Wales

Great England Goals – Norman Hunter v Wales (1973)

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The 1974 World Cup qualification programme would go down in infamy for England, as the 1966 winners failed to even make the finals two tournaments on. There weren’t many highlights for the fans to look back at fondly, but one would be the thunderbolt goal scored by Norman Hunter against Wales on this day in 1973…

1973, Norman Hunter and Wembley weren’t the best of combinations. In May, Hunter was part of the Leeds United side that surprisingly lost to Sunderland in the FA Cup Final. In October, Hunter’s infamous error against Poland proved costly as England conceded the goal that ultimately stopped them qualifying for the World Cup. But on a happier note, in the previous home qualifier in January, Hunter had scored a screamer against Wales.


The visit of the Welsh marked the first World Cup match at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. As on that famous day, England were managed by Sir Alf Ramsey and captained by Bobby Moore. But Alan Ball was the only other player from the 1966 final taking to the field, although the side did contain Norman Hunter who had been an unused squad member in that triumph and made one substitute appearance at the 1970 tournament. This was realistically going to be the defender’s last chance to properly figure at a World Cup. With England having started the campaign by beating Wales in Cardiff two months earlier, there seemed little cause for concern ahead of this rare January international.

All that changed after 23 minutes, John Toshack scoring from close range to give Wales the lead. Suddenly it didn’t look so certain that England would be at the finals in West Germany. They now began to attack with vigour, but – in an ominous warning sign for what would later lie ahead with Poland and Jan Tomaszewski- they came up against a goalkeeper in good form in Gary Sprake. But the one man who would beat him shortly before the break was Hunter, his Leeds United colleague.

Hunter was involved in bringing the ball forward as England attacked in numbers. Colin Bell drove the ball into the box, with it being deflected away into the path of Hunter. He struck the ball goalwards with venom from outside the box, his left foot drive flying into the roof of Sprake’s net. “Sprake knows all about Norman Hunter but he knew nothing about that,” proclaimed BBC commentator David Coleman as Wembley erupted with delight. It had been a goal to savour.

“Oh, how England need forwards who can shoot like that,” reflected Geoffrey Green in The Times. Norman Giller in the Daily Express wrote of a goal that was “fashioned out of nothing”. In the Daily Mirror, Frank McGhee said: “It is in a way a tribute to England’s equaliser in the 40th minute that a ‘keeper in Sprake’s superb form was left frozen in disbelief at the ferocity and power of the Norman Hunter shot that flew past him from 25 yards.” Green also called it at 25 yards, Giller gave a more conservative estimate of 20. Wales’ Leighton James, in an interview in 2004, recalled it as being 30. But regardless of just how far out it was, there was no getting away from the fact that Hunter’s goal had caught the eye. “You did not see him often over the halfway line. It showed how much pressure they put on us,” recalled James.


Hunter would generally be known for his ‘bites yer’ legs’ reputation rather than his goalscoring ability, scoring just 22 times in 679 Football League appearances. For England he was hardly prolific either, the only other goal he scored in 28 caps coming against Spain in 1968. But against Wales he drove in a goal to remember. 

It sadly wasn’t what most people would be talking about the following day, England having to settle for a 1-1 draw and being booed off the pitch. It wouldn’t be what most primarily remembered his England career for either, the mistake against Poland nine months later sadly – and perhaps unfairly – sticking in many minds far more. But Hunter’s goal against Wales had been one to treasure, a prime candidate for any list of forgotten great England goals – a left-footed drive from distance that flew past Sprake. It was a Bobby Charlton-esque goal from the most unlikely of sources.

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.

The last Home Internationals (1983-84)

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This week in 1984 saw Wembley stage a match in the Home Internationals for the final time. Today we recall the demise and final series of the annual competition between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as the curtain was pulled down on the tournament after a century.

August 19, 1983 marked the day when 100 years of history was effectively brought to a close. The Football Association’s international committee voted in favour of England withdrawing from the British Home Championship – also regularly referred to as the Home International Championship – after the 1983-84 season. It was not totally surprising news, but that did not soften the blow for Northern Ireland and Wales who both understandably felt snubbed and were concerned at losing out on the revenue from hosting matches in the competition. England’s annual match with old rivals Scotland – the blue riband event of the Home Internationals – would be continuing, with this adding to the woes of the jilted duo.

