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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 Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’84: Dazzled by the Danes

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This summer England will make the short trip to France to compete in Euro 2016. But when the French last hosted the European Championship in 1984, England failed to make it. Today we look back at what went wrong, as Bobby Robson’s reign began in difficult fashion.

Bobby Robson’s appointment as England manager was confirmed shortly after Ron Greenwood’s men were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. His reign at Ipswich Town had earned many plaudits and yielded two major trophies, with the proud Englishman now tasked with leading his country. He would have little time to dwell on the task in front of him, as his first match in September 1982 was the opening European Championship qualifier away to Denmark.


Bobby Robson took over as England manager a year after leading Ipswich Town to UEFA Cup glory.

On paper, England had been handed a reasonable qualifying draw, with their opponents being Hungary, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg. Hungary had finished above England in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup but England had done the double over them and progressed further at the finals; Greece had qualified for the 1980 European Championship but had little other pedigree; and Luxembourg were the whipping boys of Europe. The joker in the pack came from pot four. Denmark had enjoyed limited past success but something was stirring in Scandinavia. Manager Sepp Piontek was building a side that would soon be talked about across Europe, but – despite beating Italy in World Cup qualifying in 1981 – had yet to come into the spotlight. Robson though knew just how talented they were and he probably cursed whoever had agreed for England to start with a trip to Copenhagen – particularly as the average man in the street would assume England were going to win there.

Out with the old guard

Robson had difficult decisions to make prior to the Denmark game, having inherited an ageing side. Robson was primarily setting his sights on success at the 1986 World Cup and he knew time would have to be called on the international careers of several players. As we’ve previously recalled, Robson controversially dropped Kevin Keegan and came under fire before he’d even led his team into battle for the first time as the former captain took exception to not being told the news directly. A decision that probably was harder for Robson to make on a personal level was to leave out his former Ipswich captain Mick Mills, while other old heads including Trevor Brooking, Joe Corrigan, Terry McDermott and Dave Watson would never win another cap. Ray Clemence would be selected just twice more as Peter Shilton became fully established as number one goalkeeper.

Robson’s first year or so in charge would see a high number of debutants given their chance. Players such as Luther Blissett, Mark Chamberlain, Gordon Cowans and Sammy Lee would briefly shine before fading from the international scene. Only John Barnes would break into the set-up during the period and remain involved throughout Robson’s reign. Robson’s cause was not helped by injury woes for key men he inherited, with his favoured midfielders of Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins all spending time on the sidelines during the qualifying campaign. To compound matters, winger Steve Coppell would sadly soon have to retire due to his injury troubles.

England’s Bryan Robson in action against his future Manchester United team-mate in England’s opening Euro ’84 qualifier against Denmark.

If Bobby Robson was under any illusions about the size of the task facing him, then the first match in Denmark would have shattered them. Firstly, the fallout with Keegan meant he had attracted negative publicity in his opening weeks in the job. Secondly, England were shaken by the Danes who duly looked the real threat Robson had feared. And thirdly, there was widespread fighting on the terraces. It was the third year in a row that an England match overseas had been blighted by serious crowd trouble and Robson was left knowing that his time in charge would see him regularly being asked about a section of England’s followers and not matters on the field.

England came within moments of snatching a 2-1 win thanks to two Trevor Francis goals in Copenhagen before Jesper Olsen waltzed through to equalise, but it was felt afterwards that England were the team who had been let off the hook during the 2-2 draw. The Danes were certainly no longer the low-achieving amateurs of a few years before. ‘England are lucky to escape defeat’ screamed the headline in The Times, with the new manager admitting it would have been a “travesty of justice” had they won.

Blissett’s debut hat-trick

England players had nine goals to celebrate against Luxembourg in December 1982, including a hat-trick for Luther Blissett.

Robson’s first home match in charge produced a 2-1 friendly defeat to West Germany, but a month later came the second European Championship qualifier away to Greece. Bryan Robson captained England for the first time and he would never relinquish it whenever he played under his namesake. Tony Woodcock scored twice and debutant Lee got the other in an excellent 3-0 win. Just 10 days before Christmas England welcomed Luxembourg to Wembley and Watford forward Blissett marked his first cap with a hat-trick in an emphatic 9-0 victory – he never scored again for his country – that meant they boasted a goal difference of +12 after only three qualifying matches.

