Qualifying

Six of the Best – Dramatic England World Cup qualifying climaxes

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In the coming days England will be expected to wrap up World Cup qualification without too much anxiety. But plenty of England World Cup qualifying campaigns have gone right to the wire and we today recall six such instances…

Republic of Ireland 1-1 England, May 1957

England qualified unbeaten for each World Cup from 1950 to 1962 (and then automatically for the two after that), with their one real moment of worry coming in their last qualifier for the 1958 World Cup. Just 11 days after England had won 5-1 at home to the Republic of Ireland and more than a year before the finals, the sides met again in Dublin with Walter Winterbottom’s team needing a point to clinch qualification. If England lost, then they would have to face their opponents again in a play-off provided the Irish beat Denmark (considered a weak side at the time).

John Atyeo’s late goal took England through to the 1958 World Cup, but he would never appear for them again.

Alf Ringstead put Ireland in front after three minutes and that looked like it would settle the contest. But in the last minute Bristol City’s John Atyeo levelled matters to break Irish hearts and send England through to Sweden. Atyeo was rewarded by never being capped again. This contest may not be as well-known as the others we are recalling today, but it was no less dramatic as England rode their luck to qualify. “Never will they have a narrower squeak,” reported The Times. “Indeed every Irishman this evening will be darkly muttering the word ‘robbery’.”

England 1-1 Poland, October 1973

A match that will never be forgotten and still crops up in discussion more than 40 years later. When England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1978 and 1994 they went into the last match still in with a shout but with matters out of their hands, with fortune not on their side as they missed out despite beating Italy and San Marino respectively. But at the climax of qualifying for the 1974 tournament, matters were more straightforward. “Win or bust,” said BBC commentator Barry Davies as England welcomed Poland to Wembley in October 1973. The 1966 World Cup winners had to win this match to make the 1974 finals, or the Poles would be the side to make it to West Germany. First was first, second really would be nowhere with no play-offs to offer another shot at getting through. Poland had inflicted England’s first World Cup qualifying defeat four months earlier and were not to be underestimated.

An image that sums up the infamous night: England attacking, but not scoring.

As has been well-documented, England peppered the Polish goal but a combination of bad luck, Jan Tomaszewski’s heroics – despite being labelled a “clown” by Brian Clough – and Sir Alf Ramsey’s men failing to take chances kept the game goalless. Then the sucker punch was dealt after the break, Norman Hunter and Peter Shilton both taking the blame for Jan Domarski’s breakaway goal to give the Poles the lead. Although Allan Clarke’s penalty restored parity, the winner would not come for England despite creating further chances – with substitute Kevin Hector almost the hero at the death. As the final whistle sounded there was disbelief at Wembley. “One of the blackest days they’ve ever had,” said ITV commentator Hugh Johns as reality bit about England’s failure. They should have won this one, but the Poles would prove they had merited qualification when they excelled to take third spot in the tournament. By then, Ramsey was out of a job.

England 1-0 Hungary, November 1981

When England took “a hell of a beating” away to Norway in September 1981, it looked like the game was up and they would fail to qualify for a third successive World Cup and potentially be out even before they played their last game at home to Hungary. But then the footballing gods answered ‘Reverend Ron’ Greenwood’s prayers. An unexpected combination of results – most notably main challengers Romania taking one point from two games against Switzerland – meant England now only needed a point at home to the Hungarians, who had already qualified as group winners. But so fraught had England’s qualifying campaign been that nobody was celebrating yet. The game’s importance was such that Wembley was full to its 92,000 night-time capacity and it was being televised live on the BBC – a rarity for home games at the time.

Paul Mariner’s goal takes England through to the 1982 World Cup.

The nation prepared for a tense night but an early goal by Paul Mariner calmed nerves and the Hungarians rarely looked like they might bail out their Eastern European rivals Romania. England successfully saw the game out and at last they could plan for a summer in Spain. The game itself was perhaps less dramatic and nerve-jangling in the closing stages than most of the others we are recalling today, but it would not be surpassed for sheer relief over qualification being achieved as the crowd at Wembley sang themselves hoarse in the rain. “England are back,” they roared, as England followers felt delight that the Three Lions would finally be present in a World Cup finals.

Poland 0-0 England, October 1989

When England visited Poland for their final Italia ’90 qualifier, it seemed more than likely they would make the finals after Terry Butcher’s full-blooded display in Sweden the previous month. To simplify a rather complicated situation they would definitely go through if they avoided defeat in Chorzow. If they lost they would then endure a tense few weeks hoping other results went in their favour to qualify. They had yet to concede a goal in five matches, although Bobby Robson and his side had not totally shaken off the criticism that came their way after flopping during Euro ’88. Failure to qualify would almost certainly spell the end for Robson.

