Last week, in the wake of England’s heroic (cough) win against Spain at Wembley in what can only be described as the friendly international to end all friendly internationals, we took a look at a few matches from their past in which the national team had managed to pluck a result from somewhere against a decent team, but failed to capitalise upon it. In the first episode of this series, we took you up to a win against the world champions – at the time, Argentina – and briefly explained how, just a few weeks later, the same team managed to stink the European Championships out in Italy with the only flourish coming from a travelling support intent on smashing up anything that it managed to come across. This evening it’s time for part two of this series, which focusses on the last three decades of English mediocrity.
Background: Following their early exit at the 1980 European Championships, England, now managed by the avuncular Ron Greenwood, were charged with the job of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain. With the tournament now having been expanded to twenty-four teams, qualification should have been a little easier, but Greenwood’s team still only managed to scramble their way through, losing three of their eight qualifying matches – to Switzerland, Norway and Romania – before scrambling through to Spain courtesy of a nervy, single goal win against Hungary in their final match, with the only goal of the match coming from a freak Paul Mariner effort following some disastrous Hungarian goalkeeping.
The Match: Once there, England were drawn to play their opening match against a France side that was just beginning to come into its own. After twenty-seven seconds, though, twelve years away from the World Cup finals dried up in the Bilbao afternoon sun as Bryan Robson latched on to a flick from Terry Butcher to give them the lead. There was, of course, a cloud on the horizon. This French team was more than able to match England and after twenty-five minutes a splendid pass from Jean-Francois Larios released Gerard Soler to equalise for France. In the second half, however, England rallied and second half goals from Bryan Robson and Paul Mariner gave England a surprisingly comfortable 3-1 win.
After The Match: There can, perhaps, be no greater false dawn than scoring less than thirty seconds into your first World Cup finals match in more than a decade. Sean Connery noted in the official film of the finals, G’ole, England’s goalscoring tally read like a Canaveral countdown. A goalkeeping error and an own goal gave them a win against Czechoslovakia, which was enough to get them through to the next round of the competition, and a Trevor Francis goal was enough for them to beat Kuwait. In the second round, though, their energy levels ran out and goalless draws against Spain and West Germany saw them eliminated from the competition without having lost a match.
Background: England might have expected a degree of improvement as a result of their performance in Spain in 1982, but they failed again in attempting to qualify for the 1984 European Championships. The key results came in March and September of 1983 – a 0-0 draw at home to Greece gave the advantage to their rivals Denmark, and a 1-0 home defeat against Denmark in September of that year meant that they were now dependent on Denmark losing their way in their remaining matches. The Danes didn’t, and wins in their final two qualifying matches proved to be academic, with Denmark qualifying to travel to France in their place. With no summer tournament to play, England travelled to South America to play a series of friendlies, against Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
The Match: Brazil went into this match unbeaten against England since their friendly match at Wembley in 1956. At the Maracana in June 1984, though, everything clicked for England in a match that featured experimental selections from both teams, including debuts for Dave Watson and substitute Clive Allen. John Barnes danced through the Brazilian defence with a couple of minutes of the first half left to play, and midway through the second half Mark Hateley rose at the far post to head England into a two goal lead. Optimists might have contended that any win in the Maracana against Brazil was worth having, but the truth of the matter is that this was a Brazilian team that featured only a handful of familiar names.
After The Match: The rest of England’s tour was something of a let-down after this, with a defeat in Montevideo against Uruguay followed by a goalless draw against Chile. They went on to qualify unbeaten for the finals of the 1986 World Cup finals alongside Northern Ireland and at the expense of Romania, Finland and Turkey. Once at the finals, their struggled through their opening group matches against Morocco and Portugal, before beating Poland to qualifying for the second round. A win against Paraguay was then followed with a quarter-final defeat at the hands – both literal and metaphorical – of Argentina.
Background: After defeat at the hands of Germany in the semi-finals of the 1996 European Championships, Terry Venables made way as the England manager for Glenn Hoddle and England stuttered in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in losing at home against Italy in March of 1998 meant that England would have an uphill battle in qualifying from their group without having to go through the play-offs. A little light relief from this nervous torment was provided by an invitation to play in Le Tournoi de France, a warm-up competition for the host nation ahead of the 1998 World Cup finals, alongside France, Brazil and Italy.
