It’s coming to something, isn’t it, when Estonia vs England is a “do or die” fixture, and the press are nervously contemplating the prospect of Alan Smith partnering Michael Owen up front when England haven’t scored a competitive goal for about thirty-six hours. There is a generation of young people, though, that has grown up with the concept of England qualifying for at least the finals of everything that they enter. Those of us that are a little older, of course, know better. England’s sporadic failure to qualify for the finals of a major tournament is one of the occupational hazards of taking an interest in what they get up to, and there is a real chance that, even if they manage to see off the mighty Estonia, they still won’t make it. I’ve been saying for the last year or so that England won’t qualify for Euro 2008 and, of course nothing that I’ve seen so far has altered my opinion that Croatia, Russia and Israel are better than this current England team. Now, if or when England do fail to qualify (and they’re relying on the others all taking points off each other already), there will be plenty of sobbing children, who are currently blissfully ignorant of the multitude of shortcomings that England teams down the years. These sobbing children should consider this a rite of passage. It’s time to remind ourselves of England’s glorious failures from the past, and where better to start than the qualifiers for the 1974 World Cup.
1967-1974 – A Slow Decline: “The first cut is the deepest”, sang Rod Stewart, and there is an element of truth to this. England’s elimination from the 1974 World Cup was the end of an era of, frankly, self-delusional. A somewhat fortunate win in the 1966 World Cup had been followed up with a mediocre performance in Mexico in 1970, but a fug of myth has obscured what really happened. First of all, let me make it clear that the England vs Brazil group match from that tournament was not one of the greatest matches in the history of football. True enough, it’s impossible to fault Bobby Moore’s block tackle, Gordon Banks’ save from Pele or Jairzinho’s brilliantly taken goal. However, before England played Brazil in 2002, the BBC replayed the match in full, and it was terrible – played at walking pace in practically inhumane conditions, on a bumpy pitch with a ball that behaved in a similar way to a beach ball. The one thing you notice from watching it is the extraordinary number of passes that run astray or straight under the players’ feet.
Having struggled to a pair of 1-0 wins against very average Czechoslovakia and Romania teams, England still made the last eight, and here lies the second myth: there was no food poisoning plot against Gordon Banks, and England’s defeat was more to do with a calamitous piece of tactical arrogance by Alf Ramsey than by Peter Bonetti’s mistake to give the Germans a way back into the match. Peter Bonetti was an excellent goalkeeper, and only one of the three West German goals was his fault. Much more important was Ramsey’s decision to take off Bobby Charlton to “rest” him for the semi-finals. This, crucially, freed Franz Beckenbauer (who had been man-marking Charlton) up to play the free role in which he was most effective for the Germans, and suddenly England’s midfield was over-run. Once the Germans clawed one back, there was only going to be one winner. Having managed to blame fate, bad luck and those dirty, cheating Mexicans for defeat in 1970 (whilst simultaneously deluding ourselves into thinking that, somehow, only losing 1-0 to Brazil meant that we were still the second best team in the world), the warning signs were even louder two years later, when Gunther Netzer and West Germany utterly destroyed them 3-1 at Wembley in a European Championships quarter-final first leg. The return leg finished goal-less, but it didn’t matter, the scene was set for everything to got horribly wrong for England.
1974 World Cup – Spit & Polish: It should have been pretty straightforward. A group of three, with Poland and Wales to play home and away but, after starting well enough with a 1-0 win away to Wales in their opening match, the wheels fell off England’s wagon. First of all, they dropped a crucial point in the return match against Wales, being held to a 1-1 draw. Then they went to Chorzow to play Poland. England had already been done a favour by Wales beating the Poles, but everything went wrong in Poland. Alan Ball was sent off, Bobby Moore scored an own goal, and England were beaten 2-0. They now had to beat Poland at Wembley in their final match. Now, England’s match against Poland at Wembley in September 1973 has also become something of a legend – Brian Clough’s “quips” about Jan Tomaszewki, England battering the Poles for an hour before scoring, and Kevin Hector’s last minute miss (in his only appearance for England) all make for a tremendous story, but the real villain of the evening was… Peter Shilton, who let Jan Domarski’s weak shot through his legs. Although Allan Clarke levelled things up from the penalty spot, two goals in the last half an hour was always going to be too much for them, and that was that. Ramsey held on for a further eight months, but England missed out on the 1974 finals, whilst Poland would go on to claim third place, beating Brazil in the play-off.
1978 – So Near, Yet So Far: Qualifying for the last of the 16 nation World Cups was one of the rare occasions when England could justifiably feel hard done by, but failure to qualify four years earlier left them as second seeds, and they were drawn in the same group as Italy. Under Don Revie, things started reasonably well with a 4-1 win against Finland, but a disastrous 2-0 defeat in Rome against Italy meant that they would have an almighty fight on their hands just get through. It was straight shootout against far weaker opposition, and the Italians couldn’t stop scoring – the final nail in the coffin came in Luxembourg, when a meagre 2-0 England win left them needing to beat Italy by five clear goals in their final match at Wembley. They won 2-0, but the Italians went through after brushing Luxembourg aside in their final match. In truth, Revie’s England reign was a chaotic period. Although he seemed like the right man for the job, he famously chopped and changed the team too much, and his fractious relationship with the press made an already difficult job almost impossible. His replacement, the somewhat more self-effacing Ron Greenwood, may not have been an unreserved success (remember England’s disastrous 1980 European Championship campaign? I thought not, and it’s probably for the best that it stays that way), but he at least got them past the qualifying stages for the first time in over a decade.
Part Two Tomorrow!