World Cup

England’s 2002 World Cup – 15 years on

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This summer marks the 15th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup, a tournament that brought the all-too-familiar feeling of quarter-final disappointment for England. But there had at least been the joy of a memorable group stage win over Argentina to enjoy…

The start of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s reign in 2001 had been close to perfect, England’s fortunes being transformed as the side qualified as group winners for the following year’s World Cup and won 5-1 away to Germany. Now suddenly the young team were being hyped-up as a potential threat at the finals in Japan and South Korea. However, the final qualifying match at home to Greece had provided something of a reality check as Eriksson’s side struggled and famously needed a David Beckham equaliser in the dying seconds to clinch a place in the final. It was the start of a continual pattern of hopes being raised and dimmed in the coming months.

At the start of December the draw was made and it dealt England a tough hand. They were not seeded and were placed in a group with old rivals Argentina, touted as one of the tournament favourites. To compound matters, the group also contained Eriksson’s homeland of Sweden – a side England had long struggled against – and Nigeria, who had won admirers when making the knockout stage at the last two World Cups. There was no minnow and the inevitable ‘Group of Death’ cliches followed. To make matters worse, it seemed likely whoever finished second would end up playing holders France in the second round.

Eriksson, staying diplomatic but dropping hints of disappointment, said: “We are in the most difficult group, there is no doubt about that. We will have to be very well prepared if we want our World Cup to last longer than three games. The draw is the one part of the process we have no control over, but at least we have a chance of staying in the same country for the whole of the tournament, which is good.” England would be in the Japanese half of the draw and would dream of making the final in Yokohama. But simply a prolonged stay in the tournament looked a decent return as things stood.

Injuries mount up

The months before the tournament included friendly draws with Sweden – played prior to the draw pairing them together in Japan – and the Netherlands, in which debutant Darius Vassell scored a cracker on his debut, and a 4-0 thrashing of Paraguay. But problems never seemed far away. Eriksson’s love life was making front page news, while his side would be hit by a succession of worrying injuries. Regular right back Gary Neville was ruled out of the finals with a broken foot, while midfielder Steven Gerrard – who had come to the fore in the qualifying campaign – limped out of Liverpool’s final match of the season and was to stay at home for the summer.

England’s World Cup side in 2002, a line-up affected by injuries.

England were already two key players down, while also having to cope with a dearth of talent on the left flank as Steve McManaman was overlooked. Trevor Sinclair would end up operating there for much of the tournament, but he only made the final squad after Danny Murphy – called up to replace Liverpool team-mate Gerrard – was himself ruled out. Sinclair had flown home from Japan after seemingly missing out on the finals, only to then make the return journey after being given his second chance. It was a trip worth making.

But the biggest injury hype would concern captain Beckham, the man whose goal had clinched England’s place in the finals. He broke a bone in his foot playing for Manchester United in April, as suddenly the nation became familiar with the term ‘metatarsal’. He faced a race against time to make the finals. As with Kevin Keegan in 1982 and Bryan Robson in 1986 there was now great concern about the captain’s fitness – but this time it had become a major talking point beyond football circles. Now you had Uri Geller trying to play his part to get Beckham fit and the subject was cropping up everywhere. Beckham would make it to Japan, but the attention given to his injury was threatening to send out a message that England were a one-man team who would be unable to cope without him.

David Beckham sustains his metatarsal injury and a nation becomes obsessed about it.

That was very debatable but the squad was certainly lacking in tournament experience. The year 2000 had marked the end of an era for England, with the likes of Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer ending their international careers and the departure of manager Kevin Keegan paving the way for Eriksson to be appointed as the side’s first foreign boss. Although some of the old guard remained from previous tournaments – such as Sol Campbell, David Seaman and Teddy Sheringham – this was essentially an inexperienced side that was building towards the future.

After heading to South-East Asia, England drew matches with South Korea and Cameroon as they continued to send out mixed messages over what they were capable of. The general consensus was this tournament may be a stepping stone to the 2006 World Cup when many of the side would be at their peak, but the class of 2002 couldn’t be totally discounted. The 5-1 win over Germany had certainly raised expectations and shown that, if England clicked, they could achieve results. They had clearly made progress since flopping at Euro 2000 under Keegan.

Struggling against the Swedes

England’s first match was against Sweden, as millions back home unusually settled down to watch a football match on a Sunday morning. There was also good support out in Japan, the reputation of England fans showing signs of improvement from the dreaded hooligan image of previous years. They were celebrating as Sol Campbell headed in a corner during the first half, but the second period saw England stagnate and increasingly allow the Swedes back into it. They conceded an equaliser through Niclas Alexandersson after an error by Danny Mills and England could have few complaints about failing to pick up three points as the game ended 1-1, with David Seaman called upon to deny the Swedes a winner.

Sol Campbell celebrates scoring for England against Sweden.

Only five of the 13 players used by England during the match had played at a World Cup before, with that level of inexperience seen as contributing to the young side fading as the game wore on. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “Unless England rapidly acquire some further education over the next five days they may be back home watching the World Cup on television from the second round onwards. For the moment, at this level, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team look like fourth-formers who have wandered into a sixth-form college.” Argentina beat Nigeria on the same day and England would be deep in trouble if they lost to the South Americans five days later.

Revenge is sweet

In the build-up to the indoor showdown in Sapporo it was hard to escape the past, as the controversial World Cup meetings of 1966, 1986 and 1998 all loomed over the fixture. Certainly the latter had not been forgotten by England, not least the celebrations from the Argentine players on the bus afterwards when parked next to that of Glenn Hoddle’s side. In the intervening four years the film Mike Bassett: England Manager had depicted England beating Argentina 1-0 in the group stage to stay in the World Cup thanks to a controversial goal. Real life was about to imitate fiction…

Regardless of whether the average Englishman was most bothered about revenge over Argentina or simply staying in the World Cup, they would have been delighted following a memorable victory, This time it was England’s turn to get a decision in their favour, referee Pierluigi Collina pointing to the spot after Michael Owen went down in a move that opponent Mauricio Pochettino (yes, that one) still insists was a dive rather than a foul. Four years after being portrayed as the villain following his sending-off against the same opponents, Beckham was the hero as he put England ahead from the spot on the stroke of half-time.