The Match: England started the three match round robin series with a comfortable 2-0 win against Italy in Nantes. It was against a French team that was widely expected to be amongst the favourites for the 1998 World Cup that they came into their own, and a goal with four minutes to play from Alan Shearer, after Fabien Barthez spilled a routine cross from the right-hand side and presented him with an open goal. Results elsewhere meant that England’s defeat in their final match against Brazil didn’t prevent them from lifting the trophy, which provided a neat psychological boost ahead of their final qualification matches against Moldova and Italy.
After The Match: On the tenth of September 1997, England beat Moldova by four goals to nil at Wembley, but a considerably more important result for them came in Tbilisi, where Georgia held Italy to a goalless draw on the same evening. This meant that only a draw would be enough for them to qualify automatically form their group from their final qualifying match against Italy in Rome. They played out a goalless draw, but again came unstuck in the finals. After a comfortable win against Tunisia, they lost against Romania in their second match and beat Colombia to qualify as group runners-up. Defeat after a penalty shoot-out against Argentina was the probably predictable result of their second round match.
Background: England’s performance at the 2000 European Championships was a return to England’s traditional mediocrity in this particular competition, and defeats against Portugal and Romania, and manager Kevin Keegan fell upon his sword after a dreadful 1-0 home defeat against Germany in the last match to be played at the old Wembley Stadium November 2000. By the time of the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson, it was starting to look as if England would struggle to even make the play-offs, but three successive wins in Eriksson’s first three competitive matches set them back on track, going into a critical qualifying match in Munich in September of 2001.
The Match: So much has been written about this match in the past that it is difficult to know where to start. Germany took an early lead with a goal from Carsten Jancker, but England soon equalised with a goal from Michael Owen. The match was fairly even for much of the first half, but deep into first half stoppage-time Steven Gerrard gabve England the lead, and three minutes into the second half Michael Owen extended their lead to 3-1. With a poor average team demoralised by these two goals, further goals from Owen and Emile Heskey (!) gave England a remarkable 5-1 win, a result which arguably marked the high water mark of Eriksson’s five years in charge of the team and put them unexpectedly in control of their qualification group.
After The Match: A poor performance in their final match saw England rescued by a late, late David Beckham free-kick to rescue a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford against Greece that they scant deserved and sent England to the finals of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Once there, they played out three poor group matches in the finals, drawing against Sweden and Nigeria whilst beating Argentina to get through to the second round, where they beat Denmark before losing to Brazil. Germany, meanwhile, showed the first signs of their recovery by getting all the way to the World Cup final, before losing to Brazil.
Background: Knocked out of the 2004 European Championships on penalty kicks by the host nation Portugal but far from disgraced, England qualified comfortably for the 2006 World Cup finals, winning eight and losing only one of their qualifying matches from a rather average group. That one defeat came at the hands of Northern Ireland in September 2005. With qualification already secured for the World Cup finals, England headed to Geneva, of all places, for a friendly match against Argentina, their first meeting since England beat them by a single goal at the 2002 World Cup finals.
The Match: It is perhaps stretching tired analogies too far to suggest that there is “no such thing as a friendly match” against Argentina, but every once in a while a friendly match can, through its rhythm and tempo alone, become much more than just a purpose-free stroll in the park. Hernan Crespo gave Argentina a first half lead before Wayne Rooney levelled for England. Argentina retook the lead just before half-time, though, with a downward header from Walter Samuel. During the second half, though, the match started to become more and more competitive and England, more habitually a team that will grab defeat from the jaws of victory, managed two late goals to surprise Argentina, both coming from Michael Owen, with three minutes to play and in stoppage time.
After The Match: This performance, coupled with the comfortable way in which England had qualified for the finals themselves, worked the press into a frenzy of excitement ahead of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. They started off with an uninspiring win against Paraguay, and didn’t improve much in beating Trinidad & Tobago thanks to two late goals in their second match. With qualification already assured, defensive mistakes which helped Sweden to a 2-2 draw in their final match and a 1-0 win against Ecuador in their second round match meant that excitement levels still hadn’t reached fever pitch for their quarter-final match against Portugal. Wayne Rooney’s sending off comfortably outshone the one hundred and twenty minutes of football that we saw during this match, before England folded in the penalty shoot-out, missing three of their four penalty kicks to send Portugal through to the semi-finals. Argentina, meanwhile, lost on penalty-kicks in the quarter-finals as well, against Germany.
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