England’s decision to withdraw and effectively end the competition’s existence was not universally supported, although – outside Northern Ireland and Wales at least – there was not the same outcry there would be if, say, the FA Cup was scrapped. The tournament carried plenty of tradition but did not boast the reverence of its near-equivalent in rugby union of the Five Nations (as was). Over time the competition had gone from being a major event to a distant third behind the World Cup and European Championship in terms of priorities.

And it appears in the eyes of certain individuals in the FA hierarchy that the matches carried less weight than glamour friendlies against the sort of sides they would be facing in major tournaments – not least the fact that some of the more attractive continental sides would usually draw a bigger crowd to Wembley than Northern Ireland or Wales, with the latter’s visit in February 1983 attracting just 24,000. When Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Wrexham in May 1982, a staggeringly low 2,315 attended. Although this was undoubtedly affected by clashing with the FA Cup final replay, it gave a strong indication of the competition’s low standing by the 1980s.

There were just 24,000 in attendance when England hosted Wales in 1983.

This fall in attendances in recent times was cited as one of the reasons behind the demise of the competition. The sad irony though was that Northern Ireland and Wales both had far stronger sides at this point than at other times in the past and future and matches against them would offer a reasonable test for England and Scotland. Both also came perilously close to qualifying for Euro ’84, but like England they missed out in the final round of matches. With no UK side at the finals, their only hope of silverware at senior level in 1984 would be by winning the last Home International Championship.

Ted Croker said the matches were “no longer the major attractions and crowd-pullers they once were”.

It was argued that the Home Internationals used up dates that could have been better utilised by playing friendlies. This seems to have mattered more to the decision-makers than playing matches in a competitive and tournament environment, which the championship offered. FA secretary Ted Croker said at the time: “The reality in this instance is we do just not have enough gaps in the fixture list to play the top teams in the world, such as West Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy or the South Americans and continue the Home Internationals. The matches against Northern Ireland and Wales are no longer the major attractions and crowd-pullers they once were, even when played in Belfast or Wales, and so it was felt a halt had to be called.”

Hooliganism often seems to be quoted as a key factor in why the competition folded but this was not said at the time by the FA – and the fact the Scotland match was continuing also suggests it was not a primary reason. It could also be argued that the tournament’s future had not been helped by events in 1981, a year when it was declared void after England and Wales withdrew from matches in Belfast amid The Troubles with the competition’s remaining four games taking place only as friendlies.

  

Bobby Robson would later say England had “outgrown” the competition.

England manager Bobby Robson was reported at the time to have been in favour of a compromise where the competition would only be played in odd-numbered years when there would be no World Cup or European Championship tournaments. But in his World Cup Diary published in 1986 he offered a more damning view of the competition and seemed to feel little sadness over its demise. He wrote: “Naturally, the Welsh and Irish were bitter about it for the revenue from the competition was important to their day-to-day running but, in truth, these games provided little unless they were part of the European Championship or World Cup. We had outgrown them and I felt that foreign opposition would be more beneficial to us and to the Welsh and Irish as well, because both have the talent to attract top teams to play in their countries and bring in the crowds.”

Although England took most of the blame for the competition’s demise, Scotland did not escape criticism either for following their lead and withdrawing. The confusingly-named Wales manager Mike England had a pop at the Scots, accusing them of performing a “double turn”. He said in December 1983: “Everyone believes it was England alone who dropped Wales and Northern Ireland, but Scotland have done the dirty on us as well.”

With Irish FA president Henry Cavan writing in programme notes for the opening match of the tournament that “we are gravely disappointed and sad that 100 years of genuine friendship, sporting traditions and close co-operation seems to have been sacrificed for financial expediency”, there was certainly tension in the air ahead of the last British Championship.

Windsor Park’s farewell to the Home Internationals brought a 2-0 win for Northern Ireland over Scotland.

