When England won Le Tournoi – 20 years on

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June marks the 20th anniversary of England getting their hands on silverware when the side won Le Tournoi in France. Today we look back at that competition, as Glenn Hoddle’s side surprisingly triumphed in a four-team tournament that included strong Brazilian, French and Italian teams. Something to get excited about or merely glorified friendlies?

These days the Confederations Cup is used as the warm-up competition for the World Cup, being staged by the host nation a year before the main act. But back in 1997 the French were left to their own devices and planned their own mini-tournament called Tournoi de France – more commonly known as Le Tournoi – similar to what had happened in England in 1995 with the Umbro Cup (played 12 months before Euro ’96) and in the USA in 1993 with the US Cup. Both those mini-tournaments saw England fail to beat Brazil and they would hope to make it third time lucky in France, with both sides joined on the guest list by Italy. There was no shortage of attractive opposition facing England out in France.

Such tournaments serve several purposes. They are essentially trial runs for the following year, helping the hosts get a flavour for the real thing and offering the home nation a welcome chance to play something approaching competitive matches in a tournament environment. And for the other sides involved it helps in their preparations for the following year’s competition, both in terms of the tournament experience and making plans for 12 months down the line. England certainly did just that in France, manager Glenn Hoddle liking the The Golf Hotel in La Baule so much that he decided they would return there during the World Cup – provided they qualified.

England headed out to the tournament in good spirits after winning a vital World Cup qualifier in Poland on May 31. The main game during the end-of-season programme had been won, now they could focus on Le Tournoi. The real pressure was off, but the next task was about showing England could compete with three excellent sides and using it as proper preparation for a year later. Hoddle was keen to stress there would be no repeat of the antics that had blighted England’s trip to Hong Kong shortly before Euro ’96, with the focus for the week-long trip to France on preparing for the real deal.

Hoddle said: “It will be relaxed but professional. Any relaxing away from football will be controlled. We are there for business reasons. The players would not want it any other way, they don’t want a Fred Karno’s Army with nightclubbing and so on. This is experience for 12 months down the line. If we are to win the World Cup, we will have to make sacrifices.”

Class show against the Italians

England’s first game was in Nantes against Italy, who four months earlier had won at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier – the only blemish on Hoddle’s record so far. The return game would take place in October, so this was to be seen as the least important of the three meetings in a year. But what the game lacked it status it would make up for in English success. Hoddle rang the changes from the previous game but it was perhaps a measure of the depth of talent available at the time that such a different side could play with such confidence.

And that was because England were blessed in terms of the players at their disposal compared to some other eras. Experienced men such as Martin Keown, Ian Wright and stand-in captain Paul Ince were joined for the night by a batch of young players from Manchester United who had won successive league titles. They would further prove to Alan Hansen that you could win things with kids, with one of them particularly instrumental to this triumph.

Paul Scholes (above) was starting an international for the first time and he delivered a pinpoint pass for Wright to open the scoring after 26 minutes. Shortly before the break the favour was returned, Wright feeding Scholes to fire past Angelo Peruzzi. England weren’t just winning, they were turning it on and looking un-English in their one-touch style. David Beckham, winning only his eighth cap, beamed afterwards: “The way we played in the first half, with our one-touch football, has made people sit up.”

England saw the game out to win 2-0 and it wasn’t just young heads who were getting excited by what had taken place. David Lacey, a veteran with The Guardian, wrote: “Glenn Hoddle’s highly experimental side blended a caucus of Manchester United youth with some Premiership wrinklies to produce one of the most stylish performances seen from an England team since Ron Greenwood’s side went to Barcelona shortly before the 1980 European Championship and defeated Spain by a similar score.” This was high praise.

