Sir Alf Ramsey

England’s qualifying campaigns – Euro ’72: winning points but not plaudits

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On Friday England visit Malta for a World Cup qualifier. The previous occasion when the sides were in the same qualifying group was for the 1972 European Championship. Today we look back at that campaign…

For England and Sir Alf Ramsey, the 1970 World Cup represented disappointment as they surrendered their crown at the quarter-final hurdle against West Germany after leading 2-0. Ramsey now looked ahead to the challenge of the 1974 World Cup, as the Boys of ’66 continually dwindled in number. George Cohen, Roger Hunt and Ray Wilson had all left the scene before 1970, while the World Cup in Mexico marked the end of the international road for the Charlton brothers and Nobby Stiles – the latter never getting any game time in the finals. Other players including Jeff Astle, Brian Labone and Keith Newton would no longer feature after 1970 as Ramsey rebuilt and set his sights on four years down the road.

If West Germany in 1974 was the long-term focus for Ramsey, his first aim was steering England through the qualifying group to reach the quarter-final stage of the 1972 European Championship. They had been handed a favourable group containing Switzerland, Greece and Malta. England had never met the Greeks or Maltese before, while they had faced the Swiss several times including thrashing them 8-1 in Basel in 1963. But Switzerland had a greater track record than the other two opponents, having qualified for the 1966 World Cup.

Shilton’s debut

After Mexico there would be a five-month gap before England next took to the field, as East Germany visited Wembley for a friendly. The match was most significant for Peter Shilton winning the first of his record 125 caps, as Ramsey looked to find a new number two to Gordon Banks after Peter Bonetti had taken some of the blame for the World Cup exit. England won 3-1 to end 1970 in improved spirits.

In early February 1971 they faced their first European Championship qualifier, visiting the minnows of Malta. A key absentee would be captain Bobby Moore, unavailable owing to his suspension by West Ham United over the infamous Blackpool incident the previous month when he was among the players caught drinking in a nightclub on the eve of a game.

Again Ramsey seemed to be looking to the future, handing four players their debuts in Martin Chivers, Roy McFarland and Everton team-mates Colin Harvey and Joe Royle. It would be Harvey’s only cap and not the most glamorous international experience as England contended with a sandy, hard pitch. The game had the feel of an FA Cup tie with a non-league side hosting a top-flight club, the stadium packed to capacity with many more finding any vantage point to view proceedings in a less safety-conscious era. Malta competed well, limiting England to a goal by Martin Peters after 35 minutes. The Maltese public had not taking kindly to reports that sections of the English media had labelled their players “Spanish waiters”, as fans chanted: “We are the waiters, you are the bastards.”

The Maltese public turn out in force to watch England’s visit in February 1971.

Those fans would not see England sparkle in winning 1-0. Ramsey admitted afterwards: “Conditions were bad. But I was disappointed we did not overcome them better than we did. The harder we tried, the worse we seemed to become.” There would unsurprisingly be a fair amount of criticism aimed at England for only edging past Malta (in an era before the likes of Andorra and San Marino joined the party, the Maltese were rated as one of the weakest football nations in Europe).

‘Embarrassed’ in victory

Two months later England hosted Greece, staying on course to top the group by winning 3-0. Chivers scored his first England goal to break the deadlock, with Geoff Hurst and Franny Lee wrapping up the win in the closing quarter on a night when Peter Storey won his first cap. But the scoreline failed to prevent England coming in for criticism, summing up a qualifying campaign in which they won matches but not plaudits.

Not for the last time, the Greeks did anything but come bearing gifts as they set up with the intention of frustrating the hosts and in some respects succeeded. Ken Jones wrote in the Daily Mirror: “England were visibly embarrassed last night by a Greek team determined to avoid the humiliation of an overwhelming defeat at Wembley. It was not the first time that foreign opponents had been seen to arrange themselves in an effort to survive on England’s home ground. But few teams have managed to present such a consuming problem to the best of England’s players.”

Martin Chivers fires home for England against Greece.

It would be followed up by the visit of Malta to Wembley the following months, in which England faced a side even more determined to keep the score down rather than have a go. Banks would never collect an easier clean sheet in his career as he only touched the ball via a couple of backpasses in the 5-0 win. “I cannot remember an England match under my management in which the opposition has been so committed to defence,” said Ramsey afterwards. “Come to that, I cannot recall any soccer match I’ve seen in which one of the goalkeepers has never had a shot to save. I think the nearest Malta came to our goal was 35 yards out. That speaks for itself.”

Given the total domination of the game, there was a sense of disappointment that England only netted five goals. Desmond Hackett wrote in the Daily Express: “England were continually and deservedly slow handclapped. This morning they should be ashamed of themselves for their failure to win by at least double figures.”

Bobby Moore leads England out against Malta.

But at least they had won comfortably. Chivers again opened the scoring, with Franny Lee doubling the lead and Allan Clarke both scoring and missing a penalty as England totally controlled proceedings. Chivers netted his second goal of the night before Chris Lawler marked his England debut at right-back with a goal. Alas, he would only appear three more times.

The season ended with England winning the Home International Championship by beating Northern Ireland and Scotland and drawing with Wales, before having a warranted summer off after the demands of the previous year in Mexico. In October England were back in action for their next and most important qualifier away to Switzerland, a side who had won all four games so far and held top spot by virtue of having played a game more than Ramsey’s men. Amid speculation that England would be picked as hosts for the final stages if they reached the semi-finals, there was every reason for Ramsey to be particularly keen to progress.

The night would mark the end of Alan Mullery’s England career after 35 caps, while substitute John Radford made his second and last international appearance almost theee years after his first. Veteran Swiss manager Louis Maurer was quoted as predicting his side would win 2-1 after going on the attack. Although he wouldn’t get his wish result-wise, England were certainly given a scare and their performance did little to suggest they could ultimately become champions of Europe.