England were far from fluent in this game and were reliant on the veteran Shilton, who made amends for his error against the same opponents 16 years earlier with a series of impressive stops. As the clock reached 90 minutes England appeared to have wrapped up the draw they needed to make it to Italy. Then, after 540 minutes of keeping opponents out during the group, they suddenly looked like they were going to concede in stoppage time of the last game as Ryszard Tarasiewicz let fly from outside the area. His strike beat Shilton but cannoned back off the crossbar and away to safety. England’s sigh of relief over that was nothing compared to that breathed once the enormity of the point earned became clear in the weeks that followed. Wins for Sweden (v Poland), Romania (v Denmark) and West Germany (v Wales) would have all conspired to keep England at home as the weakest runner-up from the groups containing four teams had they lost. Considering how fondly remembered Italia ’90 is by England fans, it’s amazing to think just how close they came to not even qualifying for it.

Italy 0-0 England, October 1997

Eight years to the night of England getting the draw required in Poland, they again needed to stand firm to make the finals as they faced a showdown with Italy in Rome. Although the Italians had won at Wembley in February, England had shown greater consistency during the qualifying campaign to hold top spot ahead of the decisive final qualifier. If England avoided defeat they were through, if they lost they would be in the play-offs. It was Glenn Hoddle’s biggest test since taking over as boss the previous year, taking on proven opposition in a frenzied atmosphere. 

David Beckham, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne celebrate in Rome.

England gave a disciplined display that is still fondly remembered 20 years later, withstanding the Italian threat and at times looking like they could win it themselves. Never more so than in stoppage time, as Ian Wright struck the post after chasing down the Italian defence. It would have capped the night but suddenly Italy – down to 10 men after Angelo de Livio received a second yellow card – broke forward and for once managed to carve out a clear opening. Time stood still as the ball was crossed for Christian Vieri, who headed across goal and inches wide. It was the last chance and seconds later Hoddle could celebrate his crowning glory. Wright sank to his knees in joy, but fate would lead to him missing out on yet another major tournament. The night also really marked the last international hurrah for Paul Gascoigne, back in the city he graced with Lazio, while midfield colleague Paul Ince led by example as he played on with his head bandaged up. It really was a night to remember.

England 2-2 Greece, October 2001

Following Sven-Goran Eriksson’s arrival, England had been unstoppable and recovered from a poor start in the group to lead it with a game to play. Now they simply had to win at home to a Greece side who were already out of the running, or match whatever Germany’s result was at home to Finland. But England, fielding Nigel Martyn in goal in David Seaman’s absence, endured an afternoon of struggle on a day when the Greeks gave an early inkling of what they would go on to astonishingly achieve during Euro 2004. Greece twice took the lead, with substitute Teddy Sheringham’s goal seconds after coming on only briefly levelling matters.

David Beckham’s free-kick clinches England’s World Cup finals place in the dying seconds.

England seemed destined to have to settle for a play-off spot, but there was one glimmer of hope. Germany were being held by Finland, meaning that a draw would be sufficient for England to claim top spot. The ending would be unforgettable, David Beckham’s free-kick levelling matters and sending Eriksson’s side through. It had hardly been a performance or result to savour, but the manner in which qualification was clinched brought wild celebrations at Old Trafford. “It’s a fantastic ending to a very poor performance,” proclaimed BBC commentator John Motson.

Since then England have made lighter work of qualifying for World Cups, wrapping up their place before the final game for the 2006 and 2010 tournaments and getting the win they needed at home to Poland to top the qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup.

England’s Qualifying Campaigns: Euro ’68 – Scotland become ‘world champions’

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This month 50 years ago England returned to action for the first time since winning the World Cup three months earlier. They now moved onto their next challenge, looking to win the 1968 European Championship. To be in with a shout they would have to come through a qualifying group containing UK rivals Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales…

Think 1966 and any England fan will instinctively think of the World Cup. But as the dust settled on England’s triumph, the side were quickly back in competitive action. On October 22 England were heading to Northern Ireland for their opening qualifying match for the 1968 European Championship. While retaining the World Cup in 1970 would be the primary goal, in the short-term there looked the serious possibility England could simultaneously hold the three available titles of World Cup, European Championship and Home International Championship.

The latter two competitions would be linked, as the 1966-67 and 1967-68 Home International series would double up as a qualifying group for Euro ’68. England had been the only UK side present at the 1966 World Cup, although the other three had all finished just one place off qualifying from their respective groups. The chance to claim the scalp of the world champions would appeal to the other British sides, particularly Scotland. The Scots had never entered the European Nations Cup before, while England’s only previous foray had lasted just two matches against France in qualifying for the 1964 tournament.

