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.
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.”
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.
This week marks the 15th anniversary of England’s famous 5-1 win away to Germany in September 2001. To celebrate that, and also with England about to embark on their qualifying programme for the 2018 World Cup, we look back at England’s campaign to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. It was a qualifying process that brought the end of the old Wembley, the arrival of England’s first foreign manager and the most dramatic of climaxes…
As the 2000-01 season began, England were at their lowest point since they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. They had struggled to make it to Euro 2000 and at the finals they made a quick exit after losing two games out of three. Doubts were being cast about the extent of manager Kevin Keegan’s tactical astuteness, both defeats coming in games which they had led. With English hooligans again making headlines during the tournament and then England losing the vote to host the 2006 World Cup, there wasn’t much to smile about.
The one high point from the summer was a rare win over Germany, who flopped even more than England during Euro 2000. The sides would now be meeting twice more during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, in a group also containing Greece, Finland and Albania. It looked a straight fight for top spot between England and Germany, with the runner-up to face a play-off. It was widely considered to be one of Germany’s weakest teams, but England were hardly receiving rave reviews either. The side’s chances were not helped by the international retirement of Alan Shearer, while the exit gate also beckoned for some of the other older members of the set-up. Paul Ince would be called into the squad again but never win another cap, while Tony Adams would soon make his final appearance.
The end for King Kev
After the gloom of the summer there was a chink of light as England drew 1-1 away to World Cup and European Championship holders France in September thanks to a Michael Owen goal. But the acid test was the opening qualifier the following month. After 77 years the curtain was coming down on the old Wembley, England against Germany seeming an appropriate way to bid farewell to the Twin Towers. But amid all the nostalgia about past matches at the stadium, Keegan was coming under increasing scrutiny. “If it doesn’t go too well at Euro 2000 it might not be me as coach in 2002,” he said the previous December. He was still there after the Euros, but his position looked more vulnerable as the ‘cheerleader rather than coach’ jibes grew. News leaked that Keegan was planning to deploy defender Gareth Southgate as a holding midfielder against Germany, in a surprise move that was met with scepticism.
Germany provided the opposition for the last match in front of the Twin Towers.
There were a couple of comparisons with the 1966 World Cup final: England played in red and the Germans, wearing white, took an early lead. But that was it. England failed to recover from Dietmar Hamann’s free-kick beating David Seaman after 13 minutes and lost 1-0. On a wet and miserable afternoon, Wembley’s farewell was a damp squib so far as England were concerned and a number of fans voiced their displeasure at the end as Keegan made his way towards the tunnel.
It was the final straw for the England manager, who decided to call it a day. Things became rather farcical as Keegan had to be locked in a toilet cubicle with the Football Association’s David Davies as he confirmed he would be stepping down – Davies revealing it was the only place he could think of to hold such an important conversation privately. For all the nostalgia over the old Wembley, a stadium with improved facilities was a necessity.
“I’m blaming nobody but myself. I wasn’t good enough,” admitted Keegan, who was refreshingly honest about his shortcomings as a manager. But FA chief executive Adam Crozier described the timing of the resignation as “not ideal”, something of an understatement given England faced a tricky away qualifier in Finland four days later. As with after Glenn Hoddle’s sudden departure in February 1999, Howard Wilkinson would step into the breach for one match.
The match was controversially only being shown live on pay-per-view television in the UK and anyone who paid up to £10 for the privilege would have felt short changed by what they saw from England. They again struggled to make inroads as they drew 0-0, although Ray Parlour’s late effort appeared to cross the line without being given. But the performance had won few plaudits. It was still early days but England were the only side in the group yet to win after Albania surprisingly defeated Greece. David Lacey in The Guardian wrote: “The chances of England qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in the Far East are still no more than a dim light on the horizon. They are now two points behind Albania and Greece at the bottom of their group. As poor starts go this is the pits.”
