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 Euro 2004 – Rooney’s emergence

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In the run-up to Euro 2016 this summer, we will look back at how England have fared when they previously qualified for the European Championship. Today we turn the clock back 12 years to Euro 2004 in Portugal, a tournament that saw teenager Wayne Rooney come to international prominence with some blistering performances. For England the tournament represented a golden opportunity to at last win a major competition, but the penalty-shoot-out curse would strike once more…


Wayne Rooney’s performances would be the standout memory of England’s Euro 2004.

England headed to Portugal having won their qualifying group with an unbeaten record, clinching their finals place with a tense 0-0 draw away to Turkey in the final game. There was a belief England could challenge for Euro 2004 glory, with a settled squad of players who mostly had age on their side. Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard, who had both missed the 2002 World Cup through injury, were fit this time around and a new star had burst onto the scene. Eighteen-year-old Everton forward Wayne Rooney was proving a genuinely exciting talent and by the time of the Euros he had already been playing for his country for 16 months. Now he had the chance to become well-known across Europe. Other players to have broken into the set-up in the past two years included Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and John Terry.

Veterans such as David Seaman and Teddy Sheringham had left the international scene since the 2002 World Cup, but the most significant absentee from England’s Euro 2004 squad was Rio Ferdinand. The Manchester United defender had been banned from playing football since missing a drugs test the previous September, with the controversy having overshadowed the build-up to the decisive qualifier in Turkey. Terry and Ledley King would contest the right to partner Sol Campbell in the centre of defence in Ferdinand’s absence.


England would be without the banned Rio Ferdinand for Euro 2004.

Since Sven-Göran Eriksson had taken over as England boss in January 2001 – initially attracting opposition from some quarters as he wasn’t English – there had become a feelgood factor surrounding the national team, with joyful wins against Germany and Argentina recorded along the way. Thousands of England fans were heading to Portugal for the finals, making most games feel like home fixtures. 

Euro 2004 appeared to represent as good a chance as any for the new-found ‘Golden Generation’ to end the long wait. To help their cause, no side at the finals looked unbeatable. France were favourites and holders but they had lost their armour of invincibility with group stage elimination at the 2002 World Cup; Germany were in transition and had looked unusually vulnerable in recent years; Italy were unpredictable, having lost to Wales during qualifying; and Spain were still considered underachievers with their glory years yet to come. England could be placed in the same bracket as nations including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and hosts Portugal – they were in with a decent shout provided all went to plan.

After qualifying in October, England’s results had been patchy as they prepared for the finals. A 6-1 thrashing of Iceland was their only win, having drawn with Portugal and Japan and lost to Denmark and Sweden. The Euro 2004 draw placed England in Group B with holders France, Croatia and Switzerland. Although starting with a game against the French was probably not what England would have wished for, they stood a good chance of progressing to the quarter-finals and potentially further.

Zidane strikes twice at the death

On the second night of the tournament, England took on France in Lisbon. As England so often do in their opening games at major competitions, they struck first as Lampard headed in Beckham’s free-kick. All was going to plan and in the second half they were handed the perfect chance to wrap up the win after a powerful run by Rooney ended with him being fouled in the area. But Beckham’s spot-kick was saved by his former Manchester United team-mate Fabien Barthez.


Frank Lampard puts England ahead against France.

Despite this blow, England still seemed on course for a memorable victory against a side containing Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley jumped the gun, pointing out how France’s Tottenham Hotspur-bound boss Jacques Santini could be taunted with “1-0” chants in the coming season. It was the kiss of death. In the final minute, Emile Heskey conceded a free-kick just outside the box. Zidane underlined his ability by curling the ball into the bottom corner of the net with David James stranded.


Zinedine Zidane scores France’s winner from the penalty spot.

England seemed shaken by the goal and deep in stoppage time Gerrard played a fatal backpass towards James. Henry got in first and James brought him down in the area. Zidane scored from the spot and England had somehow contrived to lose 2-1 in a game they had looked destined to win.

 “Afterwards my head was pounding with ‘what ifs’. We were devastated. I still am. In the post-match press conference I said we hadn’t been shown any footage of Zidane taking free-kicks or penalties. I don’t think the FA thanked me for saying that, but it was the truth. It wasn’t a premeditated comment, I just responded honestly to the question. In some ways it took the focus off the result – if the media hadn’t had that to go on they would have found something else to pick at.” David James speaking in 2012 as he reflected on the aftermath of the France match.

