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England’s 2002 World Cup – 15 years on

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This summer marks the 15th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup, a tournament that brought the all-too-familiar feeling of quarter-final disappointment for England. But there had at least been the joy of a memorable group stage win over Argentina to enjoy…

The start of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s reign in 2001 had been close to perfect, England’s fortunes being transformed as the side qualified as group winners for the following year’s World Cup and won 5-1 away to Germany. Now suddenly the young team were being hyped-up as a potential threat at the finals in Japan and South Korea. However, the final qualifying match at home to Greece had provided something of a reality check as Eriksson’s side struggled and famously needed a David Beckham equaliser in the dying seconds to clinch a place in the final. It was the start of a continual pattern of hopes being raised and dimmed in the coming months.

At the start of December the draw was made and it dealt England a tough hand. They were not seeded and were placed in a group with old rivals Argentina, touted as one of the tournament favourites. To compound matters, the group also contained Eriksson’s homeland of Sweden – a side England had long struggled against – and Nigeria, who had won admirers when making the knockout stage at the last two World Cups. There was no minnow and the inevitable ‘Group of Death’ cliches followed. To make matters worse, it seemed likely whoever finished second would end up playing holders France in the second round.

Eriksson, staying diplomatic but dropping hints of disappointment, said: “We are in the most difficult group, there is no doubt about that. We will have to be very well prepared if we want our World Cup to last longer than three games. The draw is the one part of the process we have no control over, but at least we have a chance of staying in the same country for the whole of the tournament, which is good.” England would be in the Japanese half of the draw and would dream of making the final in Yokohama. But simply a prolonged stay in the tournament looked a decent return as things stood.

Injuries mount up

The months before the tournament included friendly draws with Sweden – played prior to the draw pairing them together in Japan – and the Netherlands, in which debutant Darius Vassell scored a cracker on his debut, and a 4-0 thrashing of Paraguay. But problems never seemed far away. Eriksson’s love life was making front page news, while his side would be hit by a succession of worrying injuries. Regular right back Gary Neville was ruled out of the finals with a broken foot, while midfielder Steven Gerrard – who had come to the fore in the qualifying campaign – limped out of Liverpool’s final match of the season and was to stay at home for the summer.

England’s World Cup side in 2002, a line-up affected by injuries.

England were already two key players down, while also having to cope with a dearth of talent on the left flank as Steve McManaman was overlooked. Trevor Sinclair would end up operating there for much of the tournament, but he only made the final squad after Danny Murphy – called up to replace Liverpool team-mate Gerrard – was himself ruled out. Sinclair had flown home from Japan after seemingly missing out on the finals, only to then make the return journey after being given his second chance. It was a trip worth making.

But the biggest injury hype would concern captain Beckham, the man whose goal had clinched England’s place in the finals. He broke a bone in his foot playing for Manchester United in April, as suddenly the nation became familiar with the term ‘metatarsal’. He faced a race against time to make the finals. As with Kevin Keegan in 1982 and Bryan Robson in 1986 there was now great concern about the captain’s fitness – but this time it had become a major talking point beyond football circles. Now you had Uri Geller trying to play his part to get Beckham fit and the subject was cropping up everywhere. Beckham would make it to Japan, but the attention given to his injury was threatening to send out a message that England were a one-man team who would be unable to cope without him.

David Beckham sustains his metatarsal injury and a nation becomes obsessed about it.

That was very debatable but the squad was certainly lacking in tournament experience. The year 2000 had marked the end of an era for England, with the likes of Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer ending their international careers and the departure of manager Kevin Keegan paving the way for Eriksson to be appointed as the side’s first foreign boss. Although some of the old guard remained from previous tournaments – such as Sol Campbell, David Seaman and Teddy Sheringham – this was essentially an inexperienced side that was building towards the future.

After heading to South-East Asia, England drew matches with South Korea and Cameroon as they continued to send out mixed messages over what they were capable of. The general consensus was this tournament may be a stepping stone to the 2006 World Cup when many of the side would be at their peak, but the class of 2002 couldn’t be totally discounted. The 5-1 win over Germany had certainly raised expectations and shown that, if England clicked, they could achieve results. They had clearly made progress since flopping at Euro 2000 under Keegan.

Struggling against the Swedes

England’s first match was against Sweden, as millions back home unusually settled down to watch a football match on a Sunday morning. There was also good support out in Japan, the reputation of England fans showing signs of improvement from the dreaded hooligan image of previous years. They were celebrating as Sol Campbell headed in a corner during the first half, but the second period saw England stagnate and increasingly allow the Swedes back into it. They conceded an equaliser through Niclas Alexandersson after an error by Danny Mills and England could have few complaints about failing to pick up three points as the game ended 1-1, with David Seaman called upon to deny the Swedes a winner.

Sol Campbell celebrates scoring for England against Sweden.

Only five of the 13 players used by England during the match had played at a World Cup before, with that level of inexperience seen as contributing to the young side fading as the game wore on. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “Unless England rapidly acquire some further education over the next five days they may be back home watching the World Cup on television from the second round onwards. For the moment, at this level, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team look like fourth-formers who have wandered into a sixth-form college.” Argentina beat Nigeria on the same day and England would be deep in trouble if they lost to the South Americans five days later.

Revenge is sweet

In the build-up to the indoor showdown in Sapporo it was hard to escape the past, as the controversial World Cup meetings of 1966, 1986 and 1998 all loomed over the fixture. Certainly the latter had not been forgotten by England, not least the celebrations from the Argentine players on the bus afterwards when parked next to that of Glenn Hoddle’s side. In the intervening four years the film Mike Bassett: England Manager had depicted England beating Argentina 1-0 in the group stage to stay in the World Cup thanks to a controversial goal. Real life was about to imitate fiction…

Regardless of whether the average Englishman was most bothered about revenge over Argentina or simply staying in the World Cup, they would have been delighted following a memorable victory, This time it was England’s turn to get a decision in their favour, referee Pierluigi Collina pointing to the spot after Michael Owen went down in a move that opponent Mauricio Pochettino (yes, that one) still insists was a dive rather than a foul. Four years after being portrayed as the villain following his sending-off against the same opponents, Beckham was the hero as he put England ahead from the spot on the stroke of half-time.

David Beckham puts England in front against Argentina.

Unlike against Sweden, England continued to play with vibrancy and belief after the break and almost scored a superb goal as an impressive move ended with Sheringham going close with a volley. But there was a nagging feeling that if the second goal didn’t come England may be punished as Argentina upped the tempo, with Campbell and Ferdinand thankfully having impressive games to keep them out and Seaman on hand to make important stops. It was tense and only when Collina blew his final whistle could the celebrations begin, as England pulled off one of their most joyful victories in years.

There was certainly a triumphant tone in our newspapers the following day, Beckham’s face on the front of most of them. Rob Shepherd began his report in the Daily Express by writing: “Gotcha! Let’s not beat about the bush, it doesn’t get any sweeter than beating Argentina. That England did so with style and dignity made it all the better. The nation should quite rightly be proud of a victory which turned the England dressing room from the funeral party it had been last Sunday, into a house party.” In an amusing irony following the events of four years earlier, Sinclair would inadvertently step aboard the Argentina team coach afterwards. This time the Argentine mood was rather more sombre, as one of the favourites stood on the brink of potential group stage elimination.

After the gloom of the inquest into the Sweden game, suddenly it was back to England being hyped up as being able to beat anyone in the world and a feeling that maybe, just maybe, this young side could go all the way…

Expectations fall – then rise again

After the euphoria of beating Argentina, the next game against Nigeria proved an anti-climax and brought expectations back down to a more realistic level. The Nigerians were already out and were struggling to match their group displays in the last two World Cups, but they were determined to depart with a good result. The millions watching back home over breakfast saw a forgettable goalless contest in the heat of Osaka, in which Sheringham squandered a golden opportunity to win it. But a point was always going to be enough to advance if not win the group, with Sweden having that honour on goals scored after getting the point they needed to eliminate Argentina by drawing 1-1.

The basic target for England of getting out of the group had been achieved and pre-tournament fears of a second round showdown with France had been averted. The world champions joined Argentina in being home before the postcards, with Denmark topping the group after beating them 2-0 and lying in wait for England. The Danes were not to be underestimated, but England had a good chance to advance. The main downsides of being second were a gap of just three days between matches and favourites Brazil being the likely opponents in the quarter-finals. Had England topped the group then they would have played surprise package Senegal, followed by Japan or Turkey in the last eight.