On December 13, 1983 the final series of Home Internationals began with Windsor Park hosting a match in the competition for the last time as Scotland visited. It was earlier than usual in the season for such a match to be played and came in an era when Northern Ireland were enjoying a purple patch. They had won the tournament in 1980, famously beaten hosts Spain during the 1982 World Cup and done the double over West Germany in qualifying matches for Euro ’84. Norman Whiteside, who was only 18 but had already accomplished many of life’s dreams, opened the scoring before Sammy McIlroy completed a 2-0 win for Northern Ireland. The result would carry significance in the final reckoning.

Scotland beat Wales 2-1 at Hampden Park in February 1984.

In late February Scotland were again in action in the championship, Hampden Park welcoming Wales who the Scots would also face in World Cup qualifying for Mexico ’86. Watford forward Mo Johnston marked his Scotland debut by coming off the bench to score in a 2-1 win, with Davie Cooper and Robbie James – both sadly taken from us far too soon – also on target. The match report in The Glasgow Herald the following day began with Jim Reynolds writing: “Not content with telling the Welsh that they do not want to play them in any more British International Championship matches, Scotland gave them a farewell kick in the pants at Hampden last night in the 99th official meeting between the countries.”


The England side that faced Nothern Ireland in April 1984.

On April 4, Wembley staged a Home Internationals match for the last time, Northern Ireland providing the opposition for England. Sadly, the poor attendance and a low-key atmosphere helped justify the decision for England to pull out of the competition. Stuart Jones wrote in The Times: “The size of the crowd, a mere 24,000, confirmed again how unattractive the domestic matches have become and the overall atmosphere was as lively and as animated as a private tea party.”

Liverpool’s Alan Kennedy was handed his England debut, on a night when Tony Woodcock headed the only goal. But England had been enduring poor fortunes lately and the match had done little to silence the critics.

The Wales side that beat England in May 1984 at Wrexham.

Wales were the only one of the four sides at the time not to play virtually all their home games at the same ground, with the stadiums of Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham each staging matches. It was Wrexham who had the honour of hosting England’s visit on May 2, the visitors still haunted by a 4-1 thrashing at the same ground four years earlier. Manchester United youngster Mark Hughes scored the only goal on his Wales debut as they deservedly defeated England, whose inexperienced side failed to shine. Kennedy, David Armstrong, John Gregory and Paul Walsh were all never capped again. Robson wrote in 1986 of the team’s display: “They were quiet in the hotel before we left, their heads were down as we walked into the ground and we never got going on the pitch. They played badly and hardly created a chance all night, with Paul Walsh and Tony Woodcock looking a lightweight pairing… We performed like a team going nowhere fast.” Not for the first or last time in his reign, Bobby Robson greatly missed his namesake Bryan.

Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Swansea for the last game both sides played in the championship.

The competition was now put on hold until three days after the FA Cup Final, when Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Swansea’s Vetch Field. A win would give either side a decent chance of the title, while Northern Ireland would still be in with a shout if they drew. Hughes again gave Wales the lead, but Gerry Armstrong headed Northern Ireland level as the match finished 1-1. Northern Ireland’s veteran goalkeeper Pat Jennings, who 20 years earlier had made his international debut in the same stadium, had to leave the action early after Ian Rush’s boot caught him in the face. “You’d better ask the other fellow if it was an accident,” he told the media afterwards.

The draw meant Northern Ireland and Wales had both finished with three points (two points for a win), with Northern Ireland’s goal difference of +1 meaning they topped the table. Whoever won between Scotland and England at Hampden Park would keep the trophy; if it was a draw then Northern Ireland would be the final winners. But history did not appear to be on their side, considering no clash between Scotland and England had finished all-square since 1970.

Tony Woodcock equalises for England against Scotland.

On Saturday, May 26, 1984, the curtain came down on a competition that had begun on January 26, 1884. England’s preparations were not helped by a shortage of key players, due to injuries and club commitments. Speaking four days before the match, Bobby Robson said: “I could scream. I’m left with just one centre-half, Terry Fenwick, who has yet to have a full game for us.” Manchester United trio Mick Duxbury, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins flew in from Hong Kong in the days leading up to the game after a club tour, while the Tottenham Hotspur contingent appeared in the UEFA Cup final just three days before the match. No Liverpool players were involved as they were preparing to play in the European Cup final against Roma.

