England’s final group game yesterday was, very unusually, low on headlines and almost totally devoid of the usual hype. A forgettable, if somewhat predictable, 0-0 dead rubber draw with Costa Rica was not even the main football talking point at the moment the game finished, as the antics of a certain Mr Suarez dominated ITV’s post-match debate. Throw in the evening drama of Greece beating the Ivory Coast with a last-gasp penalty to go through and Colombia’s glittering performance against Japan and it has to be said England were very much last on the global footballing agenda. Even their arrival back in the UK today after failing in Brazil has not received the usual publicity given to the team coming home.
This was the first time England have ever played a group game when already out of the tournament, but it wasn’t the only occasion when they failed to hog the British headlines on a day they played in the World Cup. For proof of that we can look back exactly 32 years to June 25th, 1982. A day when there were three matches all ending in 1-0 scorelines – a famous shock win for a British side; one of the most controversial matches in World Cup history; and by far the least memorable, England winning a dead rubber.
A strange tournament
The 1982 World Cup was a strange experience for England. They had made extremely heavy weather of qualifying for their first finals since 1970 and then their presence in the finals was thrown into doubt as the Falklands War broke out. They played in the first 24-team finals and – despite missing the last two World Cups – England were seeded in the draw (a controversial move at the time). They made an incredible start by scoring through Bryan Robson in under 30 seconds of their opening match against a highly-rated French side. But England’s 3-1 win was to be the highlight of their finals, as the goals dried up and Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking desperately fought to be fit to be even bit-part players in the World Cup (they had never played in the finals and would never get another chance). Throw in an odd second round format of four groups of three teams with just one progressing and England going out without losing, and it was a very different World Cup to normal for the English fan. And sadly, not perhaps the most memorable either.
Ron Greenwood’s men qualified from their first round group with a routine 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia in their second group game. Their third game against Kuwait would be played on Friday, June 25th in Bilbao. England had already won the group and Kuwait were out unless they could win by a cricket score, effectively making it meaningless. England didn’t change things too much (the decision to keep Peter Shilton in goal virtually ended any hope Ray Clemence had of playing a World Cup match) but Steve Foster, Phil Neal and Glenn Hoddle were brought into the starting line-up. It proved a fairly forgettable contest in the afternoon sunshine, settled in England’s favour thanks to a Trevor Francis first half goal as they enjoyed a rare 100% group record.
Highlights of England’s 1-0 win over Kuwait. Well done anyone who can recall anything other than the goal from this game.
An inevitable outcome
The real drama, or total lack of it, was taking place at the same time as England’s match. In another oddity of the World Cup, West Germany’s three group matches were all played at the same time as England’s despite the teams being in different groups (it was common until Italia ’90 for group games that had no bearing on each other to be played at the same time). This made it more strange that FIFA still did not consider it appropriate for the final round of games in each game to be played simultaneously to limit the threat of possible collusion, particularly after the controversy of Argentina’s decisive 6-0 win over Peru in 1978 being played in isolation. West Germany had famously lost 2-1 to Algeria in their opening match in Spain, with subsequent results meaning it would come down to the final game in the group against neighbours Austria in Gijon. Algeria had won 3-2 against Chile the previous day and they would go through if the Germans failed to win or if Austria were beaten by three goals or more.
The passage of time means some British fans seem to recall sitting through the 90 minutes of West Germany against Austria and being disgusted at what they saw. The reality is no one, apart from presumably the odd person in a TV studio, would have watched it in full unless they were abroad at the time. ITV was probably one of the few channels in the world to screen England’s meaningless match live and the BBC did not show an afternoon match. But viewers would soon discover just what had taken place. As is well known, the West Germans scored early and the game quickly fizzled out to a lifeless 1-0 result that suited both sides as suspicions grew around the world. Algeria were left particularly disgusted, but so too were many others. Anschluss was one memorable headline used to describe the events. Perhaps the most disappointing element was that Austria seemed to abandon any attempt to repeat their great victory over West Germany at the previous World Cup finals, which they had widely celebrated despite already being out of the tournament.
BBC viewers tuning in for the live Spain against Northern Ireland match that evening were to see the controversy already developing. “It has to be said the match had all the makings of a carve-up and that’s the way it turned out,” said a clearly unimpressed David Coleman when introducing brief footage of the match, which incidentally meant West Germany would be in the same second phase group as England (whose own highlights on the BBC were extremely brief, summing up the meaningless nature of their match).
BBC commentator Alan Parry summed it up when he said: “It is difficult to prove that 22 footballers weren’t trying, or that these two countries might have got together and decided that a 1-0 scoreline was in their best interest for both of them but that it certainly the way it looked and it is difficult to imagine that FIFA won’t do something to stamp out the memory of an afternoon that was an insult to the crowd and an embarrassment to football.”
FIFA would rightly change the format from 1986 to as we know it today with the final matches in each group played simultaneously, but that was four years too late for Algeria. Some faith quickly needed to be restored in the tournament and for British viewers that would come in the evening match. On a momentous night, Northern Ireland famously won 1-0 against hosts Spain thanks to a Gerry Armstrong goal. Billy Bingham’s side courageously held out despite being reduced to 10 men when Mal Donaghy was controversially sent off. Another goal for the Irish would have put Spain out, but there was no suggestion of any underhand arrangement here as Bingham’s men gave one of the most gutsy performances by a UK side at any World Cup. Spain had been poor in the group stage and things would not improve in the second round as they took just one point from their matches against West Germany and England, the latter falling at the same hurdle after two 0-0 draws.