David Beckham puts England in front against Argentina.

Unlike against Sweden, England continued to play with vibrancy and belief after the break and almost scored a superb goal as an impressive move ended with Sheringham going close with a volley. But there was a nagging feeling that if the second goal didn’t come England may be punished as Argentina upped the tempo, with Campbell and Ferdinand thankfully having impressive games to keep them out and Seaman on hand to make important stops. It was tense and only when Collina blew his final whistle could the celebrations begin, as England pulled off one of their most joyful victories in years.

There was certainly a triumphant tone in our newspapers the following day, Beckham’s face on the front of most of them. Rob Shepherd began his report in the Daily Express by writing: “Gotcha! Let’s not beat about the bush, it doesn’t get any sweeter than beating Argentina. That England did so with style and dignity made it all the better. The nation should quite rightly be proud of a victory which turned the England dressing room from the funeral party it had been last Sunday, into a house party.” In an amusing irony following the events of four years earlier, Sinclair would inadvertently step aboard the Argentina team coach afterwards. This time the Argentine mood was rather more sombre, as one of the favourites stood on the brink of potential group stage elimination.

After the gloom of the inquest into the Sweden game, suddenly it was back to England being hyped up as being able to beat anyone in the world and a feeling that maybe, just maybe, this young side could go all the way…

Expectations fall – then rise again

After the euphoria of beating Argentina, the next game against Nigeria proved an anti-climax and brought expectations back down to a more realistic level. The Nigerians were already out and were struggling to match their group displays in the last two World Cups, but they were determined to depart with a good result. The millions watching back home over breakfast saw a forgettable goalless contest in the heat of Osaka, in which Sheringham squandered a golden opportunity to win it. But a point was always going to be enough to advance if not win the group, with Sweden having that honour on goals scored after getting the point they needed to eliminate Argentina by drawing 1-1.

The basic target for England of getting out of the group had been achieved and pre-tournament fears of a second round showdown with France had been averted. The world champions joined Argentina in being home before the postcards, with Denmark topping the group after beating them 2-0 and lying in wait for England. The Danes were not to be underestimated, but England had a good chance to advance. The main downsides of being second were a gap of just three days between matches and favourites Brazil being the likely opponents in the quarter-finals. Had England topped the group then they would have played surprise package Senegal, followed by Japan or Turkey in the last eight.

Most England knockout wins over the years have been tense, so it was a welcome relief that the clash with the Danes would be surprisingly done and dusted by half-time as Eriksson’s side led 3-0 in Niigata. The Danes had looked strong in beating France four days earlier, but they seemed nervous here and made a costly error just five minutes in as Ferdinand’s header was fumbled into his own net by Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. Nicky Butt capped an impressive tournament by setting up Owen to double the lead, before Emile Heskey slotted home shortly before the break. As with when England beat Poland 3-0 at the 1986 World Cup, the job was done in the first half and the remainder of the match saw them prevent any hopes of a Danish comeback.

Celebration time for England as Denmark are beaten 3-0.

Once more expectations were lifted and it seemed quite feasible that England could go all the way – particular as the second round fallers included Italy, meaning three major nations had gone home – although there were also those who felt the scoreline flattered England a little. “I don’t think we got enough credit for how well we played in that game,” reflected Eriksson in his autobiography. But the main thing was the side were through to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1990. Lacey wrote that “the idea of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team reaching the final or even winning it no longer seems as fantastic as Danny Mills beating Harry Potter at quidditch”. There was certainly a belief that if England could beat Brazil, then they could win it. It was a big IF though.

It may be simplifying things a little to assume the trophy would be England’s if they could overcome Brazil, but the lack of a dominant side in the finals meant they would hold every chance. Yet the task immediately in front of them was major. Brazil were the favourites, World Cup winners in 1994 and runners-up in 1998 and boasting the ‘three Rs’ in attack of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. However, they had struggled during qualification – finishing 13 points adrift of Argentina – and not looked invincible in their four tournament matches so far despite winning them all. Their reputation compared to past great Brazil sides had not been helped by Rivaldo’s antics when he feigned injury against Turkey during the group stage.

A sad end for Seaman

The day before England met Brazil in Fukuroi City it rained and that would suit the English fine, but 24 hours later the sun was back out as Eriksson’s side faced a gruelling afternoon. But midway through the first half the nation rejoiced as Owen capitalised on defensive hesitancy to score as the forward – who had been an injury doubt for this game – evoked memories of his rise to fame at the World Cup four years earlier. Now the acid test for England was being able to see the game out, but on the stroke of half-time they were undone. Rivaldo ended a Brazilian move that had begun when Beckham appeared to pull out of a challenge in the opposition half and was followed by Paul Scholes also missing a vital chance to intercept. It was a measure of Brazil’s attacking abilities that they could sweep forward and score so quickly, as Ronaldinho ran through the England defence to feed Rivaldo. But criticisms would also be levelled at the English defending.

Conceding so late in the half was a crushing blow for England and Eriksson now faced the job of lifting the side. The current incumbent of the role was unimpressed by what he heard, substitute Gareth Southgate infamously coming out with the “we were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith” line. The game would generate the first significant criticism of Eriksson in his England reign, just a fortnight after being hailed for masterminding the win over Argentina. He would come under fire for his choice of substitutes, including keeping creative youngster Joe Cole on the bench.

David Seaman is beaten by Ronaldinho and England are on their way home.

With the second half still in its infancy, England were dealt a fatal blow. Whether it was meant a cross or shot, Ronaldinho’s free-kick ended up deceiving Seaman from way out and for the first time in the tournament England were behind. Despite the goalscorer controversially receiving a red card a few minutes later for a challenge on Mills, England never looked like getting back in the game and failed to make anything of their extra man. All hope had realistically gone before the end, as yet another major tournament finished with England losing a game they had led in. Seaman was devastated by his error and at 38 it was always realistically going to be his last major outing for his country. He wouldn’t retire from international football, but took further criticism for a goal conceded against Macedonia in October and was never capped again.

