Norway

England’s qualifying campaigns: 1994 World Cup – did we not like that?

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December marked the 25th anniversary of the draw being made for the qualifying stages of the 1994 World Cup. The campaign would become infamous as England, semi-finalists at Italia ’90, failed to make it to the USA and Graham Taylor’s managerial reign ended in ignominious fashion.

The weekend of December 7-8, 1991, was certainly one for draws being made. On the Saturday lunchtime, Saint & Greavsie viewers saw a certain Donald Trump help make the Rumbelows Cup quarter-final draw. That night, Match of the Day broadcast the FA Cup third round draw – with title protagonists Leeds United and Manchester United paired together for the second time in a day. And the following day the 1994 World Cup qualifying groups were decided. Few could have envisaged just what a calamitous campaign lay ahead for England.

For the first time England were placed in a group of six sides, European football having welcomed an influx of new countries following the break-up of the Soviet Union. But England would not meet any of them, and apart from minnows San Marino – entering only their second major qualifying tournament – there was little in the way of originality. The Dutch, who seemed set to provide the sternest test, had met the English at both Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 (and it was a distinct possibility they could also face each other at Euro ’92). Poland were in England’s group for the third qualifying tournament in succession, while Turkey had been paired with the English in three other campaigns in the past decade. You had to go a bit further back for the last clashes with Norway, England infamously losing to them during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup.

If the draw lacked in novelty for England fans, then at least on paper it looked like the side had a strong chance of progressing. The Three Lions only had to finish second to qualify, having always finished at least that high in every previous qualifying group even when they failed to make it. The Dutch were an obvious threat, but no other side in the group had qualified for a major tournament since Poland reached the 1986 World Cup. But as with the Poles 20 years earlier and Denmark a decade before, England had landed a joker in the pack who were about to represent their undoing. Norway had beaten Italy in Euro ’92 qualifying and they would pose a serious threat to the established order.


The pressure was increasing on Graham Taylor after Euro ’92.

At the time the draw was made, Graham Taylor was enjoying a decent reign as England boss having lost just once since taking over in the summer of 1990 and qualified for Euro ’92. But then came the turning point of the European Championship in Sweden, a negative England crashing out in the group stages as the ‘Turnip’ taunt began against the boss. He had seemed tetchy when dealing with the media during the competition and now faced a tough challenge to win over the doubters, not helped by his controversial decision to sub Gary Lineker in defeat by the Swedes.

It was the forward’s last act for his country before retiring, as Taylor now sought both a new captain and star striker. Alan Shearer – fresh from a big-money move from Southampton to Blackburn Rovers – would be the ideal man to fill the latter role, while Stuart Pearce became captain. But injuries would deprive Taylor of both men for part of the campaign, midfielder David Platt taking the captain’s armband and often being the main goal threat. One man back in the picture was Paul Gascoigne, returning to action after more than a year out injured and now playing in Italy for Lazio.

Pegged back by Norway

By the time England next took to the field in September 1992, the new Premier League was under way. Paul Ince was handed his debut as he began his lengthy England career in a 1-0 defeat. But it was Taylor’s last chance to experiment for the qualifiers. The expansion of the qualifying programme meant competitive football would dominate the agenda in the coming months, starting with a home qualifier against Norway in October. In an era before the international calendar as we know it now, Norway had already played three qualifiers and won them all – laying down a marker by thrashing San Marino 10-0 and beating the Netherlands 2-1. They were not to be underestimated.

Paul Gascoigne returned for England against Norway in October 1992.

The build-up was overshadowed by Gascoigne’s ill-judged jokey response when asked by a TV interviewer to say hello to Norway. As the words “f*** off Norway” left his lips they were clearly going to create headlines, assistant boss Lawrie McMenemy trying to limit the damage as he reprimanded the player for his actions. For Taylor it was imperative England got off to a good start and they looked set to do just that when Shearer gave them a second half lead. But as England looked set to see the game out, they were undone by a long-range equaliser from Kjetil Rekdal. It ended 1-1, representing a point dropped by England (UEFA were still applying the two points for a win system) on a night when they had created more chances than the visitors. “Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve from life and this was one of those nights,” reflected Taylor, who remained confident of qualification.

