Euro ’72

England’s qualifying campaigns – Euro ’72: winning points but not plaudits

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On Friday England visit Malta for a World Cup qualifier. The previous occasion when the sides were in the same qualifying group was for the 1972 European Championship. Today we look back at that campaign…

For England and Sir Alf Ramsey, the 1970 World Cup represented disappointment as they surrendered their crown at the quarter-final hurdle against West Germany after leading 2-0. Ramsey now looked ahead to the challenge of the 1974 World Cup, as the Boys of ’66 continually dwindled in number. George Cohen, Roger Hunt and Ray Wilson had all left the scene before 1970, while the World Cup in Mexico marked the end of the international road for the Charlton brothers and Nobby Stiles – the latter never getting any game time in the finals. Other players including Jeff Astle, Brian Labone and Keith Newton would no longer feature after 1970 as Ramsey rebuilt and set his sights on four years down the road.

If West Germany in 1974 was the long-term focus for Ramsey, his first aim was steering England through the qualifying group to reach the quarter-final stage of the 1972 European Championship. They had been handed a favourable group containing Switzerland, Greece and Malta. England had never met the Greeks or Maltese before, while they had faced the Swiss several times including thrashing them 8-1 in Basel in 1963. But Switzerland had a greater track record than the other two opponents, having qualified for the 1966 World Cup.

Shilton’s debut

After Mexico there would be a five-month gap before England next took to the field, as East Germany visited Wembley for a friendly. The match was most significant for Peter Shilton winning the first of his record 125 caps, as Ramsey looked to find a new number two to Gordon Banks after Peter Bonetti had taken some of the blame for the World Cup exit. England won 3-1 to end 1970 in improved spirits.

In early February 1971 they faced their first European Championship qualifier, visiting the minnows of Malta. A key absentee would be captain Bobby Moore, unavailable owing to his suspension by West Ham United over the infamous Blackpool incident the previous month when he was among the players caught drinking in a nightclub on the eve of a game.

Again Ramsey seemed to be looking to the future, handing four players their debuts in Martin Chivers, Roy McFarland and Everton team-mates Colin Harvey and Joe Royle. It would be Harvey’s only cap and not the most glamorous international experience as England contended with a sandy, hard pitch. The game had the feel of an FA Cup tie with a non-league side hosting a top-flight club, the stadium packed to capacity with many more finding any vantage point to view proceedings in a less safety-conscious era. Malta competed well, limiting England to a goal by Martin Peters after 35 minutes. The Maltese public had not taking kindly to reports that sections of the English media had labelled their players “Spanish waiters”, as fans chanted: “We are the waiters, you are the bastards.”

The Maltese public turn out in force to watch England’s visit in February 1971.

Those fans would not see England sparkle in winning 1-0. Ramsey admitted afterwards: “Conditions were bad. But I was disappointed we did not overcome them better than we did. The harder we tried, the worse we seemed to become.” There would unsurprisingly be a fair amount of criticism aimed at England for only edging past Malta (in an era before the likes of Andorra and San Marino joined the party, the Maltese were rated as one of the weakest football nations in Europe).

‘Embarrassed’ in victory

Two months later England hosted Greece, staying on course to top the group by winning 3-0. Chivers scored his first England goal to break the deadlock, with Geoff Hurst and Franny Lee wrapping up the win in the closing quarter on a night when Peter Storey won his first cap. But the scoreline failed to prevent England coming in for criticism, summing up a qualifying campaign in which they won matches but not plaudits.

Not for the last time, the Greeks did anything but come bearing gifts as they set up with the intention of frustrating the hosts and in some respects succeeded. Ken Jones wrote in the Daily Mirror: “England were visibly embarrassed last night by a Greek team determined to avoid the humiliation of an overwhelming defeat at Wembley. It was not the first time that foreign opponents had been seen to arrange themselves in an effort to survive on England’s home ground. But few teams have managed to present such a consuming problem to the best of England’s players.”

Martin Chivers fires home for England against Greece.

It would be followed up by the visit of Malta to Wembley the following months, in which England faced a side even more determined to keep the score down rather than have a go. Banks would never collect an easier clean sheet in his career as he only touched the ball via a couple of backpasses in the 5-0 win. “I cannot remember an England match under my management in which the opposition has been so committed to defence,” said Ramsey afterwards. “Come to that, I cannot recall any soccer match I’ve seen in which one of the goalkeepers has never had a shot to save. I think the nearest Malta came to our goal was 35 yards out. That speaks for itself.”