The second-leg defeat against the French in February 1963 had marked the start of Alf Ramsey’s reign. Since then he had built a side to win the World Cup and the soon-to-be knighted manager would stick with his trusted and familiar XI when England travelled to Belfast in October 1966, the day after the tragic events in Aberfan. England paraded the Jules Rimet Trophy prior to kick-off, as they faced a side including promising youngsters George Best and Pat Jennings. Roger Hunt gave England a half-time lead, with Martin Peters wrapping up the 2-0 win on the hour mark.


Memories of the summer were in clear evidence as England visited Northern Ireland in October 1966.

A scrappy game concluded with the Irish having Billy Ferguson sent-off. England had triumphed, but their performance had won few admirers and it did nothing to silence those who believed they were somewhat fortunate to be world champions. Ken Jones wrote in the Daily Mirror: “The way in which they won the World Cup has already been forgotten in three months of tumultuous acclaim that has given their talent a sheen it never had. Their efficient, if at times inelegant, football left an Irish crowd cold on Saturday.” 

Back at Wembley

England’s Wembley homecoming on November 2 produced an anti-climatic 0-0 friendly draw with Czechoslovakia. But two weeks later they faced a more important clash when they hosted Wales in their second qualifying match. The Welsh had drawn with Scotland in their opening game but they were to be well-beaten at Wembley. Fielding the World Cup XI for the last time after six successive matches, goals from Geoff Hurst (2), brothers Bobby and Jack Charlton and Terry Hennessey (own goal) brought England a 5-1 victory. The result meant Ramsey’s side had been unbeaten throughout 1966 and they now had five months off until they played again.

In April 1967 the World Cup winners faced their biggest match since the final, as Scotland visited Wembley. Since being thrashed 9-3 at Wembley in 1961 the Scots had enjoyed the upper hand in the derby clashes, winning three of the last five meetings. They now had the added incentive of trying to stop England qualifying for the quarter-finals of the European Championship, as well as seeking to end their 18-month unbeaten record. Plus the match would decide who won the 1966-67 Home International Championship, with the Scots having three points and England boasting four as they headed into the contest.

Scotland celebrate a famous win over England.

Jimmy Greaves returned to the England side for the first time since injury curtailed his participation in the 1966 World Cup. It was a day that would go down in infamy, the Scots revelling in their 3-2 success. England were hampered by Jack Charlton suffering an early injury and having to be stuck upfront in the absence of substitutes, but that did not detract from the Scottish victory which was thoroughly merited as Jim Baxter indulged in a spot of ‘keepy-uppy’ to rub England’s noses in it.

Denis Law gave Scotland the lead on 27 minutes, with the scoreline not changing until Bobby Lennox doubled the advantage 12 minutes from time. A late flurry saw Jack Charlton defy the pain barrier to score and give England hope, Jim McCalliog put the Scots 3-1 up and Geoff Hurst again put England back in it. But Scotland saw the game out to claim the victory, their fans invading the pitch at the end in delight. The Scots were already growing tired of hearing about England being the world champions and would now delight in the fact that they had done what sides such as Argentina, Portugal and West Germany couldn’t the previous summer and beaten them at Wembley. England had won the World Cup, but Scotland were the first team to beat them afterwards so that meant they were the new world champions in the eyes of some north of the border! 

For Ramsey defeat to the Scots would hurt, but perhaps more painful would be some scathing match reports and suggestions the good times were over. In the Daily Mirror, Ken Jones said that “England ought to have been massacred” and expressed his belief they had been let off the hook in only losing 3-2. “I am left only with the thought that Sir Alf Ramsey’s World Cup team might have been destroyed beyond all repair,” he concluded. It was less than nine months since the World Cup triumph and just one defeat had been sustained, but already doubts were being cast.

The summer of 1967 was much quieter for England than a year before, the season concluding with two friendlies in May (although Ramsey would then lead a strong FA XI through a tournament in Canada). Greaves scored in an impressive 2-0 home win over Spain, but his last cap for his country came three days later as Austria were beaten 1-0 in Vienna. He would remain involved in the squad, but effectively retired from the international scene once his request for him to only be called up if he would be playing was inevitably rejected by Ramsey. The Spain game had seen John Hollins win his only England cap, while Alan Mullery was picked for the first time since 1964 and Keith Newton earned only his third cap. The latter two would become regulars, as Ramsey looked towards the future and some of the 1966 heroes found their places in jeopardy.