England began 1983 with a 2-1 win over Wales in the Home International Championship, before welcoming Greece to Wembley in March for their next qualifying match. It proved an extremely frustrating night for England as the Greeks did not come bearing gifts and defended deeply. England were unable to break the visitors down and were booed off after a 0-0 draw. “I counted seven of Greece’s players who never even crossed the halfway line,” said Robson as he reflected on a frustrating night. The night had marked the first real low point of Robson’s reign but all looked good again when England won 2-0 at home to Hungary the following month, Francis and Peter Withe scoring. After five matches in the group England had three wins and two draws and were still firmly in the qualifying picture. “Within a month the tune has changed dramatically for Bobby Robson,” wrote Stuart Jones in The Times.

The Home International Championship was won after drawing 0-0 away to Northern Ireland and winning 2-0 against Scotland. The latter match took place on the same day as a vital qualifying clash between Denmark and Hungary. The Danes won 3-1 and it was now clear they would provide the most serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. England ended the 1982-83 season with a three-match tour of Australia, which brought a plethora of new caps and an unbeaten record but precious little else to shout about. Robson and his under-strength side returned home with a three-month break in store before their next match – a huge qualifier at home to Denmark in September 1983.

Despair against the Danes

The Danes arrived at Wembley with the backing of a tremendous away support. With only one side going through to the finals, this match was likely to be decisive. England led the group by a point but Denmark had a game in hand. Whoever won would be clear favourites to progress. If the match was a draw then matters would be in Denmark’s hands but with little margin for error. England were without the injured Bryan Robson and, controversially, Hoddle, with Bobby Robson opting instead to field John Gregory. “I wanted someone a bit spikey,” said the manager as he tried to justify his selection. But it proved a bad call, England’s midfield operating deep and creating little for the forwards to feed off.

From the moment teenager Michael Laudrup almost gave Denmark an early lead, it was clear that this was going to be a long and torturous night for England. Bobby Robson seemed to have become too concerned about the threat of the Danes for his own side’s good, as England played with fear rather than belief. Phil Neal’s handball in the area on his 50th and final cap allowed Allan Simonsen to put the Danes in front in the first half and they continued to boss the game, albeit without creating many clear-cut chances. “We are red, we are white, we are Danish dynamite” was the song ringing out at Wembley.

Allan Simonsen scores the winner for Denmark against England from the penalty spot.

They deservedly protected their 1-0 advantage, with England posing little threat until injury time. Suddenly a chance was made by Blissett, but he was denied by Ole Kjær from point blank range just seconds before the final whistle sounded. Prior to the emergence of Peter Schmeichel it was generally felt that goalkeeper was the weak position for the Danes, but Kjær had proved his worth with such a priceless save. It was the first time the Danes had ever beaten England and the win left them firm favourites to reach France.

For Bobby Robson, the defeat was painful. He later revealed he offered to resign after the loss, but he was given the green light to carry on. He wrote in 1986: “Whatever I may or may not achieve in my football career, the blackest day will remain as September 21, 1983. It was the worst moment I had experienced at any level of football, no question about it… The 1-0 defeat was only part of it. The way the team played; the walk back to the dressing room afterwards; the abuse of the crowd; the feeling of total confusion all contributed to the desolate feelings.”

The defeat was bad enough, but for England to play so tepidly when the stakes were so high meant criticism poured in on the England manager. In the magazine Football Monthly, it was stated that “this was without doubt England’s worst-ever performance at Wembley”. Piontek certainly believed his opposite number’s approach had helped the Danes, with Robson having made several visits to see them in action. “England were afraid to attack us,” he said. “I think it was good for us that Mr Robson watched us so many times in Denmark. Sometimes it is not always good to see opponents too much.”

Three days later Robson was booed when he went to watch Aston Villa against Southampton, while Hoddle scored a superb goal for Tottenham Hotspur at Watford. The decision to leave him out of the Denmark game looked to have been the wrong one.

