Today we look back at England’s fortunes in the 1980 European Championship. The competition marked England’s return to major tournaments after a lengthy absence, but they would make a quick exit – and the behaviour of a section of their followers would make all the headlines…
England qualified in style for Euro ’80, winning seven of their eight matches to secure their place in the finals. This was to be the first European Championship to resemble a proper tournament, with the quarter-finals no longer played over two legs. Instead there would now be two groups of four teams in Italy, with the winners of each section progressing to the final. England were in the easier-looking of the two groups, having avoided a section which included holders Czechoslovakia, World Cup runners-up Netherlands and 1974 world champions West Germany. Instead, England’s main concern looked to be the hosts Italy, who they would face along with Belgium and Spain.
The qualifying campaign had raised expectations for England, along with an impressive 2-0 away win in a friendly against Spain in March 1980 and beating world champions Argentina in May. But four days later they were brought down to earth with a 4-1 loss to Wales at Wrexham. It was hard to be sure just how England would fare in Italy, but if Ron Greenwood could replicate the success of English club sides in Europe then they had every chance. While the national team had been experiencing a lean period, English clubs had dominated the European Cup for the past four years with Liverpool and Nottingham Forest each winning it twice. Both clubs would be well represented in the squad, including the goalkeepers of Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton. This tournament would see Greenwood let the goalkeepers share duties, as he would continue to do until he finally picked Shilton as clear number one for the 1982 World Cup. One unfortunate absentee was forward Trevor Francis, ruled out through injury.
England’s absence from recent major competitions meant for virtually all the squad this would be their first major tournament, with Emlyn Hughes the only player left who went to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico (he didn’t play in either competition). Kevin Keegan had become the star England player of his era, but this was finally his chance to appear in a major finals. There were injury concerns about him prior to the competition, but he insisted he was fit to play. “I’m ready for Italy. There are no excuses now if we don’t do well,” he said. The build-up seemed very low-key by today’s standards. The back pages were dominated by cricket until the tournament began and England flew out to Italy just two days before their opening match. England may have been back in the big time, but this clearly did not compare to the World Cup – although they visited 10 Downing Street shortly before the finals. Kevin Keegan seemed to see the funny side as he met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher!
Trouble in Turin
England would start their tournament against Belgium in Turin on June 12. The Belgians were quoted as saying they did not expect to beat England, but Greenwood wasn’t buying it. “We don’t in any way underestimate them,” he said ahead of the match. “They are a strong side, a side with experience even if they are unpredictable.” The tournament was blighted by poor attendances and just 15,186 were in the Stadio Comunale to see Ray Wilkins put England ahead after 25 minutes. Not a renowned goalscorer, Wilkins expertly played the ball over the Belgian defence and ran through to then chip goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff and score. Surely this goal would set England on their way to victory and potentially a place in the final? Sadly not. Just four minutes later Jan Ceulemans equalised for Belgium.
It was then that England’s tournament was tarnished. Fighting broke out on the terraces, with tear gas fired by police in a bid to quell the violence. Goalkeeper Clemence briefly lost vision due to the spray, with the match stopped for five minutes. There had been disorder involving English hooligans before, but this incident marked a new low point – inside the stadium during a major tournament, with the match halted as a result. Greenwood fumed afterwards: “We have done everything to create the right impression, then these bastards let you down.” He added: “I wish they could all be put in a boat and dropped in the ocean.” If this was the normally diplomatic Greenwood speaking out like this, one can only imagine what Brian Clough would have come out with if he’d been in charge…
Tear gas was sprayed during England’s match against Belgium.
The match was always going to struggle to get going again after the trouble, but in the closing stages England thought they had regained the lead through Tony Woodcock. But his effort was controversially ruled out and the decision would prove significant in the final reckoning. The match ended 1-1, representing a point dropped for England but with them still in with a shout of reaching the final.
The aftermath of the match was overshadowed by the crowd trouble and the FA being fined £8,000, which was considered a token gesture amid fears of possible expulsion. Under the headline of ‘Softies’, Frank McGhee angrily wrote in the Daily Mirror: “That is roughly the equivalent of a slap on the wrist with a wet lettuce leaf, or trying to starve a rich man to death by stealing a single potato from his plate. No one among the England officials out here is actually saying so, but you would have to nail their feet to the floor to prevent a dance of delight at the decision. I could belabour the metaphor forever because I am so cross about it. Punishment should hurt – and this one doesn’t.”