Was it a one-off or were England now really capable of beating everybody? Two big tests that lay ahead…

Beating the French

England fielded a more familiar-looking side against France in Montpellier, with senior players including Paul Gascoigne, David Seaman and Alan Shearer returning to the starting line-up. England’s performance lacked the sparkle of three days earlier, but it was still an encouraging evening wih captain Shearer scoring the only goal in the closing minutes as he pounced after Fabien Barthez spilt Teddy Sheringham’s cross. It was a notable result, given it ended a lengthy unbeaten run at home for the French.

Alan Shearer scores a late winner for England against France.

As Glenn Moore reflected in The Independent: “Saturday showed a different side of England’s game, the ability to eke out wins without playing particularly well. They were not poor but they must now be judged by the standards they set against Italy and by that mark they disappointed. The impressive elements were the defensive strength, the ability to recover from a poor start, and the thoroughness of the preparation.”

The friendly nature of Le Tournoi meant games were being judged as much on displays as scorelines by the media, but for those preferring to view this as a competitive tournament things were looking good for England. They had six points from two games, with France unable to catch them and Italy unlikely to do so given their goal difference. Only Brazil realistically remained a threat, as they prepared to face Italy ahead of playing England 48 hours later. If they won both then the world champions would pick up yet more silverware. But whatever happened it had been an excellent week for England.

On Sunday, June 8, two unusual things happened. England’s cricketers went ahead in an Ashes series for the first time in more than a decade by comfortably beating Australia in the opening test at Edgbaston. And a short time later the nation’s footballers enjoyed winning a tournament with a game to spare, as Italy and Brazil drew 3-3 in Lyon to leave England four points clear with a game to go. For the first time since the 1983 Home International Championship, England’s seniors would win a tournament containing at least four sides.

Winners and losers

Paradoxically, England’s last game in Paris did not matter so far as the outcome of the tournament was concerned but was also their biggest, and arguably most important, test. Brazil were the world champions and widely backed to repeat the feat in France a year later. Although they had drawn both games so far at Le Tournoi, hints of their class and goal threat lingered and Roberto Carlos had scored a jaw-dropping free-kick in the opening game against France. If England looked distinctly second best against Brazil, then a bit of the gloss would be removed from an excellent end to the season.

In some respects that turned out to be the case, as Moore wrote in The Independent of England’s 1-0 defeat: “England can be congratulated for earning the right to joust with the best but last night they discovered that they still have some way to go to match them. While the figures in the Tournoi de France table shows them to be the leading team, the tournament’s football told a different tale. That impression was confirmed on a humid Parisian night as Romario’s 61st-minute goal brought Brazil a victory which was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.”

England were given a reminder of the scale of the task facing them 12 months later, knowing that in all probability they would have to beat Brazil at some stage if they were to win the World Cup. The result was fair but it hadn’t felt quite like the Brazilian masterclass of two years earlier when they turned it on to beat England 3-1 at Wembley to win the Umbro Cup. Even so, Moore wrote that the England players “looked suitably sheepish when they had to pose and parade with their trophy as We are the Champions rang out and the Brazilians looked on”.

It was perhaps typical of England’s fortunes that, even in winning a tournament, there was an instant reality check. But even so, the sight of Shearer stepping forward to collect the unusual-looking trophy – that appeared to be designed by someone desperate to point out it was a football competition – was a pleasing moment, albeit a long way off the joy that comes with winning a ‘proper’ tournament.

Alan Shearer holds aloft the tournament trophy despite England having lost to Brazil.

We’re not going to overhype Le Tournoi and make it out to be the equivalent of England winning a major tournament, because it wasn’t. This was a one-off competition and the games could easily be dismissed as just glorified friendlies. It’s doubtful anyone in Brazil, France or Italy ever thinks about their failure to win it. But silverware has been thin on the ground for England in recent times and this contained surely the strongest set of opponents of any competition won by the team since 1966. The two victories achieved during Le Tournoi were pleasing, with the performance against Italy particularly hailed.