Hope restored and then removed

Matters were now well and truly out of England’s hands. They would have to win away to Hungary and Luxembourg and hope Denmark took no more than three points from as many games (under two points for a win) – with it being a given they would beat Luxembourg at home in one of them. They duly did so by a 6-0 scoreline on October 12, the same day England visited Hungary. Hoddle was recalled to the side and he responded with a superb free-kick in the 3-0 win, which gave England a glimmer of hope. But so comfortably had they beaten the Hungarians that it was hard to see the Eastern Europeans doing England a favour by getting a result against Denmark two weeks later.

But that was just what they did, Denmark suffering their first defeat of the qualifying series as they went down 1-0. England had been bailed out during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup when all seemed lost and now it looked like history might repeat itself. Denmark were a point ahead of England but had an inferior goal difference. If Denmark failed to win away to Greece in their final match then England would go through by beating Luxembourg on the same night. The pressure was on the Danes.

The matches did not kick-off simultaneously, Denmark decisive contest in Athens finishing before England’s contest in Luxembourg began. According to Bobby Robson, as England’s squad arrived at the stadium “some wally of a fan shouted out to us that Greece were ahead”. Within moments they learned the crushing news that the Danes were actually winning, going on to claim a 2-0 victory to deservedly win the match and the group. “It’s rather like asking soldiers to go on firing bullets after a peace treaty had been signed,” said Robson, as he was left trying to motivate his players for a dead rubber match. He duly did that as England produced a professional performance in beating Luxembourg 4-0, leaving them with the best goal difference of any side in Euro ’84 qualifying with +20.

  

Denmark were the side celebrating at the end of qualifying for Euro ’84.

But all anyone was talking about was the fact England hadn’t made it, along with yet more trouble involving the hooligan fringe. The hosts had been concerned about England’s visit after previous trouble in 1977 and unfortunately the antics of some individuals in both the stadium and on the streets had justified those fears. “They had disgusted us all by giving those lovely people a bad time for our second successive visit,” said a despairing Robson.

It was not a time when the English nation was covering itself in glory when it came to football, with the hooligans continually causing trouble off the field and the players struggling to hit the heights on it. Whereas Euro 2016 in France will contain four sides from the British Isles, the finals of Euro ’84 went ahead without any of them. TV viewers in Britain saw just two live matches from one of the most highly-regarded tournaments of all-time, with the Danes playing with a swagger as they reached the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Spain. France won it on home soil and it was a competition that we missed far more than the rest of Europe missed us.

And yet if the same qualifying criteria had existed for 1984 as it did for 2016, then – in theory at least – we would have had plenty of British Isles representation at the finals. England, Northern Ireland and Wales would have all qualified automatically; the Republic of Ireland would have been in the play-offs; and Scotland would have failed to make it at all after finishing fourth in their qualifying group. The more things change…

England Qualifying Campaigns: Euro 2000 – Staggering Home

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With the qualification draw for 2018 World Cup having paired together England and Scotland, we look back at the last time they met in qualifying for a major tournament by recalling England’s road to Euro 2000. It was a campaign in which England were far from convincing, but they managed to stagger their way into the finals…

In September 1998, England began their quest to qualify for the Euro 2000 finals in Belgium and the Netherlands with the memories of the 1998 World Cup still fresh in the memory. Despite the heartbreak of the Argentina game, there were reasons to be optimistic about Glenn Hoddle’s side with a strong blend of youth and experience and the manager’s belief in an attractive style of play. Unfortunately for Hoddle, his other – far more controversial – beliefs would soon spell the end for his time at the helm.

The Euro 2000 qualifying draw in January 1998 had paired England with Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Poland and Sweden. Minnows Luxembourg were always going to be whipping boys, so it was effectively a four-way fight for the top two spots – the winner going through automatically, the runner-up into the play-offs. 

It wasn’t easy looking but Hoddle’s side would be favourites. Sweden had failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments; Bulgaria had been present at the last three of them and reached the semi-finals at the 1994 World Cup, but their poor performances in the 1998 finals suggested the good times may be over; and although memories of that fateful night at Wembley in 1973 persisted, Poland had not qualified for anything since the 1986 World Cup. Excluding Euro ’96 – when they qualified automatically as hosts – England had now been paired with the Poles every qualifying campaign since Italia ’90. It seemed almost inevitable they would be drawn together. “We certainly know our way to Poland,” said Hoddle as he reflected on England being in a group which The Guardian felt was the “short straw” due to the number of tough opponents. 