Hopes end after two games
England fans were now being urged to hide their colours en route to their next match – a Sunday night showdown with Italy in Turin. It was a match of vital importance, both in terms of England’s hopes of winning the tournament and the need for their fans to behave themselves. Off the field there was mercifully no repeat of the scenes three days earlier, with most England fans having walked together from the railway station in a bid to avoid attacks. On the pitch, whoever lost was staring elimination in the face. Italy had drawn 0-0 with Spain in their opening game, with the Spaniards then losing to Belgium. The Belgians were emerging as a surprise package, but the match between Italy and England was the blue riband fixture of the group and a crowd of 59,649 was the highest of the tournament. Italy’s preparations for the tournament had been hit by a bribery scandal, with forward Paulo Rossi banned as a result.
England and Italy prepare for their group stage showdown.
Greenwood handed a start to young Nottingham Forest forward Garry Birtles. An even contest ensued, settled 11 minutes from time with Phil Neal taking the blame for failing to win a tackle against Francesco Graziani. He put over an excellent cross for Marco Tardelli to score from close range past Shilton. Earlier Ray Kennedy had struck the woodwork for England, as they suffered a 1-0 defeat which made it impossible for them to win the competition. Their only hope now was they could win through to the third place play-off if they beat Spain. Trying to remain upbeat, Greenwood said: “We have got to keep our sights on that target and I’m proud that the spirit in the team is still sky-high. Phil Neal is blaming himself but no one else is blaming him.”
Greenwood again made changes for the Spain game, meaning 19 members of the squad enjoyed gametime in Italy. Trevor Brooking gave England the lead, but three minutes into the second half Dani equalised from the spot. He strode up to beat Clemence with another penalty a few minutes later, only for the referee to spot an infringement and order a retake. This time around Clemence saved and England were off the hook. They took advantage of this with Woodcock restoring their lead to give them a 2-1 victory. England had created a series of chances in the match with Spanish goalkeeper Luis Arconada continually denying them. But Greenwood wasn’t overjoyed with the win. “We played much better against Italy,” he admitted.
Ray Clemence saves a penalty as England beat Spain.
England now basically needed a team to win between Italy and Belgium later on to reach the third place match, certainly if the Belgians lost by at least two goals. But it wasn’t to be. Italy could not make the breakthrough, with the 0-0 draw meaning Belgium were surprisingly through to the final against West Germany. Italy’s dreams of glory were over, the only goal in any of their three group games being their winner against England.
For England, the tournament set the trend for their other overseas European Championship appearances over the next 20 years. They would make a swift return home and with the conduct of a section of their fans having brought shame upon the nation. We have previously recalled how Euro ’80 – or Europa ’80 as it was generally known at the time – was not considered a success amid low crowds, negative tactics, criticisms of the competition’s format and the hooliganism seen during England’s match against Belgium. That would unfortunately be the tournament’s lasting image in England. The ‘English Disease’ was taking hold and further violence would follow on several occasions when England travelled abroad in the ensuing years.
On the field it had been a mixed bag for England. In today’s world a record of a win, a draw and a defeat from matches against Belgium, Italy and Spain would probably be considered a good return. Even at the time it represented disappointment over an early exit rather than abject failure. In keeping with Greenwood’s reign as a whole, England were neither good nor bad really. Yet it might have all been different. Had Woodcock’s disallowed goal against Belgium been allowed to stand and subsequent results stayed the same, England would have topped the group and been in the final. How differently we might look back at this tournament if that goal had been allowed…
In the latest of our recollections of how England performed at past European Championships, we turn the clock back to 1968. England came perilously close to becoming European champions just two years after winning the World Cup. But their involvement in the competition would mainly be recalled just for Alan Mullery going into the history books as their first player ever to be sent off…
Ask any English-loving football fan who is old enough where they were when England won the World Cup in 1966, or played unforgettable semi-finals during Italia ’90 or Euro ’96, and they could probably give you an instant answer and start recalling the emotions they felt at the time. Yet there has been one other occasion when England have reached the last four of a major tournament, but it barely ever gets mentioned other than when referencing England’s first ever sending off. Two years after winning the World Cup, England made it to the semi-finals of the 1968 European Championship. It was only the third time the competition had been staged, having been renamed from the European Nations Cup.
