For those amongst you that hadn’t noticed, England beat Spain, the current World and European champions, by a single goal in an international friendly match at Wembley over the weekend. The celebrations were tempered – Spain haven’t given the impression of taking friendly matches very seriously of late and played poorly – but there will always be a small corner of England that will be forever triumphalist, and some may be tempted to start believing that England are now capable of winning next summer’s European Championships. It is, however, worth remembering that England are arguably the world champions of the false dawn in terms of international football. They have, in the post-war years, frequently seemed able to be able to turn it on for ninety minutes, but seldom when things really matter. With this in mind, here are some of England’s greatest false dawns.

16th May 1948 – Turin – Italy 0 England 4

Background: The end of the Second World War saw international football return and England return to FIFA, following almost two decades in the relative wilderness after their withdrawal from FIFA after a row over payments to amateur players. The England team of the immediate post-war period was widely recognised as one of the finest in the world, but they were expected to meet their match in the form of Italy. Italy had won the previous two World Cups and were still coached by Vittorio Pozzo, who had coached the team of the 1930s to those wins, and its spine came from the all-conquering Il Grande Torino team.

The Match: For all the hype, England won this match comfortably, with two goals from Tom Finney and one each for Tommy Lawton and Stan Mortensen giving them a comfortable win against an Italian team featuring seven Torino players. This was a result which certainly reinforced the viewpoint of those who assumed that England’s return to competitive international football would end in inevitable triumph.

After The Match: Cracks began to show in the England set-up prior to the 1950 World Cup finals, including a 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park at the hands of Ireland. Once in Brazil, England had a disastrous tournament, beating Chile in their opening match before losing to the United States of America and Spain to ensure that they were eliminated before the final pool stage. The greater tragedy, though, was to befall Italian football – Il Grande Torino was all but wiped out in the Superga air disaster of 1949.

9th May 1956 – London – England 4 Brazil 2

Background: By 1956, English football had suffered some very chastening experiences, none more humbling than the football education that they were handed by Hungary during the 1953/54 season. Indeed, so tumultuous were these results that even a quarter-final defeat at the hands of Uruguay in Switzerland in the 1954 World Cup finals was small beer by comparison. A match against Brazil at Wembley in May 1956, however, gave them a chance to see if they had made any progress in the two years since.

The Match: A capacity crowd at Wembley were stunned by two goals in the opening five minutes through Manchester United’s Tommy Taylor and Colin Grainger, of Sheffield United. England held this lead until half-time, but two goals in three minutes early in the second half for Brazil from Paulinho and Didi brought Brazil level. Further goals from Taylor and Grainger restored England’s lead, however, and they even had time to miss two penalty kicks, with saves from Gylmar from Roger Byrne and John Atyeo.

After The Match: In February 1958, Manchester United’s tragedy became England’s tragedy with the Munich Air Disaster. Three of the players that started for England against Brazil in May 1956 – Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and Duncan Edwards – perished in the snow at Munich, ripping the heart out of the national team. England drew all three of their group matches at the 1958 World Cup finals, against the USSR, Brazil and Austria, before losing a play-off match against the USSR.

24th May 1961 – Rome – Italy 2 England 3

Background: By the time that England travelled to Rome for a friendly match in the spring of 1961, they knew that they would be hosting the 1966 World Cup finals. As such, coach Walter Winterbottom had his work cut out in transforming the team that had flopped in Sweden in 1958. Although Italy were still in something of a trough as an international team, England had cause for optimism, having scored nine goals against Scotland and eight against Mexico in the six weeks leading up to this game.

The Match: A crowd of over 60,000 was at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to see England win by the odd goal in five. Their hero that day was Gerry Hitchens of Aston Villa. Hitchens had scored within ninety seconds of his debut for England against Mexico, and scored twice in Turin. The other England goal came from another talismanic striker, Jimmy Greaves.

After The Match: England failed to achieve again, the following year in Chile at the World Cup finals. They scraped through the group stages with one win, one draw and one defeat – against, consecutively, Argentina, Bulgaria and Hungary – but this poor record meant that they had to play the holders and favourites Brazil in Viña del Mar in the quarter-finals. Brazil won that match comfortably, by three goals to one. Gerry Hitchens went on to play in Italy for the majority of his career, for Internazionale, Torino, Atalanta and Cagliari. He died whilst playing in a charity match in 1983, at the age of forty-eight.

12th March 1975 – London – England 2 West Germany 0

Background: By th middle of the 1970s, English football had declined to hitherto uncharted depths. Two matches encapsulated this decline more than any others – the 1-1 draw with Poland in 1973 which sealed their exit from the 1974 World Cup, and a 3-1 home defeat against West Germany in 1972. West Germany went on to win the 1974 World Cup, and with Alf Ramsey now departed and replaced by Don Revie, a home friendly against the world champions was a good opportunity to gauge the progress of the new manager.

The Match: Wearing a snazzy new kit with royal blue shorts rather than the traditional navy and – gasp! – red and blue stripes on their sleeves, England beat the world champions comfortably at Wembley, with the goals coming from two of the emerging attacking talents of the era, Colin Bell and Malcolm McDonald. It was the sort of result which indicated that England might have a chance of progressing in the following year’s European Championships and, more significantly, to the 1978 World Cup finals.

After The Match: Little did anyone know it at the time, but England’s form would not pick up in the long term. A defeat against Czechoslovakia marked the effective end of their run in the European Championships, and by 1977 England had failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup finals (eliminated in their qualifying group by Italy), whilst Revie became the first England manager to resign his position, when he left to take up a job in the Middle East in 1977.

13 May 1980 – London – England 3 Argentina 1

Background: Revie’s successor into the England manager’s job, Ron Greenwood, had his work cut out, with morale at rock bottom and two successive World Cups having been missed. Argentina, on the other hand, had won the 1978 World Cup – albeit slightly fortuitously – and arrived at Wembley keen to show off the minor changes that they had made over the previous couple of years, including the introduction of one Diego Armando Maradona.

The Match: A surprisingly competitive match saw England win by three goals to one, thanks to two goals from Liverpool’s David Thompson and one from Kevin Keegan, while Daniel Passarella scored for Argentina. The star of the show, however, was Maradona, who danced through the England defence at one point in the match in style that would come back to haunt them six years later.

After The Match: England’s return to mediocrity was immediate, in the form of  a 4-1 defeat in the their very next match, against Wales at Wrexham. They had already qualified for the newly-expanded 1980 European Championship finals in Italy, but the team’s performance was dismal, with a draw and a defeat against Belgium and Italy knocking them out with a game to spare. A consolation win in their final group match against Spain couldn’t mask the fact that the English “stars” of the tournament were the hooligans who prompted the use of tear gas by the Italian police during the match against Belgium.

Part Two of this article will follow tomorrow.

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