Five weeks later, Taylor expressed his wish for England to give him an early Christmas present by delivering at home to the Turks. Although Turkey had been thrashed by England three times during the 1980s, they had looked much-improved in two narrow defeats during Euro ’92 qualifying. The old order was to be re-established here, the impressive Gascoigne scoring twice in a 4-0 win as England ended a difficult year in better spirits. The resurgence of Gazza was a pleasing sight, but Taylor issued some words of caution: “Gascoigne is not fully fit yet. He knows that himself and the difference could be as much as another two goals out of him.” Rarely did Gascoigne seem as happy or loved under Taylor as he did during the reigns of Bobby Robson or Terry Venables.

John Barnes was abused by a section of the Wembley crowd during England’s win over San Marino.

A joyless 6-0 win

In February England hosted the whipping boys of San Marino, amid the sad news about the legendary Bobby Moore being seriously ill with cancer. He was at Wembley to co-commentate for radio, just a week before he would lose his fight for life. It was not a glorious match for Moore to say farewell to the Twin Towers, England only holding a 2-0 lead until midway through the second half. The floodgates then finally opened, England eventually winning 6-0 with Platt scoring four of them. There would also be a solitary international goal for Carlton Palmer (memorably met with Taylor asking “what was he doing in the f***ing box?”) and a debut strike for Les Ferdinand.

Platt could have equalled Malcolm Macdonald’s achievement of scoring five times in one match for England, only to have his late penalty saved. But the night had already been soured by the jeering of England’s John Barnes. England had won comfortably, but there was little to feel buoyed about. Gascoigne’s display had concerned Taylor, who said: “There is something there with the player that isn’t right and it is affecting his fitness.”

Paul Gascoigne scores for England in their win in Turkey.

Next up was England’s trip to Turkey the following month, goals from Platt and Gascoigne providing a 2-0 win in a hostile atmosphere in which the players were struck by coins. Taylor’s side had seven points from eight and all looked positive going into the huge game at home to the Netherlands in late April.

A crushing blow

Barnes enjoyed a far more positive response from the Wembley crowd than a few weeks earlier and within two minutes had scored a delightful free-kick to break the deadlock. When Platt doubled the lead midway through the half all seemed good in the world, England giving one of their best displays under Taylor. But a touch of class by Dennis Bergkamp reduced the deficit and England would lose the injured Gascoigne thanks to Jan Wouters’ elbow. Taylor later fumed: “It was a premeditated assault, utterly disgraceful. And he didn’t even get a caution.” It wasn’t the last time Taylor would rue refereeing decisions during the qualifying process. But it looked like England would see the game out until five minutes from time. Des Walker had been immense for England at Italia ’90 but was now suffering a dramatic loss of form.


England were frustrated when the Dutch visited Wembley.

Walker panicked into pulling back Marc Overmars, the referee pointing to the spot with Peter van Vossen levelling as the game finished 2-2. The smart money would have been on a draw beforehand and England still stood a good chance of making it, but it was a crushing blow to have squandered victory. They had now been pegged back in home games against their main two rivals. “We played very well in both of those games and if we had won just one, which we deserved to, we would have been ok,” reflected Taylor 20 years later. Mathematically his statement wasn’t quite correct, but things may well have panned out differently had England seen out either of those games.

The nightmare in Oslo

The first serious doubts that England would make it came at the end of the season. During fixture negotiations England had been handed away trips to Poland and Norway within five days, in an era when double headers were rare. If England could take three points or more they would look favourites to make it to the USA, but a defeat in either clash would be worrying. The first match was a Saturday night trip to Poland, England showing their limitations as they trailed at half-time and almost fell further behind. They got out of jail with a first England goal for substitute Ian Wright to salvage a 1-1 draw

Ian Wright rescues England in Poland.