We’ll pick up the story in the quarter-finals (technically this was part of qualifying, but it seems wrong somehow to class it as such here when sides at Euro 2016 will have to win through two rounds just to reach this stage). England had been beaten at home by Scotland in qualifying but had gone on to top the group to face holders Spain over two legs in the last eight. Sir Alf Ramsey’s England were World Cup holders and Home International champions. Now they could complete the treble by adding the European crown if they won through the next three rounds. With Manchester United soon to lift the European Cup, there was a sense that English football was enjoying a real period of success and England could cement that reputation by winning Euro ’68.
But not everyone was in awe of England. Although they had lost just once since October 1965, their style of play was not universally loved and critics felt the World Cup triumph had only been achieved thanks to home advantage and crucial refereeing decisions going in their favour. If England could become champions of Europe, it could help silence many doubters.
Seeing off the Spanish
England welcome Spain to Wembley for the first leg of their European Championship quarter-final.
The boys of ’66 still dominated England’s team two years on, although some new blood had broken into the side. Cyril Knowles, Alan Mullery and Mike Summerbee were in the team at home to Spain, with George Cohen, Nobby Stiles and Geoff Hurst the three players missing from the 1966 triumph. Cohen had been Ramsey’s first casualty of the 1966 XI, while Stiles was left watching on as Mullery assumed his midfield role. England had beaten the Spaniards twice in friendlies in recent years but this time around it looked like they may fail to make the breakthrough as chances went begging. With six minutes left, Bobby Charlton – hoping to end the season as a European champion for club and country – gave England a much-needed lead. The goal meant Charlton equalled Jimmy Greaves’ record tally of 44 England goals and gave them hope of progression as they won 1-0 on the night.
Bobby Charlton takes a bow after giving England the lead against Spain.
But in an era when home advantage was still seen as very significant, there was a concern they could be eliminated in the return in Madrid five weeks later. Hurst again missed the game due to injury, while goalkeeper Gordon Banks could have been a significant absentee as Peter Bonetti deputised (with greater success than at the same stage of the World Cup two years later against West Germany). Brian Labone, Norman Hunter and Keith Newton all came into the side, for a match in front of a frenzied 120,000 crowd.
After 47 minutes as Amancio Amaro put Spain ahead on the night. But England stirred as Martin Peters restored their aggregate lead, before Hunter made it 2-1 on the night and 3-1 overall. Ramsey was proclaiming it as England’s best display since the World Cup triumph, with such a strong showing on foreign soil helping silence the critics. Ken Jones of the Daily Mirror wrote: “England’s faith in the football that won them the World Cup was vividly confirmed by a memorable victory. They are through to the semi-finals of the European Nations Cup, their reputation untarnished, still a team to be envied and admired. Let there be no doubt, argument or debate. This was a truly magnificent England performance.”
The finals of Euro ’68 would mark the midpoint of the cycle between England winning the World Cup in 1966 and their bid to retain it in 1970. The performances they would give in Italy for the final two matches would offer some indication of how good they really were.
Losing at last
After winning in Spain, a buoyant Sir Alf said of England’s great run of form: “This must end some time. But where, and who is good enough to do it?” It was the kiss of death as he wouldn’t have long to wait for an answer. Although England beat Sweden 3-1 in a Wembley friendly, they then lost 1-0 away to West Germany shortly before the finals began. It was the first time the Germans had defeated England and marked a turning point in fortunes between the sides, while also representing England’s first away defeat for four years (a record that that tended to be overlooked by those knocking their 1966 success as being purely down to home advantage).
Of more pressing concern was the European Championship semi-final, as England arrived in Italy for a clash with Yugoslavia. Although the Yugoslavs had been absent from the 1966 World Cup, they had finished above West Germany in qualifying for Euro ’68 and then beaten France 6-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals. This was certainly not going to be an easy test for England, in front of less than 22,000 fans in Florence.
It was hardly a match for the purists, an ill-tempered game remaining goalless until the closing five minutes. Then a high cross evaded Bobby Moore and Dragan Džajić struck past Gordon Banks. Tensions had been building all night and a hard tackle on Mullery led to the player retaliating. He kicked his opponent Dobrivoje Trivic just yards from the referee and Mullery took his unwanted place in the history books as he was ordered off. England would almost certainly have lost anyway but the sending off effectively confirmed their exit, as they were beaten 1-0.