Struggling past the Swiss

England got the result they wanted in Basel, but lacked the conviction they would have liked. Twice in the first-half they went ahead – through Hurst after just 55 seconds and Chivers 11 minutes later – but they were pegged back, before an own goal by Anton Welbel on 77 minutes handed England a 3-2 win. Banks had unusually taken some blame for the first Swiss goal, while Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times that the second Swiss equaliser shortly before the break “was no more than they deserved” as he added: “For the previous half hour they had fairly roasted England.” The football played by the Swiss impressed more, but England stood firm to claim a vital win.

England were made to work hard for a 3-2 win away to Switzerland.

The following month brought the return game with the Swiss, the game’s importance such that more than 90,000 fans packed into Wembley for it. Shilton deputised for Banks in goal, while Rodney Marsh was handed his debut as a late substitute. Mike Summerbee netted his only England goal when he headed the side into an early lead, but the Swiss drew level when Shilton failed to hold Kurt Odermatt’s drive. The 1-1 draw effectively clinched qualification for England, given only a four goal defeat in Greece could stop them winning a group. But there was little celebration. Criticism was coming England’s way for how they had made such heavy weather of drawing with Switzerland. Peter Wilson wrote in the Daily Mirror: “In the record books it will go down as a 1-1 draw, but in my book it ranks as a victory for the Swiss part-timers who, after losing only 3-2 in Switzerland, went one better by holding England to a draw at Wembley last night.”

Gordon Banks contends with the sun and Greek attack in December 1971.

And so England headed for the final qualifier in Athens on December 1. Even the most optimistic Switzerland fan and negative England fan would have conceded it was all over, so the challenge now facing the Three Lions was to impress in victory. The Greek players reportedly stood to collect more than £1,000 each if they could claim a famous win, But second half goals from Hurst and Chivers secured a 2-0 win for the visitors over Billy Bingham’s men, as England finished two points clear at the top of the group. There was a feeling England had played better than against Switzerland, but they had not taken many of the decent chances to come their way. Ken Jones wrote in the Daily Mirror: “England had every reason to curse their poor marksmanship here as they came close to achieving an overwhelming victory.”

But they had certainly not struggled to pick up points, as England finished two clear at the top of the qualifying group. It had not been the most memorable of qualifying campaigns and criticism had been more noticeable than praise. But as England flew home from Greece, they could not have realised just what lay ahead in the ensuing years. A comprehensive defeat by West Germany in the two-legged quarter-finals – technically at least still part of qualifying but we’ve recalled it separately previously – acted as an ominous warning sign concerning where England now stood. They would fail to even get out of the qualifying group for the next three major tournaments as the 1970s became a barren decade. England’s qualifying group campaign for Euro ’72 had not been a classic and it was aided by a favourable draw, but at least they had achieved results – something they would struggle to do in the years that followed.

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.

Faces of ’66 – Sir Alf Ramsey

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As you are no doubt aware, 50 years ago England won the World Cup for the only time. It meant manager Alf Ramsey’s prophecy came true after he had maintained England would triumph on home soil. Today we pay tribute to the man…

“We will win the World Cup in 1966,” declared a pre-knighthood Alf Ramsey after he was appointed England manager during the 1962-63 season. He would ultimately be proved right, but at the time he was sticking his neck on the line with such a proclamation – irrespective of the fact the nation had home advantage in 1966. As we recently recalled, Ramsey had not even been first choice for the job with veteran player Jimmy Adamson turning down the opportunity. It was the start of an uneasy relationship between Ramsey and the FA hierarchy.

For Ramsey, the size of the task in front of him was clear from his first game in February 1963. Away to France in a European Nations Cup qualifier, England were crushed 5-2 and eliminated. Although the conditions were poor and many players were short of match practice following the Big Freeze, it was a night that emphasised the side’s shortcomings. “Do we always play like that?” Ramsey asked captain Jimmy Armfield, who assured him they didn’t. “That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard all night,” Ramsey responded.

Alf Ramsey during his England playing career.

He had work to do and just two players from the side would go on to play in the 1966 World Cup final, while a defeat at home to Scotland in the following match confirmed this was going to be a tough mission. The 1953 home mauling by Hungary – with Ramsey in the side – had shown England were no longer the world leaders in football they believed they were, with several underwhelming World Cups compounding matters. Pessimism had set in.

But Ramsey had belief in himself and what was available to him. He had played for his country and as a manager had defied all expectations at Ipswich Town, hauling them from the Third Division to the First Division and then surprisingly winning the championship at the first attempt – one of the few English title wins comparable with Leicester City’s incredible Premier League victory in 2015-16 – with a system that opponents struggled to suss out. Now he was pronouncing that England would win the World Cup in 1966, a claim that was met with scepticism – not least because England had never previously been beyond the quarter-finals and were hardly invincible outside the tournaments either.

The player’s manager

Ramsey’s reputation was rather contradictory. He had a public image of being cold and aloof but the vast majority of his players held him in great respect as both a manager and individual. Goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who made his debut in Ramsey’s second game, wrote in his autobiography: “At times he appeared cold and distant, yet I know of no one who played under him who doesn’t have great affection for Alf Ramsey, the quintessential ‘player’s man’.”

Kevin Keegan, who briefly figured under Ramsey near the end of his reign, would also tell of a different man to the media image. “He’s different when he’s with us. He’s a great fellow,” he said shortly before Ramsey departed in 1974. There were countless other examples too. Ramsey could relax in the company of players and he understood them. Bar perhaps the odd Maverick player who resented being overlooked, almost every player would speak with affection for Sir Alf.

Sir Alf Ramsey with a smile while leading England.

But Ramsey would never let any player become complacent about their place in the side. Banks has frequently told the story of how he was admonished by the manager simply for saying “see you” after a match, Ramsey refusing to let anyone believe they were a certainty for selection. Also often recalled is the time when Jack Charlton asked Ramsey why he had brought him into the international fold with his 30th birthday approaching. “Well, I have a pattern of play in my mind and I pick the best players to fit the pattern,” Ramsey told him. “I don’t always necessarily pick the best players.” 

