World Cup

England’s Qualifying Campaigns: 1998 World Cup – Hoddle’s dream start

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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.


There was an uncomfortable handover from Terry Venables to Glenn Hoddle in 1996.

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.

Beckham’s debut

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.

Advantage Italy

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.


Celebrations for England in Rome.

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.

 

Great England Goals – Norman Hunter v Wales (1973)

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The 1974 World Cup qualification programme would go down in infamy for England, as the 1966 winners failed to even make the finals two tournaments on. There weren’t many highlights for the fans to look back at fondly, but one would be the thunderbolt goal scored by Norman Hunter against Wales on this day in 1973…

1973, Norman Hunter and Wembley weren’t the best of combinations. In May, Hunter was part of the Leeds United side that surprisingly lost to Sunderland in the FA Cup Final. In October, Hunter’s infamous error against Poland proved costly as England conceded the goal that ultimately stopped them qualifying for the World Cup. But on a happier note, in the previous home qualifier in January, Hunter had scored a screamer against Wales.


The visit of the Welsh marked the first World Cup match at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. As on that famous day, England were managed by Sir Alf Ramsey and captained by Bobby Moore. But Alan Ball was the only other player from the 1966 final taking to the field, although the side did contain Norman Hunter who had been an unused squad member in that triumph and made one substitute appearance at the 1970 tournament. This was realistically going to be the defender’s last chance to properly figure at a World Cup. With England having started the campaign by beating Wales in Cardiff two months earlier, there seemed little cause for concern ahead of this rare January international.

All that changed after 23 minutes, John Toshack scoring from close range to give Wales the lead. Suddenly it didn’t look so certain that England would be at the finals in West Germany. They now began to attack with vigour, but – in an ominous warning sign for what would later lie ahead with Poland and Jan Tomaszewski- they came up against a goalkeeper in good form in Gary Sprake. But the one man who would beat him shortly before the break was Hunter, his Leeds United colleague.

Hunter was involved in bringing the ball forward as England attacked in numbers. Colin Bell drove the ball into the box, with it being deflected away into the path of Hunter. He struck the ball goalwards with venom from outside the box, his left foot drive flying into the roof of Sprake’s net. “Sprake knows all about Norman Hunter but he knew nothing about that,” proclaimed BBC commentator David Coleman as Wembley erupted with delight. It had been a goal to savour.

“Oh, how England need forwards who can shoot like that,” reflected Geoffrey Green in The Times. Norman Giller in the Daily Express wrote of a goal that was “fashioned out of nothing”. In the Daily Mirror, Frank McGhee said: “It is in a way a tribute to England’s equaliser in the 40th minute that a ‘keeper in Sprake’s superb form was left frozen in disbelief at the ferocity and power of the Norman Hunter shot that flew past him from 25 yards.” Green also called it at 25 yards, Giller gave a more conservative estimate of 20. Wales’ Leighton James, in an interview in 2004, recalled it as being 30. But regardless of just how far out it was, there was no getting away from the fact that Hunter’s goal had caught the eye. “You did not see him often over the halfway line. It showed how much pressure they put on us,” recalled James.


Hunter would generally be known for his ‘bites yer’ legs’ reputation rather than his goalscoring ability, scoring just 22 times in 679 Football League appearances. For England he was hardly prolific either, the only other goal he scored in 28 caps coming against Spain in 1968. But against Wales he drove in a goal to remember. 

It sadly wasn’t what most people would be talking about the following day, England having to settle for a 1-1 draw and being booed off the pitch. It wouldn’t be what most primarily remembered his England career for either, the mistake against Poland nine months later sadly – and perhaps unfairly – sticking in many minds far more. But Hunter’s goal against Wales had been one to treasure, a prime candidate for any list of forgotten great England goals – a left-footed drive from distance that flew past Sprake. It was a Bobby Charlton-esque goal from the most unlikely of sources.

England’s qualifying campaigns: 1994 World Cup – did we not like that?

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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.


The pressure was increasing on Graham Taylor after Euro ’92.

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…

England scrape into the 1982 World Cup 

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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…

England’s qualifying campaigns: 1978 World Cup – Failure becomes a habit

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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.

Flying start

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.

England’s Qualifying Campaigns – 2002 World Cup

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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.”

Sven arrives 

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?


David Beckham celebrates saving England against Greece.

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.

Faces of ’66 – Sir Alf Ramsey

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As you are no doubt aware, 50 years ago England won the World Cup for the only time. It meant manager Alf Ramsey’s prophecy came true after he had maintained England would triumph on home soil. Today we pay tribute to the man…

“We will win the World Cup in 1966,” declared a pre-knighthood Alf Ramsey after he was appointed England manager during the 1962-63 season. He would ultimately be proved right, but at the time he was sticking his neck on the line with such a proclamation – irrespective of the fact the nation had home advantage in 1966. As we recently recalled, Ramsey had not even been first choice for the job with veteran player Jimmy Adamson turning down the opportunity. It was the start of an uneasy relationship between Ramsey and the FA hierarchy.