The loss to Brazil represented a disappointing conclusion to a tournament that had produced some highs for England. It was a tournament where, depending on whether you were a glass half full or empty person your lasting memory was likely to be either Beckham’s joy against Argentina or Seaman’s pain against Brazil. The big thing now was that England pushed on and won either Euro 2004 or the 2006 World Cup. England had lost to Brazil in the 1962 World Cup quarter-finals and won it four years later. They had to hope history repeated itself 40 years in.

But as we all know it didn’t. Had England fulfilled the potential that appeared to be building and soon afterwards won a major tournament then the 2002 World Cup would probably be fondly recalled as representing a big step forward. But unfortunately it followed exactly the same narrative as the next two tournaments, Eriksson being beaten by Luiz Felipe Scolari in the quarter-finals each time. Given the draw they had been handed England could feel some sense of achievement in reaching the last eight in 2002 and the Argentina game had brought widespread delight, but regret also lingered. Had England beaten Brazil then the path would have been the clearest it had arguably ever been. It would have been Turkey in the semi-final, then a Germany side they had thrashed 5-1 less than a year before in the final. Although aided by a kind draw that saw them avoid any leading football nations until the final, Germany had once more gone further than England at a major tournament.

It wasn’t just that England had lost to Brazil that represented disappointment, there was also the concerning sight of Eriksson’s side never looking like getting back into the game when up against 10 men. The tournament had seen England score six goals, but none came in the second half. It wasn’t an issue in the games against Argentina and Denmark where England impressed, but against both Sweden and Brazil there has been a sense that they were off the pace and the Nigeria game was something of a non-event.

Reflecting years later in his autobiography, Eriksson wrote: “The truth was that it was not Seaman’s fault that we were knocked out of the World Cup. Brazil were better than us. It was that simple. But we had played a very good tournament and we had a young team. We were not ready yet. It was the next World Cup that we were going to win.” And Eriksson knew full well it didn’t turn out that way. The Brazil game sent out a warning sign that England still had work to do to be on a par with the world’s best. But there had been good moments in Japan too, one of which would forever be fondly recalled.

TV Memories of Italia ’90 (Part One)

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There’s currently a fair bit of nostalgia around for Italia ’90 as the tournament took place this time 25 years ago. Our next few blog posts will focus upon that competition and we begin by recalling what it was like to watch ‘on the box’ in the UK, focusing mainly today on the early stages of the competition.

“You’ll be humming it soon”

Mention Italia ’90 to anyone who watched it in the UK and there’s a fair chance Nessun Dorma will soon crop up in nostalgic discussion. The BBC made a fairly bold choice to start each broadcast with Luciano Pavarotti’s operatic recording – there was a risk the stereotypical football fan would loathe it, while the opera buff could resent seeing it used for a sport which had developed a poor image in recent times – but it couldn’t have worked out better all-round. Pavarotti developed a new-found success, the BBC’s coverage was lauded thanks to the tune and there was now a greater and wider appreciation for opera thanks to millions hearing it every day. Given the simultaneous success of World in Motion, football and music have rarely seen so intrinsically linked as they were in the summer of 1990.

  
Presenter Des Lynam certainly could see the potential in Nessun Dorma. “You’ll be humming it soon – you’ll know the words to it by July 8,” he said as the first BBC broadcast began on June 8. And he was right. The situation was parodied in an early episode of the Channel 4 comedy Drop the Dead Donkey a few weeks later, where the equivalent of a swearbox was installed in the newsroom for anyone humming it. You couldn’t go far without hearing Nessun Dorma that summer and Pavarotti would soon be presented with a platinum disc by the BBC’s Bobby Charlton as sales rocketed.

Pavarotti could forever be grateful for what the BBC had done to further enhance his career and popularity. Reaching number two in the British singles chart in 1990 probably wasn’t something he anticipated when he recorded Nessun Dorma 18 years earlier anyway! In a tournament that was defined more by memorable images than classic matches, the song fitted perfectly over any montage of Italia 90’s standout moments.

But the song’s association with the competition could easily have never happened had BBC’s senior sports editor Brian Barwick not stuck to his guns. In his book Are You Watching the Match Tonight? Barwick recalled being called by a bigwig from the record label a couple of days before the tournament began, informing him they were having second thoughts about the song’s use. Barwick made clear they would not be backing down and stressed they would soon see the success of the song being heard day after day. How right he was.

A summer with Des

By 1990, Lynam was peaking as a broadcaster and he was in his element hosting the BBC’s coverage from the London studio. He had fronted the BBC’s coverage of Mexico ’86 and Euro ’88 and his reputation in football circles had grown further by presenting Match of the Day from 1988-89 onwards. His mixture of charm and confidence and a laid-back manner proved a winning formula with both male and female viewers and he was helping bring the best out of his pundits. They included Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables, who were starting to develop their routine as the proverbial old married couple who would constantly argue. One thing they did reach agreement on was they believed John Barnes had correctly been flagged offside when he scored for England against Belgium, with Lynam taking great delight in presenting television evidence which he believed showed they were wrong.

  
Des Lynam at home in the BBC studio, joined by sparring partners Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables and the injured England skipper Bryan Robson.

Others to grace the BBC studio included Kenny Dalglish and Ray Wilkins (plus Bryan Robson after flying home injured after the group stage), while Bob Wilson was the patient understudy to Lynam and mainly hosted highlights shows. He would even end up appearing as a pundit on occasions. This would become a decade in which Wilson would have further cause to curse Lynam, who seemed right at the heart of Italia ’90 despite being based in London. But even for Des there was no guarantee that every broadcast would run smoothly, as we will see in the next blog post on this subject…

Two heads aren’t better than one

Apart from Lynam venturing to the stadium for the BBC’s live coverage of England against the Dutch, the BBC presented its coverage of the group stage and second round from London. But ITV seemed caught between wanting to be there and the comfort of presenting from back home and they came up with an awkward mix. Nick Owen was in the London studio and Elton Welsby was in the stadium, without an on-site studio to protect him from the noise around him. Often Welsby seemed to be quite frantically pressing his finger against his earpiece to catch whatever was being said from London.