Alan Mullery becomes the first man to be sent off against Yugoslavia in 1968.
No England player had been sent off before and Mullery feared his manager was going to read the riot act. Mullery recalled years later: “I was expecting the biggest roasting any player has had when the door burst open and Alf came in, grim-faced. He looked at me and shouted, ‘if you hadn’t done it, I would have’.”
Mullery would also later say the FA fined him £50 – a decent sum of money at the time – for his sending off but Ramsey insisted on paying it on his behalf. Ramsey had stuck with Stiles amid condemnation for his challenge on France’s Jacques Simon at the 1966 World Cup and now he was standing up for Mullery. He was certainly a man who would defend his players.
Ramsey would lay into Yugoslavs in a manner that rekindled memories of his infamous “animals” comment after England had beaten Argentina in the 1966 World Cup. “I have never seen anything like that. I don’t think even the Argentines in the World Cup were worse,” he said about Yugoslavia, amid criticism of his own team’s physical approach. “We are hard – when we go for the ball. But the ball is always there to be won. These people do their worst when the ball is away. It is evil.”
Sir Alf Ramsey spoke out about Yugoslavia after England lost to them in the semi-finals.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of England’s display, they were not going to be champions of Europe. Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “It is something of a comedown for the world champions. Sadly, victory in Europe has faded – the one thing Ramsey and his men wanted so much to still the whispers of the past two years. But now the unfriendly critics who always pointed to Wembley as the reason for England’s global victory in 1966 are hugging themselves.”
For Mullery, the night in Florence would forever be associated with his name. “I can never get rid of it. I played more than 700 games in my career between the age of 15 and 34,” he said in 2012. “People always remember that game – or another one when I scored a volley against Leicester in the cup and it was on Match of the Day every Saturday night for a year. People just remember those two games, they don’t remember the other 698.” His sending off did not open the floodgates for other England players to be dismissed, as just three more would be sent off before David Beckham was red carded 30 years later in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina.
Third place secured
For England there remained the third place play-off against the Soviet Union in Rome, to be played before the final between Italy and Yugoslavia. The Russians had only been denied a place in the final on the toss of a coin after drawing with Italy and had posed England problems the previous December during a 2-2 friendly draw at Wembley. Stiles took advantage of Mullery’s suspension to return to the side after more than a year out and he put in a sound display as England won 2-0 with Bobby Charlton and Hurst on target. The performance had rekindled optimism about what the team could achieve at the 1970 World Cup.
Green wrote: “Of the four teams on show yesterday England left the best impression. Indeed, Moore and his men might well have won the title itself had the championship been held on a league basis. As it was, they might have still pulled it off had not three or four players been out of form the night we lost so narrowly to Yugoslavia in Florence.”
Stiles, who came into the side in place of Mullery against the USSR, wrote in his autobiography of the encounter: “It was, given the fact neither team could win the championship, a tremendously hard game and I had several collisions with a big, tough Russian.” It had been a tournament defined by physicality rather than flair.
Italy went on to beat Yugoslavia after a replay, while England returned home not looking quite as unbeatable as they might have seemed beforehand. Being third in Europe seemed a very modest achievement compared to winning the World Cup. But only once since then have England again reached the Euro semi-finals, meaning their run in 1968 should not be underestimated.
This week sadly marks the 10th anniversary of the death of former England manager Ron Greenwood. Today we recall six of the best games of his reign, choosing one match per year from 1977 to 1982.
November 16, 1977 Italy (h) 2-0, World Cup qualifier
Trevor Brooking in action for England against Italy in 1977.
Ron Greenwood was still in caretaker charge of England when they faced Italy in their last World Cup qualifying match in November 1977. Whatever England did, the night was always likely to be tinged with disappointment as Italy still had the luxury of a home game against whipping boys Luxembourg to come to claim the qualification spot. To make things genuinely tough for the Italians, England would need to beat them by several goals to potentially go through on goal difference.
Most had accepted it wouldn’t happen and simply wanted to see the team restore pride with a good performance and win. They duly did so, Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking scoring as England triumphed 2-0 and the crowd went home satisfied with what they had seen. The FA evidently felt the same way as Greenwood was handed the job on a permanent basis the following month ahead of Brian Clough.