Given the total domination of the game, there was a sense of disappointment that England only netted five goals. Desmond Hackett wrote in the Daily Express: “England were continually and deservedly slow handclapped. This morning they should be ashamed of themselves for their failure to win by at least double figures.”

Bobby Moore leads England out against Malta.

But at least they had won comfortably. Chivers again opened the scoring, with Franny Lee doubling the lead and Allan Clarke both scoring and missing a penalty as England totally controlled proceedings. Chivers netted his second goal of the night before Chris Lawler marked his England debut at right-back with a goal. Alas, he would only appear three more times.

The season ended with England winning the Home International Championship by beating Northern Ireland and Scotland and drawing with Wales, before having a warranted summer off after the demands of the previous year in Mexico. In October England were back in action for their next and most important qualifier away to Switzerland, a side who had won all four games so far and held top spot by virtue of having played a game more than Ramsey’s men. Amid speculation that England would be picked as hosts for the final stages if they reached the semi-finals, there was every reason for Ramsey to be particularly keen to progress.

The night would mark the end of Alan Mullery’s England career after 35 caps, while substitute John Radford made his second and last international appearance almost theee years after his first. Veteran Swiss manager Louis Maurer was quoted as predicting his side would win 2-1 after going on the attack. Although he wouldn’t get his wish result-wise, England were certainly given a scare and their performance did little to suggest they could ultimately become champions of Europe.

Struggling past the Swiss

England got the result they wanted in Basel, but lacked the conviction they would have liked. Twice in the first-half they went ahead – through Hurst after just 55 seconds and Chivers 11 minutes later – but they were pegged back, before an own goal by Anton Welbel on 77 minutes handed England a 3-2 win. Banks had unusually taken some blame for the first Swiss goal, while Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times that the second Swiss equaliser shortly before the break “was no more than they deserved” as he added: “For the previous half hour they had fairly roasted England.” The football played by the Swiss impressed more, but England stood firm to claim a vital win.

England were made to work hard for a 3-2 win away to Switzerland.

The following month brought the return game with the Swiss, the game’s importance such that more than 90,000 fans packed into Wembley for it. Shilton deputised for Banks in goal, while Rodney Marsh was handed his debut as a late substitute. Mike Summerbee netted his only England goal when he headed the side into an early lead, but the Swiss drew level when Shilton failed to hold Kurt Odermatt’s drive. The 1-1 draw effectively clinched qualification for England, given only a four goal defeat in Greece could stop them winning a group. But there was little celebration. Criticism was coming England’s way for how they had made such heavy weather of drawing with Switzerland. Peter Wilson wrote in the Daily Mirror: “In the record books it will go down as a 1-1 draw, but in my book it ranks as a victory for the Swiss part-timers who, after losing only 3-2 in Switzerland, went one better by holding England to a draw at Wembley last night.”

Gordon Banks contends with the sun and Greek attack in December 1971.

And so England headed for the final qualifier in Athens on December 1. Even the most optimistic Switzerland fan and negative England fan would have conceded it was all over, so the challenge now facing the Three Lions was to impress in victory. The Greek players reportedly stood to collect more than £1,000 each if they could claim a famous win, But second half goals from Hurst and Chivers secured a 2-0 win for the visitors over Billy Bingham’s men, as England finished two points clear at the top of the group. There was a feeling England had played better than against Switzerland, but they had not taken many of the decent chances to come their way. Ken Jones wrote in the Daily Mirror: “England had every reason to curse their poor marksmanship here as they came close to achieving an overwhelming victory.”

But they had certainly not struggled to pick up points, as England finished two clear at the top of the qualifying group. It had not been the most memorable of qualifying campaigns and criticism had been more noticeable than praise. But as England flew home from Greece, they could not have realised just what lay ahead in the ensuing years. A comprehensive defeat by West Germany in the two-legged quarter-finals – technically at least still part of qualifying but we’ve recalled it separately previously – acted as an ominous warning sign concerning where England now stood. They would fail to even get out of the qualifying group for the next three major tournaments as the 1970s became a barren decade. England’s qualifying group campaign for Euro ’72 had not been a classic and it was aided by a favourable draw, but at least they had achieved results – something they would struggle to do in the years that followed.

