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England’s Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’76: Staying in the Wilderness

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England are currently preparing for Euro 2016, having qualified with ease for the finals. But 40 years ago the final stages of the European Championship took place without them, England having failed to progress beyond their qualifying group. Coming after missing out on a place at the 1974 World Cup finals, it added to the gloom for England fans and proved a big disappointment for new manager Don Revie after he appeared to have started well in the job…

In October 1973, England infamously drew with Poland and failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. In the ensuing months the Football Association parted company with Sir Alf Ramsey, with Joe Mercer looking after the shop for seven matches as he sought to help restore national pride. In July 1974 the FA unveiled the new manager, as Don Revie left First Division champions Leeds United to lead his country.

Although Revie may not have had the public support of Brian Clough and his Leeds side were far from universally loved, he had a track record for success – either winning major honours or coming perilously close to doing so. Now the nation hoped he could restore that winning mentality, with England having lost the aura they had held when they won the World Cup in 1966. Their recent record at Wembley, where once they had been almost invincible, was a particular concern. They had been beaten there by West Germany in the European Championship quarter-finals in 1972 and then failed to beat Wales and Poland beneath the Twin Towers in qualifying for the 1974 World Cup. Revie’s first challenge would be to lead England to the final stages of the 1976 European Championship, although he quickly made clear what his real priority was in an era when the World Cup dwarfed the Euros. “The main object must be to build up to the World Cup of 1978,” he said upon his appointment. “Four years seems a long way off, but it isn’t.”

But there was no time like the present and England would be in a Euro ’76 qualifying group with Czechoslovakia, Portugal and Cyprus. None of the four sides had made it to the 1974 World Cup finals. The Czechs had come unstuck against Scotland; England and Portugal were pale shadows of their great sides of 1966; and Cyprus were seen as just making up the numbers. When the draw was made in January 1974, Geoffrey Green in The Times described the group as “a comparatively mild sector at present-day values” given the sides would all be absent from the World Cup. Only the group winners would progress to the two-legged quarter-finals.

  

Don Revie with his first England captain, Emlyn Hughes. It proved a short-lived partnership.

Revie’s first England match would not be until October 30. However, his first get-together was at a Manchester hotel in September when more than 80 established and potential players were invited to attend. Many of them – such as John Beck, Micky Horswill, Kevin Lock and Denis Smith – would never be capped by England at full level but Revie was certainly going to look far and wide for men who could bolster the squad. However, the rather generous number of debuts he handed out while in charge would attract criticism. So too would be the decision to axe established players, including captains Emlyn Hughes and Alan Ball. Like Ramsey, Revie showed a reluctance to pick the flair ‘Maverick’ players who had burst onto the scene and this also gave ammunition to his critics.

The great start for Revie

Although the late date for his first game afforded Revie time to prepare, he would not have the luxury of a friendly to ease his way into the role. His opening match would be the first qualifier against Czechoslovakia at Wembley. It felt like the dawn of a new era, with a new manager in charge who was bringing in Land of Hope and Glory as a pre-match anthem and England were donning a new-look Admiral kit that divided opinion.

The Czechs held out for more than 70 minutes before Mick Channon and Colin Bell (2) found the net as England won 3-0. “It was a match with a beginning and ending but little in the middle to excite us,” wrote Green, adding a note of caution amid the delight over the result. It was though an encouraging evening, where the introduction of substitutes Trevor Brooking and Dave Thomas had helped push England on. Making effective use of substitutes had not been Ramsey’s forte but his permanent successor had made a double change that had paid off. His decision to hand a first cap to midfielder Gerry Francis had also been rewarded with a good display, with the player going on to be a central part of Revie’s plans.

Back to reality

Revie’s honeymoon would last just three weeks, before being brought back down to earth. Portugal visited Wembley for England’s second qualifier, with the hosts expected to make it two wins out of two – particularly after Portugal were beaten 3-0 in a friendly by Switzerland the week before. A big crowd at Wembley saw the Portuguese adopt a defensive approach that England were unable to breach, although visiting goalkeeper Vitor Damas would pull off some good saves to keep them out. The celebrations of Damas and his colleagues at the finish were an indicator they had exceeded expectations with a goalless draw, while England left the pitch to a loud chorus of ‘what a load of rubbish’.

  

Dave Thomas in action for England against Portugal.

Revie did not try to hide from the crowd’s disappointment. “No excuses. We didn’t play at all,” he told the media. “It was a bad performance, we didn’t deserve anything more than a draw.” In the Daily Mirror, Frank McGhee wrote: “Quite the worst feature of the whole affair was that England produced so pitifully few ideas during the game to change a course that gradually became inevitable.” To put the result into a gloomy perspective, Portugal would lose 5-0 when they visited Czechoslovakia during the qualifying series.

England’s next match was due to be an away qualifier in Cyprus in February, but it was postponed due to concerns over political unrest. Instead their first game in 1975 was a home friendly against world champions West Germany in March, marking England’s 100th match at Wembley. The night rekindled optimism about Revie’s reign as Colin Bell and Malcolm Macdonald scored in a 2-0 win. Ball was the new captain after Hughes was controversially axed, although ‘Crazy Horse’ would make further appearances under Revie (a man he would regularly criticise in later years).

Malcolm Macdonald 5-0 Cyprus

In April England were in must-win territory as group outsiders Cyprus visited Wembley. Fresh from netting his first England goal the previous month, Macdonald showed his potency by continually being in the right place to score on the night. He scored the lot as England crushed their opponents 5-0. But not everyone felt euphoric about the win or Macdonald’s goal blitz. In the Daily Express, reporter David Miller wrote: “This was Third Division stuff in international terms. Let us keep the champagne for the moment when the English bull does the same against Argentina, Brazil or Holland.”