May 24, 1978 Hungary (h) 4-1, Friendly
Greenwood made a positive start in the England job and the Home International Championship was won before they concluded the 1977-78 season with a friendly against Hungary, who had qualified for the World Cup. England’s display gave cause for optimism as they beat the Hungarians 4-1 with Peter Barnes, Phil Neal (penalty), Trevor Francis and Tony Currie all finding the net. “England are back” chanted the buoyant Wembley crowd. It may only have been a friendly but there was a new-found belief about England and it boded well for the qualifying programme for the 1980 European Championship.
In The Times, Norman Fox wrote: “England offered their apologies for not qualifying for the World Cup when, at Wembley last night, they gave their best display since being taken over by Ron Greenwood. Against the Hungarians, who 25 years before had been the first foreign team to beat them at this stadium, they showed that in a few months they had learned a lot.”
June 6, 1979 Bulgaria (a) 3-0, European Championship qualifier
In a grim 1970s England had paid for away defeats to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Italy as they crashed out in three successive qualifying groups. Now they headed to Sofia standing every chance of making the 1980 European Championship, knowing that getting a good result in a potentially tough away match against Bulgaria would boost their prospects. They duly did that, winning 3-0 in energy-sapping heat to get the nation believing they were at last going to see England in a major tournament again. Kevin Keegan put England in front, before two goals in a minute from Dave Watson and Peter Barnes sealed the win.
Greenwood purred: “We are trying to produce what I think is essential in world football – complete technique in every department with the physical effort to go with it.” There was no looking back and qualification was all but wrapped up in October with a 5-1 away win against Northern Ireland. With a qualifying record of seven wins and a draw from eight matches, it proved to be a very successful campaign for England and Greenwood.
May 13, 1980 Argentina (h) 3-1, Friendly
Diego Maradona was on the losing side against England in 1980.
In May 1980 England were preparing for the European Championship finals and they welcomed world champions Argentina to Wembley, which was full to its 92,000 night-time capacity. The match afforded the English public a first chance to see 19-year-old Diego Maradona in action and, although only a friendly, it would also act as a useful yardstick as to how good England now actually were. Sporting a new-look kit, England delivered and went 2-0 up thanks to goals from the impressive David Johnson either side of half-time. Daniel Passarella pulled a goal back from the penalty spot before Kevin Keegan sealed a 3-1 win for England, leaving fans genuinely optimistic for the summer in Italy. Hailing Johnson, Daily Express reporter Peter Edwards wrote: “A 92,000 crowd that had come to pay homage to £3m-rated Diego Maradona left saluting the exuberant Liverpool striker.”
Typically the euphoria proved short-lived, England being beaten 4-1 by Wales just four days later and then failing to progress beyond the group stage at the Euros. Now their attention turned to trying to qualify for the 1982 World Cup.
June 6, 1981 Hungary (a) 3-1, World Cup qualifier
England’s qualifying campaign for the 1982 World Cup was fraught and a poor 2-1 defeat in Switzerland in May saw Greenwood, 59, make up his mind to retire. He would delay his announcement until after the following weekend’s tough-looking trip to Hungary, where few were expecting an England win after a dreadful run of form. The recalled Trevor Brooking gave them the lead in Budapest, only for Hungary to level before the break through Imre Garaba after a mistake by Ray Clemence. But in the second half Brooking restored England’s advantage with a beautiful shot that saw the ball memorably became lodged in the stanchion of the goal, describing it as the “finest goal I scored in my entire career” in his autobiography. Kevin Keegan wrapped up a fine 3-1 win from the penalty spot and qualifying for Spain was now a realistic possibility again.
Trevor Brooking scores for England against Hungary.
On the flight home, Greenwood informed the players he was quitting but they talked him out of it and he focused again on leading England to the World Cup. Another bad defeat in Norway left alarm bells ringing, but other results went in their favour and a joyful 1-0 win over Hungary in the return game at Wembley saw them through to their first World Cup finals since 1970.