England’s Euro ’72 – The decline begins

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This week in 1972 England welcomed West Germany to Wembley for the first-leg of their quarter-final in the European Championship. It proved to be an uncomfortable night for the English, who were deservedly beaten on home soil. For the West Germans, a period of domination was about to begin and England would have to wait a long time to beat them again in a competitive match…

In January 1972, the quarter-final draw was held for the last eight stage of the European Championship. England, who had come through their qualification group as unbeaten winners ahead of Switzerland, Greece and Malta, were to draw one of the toughest-looking opponents as they were paired with West Germany.

Immediately there were concerns both in terms of England’s chances and practicalities. Firstly, West Germany were a good side who had beaten England at the 1970 World Cup. Secondly, the second-leg would be away which was seen as handing the advantage to the West Germans. Thirdly, the first-leg was scheduled to be played on April 29 – the last Saturday of the Football League season; and lastly, the home leg would clash with when Wembley was booked for non-league football’s showpiece occasion of the FA Trophy final. With professional football out of the question on a Sunday at the time in England, there were now headaches facing the Football Association which quickly needed resolving.

Eventually the Trophy final was played two weeks earlier than scheduled and several First Division matches on April 29 were postponed to accommodate England call-ups. As was quite often the case at the time, the First Division title race would have to be resolved during midweek rearranged matches. But for England manager Sir Alf Ramsey there was going to be no easy method to defeat the West Germans, although he sounded cheerful enough.

“It is a great draw from all aspects,” he said. “They are one of the finest teams in the world and the memories of our previous games will surely add to the occasion.” It was certainly hard to ignore the recent past contests at the World Cups of 1966 and 1970.

That latter meeting in Mexico still lurked in the mind, but there was a tendency to dismiss that defeat as a bit of a fluke – where circumstances such as Gordon Banks being ill and substitutions backfiring were perceived as the main causes of England’s downfall rather than the prowess of West Germany. Speaking about the sides being paired together once more, England captain Bobby Moore said: “It is nice to meet old rivals again and for those of us who were in Mexico there will be a score to settle. I think it’s a good one for England.”

There was an added incentive for England to progress, as they were among the front-runners to host the final stages (semi-final onwards) if they were part of it. If that happened, they would stand a good chance of winning major silverware given they seldom lost on home soil. As Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “Apart from the financial gain this would considerably strengthen our hand in an effort to win the trophy for the first time.”

Despite the significance of the West Germany matches, England went into them having not played for almost five months. Their absentees for the first-leg would include defender Roy McFarland who was withdrawn due to injury, although he would feature for Derby County in their vital title battle against Liverpool 48 hours later (prompting Ramsey to speak out against Derby manager Brian Clough). Ramsey instead paired Moore with Norman Hunter, a central defensive partnership that would not prove successful.

Five players remained in the England side from the 1966 final, but for Geoff Hurst this would be the final act. He was substituted and never selected again, finishing his England career against the side he made his debut against and enjoyed his most glorious match against in separate fixtures in 1966. The end was also drawing near for goalkeeper Gordon Banks, whose career would be curtailed by a car crash later in the year. For the remaining boys of ’66 – Moore, Alan Ball and Martin Peters, plus manager Ramsey – there would remain an England future but past glories would never be rekindled.

Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer shake hands prior to kick-off at Wembley.

One man who would leave his mark on the match would be midfielder Günter Netzer. The West German was 27 but not been part of the World Cup squad in 1966 and 1970. This was to be his night, thanks to his darting runs and pinpoint passes as England paid for not deploying a natural holding midfielder to deal with him. Also impressing was 20-year-old Uli Hoeness, who put the West Germans ahead in the first half.

If Moore’s England career is best defined by captaining the team to glory in 1966 and his unforgettable tackle against Brazil in 1970, then at the other end of the scale was his error that led to a vital goal being conceded against West Germany in 1972. He tried to dribble the ball out of the area, was caught in possession and Hoeness was able to score past Banks.

England were second best on the night and could have gone further behind, but with 15 minutes left they drew level as Francis Lee scored past Sepp Maier from close range. Now the momentum should have been with them to go and get a result. But West Germany were to regain the advantage six minutes from time. Moore struggled to keep pace with Siggi Held – one of the West German survivors from 1966 – and brought him down for a penalty, although replays would later suggest contact initially took place outside the box. Netzer scored the goal his performance deserved, despite Banks getting a hand to the penalty.