Perhaps the other key significance was the contrast from England’s experience four years earlier at the US Cup, when they went there off the back of a painful World Cup qualifying defeat to Norway and followed it up by finishing bottom in the four-team competition and suffering a much-criticised loss to the United States. This time around they had enjoyed a precious qualifying win immediately beforehand and then given themselves a psychological boost by triumphing in the mini-tournament.

Now the big challenge awaiting England was to ensure they were back in France for the summer of 1998 for the World Cup and then to go in search of that long-awaited major honour…

England’s Qualifying Campaigns: 1998 World Cup – Hoddle’s dream start

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Twenty years ago England were looking to qualify for their first World Cup since 1990, being involved in a straight contest for top spot with Italy. It all boiled down to an unforgettable decider in Rome in October 1997…

After the high emotion of Euro ’96, England were quickly back in competitive action as they focused on their next key task – getting to a World Cup finals after failing to make it four years earlier. They had a new manager, Glenn Hoddle having been announced as Terry Venables’ successor prior to Euro ’96. But any hopes Hoddle had of being able to spend plenty of time during the tournament with the side he was about to inherit were quickly dashed. “These are my finals. You get yours next time,” Venables later recalled telling him, accusing his successor-in-waiting of “arrogance” in his autobiography. Although it had been an open secret during the 1982 World Cup that Bobby Robson would replace the retiring Ron Greenwood and again in 1990 that Graham Taylor was to succeed Robson, there was no official announcement made until after England bowed out. But this time it was confirmed beforehand and Venables appeared particularly unhappy with the arrangement, a joint press conference feeling awkward despite the smiles on show.

There was an uncomfortable handover from Terry Venables to Glenn Hoddle in 1996.

Hoddle was therefore left looking in from the outside as England almost won Euro ’96, but he would have just two months to wait until his first match. The previous December had seen the 1998 World Cup qualifying draw made and it could probably have been kinder to England, with 1994 runners-up Italy the obvious main threat as group seeds. Poland were familiar opponents from recent qualifying groups, but Georgia and Moldova had never met England before. Both had enjoyed wins over Wales during Euro ’96 qualifying and England’s away trips could potentially be daunting trips into the unknown. Only one side would qualify automatically, but unlike when England had missed out on making it for 1974 to Poland and 1978 to Italy there would be a play-off place for the runner-up.

The new boss was only 38, but already had been in management for five years. He had won promotion with Swindon Town, before a three-year reign at Chelsea had yielded no major silverware but lengthy runs in both the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. Hoddle knew the international scene well from his playing days, where he had been capped 53 times (a criminally low figure in the eyes of his admirers). He also had experience of playing abroad and his stylish reputation as a player was mirrored in how he wanted this team’s to play. Even strong critics of his man-management skills have praised his coaching and technical abilities.

Beckham’s debut

Hoddle, who set about seeking to get England playing a 3-5-2 system, inherited a buoyant side that Venables had rebuilt and it would need little tweaking. David Platt was the most noticeable player to never be capped again, while Stuart Pearce had intended to enter international retirement but would remain in the side. Hoddle’s first game was a qualifier on September 1 in Moldova and it would mark David Beckham’s England debut. The 21-year-old midfielder’s reputation had grown further with his incredible goal for Manchester United against Wimbledon two weeks earlier and Hoddle now believed it was time to give him his big chance. Also making his England bow was full-back Andy Hinchcliffe as a surprise occupant of the number 11 shirt, while Alan Shearer began his reign as England captain after a summer in which he had made a record £15m transfer to Newcastle United from Blackburn Rovers. Gary Pallister and subs David Batty and Matt Le Tissier all played after not being in the Euro ’96 squad.

The qualifying campaign starts with a win in Moldova.

England had rarely strayed from Wembley in the past couple of years and Hoddle would have presumably preferred a first game other than a qualifier and a potential banana skin. Mercifully it all worked out well on this Sunday afternoon in Chisinau, England overcoming a nervy opening to lead 2-0 inside 25 minutes through Nick Barmby and Paul Gascoigne. Shearer wrapped up a 3-0 victory, with the hosts then hitting a penalty against the woodwork after Pearce was adjudged to have handled. It wasn’t a classic, but this was a good way to start for Hoddle. As Glenn Moore wrote in The Independent: “The match, played in a low-key atmosphere, was unexceptional. The performance, apart from a cluster of highlights, workmanlike. But the points were the thing and England have got the first three of Group Two.”