It would jokingly be recalled by the other players as a putdown to Charlton, but there was also a serious message. Ramsey believed more in choosing players to fit a system than attempting to pick a system to accommodate the best 11 players. It’s hard to imagine he would have fallen into the trap of always trying to select Gerrard and Lampard together.

Making the right calls

The 1966 World Cup saw Ramsey continually make good use of his man-management skills, as well as applying his tactical nous. Most famously he would deploy his ‘wingless wonders’ system in the three knockout matches, a formula that had proved successful the previous year away to Spain. It may have been a departure from the more conventional systems, but it worked for England.

For Ramsey there were hints throughout the 1966 tournament of the strength of his ability to handle players correctly.  The first concerned Nobby Stiles committing a bad tackle on France’s Jacques Simon during England’s final group game, with Ramsey facing calls from some members of the FA to drop his midfielder. Ramsey, who had previously ensured the archaic selection committee was done away with, threatened to walk away if he was given orders about who he could or couldn’t pick as he again had reason to resent the FA. Thankfully, Stiles stayed in the side and Ramsey remained in charge.

He may have sparked controversy with his comments about Argentina after England beat them in the quarter-finals (he was not perceived as a lover of foreigners), but behind the scenes he provided a calming influence when tempers flared between the players afterwards as the beaten South Americans vented their anger. “This does not leave this room,” he told his side, reminding them that Argentina were on the plane home while England remained in the World Cup.

Most frequently remembered are his words to his players after West Germany had scored a heartbreaking equaliser in the last minute of the World Cup final. Victory had been snatched away from England and there was a danger the psychological advantage had been handed to the Germans. But Ramsey, spotting some German players sat on the turf, ordered his men to stand up and send out the message they were more ready for the rigours of extra-time. “You’ve beaten them once now go out and beat them again,” he famously said to his team, with the players duly responding by winning the match and tournament. 

The manager may have appeared unemotional at the match’s climax, but he would surely have been filled with pride when the crowd chanted his name during the celebrations. He would not receive a medal during his lifetime, but he did get to hold the trophy during the celebrations.

Joy for England and Ramsey.

Ramsey had put his neck on the line with several decisions along the way – proclaiming England would win; standing by Stiles; opting to play without a winger in three matches; selecting Geoff Hurst over Jimmy Greaves for the final – but he had been rewarded by seeing his side triumph. England may have lacked flair but they had achieved glory, something that the subsequent 50 years has shown is far from easy.

Never repeating the magic

Ramsey would spend eight more years in charge of England but he could never replicate the glory of 1966. Each tournament brought a sense of having taken a step back. Semi-finalists in the 1968 European Championship; going out to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final after leading 2-0; being outclassed by the Germans in the 1972 European Championship last eight; and then the ignominy of failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Ramsey had been the first man to lead England to World Cup glory; now he was the first to fail to qualify for the World Cup. His sacking was a sad and unfortunate ending after such a glorious peak was reached earlier on.

The 1970 World Cup ended in disappointment, with worse to follow.

With hindsight at least, he probably should have stepped down after the 1970 finals when his record was still relatively unblemished and the loss to West Germany was largely written off as a fluke at the time. Ramsey had felt a strong bond with most players in the 1960s but would have far less in common with the Mavericks who defined the 1970s – players he was reluctant to select, as critics felt he was again overlooking flair. His ability to use substitutes – which hadn’t been an option in 1966 – would also be considered a weakeness. He was perceived as having acted too prematurely in making changes against West Germany in 1970, of leaving it too late against Poland in 1973. The game was changing along with the personalities in it and Ramsey no longer seemed such a natural figurehead.

“I’m rude?”

Ramsey had his critics even during the glory years, his style of football seen as functional rather than flamboyant. It was a situation not helped by his unwillingness to go out of his way to help the media. But the World Cup exit in 1970 saw the vultures start to circle, Ramsey being met by a barrage of media men as he arrived home from Mexico. He snapped, taking particular exception to the usual comments about his distant public image. “I’M BEING RUDE? I don’t there’s a word that’s been invented that would describe the mannerisms of some of the people I’ve been confronted with. And yet I’m rude,” he fumed, clearly exacerbated by the line of questioning. It was a relationship that had never been easy and unfortunately it wasn’t going to improve as England continued to decline during the 1970s.

Even after he died in 1999, Ramsey would attract the occasional spiteful article. Probably the most contentious was written by historian Frank McLynn in The Observer Sport Monthly in 2005, cruelly branding Ramsey a “humourless boor”, describing him as “the epitome of negativity” and claiming his “legend far outstrips his actual achievement”, believing England’s 1966 triumph owed much to key decisions going in their favour. It was the sort of damning view that many of the Boys of ’66 would be quick to hit back at. Ramsey may not have endured the level of personal attacks during his reign as some of his successors such as Graham Taylor, but he got the first taste of the way things were going.

In later years Ramsey cut a fairly reclusive figure in English football circles – apart from a brief spell in caretaker charge of Birmingham City – although the TV cameras would sometimes spot him in the Wembley crowd at England matches. His sacking in 1974 had evidently left a sour taste and led to a detachment from the Football Association, with senior FA director Sir Harold Thompson seen as pivotal to his dismissal. The axed manager would say: “He would always refer to me, even to my face, as Ramsey, which I found insulting.” Ramsey’s relations with some senior FA representatives had seldom been easy, with successor Don Revie enduring many of the same problems with Thompson (who soon became FA chairman).

Perhaps still reeling from the manner of his departure, Ramsey seemed unwilling to share the limelight with his players from 1966. He was the one significant absentee during the retrospective Summer of ’66 BBC series in 1986, despite presenter John Motson making a personal visit to his home to try and lure him to share his memories. He did though offer his thoughts in a tabloid newspaper on contemporary matters, incurring the wrath of Bobby Robson with criticsms of England and their manager ahead of the 1986 World Cup.