Despair for Gordon Banks as he concedes against West Germany at Wembley.

Ramsey’s men were staring defeat in the face but things would get even worse before the finish. The gulf in class was underlined as a delightful ball by Hoeness was neatly converted by the lethal Gerd Müller. West Germany led 3-1 and there was surely no way England were going to turn it round two weeks later in Berlin. Green reflected in his match report: “Basically England were beaten in midfield. Without Mullery there to win the ball, Ball, Peters and Bell were a street behind Netzer, Hoeness and Wimmer as a creative, productive force. Netzer in particular, his mane flowing in the breeze, time and time again broke excitingly like the Bobby Charlton of old.”

England’s approach had seemed outdated, whereas West Germany had offered vibrancy and flair that went against the ‘efficient’ stereotype. The French publication L’Equipe described them as playing “dream football from the year 2000”. The performance remains revered in Germany and the result confirmed they at last held the upper hand over England, having now won three meetings in succession against them (they hadn’t beaten them until a friendly in 1968). It was England’s most sobering home defeat since losing 6-3 to Hungary in 1953 and it was hard to argue with the outcome, Ramsey conceding afterwards: “We didn’t get hold of it until the second half. By then West Germany had all the confidence in the world because of the freedom we let them have in the first half.”

Ramsey now had two weeks to somehow devise a plan to get England back into the tie with a two-goal victory in Berlin to force a play-off. He was keeping his cards close to his chest, except to say: “I am no gambler. Why should I be? This is a testing occasion demanding experience. But I do have a plan to meet the Netzer threat which will be revealed in due course.”

Think English footballers from the 1970s and two types spring to mind. One of them is the mavericks, a group of free-spirited, flair players that Ramsey seldom picked; and the other is the hard men who would happily chop down their opponents. Ramsey would make use of the latter in Berlin, bringing Hunter into midfield along with Peter Storey, who had a reputation as a ‘hatchet man’.

Ramsey was clearly looking to avoid a repeat of the first leg by giving England defensive bite in midfield. But it was a move that offered England little attacking threat and did nothing to alter the perception among the critics that Ramsey was a defensively-minded manager. He did show some acknowledgement of the mavericks by picking Rodney Marsh in attack, but he was taken off before the hour mark and won just nine caps in total.

England attempt to gain possession in Berlin.

In some respects the tactical plan worked well in the Berlin rain, as England were not embarrassed like they had been at Wembley and earned a 0-0 draw. Had England gone there needing a draw to progress, Ramsey might have earned plaudits for finding a system to stop the Germans. But instead his detractors felt the approach smacked of damage limitation, England offering little attacking zest to overturn the aggregate deficit.

Their physical approach to stop the West Germans won them few admirers. “The whole England team has autographed my leg,” complained Netzer. Manager Helmut Schön condemned England for “brutal tackling aimed at the bones”. The England players hit back, with Alan Ball saying: “I never thought the West Germans would act like cry babies. They tried to make villains of us.”

Gordon Banks faces a free-kick in Berlin.

The inquests were well under way into what had gone wrong for the England team, as the criticism poured in. Frank Taylor wrote in the Daily Mirror: “English football was revealed in the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the fraud it is. The world saw our players looking as cultured as a clog dancer in a ballet class… I am sick of the excuses, tired of the tactical explanations. If this was a victory for tactics, give me the glory of adventurous defeat.”

However, Taylor’s colleague Ken Jones offered some support for Ramsey over his tactics in Berlin: “Had he thrown his team at the Germans, then the Germans would merely have emphasised the skill superiority they displayed at Wembley. There would have been no sympathy for a gamble that failed.” Jones also voiced his fear that “England could be discredited totally as a power in world football” if steps were not taken to reduce the amount of fixtures English clubs played.

For England, there would be no place in the finals tournament, which Belgium would now host. West Germany went on to beat the hosts and USSR to win the tournament, following it up by lifting the World Cup on home soil. England wouldn’t even qualify for that, as Ramsey’s England reign ended ignominiously.

With hindsight at least Ramsey probably should have stepped down after the Euro ’72 exit, with England clearly no longer dining at international football’s top table but with him having led England to at least the last eight in four successive competitions. The West Germany defeat showed England now lagged behind the world’s best and set the trend for the years that followed, with things about to get even worse.