If that had been disappointing, then what followed over the next fortnight would go a long way to sealing Taylor’s fate. England went into the away game against Norway having not lost a World Cup qualifier since their previous visit in 1981, but they produced a performance that sadly merited that run coming to an end. A decision to switch to three centre backs failed to help matters and England missed the combative presence of the suspended Ince, as the side slumped to a costly and deserved 2-0 defeat. For the first time England were in real trouble, while Norway moved closer to qualifying. They would duly top the group.

England or the Netherlands would miss out, with most predicting the former. Taylor was taking a hell of a beating from the press, ‘Norse Manure’ being one standout headline. In The Independent Joe Lovejoy wrote: “For England to qualify they will probably need maximum points from their last three games, which means beating the Dutch away – a task which looks light years beyond them. They were second-best throughout against the group leaders, who might easily have had more than the two goals they scored either side of half-time, through Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen.”

From bad, to worse…

Feeling low from the Norway defeat, England now headed off to the USA to compete in the US Cup against Brazil, Germany and the hosts. If the main aim of the trip was to help England prepare for the World Cup in America a year later then it was already looking a futile exercise. But they did get one piece of positive news while out there, with the Netherlands being held to a draw by Norway in a World Cup qualifier to keep England in with a shout. Any pleasure from that result quickly evaporated on the same evening as Taylor’s side sank to a 2-0 defeat to the USA. It provided more ammunition for Taylor’s critics, ‘Yanks 2, Planks 0’ the latest headline to scream out how badly things were going. Goalkeeper Chris Woods would be a fall-guy, never being capped again.

To their credit, England picked themselves up and produced much-improved displays in drawing 1-1 with Brazil and narrowly losing 2-1 to Germany. But the damage had already been done and the Norway and USA defeats were what the summer would be remembered for. A run of six games without a win meant Taylor urgently needed a response from his side as they prepared for the final three qualifiers. The first was at home to Poland in September, as England at least beat another of the top four sides. The win was wrapped up inside an hour as Ferdinand, Pearce and Gascoigne scored in a 3-0 success. The one downside was Gascoigne picking up a caution to rule him out of the following month’s showdown in the Netherlands, while they would also be without Pearce.

A night of controversy

It wasn’t quite going to be winner takes all in Rotterdam, but to all intents and purposes it was. The sides were level on points so whoever won would need just a point from their last game (the Dutch away to Poland, England taking on San Marino in Bologna) to be sure of going through. If it was a draw then things would get complicated, England needing to beat San Marino by a sufficient score to take them through on goal difference (assuming the Dutch beat Poland). It was a scenario that would suit Taylor’s team. The build-up saw Taylor have an infamous exchange with journalist Rob Shepherd at the press conference, captured in the fly-on-the-wall documentary about the campaign that would soon make headlines (we will save assessing that show for another day).

Given how much was at stake, if you look at it as a neutral for a minute then this was actually a bloody good game of football in which both sides went in search of the result they needed and created several decent chances. The Dutch were always a threat with wingers Marc Overmars and Bryan Roy continually a danger, while at the other end Tony Dorigo and Paul Merson both hit the post and Tony Adams had an effort cleared off the line. 

But controversy and key incidents were never far away, not all to England’s detriment given Frank Rijkaard’s goal was dubiously ruled out in the first half. During the second half the same player was somehow denied by David Seaman. Yet those moments would not live in the memory. Instead it would be the lasting sight of Ronald Koeman hauling back goalbound David Platt at 0-0. The referee initially appeared to award a penalty, eventually determining it was a free-kick on the edge of the box. But more contentious was the decision not to dismiss Koeman. “Is that not a sending off offence?” asked ITV co-commentator Ron Atkinson, rhetorically. Taylor was understandably livid on the touchline.

Graham Taylor experiences a painful night in Rotterdam.