It was a surprising thing for Ramsey to do given he had been so suspicious of the press during his own managerial career and a bemused Robson hit back at him in several books he penned – his frustration heightened by having been thwarted in his attempts to meet with his near-neighbour to get advice about managing England in a World Cup in Mexico. It was a sad episode between two men whose managerial paths contained plenty of parallels, given the sides they managed.

Sadly in later years Ramsey was struck down with Alzheimer’s disease. When he died in April 1999, there was sadness over his death but there didn’t seem to be the same widespread mourning among football fans as when contemporaries such as Matt Busby, Brian Clough and Bill Shankly died, nor Ramsey’s England captain Bobby Moore. But the players who served under him felt his loss, many of them attending a memorial service in Ipswich.

Ramsey may not have been an easy man to get to know and some seem to remember him as much for his clipped accent as for his managerial achievements. But that didn’t stop many in English football feeling a great attachment to him and respect for what he did. Fifty years ago he built an England side that won the World Cup, something nobody else has done. Every England fan should be grateful for what was achieved back then.

Sir Alf, we salute you!

England’s road to the 1966 World Cup final

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Fifty years ago England were playing in the World Cup group stage, beginning their run towards glory. Everyone knows what happened in the World Cup final against West Germany, but – bar the odd moment – far less attention is given to their five matches en route to it. We look back at them today…

“We will win the World Cup in 1966,” famously declared England manager Alf Ramsey. Not everyone believed him, despite England seldom losing after he took over in 1963. But a good run of friendly results prior to the finals and rigorous training meant England were arguably better prepared than ever for a major tournament, while also having the advantage of being hosts. After a long wait, England could now look forward to group stage matches at Wembley against Uruguay, Mexico and France.

Alf Ramsey was adamant England could win the World Cup in 1966.

Uruguay were the first opponents England would face and they were the side in the group with the strongest pedigree, having won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950 and knocked England out in 1954. But they were not seen as a potential tournament winner now, with it looking like they would compete with France for a place in the quarter-finals. Assuming England did their job properly and won the group that is…

By today’s standards, newspaper coverage on the morning of the game seems low-key for the start of the World Cup. The Daily Mirror did though include a four-page supplement, with sports writer Frank McGhee echoing Ramsey as he declared England would win the World Cup in 1966 – interestingly predicting they would beat West Germany in the final. But not all the experts were so confident Ramsey’s men would emerge triumphant. In The Times, ‘Football Association Correspondent’ (Geoffrey Green) wrote: “England will never hold a better chance. Yet England, I suspect, will go no farther than the semi-finals. If achieved, that at least would be their best performance ever in the cup.” Green fancied Italy to win the tournament.

A frustrating start

England’s line-up against Uruguay on July 11 has a familiar look, but a couple of significant absentees from the side that would win the World Cup 19 days later. It read: Gordon Banks, George Cohen, Ray Wilson, Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Bobby Moore, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves, Roger Hunt and John Connelly. The presence of Connelly meant England had a natural winger in the side – the ‘Wingless Wonders’ reputation was still to come. It’s perhaps interesting to note the two players who would go on to score for England in the final were watching on – Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, both having only won their first cap in recent months. Prior to the match, The Queen declared the tournament open during an opening ceremony that would be deemed basic today. The stadium was not full, with the stayaways hardly left regretting their decision given the dull spectacle the sides served up.

England began the World Cup with a frustrating 0-0 draw with Uruguay.

It proved a frustrating night, England failing to make the breakthrough as Uruguay defended deeply but effectively to draw 0-0. ‘Parked the bus’ would probably be the modern-day description. It was the first time for more than 20 years that England had failed to score at Wembley, meaning it was job done for the Uruguayans who celebrated at the end. In The Daily Telegraph Donald Saunders wrote: “No doubt if I had to watch Uruguay in action every week I should soon be looking for a more interesting job. That does not alter my view that they adopted the correct policy last night and employed it with admirable efficiency.”

Greaves, whose scoreless evening summed up a tournament that would prove personally disappointing, wrote in his autobiography: “England began well but Uruguay’s negative tactics soon choked the life out of the game. Uruguay became a clinging cobweb of shifting pale blue shirts, hell bent on suffocation rather than inspiration. For the supporters it was not riveting stuff. It was more like watching riveting.”

Beating the Mexicans

There was frustration at England failing to win or score in their opening game at the time, so one can imagine the over the top reaction we’d get in the modern world with #RamseyOut trending on Twitter and hours of inquests conducted in the media. A visit for the squad to Pinewood Studios would provide a welcome diversion as attention now turned to England’s second match against Mexico five days later. The Mexicans were considered the weakest side in the group and five years earlier had been thrashed 8-0 by England. But in their opening match they had drawn with France and there was a danger England would again struggle to break their opponents down in this Saturday night Wembley clash. 

Ramsey selected Terry Paine in place of Connelly as the side again operated with a winger, while Peters came in for Ball. Bobby Charlton scored a stunning goal to break the deadlock, with Hunt wrapping up a 2-0 victory. Charlton’s goal had kickstarted England’s campaign. They hadn’t excelled, but they had achieved the win they needed.

Bobby Charlton sets England on their way with his long-range goal against Mexico.

It was only the fourth time England had won a World Cup finals match, despite having played at each tournament since 1950. In The Times Green wrote about England: “If their technique and imagination is limited, their morale and fitness are certainly at a peak.” Green would state that after one week “no one team towers head and shoulders above the field” in the competition, a situation perhaps similar to what we saw 50 years later at Euro 2016. If ever England were to go on and win a major tournament, then the 1966 World Cup on home soil appeared the ideal chance. 

The result left England on course to qualify for the next round, although they could still be eliminated if beaten by France. Uruguay had beaten France 2-1 at White City and then drew with Mexico, meaning a draw or win against the French would see England top the group and stay at Wembley.