Regaining the advantage

In October the European Championship qualifiers resumed when England travelled to Cardiff to face Wales.  A goal from Martin Peters gave England a first-half lead, but victory was only assured when Bobby Charlton and Alan Ball (penalty) scored in the last five minutes to wrap up a 3-0 win. But of greater significance was Northern Ireland’s 1-0 win over Scotland on the same day, handing the initiative back to Ramsey’s men. A win and a draw from the next two games would be sufficient.

England meet Wales in October 1967.

Northern Ireland visited Wembley in November without key players George Best and Derek Dougan, with England getting a 2-0 win to preserve top spot. Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton scored, but Scotland’s win over Wales meant the qualification battle would go to the final round of matches. George Cohen made his final appearance for England in the win over Northern Ireland, while David Sadler won his first cap and Peter Thompson featured for the first time since the corresponding match two years earlier. It had not been a vintage England display and they could have gone behind early on, Ramsey conceding that “too many players were too casual”. But the win that was needed had been achieved.

The decider against Scotland

A rare December friendly saw England make hard work of a 2-2 draw with USSR at a snowy Wembley, in which Cyril Knowles became England’s latest debutant. But the key date was February 24, 1968, as Scotland met England at Hampden Park. It was going to be winner takes all, although for Ramsey’s team a draw would be sufficient. England were the World Cup holders, but Scotland held the Home International Championship crown and could also boast the European Cup title at club level after Celtic’s triumph the previous season. It was certainly a huge game and a staggering 134,000 crowd would be in Glasgow to watch it. There have been plenty of big games between the sides down the years, but this was one of the biggest. And yet the English domestic programme would continue on the day, matches such as Arsenal against Manchester United being played at the same time as clubs coped without their internationals.

“I doubt if the Scots have the flair or the teamwork to match England,” wrote Mirror man Jones as he revealed Mike Summerbee was to win his first cap in place of Roger Hunt. Although cynics may have believed England’s 1966 triumph owed much to home advantage, it is worth nothing they went into this game having not lost away from home since 1964.

England started brightly and went ahead after 20 minutes through a well-taken goal by Peters. But with Charlie Cooke impressing for the hosts the next goal went to the Scots, John Hughes heading them level on 39 minutes. England still headed the group if things stayed as they were, but a goal for the Scots would swing the advantage their way. Ultimately they had few opportunities to do so after the break, England looking the more threatening with Peters hitting the post. Whereas Scotland had deserved to win at Wembley, it was widely felt England were the better side here. They couldn’t regain the lead, but didn’t need to as they safely saw out the match to its conclusion and gained the point required to advance – while also meaning they were outright British champions for 1967-68.

Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “If there was anything to be learned from the occasion it was that the reigning world champions cannot in the future afford to dabble in a similar show of brinkmanship. They should have taken outright victory by two or three goals long before the end, a comfortable position which would not have brought their supporters’ hearts to their mouths as the Scots fought to steal a snap victory in injury time against all the run of the second half.”

England had achieved their basic target of topping the group and could now look ahead to playing Spain in a two-legged quarter-final, which they won to advance to the finals in Italy before losing to Yugoslavia in the semi-final.

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.

England’s Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’88: Peaking Too Soon

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In the latest look back at past England qualifying campaigns for major tournaments, we recall their road to the 1988 European Championship in West Germany. Bobby Robson’s side looked awesome at times in sealing their place and ended with a tremendous qualifying record. What a shame that form wasn’t carried over into the finals tournament…

After the drama and controvery of Mexico ’86, England could look forward to the rest of the 1980s with hope with a relatively young squad. Unlike after the previous World Cup, this time around virtually all the squad would stay in contention for a place and there would be few changes in personnel as thoughts turned to seeking to reach West Germany. Ray Wilkins would soon see time called on his England career, but he was still involved as the qualifying campaign got under way.

England’s very presence in the qualifying campaign had initially been in doubt, with it feared the ban on English clubs in Europe would spread to the national team. But in October 1985 they were given the green light by UEFA to participate. Having failed to reach Euro ’84 (albeit after losing out to an excellent Denmark side), the minimum requirement would be to get through this time. But by now the fear of what English hooligans would do on foreign soil was such that when a qualifying draw was made attention was as much about avoiding serious trouble as having an easy ride on the field.

Draw Delight

Bobby Robson was on a skiing holiday when the draw was made on Valentine’s Day 1986, but he could barely hide his pleasure at being in a group with Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Turkey – teams they would be expected to finish above and where trouble would hopefully be avoided. “Overall I am delighted that we will be able to concentrate on our football,” said Robson.