The next match was at home to Poland in October, Hoddle pairing Newcastle United duo Shearer and Les Ferdinand in attack and playing just one natural central defender in Gareth Southgate as Hinchcliffe again took his place in the side. The spirit of the summer was on show as almost 75,000 showed up, but they saw England fall behind after just six minutes. By half-time it was 2-1 to England thanks to two goals from Shearer, with the side successfully seeing the game out. Played two, won two. It was a good start for England and Hoddle and already clear it looked a straight fight for top spot with Italy, who had so far beaten Moldova and Georgia.

Three out of three

A month later England fans would unusually find the side playing on a Saturday lunchtime (UK time) for an away qualifier in Georgia,  being without Shearer but welcoming back Tony Adams who two months earlier had revealed his problems with alcoholism. Hoddle stood by Gascoigne despite reports he had attacked his wife, leading to some calling for Gazza to be dropped.

Tony Adams returned to lead England in Georgia.

Gascoigne repaid Hoddle by being involved in the build-up to Teddy Sheringham putting England in front, with Ferdinand adding a second before the break as England saw out the 2-0 win. “This is not an easy place to come and win,” said a satisfied Hoddle. “I showed the team a 45-minute video in which Georgia had torn teams apart. The tactics were right, the players agreed with them and the proof of it was in the performance.”

Hoddle had made a great start, but the real test lay three months away: Italy at home.

Advantage Italy

England went into the showdown with Italy having never lost a World Cup match at Wembley. The Italians were back on English soil after a poor Euro ’96, in which they were the most high-profile group stage casualty. England were without some key players including Adams, Gascoigne and David Seaman. Again England fielded just one natural centre back in Sol Campbell, while further up the field Le Tissier was given his chance to start.

Matt Le Tissier goes close against Italy, but is never capped again.

In many respects Hoddle and Le Tissier were kindred spirits, natural talents whose ability to pull off the spectacular was not enough to make them central to England’s plans. But Hoddle would show little patience with Le Tissier, hauling him off after an hour and never capping him again. A total of eight caps was considered pitiful in the eyes of the Southampton star’s admirers. Another selection of interest was goalkeeper Ian Walker, starting an international for the first time after two sub appearances. It was a big game to throw him into the side as England had to cope without the experience of Seaman.

Gianfranco Zola had arrived in England in recent weeks at Chelsea and he was to do the damage here, showing pristine control to take Allesandro Costacurta’s superb ball onto his right foot and fire out of Walker’s reach (aided by a deflection off Campbell). Le Tissier would head inches wide as England pursued an equaliser and Campbell had the ball hooked away from him in front of goal. The final chance fell to Shearer, but the impressive Italian goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi again thwarted him. The match was slipping away from England and the Italians saw the game out to win 1-0. England knew three vital points had been squandered to their main rivals for top spot. Hoddle tried to keep things in perspective, saying: “It’s a setback, not a disaster.”

March brought Hoddle’s first friendly, a 2-0 home win over Mexico. A few days later England were given some hope when Italy were held to a draw by Poland and in late April Hoddle’s side stayed in the hunt by beating Georgia 2-0. On the eve of Labour’s General Election landslide, the old Shearer and Sheringham double act did the trick as both scored, although it wasn’t until a cleverly worked indirect free-kick ended with Shearer scoring in stoppage time that the game was wrapped up.