Hunt’s birthday treat

With Paine having sustained concussion against Mexico, Ian Callaghan came into the side against France as yet another change was made on the wing. Hunt celebrated his birthday by scoring from close range after Jack Charlton hit the woodwork shortly before half-time, wrapping it up 14 minutes from the end following an assist by Liverpool team-mate Callaghan (who was rewarded by not being capped again until 1977). Ramsey’s first match as England manager in 1963 had ended in a 5-2 defeat by France, so this was welcome revenge and a sign of the progress made in the past three years. The French were departing as the bottom side in the group.

Roger Hunt opens the scoring for England against France.

But England’s 2-0 win was overshadowed by an incident in the build-up to the second goaL Jacques Simon was on the receiving end of a harsh tackle from Stiles, which led to the Frenchman having to leave the field. The foul went unpunished at the time, but Stiles would be cautioned retrospectively and warned about his future conduct. Despite pressure from sections of the Football Association, Ramsey stood by Stiles. “Alf told them he’d resign if he couldn’t pick who he wanted,” Stiles said in 2002. “He was prepared to resign in the middle of a World Cup over me. I’d never found out that ’til he’d died, Alf. What a man.” Simon was not the only player to sustain an injury during the match, as Greaves found blood pouring from his sock and he would need stitches on his shin. He would miss the next match and, as it turned out, the rest of the tournament.

Hurst’s instant impact

England were into the last eight and two of the pre-tournament favourites were not, with Italy and holders Brazil on their way home. England’s quarter-final would be against Argentina at Wembley, with the South Americans having finished behind West Germany in Group Two. Hurst came in for Greaves, while Ball – who had feared he would play no further part in the tournament – returned in place of Callaghan. England were without a recognised winger and they would not be using one again in the finals. Unlike their South American neighbours Brazil and Uruguay, Argentina had yet to lift the World Cup. They would believe they had a chance of finally winning it provided they could eliminate the hosts.

Chaos as Antonio Rattin is ordered off during England’s win over Argentina.

As with when the sides met in the knockout stages of the World Cup in 1986 and 1998, there would be plenty of controversy and lasting memories from a contest that really ignited a rivalry between England and Argentina. It was certainly not a contest for the faint-hearted. Speaking in 2006, Jimmy Armfield – who watched the match as a non-playing squad member, said: “They’re like the little boy in the story book, Argentina. When they’re good, they are very, very good. When they’re bad, they’re horrible.” Cohen would later admit: “If they hadn’t resorted to all the physical stuff they might well have beaten us.” There was a feeling Argentina took an unnecessary over-physical approach when they potentially had the ability to compete football-wise with the hosts.

Argentina’s hard tackling tactics won them few admirers in England, with the match forever remembered for the controversial sending off of their captain and key player Antonio Rattin during the first half – and his refusal to go as chaos ensued for a few minutes. The situation was not helped by language barriers between him and West German referee Rudolph Kreitlein – Rattin claiming he had been repeatedly requesting an interpreter. “The sending-off should never have happened and it wouldn’t have done if I could speak a word of German,” he said. “All I wanted to do was talk to the referee, but the next thing I knew he was pointing off the pitch.”

In the closing stages Hurst justified his selection with a deft header from an excellent Peters cross – straight from the West Ham United training ground – to give England victory, although Argentina would claim the goal was offside as they cursed decisions made by the officials. England had triumphed on a brutal afternoon in the Wembley sunshine – one in which they were not innocent in proceedings, committing more fouls than their much-criticised opponents. But Ramsey was clearly unhappy with the conduct of the South Americans, infamously preventing George Cohen from swapping shirts with an opponent while already midway through the act.

Alf Ramsey prevents shirts being swapped after England beat Argentina.

If that was controversial, then Ramsey’s next public act would produce outrage in Argentina. In a TV interview he said: “We have still to produce our best and this best is not possible until we meet the right type of opposition. That is a team that comes out to play football and not act as animals.” Ramsey had not directly referred to Argentina as “animals” but he may as well have done for the angry response he got in South America and how the quote is remembered half a century later. There would be unsavoury incidents behind the scenes too; the England players reporting years later that a chair was thrown into their dressing room, smashing a glass door as tempers boiled over afterwards.

The match was making global headlines. Two days later The Daily Mirror‘s front page headline was ‘Too-tough Argentina facing World Cup ban’, having been fined 1,000 Swiss francs and warned they could face suspension from the 1970 World Cup after the ‘Battle of Wembley’ (a tag that has not stuck). Argentina were now left with three players hit with suspensions following events at Wembley, including Rattin for four matches. On the sports pages Peter Wilson laid into the Argentine approach. “It was not as though the Battle of Wembley was an isolated incident,” he wrote. “Argentina had been the only country before Saturday to have a player – Albrecht – sent off. They were warned then to watch their play in the World Cup – and their officials declined to pass on the warning. This is sporting anarchy, soccer in chaos, welfare for nationalistic aggrandisement run riot. This is shameful.”

At the same time as England beat Argentina, the other three quarter-finals were taking place. The Soviet Union and West Germany both won through, but of direct concern to England was the match at Goodison Park. North Korea sensationally led Portugal 3-0, before Eusebio inspired the Portuguese to a 5-3 victory. For the first time since 1954 a European side would win the competition.

Charlton’s double

According to the fixtures issued before the tournament, England’s semi-final originally should have been played at Goodison Park but it would now be held at Wembley instead (a move some critics feel gave them an unfair advantage). English football prepared for a major night. “The feeling was that if we could stop Eusebio then England would win,” said broadcaster Barry Davies in 2006. The Mozambique-born forward had been a major star at the finals, having scored seven times in four games. It was the first time Portugal had qualified for the World Cup and they were making up for lost time by reaching the last four and looking to win the competition. 

England kept the line-up that beat Argentina and a much friendlier contest took place. Bobby Charlton – who along with brother Jack had been cautioned against Argentina – gave the hosts a half-time lead, before excellent work by Hurst allowed the Manchester United star to score his second on 80 minutes. But two minutes later the England defence was breached for the first time in the competition, Jack Charlton handling in the box in a bid to stop the Portuguese scoring. It proved a futile gesture, Eusebio stepping up to beat Banks from the spot. The English nation endured a nervous closing few minutes, before the final whistle sounded. England were in the World Cup final.

