore goes back to school to celebrate reaching 100 England caps against Scotland.

The match would carry numerous quirks, including breaking the traditional alternating pattern of who hosted the fixture (Scotland had been the home side for the previous clash as well), providing a rare midweek meeting and meaning the sides would face each other twice in the same calendar year for the first time in official internationals. Snow had fallen and a crowd of 48,470 braved the wintry weather – a fair few no doubt risking being put in the doghouse for going there on Valentine’s Night rather than spending it with their other half – but this was well down on the usual attendances when the sides met annually in the Home International Championship.

Sir Alf calls it right

England were going into the match having scored just 13 goals in 11 matches, with the previous month bringing a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Wales in World Cup qualifying. Ramsey said: “It should be an easier game than the Welsh match at Wembley. The emphasis is on Scotland to attack at home.” The way the match panned out showed that, despite having an ever-increasing army of critics, Sir Alf could still call things spot on. It was one of their best attacking displays for a long time.

Within 16 minutes the game was effectively over. Peter Lorimer turned the ball into his own net before his Leeds United team-mate Allan Clarke scored past near-namesake Bobby Clark. Moments later a long-throw from Martin Chivers ended with Mike Channon putting England 3-0 up.

The scoring was put on hold until the second half, with England netting twice after long punts forward by goalkeeper Peter Shilton created goalscoring chances. Chivers seized on awful defending to make it 4-0, while Clarke ran through to score a neat fifth. Although England were hopeful of winning beforehand, few would have anticipated such a convincing triumph. In the Daily Mirror, Harry Miller wrote: “England won back their self-respect last night  as Scotland were humiliated by a display that should silence Sir Alf Ramsey’s critics.”


Scots humiliated

It had been a birthday party to forget for Scotland, their biggest home defeat by the Auld Enemy since 1888. In Glasgow’s The Herald newspaper, a mournful Ian Archer wrote: “This was a defeat that will haunt and hurt us all for it it difficult to avoid those distressing cliches and describe the scoreline as ‘humilitating’, even ‘shameful’. Many a tartan tammy will have been thrown into the gutter of Cathcart Road late last evening.” Among the beaten Scottish players were such respected figures as captain Billy Bremner and a young Kenny Dalglish.

England beat Scotland again three months later, this time 1-0 at Wembley. And yet who would have the last laugh? It was Scotland, as they qualified for the World Cup and England didn’t. If only England could have saved one of their goals against the Scots for that infamous night against the Poles in October 1973.


When Roy Race managed England

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This month in 1978 Wembley was packed as an England side featuring Trevor Francis and Malcolm Macdonald thrashed the Netherlands 5-1. Remember it? Well unless you read the comic Roy of the Rovers then the answer would be no. In a break from our usual nostalgic recollections of how England fared in real-life, we delve into the world of fiction and look back at when the legendary Roy Race was in charge of his country for one match…


Between 1954 and 1993 millions of football fans enjoyed following the fortunes of star footballer Roy Race in his Roy of the Rovers storyline (originally in Tiger, later graduating to his own comic). Although the vast majority of his adventures concerned his club Melchester Rovers – and briefly Walford Rovers – there would occasionally be a chance to follow Roy in action for England. The most memorable such instance came in January 1978, Roy taking temporary charge of the national team after the manager was injured in a car crash. As at Melchester, he was to be player-manager.

The 13-man squad Roy picked would have been familiar to regular comic readers, given that eight of the players selected came from Melchester Rovers and featured regularly in Roy of the Rovers. Johnny Dexter was lead character in The Hard Man in Roy of the Rovers while Nipper Lawrence and Mike Bateson were from the Nipper storyline which appeared in sister title Tiger and Scorcher. At least Roy stopped short of calling up the eternally 12-year-old Billy Dane of Billy’s Boots fame!

And there were two other players selected who were of particular interest…

When two worlds collide

The vast majority of the time, Roy existed in a clearly fictional world which comprised of make-believe people and teams. But there were occasions when this wasn’t totally the case and in his England squad were Birmingham City forward Trevor Francis and Arsenal striker Malcolm ‘Supermac’ Macdonald – the latter having not played for England since 1976. Other real-life stars such as Kevin Keegan were nowhere to be seen. But there was a good reason why Francis and Macdonald were named in the side – they each had a column in Tiger and Scorcher. If you took their selections literally then everyone was now living in the same universe, in which Arsenal co-existed alongside Melchester Rovers and where Trevor Francis could appear with Roy Race.


Sir Alf Ramsey becomes caretaker manager of Melchester Rovers in 1982.

And the willingness to mix the two worlds would continue in the coming years. Sir Alf Ramsey took over as Melchester Rovers caretaker manager in 1982 after Roy was shot; Bobby Robson featured in the storyline as he considered whether to select Roy for his England squad in the mid-1980s; cricketer Geoffrey Boycott became Melchester chairman during the same period and then came the infamous decision to have Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and Steve Norman in the Melchester side along with the retired duo of Emlyn Hughes and Bob Wilson (the latter having last played professionally 11 years earlier!). It didn’t sit comfortably with loyal fans of the comic, including Frank Skinner.

Later there would be characters – albeit under different names – who couldn’t have been more obviously based on Jimmy Greaves and Paul Gascoigne. It all made a mockery of the small print that all characters appearing in the storylines were fictional and any resemblance to real people was coincidental. Meanwhile, Mr Squeaky Clean met Mr Squeaky Clean as Roy and Gary Lineker struck up a friendship that led to them releasing a single together

But going back to 1978, was the average schoolboy reader bothered about having real stars joining the storyline regulars to play for England? Probably not. They no doubt just wished that things could work the other way round and Roy could play for England in real-life!

