How far had English football fallen between the years of 1970 and 1979? Well, the clubs were doing okay (Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Liverpool would spend the majority of the next half-decade dominating the European Cup), but the stock of the national side that there was no great outrage when Ron Greenwood’s team, having sailed into the European Championship finals in Italy in 1980, performed like donkeys and were knocked out with a match to spare.
They made harder work of getting to Spain in 1982 (a fluke Paul Mariner goal against Hungary eventually saw them through to the first 24 nation World Cup finals), but with a new manager in Bobby Robson, and a new generation of players starting to emerge, there was plenty of reason to hope that they would qualify at a canter from what looked like a pretty comfortable qualifying group to get to France in 1984.
1984 European Championships – Danish Limitation: Now, to be fair, no-one could really have predicted that Denmark, who had always been one of European football’s whipping boys, would suddenly come good and boot England out of the European Championships. They had some great players, such as Allan Simonsen and Jesper Olsen, but they didn’t exactly have much pedigree as a team. They’d been drawn against England in qualifying for Euro 80 and come bottom of the group, and had also failed to make Spain in 1982 (though, in what could be considered a warning shot, they had beaten Italy 3-1).
England kicked off with a 2-2 draw in Copenhagen, and followed that up with a 3-0 win in Greece. So far, so good. Next up, Luxembourg were demolished 9-0 at Wembley (debutant Luther Blissett scored a hat-trick in that one), but the key match was a 0-0 home draw against Greece. Suddenly, with Denmark still winning all of their matches, the group was turned upon it’s head. A convincing win against Hungary should have put them back on track, but the sky fell in in September 1983, when Denmark won 1-0 at Wembley, thanks to an Allan Simonsen penalty. Both teams won their remaining fixtures, and the Danes were through.
Had England drawn against the Danes or beaten the Greeks, they, with a superior goal difference, would have qualified. This, however, was a somewhat transitional England team – Keegan and Brooking had retired after the 1982 World Cup, and there were no replacements up front. Blissett was found out against better teams (laughably so when he transferred to Milan), Paul Mariner wasn’t really consistent enough, and Tony Woodcock never really transferred his domestic form onto the international stage. Gary Lineker and the best of John Barnes in an England shirt were still two or three years away.
1994 World Cup – Rhapsody In Blue: There was a time when Graham Taylor was England’s best ever manager. His honeymoon period, in the warm afterglow of their over-achievement in 1990, England tore towards the 1992 European Championships. Once there, the first serious doubts over Taylor’s acumen had started to raise their heads and, whilst they could at least say that they had been knocked out by the hosts and the eventual champions, the lingering doubts would fester and develop into the most sustained campaign of hatred ever launched against an England coach. The basic fact of the matter was that England had lost a generation of players – Shilton and Lineker had retired, whilst Gascoigne was on the long-term injury list – and didn’t have the strength in depth to be able to cope. David Platt had lost the half-yard of pace which meant that he was able cope at the highest level. The players from 1990 were over the hill, and the replacements weren’t up to it.
The group didn’t look too difficult. Holland had a good team, and the nearest other competitors looked like Poland. Hardly insurmountable. This time, the team that we didn’t take into account was Norway, though it would be far too generous to claim that this Norwegian team was anything like the Danish team of a decade before. This Norwegian team knew it’s limits, but was effective. England kicked off with a poor 1-1 draw against them at Wembley, but seemed to have hit their stride with two wins against Turkey and one against San Marino. Victory against the Dutch at Wembley would surely leave them just a few points from qualification.
Never has a team’s form collapsed so quickly and so dramatically. They were cruising at 2-0 up against Holland, but collapsed in the second half, allowing them to come back to grab a 2-2 draw. England’s fragile confidence collapsed – and their double-header against Poland and Norway in June saw them pick up just one point and, more pointedly, their performance in losing 2-0 in Oslo was as bad as anyone could remember. This result, coupled with the draw in Poland (which was the whereabouts of the now infamous, “do I not like that” comment), meant that England had to beat Holland in Rotterdam and Poland at Wembley to stand any chance of going through.
Poland were easy enough to beat, but winning in Holland was always going to to be practically impossible. The press briefly tried to make a national enemy of Ronald Koeman, who had hauled down David Platt when through on goal at 1-0 and escaped with a yellow card, before following that up with curling the second goal in from a free-kick. Stuart Pearce’s celebrated back-pass to gift San Marino the opening goal in their final qualifier was one of those “football going beyond being merely a metaphor” moments and, although they came back to win that match 7-1, it was too little, and far, far, far too late.
The simple truth was that 1993 vintage England was simply not good enough. The worst, in fact, of the lot. Consider the team that took the field against Norway in June 1993: Chris Woods, David Bardsley, Tony Dorigo, Carlton Palmer, Des Walker, Tony Adams, David Platt, Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham, Paul Ince and John Barnes. Barnes, Walker and Platt were well past their best. Gascoigne was probably still injured. Adams might well have been an alcoholic by then. Which leaves… Paul Ince and Teddy Sheringham, alongside a handful of players that wouldn’t have made any other England team, ever. At the precise time of writing, England are 1-0 up in Estonia, but I still don’t think that they’ll qualify for the finals of Euro 2008. At least we can console ourselves with the knowledge that they’re not as bad as the class of ’93, though.
John Barnes vs Holland in 1993
Fortunately, no-one has seen fit to put any of the rest of it on YouTube.