England and Portugal prepare to meet in the semi-final.

Eusebio left the pitch in tears, Portugal enduring the first of several near-misses before finally ending their 50 years of hut at Euro 2016. The Portuguese could take some consolation in the praise coming their way from the English press. Albert Barham wrote in The Guardian: “No finer semi-final match than that in which Portugal were defeated 2-1 could have been anticipated. No finer sporting team have had to bow out to England, at their best, in this competition. How the audience of 90,000 were held in the spell of this fine Portuguese attacking side, and of the great performance England put up against them to win. This was attacking football at its best, magnificent in every department; a triumph too, in these troublesome times, for true sportsmanship.” Two nights later Portugal beat the USSR 2-1 at Wembley in the third-place match, Eusebio scoring a penalty to take his tournament tally to nine goals.

Now all that stood in England’s way were West Germany at Wembley…

England’s Euro ’72 – The decline begins

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This week in 1972 England welcomed West Germany to Wembley for the first-leg of their quarter-final in the European Championship. It proved to be an uncomfortable night for the English, who were deservedly beaten on home soil. For the West Germans, a period of domination was about to begin and England would have to wait a long time to beat them again in a competitive match…

In January 1972, the quarter-final draw was held for the last eight stage of the European Championship. England, who had come through their qualification group as unbeaten winners ahead of Switzerland, Greece and Malta, were to draw one of the toughest-looking opponents as they were paired with West Germany.

Immediately there were concerns both in terms of England’s chances and practicalities. Firstly, West Germany were a good side who had beaten England at the 1970 World Cup. Secondly, the second-leg would be away which was seen as handing the advantage to the West Germans. Thirdly, the first-leg was scheduled to be played on April 29 – the last Saturday of the Football League season; and lastly, the home leg would clash with when Wembley was booked for non-league football’s showpiece occasion of the FA Trophy final. With professional football out of the question on a Sunday at the time in England, there were now headaches facing the Football Association which quickly needed resolving.

Eventually the Trophy final was played two weeks earlier than scheduled and several First Division matches on April 29 were postponed to accommodate England call-ups. As was quite often the case at the time, the First Division title race would have to be resolved during midweek rearranged matches. But for England manager Sir Alf Ramsey there was going to be no easy method to defeat the West Germans, although he sounded cheerful enough.

“It is a great draw from all aspects,” he said. “They are one of the finest teams in the world and the memories of our previous games will surely add to the occasion.” It was certainly hard to ignore the recent past contests at the World Cups of 1966 and 1970.

That latter meeting in Mexico still lurked in the mind, but there was a tendency to dismiss that defeat as a bit of a fluke – where circumstances such as Gordon Banks being ill and substitutions backfiring were perceived as the main causes of England’s downfall rather than the prowess of West Germany. Speaking about the sides being paired together once more, England captain Bobby Moore said: “It is nice to meet old rivals again and for those of us who were in Mexico there will be a score to settle. I think it’s a good one for England.”

There was an added incentive for England to progress, as they were among the front-runners to host the final stages (semi-final onwards) if they were part of it. If that happened, they would stand a good chance of winning major silverware given they seldom lost on home soil. As Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “Apart from the financial gain this would considerably strengthen our hand in an effort to win the trophy for the first time.”

Despite the significance of the West Germany matches, England went into them having not played for almost five months. Their absentees for the first-leg would include defender Roy McFarland who was withdrawn due to injury, although he would feature for Derby County in their vital title battle against Liverpool 48 hours later (prompting Ramsey to speak out against Derby manager Brian Clough). Ramsey instead paired Moore with Norman Hunter, a central defensive partnership that would not prove successful.

Five players remained in the England side from the 1966 final, but for Geoff Hurst this would be the final act. He was substituted and never selected again, finishing his England career against the side he made his debut against and enjoyed his most glorious match against in separate fixtures in 1966. The end was also drawing near for goalkeeper Gordon Banks, whose career would be curtailed by a car crash later in the year. For the remaining boys of ’66 – Moore, Alan Ball and Martin Peters, plus manager Ramsey – there would remain an England future but past glories would never be rekindled.

Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer shake hands prior to kick-off at Wembley.

One man who would leave his mark on the match would be midfielder Günter Netzer. The West German was 27 but not been part of the World Cup squad in 1966 and 1970. This was to be his night, thanks to his darting runs and pinpoint passes as England paid for not deploying a natural holding midfielder to deal with him. Also impressing was 20-year-old Uli Hoeness, who put the West Germans ahead in the first half.

If Moore’s England career is best defined by captaining the team to glory in 1966 and his unforgettable tackle against Brazil in 1970, then at the other end of the scale was his error that led to a vital goal being conceded against West Germany in 1972. He tried to dribble the ball out of the area, was caught in possession and Hoeness was able to score past Banks.

England were second best on the night and could have gone further behind, but with 15 minutes left they drew level as Francis Lee scored past Sepp Maier from close range. Now the momentum should have been with them to go and get a result. But West Germany were to regain the advantage six minutes from time. Moore struggled to keep pace with Siggi Held – one of the West German survivors from 1966 – and brought him down for a penalty, although replays would later suggest contact initially took place outside the box. Netzer scored the goal his performance deserved, despite Banks getting a hand to the penalty.

Despair for Gordon Banks as he concedes against West Germany at Wembley.

Ramsey’s men were staring defeat in the face but things would get even worse before the finish. The gulf in class was underlined as a delightful ball by Hoeness was neatly converted by the lethal Gerd Müller. West Germany led 3-1 and there was surely no way England were going to turn it round two weeks later in Berlin. Green reflected in his match report: “Basically England were beaten in midfield. Without Mullery there to win the ball, Ball, Peters and Bell were a street behind Netzer, Hoeness and Wimmer as a creative, productive force. Netzer in particular, his mane flowing in the breeze, time and time again broke excitingly like the Bobby Charlton of old.”