For Ramsey, the size of the task in front of him was clear from his first game in February 1963. Away to France in a European Nations Cup qualifier, England were crushed 5-2 and eliminated. Although the conditions were poor and many players were short of match practice following the Big Freeze, it was a night that emphasised the side’s shortcomings. “Do we always play like that?” Ramsey asked captain Jimmy Armfield, who assured him they didn’t. “That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard all night,” Ramsey responded.


Alf Ramsey during his England playing career.

He had work to do and just two players from the side would go on to play in the 1966 World Cup final, while a defeat at home to Scotland in the following match confirmed this was going to be a tough mission. The 1953 home mauling by Hungary – with Ramsey in the side – had shown England were no longer the world leaders in football they believed they were, with several underwhelming World Cups compounding matters. Pessimism had set in.

But Ramsey had belief in himself and what was available to him. He had played for his country and as a manager had defied all expectations at Ipswich Town, hauling them from the Third Division to the First Division and then surprisingly winning the championship at the first attempt – one of the few English title wins comparable with Leicester City’s incredible Premier League victory in 2015-16 – with a system that opponents struggled to suss out. Now he was pronouncing that England would win the World Cup in 1966, a claim that was met with scepticism – not least because England had never previously been beyond the quarter-finals and were hardly invincible outside the tournaments either.

The player’s manager

Ramsey’s reputation was rather contradictory. He had a public image of being cold and aloof but the vast majority of his players held him in great respect as both a manager and individual. Goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who made his debut in Ramsey’s second game, wrote in his autobiography: “At times he appeared cold and distant, yet I know of no one who played under him who doesn’t have great affection for Alf Ramsey, the quintessential ‘player’s man’.”

Kevin Keegan, who briefly figured under Ramsey near the end of his reign, would also tell of a different man to the media image. “He’s different when he’s with us. He’s a great fellow,” he said shortly before Ramsey departed in 1974. There were countless other examples too. Ramsey could relax in the company of players and he understood them. Bar perhaps the odd Maverick player who resented being overlooked, almost every player would speak with affection for Sir Alf.

Sir Alf Ramsey with a smile while leading England.

But Ramsey would never let any player become complacent about their place in the side. Banks has frequently told the story of how he was admonished by the manager simply for saying “see you” after a match, Ramsey refusing to let anyone believe they were a certainty for selection. Also often recalled is the time when Jack Charlton asked Ramsey why he had brought him into the international fold with his 30th birthday approaching. “Well, I have a pattern of play in my mind and I pick the best players to fit the pattern,” Ramsey told him. “I don’t always necessarily pick the best players.” 

It would jokingly be recalled by the other players as a putdown to Charlton, but there was also a serious message. Ramsey believed more in choosing players to fit a system than attempting to pick a system to accommodate the best 11 players. It’s hard to imagine he would have fallen into the trap of always trying to select Gerrard and Lampard together.

Making the right calls

The 1966 World Cup saw Ramsey continually make good use of his man-management skills, as well as applying his tactical nous. Most famously he would deploy his ‘wingless wonders’ system in the three knockout matches, a formula that had proved successful the previous year away to Spain. It may have been a departure from the more conventional systems, but it worked for England.

For Ramsey there were hints throughout the 1966 tournament of the strength of his ability to handle players correctly.  The first concerned Nobby Stiles committing a bad tackle on France’s Jacques Simon during England’s final group game, with Ramsey facing calls from some members of the FA to drop his midfielder. Ramsey, who had previously ensured the archaic selection committee was done away with, threatened to walk away if he was given orders about who he could or couldn’t pick as he again had reason to resent the FA. Thankfully, Stiles stayed in the side and Ramsey remained in charge.

He may have sparked controversy with his comments about Argentina after England beat them in the quarter-finals (he was not perceived as a lover of foreigners), but behind the scenes he provided a calming influence when tempers flared between the players afterwards as the beaten South Americans vented their anger. “This does not leave this room,” he told his side, reminding them that Argentina were on the plane home while England remained in the World Cup.

Most frequently remembered are his words to his players after West Germany had scored a heartbreaking equaliser in the last minute of the World Cup final. Victory had been snatched away from England and there was a danger the psychological advantage had been handed to the Germans. But Ramsey, spotting some German players sat on the turf, ordered his men to stand up and send out the message they were more ready for the rigours of extra-time. “You’ve beaten them once now go out and beat them again,” he famously said to his team, with the players duly responding by winning the match and tournament. 

The manager may have appeared unemotional at the match’s climax, but he would surely have been filled with pride when the crowd chanted his name during the celebrations. He would not receive a medal during his lifetime, but he did get to hold the trophy during the celebrations.

Joy for England and Ramsey.