As is well-known, Koeman duly scored a retaken free-kick with Taylor’s wounds deepened by England not having the chance to themselves retake a free-kick after being charged down in similar circumstances. Bergkamp wrapped up the 2-0 Dutch victory to effectively seal England and Taylor’s fate, as the manager told the linesman that his mate had cost him his job. “That blond man should not be on the field,” he said angrily when interviewed by ITV immediately afterwards. The man’s fury and pain was clear for the nation to see, knowing he would now face even more calls to leave.

The inevitable becomes reality

It was a low point, but – although criticism was pouring in over England’s impending absence from the World Cup – there wasn’t the same level of disappointment over England’s display as there had been in Norway. But the damage had been done. England needed the Dutch to lose in Poland and for them to beat San Marino by at least seven goals (assuming Poland only won by a one-goal margin). A big England victory was feasible, and it was possible that the Netherlands could could unstuck in Poland. But most were resigned to the inevitable, the Dutch good enough to get the result they needed against a side already out of the running.

Captain Stuart Pearce leaves the field after England fail to qualify for the World Cup.

England duly scored seven in front of a sparse crowd in Bologna (four netted by Ian Wright), but all their game against San Marino would really be remembered for was for embarrassingly going 1-0 down within seconds to one of the world’s football minnows. It was the final humiliation, symbolic of a campaign of failure. And before the end the BBC sacrificed live coverage to switch to Wales against Romania, as they clung to the hope of seeing a British side reach the USA. By then England’s chances were long gone, the Dutch winning 3-1 in Poland. Only at the moment when the Poles had levelled it at 1-1 had there ever been a glimmer of hope. Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “There was no act of God to provide the miracle for England – just a parable of painful failure as the dream died in the bitter cold of Bologna.”


Taylor’s departure was inevitable, but it would not be confirmed for almost a week. ‘That’s Yer Allotment’ proclaimed The Sun’s front page, again accompanied by a picture of his head as a turnip. The man had failed to take England to the finals, but the joke had gone too far. It was now getting extremely personal and generating an unnecessary level of hatred against a decent man. Taylor’s record in itself was not bad, but in three matches that had really mattered – against Sweden at Euro ’92 and then the World Cup qualifiers in Norway and the Netherlands – England had been beaten and that was sadly what many would remember his reign for. 

England would not be at the finals and for Taylor – so successful with Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa – it constituted his first real failure in football management. He had taken stick for his style of football before but now it was for his inability to get results. The flack he had taken – along with predecessor Bobby Robson – created the impression managing England was no longer seen as quite the dream job it once was, as the FA began looking for a successor.

On the night of the qualifying failure, Terry Venables was a pundit on the BBC’s Sportsnight. He remained non-committal when questioned by Des Lynam if he wanted the job, but within weeks he would be in the role as England looked towards Euro ’96 on home soil after a painful World Cup qualifying campaign. The failure under Taylor was a distant memory by the time of Euro ’96, but it would never be totally forgotten…

A different world – England’s women at the 1995 World Cup

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We take a break this week from looking back at the past fortunes of England’s men. With the Women’s World Cup soon to begin in Canada, it seems a good time to recall how England fared in a previous tournament so we turn the clock back 20 years to June 1995 when they first appeared in the finals. The female game in England has come a long way since then….

In 1991, there was a big breakthrough for female football when the first official Women’s World Cup was held in China. England failed to qualify for it, but four years later they did make it to the finals in Sweden. While the publicity surrounding England’s women at this year’s World Cup may not be close to being on a par with the hype afforded to the men when they feature in the finals, it has certainly improved a lot in the past 20 years. This year matches will be shown live on the BBC, but back then fairly brief highlights was about the sum total of coverage of England’s women after the men were shown more extensively playing in the Umbro Cup. 

With the men’s Rugby World Cup taking place at the same time in South Africa, it’s fair to say how England’s women performed in Sweden was not dominating the back pages. It would be wrong to say the tournament was ignored by the media, but it was certainly given limited exposure compared to today and this was in keeping with the way women’s football as a whole was covered back then – prior to its Football Italia days, Channel 4 had broadcast a few women’s highlights shows in a rare foray into football broadcasting, but little else had been seen by the masses.