England’s approach had seemed outdated, whereas West Germany had offered vibrancy and flair that went against the ‘efficient’ stereotype. The French publication L’Equipe described them as playing “dream football from the year 2000”. The performance remains revered in Germany and the result confirmed they at last held the upper hand over England, having now won three meetings in succession against them (they hadn’t beaten them until a friendly in 1968). It was England’s most sobering home defeat since losing 6-3 to Hungary in 1953 and it was hard to argue with the outcome, Ramsey conceding afterwards: “We didn’t get hold of it until the second half. By then West Germany had all the confidence in the world because of the freedom we let them have in the first half.”

Ramsey now had two weeks to somehow devise a plan to get England back into the tie with a two-goal victory in Berlin to force a play-off. He was keeping his cards close to his chest, except to say: “I am no gambler. Why should I be? This is a testing occasion demanding experience. But I do have a plan to meet the Netzer threat which will be revealed in due course.”

Think English footballers from the 1970s and two types spring to mind. One of them is the mavericks, a group of free-spirited, flair players that Ramsey seldom picked; and the other is the hard men who would happily chop down their opponents. Ramsey would make use of the latter in Berlin, bringing Hunter into midfield along with Peter Storey, who had a reputation as a ‘hatchet man’.

Ramsey was clearly looking to avoid a repeat of the first leg by giving England defensive bite in midfield. But it was a move that offered England little attacking threat and did nothing to alter the perception among the critics that Ramsey was a defensively-minded manager. He did show some acknowledgement of the mavericks by picking Rodney Marsh in attack, but he was taken off before the hour mark and won just nine caps in total.

England attempt to gain possession in Berlin.

In some respects the tactical plan worked well in the Berlin rain, as England were not embarrassed like they had been at Wembley and earned a 0-0 draw. Had England gone there needing a draw to progress, Ramsey might have earned plaudits for finding a system to stop the Germans. But instead his detractors felt the approach smacked of damage limitation, England offering little attacking zest to overturn the aggregate deficit.

Their physical approach to stop the West Germans won them few admirers. “The whole England team has autographed my leg,” complained Netzer. Manager Helmut Schön condemned England for “brutal tackling aimed at the bones”. The England players hit back, with Alan Ball saying: “I never thought the West Germans would act like cry babies. They tried to make villains of us.”

Gordon Banks faces a free-kick in Berlin.

The inquests were well under way into what had gone wrong for the England team, as the criticism poured in. Frank Taylor wrote in the Daily Mirror: “English football was revealed in the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the fraud it is. The world saw our players looking as cultured as a clog dancer in a ballet class… I am sick of the excuses, tired of the tactical explanations. If this was a victory for tactics, give me the glory of adventurous defeat.”

However, Taylor’s colleague Ken Jones offered some support for Ramsey over his tactics in Berlin: “Had he thrown his team at the Germans, then the Germans would merely have emphasised the skill superiority they displayed at Wembley. There would have been no sympathy for a gamble that failed.” Jones also voiced his fear that “England could be discredited totally as a power in world football” if steps were not taken to reduce the amount of fixtures English clubs played.

For England, there would be no place in the finals tournament, which Belgium would now host. West Germany went on to beat the hosts and USSR to win the tournament, following it up by lifting the World Cup on home soil. England wouldn’t even qualify for that, as Ramsey’s England reign ended ignominiously.

With hindsight at least Ramsey probably should have stepped down after the Euro ’72 exit, with England clearly no longer dining at international football’s top table but with him having led England to at least the last eight in four successive competitions. The West Germany defeat showed England now lagged behind the world’s best and set the trend for the years that followed, with things about to get even worse.

England’s Euro ’68 – Mullery makes unwanted history

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In the latest of our recollections of how England performed at past European Championships, we turn the clock back to 1968. England came perilously close to becoming European champions just two years after winning the World Cup. But their involvement in the competition would mainly be recalled just for Alan Mullery going into the history books as their first player ever to be sent off…

Ask any English-loving football fan who is old enough where they were when England won the World Cup in 1966, or played unforgettable semi-finals during Italia ’90 or Euro ’96, and they could probably give you an instant answer and start recalling the emotions they felt at the time. Yet there has been one other occasion when England have reached the last four of a major tournament, but it barely ever gets mentioned other than when referencing England’s first ever sending off. Two years after winning the World Cup, England made it to the semi-finals of the 1968 European Championship. It was only the third time the competition had been staged, having been renamed from the European Nations Cup.

We’ll pick up the story in the quarter-finals (technically this was part of qualifying, but it seems wrong somehow to class it as such here when sides at Euro 2016 will have to win through two rounds just to reach this stage). England had been beaten at home by Scotland in qualifying but had gone on to top the group to face holders Spain over two legs in the last eight. Sir Alf Ramsey’s England were World Cup holders and Home International champions. Now they could complete the treble by adding the European crown if they won through the next three rounds. With Manchester United soon to lift the European Cup, there was a sense that English football was enjoying a real period of success and England could cement that reputation by winning Euro ’68.

But not everyone was in awe of England. Although they had lost just once since October 1965, their style of play was not universally loved and critics felt the World Cup triumph had only been achieved thanks to home advantage and crucial refereeing decisions going in their favour. If England could become champions of Europe, it could help silence many doubters.

Seeing off the Spanish

England welcome Spain to Wembley for the first leg of their European Championship quarter-final.

The boys of ’66 still dominated England’s team two years on, although some new blood had broken into the side. Cyril Knowles, Alan Mullery and Mike Summerbee were in the team at home to Spain, with George Cohen, Nobby Stiles and Geoff Hurst the three players missing from the 1966 triumph. Cohen had been Ramsey’s first casualty of the 1966 XI, while Stiles was left watching on as Mullery assumed his midfield role. England had beaten the Spaniards twice in friendlies in recent years but this time around it looked like they may fail to make the breakthrough as chances went begging. With six minutes left, Bobby Charlton – hoping to end the season as a European champion for club and country – gave England a much-needed lead. The goal meant Charlton equalled Jimmy Greaves’ record tally of 44 England goals and gave them hope of progression as they won 1-0 on the night.