   

 

The two-man ITV presenting team of Nick Owen (top) and Elton Welsby.

Both men would suffer by comparison with Lynam and struggle to match his on-screen authority, although the pair got off lightly compared to Matt Lorenzo four years later. In keeping with the rather ‘Marmite’ nature of the 1990 World Cup, ITV’s theme tune and opening titles divided opinion. Some loved it, others felt what they saw and heard had no right to compete with the BBC’s Nessun Dorma. Again, what the Beeb did was ITV’s main undoing. Although not without faults, this wasn’t so much a tournament when ITV’s coverage was hideously bad but more one when it was never going to come close to matching a rampant BBC.

Brian Moore was finally commentating on a full World Cup tournament, bravely carrying on describing West Germany’s 5-1 win over the United Arab Emirates amid fears he and co-commentator Trevor Francis could be electrocuted as a thunderstorm took hold in the San Siro. But Moore’s presence was missed a bit in the studio. Indeed, ITV’s coverage was perhaps most defined by who wasn’t there rather than who was. The ever-opinionated Brian Clough was the most notable absentee from the punditry team, while Martin Tyler – who had commentated on every England match at the last two World Cups – had been lured away to satellite television where he remains today. 

  
Jimmy Greaves spells it out.

ITV had brought in Emlyn Hughes and Rodney Marsh as opinionated pundits and England manager-in-waiting Graham Taylor played a fairly prominent role. But right in the middle of the coverage sat Jimmy Greaves, who in each broadcast would wear T-shirts containing ‘witty’ slogans such as ‘Better Leighton Never’. In this episode of Saint & Greavsie he even changed shirts at half-time as if to press home the value of the plays on words. Whoever’s decision it was, the fashion statement for Greaves that summer did little for the credibility of ITV’s reputation as a serious football broadcaster (but this blogger remains a big fan of Greavsie’s – get well soon). Not that it was all jokes and laughs for Greaves that summer, becoming quite outspoken on the punishment dished out to Swindon Town over irregularities.

  
Other distinctive elements of ITV’s coverage included phone polls and the coverage being “in association with National Power”, with this advert seen over and over again. Although the tournament felt less commercialised than today, there were certainly hints it was going that way with a major tournament sponsor even given some publicity in this interview with Bobby Robson as he enjoyed a can of Coca-Cola.

Missing the match

Television was becoming increasingly powerful in football by 1990, but it wasn’t quite the great god it now is. During the World Cup group stage, there were 11 instances of two matches being played at the same time. In the pre-red button era, this meant the other match could not be seen live (unless you were in a minority with access to Eurosport for some of those matches). The problem in Britain came to a head on June 16, when England and Scotland played matches at the same time; then due to being in the same group England and Ireland played matches simultaneously five days later (that would still be the case today, but in such circumstances now the other match can be accessed far more easily). I never understood why on certain occasions like that agreement could not be reached for the BBC to show one match and ITV the other, particularly as seven of the last nine matches in the knock-out rounds ended up being screened live by both of them so the channels were not afraid to go up against each other.

There were also some instances of football not totally dominating the schedules, with hosts Italy’s primetime group stage match with the USA not shown live by either the BBC or ITV despite it not clashing with any other match. The same would happen a few days later when there were two matches in Group E played at the same time but not screened live, while the BBC only joined live coverage of West Germany against Colombia at half-time. That was the only time any of Colombia’s group games were live on terrestrial television in the UK, while the talented Yugoslavia were not afforded any live coverage on the BBC and ITV during their opening three matches. Hard to imagine today.

More to follow on this subject soon, as well as other memories of Italia ’90…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

England Qualifying Campaigns: 1990 World Cup – Robson’s slow road to redemption

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Ahead of England returning to qualifying action next month for Euro 2016 after a poor record at the World Cup finals in Brazil, we recall when they came home from the horror show of Euro ’88 and began the process of attempting to make it to Italia ’90. Bobby Robson was a man under pressure and faced a tough job rebuilding pride and his reputation. It was a rocky path at times, but he would get them there although he would have to wait for the finals for the tide to properly turn in his favour…

England’s route to Italia ’90 really began in December 1987 when the qualifying draw was made. At that point Robson’s side were still celebrating qualifying with an unbeaten record for the European Championships and being one of the favourites to win it. They had no reason to fear other sides in the World Cup qualifying draw and were one of the seeded teams. The draw, not unlike the eventual qualifying process as a whole for England, would prove to be a case of ‘could have been better, could have been worse’.

They crucially avoided the Dutch from pot two, landing Poland who had reached the past four World Cups but were entering a period of decline. They could have drawn an easier side from pot three than Sweden, but they had not qualified for a major tournament for a decade. And Albania were a candidate for the weakest team in pot four, being something of an unknown quantity to the English. The Three Lions were favourites to progress, but being drawn in one of the groups with just four teams meant they would have to finish top to be sure of a World Cup spot. In an era before play-offs became the norm for second place sides, if they had the poorest of the runners-up records from the three groups with four teams in then they would miss out.

But thoughts of the World Cup were put on hold as England focused on their Euro ’88 preparations. Gradually, things began to go wrong with Terry Butcher ruled out with a broken leg and the goals drying up as the finals approached. When they began, Robson’s men would infamously lose all three games and the manager found his future under scrutiny. The use of the term ‘Plonker’ by Del Boy to Rodney in Only Fools and Horses may have been good natured, but it certainly wasn’t when tabloid newspapers screamed out the term about Robson after a bad result. Crucially though, the FA stood by him after Robson appeared set for the axe as the side flopped in West Germany.

Those who demanded my resignation – and I am thinking in particular about specific newspapers – will be disappointed to hear me reinforce my decision not to quit. It might have crossed my mind, fleetingly, when I wondered if my family could cope with almost intolerable strain, that I should step down. But I am not a quitter and will not back down,”  Bobby Robson in his first programme notes after the European Championship.