Most England knockout wins over the years have been tense, so it was a welcome relief that the clash with the Danes would be surprisingly done and dusted by half-time as Eriksson’s side led 3-0 in Niigata. The Danes had looked strong in beating France four days earlier, but they seemed nervous here and made a costly error just five minutes in as Ferdinand’s header was fumbled into his own net by Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. Nicky Butt capped an impressive tournament by setting up Owen to double the lead, before Emile Heskey slotted home shortly before the break. As with when England beat Poland 3-0 at the 1986 World Cup, the job was done in the first half and the remainder of the match saw them prevent any hopes of a Danish comeback.

Celebration time for England as Denmark are beaten 3-0.

Once more expectations were lifted and it seemed quite feasible that England could go all the way – particular as the second round fallers included Italy, meaning three major nations had gone home – although there were also those who felt the scoreline flattered England a little. “I don’t think we got enough credit for how well we played in that game,” reflected Eriksson in his autobiography. But the main thing was the side were through to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1990. Lacey wrote that “the idea of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team reaching the final or even winning it no longer seems as fantastic as Danny Mills beating Harry Potter at quidditch”. There was certainly a belief that if England could beat Brazil, then they could win it. It was a big IF though.

It may be simplifying things a little to assume the trophy would be England’s if they could overcome Brazil, but the lack of a dominant side in the finals meant they would hold every chance. Yet the task immediately in front of them was major. Brazil were the favourites, World Cup winners in 1994 and runners-up in 1998 and boasting the ‘three Rs’ in attack of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. However, they had struggled during qualification – finishing 13 points adrift of Argentina – and not looked invincible in their four tournament matches so far despite winning them all. Their reputation compared to past great Brazil sides had not been helped by Rivaldo’s antics when he feigned injury against Turkey during the group stage.

A sad end for Seaman

The day before England met Brazil in Fukuroi City it rained and that would suit the English fine, but 24 hours later the sun was back out as Eriksson’s side faced a gruelling afternoon. But midway through the first half the nation rejoiced as Owen capitalised on defensive hesitancy to score as the forward – who had been an injury doubt for this game – evoked memories of his rise to fame at the World Cup four years earlier. Now the acid test for England was being able to see the game out, but on the stroke of half-time they were undone. Rivaldo ended a Brazilian move that had begun when Beckham appeared to pull out of a challenge in the opposition half and was followed by Paul Scholes also missing a vital chance to intercept. It was a measure of Brazil’s attacking abilities that they could sweep forward and score so quickly, as Ronaldinho ran through the England defence to feed Rivaldo. But criticisms would also be levelled at the English defending.

Conceding so late in the half was a crushing blow for England and Eriksson now faced the job of lifting the side. The current incumbent of the role was unimpressed by what he heard, substitute Gareth Southgate infamously coming out with the “we were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith” line. The game would generate the first significant criticism of Eriksson in his England reign, just a fortnight after being hailed for masterminding the win over Argentina. He would come under fire for his choice of substitutes, including keeping creative youngster Joe Cole on the bench.

David Seaman is beaten by Ronaldinho and England are on their way home.

With the second half still in its infancy, England were dealt a fatal blow. Whether it was meant a cross or shot, Ronaldinho’s free-kick ended up deceiving Seaman from way out and for the first time in the tournament England were behind. Despite the goalscorer controversially receiving a red card a few minutes later for a challenge on Mills, England never looked like getting back in the game and failed to make anything of their extra man. All hope had realistically gone before the end, as yet another major tournament finished with England losing a game they had led in. Seaman was devastated by his error and at 38 it was always realistically going to be his last major outing for his country. He wouldn’t retire from international football, but took further criticism for a goal conceded against Macedonia in October and was never capped again.

The loss to Brazil represented a disappointing conclusion to a tournament that had produced some highs for England. It was a tournament where, depending on whether you were a glass half full or empty person your lasting memory was likely to be either Beckham’s joy against Argentina or Seaman’s pain against Brazil. The big thing now was that England pushed on and won either Euro 2004 or the 2006 World Cup. England had lost to Brazil in the 1962 World Cup quarter-finals and won it four years later. They had to hope history repeated itself 40 years in.

But as we all know it didn’t. Had England fulfilled the potential that appeared to be building and soon afterwards won a major tournament then the 2002 World Cup would probably be fondly recalled as representing a big step forward. But unfortunately it followed exactly the same narrative as the next two tournaments, Eriksson being beaten by Luiz Felipe Scolari in the quarter-finals each time. Given the draw they had been handed England could feel some sense of achievement in reaching the last eight in 2002 and the Argentina game had brought widespread delight, but regret also lingered. Had England beaten Brazil then the path would have been the clearest it had arguably ever been. It would have been Turkey in the semi-final, then a Germany side they had thrashed 5-1 less than a year before in the final. Although aided by a kind draw that saw them avoid any leading football nations until the final, Germany had once more gone further than England at a major tournament.

It wasn’t just that England had lost to Brazil that represented disappointment, there was also the concerning sight of Eriksson’s side never looking like getting back into the game when up against 10 men. The tournament had seen England score six goals, but none came in the second half. It wasn’t an issue in the games against Argentina and Denmark where England impressed, but against both Sweden and Brazil there has been a sense that they were off the pace and the Nigeria game was something of a non-event.

Reflecting years later in his autobiography, Eriksson wrote: “The truth was that it was not Seaman’s fault that we were knocked out of the World Cup. Brazil were better than us. It was that simple. But we had played a very good tournament and we had a young team. We were not ready yet. It was the next World Cup that we were going to win.” And Eriksson knew full well it didn’t turn out that way. The Brazil game sent out a warning sign that England still had work to do to be on a par with the world’s best. But there had been good moments in Japan too, one of which would forever be fondly recalled.

England’s Euro ’92 – 25 years on

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This summer marks 25 years since the 1992 European Championship. England went into the finals having lost just once in two years, but as with four years earlier it would end in bitter disappointment and leave the manager a target for the tabloids…

To the many youngsters who fell in love with England and football during Italia ’90 or older fans whose passion was rekindled that tournament, Euro ’92 was to represent the difficult second album. There would be none of the Gazzamania or nerve-jangling excitement that left millions across the nation on the edge of their seats two years earlier, nor was there an England side to feel proud of. Instead, they simply limped out of the tournament after two forgettable 0-0 draws and a defeat to hosts Sweden. For manager Graham Taylor it was a tournament that marked a turning point in his reign for the wrong reasons and his reputation would unfortunately never recover during his time in charge.

England achieved two points more than when they were whitewashed during Euro ’88, yet it is held up as a comparable failure. It would be simplifying things somewhat to say England’s failures in West Germany in 1988 were down to bad luck, but in their first two defeats to the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands they’d at least had a proper go with several chances somehow not going in. That story would have a happy ending, Bobby Robson recovering from being lampooned to bowing out a hero two years later.

But for Taylor and Euro ’92, there would be no such recovery and the tournament represented the start of things going horribly wrong. England’s cause was not helped by injuries to key personnel but they were criticised for their negativity in Sweden – they weren’t the only culprits – and Taylor was becoming a target for sections of the media. He had lost just twice in two years when Euro ’92 ended but he was under pressure and now needed to enjoy a turnaround similar to Robson’s at Italia ’90 to win over the doubters. Sadly, he would never get the chance as England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

But it could have worked out differently. Taylor had led England to the finals as unbeaten group winners in a tight section including the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Turkey. Their only defeat under him so far was in a friendly to Germany and England certainly couldn’t be discounted in Sweden, for the eight-team European Championship. With only the group winners from each qualifying section having made it, this was a tournament promising high standards and little margin for error.

At the draw in January, Taylor hoped to avoid Germany, the Netherlands and neighbours Scotland who had qualified for the Euros for the first time. He got his wish, England being placed in the preferable-looking group with Sweden, France and Yugoslavia. His mood was lifted further by the draw allowing them to stay in Malmo and Stockholm as he had wished. “We couldn’t ask for much more than we got,” beamed Taylor.

Certainly, many seemed to share the view that England had got what they wanted and a place in the last four was the minimum target. “Graham Taylor rode his luck as England were given a European Championship draw that should give them at least a semi-final place,” proclaimed Steve Curry in the Daily Express. But being placed in the ‘easier’ group at the European Championship and avoiding the Germans was not a good omen. In both 1980 and 1988 England had received favourable draws only to crash out.

No game looked a given either. France had rebuilt after being absent from the last two major tournaments and were enjoying a lengthy unbeaten run, seeing them touted as a favourite to win it. Sweden had home advantage and had finished above England in qualifying for Italia ’90. And Yugoslavia could boast an impressive collection of players who had won admirers during the 1990 World Cup. But even as the draw was being made doubts were being cast upon Yugoslavia’s participation in the finals amid civil conflict back home. Just 10 days before the start of Euro ’92 it was confirmed qualifying group runners-up Denmark would take Yugoslavia’s place.