Saturday night on Channel 5

It was to be a busy end to the season, beginning with England facing South Africa at Old Trafford in a friendly in which Ian Wright scored his first international goal since 1993 to earn a 2-1 win. But of far more concern was England’s qualifier in Poland seven days later, a match best remembered for being shown on the newly-launched Channel 5. “The channel that brings you England goals,” bemusingly proclaimed commentator Jonathan Pearce. Viewers would happily see two of them, the SAS pairing again coming up trumps as Shearer gave England an early lead – but later missed a penalty – before Sheringham wrapped up a 2-0 victory late on. It was an impressive triumph for England, who had cemented a top-two spot. It was now a question of whether they could overhaul the Italians to go through automatically, with everything to boil down to the final match in Rome.

The Shearer and Sheringham double act works again for England in Poland.

Before then the sides met again in France in the mini Le Tournoi competition, England turning in the style to win 2-0 and gain a degree of revenge for the result four months earlier. A 1-0 win over the French three days later meant England were surprise winners of the tournament before the final match against Brazil. Although England lost 1-0 to the world champions, there was pride and optimism as the team returned home with unexpected silverware. The question now was whether the team could repeat the success in France 12 months later at the World Cup. But first of all they had to qualify.

Ahead of the 1997-98 season beginning, England were dealt a blow when Shearer sustained an injury in pre-season with Newcastle United. It ruled him out for the remaining qualifiers – at home to Moldova in September, followed by the group decider in Italy a month later.

Paul Gascoigne slots home as England beat Moldova 4-0.

The build-up to the Moldovan match was totally overshadowed by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales 10 days previously. With little major football action taking place in the meantime, this was going to be an emotional night and the crowd paid its respects before kick-off. Candle in the Wind was played and some candles were on show in the crowd, with the minute’s silence impeccably observed. It evoked memories of when England had hosted Albania during Italia ’90 qualifying shortly after the Hillsborough Disaster. And there would be other similarities too: England won convincingly; Gascoigne was on the scoresheet; and the Three Lions moved a step closer towards qualifying. Ferdinand and Wright were paired in attack, the latter enjoying one of his best nights in an England shirt as he netted twice, with Paul Scholes having broken the deadlock in a 4-0 win.

That night in Rome

The national mood was boosted further with the news that Italy had been held to a draw in Georgia, meaning England now topped the group. All they had to do was avoid defeat in Rome a month later and they would be through as group winners. It was sure to be a major occasion. Some of the spirit of the summer of 1996 seemed to be resurfacing, with the match getting a pretty huge build-up. “The whole of England is behind you,” Prime Minister Tony Blair told Hoddle and his players. ‘By George We’ll Do It’ declared the front page of the Daily Express with many other tabloids going down a similar line. Sky were showing it live, ITV in full on delay almost immediately afterwards. It may have seemed a lot of fuss over a qualifying match, but a combination of England’s failure to make it four years earlier, the quality of the opposition and the fact there was no guarantee the runners-up would go through in the play-offs had made this a big deal.

Fears about trouble off the field were sadly realised, although much of the criticism was directed towards Italian police. It was always going to be a highly-charged night where England needed to keep their heads to qualify. Paul Ince, who had played in Italy for two years, was handed the captain’s armband. Ince would evoke memories of another stand-in captain, Terry Butcher, as he played on with his head bandaged and his shirt covered in blood during a vital World Cup qualifier and led by example. “I played a lot of games for England, including Euro ’96, but I think the Italy game is probably still the stand-out one,” Ince said in 2015. “At the time it was so important.”

England showed discipline in both matching the Italians and seeing the game out, on a night which was always going to seem a long 90 minutes as long as it stayed at 0-0. But during the first-half England came closest to breaking the deadlock, Ince’s powerful volley saved by Peruzzi and Beckham firing just over after excellent hold-up work by Sheringham. Italy stepped it up a gear after the break, sub Enrico Chiesa being denied by Seaman before a heart in mouth moment as Alessandro del Piero went down over Adams’ outstretched leg in the area. But there was a growing sense this was going to be England’s night when del Piero was booked for diving, before Angelo de Livio picked up his second booking following a challenge on Campbell.