Robson wields the axe
As the dust settled on Euro ’88, Robson knew he had to act and make tough decisions to regain the winning formula by dispensing with members of his core squad of players. Kenny Sansom, Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley and Dave Watson played for Robson for the last time in the finals, while Viv Anderson and Peter Reid were never recalled after winning their final caps shortly before the tournament. Tony Adams played the first three games after Euro ’88 but was never picked again by Robson and fellow central defender Mark Wright was discarded until April 1990 before coming back to prominence at Italia ’90.

In their place would emerge an abundance of new players, gradually phased in with 17 new caps awarded between September 1988 and December 1989. The key men to enter the squad were Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker, David Platt and Des Walker, who would all start the 1990 World Cup semi-final, while players such as Steve Bull and David Rocastle would also establish themselves in the squad. For several others like Brian Marwood, Mike Phelan and Mel Sterland it would be a very short international road, but they could at least console themselves with the knowledge they had been capped at full level by England. Robson gave several players from the under-21s their chance at full level and also utilised the England ‘B’ squad as a means of assessing the talent available.

A different era
1988 was a very different era to today’s football world, with Luton Town and Wimbledon having just won the two main domestic cups. Chelsea and Manchester City would be spending 1988-89 in the Second Division (when that term still meant the second tier). International football tournaments and qualifying campaigns operated on a two points for a win basis and this was still the era of the old Czechoslovakia, USSR and Yugoslavia taking to the field. The Berlin Wall had yet to fall and the 1990 World Cup would be the final tournament East Germany and West Germany both competed in. Hopes of the ban on English clubs competing in Europe had been ended by further hooliganism in recent months, including at the European Championship. It was genuinely feared the national team could be next to pay the price for the ‘English disease’ and be given a ban from major tournaments if there was further serious disorder.

But domestically there were also moves into the modern footballing world. The summer saw some big money transfers, including Gascoigne’s £2.2 million switch from Newcastle United to Tottenham Hotspur. ITV splashed out to secure exclusive coverage of the Football League. Their deal would have particular emphasis on the ‘Big Five’ (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs) and the First Division title race. The BBC countered, striking a deal for exclusive terrestrial rights of the FA Cup and England matches. England fans would be hearing a lot from Jimmy Hill in the coming years.

Out with the old, in with (some of) the new
England’s road to recovery would appropriately begin with a clash with fellow Euro ’88 flops Denmark in a friendly at Wembley in September, an unofficial decider for the wooden spoon winner of the tournament. Old campaigners like Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher were joined by three debutants. Gascoigne and Walker came off the bench, on a night when Rocastle also made his first appearance. Luton Town’s powerful striker Mick Harford won his second and final cap in attack as Robson tried to find an alternative big man to Hateley up front, while Stuart Pearce was now first choice left-back after previously being Sansom’s understudy. Neil Webb scored the winner in a low-key atmosphere, just 25,837 showing up.

Five weeks later came a more important test as Sweden visited Wembley in the opening World Cup qualifier. It proved to be a night of frustration as England were unable to break down their opponents, for whom defender Glenn Hysen ran the show. Gary Lineker (who was hospitalised with hepatitis shortly after the Euro finals) seemed to lack the sharpness and precision that had previously made him so deadly. The goalless draw was not a good start for Robson, who now faced a long five-month wait before the next qualifier.

Getting results but not much praise
Things would get worse before 1988 was out, a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia attracting the infamous ‘In the name of Allah, Go!’ headline. Robson wouldn’t be leaving and would justifiably point out how the Saudis had managed draws with several other established football nations, but that would not wash with many critics.  The match saw Robson experiment and recognise Arsenal’s strong start to the season with first caps for Michael Thomas, Alan Smith and Brian Marwood along with David Seaman (QPR) and Mel Sterland (Sheffield Wednesday). It was clear Robson was feeling the strain and was increasingly on the defensive with most members of the media, telling BBC commentator Barry Davies he was “impertinent” the following day over his line of questioning in his post-match interview.

The press vultures seemed to be growing in number as England began 1989 with an away friendly in Greece, but mercifully Robson’s side came from behind to win 2-1 and keep their unbeaten run going. Come March, the World Cup campaign resumed with a trip into the unknown as England travelled to Albania. It wasn’t a stirring performance and England could have fallen behind, but the watching audience back home on a Wednesday afternoon could at least enjoy a 2-0 win thanks to goals from John Barnes and Bryan Robson (who shrugged off a stomach bug to play and inspire his country to victory). Lineker’s ongoing poor form prompted concern, Jimmy Hill in the London studio calling for him to be dropped for the next match.

Football pays its respects
That match would be the return at Wembley against Albania late the following month. Initially the fixture had been overshadowed by a row over the scheduling over the crunch Liverpool against Arsenal clash for TV purposes, being due to be played just three days beforehand on the Sunday afternoon much to Bobby Robson’s annoyance. But this dispute was totally put into perspective by the horrific events at Hillsborough on April 15th, which sent football into mourning. The Liverpool against Arsenal match was understandably postponed. John Barnes withdrew from the squad, but Liverpool team-mate Peter Beardsley would play.

Wembley fell silent before kick-off 11 days on from the tragedy as English football paid its respects, with the team then turning in a committed display to win 5-0 and boost their goal difference and qualification hopes. Lineker kept his place and scored his first England goal for 10 months and the night was capped by Gascoigne coming off the bench to round off the scoring with his first international goal. Not that Robson was totally satisfied with the young talent, deciding to bring him down a peg as he told Sportsnight interviewer Tony Gubba that Gascoigne had “played in every position of the pitch except the position I told him to play in”.

A chance to experiment in attack
Before the summer break, England still had four matches to play. The Hillsborough disaster meant there was a prolonged end to the league season and limited England’s squad for the Rous Cup, with Liverpool and Arsenal players all absent. The three-cornered tournament was on its last legs, with Chile as the ‘other’ side struggling to capture the public imagination in England and Scotland. Not helped by a tube strike, a record low Wembley crowd for England of 15,628 witnessed a 0-0 draw that saw Wimbledon’s John Fashanu and Nottingham Forest’s Nigel Clough win their debuts in a new-look attack. The selection of the bustling Fashanu was not universally approved and his international career would last for just two matches.