By then how England did was back as the main concern for the British sporting media. But for one game in this World Cup they had been last on the agenda, a day when UK pride was reserved for Northern Ireland defying the odds and when all the controversy was in the one match containing no direct British interest. We’ve had to wait a long time for an England World Cup match to be so insignificant again. And it somehow doesn’t feel right when it happens, does it?
As England get ready to play their last World Cup match against Costa Rica already having suffered the humiliation of elimination after just two games, it is appropriate to look back at the last time England were in a similarly helpless position after two matches in the finals of a major tournament – the horror show that was Euro ’88.
Unlike this World Cup, England headed out to West Germany in June 1988 genuinely considered to be one of the favourites to lift the trophy. After a reasonable showing at the 1986 World Cup in reaching the quarter-finals and falling victim to the Hand of God, Bobby Robson’s side enjoyed one of their best qualifying showings to reach the European Championship finals. They won five matches out of six and drew the other, with results including an 8-0 demolition of Turkey and a 4-1 away win at Yugoslavia in the decisive final match to reach the finals. John Barnes and Peter Beardsley had shone in their first season at Liverpool, while Gary Lineker had finished World Cup top scorer, Chris Waddle could complement Barnes on the opposite flank and courageous captain Bryan Robson was a tremendous asset going forward.
The draw seemed fairly kind to England in the eight team tournament. Whereas Group 1 contained hosts and 1986 World Cup runners-up West Germany, and strong Italy, Spain and Denmark sides, England were up against USSR, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. Only the Soviets of the other three teams in Group 2 had qualified for the 1986 World Cup, with the Republic of Ireland having never reached a major finals before. A place in the last four was seen as a minimal target for England. The team’s confidence was reflected in their official song of Going All the Way (one wonders if the song would be seen as less cringeworthy had England actually done so and lifted the cup).
Odd to think this was just two years before World in Motion…
But in the seven months between the Yugoslavia triumph and the start of the finals, the optimism started to subside slightly. England’s friendly results did little to inspire and their goalscoring touch seemed to desert them as they played out forgettable results such as 0-0 draws away to Israel and Hungary. More worryingly, England would have to contend without injured central defensive leader Terry Butcher as they reshuffled their pack. The relatively young central defensive pairing of Tony Adams and Mark Wright was Bobby Robson’s preferred choice. Also dominating the headlines in the build-up was the threat of hooliganism, not helped by violent scenes at the Rous Cup clash with Scotland at Wembley. There were genuine concerns the team could pay the price for any serious disorder and it would also prolong the ban placed on English teams from European competitions.
An interesting subplot to the tournament was England were starting against the Republic of Ireland, managed by 1966 hero Jack Charlton. Ireland had reached their first major finals and seemed revitalised under Charlton, their use of a direct system proving controversial but effective. Charlton also seemed keen to get one over on the FA after they’d totally overlooked him for the England manager’s job in 1977.
England get ready for two weeks of international glory. Surely nothing can go wrong…
“I don’t think they’ll cause the English lads too many problems,” was the verdict of ITV pundit Brian Clough about Ireland a few days before the contest. Shortly before the match kicked-off, he wrote off Irish defender Mick McCarthy (but he did at least stop short of calling him a “clown” after his experience with Poland 15 years earlier). The last laugh would be with Jack Charlton’s side, famously winning 1-0 with an early header from Ray Houghton as England squandered a succession of chances.
Brian Clough calls it wrong, no doubt to the amusement of Scotsman Ian St John…
England now had three days before they played the Netherlands, who had lost to USSR in their opening match. The build-up was dominated by disturbances involving English followers, that helped ensure the European ban would continue. On the field there was to be further disappointment for England against a Dutch side enjoying a renaissance after being absent from every major tournament since Euro ’80. Players like Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten were ready to shine and duly did so. An enthralling contest score the Dutch triumph 3-1, with Marco van Basten scoring a hat-trick on an afternoon when Bobby Robson’s men twice hit the woodwork at 0-0.
Like this year, England’s only hope of remaining in the tournament was for another team to win both its remaining games. They were given a brief glimmer of a lifeline later that evening when Ronnie Whelan scored a stunner for Ireland against Soviet Union, but the Russians came back into the game to draw 1-1. England were out and would almost certainly finish bottom of the group.
From bad to worse…
One blessing in the circumstances was there were just three days for England to wait before they could play their final match and come home. Bobby Robson was desperate for some pride to be restored against a side not yet certain of their place in the last four. In an unprecedented move, the BBC opted not to show the match live and selected the Republic of Ireland’s decider against the Dutch instead which was played at the same time on the Saturday afternoon (I believe this is the only time in the last 50 years an England match in a major tournament has not been shown live on English television). It was hard to argue with the choice and viewers would see Ireland stage a brave performance in defeat that put England to shame.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse for England, they did and left Robson a broken man. If the first two games had given the sense England were unlucky, this was the opposite and it seemed they couldn’t wait for the match to finish. Robson gave starts to Chris Woods, Dave Watson and Steve McMahon and the match would prove to be the end of the international line for Kenny Sansom and Glenn Hoddle. If Hoddle’s England days had began gloriously with a lovely goal against Bulgaria in 1979, they would end depressingly as he lost possession just three minutes in for the USSR to score. Although Tony Adams equalised, it came as little surprise when the Soviet Union added two more goals to leave England with a record of played three, lost three, with a goal difference of -5. Lineker left the action early after a bitterly disappointing tournament – it would transpire he had hepatitis.
The knives were out for Bobby Robson but he kept his job, receiving the support of the FA when he needed it most. He would turn things around and leave a hero after the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990. How different the course of history may have been had he been given the chop after the shambles in West Germany…