June 16, 1982 France (n) 3-1, World Cup qualifier
Greenwood was to leave the England job after the 1982 World Cup – this time not being persuaded to continue – and he looked to go out with the nation basking in success. England’s first match of the tournament brought them up against a decent France side featuring Michel Platini in Bilbao. Those English fans in the stadium or who had rushed home from work or school to watch it on TV were rewarded as Bryan Robson famously opened the scoring after just 27 seconds. Gerard Soler pulled France level but Robson headed England back into the lead during the second half. Paul Mariner wrapped up the 3-1 victory and England could savour beating their main threat in the group.
It had been a long wait to see England play at a World Cup and the team had responded with a performance that they would struggle to match in the remainder of the tournament. Greenwood, who gave credit to assistant Don Howe for the set-piece which they scored their opener from, said: “Everyone in the England camp is delighted with the result and I think everyone agrees that we deserved it.”
Bryan Robson opens the scoring after 27 seconds against France.
Although England did not concede in any of their other four games at the tournament, their goals dried up and successive 0-0 draws against West Germany and Spain in the second group phase saw them make a rather low-key exit. They came in for criticism for their negative approach in the second phase and it marked a slightly anti-climatic ending to the manager’s reign. Greenwood’s England had been beaten just once across eight matches at two major tournaments, but at neither did they make the final four.
Greenwood called time on his football career, other than offering his opinions as a radio summariser. He died on February 9, 2006, aged 84. Although he may not have received the widespread tributes when he died that were afforded to his successor, Sir Bobby Robson, there were plenty who spoke affectionately of Greenwood and his footballing contributions. As we have seen, his England reign included some memorable victories and he returned the nation to major tournaments after a dreadful era under his predecessors.
Earlier this month we recalled six of England’s best matches in November. Now we look at things from a less positive perspective and reflect on six games from the past 50 years when things didn’t go quite so well…
November 2, 1966 Czechoslovakia (h) 0-0 Friendly
England’s first home match after the glory of winning the World Cup proved to be an anti-climax, as Czechoslovakia came to Wembley and ground out a 0-0 draw. A crowd of 75,000 turned up hoping to continue the summer’s party, with England fielding the same side as had won the World Cup final just over three months earlier. But it was a frustrating night for Alf Ramsey’s men.
The Times painted a negative picture of the match the following morning, under the headline ‘England fall from grace at Wembley’. The report began: “After the World Cup triumph, the dust cart. That is how England must have felt last night at the end of their goalless draw with Czechoslovakia at Wembley. That too was how a 75,000 crowd must have felt long before the finish.” It was certainly after the Lord Mayor’s Show, but England got back in their stride a fortnight later when they beat Wales 5-1.
November 20, 1974 Portugal (h) 0-0 European Championship qualifier
Three weeks earlier, there was genuine optimism about what the Don Revie era would bring for England when they beat Czechoslovakia 3-0 in their opening European Championship qualifier. But it was to be a short-lived honeymoon, as his second match in charge provided a reality check. Portugal were not of the same quality of the Eusebio-inspired World Cup semi-finalists in 1966 but they stifled England and claimed a 0-0 draw. On the occasions England did threaten, visiting goalkeeper Vítor Damas was in form to thwart them.
‘What a load of rubbish!’ screamed the back page headline in the following day’s Daily Mirror, in reference to what had been chanted by frustrated fans at Wembley. Revie accepted the crowd had every right to vent their frustration, saying: “We didn’t play at all. It was a bad performance. We didn’t deserve anything more than a draw.” A year later, England’s hopes of staying in the competition effectively ended with a 1-1 draw in the return fixture.
November 17, 1976 Italy (a) 0-2 World Cup qualifier
“This is no place to try new ideas,” said BBC commentator David Coleman as England took to the field in Rome for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Italy. But manager Don Revie had decided to make six changes from the previous game against Finland – when admittedly they had not played well – and it was a big gamble to take in such a tough-looking qualifying match. England started reasonably well but never realistically looked like they could get a result. They trailed at half-time as Giancarlo Antognoni’s free-kick deflected in off Kevin Keegan past Ray Clemence. The killer second seemed symbolic of the difference in quality between the sides, a neat move ending with Roberto Bettega scoring a diving header. Italy deservedly won 2-0 and were in the driving seat to qualify for the 1978 World Cup.
England endured a frustrating afternoon in Rome.