Women’s football was not professional in Britain back then, meaning key players such as stalwart Gillian Coultard, captain Debbie Bampton and goalkeeper Pauline Cope would have to take time off work to participate. Head coach Ted Copeland combined managing the side with being a Football Association regional director of coaching. The previous two years had seen England’s women become world champions in the traditionally male team sports of cricket (1993) and rugby union (1994). One player who had featured for England in their cricket triumph was part of the World Cup football squad. Clare Taylor would be looking to complete the most unlikely of double triumphs, with comparisons drawn with Tony Adams when it came to playing style. But Adams wasn’t combining playing football with driving a van for the Royal Mail. “The amount of time I spend away on unpaid leave has got beyond a joke,” Taylor reflected later in 1995. 

        
Future England manager Hope Powell (left) was part of the 1995 World Cup squad, along with goal machine Karen Walker (right).

The 20-strong squad also contained probably the two best-known English women’s footballers of their generation in Marieanne Spacey and Karen Walker, whose goalscoring record had attracted attention beyond just the hardcore ranks of women’s football followers. Bampton had recently taken over the captaincy from Coultard, who remained at the heart of the squad. “It was difficult, especially as Gill and I were room-mates and at that point the squad was split,” Bampton recalled later. Future manager Hope Powell also took her place in the squad, a survivor of the 1984 European Competition for Women’s Football when England had lost to Sweden in the final. The 1995 World Cup would come a couple of years too soon for future star names such as Sue Smith, Faye White and Rachel Yankey, while 16-year-old Kelly Smith stayed in England sitting her GCSE exams. Her time on the world stage would come later.

A winning start

With an awkward number of 12 sides in the tournament, the top two teams in each of the three groups would go through to the quarter-finals along with the best two third-placed sides. England were realistically capable of getting out of the group stage and they took a big step towards achieving that with a 3-2 win over Canada in their opening match. It should have been more convincing, the Canadians mounting a late rally with two goals in the closing minutes after Coultard (2) and Spacey – including two spot-kicks – had put England three up. In another measure of how much women’s football has grown since then, the crowd was just 655.

In the same group, Norway had opened with an 8-0 thrashing of Nigeria. The Scandinavians were at the forefront of women’s football and this was a golden period for Norwegian game, coming just over a year after their men had appeared in the World Cup finals in the USA at England’s expense. It perhaps showed that England were not lagging that far behind the leading lights in women’s football that they only lost 2-0 in their second group game against Norway, who finished the group with 17 goals for and none against. Despite this loss, England were realistically going to go through and a win against Nigeria would guarantee second place in the group. They duly got it as they again triumphed 3-2, with the Swedish-based Karen Farley scoring twice and Walker netting the other goal. 

The curse of the Germans

If Germany have proved a perpetual thorn in the side of the England men’s team, then it has been even worse for the women. Time and time again the Germans have thwarted England over the years, most notably dishing out a 6-2 thrashing in the Euro 2009 final. Only last year the Germans won 3-0 as England’s women played at the new Wembley for the first time. A few months before the 1995 World Cup, England’s UEFA Women’s Championship dream ended at the semi-final stage with defeat to Germany – less than 1,000 seeing the sides meet in the first-leg at Watford. And therefore it was no surprise they would end England’s 1995 World Cup challenge in the quarter-finals with a 3-0 win, with goalkeeper Cope earning praise for helping keep the score down in both this and the Norway game. Germany went on to reach the final, where they lost to Norway. England had come up against both finalists and kept their pride intact in a memorable tournament for several nations.

England could return home content with how they had performed. But they would have to wait another 12 years for a further crack at the World Cup finals, their hopes of making it in 1999 cruelly dashed once they were drawn in the mother of all qualifying groups with Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. They would also be absent in 2003. The 2007 finals saw far greater media interest than in 1995 and the potent Kelly Smith was elevated to stardom, appearing as a guest on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross after England returned home with their pride intact.