  

Malcolm Macdonald helps himself to five goals against Cyprus.

England had unusually played all their three home qualifiers before any of the away ones took place, but in May they finally ventured onto foreign soil under Revie for the return game in Cyprus. An early goal from Kevin Keegan looked like it may open the floodgates, but it was to be a disappointing afternoon for the Three Lions as they had to be content with a 1-0 win. Macdonald couldn’t score and indeed would never find the net for his country again, Miller’s comments the previous month sadly bearing fruit. But England had at least ground out a result. David Lacey wrote in the Guardian: “If their performance was unspectacular, at least they avoided the sort of catastrophe that can easily occur when teams have to encounter weak but spirited opponents in alien conditions.”

The season wound down with the Home International Championship. A 0-0 draw away to Northern Ireland meant Revie’s team had not conceded in six games, a sequence that ended in the next match. Although a 2-2 draw at home to Wales was disappointing, the two debut goals for David Johnson gave encouragement. But England saved their best until last, crushing Scotland 5-1 at Wembley. Francis (2), Bell and Johnson joined Kevin Beattie on the England scoresheet, as they completed the season unbeaten and as Home International champions. Revie appeared to be rehabilitating England and putting the painful memories of 1973 behind them. Sadly, things were about to fall apart.

Ball axed

England were to start the 1975/76 season with an away friendly in Switzerland. But the build-up was overshadowed by Ball discovering he had been dropped and stripped off the captaincy, which was handed to Francis. Ball claimed he received an unsigned letter from Revie informing him of the decision, the player revealing his hurt at the manager not speaking to him in person about the matter. It marked a sad end to Ball’s international career and meant all of England’s World Cup winning XI were no longer playing for their country. The row over Ball coincided with Stoke City manager Tony Waddington speaking out over Revie’s decision to not pick ‘Maverick’ Alan Hudson, with the England boss learning what an unforgiving world international football management could be. But he wasn’t going to cave in.

  

Alan Hudson and Alan Ball were controversially dropped by Don Revie.

Speaking about players having been axed, Revie said: “I feel particularly sad in the case of Emlyn and Alan, but although I wrote each of them a letter I suppose I shall have to wait until they become managers before they appreciate what I had to do. I haven’t had time for sitting on the fence and postponing unpleasant decisions.”

England won 2-1 in Switzerland, but the most important internationals still lay ahead. They faced away qualifiers in Czechoslovakia and Portugal. England were in the driving seat but they could ill-afford to lose either game. Their game in Bratislava against Czechoslovakia was abandoned at 0-0 after 17 minutes due to fog. The match would start again the following afternoon – a year to the day of when Revie’s reign had begun in style against the Czechs.

  

England’s hopes faded with defeat in Czechoslovakia.

All seemed to be going to plan as Channon put England in front, but Revie’s unbeaten run came to an end when the result most mattered as the Czechs came from behind to win 2-1. After an ill-tempered contest, England were fuming towards Italian referee Alberto Michelotti for how they felt he had handled the match. Revie, who hailed the way his players had performed despite the result, said: “I saw the worst provocation in this game that I have ever seen in an international match, certainly worse than Argentina against England in the 1966 World Cup.” It was fair to assume he wasn’t blaming his own team for the said provocation. 

The following month, the group picture remained murky after Czechoslovakia drew 1-1 away to Portugal. England led the group by virtue of having a goal difference one better than Czechoslovakia, but that wasn’t much of an advantage in the circumstances. It now basically came down to who got the best result from their final match – England in Portugal, Czechoslovakia in Cyprus. The Czechs faced the easier task and would also know exactly what they had to do as they would be playing four days after England’s match. To believe they would do it, England were realistically going to have to record a big win in Portugal. It was a tall order.

Missing out again

A stunning free-kick from Rui Rodrigues put Portugal ahead and although Channon equalised before the break, England could not snatch a winner and drew 1-1. Their only hope now was for the Czechs to fail to win in Cyprus, which seemed unlikely. According to Green, Revie saved “time, petrol and expense” by cancelling the executive jet to take him to see the match. He seemed to have accepted the inevitable. Any hopes England had of advancing to the last eight were duly extinguished by half-time, as Czechoslovakia led 3-0. Even the most optimistic of English fans would have abandoned hope, with the Czechs duly seeing the game out to go through.

Lacey wrote of England’s latest failure: “An outcome which first emerged as a possibility when Portugal forced a goalless draw at Wembley a year ago, became a probability with the defeat in Bratislava last month, a near-certainty with last week’s draw in Lisbon and actuality when Czechoslovakia beat Cyprus 3-0.” 

 
Czechoslovakia beat West Germany on penalties to win Euro ’76.

For the second major tournament in a row England had been eliminated in the qualifying group stage, paying the price for losing away to their rivals for top spot. Although there was more far melodrama over England failing to make the 1974 World Cup, this latest disappointment in some ways sent out the greater warning message. England were no longer among the elite and their previous failure could not just be written off as a fluke because of the heroics of a Polish goalkeeper. The Czechs surprisingly went on to win the final against West Germany in Yugoslavia, but that provided little consolation to England. Ten years on from winning the World Cup they were increasingly retreating from international football’s frontline and Revie knew he could not afford to fail again during the next qualifying programme.