It was too early to panic, but England now faced a five-month wait until the next qualifier to get their first win. In the meantime there was the question of who would become England’s new boss. With a significant lack of top English managers emerging, the FA effectively were left with considering reappointing a former boss or bringing in the national team’s first foreign manager.
A nostalgic return for Sir Bobby Robson on a short-term basis was ruled out by Newcastle United, as it became increasingly clear who the favoured candidate was. Sven-Göran Eriksson was being courted by the FA, but the situation was complicated by the Swede being under contract with Lazio for the rest of the season. Eventually in late October it was announced Eriksson would take over the following summer, although the FA expressed hope he would manage the side before then. In the meantime Peter Taylor and Steve McClaren looked after the team for a friendly in Italy, Eriksson watching on as David Beckham captained the side for the first time in a 1-0 defeat.
In January the FA got the news they wanted as Eriksson prematurely left Lazio and was free to start his work with England. The appointment of a foreigner was not met with universal approval. A John Bull figure would follow Eriksson around in protest at his appointment, while journalist Jeff Powell expressed his vehement opposition in The Daily Mail. “We sell our birthright down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer throwers who spend half their year living in total darkness,” he infamously wrote. “There were a lot of errors in that sentence,” replied Eriksson in his autobiography, branding Powell – without naming him – an “idiotic journalist”. By his standards it was outspoken stuff.
If Eriksson was bothered about silencing the critics then he went about it the right way. His first game brought an encouraging 3-0 friendly win over Spain at Villa Park, as England began their six-years ‘on the road’ without a proper home. But the crucial test was the next qualifier against Finland on March 24 at Anfield. They had to come from behind to achieve it but goals from Michael Owen and Beckham earned a 2-1 win to at last get a victory in the group.
Ashley Cole makes his England debut in Albania.
Four days later they had two after winning 3-1 in Albania. It wasn’t a vintage England display but the victory was vital, a flurry of late goals including Andrew Cole’s only strike for his country seeing them through. Cole’s namesake Ashley made his senior international debut at left-back, impressing but being struck by a missile for his troubles.
Eriksson retained his 100% record in May when England beat Mexico 4-0 in a friendly at Pride Park, Derby. Belief seemed to have returned to the side and that was clear as they safely negotiated a potentially tricky qualifier away to Greece to end the season. Paul Scholes broke the deadlock in the second half, with a trademark David Beckham goal securing the 2-0 win. With five games gone England had 10 points on the board and they were chasing Germany. The qualifier in Munich on September 1 was looking increasingly decisive.
THAT night in Munich
A 2-0 friendly defeat by the Netherlands at White Hart Lane in August ended Eriksson’s perfect start, but it would be quickly forgotten if the Three Lions could triumph in Munich. Eriksson was getting an uncomfortable first insight into Anglo-German rivalry as he read newspapers ahead of the game. “Everything that was written alluded to the war. I did not understand it. To me it was a game like any other,” he wrote in his autobiography.
He may have been bemused by how much the match meant to the English nation (dismissing it as “a one-sided rivalry” in his book), but he would find himself hailed as a hero for what happened over the course of 90 minutes. Fielding a starting XI containing players only from the Premier League’s top four in 2000-01 of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leeds United, England enjoyed a never-to-be-forgotten night that sent the country into raptures.
Michae Owen scores for England against Germany.
And yet it began with Carsten Jancker putting the Germans ahead, with Sebastian Deisler squandering a great chance to restore the lead after Owen had equalised. The crucial moment came when Steven Gerrard drove England ahead on the stroke of half-time. From then on it was all England, Owen scoring twice more to complete his hat-trick. “This is getting better and better and better,” proclaimed BBC commentator John Motson, with the drama not finished yet. An excellent ball from Scholes allowed Emile Heskey to make it 5-1 with 16 minutes left. It was ‘pinch me’ stuff, England humiliating their old nemesis. Few England victories over the years have been as widely celebrated as this one, a result that was particularly significant as the Germans had previously only lost one World Cup qualifying match.