England simply needed to keep their heads and see the game out as the seconds ticked away. The match moved into stoppage time for an unforgettable few moments. England caught Italy on the break and Wright, who had run his heart out all night, suddenly found himself rounding Peruzzi but hitting the post from an acute angle. Sheringham was dispossessed and Italy swept away, England seeming to lose concentration for the first time in the game. Del Piero got to the byline and crossed into the area, where Christian Vieri was lurking. It looked like the most heartbreaking ending for England but he headed inches wide of the goal. Every England fan, whether in Rome or back home, breathed a huge sigh of relief. “You’ve had the drama of top-level sport encapsulated in those last few seconds,” proclaimed Sky commentator Martin Tyler.

Seconds later the final whistle sounded and England were back in the World Cup finals, clinching their place on a momentous night. The Italians may have had the better head-to-head record but England’s consistency had seen them through with the most points. Their defence had been breached just twice in eight games (never on foreign soil) and Hoddle’s tactics had paid off. He shared in a jubilant group hug with his coaching staff as the final whistle sounded. On the field Wright sank to his knees in joy, having finally appeared to have booked his place in a squad for a major tournament. Sadly for him fate would intervene, as it would – for different reasons – with his mate Gascoigne who was equally ecstatic at the time qualification was clinched. Various newspaper headlines about England having achieved ‘The Italian Job’ were inevitable, but also merited.

Celebrations for England in Rome.

The match in Rome would mark about the midway point between Hoddle’s announcement as England manager and his departure. And it was really as good as it got, a performance that is still hailed two decades later. The qualifying campaign had been the calm before the storm so far as his regime was concerned – controversies such as omitting Gascoigne from the France ’98 squad, the publication of Hoddle’s World Cup Diary and views on reincarnation that ultimately proved his downfall were still to come. Hoddle had made an excellent start, his tactical beliefs proving vindicated. The Italy game was not a totally happy time in his life as he revealed in his diary he was planning to end his marriage upon his return home. But football-wise there would be few occasions that would rank as highly as that unforgettable night in Rome.


England’s qualifying campaigns: 1978 World Cup – Failure becomes a habit

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England’s qualifying campaign is under way for the 2018 World Cup. Forty years ago they were seeking to reach the 1978 finals in Argentina, but they would once more miss out on making it to a major tournament…

England had begun the 1970s with serious aspirations to retain the World Cup in Mexico. But a quarter-final loss to West Germany started a decade to forget, including failing to progress from the qualifying group for the 1974 World Cup and 1976 European Championship. Now they would try to make it to the 1978 World Cup, but few Englishmen were making plans to spend that summer in Argentina. England’s recent decline meant they were not a seeded nation in qualifying and they would have the misfortune to be paired with Italy. With only one nation going through, a previous World Cup winner would definitely be missing out.

The Italians would be favourites, but they too had endured a lean recent period. They had gone out at the group stage of the 1974 World Cup and then failed to make it to the 1976 Euros – albeit after being placed in the mother of all hard qualifying groups including the Netherlands and Poland (second and third respectively at the 1974 World Cup). Italy had been surprisingly held to a draw by Finland, who would be in England and Italy’s qualifying group for the 1978 World Cup along with European football’s whipping boy of Luxembourg. It looked a clear two-horse race between England and Italy.

Flying start

At the end of the 1975-76 season England gave themselves a psychological boost for the qualifying campaign when they beat Italy 3-2 in the US Bicentennial Cup. It put them in good heart for the opening qualifier in June 1976 away to Finland. It was an unusually early start to an England qualifying series and they laid down a marker by winning 4-1, with Kevin Keegan scoring twice. It was just the sort of convincing result manager Don Revie needed to get the nation believing that England would get to Argentina.

England enjoy a winning start in Finland.