Four days later (the night after Robson had been at Anfield to witness Arsenal dramatically clinch the league title) what turned out to be the last annual Scotland against England fixture brought a 2-0 win for Robson’s men at Hampden Park, with arguably the manager’s biggest selection gamble of his England reign paying off. The powerful Steve Bull was still technically a Third Division player with Wolves, for whom he had been scoring goals for fun for the past couple of years. That potency and confidence in front of goal was on show here as he came off the bench to seal a 2-0 win, ensuring he would stay in the fray.

On June 3rd, England took a big step towards the World Cup finals by beating Poland 3-0 at Wembley. For all the talk in the build-up of the Poles’ infamous last visit in 1973 when they qualified at England’s expense, this was a comfortable win for Robson’s men as Lineker found the net before Barnes and Webb wrapped things up. After four games England led the table by two points from Sweden, who had played a game less, with Poland being cut adrift. There was still work to be done to qualify, but Robson and his players could for once walk off Wembley to genuine cheers. The season ended with a 1-1 draw away to Denmark, Lineker again scoring on a night when Peter Shilton became England’s most capped player. Although it had not been a season when England met world class opposition, the statistics would show it was their first unbeaten campaign since 1974-75.

Sweating blood for the England cause
England’s World Cup qualifying programme resumed in early September 1989. For many years the Three Lions had been hit by ‘Septemberitis’, often suffering bad results in their first international of the season. It was not an ideal time to be facing a crucial qualifier away to Sweden. A draw would edge England towards the finals, although they would not be certain of wrapping up their place there. Reports of trouble involving English followers did not lift the mood as the side prepared for a vital clash. It was a night mainly remembered for injuries: captain Bryan Robson sat it out and watched from the BBC studio with Des Lynam, Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables; Neil Webb was carried off just weeks after joining Manchester United; and most famously of all, Terry Butcher refused to let the fact he split his head open and was covered in blood put him off, as he played on as his white England shirt became increasingly red. It was another 0-0 draw, with England not sparkling but not letting themselves down either. Lineker (now back playing in England with Spurs) again spurned chances and Waddle fired wide after appearing to have done the hard work with a jinking run towards goal.

“I felt we were the better side and it was a disappointment, in the circumstances, that we did not do better,” – Bobby Robson after the 0-0 draw in Sweden.

The draw meant England still had to get something in Poland a month later to be sure of going through. A win would ensure they topped the group, a draw would take them through as one of the best second place sides. It was a big game, with an international break the weekend before the match seeing Saint & Greavsie come live from the England team hotel. Poland’s hopes of making the finals were slim. They would have to win all three remaining games and overturn a fairly substantial goal difference to finish ahead of England.

By the width of the crossbar…
It was a far from vintage display from Robson’s men and they were pretty fortunate to get the draw they needed to make it through to Italy. Shilton gave a vintage display to keep the Poles out and lay the ghost of 16 years earlier to rest, but England rarely threatened and seemed ultra-cautious at times in the hostile Katowice atmosphere. Two years earlier in Yugoslavia they had gone at their hosts early in similar circumstances to wrap up qualification when a draw would have done it; this time around they seemed to let the need for a point dominate their thoughts. Perhaps the failings of Euro ’88 still preyed on their mind. In the dying seconds Shilton was finally beaten from 30 yards out by Ryszard Tarasiewicz, the relief being palpable as the ball struck the bar and bounced away to safety. Moments later the final whistle sounded and England were there, relief rather than joy being the main emotion. But they had qualified without conceding a goal and had not lost a qualifying match for a major tournament since September 1983.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear just how close England came to not making the finals. Had they conceded that last-gasp goal to Poland, they would have been reliant on any of three results going in their favour and none did. They saw Sweden leapfrog them to top spot in their group by winning in Poland, while Denmark’s defeat to Romania and West Germany’s win over Wales would have seen England finish as the poorest of the second-place teams by virtue of having scored less goals than Denmark. As it was, they finished a point ahead of them and the Danes – so stylish at the 1986 finals – had missed out.

England could start planning for Italy and did so with a friendly against the Italians at Wembley in November. The game once more ended 0-0 but was perhaps most significant for another new face, David Platt, making his international debut en route to being a key man for England the following summer. New caps were also handed out to Dave Beasant, Nigel Winterburn and Mike Phelan. Gascoigne had still yet to fully establish himself, playing in the B international against the Italians at Brighton instead.

Before the year was out England would ominously be placed in a World Cup group with European Championship opponents Netherlands and Republic of Ireland, along with Egypt. Preparations were gathering place the finals and a rare December friendly at home to Yugoslavia brought the curtain down on the 1980s, with Tony Dorigo becoming the 17th new cap since the summer of 1988. In a decade when the Robsons symbolised the England set-up, it was perhaps appropriate it would be captain Bryan who scored twice (including a first minute effort) to give England a 2-1 victory.

England would go into the new decade off the back of a 14 match unbeaten run, having qualified for the World Cup finals and started to lay the Euro ’88 mishaps to rest. A momentous and memorable year was in store, but that’s another story…

When England had a chance of third place…

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When Brazil crashed to their astonishing 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany on Tuesday, the last thing they probably wanted was to have to stick around for another four days for the formalities of a third-fourth place play-off. Judging from Louis van Gaal’s comments that it “should never be played”, it seems the Dutch aren’t enthralled about tonight’s contest either. But has it always been like this? In one World Cup, England found themselves in the play-off when they came up against hosts Italy in 1990…

There are two main problems with the ‘consolation match’. The first is both teams are heartbroken, having just missed out on a place in the final. The last thing anybody wants to be doing when the dream has gone is to have to wait several days for another match which has no influence over the destiny of who wins the tournament. The second issue is the prize for winning this match isn’t really big enough to motivate anybody. While third place sounds a bit better than fourth, there is no glory in it and it isn’t what any team strives for. One can see the significance of the Olympic bronze medal match, but the World Cup does not work like that. The European Championship copes without such a match and so do English and European club competitions. There was an odd flirtation with it in the FA Cup for a short time in the 1970s, but that was unsurprisingly binned off.