Any planning by Taylor for England’s first game against Yugoslavia could now go out of the window, but they were tipped to beat Denmark who were not held in quite the same esteem as their swaggering side of the mid-1980s. The Danes had not, contrary to the myth, needed rounding up off the beach to head to nearby Sweden but they would only have less than a fortnight to psychologically adjust to definitely being in the finals. But goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel sounded a warning to Taylor and his men. “England could make the mistake of underestimating Denmark,” he said.

Injuries plague England

Underestimating opponents was becoming the least of England’s concerns. Injuries were mounting, with several players ruled out of the finals. Paul Gascoigne had not played for more than a year since the 1991 FA Cup final, while at right back England seemed cursed. In quick succession Taylor lost Rob Jones, Lee Dixon and Gary Stevens, the latter’s hopes ending after England’s final warm-up match in Finland. But he wasn’t the only casualty that day, with John Barnes going down injured and immediately ruled out. “I’ve known him for a long time and I desperately wanted John to play for me in a major championship,” rued Taylor. “The seriousness of the injury to Barnes has hit everybody hard. He’d worked like hell to get himself fit.”

Graham Taylor was left to contend with a mounting injury list.

With players such as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle having controversially been axed, England were now left short of both flair and tournament experience. The seasoned trio of Terry Butcher, Bryan Robson and Peter Shilton had all retired from international football and England were much-changed from two years earlier, but sadly not for the better. As the injuries mounted Keith Curle and Andy Sinton were drafted into the squad, but things then got worse as it came to light Mark Wright was a doubt.

A club versus country row broke out over whether the injury had been held back from Taylor, but ultimately Wright was the latest to be ruled out and England failed in their bid to call Tony Adams up as a late replacement. England’s 20-man squad was already a player light and particularly short of defensive options. Although England have often been hit by injury concerns ahead of major tournaments, it is hard to think of another occasion when they had it as bad as this.

England went into the finals having avoided losing games, but without convincingly winning them either. A 2-0 victory over France in February had been impressive and provided a big lift ahead of meeting the same opponents in Sweden, but since then England had drawn with Czechoslovakia, CIS and Brazil and narrowly edged past Hungary and Finland. The goalscoring form of captain Gary Lineker was proving a concern ahead of the finals and his impending international retirement. In three successive friendlies he had failed to get the goal he needed to equal Bobby Charlton’s England record and he seemed to lack some of his old predatory instincts. But it was hoped he would recapture his past form on the big stage.

Struggling against the Danes

The tournament began with Sweden and France drawing 1-1, which suited England who would go top if they beat Denmark 24 hours later. Taylor was adamant things were going to go well. “Let me do the worrying. That’s what I’m paid for. Just sit back and enjoy it,” he declared prior to the Denmark game. But there were things to worry about, not least the lack of a recognised right back. Curle, a central defender, would play there against the Danes in Malmo for only his third cap. At the other end Lineker would partner Alan Smith, rekindling memories of their Leicester City days.

Keith Curle performed as a makeshift right back for England against Denmark.

Once again, England struggled in their opening game when fancied by many to get a victory. They almost came totally unstuck, as John Jensen hit the post for the Danes during the second half. “That was our moment of good fortune,” reflected Taylor after a night in which Curle had struggled playing out of position (he would never be capped again) as England laboured to a 0-0 draw. Asked afterwards to sum up his feelings, Taylor told the BBC he was “satisfied” – drawing criticism from pundit Jimmy Hill who believed the performance had been a demonstration of players earning a lot of money to demonstrate they were not masters of their craft. Taylor would later hit back at Hill, one of several instances of the England camp and media being at odds out in Sweden.

“All is not lost by any means,” wrote Curry. “But Taylor has to be asked again just what he is playing at with his team selections and tactical switches.” England stayed in Malmo for their next match against France three days later, with violence in the city once more blighting an England European Championship campaign. On the field Taylor again made changes, midfielder David Batty came in for Curle, while Alan Shearer became the latest forward to be paired with Lineker. Sinton, who had so nearly missed out on the finals, replaced Paul Merson. Carlton Palmer was to play as sweeper.

Sterile and goalless

“The most sterile defensive international I’ve ever covered,” was commentator Barry Davies’ description of the France match in his autobiography and the cagey contest certainly lacked in attacking enterprise. Eight years earlier Michel Platini had inspired France to European Championship glory in style as captain. Now, as manager, he seemed to have fallen into the same trap as others in fearing losing during the last major tournament to apply the two points for a win system. It was also the last act before the backpass rule was introduced, with a fear of losing stinking the place out during the first few days of the tournament. England didn’t escape criticism but emerged with marginally more credit following yet another 0-0 draw, in which Stuart Pearce’s free-kick rattled the woodwork.

Stuart Pearce managed to keep his cool after an incident with Basile Boli.

But that wasn’t what Pearce’s afternoon was mainly remembered for. Blood poured from his face after he appeared to be headbutted by Basile Boli, in an incident which went unpunished. Asked afterwards, Pearce told the media it had been an innocent incident but years later he explained why he said this when he knew full well what had happened. “Common sense told me that if I’d said it was deliberate, then the first thing they would have done is dig out all the footage of me over the years and I’d be crucified,” he said, adding he received a thank you fax from Boli for his sportsmanship.

But that gesture was little consolation for England as they stared potential elimination in the face. For the fourth major tournament running they had no wins on the board after two games. “In my mind there are two games gone and three still to go,” Taylor optimistically told the media, as he remained defiant England could go all the way. To do that they would definitely have to score against the Swedes, who led the group after beating Denmark 1-0. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian that a third goalless draw would see England “flying home amid a barrage of criticism approaching the intensity of that which greeted Bobby Robson and his side after all three matches had been lost in the 1988 tournament”.

Swedes eliminate Turnips

The foreign invasion of English football had yet to properly take hold by the summer of 1992, but a growing number of overseas players were plying their trade on these shores ahead of the Premier League launching a few weeks later. In their opening game of the tournament England had been unable to score past Manchester United’s goalkeeper Schmeichel, while Eric Cantona of Leeds United was in attack for France in the second match. Now Arsenal’s Anders Limpar was gearing up to face England and seemed to want to play mind games beforehand, as he launched a stinging attack on goalkeeper Chris Woods who had been the regular number one since Shilton’s retirement in 1990. “It’s incredible Woods gets in the side,” declared Limpar. “He let in seven goals playing for Sheffield Wednesday at Arsenal. Woods is weak on crosses and for me he is the weak link in the team.”

But Woods was not the only player whose performances were of concern to England. Lineker had seldom looked like ending his drought during the previous two games as rumours grew that all was not well in his relationship with the manager. “He contributed in exactly the way I thought he would,” said Taylor rather cryptically after the France game. The goalscoring record was ebbing away along with England’s chances in the tournament. The match against Sweden could be his last chance. In yet another shift of system and personnel, Lineker now had no other natural forward alongside him for the Sweden match. Shearer and Trevor Steven made way for Tony Daley and Neil Webb.

England had to attack and they made a marvellous start through their main goal outlet besides Lineker – attacking midfielder David Platt, who scored after four minutes. Now they had to negotiate the next 86 minutes and they would be through to the semi-finals. As Denmark were surprisingly beating France, England held top spot in the group. They successfully got through to the break with the lead intact.

But half-time would offer a worrying warning sign to Taylor. In an interview 20 years later, he recalled asking the players at the break if any of them had anything to say. “They looked shattered,” he said. “The only player who said anything was Nigel Clough, who was a substitute. It really hit me at the time that we do take tired players.” Taylor’s case was not helped by the First Division having reverted to 22 teams the previous season, meaning players faced four extra games on top of multiple cup demands. Apart from the Premier League having reduced in size to 20 clubs, many of the same concerns apply 25 years later.

England go behind against Sweden.

Where England had excelled in the first half, they wilted after the break. The Swedes have made a habit of scoring headers against the Three Lions over the years and Jan Eriksson duly netted that way after 51 minutes from a corner. A 1-1 draw would be enough for Sweden to advance, but it would eliminate England and Taylor could see the game slipping away. Ten minutes later he made a decision that would pass into infamy. Captain Lineker was substituted, making way for Smith. England had needed to change things and Lineker was not looking his old self, but it would be a decision that led to Taylor coming under fire. If England didn’t get a goal without Lineker, then the player would never get another chance to equal the goalscoring record.

To make things worse for Taylor, England seldom threatened and on 82 minutes they fell behind. A delightful link-up between Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin ended with the former gracefully placing the ball beyond Woods’ reach. “Brilliant. Brilliant goal,” exclaimed commentator Davies. It was a move that perhaps underlined how far this England side lagged behind, being beaten by an effort of quality.