Bobby Charlton takes a bow after giving England the lead against Spain.

But in an era when home advantage was still seen as very significant, there was a concern they could be eliminated in the return in Madrid five weeks later. Hurst again missed the game due to injury, while goalkeeper Gordon Banks could have been a significant absentee as Peter Bonetti deputised (with greater success than at the same stage of the World Cup two years later against West Germany). Brian Labone, Norman Hunter and Keith Newton all came into the side, for a match in front of a frenzied 120,000 crowd.

After 47 minutes as Amancio Amaro put Spain ahead on the night. But England stirred as Martin Peters restored their aggregate lead, before Hunter made it 2-1 on the night and 3-1 overall. Ramsey was proclaiming it as England’s best display since the World Cup triumph, with such a strong showing on foreign soil helping silence the critics. Ken Jones of the Daily Mirror wrote: “England’s faith in the football that won them the World Cup was vividly confirmed by a memorable victory. They are through to the semi-finals of the European Nations Cup, their reputation untarnished, still a team to be envied and admired. Let there be no doubt, argument or debate. This was a truly magnificent England performance.”

The finals of Euro ’68 would mark the midpoint of the cycle between England winning the World Cup in 1966 and their bid to retain it in 1970. The performances they would give in Italy for the final two matches would offer some indication of how good they really were.

Losing at last

After winning in Spain, a buoyant Sir Alf said of England’s great run of form: “This must end some time. But where, and who is good enough to do it?” It was the kiss of death as he wouldn’t have long to wait for an answer. Although England beat Sweden 3-1 in a Wembley friendly, they then lost 1-0 away to West Germany shortly before the finals began. It was the first time the Germans had defeated England and marked a turning point in fortunes between the sides, while also representing England’s first away defeat for four years (a record that that tended to be overlooked by those knocking their 1966 success as being purely down to home advantage).

Of more pressing concern was the European Championship semi-final, as England arrived in Italy for a clash with Yugoslavia.  Although the Yugoslavs had been absent from the 1966 World Cup, they had finished above West Germany in qualifying for Euro ’68 and then beaten France 6-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals. This was certainly not going to be an easy test for England, in front of less than 22,000 fans in Florence.

It was hardly a match for the purists, an ill-tempered game remaining goalless until the closing five minutes. Then a high cross evaded Bobby Moore and Dragan Džajić struck past Gordon Banks. Tensions had been building all night and a hard tackle on Mullery led to the player retaliating. He kicked his opponent Dobrivoje Trivic just yards from the referee and Mullery took his unwanted place in the history books as he was ordered off. England would almost certainly have lost anyway but the sending off effectively confirmed their exit, as they were beaten 1-0.

Alan Mullery becomes the first man to be sent off against Yugoslavia in 1968.

No England player had been sent off before and Mullery feared his manager was going to read the riot act. Mullery recalled years later: “I was expecting the biggest roasting any player has had when the door burst open and Alf came in, grim-faced. He looked at me and shouted, ‘if you hadn’t done it, I would have’.”

Mullery would also later say the FA fined him £50 – a decent sum of money at the time – for his sending off but Ramsey insisted on paying it on his behalf. Ramsey had stuck with Stiles amid condemnation for his challenge on France’s Jacques Simon at the 1966 World Cup and now he was standing up for Mullery. He was certainly a man who would defend his players.

Ramsey would lay into Yugoslavs in a manner that rekindled memories of his infamous “animals” comment after England had beaten Argentina in the 1966 World Cup. “I have never seen anything like that. I don’t think even the Argentines in the World Cup were worse,” he said about Yugoslavia, amid criticism of his own team’s physical approach. “We are hard – when we go for the ball. But the ball is always there to be won. These people do their worst when the ball is away. It is evil.”

Sir Alf Ramsey spoke out about Yugoslavia after England lost to them in the semi-finals.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of England’s display, they were not going to be champions of Europe. Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times: “It is something of a comedown for the world champions. Sadly, victory in Europe has faded – the one thing Ramsey and his men wanted so much to still the whispers of the past two years. But now the unfriendly critics who always pointed to Wembley as the reason for England’s global victory in 1966 are hugging themselves.”

For Mullery, the night in Florence would forever be associated with his name. “I can never get rid of it. I played more than 700 games in my career between the age of 15 and 34,” he said in 2012. “People always remember that game – or another one when I scored a volley against Leicester in the cup and it was on Match of the Day every Saturday night for a year. People just remember those two games, they don’t remember the other 698.” His sending off did not open the floodgates for other England players to be dismissed, as just three more would be sent off before David Beckham was red carded 30 years later in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina.

Third place secured

For England there remained the third place play-off against the Soviet Union in Rome, to be played before the final between Italy and Yugoslavia. The Russians had only been denied a place in the final on the toss of a coin after drawing with Italy and had posed England problems the previous December during a 2-2 friendly draw at Wembley. Stiles took advantage of Mullery’s suspension to return to the side after more than a year out and he put in a sound display as England won 2-0 with Bobby Charlton and Hurst on target. The performance had rekindled optimism about what the team could achieve at the 1970 World Cup.

Green wrote: “Of the four teams on show yesterday England left the best impression. Indeed, Moore and his men might well have won the title itself had the championship been held on a league basis. As it was, they might have still pulled it off had not three or four players been out of form the night we lost so narrowly to Yugoslavia in Florence.”

Stiles, who came into the side in place of Mullery against the USSR, wrote in his autobiography of the encounter: “It was, given the fact neither team could win the championship, a tremendously hard game and I had several collisions with a big, tough Russian.” It had been a tournament defined by physicality rather than flair.

Italy went on to beat Yugoslavia after a replay, while England returned home not looking quite as unbeatable as they might have seemed beforehand. Being third in Europe seemed a very modest achievement compared to winning the World Cup. But only once since then have England again reached the Euro semi-finals, meaning their run in 1968 should not be underestimated.