Rooney comes of age

With Croatia and Switzerland having drawn their opening game, England still stood a strong chance of progressing – but they needed to get a result against the Swiss in their second match in the heat of Coimbra. England began nervously and it was against the run of play they took the lead on 23 minutes. Michael Owen crossed for Rooney to head home from close range – in the process becoming the youngest ever scorer in the European Championship, although he would only hold the record for four days.

In the second half Switzerland were reduced to 10 men when Bernt Haas was red-carded. Rooney would seal the win, although his effort could have been classed as an own goal as it struck the post before going in off Swiss goalkeeper Joerg Stiel. A third goal from Gerrard added gloss to England’s victory. Although 3-0 flattered them, England had claimed a win when they most needed it. Croatia and France drew that night to leave England needing only a draw in their final game against the Croatians to advance, while still having a chance of topping the group.


Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring against Croatia.

If there was excitement over Rooney after the Switzerland game, then it turned into hysteria after the match against Croatia. Backed by a tremendous support in Lisbon, England enjoyed an enthralling 4-2 win with Rooney scoring two well-taken goals. Although they fell behind early on, England recovered to achieve their win with Paul Scholes ending his three-year international scoring drought and Lampard wrapping up the success.

It had been a good night that emphasised England’s attacking strengths, the only downside being they missed out on top spot after France beat Switzerland 3-1. But for the first time England had progressed from a European Championship group on foreign soil, with all the talk being about their 18-year-old star who seemed totally unfazed by the challenges of a major tournament. “I don’t remember anyone making such an impact on a tournament since Pele in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden,” purred Eriksson about Rooney. Now came the next challenge: a quarter-final clash with hosts Portugal three nights later in the same stadium.

Penalty pain 

Portugal had come close to bowing out at the first hurdle, needing to beat rivals Spain in their final group game to stay in the competition. Both England and Portugal had reason to believe this could be their year, with Portugese star Luis Figo knowing this might represent his best chance to win silverware at international level. Four years earlier he had scored as Portugal came from behind to beat England 3-2 at Euro 2000. This match would again see Eriksson come up against Luiz Felipe Scolari, who had been in charge of Brazil when they knocked England out at the same stage of the World Cup two years earlier. Sharing the stage with Rooney was another much-hyped teenager – Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

With the game just three minutes old, Owen instinctively flicked the ball past goalkeeper Ricardo to put England ahead as he scored for the fourth major tournament in a row. But before the half-hour mark Rooney went off injured and some of England’s momentum seemed to go with him. They appeared increasingly defensive as the game progressed, unconvincingly holding on to their one goal lead. With seven minutes left they were finally undone. Helder Postiga, brought on for Figo, headed past James – this coming after he had scored just one league goal during the previous season with Tottenham Hotspur.

For the second time in the tournament, England had been punished when seeking to protect a 1-0 lead late on. But they went back on the attack and they thought they had snatched victory in the final minute, as Swiss referee Urs Meier took centre stage. Owen struck the crossbar from Beckham’s free-kick and Campbell forced the ball home. But Meier ruled that Terry had impeded Ricardo and the effort was ruled out. It was cruel on Campbell, who had also had a ‘winner’ disallowed against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.


Frank Lampard equalises for England against Portugal.

England now had to raise themselves for extra-time, having already brought on three substitutes. After a goalless first period of extra-time, England fell behind with 10 minutes left. Rui Costa fired an unstoppable shot off that went in off the underside of the bar. But again conceding seemed to galvanise England, Lampard scoring his third of the tournament to pull them level five minutes from time. Once again, penalties would be needed to settle an England tournament match.


That familiar painful feeling as England once more bow out on penalties.

By England’s poor standards this was one of their better shoot-outs, twice putting Portugal in a position where they had to score to stay in the contest. But that was of little consolation as for the fourth time they exited a major tournament on spot-kicks, losing 6-5 in the shoot-out. Beckham continued his dismal recent penalty record by firing England’s first effort over, amid suggestions the penalty spot had moved (‘Sod It’ screamed the back page headline in the Daily Mirror). During sudden death, Vassell saw his effort saved by Ricardo – who then in turn scored past opposite number James to end England’s dream. Portugal reached the final but they came undone against Greece, as the outsiders surprisingly lifted the trophy.