Both Northern Ireland and Turkey had been in England’s qualifying group for Mexico ’86, with neither managing to score against them and the Turks conceding 13 goals in the two games. The Northern Irish had enjoyed an excellent decade so far, but Billy Bingham faced a rebuilding exercise with players such as Pat Jennings having bowed out and limited quality available to replace them. Probably the biggest threat to England’s place in the finals came from Yugoslavia, who had failed to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico but had made it to Spain ’82 and France ’84. Only the top team would progress.

A strong start

England’s first match of the 1986-87 season brought a 1-0 friendly defeat to Sweden but the serious stuff begian a month later as Northern Ireland came to Wembley for the opening qualifier. There was a clearer gulf between the sides than in the World Cup qualifying campaign and far less public interest, as just over 35,000 were there to see it. Billy Bingham had rather oddly chosen to get married on the day of the game, before seeing his side lose 3-0. Now playing for Barcelona, World Cup top scorer Gary Lineker scored twice including a delicious chip to leave manager Robson proclaiming he was the best striker in the world. Given the form he was in, it was hard to argue with that claim at this point.

  
A month later, England made it two home wins out of two as Yugoslavia visited Wembley. Despite having to field a makeshift defence with goalkeeper Chris Woods earning a rare cap in a competitive match and Gary Mabbutt back in the side after a three-year absence, England emerged triumphant in a physical contest. Mabbutt scored a superb header before Viv Anderson completed the 2-0 win, in a match beat remembered for Glenn Hoddle having his head bandaged after a clash of heads with Steve Hodge. It hadn’t been easy, but England had made a superb start to the campaign. 

However, Bobby Robson was left to defend the reputation of his side after they were labelled “too aggressive” by opposite number Ivica Osim, who was angry after his player Semir Tuce sustained a suspected broken leg. “We were hard and competitive, but never malicious or brutal,” retorted Robson, who would now have a three-month break before leading his side into battle again.
Friendly Fire

  

England started 1987 with a memorable 4-2 friendly win away to Spain in Madrid, with Lineker scoring all four and Arsenal defender Tony Adams becoming the first player born after the 1966 World Cup to win a full England cap. It made for a happy 54th birthday for Bobby Robson, who had turned things round from a tough start in the job.

April Fool’s Day brought a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast to preserve the 100% qualifying record, with Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle scoring. The month ended with another qualifier and the first disappointment, as England looked uninspiring away to Turkey. England had won 8-0 on their previous visit in 1984 but this time around they couldn’t manage one goal, as the hosts achieved a moral victory.  Clive Allen had been in prolific form for Tottenham Hotspur with almost 50 goals to his name during the season and he earned an England recall. But a disallowed effort was as close as he or anyone else would come to getting on the scoresheet in the goalless draw. To make things worse, Yugoslavia won in Northern Ireland on the same day to keep the pressure on. 

Pearce and Webb Join the Party

Mercifully there was no long-distance end of season tour in 1987, with England drawing Rous Cup matches with Brazil and Scotland as Stuart Pearce emerged as a a good rival for Kenny Sansom’s left back spot.

After a break of more than three months, England returned to action with a friendly trip to West Germany. The Euro ’88 hosts laid down a warning for the finals with a 3-1 win as the Three Lions again had a bout of ‘Septemberitis’ and started the season with a loss. The night was most notable for substitute Neil Webb becoming the 1,000th player to win an England cap. Almost inevitably not all the headlines concerned matters on the field, with reports of hooligans fighting on the streets of Dusseldorf doing nothing for the nation’s reputation while the European club ban remained in place.

Stuffing the Turkey

  

In October England’s qualifying campaign resumed as Turkey visited Wembley. Determined to avoid a repeat of the frustration in the away game, England went at their opponents from the off and led 2-0 within 10 minutes. They refused to take their foot off the gas and ended up repeating their 8-0 win over the Turks in 1984. Gary Lineker netted a hat-trick, with John Barnes (2), Bryan Robson, Peter Beardsley and Neil Webb also on target in the rout. Barnes and Beardsley had moved to Liverpool in the summer and were helping their new club romp towards the league title in style, with that swagger and confidence seeming to be successfully carried through into the England set-up. 

It had been a great night, but was tinged with disappointment as Yugoslavia beat Northern Ireland 3-0 to leave England still not certain of their finals place. It would now boil down to their final match in the group – their toughest-looking one away to the Yugoslavs on November 11. If England won or drew they would definitely qualify, but if they lost then they would be left clinging to the slim hope that Turkey could get a result against Yugoslavia in the final match in the group.