As Denmark were 2-1 up against France, an English equaliser would lead to lots being drawn to decide who went through with Sweden. But it was never likely to come and the side meekly exited the competition. In 45 minutes England had gone from top to bottom of the group. Of the 11 players England had on the field at full time, only Pearce, Platt and Des Walker had featured in the World Cup semi-final two years earlier. Injuries, international retirements and players being dubiously axed had left England looking a weak side. To compound England’s misery, they returned home outshone by Scotland who beat the CIS 3-0 and had played with honour in losing to the Dutch and Germans. As England crashed out, a previously tepid tournament seemed to spring into life with the goals now flying in and Denmark defying all expectations to win the tournament.

Taylor deservedly received many tributes when he sadly died earlier this year, but the morning after the Sweden defeat saw him and England heavily criticised. Curry wrote: “England learned last night that when it comes to illuminating the world of football they carry not so much a burning torch as a flickering candle.” Lacey afforded Taylor some sympathy over the injury situation, but added: “Despite the unavailability of Paul Gascoigne, the loss of John Barnes and a complete absence of suitable right backs, the England manager was always going to face severe criticism if his team failed to reach the semi-finals. But his decision to take Lineker off half-an-hour from the end with the score at 1-1 will surely stoke up the critical furnaces further still.”

Even those at the heart of the England camp could see the problems Taylor was creating for himself by hauling off Lineker, regardless of whether he thought it was the right decision. Assistant Lawrie McMenemy later wrote in his autobiography: “It was quite simply the wrong decision. I could not believe what Graham had done, how a manager of his experience would not see the danger to himself, if nothing else, from the decision.”

But ultimately, it was a witty play on words that created the most lasting damage for Taylor. The manager saw the funny side of the ‘Swedes 2, Turnips 1’ headline in The Sun, but what followed went beyond a joke and did nothing to help his reputation in the eyes of the average man in the street. He was now being portrayed as ‘Turniphead’, the coverage increasingly vitriolic.  Euro ’92 had not been a success for him and mistakes were made, but the personal attacks were unwarranted and they would unfortunately get worse in the months that followed.

All told it had really just been a typical England European Championship campaign, as they have so often ended early and in bitter disappointment. Euro ’92 felt worse because of what had been achieved two years before in Italy and given the group England were placed in, but ultimately various factors made it one to forget for all involved. There was plenty of nostalgia in England for the 25th anniversary of Italia ’90 two years ago. We suspect we won’t be seeing much this June to mark a quarter of a century since Euro ’92.  Try Denmark instead.

  • For a more detailed look back at how Gary Lineker missed out on becoming England’s record goalscorer during the tournament, see here
  • To read the tribute we wrote to Graham Taylor when he sadly died earlier this year, see here

England’s Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’84: Dazzled by the Danes

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This summer England will make the short trip to France to compete in Euro 2016. But when the French last hosted the European Championship in 1984, England failed to make it. Today we look back at what went wrong, as Bobby Robson’s reign began in difficult fashion.

Bobby Robson’s appointment as England manager was confirmed shortly after Ron Greenwood’s men were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. His reign at Ipswich Town had earned many plaudits and yielded two major trophies, with the proud Englishman now tasked with leading his country. He would have little time to dwell on the task in front of him, as his first match in September 1982 was the opening European Championship qualifier away to Denmark.


Bobby Robson took over as England manager a year after leading Ipswich Town to UEFA Cup glory.

On paper, England had been handed a reasonable qualifying draw, with their opponents being Hungary, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg. Hungary had finished above England in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup but England had done the double over them and progressed further at the finals; Greece had qualified for the 1980 European Championship but had little other pedigree; and Luxembourg were the whipping boys of Europe. The joker in the pack came from pot four. Denmark had enjoyed limited past success but something was stirring in Scandinavia. Manager Sepp Piontek was building a side that would soon be talked about across Europe, but – despite beating Italy in World Cup qualifying in 1981 – had yet to come into the spotlight. Robson though knew just how talented they were and he probably cursed whoever had agreed for England to start with a trip to Copenhagen – particularly as the average man in the street would assume England were going to win there.

Out with the old guard

Robson had difficult decisions to make prior to the Denmark game, having inherited an ageing side. Robson was primarily setting his sights on success at the 1986 World Cup and he knew time would have to be called on the international careers of several players. As we’ve previously recalled, Robson controversially dropped Kevin Keegan and came under fire before he’d even led his team into battle for the first time as the former captain took exception to not being told the news directly. A decision that probably was harder for Robson to make on a personal level was to leave out his former Ipswich captain Mick Mills, while other old heads including Trevor Brooking, Joe Corrigan, Terry McDermott and Dave Watson would never win another cap. Ray Clemence would be selected just twice more as Peter Shilton became fully established as number one goalkeeper.

Robson’s first year or so in charge would see a high number of debutants given their chance. Players such as Luther Blissett, Mark Chamberlain, Gordon Cowans and Sammy Lee would briefly shine before fading from the international scene. Only John Barnes would break into the set-up during the period and remain involved throughout Robson’s reign. Robson’s cause was not helped by injury woes for key men he inherited, with his favoured midfielders of Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins all spending time on the sidelines during the qualifying campaign. To compound matters, winger Steve Coppell would sadly soon have to retire due to his injury troubles.

England’s Bryan Robson in action against his future Manchester United team-mate in England’s opening Euro ’84 qualifier against Denmark.

If Bobby Robson was under any illusions about the size of the task facing him, then the first match in Denmark would have shattered them. Firstly, the fallout with Keegan meant he had attracted negative publicity in his opening weeks in the job. Secondly, England were shaken by the Danes who duly looked the real threat Robson had feared. And thirdly, there was widespread fighting on the terraces. It was the third year in a row that an England match overseas had been blighted by serious crowd trouble and Robson was left knowing that his time in charge would see him regularly being asked about a section of England’s followers and not matters on the field.

England came within moments of snatching a 2-1 win thanks to two Trevor Francis goals in Copenhagen before Jesper Olsen waltzed through to equalise, but it was felt afterwards that England were the team who had been let off the hook during the 2-2 draw. The Danes were certainly no longer the low-achieving amateurs of a few years before. ‘England are lucky to escape defeat’ screamed the headline in The Times, with the new manager admitting it would have been a “travesty of justice” had they won.

Blissett’s debut hat-trick

England players had nine goals to celebrate against Luxembourg in December 1982, including a hat-trick for Luther Blissett.

Robson’s first home match in charge produced a 2-1 friendly defeat to West Germany, but a month later came the second European Championship qualifier away to Greece. Bryan Robson captained England for the first time and he would never relinquish it whenever he played under his namesake. Tony Woodcock scored twice and debutant Lee got the other in an excellent 3-0 win. Just 10 days before Christmas England welcomed Luxembourg to Wembley and Watford forward Blissett marked his first cap with a hat-trick in an emphatic 9-0 victory – he never scored again for his country – that meant they boasted a goal difference of +12 after only three qualifying matches.

England began 1983 with a 2-1 win over Wales in the Home International Championship, before welcoming Greece to Wembley in March for their next qualifying match. It proved an extremely frustrating night for England as the Greeks did not come bearing gifts and defended deeply. England were unable to break the visitors down and were booed off after a 0-0 draw. “I counted seven of Greece’s players who never even crossed the halfway line,” said Robson as he reflected on a frustrating night. The night had marked the first real low point of Robson’s reign but all looked good again when England won 2-0 at home to Hungary the following month, Francis and Peter Withe scoring. After five matches in the group England had three wins and two draws and were still firmly in the qualifying picture. “Within a month the tune has changed dramatically for Bobby Robson,” wrote Stuart Jones in The Times.

The Home International Championship was won after drawing 0-0 away to Northern Ireland and winning 2-0 against Scotland. The latter match took place on the same day as a vital qualifying clash between Denmark and Hungary. The Danes won 3-1 and it was now clear they would provide the most serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. England ended the 1982-83 season with a three-match tour of Australia, which brought a plethora of new caps and an unbeaten record but precious little else to shout about. Robson and his under-strength side returned home with a three-month break in store before their next match – a huge qualifier at home to Denmark in September 1983.

Despair against the Danes

The Danes arrived at Wembley with the backing of a tremendous away support. With only one side going through to the finals, this match was likely to be decisive. England led the group by a point but Denmark had a game in hand. Whoever won would be clear favourites to progress. If the match was a draw then matters would be in Denmark’s hands but with little margin for error. England were without the injured Bryan Robson and, controversially, Hoddle, with Bobby Robson opting instead to field John Gregory. “I wanted someone a bit spikey,” said the manager as he tried to justify his selection. But it proved a bad call, England’s midfield operating deep and creating little for the forwards to feed off.