The aftermath

One man who probably wished England had prevailed was referee Meier, given the abuse he was about to receive. His decision to disallow Campbell’s goal would have been largely forgotten and forgiven had England progressed, but their exit led to the inevitable hunt for a scapegoat. The tabloid press swiftly chose one, as Meier found himself facing a barrage of criticism – particularly from The Sun which overstepped the mark by encouraging readers to send him emails (Meier claimed he found thousands in his inbox the morning after the match). He had to go into hiding with police protection after saying he received death threats

Although it was open to debate whether Meier had got his decision right (UEFA insisted he had), he certainly did not deserve to have to put up with such threats and The Sun continued its campaign against him by placing a giant English flag near his home. Eriksson wrote in his autobiography of Meier’s treatment: “When I heard what had happened, I called him on behalf of the England team. There was no excuse for that kind of behaviour.” In a tournament where their fans had largely conducted themselves well, it was a section of the tabloid press which had dimmed England’s reputation.


Urs Meier felt the full force of the English tabloids after the nation’s exit from Euro 2004.

Not everyone believed Meier was the sole culprit for England’s exit. Although there had been the odd murmuring before – mainly after the loss to Brazil at the 2002 World Cup – Euro 2004 really represented the first time question marks were seriously appearing about Eriksson and his tactics, particularly given the excessive wages he was reputedly earning in the role. England had increasingly retreated against Portugal and been punished for it and many experts were unimpressed with what they had seen. In The Guardian, Kevin McCarra wrote: “He [Eriksson] got it badly wrong in the Euro 2004 quarter-final and in future his wisdom will not be taken on trust by the public at large. Eriksson is experiencing a small taste now of what it was like to be his predecessor, Kevin Keegan.”

Despite the individual talent available, finding the correct midfield combination was proving difficult and the tournament really marked the start of the Gerrard/Lampard conundrum that would remain unresolved for years. Successfully resolving the left-sided problem in midfield also continually appeared a challenge to Eriksson. Captain Beckham’s performances came in for criticism and not just because of the missed penalties.

Doubts were starting to be cast about Sven-Göran Eriksson.

Had England advanced they would have had to play out the rest of the tournament without Rooney, whose foot injury would rule him out until September. By that point he had moved on to Manchester United in a big money move, his stock having risen during the Euros. But one of his new club team-mates would no longer be playing alongside him for England, as Paul Scholes announced his international retirement at the age of 29.

And to cap everything that summer there was ‘Fariagate’, a scandal which did the FA no favours. Eriksson remained in charge after being cleared of any wrongdoing but there was now increasing pressure on him to succeed with England at the 2006 World Cup. Euro 2004 had represented a golden opportunity for England to finally win a major tournament again and it had been squandered. 

The Euro ’96 draw remembered

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Ahead of the draw for Euro 2016 on Saturday, we look back 20 years to when Birmingham hosted the draw for Euro ’96. For England, there had been a long wait for the tournament but now the excitement could finally build as they were paired with their oldest rivals – Scotland.

December is often a bit of a dead month in international football, but the last month of 1995 proved anything but for England and boss Terry Venables. A week in mid-December was full of international happenings. On Tuesday, December 12, the qualifying draw for the 1998 World Cup placed England in a group including Italy. That night, Steve Stone scored as they drew 1-1 with Portugal in a rare December friendly. The following evening, Anfield staged the only qualifying play-off for Euro ’96 as the Netherlands turned on the style in beating the Republic of Ireland 2-0 – a result that would almost certainly spell the end of Jack Charlton’s reign with Ireland.

On Saturday, December 16, Venables suffered a blow as left-back Graeme Le Saux was carried off playing for Blackburn Rovers against Middlesbrough with an injury that would rule him out of Euro ’96. And behind the scenes, Venables was left deciding that he would be moving on after the tournament amid a series of legal battles (the announcement would be made the following month).

Euro ’96 would mark the end of Terry Venables’ England reign.

But Venables would be spending the next six months carrying on doing what he had been for almost two years – preparing England for Euro ’96. It had been a long wait, England having not played any competitive football – if one discounts the Umbro Cup mini-tournament – during his reign as one friendly merged into another. But eight days before Christmas, the draw for Euro ’96 was to take place at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre. At last the tournament and what Venables had been working towards was starting to seem real.

Draw brings festive cheer

There’s something quite enjoyable about the draw for major tournaments taking place shortly before the festive season, with the Christmas tree up as you settle down to watch it. In much the same way that the holiday guide in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times provides a good chance for readers to start planning for the following summer, the draws for major tournaments do the same for England fans – as they either start making arrangements to attend the matches or plan for where and when to watch them on TV.

How the Euro ’96 draw panned out.

As if to convey the significance of the draw, both the BBC and ITV showed it live on the Sunday afternoon with Sue Barker and Bob Wilson jointly introducing proceedings for viewers across the continent. Some international draws can be ridiculously long and do not flow, seeming more of a cultural event than the simple procedure of determining who plays who the following summer. The draw for Euro ’96 was not without such accusations, as the coaches and media sat through English schoolchildren welcoming each participating nation and Mick Hucknall performing. But mercifully as this draw was largely free of seedings it flowed far better than many have.