Ramsey had put his neck on the line with several decisions along the way – proclaiming England would win; standing by Stiles; opting to play without a winger in three matches; selecting Geoff Hurst over Jimmy Greaves for the final – but he had been rewarded by seeing his side triumph. England may have lacked flair but they had achieved glory, something that the subsequent 50 years has shown is far from easy.

Never repeating the magic

Ramsey would spend eight more years in charge of England but he could never replicate the glory of 1966. Each tournament brought a sense of having taken a step back. Semi-finalists in the 1968 European Championship; going out to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final after leading 2-0; being outclassed by the Germans in the 1972 European Championship last eight; and then the ignominy of failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Ramsey had been the first man to lead England to World Cup glory; now he was the first to fail to qualify for the World Cup. His sacking was a sad and unfortunate ending after such a glorious peak was reached earlier on.

The 1970 World Cup ended in disappointment, with worse to follow.

With hindsight at least, he probably should have stepped down after the 1970 finals when his record was still relatively unblemished and the loss to West Germany was largely written off as a fluke at the time. Ramsey had felt a strong bond with most players in the 1960s but would have far less in common with the Mavericks who defined the 1970s – players he was reluctant to select, as critics felt he was again overlooking flair. His ability to use substitutes – which hadn’t been an option in 1966 – would also be considered a weakeness. He was perceived as having acted too prematurely in making changes against West Germany in 1970, of leaving it too late against Poland in 1973. The game was changing along with the personalities in it and Ramsey no longer seemed such a natural figurehead.

“I’m rude?”

Ramsey had his critics even during the glory years, his style of football seen as functional rather than flamboyant. It was a situation not helped by his unwillingness to go out of his way to help the media. But the World Cup exit in 1970 saw the vultures start to circle, Ramsey being met by a barrage of media men as he arrived home from Mexico. He snapped, taking particular exception to the usual comments about his distant public image. “I’M BEING RUDE? I don’t there’s a word that’s been invented that would describe the mannerisms of some of the people I’ve been confronted with. And yet I’m rude,” he fumed, clearly exacerbated by the line of questioning. It was a relationship that had never been easy and unfortunately it wasn’t going to improve as England continued to decline during the 1970s.

Even after he died in 1999, Ramsey would attract the occasional spiteful article. Probably the most contentious was written by historian Frank McLynn in The Observer Sport Monthly in 2005, cruelly branding Ramsey a “humourless boor”, describing him as “the epitome of negativity” and claiming his “legend far outstrips his actual achievement”, believing England’s 1966 triumph owed much to key decisions going in their favour. It was the sort of damning view that many of the Boys of ’66 would be quick to hit back at. Ramsey may not have endured the level of personal attacks during his reign as some of his successors such as Graham Taylor, but he got the first taste of the way things were going.

In later years Ramsey cut a fairly reclusive figure in English football circles – apart from a brief spell in caretaker charge of Birmingham City – although the TV cameras would sometimes spot him in the Wembley crowd at England matches. His sacking in 1974 had evidently left a sour taste and led to a detachment from the Football Association, with senior FA director Sir Harold Thompson seen as pivotal to his dismissal. The axed manager would say: “He would always refer to me, even to my face, as Ramsey, which I found insulting.” Ramsey’s relations with some senior FA representatives had seldom been easy, with successor Don Revie enduring many of the same problems with Thompson (who soon became FA chairman).

Perhaps still reeling from the manner of his departure, Ramsey seemed unwilling to share the limelight with his players from 1966. He was the one significant absentee during the retrospective Summer of ’66 BBC series in 1986, despite presenter John Motson making a personal visit to his home to try and lure him to share his memories. He did though offer his thoughts in a tabloid newspaper on contemporary matters, incurring the wrath of Bobby Robson with criticsms of England and their manager ahead of the 1986 World Cup.

It was a surprising thing for Ramsey to do given he had been so suspicious of the press during his own managerial career and a bemused Robson hit back at him in several books he penned – his frustration heightened by having been thwarted in his attempts to meet with his near-neighbour to get advice about managing England in a World Cup in Mexico. It was a sad episode between two men whose managerial paths contained plenty of parallels, given the sides they managed.

Sadly in later years Ramsey was struck down with Alzheimer’s disease. When he died in April 1999, there was sadness over his death but there didn’t seem to be the same widespread mourning among football fans as when contemporaries such as Matt Busby, Brian Clough and Bill Shankly died, nor Ramsey’s England captain Bobby Moore. But the players who served under him felt his loss, many of them attending a memorial service in Ipswich.

Ramsey may not have been an easy man to get to know and some seem to remember him as much for his clipped accent as for his managerial achievements. But that didn’t stop many in English football feeling a great attachment to him and respect for what he did. Fifty years ago he built an England side that won the World Cup, something nobody else has done. Every England fan should be grateful for what was achieved back then.

Sir Alf, we salute you!