Ominous Start

When Alan Shearer scored from a free-kick a minute into England’s opening qualifier in Stockholm in September 1998, it was hard to imagine the sheer struggle that lay ahead over the next 15 months. But by half-time it was pretty clear of how things would pan out as Sweden came from behind to lead 2-1.  They held out for the remainder of the match as England started with an ominous defeat. Hoddle’s side were without the suspended David Beckham, who had become only the fifth England player ever to be sent-off against Argentina in the World Cup. The match against the Swedes saw Paul Ince become the sixth, with it being far from the last show of indiscipline from the side during the campaign.

  
Jamie Redknapp in action during England’s tedious 0-0 draw with Bulgaria.

This qualifying campaign marked the start of the regular international double headers we are now used to and in October England played two matches in five days. They did little to boost Hoddle’s reputation, coming after the controversial publication of his My 1998 World Cup Story book had left some players unhappy at dressing room secrets being revealed. At Wembley against Bulgaria – who had lost 3-0 to Poland the previous month – England were far from impressive. They were held to a sterile 0-0 draw that attracted much criticism. 

The End for Glenn

Things looked like they were about to get a whole lot more embarrassing away to Luxembourg when England’s part-time opponents were awarded a penalty five minutes in. Dany Theis squandered the chance by firing well over the bar, bizarrely prompting Channel 5 commentator Jonathan Pearce to excitedly react almost as though a major football nation had missed a crucial last minute penalty against England. Hoddle’s side eventually won 3-0 with Owen, Shearer and Gareth Southgate all scoring. But there were few cheers for the win, as there remained a sense of a World Cup hangover lingering in the air. Hoddle angrily dismissed tabloid speculation of a dressing room mutiny, but it was clear all was not well after a mediocre start to the qualifying campaign.

1998 ended with a 2-0 friendly win over the Czech Republic at Wembley, in what would turn out to be the end of the line for Hoddle. As England prepared to face world champions France the following February in another friendly, Hoddle’s contentious views expressed in an article in The Times about the disabled and reincarnation would cost him his job. It was a messy end to his reign and former Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson took temporary charge for the France match, which saw Arsenal’s Lee Dixon make a one-off international return after more than five years and England beaten 2-0.

Kev Takes Charge

Before England played their next qualifier in late March against Poland, they had a new boss. Kevin Keegan, the man England so often turned to for on-field inspiration in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was now tasked with helping leading the team towards the Euro finals. He had won managerial plaudits for the free-flowing football his Newcastle United side had played a few years earlier, although major honours had eluded him after the Premier League title slipped through their grasp in 1996. Keegan made clear he was only taking charge for four games as a job share with his role at Fulham, adding his wish to see a “1,000% effort” in those games.

  

All smiles after Kevin Keegan’s first match in charge of England produces a 3-1 win over Poland, with Paul Scholes scoring a hat-trick.

He got the right response in his first match, Paul Scholes scoring three times against Poland in a 3-1 win at Wembley to boost their qualification hopes. All seemed well with the world and Keegan duly left Fulham and took the role on a permanent basis, but doubts were setting in again. 

After a 1-1 friendly draw in Hungary in which Wes Brown, Jamie Carragher, Michael Gray, Emile Heskey and Kevin Phillips made their England debuts, the qualifiers resumed in June and alarm bells started ringing. Scholes became the first England player to be sent-off at Wembley in a frustrating 0-0 draw with Sweden. Although England had ended their opponents’ 100% record, the result meant the best Keegan’s men could now realistically hope for was second place in the group. Four days later there followed more disappointment with an underwhelming 1-1 draw in Bulgaria, leaving them still with much to do to make the finals. ‘The honeymoon is over after the first kiss” screamed the headlines, with Keegan’s ‘Messiah’ status having proved short-lived.

  
Summing up the qualifying campaign: Paul Scholes sees red at home to Sweden.

The group had a strong echo of the qualifying process a decade earlier for Italia ’90, with Sweden in front, England at risk in second spot and the Poles the only other side capable of finishing above them. It came as no surprise that England beat Luxembourg 6-0 at Wembley in early September, with Shearer scoring a hat-trick. But it was the match four days later in Poland that really mattered. If England won they would definitely finish second; if Poland won they would be runners-up and England would be out. It was if it ended in a draw that things became complicated, as Poland would then need a result in their final match in Sweden to edge out England.