As the scorching summer of 1976 finally started to draw to a close, England drew 1-1 with the Republic of Ireland in a September friendly before Finland visited Wembley for the next qualifier in October. If the away win had generated belief, then this match would see pessimism resurface as fans voiced their displeasure over England’s display.

England had started brightly and quickly forged ahead through Dennis Tueart, but they failed to make the most of their early dominance. Kalle Nieminen drew the Finns level early in the second half, and though Joe Royle quickly regained England the lead there would be no further scoring. The 2-1 victory was seen as a missed opportunity in terms of the goal difference and confidence, with Revie unimpressed and sympathising with supporters. “I want to apologise to them on behalf of myself and the team… We lost our rhythm, our passing, our thinking, our positional sense – in fact, everything.”

Roberto Bettega ensures England are beaten by Italy.

The key date in the group was November 17, 1976, as England made the daunting trip to Rome for a huge qualifier. Revie contentiously made a series of changes from the previous game, including recalling Emlyn Hughes after 18 months in the wilderness. England seemed to lack the belief they could go and win. The Italians were a good side with a heavy Juventus influence, seeming far more settled than England. It appeared a draw at best would be England’s reward. Trevor Brooking recalled in his autobiography that he was the only attacking midfielder selected. “It was a team designed to contain the Italians,” he wrote, adding that Revie had watched the Italians seven times in preparation. 

They held out for 36 minutes before Giancarlo Antognoni’s free-kick was deflected in off Keegan. Revie’s side stayed in with a glimmer of hope until 13 minutes from time, Roberto Bettega’s diving header sealing a deserved 2-0 win for the hosts. “They murdered us 2-0,” recalled Hughes 20 years later. It left the Italians as clear favourites to qualify, England knowing they would have to win the return 12 months later to stand any chance. But Bettega’s goal would symbolise England’s failure. “We knew then that we had almost certainly blown our chances of qualifying for Argentina,” admitted Brooking.

England’s 5-0 win over Luxembourg failed to silence the critics.

England had looked second best in Rome and they would again be well-beaten when an excellent Dutch side visited Wembley for a friendly in February 1977 and won 2-0. The inquests were continuing into what had gone wrong with English football, but they stayed in with a shout of making the finals with a 5-0 win over Luxembourg at Wembley. Mick Channon scored twice on a night when John Gidman won his only England cap and Paul Mariner came off the bench for his international debut. Even after a big win, the criticism poured in with the result put into context by the opposition’s limitations. Norman Fox wrote in The Times: “It was another unsatisfactory performance, too stunted by unimaginative, mundane football that persistently threatens to stop them qualifying for the final tournament in Argentina next year.”

The end for Revie

Liverpool’s European Cup victory at the end of the season began a period of domination for English clubs in the competition, but the national team remained away from international football’s top table. The gloom for Revie continued during the Home International Championship, England losing at home to both Wales and Scotland. The side now headed off to South America for their end-of-season tour. If it was intended as preparation for the following year’s World Cup finals in Argentina, then it was increasingly looking a futile exercise. While there, Italy won 3-0 away to Finland – leaving them as firm favourites to qualify. England returned home unbeaten after draws with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – the middle match having been particularly brutal with Trevor Cherry sent-off and losing two of his front teeth after being punched.

The results on tour seemingly represented an improvement for Revie (pictured below), but the manager was already looking towards his next challenge. The following month The Daily Mail ran an exclusive story that he was quitting the England job, with it coming to light he was taking up a role in the United Arab Emirates that offered high earnings if not necessarily top class football.

The Football Association hierarchy were infuriated to learn of Revie’s defection via the media before they received his resignation latter. It was a messy divorce that sadly left the former Leeds United boss ostracised from the English game. He would maintain though that he jumped before he was pushed, fearing the sack was inevitable if England did not reach the World Cup. “Nearly everyone wanted me out. So I’m giving them what they want,” was Revie’s parting shot. 