Roy becomes the national hero

The choice of the Netherlands as England’s opponents was probably not coincidental. They had won acclaim in real-life with their run to the 1974 World Cup final and in 1977 had looked a class above in winning 2-0 at Wembley in a friendly. This would effectively be a rematch, although unlike with England the Dutch side would be totally fictional – as Roy was reunited with an old “chum” in Dutch captain Johan Seegrun.


Soon ‘Supermac’ would break the deadlock as England gloriously went on to win 5-1. Fans depicted watching the match at Wembley or on TV were shown looking delighted with the result, including one armchair viewer who – having earlier been castigated by his wife for criticising Roy’s decision to pick himself – was declaring the new manager had done the country proud. The night really had been ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’.


Malcolm Macdonald sends England on their way to a 5-1 win.

Club over country for Roy

There then followed a tug of love as Roy considered whether to become full-time manager of England or remain at Melchester. Club would ultimately win over country in the battle for Roy’s heart. He later played a couple of times for England under Bobby Robson in the mid-1980s. That proved to be the end of his full international career, although he would spend the summer of 1992 leading the England B team to success in a mini-tournament as player-manager. 

It has to be said that, given how prolific and skilled Roy was, he made a surprisingly low number of appearances in an England shirt during his 39-year playing career (during which he aged remarkably well!). There are probably three reasons for this. Firstly, the title of the storyline was Roy of the Rovers and therefore his club endeavours were always intended as the main focus. Secondly, constantly switching between what Roy did for Melchester and England would have disrupted the flow of the story. And thirdly, a fair proportion of readers were not English. Whereas everybody would get behind Roy when he donned the Rovers shirt, those from other parts of the UK or overseas may have not felt the same desire to see him firing them in for England. 


Roy Race teams up with Gary Lineker in 1989.

Roy’s playing career ended with a helicopter crash in 1993, the underlying reason being falling sales of his weekly comic. Revivals of the storyline – with son Rocky now playing up front for Rovers – in a new monthly Roy of the Rovers comic and the magazines Shoot! and in Match of the Day all proved fairly short-lived, with the last official new storylines appearing on the shelves as far back as 2001. But those who have missed their regular ROTR fix can enjoy regular adventures at at ‘Storky Knight’s’ website containing fresh storylines, including some set in past seasons. Looking at the site, the newest story sees Melchester managed by Johan Seegrun – the Dutch captain during that 5-1 defeat by Roy Race’s England in 1978. In a hectic era when he got married, became a father to twins, suffered the most unlikely of relegations and was almost killed after being shot, Racey’s time in charge of his country stood out as another memorable moment for Roy of the Rovers.

2016 – A year of anniversaries

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Happy New Year and welcome to 2016 – a year that sees England make the short trip to France for Euro 2016 but it will also contain landmark anniversaries for three tournaments that frequently crop up in conversation in this country…

The first is Euro ’96, which took place 20 years ago in June. England were hosts and it remains the last time they reached the semi-finals of a major tournament. It could have been so much more as well, as they looked to end their 30 years of hurt. A never-to-be forgotten semi-final against Germany ended in heartbreak and since then the wait has gone on and on. But the tournament brought good memories too, including Paul Gascoigne’s wondergoal against Scotland, the 4-1 demolition of the Dutch and England actually winning a penalty-shoot-out against Spain.

England celebrate Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland during Euro ’96.

This year will mark 30 years since Mexico ’86, a World Cup fondly recalled by those old enough to remember it. For England it was another case of what might have been, with controversy right at the heart of it during the quarter-final defeat against Argentina and Diego Maradona. His ‘Hand of God’ goal has been discussed over and over again, as has his supremely taken second. But England did have the consolation of boasting the tournament’s top scorer in Gary Lineker. England’s exploits at Mexico ’86 may not be talked about quite as much as Italia ’90, but the competition still attracts plenty of nostalgia – with the tournament as a whole generally considered more entertaining than what was served up four years later.

The infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal by Diego Maradona against England in 1986.

And there is of course one other landmark anniversary this year – 50 years since the greatest day for England, when they won the World Cup. The first, and sadly only, major silverware they have ever got their hands on. It has been a long wait for glory since then, made worse by the fact they have never even appeared in another final. The 1966 final is well remembered for numerous reasons, but perhaps less so was England’s tournament as a whole – with their strong defensive record helping steer them towards glory. Kenneth Wolstenholme’s words have gone down in folklore as Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick in the final to seal a momentous victory.

Bobby Moore holds aloft the World Cup in 1966 – England haven’t even reached a major final since then at senior level.

During 2016, we will look back at these three tournaments particularly closely, as well as reflecting on England’s past efforts or failings at the European Championship. This year also marks 10 years since England’s fairly uninspiring showing amid much anticipation at the 2006 World Cup – but it remains the last occasion they won a knockout match – and 15 years since the sensational 5-1 win away to Germany in a World Cup qualifier. It will also be 40 years since the 1976 European Championship, which seemed to cope perfectly well without non-qualifiers England, and 60 years since England first met Brazil.

It has been 50 years of hurt for England since the glory of ’66 – but there have still been some happy moments along the way amid the pain. We look forward during 2016 to continuing to reflect on the past highs and lows…