A perfect 25 minutes

ITV showed England’s match in Yugoslavia live on a Wednesday afternoon and those lucky viewers who were home in time from school or work watched in amazement as Bobby Robson’s men ran riot. There would have been an understandable temptation to keep it tight and settle for a draw, but Robson called it right by getting his side to go for the kill from the off. In the opening 25 minutes Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams all found the net to put England 4-0 up on a filthy day of weather in Belgrade. In a match containing similarities with England’s 3-0 win over Poland in the previous year’s World Cup the contest was settled by half-time, with the one disappointment being Yugoslavia ending the Three Lions’ perfect record of clean sheets in the group with a late consolation. 

But the 4-1 victory was a great cause for celebration back home, as England atoned for missing out four years earlier by making it in style this time. “I had to pinch myself when the third and fourth goals in,” said a delighted Bobby Robson afterwards. The manager had gone into the game knowing he could have lost his job had England failed to make it, now there was expectation the competition could be won. Since that defeat by Denmark in September 1983, England were unbeaten in qualifying matches which was a good measure of their consistency.

Having qualified with a record of five wins and a draw from six matches and a record of 19 goals scored and one conceded, there was a belief England could go on and lift their first major silverware since 1966. They had looked awesome and full of confidence when thrashing Turkey and Yugoslavia. But typically the euphoria didn’t last long. Within a couple of days of qualification being secured, newspaper stories suggested England could be withdrawn from the tournament if the hooligans struck again. And just six days after the Yugoslavia match, key defender Terry Butcher suffered an injury playing for Rangers that would rule him out of Euro ’88.

It was the start of a slow descent from heroes to zeroes for England, that would see their potency in qualifying evaporate and the tournament prove a nightmare for Bobby Robson…

England’s Qualifying Campaigns: World Cup 1986 – The tide turns for Robson

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Looking back 30 years to when England at last made light work of a World Cup qualifying campaign, booking their place in Mexico before the final match..

When the 1986 World Cup qualifying draw was made in December 1983, Bobby Robson was feeling the pressure. England had failed to make it to Euro ’84 and he desperately needed good results to win over the press and public. The draw was relatively kind, with England grouped with Northern Ireland, Romania (or Rumania as they were usually known at the time), Finland and Turkey. It basically looked a three-horse race for the two spots between England, the Northern Irish (who had got out of the group stage at World Cup ’82 and almost pipped West Germany to a spot at Euro ’84) and Romania (who qualified for the Euro finals and boasted the emerging talent of teenager Gheorghe Hagi in their ranks).

Being in a five-team group meant England only had to finish second to qualify automatically, but on the flipside this meant there was one extra away game for the English hooligans to potentially bring further shame on the nation. Robson was certainly viewing the draw with the yobs in mind, revealing his relief at not drawing Luxembourg just weeks after trouble from England’s followers at the final match of the Euro ’84 qualifiers. “I was hoping we didn’t draw them again. I don’t think they deserved us,” he said.

From despair to optimism
In the 10 months between the draw and England’s first qualifier, Robson went through the emotions. Defeats by France, Wales and USSR piled the pressure on (the latter defeat seeing him jeered by a section of the Wembley crowd) before the turning point of a famous 2-0 win away to Brazil. There seemed to be a new belief about England as 1984-85 rolled around, although it took a brilliant Bryan Robson volley to settle a drab friendly with East Germany. Times were changing for England and having been European under-21s champions in both 1982 and 1984, there were reasons to be optimistic about the future. Players such as John Barnes and Mark Hateley were bursting onto the scene with good effect and established internationals like Robson, Terry Butcher, Glenn Hoddle and Kenny Sansom were still only in their mid-20s. Most of the old guard inherited by Bobby Robson in 1982 were no longer on the scene.

By the time England played their first qualifier in October 1984, they had been handed a bonus as Northern Ireland (to Finland) and Romania (to Northern Ireland) had already suffered defeats. England had suffered rude awakenings by Scandinavian sides Norway and Denmark in recent years but the visit of Finland proved straightforward with a 5-0 win in which Kenny Sansom scored his only international goal.

Things got even better a month later, when England won 8-0 away to Turkey to leave them with maximum points and a goal difference of +13 from just two games. Bryan Robson scored a hat-trick, while namesake Bobby was acting the perfectionist and believing “we’ve left them off the hook” in only winning 8-0! A difficult year had turned into a good one for England.

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Bobby Robson gets a front row seat for England’s game in Turkey.