Keegan’s side seemed torn between going for the win to seal a play-off place and a draw to at least give them a chance. The goalless match summed up England’s qualifying campaign, as David Batty was red carded and the team struggled to stamp their authority on the game. Indeed, they could easily have lost and been definitely out of the running. England had failed to qualify for the next World Cup after being semi-finalists in 1990 and it looked like history would repeat itself after coming so close to winning Euro ’96. They still had a chance, but it was out of their hands.

England now had a month to wait and hope Sweden could do them a favour. Although there was little doubt the Swedes were a better team than Poland and had a near-perfect qualifying record, they were already through and could potentially take their foot off the pedal whereas the Poles needed a result and that extra desire could see them achieve it. But, as with Switzerland digging them out of a hole in the 1982 World Cup qualifying campaign and – for a few days at least – when Israel beat Russia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, England were thrown a lifeline they hadn’t really merited. Two goals in the final half hour gave Sweden a 2-0 win and the feeling across England was one of sheer relief. The following day’s friendly against Belgium at the Stadium of Light was not the wake many had anticipated, with a renewed sense of optimism in the air. Jamie Redknapp scored a cracking goal in the 2-1 win, as cousin Frank Lampard made his international debut.

Drawing the Scots

For the first time since 1972 England would now be involved in a two-legged tie as they awaited the play-off draw. And what a draw – Scotland v England. “I think we’ve both hit the jackpot,” said Keegan. The sides had met just once in the previous decade since the demise of the Rous Cup and now they were reacquainted with a place in the Euro 2000 finals at stake. Although England would start as favourites, the Scots had a good recent qualifying record and, like England, the only major tournament they had missed in the 1990s was the 1994 World Cup. Scotland boss Craig Brown seemed content with the draw, declaring: “I think the England team were stronger in Euro ’96 [the most recent meeting] and I don’t think we need to fear them.”

  
Paul Scholes helps England to a 2-0 win at Hampden Park.

After a month of build-up, the talking could finally end on November 13 at 2pm at Hampden Park. Scholes scored twice in the first half as England won 2-0, with Keegan declaring his side “played fantastic today”. Although many would have disputed that version of events, given England rode their luck a bit during the afternoon, there was no question they looked odds on to go through.

The second leg was played four days later, marking Scotland’s final visit to the old Wembley. What should have been a comfortable passage into the finals turned into a night of tension for England and it could have been even worse. Don Hutchinson’s 39th minute goal gave Scotland the lead on the night and if either side looked like scoring again, it was the Scots as England failed to muster a shot on target. David Seaman had to deny Christian Dailly from levelling the aggregate scores late on, as Scotland went in search of extra-time. They never got it, with it not being quite clear who was comforting who as Keegan and Brown hugged at the end. 

England were through but it was Scotland who could leave the field to greater cheers from their fans after winning on the night. “Maybe it was too much for the players psychologically having a 2-0 lead,” admitted a baffled Keegan afterwards, as he again learnt about international management the hard way. But at least England had progressed, something that had looked unlikely after the match in Poland two months earlier. For the Scots, the play-off exit marked the beginning of a long absence from major tournaments – which they are looking to finally end by making it to Euro 2016.

Keegan’s men had staggered into the Euro 2000 finals with a very unconvincing record. They had managed just four victories in their 10 qualifying matches, two of them coming against minnows Luxembourg. After all the excitement of Euro ’96 and France ’98, this had been a serious wake-up call. The finals in the Low Countries would expose England’s inadequacies – and the tactical shortcomings of Keegan – as they crashed out in the group stage.

Six of the Best – England European Championship qualifying matches

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As England prepare to get their campaign to reach Euro 2016 underway in Switzerland, let’s recall six of their most memorable qualifying matches from past European Championships (limited to no more than one per qualification campaign).