“I think we went out on the pitch thinking ‘let’s see if we can get a draw out of this’,” reflected Trevor Brooking years later, summing up the lack of belief in the England side on the day. Few were arguing about the outcome. Bobby Charlton, summarising for the BBC, said: “There’s no question at all the better side won.” There was still a year of qualifying remaining, but already England were in deep trouble and facing up to yet another absence from a major tournament. Although they beat Italy 2-0 in the return game the following November, it was the Italians who qualified on goal difference.
November 16, 1988 Saudi Arabia (a) 1-1 Friendly
England avoided defeat in November following the aforementioned Italy game until 1999, but this didn’t mean there were no disappointments along the way. There were a few low points during the Bobby Robson years with England, but arguably the lowest of them all came with this 1-1 draw away to Saudi Arabia in which they needed an equaliser from Tony Adams to avoid defeat. It was an experimental England side including five debutants – most notably future regular goalkeeper David Seaman – but that counted for little in the eyes of the critics. England had flopped at Euro ’88, failed to win their opening Italia ’90 qualifier at home to Sweden and now the vultures were circling after being held by Saudi Arabia. Robson correctly pointed out that the Saudis had recently achieved some decent results against other established football nations but this fell on deaf ears, as the tabloid press had a field day at his expense.
The chief protagonist was the Daily Mirror, which followed up its previous ‘Go! In the name of God, go!’ headline with the memorable ‘Go! In the name of Allah, go!’ screaming out from the back page. Not content with this and another damning headline of ‘Robbo should be a train driver’, the paper followed it up with more digs 24 hours later. It devoted a double page spread to ’20 facts that say Robbo must go’ complete with the spiteful subheading of ‘there’s 101… but we’ve run out of space’. Given the hero status Robson would enjoy after Italia ’90 it’s easy to forget just how much flack he took at times prior to that – and this was one of the worst examples.
November 17, 1993 San Marino (a) 7-1 World Cup qualifier
For the only time between 1987 and 2013, England scored more than six times in a full international. And yet there wasn’t a shred of happiness among English football fans or for Ian Wright, who netted four times in Bologna. The night represented the culmination of England’s failure to qualify for the World Cup finals and would forever be remembered for the calmitious opening moments. Up against arguably the weakest international side in Europe, England found themselves 1-0 down inside nine seconds as Davide Gualtieri seized upon Stuart Pearce’s underhit backpass to score for San Marino.
One of England’s most infamous moments.
England went into the night needing Poland to win at home to the Netherlands and for them to beat San Marino by seven goals to scrape into the finals. It was unlikely, but not impossible (San Marino were whipping boys and the Poles had almost beaten England on home soil). But going 1-0 down seemed to act as confirmation England would not be heading to the USA the following summer and Graham Taylor would soon be out of work. To their credit England did a professional job to recover and run out 7-1 winners, with Wright running back with the ball after scoring as they clung to the hope they could get more goals and somehow make it. But what they did counted for nothing, as the Dutch achieved a 3-1 win to administer the last rites on Taylor’s reign. The BBC switched off long before the end to instead show Wales against Romania, which unlike England’s match still had everything riding on it. And as far as England were concerned, the only goal most people would recall was the infamous one they conceded.
November 21, 2007 Croatia (h) 2-3, European Championship qualifier
No question at all about this one appearing on the list, England’s darkest night in modern times. Four days earlier they had been thrown a lifeline when Russia lost to Israel, meaning they needed just a point at home to Croatia to make the finals. But on a wet and miserable night at Wembley, England quickly fell 2-0 behind as their makeshift defence and young goalkeeper Scott Carson struggled to handle the occasion. Although a Frank Lampard penalty and a Peter Crouch goal pulled England level and seemingly on their way to the finals, Mladen Petric scored from 25 yards to restore Croatia’s lead – this time for good as they triumphed 3-2.
Croatia denied England a place at Euro 2008.
England were left clinging to the faint hope that Andorra could equalise against Russia to salvage them, but it was never on and the criticism poured in on manager Steve McClaren – soon dubbed the ‘wally with the brolly’. Barely had the tabloids gone on sale the following morning when he was out of a job, as the nation faced up to the team’s absence from a major tournament. Less than 18 months earlier the ‘Golden Generation’ had gone into the World Cup as seemingly a genuine contender – now they weren’t even good enough to make the last 16 of the European Championship.