Hateley the Hero
In February 1985 England made the short trip to Belfast to face Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. Billy Bingham’s side had won the last Home International Championship the previous year and there was understandable resentment at England’s withdrawal from the competition (effectively killing it off). England did not play well in this qualifier, coming under the cosh as the home side threatened. But it seemed a measure of how Robson’s luck seemed to be turning that they survived unscathed and snatched a late winner through AC Milan’s Mark Hateley. The following month brought a friendly win over the Republic of Ireland, most notable for bringing Gary Lineker’s first England goal and Chris Waddle’s international debut.

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A bleak time for English football
In May England faced two away qualifiers, the first being a tough looking trip to Romania where they had been beaten in the 1982 World Cup qualifiers. This time around they claimed a 0-0 draw that left them three points clear at the top of the group and having yet to concede. Three weeks later they travelled to Finland, for a match oddly scheduled to be played the day before an FA Cup Final replay if one was needed (Steve Hodge recalled in his autobiography spending cup final afternoon desperately hoping for a draw between Everton and Manchester United so he could get a call-up). It wasn’t, but England looked tired and it took a goal from Hateley to salvage a 1-1 draw that kept the Finns in surprise contention to qualify.

The coming months would be completely overshadowed by matters off the field, as English football was plunged into an even deeper crisis. The horrific events at Heysel, Bradford and Birmingham made May 1985 English football’s nadir and those at the top needed to pick up the pieces. English club were banned from Europe, crowds were about to plummet even further and a TV rights row ended in deadlock as the Football League would be off the screens for the remainder of 1985. It was a bleak time.

The national team remained on TV, albeit only in highlights form for the remaining three qualifiers all at Wembley. Returning from a trip to Mexico (where they met Italy just eight days after the horrors of Heysel) and USA with Gary Lineker and newcomer Kerry Dixon on the goal trail, things boded well for England as they looked to put a smile on the faces of the nation’s football fans.

A taste of things to come
In September, England were held to a 1-1 draw by Romania at Wembley, but the point meant they were almost there. There would be controversy over Rodion Camataru appearing to use his hand in the build-up to the Romanian equaliser, acting as an ominous precursor of what lay futher ahead in England’s World Cup ’86 campaign. As the Three Lions failed to find a winner, BBC commentator Barry Davies started drawing comparisons with the infamous Poland match in 1973, but he was being melodramatic. England were almost there and it looked like Romania would join them.

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The following month England could celebrate as Northern Ireland won away to Romania and then Lineker scored a hat-trick against Turkey in a 5-0 win. After coming perilously close to missing out on World Cup ’82 and then failing to make it to Euro ’84, it was a welcome relief for England to seal qualification early and all roads now led to Mexico. To cap a good week for England, they were given the green light after a UEFA vote to enter Euro ’88 after it looked like the yobs could see the national team join English club sides in being European outcasts.

“I am not going to say this is the greatest achievement of my career or the proudest night of my life. I am just very pleased that we are there” – Bobby Robson after the 5-0 win against Turkey, October 1985.

St Patrick’s Night
The final round of qualification for England would unusually see much of the focus of the British media be on the opposition. Northern Ireland needed a draw at Wembley to join England at the finals, which created an awkward situation. Coming so soon after the West Germany v Austria controversy at World Cup ’82, it seemed odd this fixture had been agreed for the final round of matches. Such a scenario like this one was always possible and it would have been far better to switch the previous round of matches with these (Romania were away at Turkey). England would have to go out and seek to win it to show they were above reproach, even if as Bobby Robson conceded they would probably then get criticism from some quarters for stopping a fellow United Kingdom side making it. It was a no-win scenario.

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The Romanians won in Turkey so it would boil down to this one, and it was left to 40-year-old goalkeeper Pat Jennings to roll back the years and keep England out. The visitors defended deep and endured a long night, but there was to be no winner coming for England. Jennings rightly took the plaudits after the 0-0 draw, which suited both as England qualified as unbeaten group winners and Northern Ireland made their third finals. For the second successive World Cup qualifying programme, Romanian dreams had ended with a match at Wembley they hadn’t even played in.

There would inevitably be suggestions based purely on the result that it was a ‘fix’, but Northern Irish defender Alan McDonald was particularly adamant it wasn’t. He told the BBC that “anyone who thinks that was a fix can come and see me… because we bloody earned that.”

As reporter John Wragg summed it up in the Daily Express: “If Rumania have any argument with this result, point them in the direction of big Pat Jennings.” It was a heartwarming story to see the veteran goalkeeper steer his team to the World Cup finals while no longer playing first-team club football.

As for England, they had finished top of the group with four wins and four draws. It hadn’t been a particularly vintage qualifying campaign – bar the 8-0 demlition of Turkey – but England had been in control and qualified without the usual final game anxiety. For Bobby Robson, things were now looking up after the torment of the Euro ’84 qualifying campaign.