Czechoslovakia (h) 3-0, October 1974
Wembley
A game significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was a victory during Don Revie’s first game at the helm as a new era was ushered in at Wembley. And secondly, this result would go on to look particularly impressive two years later as the Czechs went on to win the European Championship. A year to the month of their World Cup failure against Poland, England appeared to start turning the corner as goals in the closing stages from Mike Channon and Colin Bell (2) gave them a 3-0 success. Another highlight would come the following April when Malcolm MacDonald scored all five goals as Cyprus were thrashed at Wembley. But England let qualification slip through their grasp, the Czechs getting their revenge with a 2-1 win in Bratislava the following October.

 

Bulgaria (h) 2-0, November 1979
Wembley
The 1970s had been grim for England fans. After losing in the quarter-finals of the 1970 World Cup and 1972 European Championship to West Germany, they fell at the qualifying stage of the next three major tournaments. By the time the 1980 European Championship qualifiers began, there was a sense of desperation for England to end their exile from major tournaments. They did so in emphatic fashion, enjoying big wins away to Bulgaria and Northern Ireland to wrap up qualifying. They were able to celebrate qualifying early and this match saw the nation cheer them towards the finals. Fog postponed the match by 24 hours, but when it took place Dave Watson opened the scoring early on. In the second half came the most memorable moment, as young debutant Glenn Hoddle scored a brilliant side-footed shot to wrap up the victory. The nation was now looking forward to Hoddle starring in midfield during the 1980s. It didn’t always work out quite like that, but more than 50 caps would be won by the Spurs player.

 

Luxembourg (h) 9-0, December 1982
Wembley
By the early 1980s, the cliche “no easy games in international football” was being dished out with increased frequency and England’s shock defeat to Norway the previous year was still fresh in the mind. But there was one true exception to the rule in an era before the likes of Andorra and San Marino came on the European national scene and that was Luxembourg. Played just 10 days before Christmas, England tore the minnows to shreds and Luther Blissett helped himself to a hat-trick. They led 4-0 by half-time but it will still only 6-0 with five minutes to go, as some gloss was added to the scoreline with three further efforts – the last coming from a Phil Neal cross that the visiting goalkeeper failed to deal with. But Bobby Robson would come unstuck in his first qualifying tournament, England finishing second to an excellent Denmark side, who won 1-0 at Wembley the following September to move to the brink of qualification.

 

Yugoslavia (a) 4-1, November 1987
Belgrade
England had one of their best qualifying campaigns in reaching Euro ’88 with some clinical displays in front of goal including an 8-0 win over Turkey. However, they went into their final match in the group needing to get a result in Yugoslavia to ensure their place in West Germany. Within 25 minutes all doubts had been shattered as England led 4-0 against a decent side thanks to goals from Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams. The hosts pulled a goal back late on but it was a mere consolation in a game that would stand out as one of the best matches of Bobby Robson’s reign in charge. Sadly, the tournament itself would prove a particular disappointment for England.

 

Scotland (a) 2-0, November 1999 (play-off, first leg)
Glasgow
Probably the most hyped-up European Championship qualifying matches involving England were their play-off fixtures against Scotland in November 1999.  The sides had met just once in the previous decade, as a new generation of England players prepared to make their first trip to Hampden Park. It had been a poor qualifying campaign from England in which they won just one match out of six against the other top four sides (beating Poland in Kevin Keegan’s first game in charge, the only other wins in the group being against Luxembourg) and they had been reliant on Poland losing their final match to Sweden to scrap into the play-offs. Further good fortune helped them over the qualifying line against the Scots. The first-leg at Hampden Park saw them triumph 2-0 with Paul Scholes getting both goals to leave them firmly on course for the finals. Kevin Keegan’s side should have been home and dry but proceeded to lose the return leg 1-0 at Wembley four days later, almost throwing away their Hampden Park success.

 

Turkey (h) 2-0, April 2003
Sunderland
In the qualifying campaign for Euro 2004, it was clear from the start it would be a head-to-head fight for top spot between England and Turkey. The Turks had made massive strides from their thrashings by England in the 1980s and had just finished third in the World Cup. Sadly not all the headlines from this meeting at the Stadium of Light were made by what happened on the pitch, but the match brought a priceless win for England. 17-year-old Wayne Rooney shone on his first start for England and he helped the Three Lions triumph 2-0 thanks to late goals from Darius Vassell and David Beckham (penalty), going on to win the group with a 0-0 draw in the return game in October that again attracted plenty of talking points.