With Revie gone, the FA was now left to find a successor. Amid the public clamour for Brian Clough, a less outspoken figure was selected as 55-year-old Ron Greenwood became caretaker manager. Greenwood had moved upstairs at West Ham United but he had admirers at the FA who saw ‘Reverend Ron’ as the right man to manage England in the circumstances – appreciating his coaching methods and diplomacy. He had his fans among the players too, Brooking – who knew him well from West Ham – describing him as “the most imaginative and thoughtful coach I worked with in my career”.

Greenwood made a bold statement in his first friendly against Switzerland when he named six Liverpool players in the side (plus Kevin Keegan who had just left the European champions for a new challenge with SV Hamburg). The decision to select Ian Callaghan was most intriguing, 11 years having elapsed since his last cap against France during the 1966 World Cup. Unfortunately the match saw England continue their poor Wembley run, being held to a 0-0 draw.

Hopes fade away

If England’s chances of qualifying looked bleak going into October, then they would soon slip towards non-existent. Away to Luxembourg, England needed a big victory to stay in with a realistic chance and they could only win 2-0 (with a section of their followers making headlines for the wrong reasons). “Our finishing and composure was not good,” admitted Greenwood. Italy then thrashed Finland 6-1 and England now needed a miracle to qualify. The Italians had the same points as England but a goal difference four better and a game in hand. England would have to beat Italy convincingly and then somehow hope Luxembourg could keep the score down away to the Italians. It was a forlorn hope.

To make things genuinely difficult for the Italians, England would probably have to beat them by at least five goals – an unlikely scenario that would leave the Azzurri needing to beat Luxembourg by seven. But even then Italy would still be capable of getting the required score, so limited were Luxembourg. Whatever England did, there would be a feeling it wasn’t going to be enough. Most had accepted it was already over and just wanted to see a win on the night to restore pride. Greenwood sought to get maximum use out of wingers, with debutants Peter Barnes and Steve Coppell both coming into the side and giving cause for optimism. Forward Bob Latchford was also handed his first cap.

England’s 2-0 win over Italy proved too little, too late.

They duly got it. Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking scored as England atoned for their 2-0 defeat a year earlier by beating Italy by the same scoreline. Although the result meant Italy needed only a win of any scoreline against Luxembourg to qualify, there was a sense of satisfaction around England about the performance. Fox wrote that England supporters saw “something for the future beyond present disappointments”, while conceding the side had “less than a slim chance” of making it to Argentina. 

But the evening had helped Greenwood’s chances of becoming manager full-time. On December 3 only the most optimistic of Englishmen clung to the tiniest hope that whipping boys Luxembourg could somehow hold out against the Italians to take the Three Lions through to Argentina. Within 11 minutes they were 2-0 down, Italy eventually easing home to a 3-0 win as they took their regular spot in the finals.

For England it was disappointing, but less devastating than their other failures to make the World Cups of 1974 and 1994. There had been no game as painfully dramatic as the infamous draw with Poland in October 1973, nor one as controversial as the costly defeat against the Netherlands in October 1993. They had matched the Italians head-to-head, won five games out of six and fallen just three goals short of making it. But the failure to win the group surprised few, many younger fans having yet to see them qualify for a major finals. 

England had paid for losing away to Italy and a lack of goals in the victories at home to Finland and away to Luxembourg. In some respects they were unlucky, and they were certainly no less deserving of qualifying than when they scraped through four years later (after the competition had expanded to 24 teams). But they had ultimately fallen short and looked second best when it really mattered in Rome, always unsuccessfully playing catch-up after that.

The one consolation for England was they once more only missed out to a side who made an impact at the finals. Italy would finish fourth in Argentina, beating the hosts and eventual winners along the way. By then Greenwood was firmly installed as permanent England manager, as he sought to finally lead the country to a major tournament.

England’s Euro ’80 – Hopes go up in smoke

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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.”

Pride restored

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…

England’s Euro ’68 – Mullery makes unwanted history

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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.

Six of the Best – England under Ron Greenwood

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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.




Six of the Worst – England in November

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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.