A downward header by Mark McGhee gave Scotland the lead, but England – playing with two genuine wingers in John Barnes and Mark Chamberlain – pulled level before the break. Tony Woodcock collected the ball some distance from the goal, cut inside and unleashed a spectacular left-footed drive into the net. It would be the final goal ever scored in the British Championship and it was a tremendous effort to conclude the competition. The second half saw Peter Shilton keep England level with some important stops as the rain fell in Glasgow, while substitute Gary Lineker made his England debut.


The Northern Ireland squad pictured after winning the final championship.

Neither side could find a winner, with the match ending 1-1. And so the competition finished with all four teams locked on three points. Northern Ireland took the honours thanks to having a goal difference one better than England and Wales and two better than Scotland. Wales were second by virtue of having scored more goals than England, as the ‘big two’ occupied the bottom spots in the table. The trophy was Northern Ireland’s to keep, as England and Scotland continued their annual clashes in the Rous Cup. But that would only last five years before the plug was pulled.

In the ensuing years there would be occasional calls for the Home Internationals to return, most seriously after all four sides failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Three years later there was again talk of the competition being revived to mark the FA’s 150th birthday in 2013. This came to nothing, although England did meet Scotland in a friendly. A similar competition, the Nations Cup, was played in the Republic of Ireland in 2011 featuring the four British Isles nations except England. But this would prove short-lived amid low attendances, with the competition’s failings perhaps confirming that there would be no comeback for the Home Internationals either.

Six of the Best – England in November

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November has long been a busy month for England and one that they have traditionally done well in. We recall six of the best matches from an English perspective from the month during the past 50 years…

November 16, 1966 Wales (h) 5-1 European Championship qualifier

 

England’s first home match after the 1966 World Cup glory was an anti-climatic 0-0 friendly draw with Czechoslovakia, but two weeks later they regained their goalscoring form when it mattered more. Their new aim was to become 1968 European Championship winners, with successive Home International series doubling up as the qualifying group. Against Wales, England fielded their revered World Cup winning XI for the sixth successive – and final – time. Geoff Hurst rounded off his most memorable year by scoring twice, with the Charlton brothers each on the scoresheet along with an own goal by Terry Hennessey as England won 5-1. 

It wasn’t a bad way to end England’s most glorious year, in which they had remained unbeaten. In the Daily Mirror, Tom Lyons wrote: “The World Cup poise and brilliance wasn’t quite there, but England are still a very fine side. They were in command for practically the whole game and probably would have won by an even bigger margin but for some wild finishing, especially in the first half.”

November 18, 1981 Hungary (h) 1-0 World Cup qualifier

  

Paul Mariner puts England ahead against Hungary and the nation breathes a huge sigh of relief.

England’s qualifying campaign for the 1982 World Cup had been turbulent and they had looked all but out after losing to Norway two months earlier. But then came the stroke of good fortune they had been praying for, as Romania twice slipped up against Switzerland – who in turn lost to Hungary to end their own qualification hopes. Suddenly, England now only needed a draw at home to Hungary to make it – a situation identical to against Croatia almost exactly 26 years later in Euro 2008 qualifying, both matches against teams who were already through. 

But where Croatia played with tenacity and broke English hearts, the Hungarians gave a leisurely performance that helped ease any anxiety at Wembley. In front of a capacity night-time crowd of 92,000 and with millions more watching the BBC’s live coverage, Paul Mariner’s early goal put England on their way. They were rarely threatened and should have increased their 1-0 lead but that mattered little. England were through to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1970 and the feeling of relief around Wembley was tangible. Rarely has an England home win in a qualifier been so widely celebrated. In the Daily Express, Alan Thompson wrote: “Wembley was last night an amphitheatre of happiness, a packed arena waving flags and sore hoarse throats. And that was half-an-hour after the players had disappeared to the dressing room.”

November 14, 1984 Turkey (a) 8-0 World Cup qualifier

   

Bryan Robson bags a hat-trick as England beat Turkey 8-0 in 1984.