But despite its limited reputation, the play-off match rarely fails to provide entertainment. Since 1982, every World Cup third-place match bar one has contained more goals than the following day’s final (the exception was 1998, when both matches had three goals). It has often helped players towards the Golden Boot prize and allowed others on the fringes to be rewarded for their patience with a World Cup finals appearance, as well as usually being an open contest and providing a couple of historic moments. The brilliant curling goal by Nelinho for Brazil against Italy in 1978 was one, the competition’s fastest ever goal from Hakan Sukur for Turkey against South Korea in 2002 being another (I will always regret switching my TV on about a minute into this one and missing it when it happened).

The end of an era for England
For England, the third-place match in 1990 against Italy is often forgotten amid the more famous memories of their best World Cup on foreign soil. When any documentary tells the story of that English summer, it seems somewhat anti-climatic to go from recalling the drama of the match against West Germany to the limited significance of whether England were the best of the losing semi-finalists in Italy. But we shouldn’t forget that this match marked the end of an era for two men synonymous with the England set-up.

Bobby Robson went out to the World Cup knowing his eight-year reign as manager was about to end and with his reputation still having not totally recovered from the horrors of the 1988 European Championship. England rode their luck a bit along the way, but they had gone on to reach the last four and Robson’s popularity suddenly soared. They had played with passion and produced one of their best displays in years during the semi-final against West Germany. Although it had ended in a heartbreaking penalty-shoot-out loss, England’s reputation back home was the highest it had been for a long time. Robson was left filled with a mixture of pride and regret by England coming so close, I think most of us had. But he was determined to end with a good showing against Italy.

Also coming to an end would be the England career of Peter Shilton, after 125 caps. I seem to recall his international retirement wasn’t confirmed until after the game, but it was no surprise. It was the right time to go at the age of 40. While the third-place game has been known as a chance to give fringe players a runout, Robson’s loyalty to Shilton and private knowledge he was about to retire meant he was given his final cap rather than a runout for deputy Chris Woods. The tournament would also mark the end of Terry Butcher’s England career, although he would not play in the third-place match. Both Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle were absent from the starting line-up after missing penalties against the Germans and Paul Gascoigne was suspended, as Tony Dorigo, Steve McMahon, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens came into the side. Neil Webb would come off the bench, leaving Steve Hodge as the only England outfield player not to feature during the finals.

It was quite common in this era for the third-place match not to be shown live on British television, but in 1990 it was covered by both the BBC and ITV. This meant Barry Davies and Alan Parry would both enjoy commentating on a live England match at the World Cup far later than they might have expected, with John Motson and Brian Moore saving themselves for the final between Argentina and West Germany 24 hours later. There were some comparisons between Italy’s positions and that of Brazil now, as a World Cup host with strong football heritage who had fallen short of winning the World Cup relatively recently after doing so abroad. But Italy had, like England, suffered penalty-shoot-out heartache in the semi-final; this time around Brazil have been well and truly humiliated as hosts.

Outshining the World Cup Final
The match wasn’t a classic, but it was a reasonable, enjoyable contest between two sides wanting to end on a high. It certainly outdid the following night’s abysmal final in every positive way. The atmosphere may have been fairly low-key, but the Italians played with determination and tried several long-range shots in the first-half including a Roberto Baggio half-volley. Shilton dealt with them, appearing to justify Robson’s faith in him. At the other end Gary Lineker uncharacteristically fired in a shot from about 25 yards out as he sought to retain the Golden Boot he won in 1986.

All the goals came in the final 20 minutes. A harmless-looking backpass from McMahon saw Shilton caught in two minds between picking it up and clearing it. As he hesitated, Baggio dispossesed him and appeared to be fouled by the goalkeeper. The ref played on and Baggio capped a good tournament by putting Italy ahead. “Well that’s a terrible mistake by Peter Shilton,” said his former international team-mate Trevor Francis, co-commentating on ITV.

Summing up their battling tournament, England refused to throw in the towel and levelled as a tremendous Dorigo cross was met with a bullet header from David Platt. Bobby Robson was up off the bench and urging his players to go on and win it. But five minutes from time he was left disappointed as Toto Schillaci was adjudged to have been felled in the area by Paul Parker. “Oh no, oh no,” howled Davies in bemusement at the decision, as Robson waved his arms in disgust. Looking for his sixth goal of the tournament, Schillaci took the spot-kick and restored Italy’s lead.

England sign off from the 1990 World Cup

There was still time for an excellent looping header by Nicola Berti to be dubiously disallowed. But it didn’t affect the outcome, while the defeat wouldn’t impact on how England’s World Cup was remembered. At the final whistle, they joined their opponents for the presentation and performed the Mexico Wave together.

England were treated as heroes when they arrived back home the following day. As well as their first semi-final appearance in the World Cup overseas, they collected the Fair Play trophy. The European ban on English clubs was about to end. This was a good time to be an England fan. And nobody seemed bothered they’d lost the third-place match…

Six of the Best – yet they didn’t even make the last four…

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As the excitement mounts ahead of the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the sides who had the world talking – but then it would all end prematurely before the semi-final stage, with the teams returning home with just the happy memories of their early good form to treasure…

Brazil 1982
For anyone who fell in love with football shortly after the 1970 World Cup, they would have to wait until 1982 to see a genuinely captivating Brazil team on the global stage. The names of Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao and others are likely to have football fans of a certain age drooling at the memory. The goals flew in from all over the pitch as Brazil dominated their first round group and looked clear favourites to go all the way. But then they had the misfortune to be placed alongside Argentina and Italy in the second round group of three teams (probably the ultimate Group of Death at any World Cup, with only one side able to advance to the semi-finals).

Brazil beat their South American rivals, but then lost out in one of the greatest World Cup matches of all time against Italy. Italian forward Paolo Rossi suddenly rediscovered his goalscoring touch with a hat-trick to turn the competition on its head, as Italy won an epic encounter in which Brazil were exposed defensively. The Brazilians had scored 15 goals in just five matches, but they wouldn’t even be in the semi-finals – some would argue the magic of 1982 has never quite been matched by them since.