But, not unlike their male counterparts, England’s women have found the quarter-finals to be a continual barrier they cannot cross. They bowed out to the USA in 2007 and France on penalties in 2011. The women’s game has come a long way in the 20 years since England made their Women’s World Cup debut. Under Mark Sampson can they finally go beyond the last eight this time around in Canada?

England Qualifying Campaigns: 1982 World Cup – Thank You Switzerland

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With England’s new season about to begin with matches against Norway and Switzerland, it seems the right time to recall when both sides featured in England’s qualifying group for the 1982 World Cup. In the second blog in the series recalling past England qualifying campaigns for major tournaments, we look back what surely must rank as their strangest ever. More than 30 years on, it still remains something of a mystery how they got through it to reach the finals in Spain – but they did…

To say this was an unusual qualifying campaign would be an understatement. England advanced despite losing three matches out of eight; they lost to all the bottom three sides in the group but did the double over the otherwise unbeatable group winners; they went from being all but out to odds on to go through without kicking a ball in the process; and had they lost their final game then Romania would have gone through with just two wins and five goals from eight matches. Throw in one of the most iconic commentary lines ever and some odd fixture scheduling and you’ve got one crazy football cocktail all told.

It had been a long wait for England to appear in the World Cup finals. Their last appearance was in 1970 and the last time they had come through a qualifying group to get there was 1962 (they qualified automatically as hosts in 1966 and holders in 1970). But now it seemed very likely they would finally get there, from a group containing Hungary, Romania, Switzerland and Norway.

An end to the exile?
There were three reasons why England were firm favourites to end their long exile from the World Cup finals. The first was the World Cup was expanding from 16 to 24 teams, meaning they would go through if they finished second (for all their recent failings, they had never finished outside the top two in a qualifying group). Secondly, to achieve that top two spot seemed all the more likely once the qualification draw was made in October 1979. Although only Norway of the five teams in the group had not appeared at a World Cup finals since 1966, there seemed little to fear with only Hungary having a recent track record to suggest they could top the group at England’s expense. It might not look a particularly easy group by modern standards, but in an era before the likes of San Marino joined the party sides such as Norway were rated among the worst in Europe. Switzerland’s reputation was not particularly strong either.

“I would dearly love to take England to the World Cup finals. We have a good draw and must have a good chance of qualifying. But remember, there are no easy internationals these days,” England manager Ron Greenwood after the World Cup qualifying draw was made.

The third, and perhaps most important reason, was England at last seemed to have turned the corner after a miserable decade that had brought continual failures to qualify for major tournaments. Things finally went in their favour in the qualifying campaign for the 1980 European Championship, easily topping the group to end their exile from major finals. Under Ron Greenwood, a new confidence and blend of players was developing. There were experienced players like Peter Shilton (continuing to alternate with the similarly established Ray Clemence), Phil Thompson, Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan, while promising players including Glenn Hoddle and Kenny Sansom had broken into the international fray the previous year.

Greenwood’s first tournament with England was Euro ’80. Like ‘Reverend Ron’s’ reign as a whole it was a bit of a curate’s egg as England neither did particularly well or badly. They went out at the group stage (effectively the quarter-finals) with a win, draw and defeat, in a tournament overshadowed by disturbing trouble on the terraces from their followers in their opening match against Belgium. It was sadly to be an all too familiar tale when England went overseas in the 1980s.

Start as you mean to go on, but won’t do…
England got their campaign under way in a convincing style at odds with the rest of the group, beating Norway 4-0 at Wembley in September 1980. It wasn’t a vintage display, but it would be the biggest margin of victory in the whole group against the lowest rated side in it. England gave Eric Gates and Graham Rix their debuts while Bryan Robson (with just two previous caps to his name) was also in the starting line-up and properly embarked on his long international career in the heart of the midfield. He would be the only player to start all qualifying matches and moved to Manchester United from West Bromwich Albion for a record £1.5 million before the qualifying campaign ended.


England appear to lay down a marker in their opening World Cup qualifying match against Norway.