From the moment teenager Michael Laudrup almost gave Denmark an early lead, it was clear that this was going to be a long and torturous night for England. Bobby Robson seemed to have become too concerned about the threat of the Danes for his own side’s good, as England played with fear rather than belief. Phil Neal’s handball in the area on his 50th and final cap allowed Allan Simonsen to put the Danes in front in the first half and they continued to boss the game, albeit without creating many clear-cut chances. “We are red, we are white, we are Danish dynamite” was the song ringing out at Wembley.

Allan Simonsen scores the winner for Denmark against England from the penalty spot.

They deservedly protected their 1-0 advantage, with England posing little threat until injury time. Suddenly a chance was made by Blissett, but he was denied by Ole Kjær from point blank range just seconds before the final whistle sounded. Prior to the emergence of Peter Schmeichel it was generally felt that goalkeeper was the weak position for the Danes, but Kjær had proved his worth with such a priceless save. It was the first time the Danes had ever beaten England and the win left them firm favourites to reach France.

For Bobby Robson, the defeat was painful. He later revealed he offered to resign after the loss, but he was given the green light to carry on. He wrote in 1986: “Whatever I may or may not achieve in my football career, the blackest day will remain as September 21, 1983. It was the worst moment I had experienced at any level of football, no question about it… The 1-0 defeat was only part of it. The way the team played; the walk back to the dressing room afterwards; the abuse of the crowd; the feeling of total confusion all contributed to the desolate feelings.”

The defeat was bad enough, but for England to play so tepidly when the stakes were so high meant criticism poured in on the England manager. In the magazine Football Monthly, it was stated that “this was without doubt England’s worst-ever performance at Wembley”. Piontek certainly believed his opposite number’s approach had helped the Danes, with Robson having made several visits to see them in action. “England were afraid to attack us,” he said. “I think it was good for us that Mr Robson watched us so many times in Denmark. Sometimes it is not always good to see opponents too much.”

Three days later Robson was booed when he went to watch Aston Villa against Southampton, while Hoddle scored a superb goal for Tottenham Hotspur at Watford. The decision to leave him out of the Denmark game looked to have been the wrong one.

Hope restored and then removed

Matters were now well and truly out of England’s hands. They would have to win away to Hungary and Luxembourg and hope Denmark took no more than three points from as many games (under two points for a win) – with it being a given they would beat Luxembourg at home in one of them. They duly did so by a 6-0 scoreline on October 12, the same day England visited Hungary. Hoddle was recalled to the side and he responded with a superb free-kick in the 3-0 win, which gave England a glimmer of hope. But so comfortably had they beaten the Hungarians that it was hard to see the Eastern Europeans doing England a favour by getting a result against Denmark two weeks later.

But that was just what they did, Denmark suffering their first defeat of the qualifying series as they went down 1-0. England had been bailed out during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup when all seemed lost and now it looked like history might repeat itself. Denmark were a point ahead of England but had an inferior goal difference. If Denmark failed to win away to Greece in their final match then England would go through by beating Luxembourg on the same night. The pressure was on the Danes.

The matches did not kick-off simultaneously, Denmark decisive contest in Athens finishing before England’s contest in Luxembourg began. According to Bobby Robson, as England’s squad arrived at the stadium “some wally of a fan shouted out to us that Greece were ahead”. Within moments they learned the crushing news that the Danes were actually winning, going on to claim a 2-0 victory to deservedly win the match and the group. “It’s rather like asking soldiers to go on firing bullets after a peace treaty had been signed,” said Robson, as he was left trying to motivate his players for a dead rubber match. He duly did that as England produced a professional performance in beating Luxembourg 4-0, leaving them with the best goal difference of any side in Euro ’84 qualifying with +20.

  

Denmark were the side celebrating at the end of qualifying for Euro ’84.

But all anyone was talking about was the fact England hadn’t made it, along with yet more trouble involving the hooligan fringe. The hosts had been concerned about England’s visit after previous trouble in 1977 and unfortunately the antics of some individuals in both the stadium and on the streets had justified those fears. “They had disgusted us all by giving those lovely people a bad time for our second successive visit,” said a despairing Robson.

It was not a time when the English nation was covering itself in glory when it came to football, with the hooligans continually causing trouble off the field and the players struggling to hit the heights on it. Whereas Euro 2016 in France will contain four sides from the British Isles, the finals of Euro ’84 went ahead without any of them. TV viewers in Britain saw just two live matches from one of the most highly-regarded tournaments of all-time, with the Danes playing with a swagger as they reached the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Spain. France won it on home soil and it was a competition that we missed far more than the rest of Europe missed us.

And yet if the same qualifying criteria had existed for 1984 as it did for 2016, then – in theory at least – we would have had plenty of British Isles representation at the finals. England, Northern Ireland and Wales would have all qualified automatically; the Republic of Ireland would have been in the play-offs; and Scotland would have failed to make it at all after finishing fourth in their qualifying group. The more things change…

Six of the Best – England under Sven-Göran Eriksson

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This month marks 15 years since Sven-Göran Eriksson arrived in England to begin his reign as national team manager and a decade since it was announced he would leave after the 2006 World Cup. With that in mind we cast our minds back to six games when all went well for England under Eriksson.

 

Germany (a), September 1, 2001, World Cup qualifier, 5-1

Following Sven-Göran Eriksson’s arrival at the start of 2001 – after leaving Lazio earlier than anticipated – England had made a blistering start. Initial misgivings by many over England appointing their first foreign manager had largely eased as they pulled themselves back into contention to qualify for the World Cup. But the real test would be how England fared in their World Cup qualifier against Germany in Munich in September. England had every chance of beating their old nemesis, given the Germans had one of their poorest sides in years. However, Germany had triumphed 1-0 the previous October in the final match at the old Wembley and were in the driving seat in the group. They also boasted a formidable qualifying record, particularly on home soil.

  

Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard celebrate one of England’s five goals.

When Carsten Jancker put Germany ahead after just six minutes nobody could have envisaged just what was to follow. Michael Owen drew England level, before Steven Gerrard’s excellent drive put them in front just before the break. Owen scored twice more and Emile Heskey put the seal on the night by making it 5-1 to England. “This is getting better and better and better,” exclaimed BBC commentator John Motson. 

It would forever be remembered as an incredible night for English football and elevated Eriksson to hero-like status at the time. In his autobiography, he recalled: “I turned to the huge scoreboard. It read: Deutschland-England 1-5. Even I had a hard time believing that.” The following month David Beckham’s free-kick equaliser against Greece took England through to the finals as group winners.

Argentina (n), June 7, 2002, World Cup group stage, 1-0

Having beaten one old rival in Germany, Eriksson now had the chance to lead England to victory over another when they met Argentina in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. An uninspiring 1-1 draw with Eriksson’s native Sweden in England’s opening game did not give much cause for optimism, as they now went into a match in Sapporo that they could not afford to lose. Argentina were considered one of the favourites to win the competition, but England hoped to exact revenge for their controversial defeats in 1986 and 1998.

  

David Beckham gives England the lead against Argentina.

The decisive moment came shortly before the break, Michael Owen being fouled in the area. Four years after being sent-off against the same opponents, David Beckham stepped up to put England ahead from the spot. “I have rarely heard a noise louder than the cheer after Beckham scored the penalty,” Eriksson would later recall. England nearly doubled their advantage after the break, an excellent team move ending with Teddy Sheringham’s volley being kept out. England duly held firm to achieve a momentous victory that was wildly celebrated by fans in the stadium and back home.

Denmark (n), June 15, 2002, World Cup second round, 3-0

A forgettable 0-0 draw with Nigeria was enough to see England through to the last 16, where Denmark stood in their way. The Danes had won their group after defeating World Cup holders France and it appeared a close encounter was in store in Niigata. England would certainly have to play better against the Danes than they had against fellow Scandinavians Sweden in the group stage.

 

Rio Ferdinand celebrates as England take the lead against Denmark.

But by half-time it was realistically all over as England led 3-0. Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen fumbled Rio Ferdinand’s effort into his own net in the opening minutes before Michael Owen and Emile Heskey left England well in command. They comfortably saw the game out, England fans for once spared the usual finger-biting tension when watching them in major tournaments. Although England’s performance was not without its faults, a 3-0 win against a fellow European side in the last 16 of the World Cup was no mean feat.

With favourites including Argentina and France having already departed, it suddenly appeared a genuine possibility that Eriksson’s side could go all the way – provided they overcame the sizeable obstacle of Brazil in the quarter-finals. The Guardian reporter David Lacey observed that the prospect of England winning the competition “no longer seems as fantastic as Danny Mills beating Harry Potter at quidditch”. Alas they would exit the tournament with a 2-1 defeat, failing to threaten Brazil’s 10 men in the closing stages as the first noticeable doubts were cast by some about Eriksson.