Denmark 1986
From nothing, Denmark emerged to be one of the most popular and stylish teams of the 1980s as they gained admirers well beyond Scandinavia. After reaching the semi-finals at Euro ’84 (qualifying at England’s expense), Denmark made their World Cup bow two years later. With players like Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer weaving their magic, the Danes emerged with a 100% record from the Group of Death (yes another one) including Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay (who they thrashed 6-1).

The Danes were now being talked about as potential winners and it came as little surprise when they led Spain 1-0 in the second round. Suddenly, a misplaced backpass from Jesper Olsen allowed Spain back into the game and a second half collapse ended with the Danes thrashed 5-1 and crashing out in the last 16. They had promised and deserved much more. They wouldn’t even qualify for the next two World Cups, but for a couple of weeks in 1986 they had looked as good as any side in the world.

Argentina 2006
It seems much of Argentina’s luck was used up in struggling through to the final in 1990, as they haven’t been beyond the last eight since then despite having several highly-rated sides. The tournament that stands out is 2006. During the first round Argentina produced one of the great World Cup performances in modern times to thrash Serbia and Montenegro 6-0, scoring a truly outstanding team goal as they took possession football to new heights. “I think we’ve just seen the World Cup winners,” was the sort of comment I saw widely being posted on messageboards afterwards, but the tournament can be a cruel mistress. A stunning extra-time winner from Maxi Rodriguez was needed to dispose of Mexico in the second round, but then came the toughest test yet as hosts Germany lay in wait in the quarter-finals. The Germans equalised late in normal time and triumphed in a penalty shoot-out, also knocking Argentina out in the last eight in 2010.

Cameroon 1990
For many youngsters of the time like me watching the World Cup in 1990, Cameroon will always have a special place in our hearts. Widely dismissed as African outsiders before the start of the competition, their raw, cavalier approach won hearts as more established football nations struggled to deal with them. Their disciplinary record wasn’t the best and they had two men sent off in the tournament opener against holders Argentina, but they sensationally won 1-0. 38-year-old ‘supersub’ Roger Milla was the hero in wins against Romania and Colombia, leading to his corner flag ‘wiggle’ celebration being mimicked the world over.

In the quarter-finals they were paired with England (not ideal for those of us who loved both). It was a momentous night, the only game in the tournament in which both teams scored at least twice. The match was a see-saw contest which Cameroon probably should have won as they outplayed England for much of the second half to lead 2-1 late on. But their defensive weaknesses resurfaced and led to them conceding a late penalty for Lineker to equalise and save England, with history repeating itself in extra-time as he netted the winner from the spot and Bobby Robson’s side won 3-2. “We’ve all aged 10 years,” said presenter Bob Wilson as he signed off the BBC’s live coverage, correctly summing up the exhausting nature of the night. Four years later we watched the World Cup in USA hoping for more magic from Cameroon, but it never came and they have not gone beyond the group stages again – this year produced a particularly underwhelming effort that did them no credit at all.

North Korea 1966
It’s perhaps easy to forget North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966 lasted just four games, losing two and needing a late equaliser to avoid defeat in another. And yet the diminutive Asians wrote their name into World Cup folklore in the tournament. Their 1-0 group stage win over Italy is regarded as one of the greatest World Cup giantkillings and ensured Pak Doo-Ik’s name would forever be well-known. They were now just three matches away from being World Cup winners!

Interest now grew beyond Middlesbrough where they were based for the group stage and had been adopted as the team to cheer on. The North Koreans headed to face Portugal in the quarter-finals at Goodison Park (joined by about 3,000 newly-acquired fans travelling down from Middlesbrough, preferring to do that than watch England’s quarter-final at the same time). In a thrilling match, North Korea led 3-0 after 24 minutes, before falling victim to a one-man goalscoring exhibition. The brilliant Eusebio scored four times (including twice from the penalty spot as the North Koreans lost their defensive discipline) to turn the game around by the hour mark, with Portugal eventually running out 5-3 winners. The dream had died and North Korea would disappear back into communist secrecy until qualifying again in 2010 – but their exploits in 1966 will never be forgotten in England.

An excellent documentary about North Korea’s World Cup adventure in 1966.

Romania 1994
When they clicked, they were brilliant. When they didn’t, they got punished. Romania, boasting such talents as Gheorghe Hagi and Ille Dumitrescu, were technically impressive and laid down a marker in their opening match against highly-fancied Colombia. Hagi scored a speculative goal from out wide in a 3-1 win. There was a reality check in the next match against Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland, as Romania lost 4-1. But a win against hosts USA took Romania through as group winners to a last 16 tie with Argentina, who had been rocked by Diego Maradona’s positive drugs test a few days earlier. The sides served up a classic, Romania playing some excellent stuff and Hagi’s creativity helping them go 2-0 up early on through a Dumitrescu double. Hagi would find the net himself in the second half as Romania held out to win 3-2 and send the 1986 winners and 1990 runners-up home.

Romania were now fancied to beat Sweden in the quarter-finals but they would show some hint of inconsistency as went out on penalties after a 2-2 draw. To rub salt into the wounds, neighbours Bulgaria surprisingly went through to the semi-finals by beating Germany so Romania could not even lay claim to being the last Eastern European side left in. But it had been good while it lasted.

And as for England?
Considering England’s high amount of past quarter-final exits, it would seem amiss not to mention at least one of them here. While perhaps not having the world on the edge of their seats, the one that stands out most is 1970. Sir Alf Ramsey’s side boasted arguably a better team than the one that won on home soil four years earlier and have never been so well fancied on foreign soil, being considered as potentially the biggest threat to favourites Brazil. The sides played out an iconic group stage match in which England could lay claim to one of the best saves (Gordon Banks), best tackles (Bobby Moore) and worst misses (Jeff Astle) in World Cup history. England lost 1-0 but looked good enough to go all the way to the final for a re-match with Brazil. Certainly when they held a 2-0 lead in the quarter-final against West Germany that looked odds-on to get there. Inexplicably, England threw victory away to crash out of the tournament. It would be a long 12-year wait until they even qualified for another finals.