A month later came the first ringing of alarm bells, as England went down 2-1 in Romania. But the qualifying games were coming thick and fast and they saw 1980 out with a 2-1 home win over Switzerland in November, Greenwood’s side making much harder work of the win than they should have after being 2-0 up. It was not considered an impressive win, with the Swiss having already lost at home to Norway. England now had a four month break until their next game, as domestic club commitments led to them not taking part in the Gold Cup tournament in Uruguay at Christmas to mark the 50th anniversary of the World Cup. They were the only past winner to miss the competition.

From bad, to worse, to despair
1981 was about as grim a year as England have ever had. They played nine matches (six of them at Wembley) and won just twice. They failed to score in four successive matches and went six games without a win, while they would also suffer one of their most embarrassing defeats that appeared to have left their World Cup qualification hopes in tatters. With the conduct of England followers attracting even more negative headlines, it really wasn’t a proud year. And yet it would all end in happiness, somehow.

A 2-1 friendly home defeat to Spain in March set the trend, being memorable only for a cracking Glenn Hoddle goal. That would be the last goal England fans could enjoy for a while. A month later Romania came to Wembley in the next qualifier and ground out a 0-0 draw, as the sense of uncertainty over England’s World Cup finals spot grew. In May Brazil triumphed 1-0 in a Wembley friendly, on a night when Alvin Martin and Peter Withe won their first caps. The Home International Championship was effectively null and void due to the political situation in Northern Ireland leading to England’s trip there being called off, but they played their remaining two games. Wales drew 0-0 at Wembley, three days before Scotland claimed a 1-0 win there. The pressure was mounting on Greenwood, who had presided over England’s worst run for more than 100 years.

It was about to get worse. The month ended with England heading to Switzerland, a night that dragged the nation’s football reputation further into the gutter. More trouble on the terraces was sickening to see and made front page headlines, while the back pages were full of England’s 2-1 loss in Basel. A Terry McDermott goal to end the goal drought was scant consolation. England had played five games in the group, won two and lost two. It was looking ominous and Greenwood had seen enough, privately deciding the time was right to leave.

Restoring hope and changing Ron’s mind
His planned departure would be on hold for a week, by which time things could be even worse. During fixture negotiations England had either been bullied into playing two away qualifiers on successive Saturdays at the end of a long, domestic season (in which Ipswich Town and Liverpool had gone all the way to European glory and Aston Villa barely changed their team all campaign in winning the First Division) or someone believed it was a good option in place of the unusual end of season tour. They now faced the most daunting game of the qualifying series, away to qualification favourites Hungary. Almost 70,000 were present in Budapest to see one of England’s best performances under Greenwood as they achieved a memorable 3-1 victory, with Trevor Brooking scoring twice and Kevin Keegan netting the other from the penalty spot. Greenwood announced his resignation to the players on the flight home, but was talked out of it. He would be sticking around until the conclusion of a World Cup qualifying programme that would go to the wire.


A priceless win for England in Hungary.

One problem with this qualifying process compared to today was the total lack of an international calendar, meaning matches were played in isolation on all sorts of odd dates. Nations were also pretty much free to decide if they wanted to play several matches close together, creating a situation in this group where Hungary were continually left with numerous matches in hand as they had an intensive spell of games near the end of the group. As a result it made it hard to call exactly how the group was panning out. But England had just seven points from six games, while the Romanians had six from five and Hungary had five from four. A 1-1 draw between Norway and Switzerland later in the month meant the Scandinavians had three points from five games and were all but out, while the Swiss had four from five.

Taking a hell of a beating
September 9th, 1981. A date that resonates as a true low point for English football. After the high of Hungary came the utter low of the away game in Norway. A win for England was expected and would put them on course for a place in the finals. They had dished out thrashings to Norway in the past and Scandinavian sides were not really taken seriously (apart from Sweden), a view that would change considerably in the early 1980s. Bryan Robson scored his first England goal to give them the lead, but by half-time they trailed 2-1. If there was a game that made Greenwood’s mind up about who should be his first choice goalkeeper for the following summer’s World Cup, it was probably this as Clemence could take a fair chunk of the blame for Norway’s goals (along with Terry McDermott who helped gift Norway their winner). England never recovered, running out of ideas as Norway held out for a famous win.