England were joined as a seed by Germany, Spain and holders Denmark and the other 12 sides were not seeded – there were no second tier seeds etc. This made it hard to guess just what sort of group England might end up with, the worst case scenario being something like Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal all joining them.

Barry builds up the excitement

As a seed, England would be one of the final balls drawn out. Eventually all that was left was England and Germany, to go in either a group with the Netherlands, Scotland and Switzerland or Italy, the Czech Republic and Russia. The former option was probably the slightly more preferable to Venables and the chances of a clash with Scotland now stood at 50-50. BBC commentator Barry Davies seemed to suddenly morph into his statistically-obsessed rival John Motson as he dwelt on the possibility of the old rivals clashing again. “107 meetings they’ve had England and Scotland. 43-40 it stands in England’s favour. Are we to have another one?” he asked as the piece of paper was pulled out of the ball. “Yes we are,” he exclaimed as England’s name popped up on the screen.

England and Scotland were to meet for the first time since 1989, when Steve Bull scored on his debut.

Venables was seen performing the customary chuckle response to an intriguing draw, as the rest of the proceedings were lost amid the anticipation in the room of England taking on the Scots. Ally McCoist, joining Des Lynam and Gary Lineker in the BBC studio, was preparing for six months of pre-match banter with Rangers colleague Paul Gascoigne about the tie. It would have been exciting enough for England to be paired with the Scots regardless, but the fact they had not met since 1989 following the demise of the Rous Cup meant it was particularly appealing. It would also be the first time England had met a fellow British side at a major tournament (but not the first meeting with another British Isles nation after playing the Republic of Ireland at Euro ’88 and Italia ’90).

Football’s coming home

Each England group game had its own attraction. Switzerland – who Roy Hodgson had steered to the finals before moving on – were the least enticing of the three fixtures but they would play them in the tournament’s opening match. The Scots would be up next for the match that would inevitably be dubbed the ‘Battle of Britain’. And the group would conclude with a clash with the Dutch, much-hyped after the play-off win over the Irish but with England having a score to settle after their opponents had qualified for the 1994 World Cup at their expense.

David Lacey, writing in The Guardian the following morning, said: “In terms of match patterns, the draw has just about given Venables what he would have wished. Switzerland are England’s most recent victims, beaten 3-1 at Wembley in a friendly last month; Holland their most recent tormentors and best saved until the last game of the opening phase.” Tournament director Glen Kirton, referring to the tournament’s ‘Football Comes Home’ slogan – which inspired the ‘Football’s Coming Home’ chorus in Three Lions – said of England being drawn against Scotland: “Football really has come home with the first international fixture repeating itself. It was time England started playing Scotland again.”

England were to face Switzerland at Euro ’96 – but not Roy Hodgson.

Not all the newspaper talk about England playing Scotland focused on the positives, with some fears raised about the threat of trouble. However, both Kirton and Scotland manager Craig Brown played down the likelihood of hooliganism. Meanwhile, Venables was being quizzed about playing the Dutch, who had looked so impressive against the Irish. “They currently have an outstanding team,” he said. “But we have confidence to play against them. I don’t fear sides because fear in itself then becomes your greatest obstacle. We knew that whatever group we were in it was going to be exciting because of the high quality. To play against Scotland and Holland makes it doubly exciting.” Opposite number Guus Hiddink was playing down Dutch chances despite now being installed as favourites by some bookmakers, reminding the media they had “qualified by the kitchen door”.

Although most of the talk after the draw concerned England’s group, there were some interesting looking fixtures in store elsewhere. Group B contained the two sides who met in the Euro ’84 final – France and Spain – as well as Bulgaria and Romania who had both done well at the 1994 World Cup. Group C provided a match-up between two of the favourites in Germany and Italy, although their Old Trafford clash could potentially be about nothing more than who topped the group if they both took care of the Czech Republic and Russia. Group D looked arguably the weakest of the other three groups, with Denmark – not expected to repeat their 1992 heroics – being joined by a re-emerging Portugal side and the unknown quantities of Croatia and Turkey.

There was now six months of planning for Venables and 15 other managers, as fans both north and south of the border particularly looked ahead to June 15. England against Scotland was back – at 3pm on a Saturday at Wembley and in the finals of the European Championship…

England Qualifying Campaigns: 1982 World Cup – Thank You Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A priceless win for England in Hungary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England make it – just feel the relief around Wembley.

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

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