MIchael Owen celebrates as England run riot against Germany.
England had a largely young side, several of whom would be part of the ‘golden generation’ set-up in the ensuing years, and there now seemed much to get excited about. Eriksson was being hailed as a hero, his success so far having silenced most who criticised his appointment. ‘Sven-sational’ was the sort of headline gracing just about tabloid. His sex life wasn’t filling column inches as much as in the ensuing years, his tactics weren’t being questioned and nor was too much criticism flying around over his reported salary after the win over Germany like it later would. This was really as good as it got, the man being hailed as a saviour of the England team. It certainly wouldn’t always be like this.
Now it looked just a formality that England would get the two wins needed against Albania and Greece to ensure qualification. The nation was in party mood as Albania arrived at St James’ Park four days after the Germany game, but it threatened to be an anti-climax. England had to wait until the 44th minute to go ahead through Owen, with the killer second not arriving until the closing minutes from Robbie Fowler. But the 2-0 win meant England topped the table with one game to play. If they matched Germany’s result at home to Finland when Greece came to Old Trafford then they were through.
Albania were England’s first opponents after thrashing Germany.
In the month between England beating Albania and welcoming Greece to Old Trafford, the world was rocked by the events of September 11 which put football firmly into perspective. But there was still plenty of attention given to the decisive qualifier in the build-up to it, the BBC starting its live programme two hours before kick-off. It wasn’t quite win or bust, as the runners-up would have a second chance in the play-offs. In a curious move, the play-off draw was made some weeks before the groups concluded – England knowing they would have a fairly favourable tie with Belarus or Ukraine if they slipped up. But there were no guarantees they would defeat them. A win over Greece would make things far more straightforward.
Becks to the rescue
England were without Owen and Seaman against Greece, as Fowler and Nigel Martyn deputised. Eriksson’s side were still widely expected to prevail, but they toiled in the October sunshine. The match provided the first hints of some of Eriksson’s shortcomings, as well as the improvements Greece were making under Otto Rehhagel that would lead to them sensationally winning Euro 2004. They were to stun Old Trafford by taking a half-time lead, with England not striking back until the 67th minute. Seconds after coming on, veteran Teddy Sheringham headed England level. That should have been the springboard for England to go on and get the victory, but two minutes later the Greeks were back in front.
It was now starting to look increasingly ominous for England, whose fans were keeping tabs on events in Gelsenkirchen. Earlier in the campaign Finland had drawn with Germany and now they were doing so again. If they could keep it goalless, then an English equaliser would be enough to send Eriksson’s side through. The Finns duly did their bit, but where would England’s goal come from?
It had been a frustrating afternoon for captain Beckham, who had worked tirelessly but his free-kicks had failed to trouble the Greek net. But deep in stoppage time England won another free-kick outside the area. Beckham at last curled it brilliantly into the net and Old Trafford erupted. The anticipated ‘Greek tragedy for England’ headlines could be spiked and Eriksson had led England into the finals. Paul Wilson wrote in The Guardian: “This was not a great England performance but it was a display of great character, and it was fitting that David Beckham should secure the all-important point in the third minute of stoppage time. At times the captain was almost playing Greece on his own, and no one worked harder in twice bringing England back from a goal down.”
“Even I threw my arms up in the air and jumped up off the bench,” wrote Eriksson, almost appearing to mock his usual lack of animation on the touchline. But this was a goal worth celebrating – it had come down to virtually the final kick and England had done it. They’d done it the hard way and also had Finland to thank for getting them out of jail. But they had made it all the same. German celebrations were curtailed as news broke of England’s goal, although they would beat Ukraine in the play-offs and go on to reach the final as England went out to Brazil in the quarter-finals. But the qualifying campaign had for once seen England come out on top, with that unbelievable night in Munich being the standout result.
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.
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…