John Bond tries to keep morale up as the nation plunges into despair after losing to Norway.

The contrast in moods between the two nations was stark. Brian Moore conveyed the sense of desolation on ITV, while Norwegian television would enjoy post-match lines from Bjørge Lillelien that have gone down in folklore. England had indeed taken a ‘hell of a beating’, although whether Margaret Thatcher could hear him was another matter! But it really looked all over for England. They had to hope for results to somehow go their way. In the ITV studio, Manchester City manager John Bond seemed to briefly switch from critical pundit to England cheerleader as he tried to convince presenter Jim Rosenthal that they still had a chance of making the finals. It seemed a forlorn hope, rational thinking going out of the window. There would be 10 weeks until they concluded their qualifying programme against Hungary, in which time five other matches would be played. By then their hopes could already be over.

England were now left to just watch and hope. On September 23th, it got worse as Romania and Hungary drew 0-0. A win for either would have been bearable but this was the worst scenario. Romania were level on points with England with a game in hand, while Hungary were one point behind with two games to spare. To stand a chance Greenwood’s men needed either Romania to slip up in their double-header against Switzerland, or Hungary to drop points in home games against Switzerland and Norway.

Thank you Switzerland
The most joyous day for England was really October 10th, the day the door to the finals opened for them again. Switzerland went to Romania and fell behind in the second half. Incredibly they turned it round to win 2-1 and keep alive their own slim hopes, but more importantly from an English perspective they had thrown the Three Lions a lifeline. There was still work to do, but a collective sigh of relief was blown. Whatever now happened, they would be through by beating Hungary.

The Hungarians then proceeded to comfortably beat Switzerland and Norway, wrapping up their qualification before the final match at Wembley. On November 11, Switzerland and Romania drew 0-0. It was a result that suited England fine. Romania were only one point ahead of them and with an inferior goal difference. Incredibly, despite having lost three times England would only need a point from their final match a week later against Hungary. But as would be seen 26 years later when England met Croatia in almost identical circumstances to determine if they would qualify for the European Championship, there would be no guarantee of things working out.

With England back in with a chance, ticket sales went from slow to a 92,000 midweek sell-out and the match was also shown live on the BBC (a relative rarity for home matches). A highly charged atmosphere, a true desire from the players to get through and a fairly uninspired performance from the visitors all added up to make it a night when England did what was required. Indeed, the tension was arguably less than it should have been given the nature of the group as England took an early lead through a slightly clumsy Paul Mariner goal, typifying the stumbling nature of the qualification process. Hungary rarely threatened to equalise and did not offer much help to Eastern European neighbours Romania, on a night when Tony Morley came on for his international debut (capping a memorable year when he had won the BBC’s Goal of the Season, his house had burnt down and he won the First Division with Aston Villa).


England make it – just feel the relief around Wembley.

When the final whistle blew the sense of joy around Wembley was tangible, it had been a long wait but England were at last in a World Cup finals. It was their first win at Wembley for almost exactly a year. They had finished with worse records than Wales and the Republic of Ireland, who both missed out. But this whole group had been a bit of a abnormality, with no whipping boy unlike most other sections. It was far from the Group of Death in terms of being full of excellent sides, but it was so far as no weak ones were concerned. Norway were certainly a stronger team than the likes of Luxembourg, Cyprus and Malta.

Somehow England would find themselves seeded for the World Cup finals, seemingly based on nothing other than their 1966 glory. It wasn’t quite the end of the drama, as the Falklands War threatened to put England’s place in the finals in jeopardy again. But they went to Spain and in contrast to their losing record in the qualifiers, they were unbeaten in five games but their goals dried up. It was disappointing not to go further, but after all the qualifying commotion it was just a relief for England to at last be back in the World Cup finals.