The 1974 World Cup qualification programme would go down in infamy for England, as the 1966 winners failed to even make the finals two tournaments on. There weren’t many highlights for the fans to look back at fondly, but one would be the thunderbolt goal scored by Norman Hunter against Wales on this day in 1973…
1973, Norman Hunter and Wembley weren’t the best of combinations. In May, Hunter was part of the Leeds United side that surprisingly lost to Sunderland in the FA Cup Final. In October, Hunter’s infamous error against Poland proved costly as England conceded the goal that ultimately stopped them qualifying for the World Cup. But on a happier note, in the previous home qualifier in January, Hunter had scored a screamer against Wales.
The visit of the Welsh marked the first World Cup match at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. As on that famous day, England were managed by Sir Alf Ramsey and captained by Bobby Moore. But Alan Ball was the only other player from the 1966 final taking to the field, although the side did contain Norman Hunter who had been an unused squad member in that triumph and made one substitute appearance at the 1970 tournament. This was realistically going to be the defender’s last chance to properly figure at a World Cup. With England having started the campaign by beating Wales in Cardiff two months earlier, there seemed little cause for concern ahead of this rare January international.
All that changed after 23 minutes, John Toshack scoring from close range to give Wales the lead. Suddenly it didn’t look so certain that England would be at the finals in West Germany. They now began to attack with vigour, but – in an ominous warning sign for what would later lie ahead with Poland and Jan Tomaszewski- they came up against a goalkeeper in good form in Gary Sprake. But the one man who would beat him shortly before the break was Hunter, his Leeds United colleague.
Hunter was involved in bringing the ball forward as England attacked in numbers. Colin Bell drove the ball into the box, with it being deflected away into the path of Hunter. He struck the ball goalwards with venom from outside the box, his left foot drive flying into the roof of Sprake’s net. “Sprake knows all about Norman Hunter but he knew nothing about that,” proclaimed BBC commentator David Coleman as Wembley erupted with delight. It had been a goal to savour.
“Oh, how England need forwards who can shoot like that,” reflected Geoffrey Green in The Times. Norman Giller in the Daily Express wrote of a goal that was “fashioned out of nothing”. In the Daily Mirror, Frank McGhee said: “It is in a way a tribute to England’s equaliser in the 40th minute that a ‘keeper in Sprake’s superb form was left frozen in disbelief at the ferocity and power of the Norman Hunter shot that flew past him from 25 yards.” Green also called it at 25 yards, Giller gave a more conservative estimate of 20. Wales’ Leighton James, in an interview in 2004, recalled it as being 30. But regardless of just how far out it was, there was no getting away from the fact that Hunter’s goal had caught the eye. “You did not see him often over the halfway line. It showed how much pressure they put on us,” recalled James.
Hunter would generally be known for his ‘bites yer’ legs’ reputation rather than his goalscoring ability, scoring just 22 times in 679 Football League appearances. For England he was hardly prolific either, the only other goal he scored in 28 caps coming against Spain in 1968. But against Wales he drove in a goal to remember.
It sadly wasn’t what most people would be talking about the following day, England having to settle for a 1-1 draw and being booed off the pitch. It wouldn’t be what most primarily remembered his England career for either, the mistake against Poland nine months later sadly – and perhaps unfairly – sticking in many minds far more. But Hunter’s goal against Wales had been one to treasure, a prime candidate for any list of forgotten great England goals – a left-footed drive from distance that flew past Sprake. It was a Bobby Charlton-esque goal from the most unlikely of sources.
Thirty years ago, England and West Germany’s 1966 World Cup Final sides did battle again in a special fundraising match at Elland Road. History would repeat itself, sort of…
The match took place two days before the 19th anniversary of the most famous day in English football history. But it was not arranged as some sort of joyous reunion. The horrific Bradford Fire two months earlier had claimed the lives of 56 fans and left many more injured, with this fixture arranged to support the disaster appeal fund. Given the relatively short notice of the fixture being arranged it was impressive that the famous 1966 England starting XI all took to the field, while West Germany brought seven members of their team with them. Sir Alf Ramsey was unfortunately absent due to other commitments, while England’s substitutes bench contained a mix of veteran players who mostly were not members of the 1966 squad (Jimmy Armfield was one exception). As with 19 years earlier, England wore red shirts and the West Germans were in white.
The match took place after the equivalent passage of time as if a Euro ’96 semi-final rematch was held now, so to older fans the 1966 glory still probably felt relatively recent. But for a whole generation of England followers they had grown up having missed out on experiencing the glory as it happened, so this was their chance to see these players in the flesh. All had unsurprisingly now called time on their playing days, although Alan Ball had been appearing in the Football League with Bristol Rovers just two years earlier. Ray Wilson faced a struggle even to make it into the field having undergone a series of knee operations, bravely playing for four minutes before leaving the action. Despite having lost sight in one eye since the 1966 glory, Gordon Banks again took his place between the sticks.
1985 was a wet summer for the most part and that was the case on this Sunday afternoon at Elland Road, but a crowd of just under 20,000 turned up in the rain and raised more than £46,000 for the appeal. The general argument is that great players never lose their skill, just their pace. There was much evidence of this in the rematch. It was basically a slower version of past meetings between the sides, although several West German players seemed to be particularly up for it early on and had an extra yard of pace as they went in search of some revenge for 1966.
Wolfgang Overath – who commentator John Helm said still played football every day – looked particularly impressive and lively, while Lothar Emmerich kept creating from the left flank and 49-year-old Uwe Seeler showed he still had the old magic touch by scoring two excellent first half goals. The West Germans were two goals ahead on three separate occasions in a hectic opening quarter of the game, eventually going in 4-3 up at the break. But England would come back to emerge 6-4 winners, as the crowd went home having enjoyed their afternoon of nostalgia.
As with the more famous meeting of the two sets of players, Geoff Hurst bagged a hat-trick as England came from behind to triumph. But as The Guardian reported, this “appeared to owe less to stage management than to his lingering predatory instincts”. Martin Peters again found the net as history seemed to be repeating itself a fair bit, but Ball made up for not scoring in 1966 by doing so twice this time around – the first being a superb chip. Bobby Charlton – who tried the occasional trademark long-range effort – was surprisingly nominated by his team-mates as the worst player, taking the ‘accolade’ in the spirit it was intended.
As a nice footnote to this story, in December 1986 Bradford City finally returned home to Valley Parade. They marked their homecoming with a match against an England XI in front of a bumper crowd, with City winning 2-1. After such a traumatic couple of years, this was a day for the people of Bradford to enjoy.
For more photos and press cuttings from the 1966 rematch, this Flickr page is well worth a look.