Turkey (h), April 2, 2003, European Championship qualifier, 2-0

England faced a battle with World Cup semi-finalists Turkey to qualify for Euro 2004. Realistically one would win their qualifying group, the other would have to settle for the play-offs. Their head-to-head record was likely to be decisive. England had already been held to a disappointing home draw by Macedonia when they welcomed the Turks to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. 

 

David Beckham celebrates clinching England’s victory over Turkey.

Wayne Rooney, 17, started an England match for the first time and he showed he was not overawed by the occasion as he produced a confident display that gave hope to the nation. England had to wait until 15 minutes from time to forge ahead through Darius Vassell, with David Beckham wrapping up the 2-0 win with a penalty shortly before the final whistle.

The one disappointment was the conduct of some England followers, which led to negative headlines and the FA turning down tickets for the return game the following October in a bid to avoid further trouble. That night saw England produce a disciplined display in a hostile atmosphere to claim the 0-0 draw they needed to qualify as group winners. It was another high point of the Eriksson years.

Croatia (n), June 21, 2004, European Championship group stage, 4-2

As we recently recalled, England went into Euro 2004 with a good chance of finally achieving success. They had a good crop of players establishing themselves and no side at the finals looked unbeatable. Although they had lost in the dying seconds to France in their opening game, a 3-0 win over Switzerland left them needing just a draw against Croatia to reach the quarter-finals.

 

Wayne Rooney scored twice for England against Croatia.

Backed by a tremendous support in Lisbon, England enjoyed a high-scoring win to leave the nation believing the long wait for glory could finally be about to end. Four years earlier England had gone out in similar circumstances against Romania when only needing a draw but this time around they would advance with a victory. Despite falling behind to an early goal by Niko Kovač, England led by half-time as Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney found the net. The teenage star was now coming to international prominence and another well-taken goal after the break effectively sealed England’s progress. Although Igor Tudor reduced the deficit to 3-2, Frank Lampard wrapped up an entertaining 4-2 win for Sven’s men.

The quarter-finals saw England lose on penalties to hosts Portugal, as serious question marks began to be raised against Eriksson and his tactics. A few weeks later the ‘Fariagate’ scandal threatened to cost Eriksson his job, but he remained in the role for qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

Argentina (n), November 12, 2005, Friendly, 3-2

England friendlies under Eriksson could often be a frustrating experience, multiple substitutions making it hard to read much into the results. But this match against Argentina in neutral Geneva was a notable exception, a rare instance where a friendly was genuinely compelling and fiercely contested. England had qualified with a game to spare for the World Cup but recent results included a 4-1 friendly loss to Denmark and a shock 1-0 defeat against Northern Ireland during World Cup qualifying – the first time England had lost a qualifier under Eriksson. A good result was needed against Argentina to boost morale. 

  
Michael Owen scored twice in a dramatic climax against Argentina.

Hernan Crespo gave Argentina the lead before Wayne Rooney pulled England level. Walter Samuel restored Argentina’s lead and that looked set to be the winner. But for once in an England friendly Eriksson kept his substitutions to a minimum, while Argentina replaced four key players in the closing stages. One of the few changes Eriksson made was to bring on Peter Crouch with 10 minutes to go and his introduction seemed to galvanise England. With three minutes left Michael Owen headed England level and in the dying moments he repeated the trick to give England a much-celebrated 3-2 victory.

Suddenly there was widespread optimism again and Eriksson would lead England into the 2006 World Cup with the nation believing their 40 years of hurt could be about to end. By the time they came along it was long known that Eriksson was on his way after they finished, the final straw coming when he was caught out by the ‘Fake Sheikh’. There was much hype surrounding England going into the competition but they seldom rose above the ordinary en route to the quarter-finals. Once there, Luiz Felipe Scolari got the better of Eriksson for a third successive major tournament as England lost to Portugal on penalties.

Erikssons’s England reign tends to divide opinion. There are some who believe his record of steering England to three successive quarter-finals was impressive, particularly given their subsequent failings. However, there are others who feel he squandered a glorious opportunity to achieve success with the Golden Generation at his disposal and that he did not merit his reportedly very high wages – as he failed to even lead the side into a semi-final. Whatever one’s view, it was certainly a memorable era and as we have seen there were some captivating wins to enjoy.

England Qualifying Campaigns: Euro ’80 – Ending the Long Wait

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With England having qualified with games to spare for Euro 2016, we look back at a previous occasion when they made light work of a European Championship qualifying campaign. When England embarked on trying to reach the 1980 finals in Italy it was just over 12 years since they had won the World Cup, but they had since suffered a depressing series of failures to qualify for major tournaments. They would end the long wait to qualify in style, in a campaign that brought a couple of superb goals and the debuts of several players who would go onto serve their country well through the 1980s…

Shortly before Ron Greenwood was confirmed as permanent England manager in December 1977, the qualifying draw took place for the 1980 European Championship. It had been a bleak 1970s for England, having failed to qualify for four successive major tournaments (although they reached the quarter-finals of the 1972 European Championship, that was played over two legs so technically they didn’t qualify for the finals). They desperately needed a stroke of luck to help them on their way to major tournament and it came with this qualifying draw. Considering their poor recent qualifying record, England were fortunate to be seeded and then to land a group not appearing to contain any major threat. 

Had England been drawn a few years later in a group containing Bulgaria, Denmark, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it would have been called the group of you know what. Every side would subsequently advance beyond the World Cup group stage by 1990, but in the late 1970s they mostly had relatively limited pedigrees – Bulgaria had the best track record after making it to four successive World Cups from 1962 to 1974. In The Times, Norman Fox wrote the group was one that “England should consider a springboard to better days”. But he sounded a word of caution. “Unless there is continued rapid progress England cannot seriously believe there is any such thing as an easy match,” he wrote. “The draw is favourable but is not a passport to Italy.”

  
Ron Greenwood.

With the Danes starting their improvement towards being a stylish force in the 1980s there was no whipping boy in the group and this proved to be to England’s advantage. The other four sides would continually take points off each other as England kept on winning. An interesting subplot to the draw was the presence of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the same group. As well as providing derby matches for England, this group would produce the first ever meetings between the two Irish nations. The prize for the group winners would be a place in the first European Championship finals to resemble a proper tournament, with Italy hosting the group stage before the final (previously only the semi-final onwards was played in the host country). 

Despite failing to make it to the 1978 World Cup, England went into their first qualifier in Denmark in September 1978 in good form. Since losing successive home matches in the 1977 Home International Championship towards the end of Don Revie’s reign, they had been beaten just once in 12 games. Greenwood may have not had the public support for the manager’s job of Brian Clough but he had made a good start, with a 4-1 friendly win over Hungary in May 1978 particularly encouraging. Liverpool had won successive European Cups and provided several players in the squad, while Nottingham Forest would go on to match Liverpool’s achievement and also have a number of men in the England set-up. If the success in Europe by English club sides could be carried through into the national set-up, then England would stand a chance of going on to win the competition. But for now simply qualifying for something at last was the basic aim.

Goals galore in Copenhagen 

England began their road to Italy with a goal feast away to Denmark in September 1978, in which they almost contrived to throw away victory. Goals from Kevin Keegan (2), Bob Latchford and Phil Neal helped them win 4-3 against Denmark, in a match that saw the Danes keep snapping at England’s heels. It really depended on whether you were a glass half full or empty person as to how you felt about England winning by such a scoreline. Journalist Frank McGhee was evidently in the latter camp, writing in the Daily Mirror: “Some of the joy of last season’s success under manager Ron Greenwood evaporated last night. And a victory over Denmark must not blind the team manager, who will have to accept much of the blame.” But Greenwood was pleased with the attacking display, saying: “The object of football is to score goals. I don’t think anyone could go away from here saying they hadn’t enjoyed it. I’m sure it is what the public want to see.”

A month later England struggled to sparkle when they drew 1-1 away to the Republic of Ireland, leaving them with three points from two games. Latchford scored their goal, on a day when Liam Brady ran the show for the Irish in midfield. In November Wembley was packed for a friendly against European champions Czechoslovakia, with the match best remembered for Viv Anderson becoming the first black player to appear at full level for England (a feat disputed by those who believe Paul Reaney had fitted this description). England won 1-0 with Anderson playing his part in a goal by Steve Coppell, although some critics felt the team’s performance still gave cause for concern. McGhee wrote: “England fans saw the football of the future – as promised by manager Ron Greenwood – at Wembley last night. The one considerable snag was that most of it was provided by the Czech opposition.”

  
Viv Anderson makes his historic England debut in November 1978.