Three years on from the Hungary game, England were back on the World Cup qualifying trail as they met Turkey for the first time. Although the Turks were not regarded as a good side at the time, a potentially tough fixture seemed in store in front of a partisan home crowd in Istanbul. But England had renewed confidence after winning away to Brazil in a friendly in the summer and a 5-0 victory over Finland in their opening qualifier the previous month. That buoyancy was in evidence as they won 8-0, looking capable of scoring with each attack. Captain Bryan Robson netted a hat-trick, with Tony Woodcock and John Barnes each bagging a brace and Viv Anderson rounding off the scoring.

It could have been more, leading to manager Bobby Robson saying afterwards he felt England had “let them off the hook” by ‘only’ winning 8-0. But that was just nit-picking, for it had been an excellent afternoon’s work for England. 

November 11, 1987 Yugoslavia (a) 4-1 European Championship qualifier 

  

John Barnes in action for England against Yugoslavia in 1987.

A crunch qualifier for England, as they looked to seal their place at Euro ’88. A draw away to Yugoslavia would be enough, but if they lost to a decent-looking side then in all probability they wouldn’t make it. A tight contest was forecast, with England expected to keep things tight on a filthy afternoon in Belgrade. To everyone’s amazement England led 4-0 within half an hour, as they looked extremely potent in front of goal. “I had to pinch myself when the third and fourth goals went in,” said a delighted Bobby Robson afterwards.

Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams all found the net as even the most pessimistic of England fans began celebrating early. Although a late consolation goal would deny England from qualifying without conceding a goal, this was a day to treasure and the 4-1 victory looked a very impressive result. England had scored 12 goals in their last two qualifiers and would seemingly go into Euro ’88 as a genuine contender. Alas, it was not to be.

November 13, 1999 Scotland (a) 2-0 European Championship play-off

 

England celebrate as Paul Scholes scores against Scotland in 1999.

There was excitement both north and south of the border in the autumn of 1999 as old rivals Scotland and England were paired together in the play-offs to decide who would qualify for Euro 2000. England had struggled in qualifying to even reach this stage and they knew they would be up against a determined Scottish side, backed by a fervent home crowd in the first-leg at Hampden Park – where England had not played for 10 years. Kevin Keegan’s side rode their luck a bit at times but enjoyed a memorable 2-0 win as Paul Scholes scored twice in the first half and left the Scots facing an uphill struggle to qualify. “We played fantastic today. I couldn’t have asked for more,” raved Keegan afterwards.

The result meant England were unbeaten in 23 consecutive November matches since losing to Italy in 1976, a record which helped back up former manager Bobby Robson’s belief that this was a time of year when the team was at its best. But sadly it would be the end of the run, as the second-leg was lost 1-0 and England scraped into the finals. However, that first-leg win had been decisive in taking them through.

November 12, 2005 Argentina (n) 3-2 Friendly

  

Michael Owen gives England a memorable win over Argentina in 2005.

So far this century friendlies have – with a couple of exceptions – monopolised England’s November schedule. Although they have enjoyed wins over Germany, Spain (World Cup and Euros holders at the time) and Scotland in such matches that could all have well have made our selected six, the friendly that stands out most took place in neutral Geneva against Argentina 10 years ago. 

“No such thing as a friendly when these two meet,” may be a bit of an overused cliché when England take on any of their main rivals, but in this instance it was true for positive reasons – as unlike many friendlies it felt like a genuine international contest where the result really meant something. Three momentous World Cup clashes between the sides in the previous 20 years added to the fixture’s intensity. Argentina were predicted to be a force in the following year’s World Cup so this fixture looked a good benchmark as to how good England were, coming after poor defeats in recent months to Denmark and Northern Ireland.

Despite a goal from Wayne Rooney, England trailed 2-1 with four minutes remaining before Michael Owen popped up twice to give them a dramatic 3-2 win. Although England’s cause had been helped by Argentine substitutions in the closing stages, this was still a widely heralded win that raised expectations to a particularly high level for the following summer. As England friendlies go, this was as enthralling as it gets. Owen reflected afterwards: “There was so much more to it than a friendly. Even when they scored their fans and players were going mad. It really could have gone either way – they had chances too – and it shows there is not much to choose between the top few teams in the world.”

As we’ve seen, November has often been a good month for England over the years – there were several other games that could have easily been included here. But there have been some exceptions and later this month we will reflect on six instances where things didn’t go quite so well…