Since then England have endured a mixed bag of November matches, with friendly losses to France (2010) and Chile (2013) probably standing out as their worst games. As this blog limits selections to the past 50 years, we’ve omitted possibly England’s most memorable November loss – the 6-3 home defeat to the brilliant Hungary in 1953, which is still talked about today.
In the latest in our occasional series looking back at England players to earn just a solitary cap at full level, we recall the only England appearance by Mike Phelan – exactly 26 years ago in a friendly against Italy.
Best known to younger fans as the former assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Mike Phelan enjoyed a decent enough playing career – usually operating in midfield. After starting out with Burnley, Phelan came to prominence while playing for Norwich City from 1985 to 1989. This spell saw the club promoted back to the First Division, briefly lead it in 1986-87 and then two seasons later look a serious contender for the most unlikely of doubles going into April. Although they would fall away in the title race and be beaten by Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, it had been a season to remember at Carrow Road.
Their success hadn’t gone unnoticed by England manager Bobby Robson, who in May 1989 selected Phelan as part of the squad to play in the Rous Cup against Chile and Scotland. With several key players unavailable, this looked the ideal time for 26-year-old Phelan to forge his way into the side. But cruelly he had to withdraw through injury shortly after the squad was announced. During the summer he returned to his native North-West and joined Manchester United as part of a big summer of spending at Old Trafford.
Robson had evidently not forgotten about Phelan and in November the moustachioed midfielder took his place in the England squad as World Cup hosts Italy visited for a glamour friendly (no doubt compounding the misery for Steve Bruce, who had made the same move from Carrow Road to Old Trafford two years earlier but remained uncapped). Some of the non-selections here look particularly interesting with hindsight, given that Paul Gascoigne and Toto Schillaci – two of the stars of Italia ’90 a few months later – were instead picked to play in a B international between the nations at Brighton the night before. With England having already qualified for Italia ’90, every player was now effectively auditioning to make Robson’s 22-man squad for the finals.
A game of two halves
The old cliché of a match being a game of two halves rang true here, as in the first half Robson named a familiar and strong side. But during the second half five substitutes – including four debutants – were brought on, including Phelan and Dave Beasant at half-time for Bryan Robson and Peter Shilton respectively. Nigel Winterburn and David Platt would soon join them in earning their first caps, while the more established Steve Hodge also entered the action. Of the four newcomers, only Platt would earn more than two caps but on the night it was Phelan who came closest to hogging the headlines. A man not known as a goalscorer, he came within inches for doing so for his country just minutes after coming on.
Mike Phelan during his only England cap.
In his match report in The Guardian, David Lacey wrote of how Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga came out a long way to punch a cross clear. “The ball flew straight to Phelan, who spotting the Italian goalkeeper near the edge of the penalty area, lobbed the ball high towards the empty net,” Lacey wrote. “For a moment [Peter] Beardsley thought it was going in and started celebrating – but the shot sailed just wide.”
Never getting another chance
It was a case of so near, so far. As we have previously seen with Danny Wallace, there is no guarantee a debut goal would have led to Bobby Robson giving Phelan another chance. But had he scored, Phelan would have been the first player to find the net for England in 1989-90 – they had drawn 0-0 with Sweden and Poland in their final Italia ’90 qualifiers and did so again here, as the lack of goals became an increasing concern. It would have been hard to overlook Phelan having scored a goal from outside the box, regardless of Zenga having strayed far off his line to make things easier.
Phelan was named in the England squad for the next friendly against Yugoslavia in December, but he didn’t feature. Sadly for Phelan he would find himself out of the picture by the time the World Cup squad was announced and there would be no recall under Robson’s successor Graham Taylor. At club level, Phelan contributed to United’s initial early 1990s revival under Ferguson but he was to find himself increasingly on the fringes as new talent emerged and the club became dominant in the Premier League. A total of 102 league appearances over five years at Old Trafford was lower than he would have hoped for, prior to ending his playing career with West Bromwich Albion. Although he may not have always been able to earn a place in Alex Ferguson’s team, he would later become his assistant and was quoted as claiming he was manager in all but name in the later years of the partnership.
Since leaving Old Trafford in 2013, he has returned to Norwich and then more recently assisted Steve Bruce at Hull City. While Phelan may sit back and reflect with disappointment that he only won one cap for his country, he need only look along the dugout for a reminder that being capped at all wasn’t a given for every decent English footballer of his generation.