Strong start to 1979

1978 had been a positive year for England and they served notice of what 1979 might bring when they welcomed group leaders Northern Ireland to Wembley in February for their next qualifier. Despite their physical approach attracting criticism from Northern Irish manager Danny Blanchflower, England enjoyed a good night as they triumphed 4-0. Latchford was not without his critics when he pulled on an England shirt but he scored twice, on a night when Keegan was particularly influential. It left Greenwood’s side looking a good bet to qualify.

  

There was then a break of three months before England took to the field again in May for the Home International Championship, which they won after beating Northern Ireland (2-0) and Scotland (3-1) and drawing with Wales (0-0). The Wales match was significant for marking the England debuts of Kenny Sansom and Laurie Cunningham. Sansom went on to win 86 caps and be a near-permanent fixture in the left-back slot over the next nine years, while Cunningham’s call-up confirmed more black players would be following Anderson into the England side.

In June 1979, England faced what had appeared to be their most difficult looking qualifier away to Bulgaria. But it was a day when things went to plan for Greenwood, as a well-taken goal by Keegan was added to by efforts from Dave Watson and Peter Barnes as England triumphed 3-0 in Sofia. The match formed the start of England’s end of season tour, being followed up with friendlies away to Sweden and Austria. They drew 0-0 in Stockholm, before the 1978-79 season ended as it had started with England being involved in a seven goal thriller. However, in Vienna it was England on the wrong end of a 4-3 defeat as their attack minded line-up was punished and brought their first defeat for 15 games.

In September, England resumed their quest to reach Italy with a 1-0 win over Denmark at Wembley, a match that went untelevised due to ITV being off the air. Viewers missed little of note, Keegan’s goal giving England an unconvincing 1-0 win as the Danes again suggested they may be more of a force going into the 1980s. “The match was more of a plodding exercise than an inspiring adventure,” rued an underwhelmed McGhee in his match report, reflecting on the lack of chances to keep spectators entertained.

Kevin Keegan scores England’s winner against Denmark in September 1979.

Not a one man team

Although England had not been firing on all cylinders, they were still on course to qualify and they could realistically start the party in October after they visited Northern Ireland. They once more proved too strong for Blanchflower’s men, Trevor Francis and Tony Woodcock both scoring twice in a 5-1 win. Despite his record-breaking transfer the previous season from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest, Francis had struggled to earn a regular starting place for England as Greenwood had previously persisted with Latchford (who would never be capped again).

But both Francis and Woodcock had come into the side and taken their chances, leaving England needing just one point to be certain of making it. They could only now fail to qualify if they lost at home to both Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland, who would also have to beat Northern Ireland and make up the goal difference in the process. Incidentally, this was the only time in the eight qualifiers that Peter Shilton was in goal for England rather than Ray Clemence (although they shared goalkeeping duties, it is a slight myth that they usually played alternate matches). Greenwood was pleased to see the goals being shared around the squad: “After our match against Denmark last month it was said we relied too much on Kevin Keegan. [The Northern Ireland match] proved that we are not a one-man team and Kevin is as pleased as anyone about that. Though Francis and Woodcock played very well indeed, they received an excellent service.”

Qualification was sealed without playing on November 21, as the Irish derby was won by Northern Ireland to end the Republic of Ireland’s hopes. That night the fog fell at Wembley and England’s home match against Bulgaria was called off as thousands of fans waited outside. Most of them were back 24 hours later for a rare Thursday night international, by which time the fog had lifted. Keegan was a victim of the postponement, as he was called back to Hamburg. Indeed, England were without their first three choices of captain as Emlyn Hughes and Mick Mills were also absent, leading to Phil Thompson wearing the armband.

 

Glenn Hoddle enjoyed a dream debut against Bulgaria in November 1979.

Coming into the side were stylish Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Glenn Hoddle and Norwich City forward Kevin Reeves. It was 22-year-old Hoddle who hogged the headlines, providing a genuine cause for optimism with his creativity. He floated in a lovely ball for Watson to open the scoring and then memorably wrapped up a 2-0 win when he scored with a delicious sidefooted effort. Not that everyone was jumping through hoops about England’s prospects, Mirror man McGhee beginning his report by writing: “Before England celebrate their victory over the nonentities of Bulgaria last night, they should start reflecting that in the finals of the European Championship in Rome next summer they will be in with the big boys of Italy, West Germany and Poland. Perhaps when that reality sinks in their fans won’t be quite so cocky and exultant as they were at the end of last night’s match at Wembley. Beating Bulgaria was easy, competing against the best in Italy next summer will be slightly different.”

That brought the curtain down on the 1970s so far as England were concerned, but their qualification campaign would unusually span two decades. Just four months before the finals were due to begin, Greenwood’s men hosted the Republic of Ireland for their final qualifier in February 1980. By now much of the emphasis was on preparing for the finals, but England also had the motivation of finishing the group unbeaten, with no goals conceded at home and just one point dropped along the way if they won. That remained the case as Keegan scored twice, the second goal being a glorious chip to complete a 2-0 win. The match saw West Bromwich Albion midfielder Bryan Robson became England’s latest debutant, winning the first of his 90 caps. Returning to the side after more than four years was Liverpool’s David Johnson, although he would go off injured after a clash with Irish goalkeeper Gerry Peyton. 

And so England finished the qualifying group with seven wins and a draw from eight games, finishing six points clear and having regained the winning mentality. But such is life that the England qualifying campaigns most frequently recalled are those when they either failed to qualify or only got there after it went to the wire. This was an instance when England qualified with comfort, but it is seldom talked about. They went into the finals of Euro ’80 (or Europa ’80 as it was generally known at the time) as one of the favourites, but the tournament would be a disappointment as England failed to advance from their group and their hooligans brought shame on the nation. The one consolation was England were finally back at a major tournament. And they had got there with conviction.

Six of the Worst – England European Championship Qualifiers

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Last month we recalled six of England’s best European Championship qualifying matches. Now as they gear up for the next round of qualifiers for Euro 2014, we look at the opposite end of the scale when six matches in the qualifying stages did not go to plan for England. It wouldn’t seem the English way to just reflect on the positives, would it?

February 1963, France (a) 2-5
Paris
Alf Ramsey’s first match as England manager certainly didn’t inspire the public to share his optimism they could win the World Cup three years later. After drawing 1-1 at Hillsborough in the first-leg before Ramsey replaced Walter Winterbottom, England were torn apart in Paris and trailed 3-0 by the break in this preliminary round tie. Although they gave themselves hope in the second half, the match ended with Ron Springett having conceded five goals. He would make way for Gordon Banks in the next match as Ramsey began rebuilding his side. Only Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton played in the World Cup final after featuring in the Paris debacle.

April 1967, Scotland (h) 2-3
London
A day still fondly remembered by football fans north of the border, as Scotland triumphed 3-2 against England at Wembley to declare themselves unofficial ‘world champions’ and Jim Baxter taunted the English. Alf Ramsey’s men were unbeaten since November 1965 and only Jimmy Greaves was involved who had not played in the World Cup final victory nine months earlier. The 1966-67 and 1967-68 Home Internationals were doubling up as the qualifying process for the European Championships and there was now a danger England could miss out so soon after lifting the World Cup as they lost 3-2. But they would top the group after drawing the return with Scotland in front of more than 134,000 at Hampden Park the following year, going on to finish third in the 1968 European Championship.

October 1975, Czechoslovakia (a) 1-2
Bratislava
Don Revie had begun his England reign a year earlier by beating the Czechs 3-0 at Wembley, as they appeared to be banishing the bad memories of missing out on a place in the 1974 World Cup. But a costly draw at home to Portugal had led to doubts resurfacing and it was vital they picked up a good result in the return match with the Czechs. Fog led to the match being abandoned after 17 minutes, leading to a hasty rearrangement for the following afternoon. Mick Channon gave them a first-half lead and put them on the brink of qualification, but goals shortly before and after half-time for the hosts turned the match on its head. England never equalised and Revie fumed about the Czechs: “I saw the worst provocation in this game that I have seen in an international match.” A 1-1 draw in their final match away to Portugal effectively ended English hopes, as the Czechs won the group and surprisingly went on to win the tournament.

September 1983, Denmark (h) 0-1
London
The Danes had quickly emerged from obscurity to be a major threat to England’s place in the Euro ’84 finals. England had been fortunate to gain a 2-2 draw away to Denmark in their opening qualifier. By the time the Danes visited Wembley in September 1983 it was clear whoever won would be favourites to go to France for the Euros, with England having to win for it to be in their hands. Bobby Robson knew just how big a danger the visitors posed and it seemed England were almost intimidated by the dazzling Danes, who could have scored in the opening moments through Michael Laudrup. A penalty from Allan Simonsen gave them a deserved half-time lead, which was only seriously threatened by Luther Blissett in the dying seconds. His shot was saved and England were left praying for a miracle from the remaining games. Their lingering hopes ended shortly before they took the field for their final qualifier away to Luxembourg, after Denmark beat Greece.