Six of the Worst – England European Championship Qualifiers

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Last month we recalled six of England’s best European Championship qualifying matches. Now as they gear up for the next round of qualifiers for Euro 2014, we look at the opposite end of the scale when six matches in the qualifying stages did not go to plan for England. It wouldn’t seem the English way to just reflect on the positives, would it?

February 1963, France (a) 2-5
Paris
Alf Ramsey’s first match as England manager certainly didn’t inspire the public to share his optimism they could win the World Cup three years later. After drawing 1-1 at Hillsborough in the first-leg before Ramsey replaced Walter Winterbottom, England were torn apart in Paris and trailed 3-0 by the break in this preliminary round tie. Although they gave themselves hope in the second half, the match ended with Ron Springett having conceded five goals. He would make way for Gordon Banks in the next match as Ramsey began rebuilding his side. Only Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton played in the World Cup final after featuring in the Paris debacle.

April 1967, Scotland (h) 2-3
London
A day still fondly remembered by football fans north of the border, as Scotland triumphed 3-2 against England at Wembley to declare themselves unofficial ‘world champions’ and Jim Baxter taunted the English. Alf Ramsey’s men were unbeaten since November 1965 and only Jimmy Greaves was involved who had not played in the World Cup final victory nine months earlier. The 1966-67 and 1967-68 Home Internationals were doubling up as the qualifying process for the European Championships and there was now a danger England could miss out so soon after lifting the World Cup as they lost 3-2. But they would top the group after drawing the return with Scotland in front of more than 134,000 at Hampden Park the following year, going on to finish third in the 1968 European Championship.

October 1975, Czechoslovakia (a) 1-2
Bratislava
Don Revie had begun his England reign a year earlier by beating the Czechs 3-0 at Wembley, as they appeared to be banishing the bad memories of missing out on a place in the 1974 World Cup. But a costly draw at home to Portugal had led to doubts resurfacing and it was vital they picked up a good result in the return match with the Czechs. Fog led to the match being abandoned after 17 minutes, leading to a hasty rearrangement for the following afternoon. Mick Channon gave them a first-half lead and put them on the brink of qualification, but goals shortly before and after half-time for the hosts turned the match on its head. England never equalised and Revie fumed about the Czechs: “I saw the worst provocation in this game that I have seen in an international match.” A 1-1 draw in their final match away to Portugal effectively ended English hopes, as the Czechs won the group and surprisingly went on to win the tournament.

September 1983, Denmark (h) 0-1
London
The Danes had quickly emerged from obscurity to be a major threat to England’s place in the Euro ’84 finals. England had been fortunate to gain a 2-2 draw away to Denmark in their opening qualifier. By the time the Danes visited Wembley in September 1983 it was clear whoever won would be favourites to go to France for the Euros, with England having to win for it to be in their hands. Bobby Robson knew just how big a danger the visitors posed and it seemed England were almost intimidated by the dazzling Danes, who could have scored in the opening moments through Michael Laudrup. A penalty from Allan Simonsen gave them a deserved half-time lead, which was only seriously threatened by Luther Blissett in the dying seconds. His shot was saved and England were left praying for a miracle from the remaining games. Their lingering hopes ended shortly before they took the field for their final qualifier away to Luxembourg, after Denmark beat Greece.

October 1998, Bulgaria (h) 0-0
London
England qualified as unbeaten group winners for the 1988 and 1992 finals and automatically as hosts in 1996, but the road to Euro 2000 was to be extremely rocky. They were in trouble after losing their opening qualifier away to Sweden and things got worse a month later when Bulgaria arrived at Wembley. England started brightly, but after failing to take chances the match totally fizzled out and Glenn Hoddle’s men ran out of ideas. They were booed off and it summed up a poor qualifying campaign for England in which they won just three matches out of eight (two of them against Luxembourg) to somehow claim second spot and then scrape past rivals Scotland in the play-offs.

November 2007, Croatia (h) 2-3
London
England made the 2004 and 2012 finals without losing any matches, but the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign under Steve McClaren was anything but a smooth ride. Needing to just finish second in their group to qualify, the warning signs were there by October 2006 when they drew with Macedonia and lost to Croatia. A year later came defeat in Russia but – aided by other results – it was back in England’s hands when they entered their final qualifying match needing to draw at home to Croatia. The wet night has passed into infamy, with England appearing to have done the hard work in clawing back from 2-0 down at the break to level before Mladen Petric scored the winner to hand Russia a place in the finals at England’s expense. The ‘wally with the brolly’ tag would stick for a long time for McClaren, who would inevitably leave his job after the loss.