October 1998, Bulgaria (h) 0-0
London
England qualified as unbeaten group winners for the 1988 and 1992 finals and automatically as hosts in 1996, but the road to Euro 2000 was to be extremely rocky. They were in trouble after losing their opening qualifier away to Sweden and things got worse a month later when Bulgaria arrived at Wembley. England started brightly, but after failing to take chances the match totally fizzled out and Glenn Hoddle’s men ran out of ideas. They were booed off and it summed up a poor qualifying campaign for England in which they won just three matches out of eight (two of them against Luxembourg) to somehow claim second spot and then scrape past rivals Scotland in the play-offs.

November 2007, Croatia (h) 2-3
London
England made the 2004 and 2012 finals without losing any matches, but the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign under Steve McClaren was anything but a smooth ride. Needing to just finish second in their group to qualify, the warning signs were there by October 2006 when they drew with Macedonia and lost to Croatia. A year later came defeat in Russia but – aided by other results – it was back in England’s hands when they entered their final qualifying match needing to draw at home to Croatia. The wet night has passed into infamy, with England appearing to have done the hard work in clawing back from 2-0 down at the break to level before Mladen Petric scored the winner to hand Russia a place in the finals at England’s expense. The ‘wally with the brolly’ tag would stick for a long time for McClaren, who would inevitably leave his job after the loss.

Six of the Best – yet they didn’t even make the last four…

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As the excitement mounts ahead of the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the sides who had the world talking – but then it would all end prematurely before the semi-final stage, with the teams returning home with just the happy memories of their early good form to treasure…

Brazil 1982
For anyone who fell in love with football shortly after the 1970 World Cup, they would have to wait until 1982 to see a genuinely captivating Brazil team on the global stage. The names of Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao and others are likely to have football fans of a certain age drooling at the memory. The goals flew in from all over the pitch as Brazil dominated their first round group and looked clear favourites to go all the way. But then they had the misfortune to be placed alongside Argentina and Italy in the second round group of three teams (probably the ultimate Group of Death at any World Cup, with only one side able to advance to the semi-finals).

Brazil beat their South American rivals, but then lost out in one of the greatest World Cup matches of all time against Italy. Italian forward Paolo Rossi suddenly rediscovered his goalscoring touch with a hat-trick to turn the competition on its head, as Italy won an epic encounter in which Brazil were exposed defensively. The Brazilians had scored 15 goals in just five matches, but they wouldn’t even be in the semi-finals – some would argue the magic of 1982 has never quite been matched by them since.

Denmark 1986
From nothing, Denmark emerged to be one of the most popular and stylish teams of the 1980s as they gained admirers well beyond Scandinavia. After reaching the semi-finals at Euro ’84 (qualifying at England’s expense), Denmark made their World Cup bow two years later. With players like Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer weaving their magic, the Danes emerged with a 100% record from the Group of Death (yes another one) including Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay (who they thrashed 6-1).

The Danes were now being talked about as potential winners and it came as little surprise when they led Spain 1-0 in the second round. Suddenly, a misplaced backpass from Jesper Olsen allowed Spain back into the game and a second half collapse ended with the Danes thrashed 5-1 and crashing out in the last 16. They had promised and deserved much more. They wouldn’t even qualify for the next two World Cups, but for a couple of weeks in 1986 they had looked as good as any side in the world.

Argentina 2006
It seems much of Argentina’s luck was used up in struggling through to the final in 1990, as they haven’t been beyond the last eight since then despite having several highly-rated sides. The tournament that stands out is 2006. During the first round Argentina produced one of the great World Cup performances in modern times to thrash Serbia and Montenegro 6-0, scoring a truly outstanding team goal as they took possession football to new heights. “I think we’ve just seen the World Cup winners,” was the sort of comment I saw widely being posted on messageboards afterwards, but the tournament can be a cruel mistress. A stunning extra-time winner from Maxi Rodriguez was needed to dispose of Mexico in the second round, but then came the toughest test yet as hosts Germany lay in wait in the quarter-finals. The Germans equalised late in normal time and triumphed in a penalty shoot-out, also knocking Argentina out in the last eight in 2010.

Cameroon 1990
For many youngsters of the time like me watching the World Cup in 1990, Cameroon will always have a special place in our hearts. Widely dismissed as African outsiders before the start of the competition, their raw, cavalier approach won hearts as more established football nations struggled to deal with them. Their disciplinary record wasn’t the best and they had two men sent off in the tournament opener against holders Argentina, but they sensationally won 1-0. 38-year-old ‘supersub’ Roger Milla was the hero in wins against Romania and Colombia, leading to his corner flag ‘wiggle’ celebration being mimicked the world over.

In the quarter-finals they were paired with England (not ideal for those of us who loved both). It was a momentous night, the only game in the tournament in which both teams scored at least twice. The match was a see-saw contest which Cameroon probably should have won as they outplayed England for much of the second half to lead 2-1 late on. But their defensive weaknesses resurfaced and led to them conceding a late penalty for Lineker to equalise and save England, with history repeating itself in extra-time as he netted the winner from the spot and Bobby Robson’s side won 3-2. “We’ve all aged 10 years,” said presenter Bob Wilson as he signed off the BBC’s live coverage, correctly summing up the exhausting nature of the night. Four years later we watched the World Cup in USA hoping for more magic from Cameroon, but it never came and they have not gone beyond the group stages again – this year produced a particularly underwhelming effort that did them no credit at all.

North Korea 1966
It’s perhaps easy to forget North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966 lasted just four games, losing two and needing a late equaliser to avoid defeat in another. And yet the diminutive Asians wrote their name into World Cup folklore in the tournament. Their 1-0 group stage win over Italy is regarded as one of the greatest World Cup giantkillings and ensured Pak Doo-Ik’s name would forever be well-known. They were now just three matches away from being World Cup winners!

Interest now grew beyond Middlesbrough where they were based for the group stage and had been adopted as the team to cheer on. The North Koreans headed to face Portugal in the quarter-finals at Goodison Park (joined by about 3,000 newly-acquired fans travelling down from Middlesbrough, preferring to do that than watch England’s quarter-final at the same time). In a thrilling match, North Korea led 3-0 after 24 minutes, before falling victim to a one-man goalscoring exhibition. The brilliant Eusebio scored four times (including twice from the penalty spot as the North Koreans lost their defensive discipline) to turn the game around by the hour mark, with Portugal eventually running out 5-3 winners. The dream had died and North Korea would disappear back into communist secrecy until qualifying again in 2010 – but their exploits in 1966 will never be forgotten in England.

An excellent documentary about North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966.

Romania 1994
When they clicked, they were brilliant. When they didn’t, they got punished. Romania, boasting such talents as Gheorghe Hagi and Ille Dumitrescu, were technically impressive and laid down a marker in their opening match against highly-fancied Colombia. Hagi scored a speculative goal from out wide in a 3-1 win. There was a reality check in the next match against Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland, as Romania lost 4-1. But a win against hosts USA took Romania through as group winners to a last 16 tie with Argentina, who had been rocked by Diego Maradona’s positive drugs test a few days earlier. The sides served up a classic, Romania playing some excellent stuff and Hagi’s creativity helping them go 2-0 up early on through a Dumitrescu double. Hagi would find the net himself in the second half as Romania held out to win 3-2 and send the 1986 winners and 1990 runners-up home.

Romania were now fancied to beat Sweden in the quarter-finals but they would show some hint of inconsistency as went out on penalties after a 2-2 draw. To rub salt into the wounds, neighbours Bulgaria surprisingly went through to the semi-finals by beating Germany so Romania could not even lay claim to being the last Eastern European side left in. But it had been good while it lasted.

And as for England?
Considering England’s high amount of past quarter-final exits, it would seem amiss not to mention at least one of them here. While perhaps not having the world on the edge of their seats, the one that stands out most is 1970. Sir Alf Ramsey’s side boasted arguably a better team than the one that won on home soil four years earlier and have never been so well fancied on foreign soil, being considered as potentially the biggest threat to favourites Brazil. The sides played out an iconic group stage match in which England could lay claim to one of the best saves (Gordon Banks), best tackles (Bobby Moore) and worst misses (Jeff Astle) in World Cup history. England lost 1-0 but looked good enough to go all the way to the final for a re-match with Brazil. Certainly when they held a 2-0 lead in the quarter-final against West Germany that looked odds-on to get there. Inexplicably, England threw victory away to crash out of the tournament. It would be a long 12-year wait until they even qualified for another finals.