As Bad As Things Got: England At The Euros, 12th June 1980

by | Jun 5, 2021

The 1970s were a dismal time for the England national team. They started the decade as the champions of the world and with what was considered a reasonable chance of defending their title, but by its end they were among international football’s also-rans, with a rapidly declining reputation both on and off the pitch. Failure to qualify to two consecutive World Cup finals was compounded by underachievement in the European Championships. They were played off the pitch in the quarter-finals of the 1972 competition by West Germany, while their interest in the 1976 competition ended when they failed to win either of their last two qualification matches and lost out to eventual winners Czechoslovakia.

The managerial situation seldom felt much more secure. Alf Ramsey had to be practically dragged from his seat in 1974, while the subsequent tenure of Don Revie turned out to be little more than three years of rancour and indecision. When Revie upped sticks and left for the Middle East in 1977, it was likely as much a relief to the FA as it was an embarrassment, but which direction should they take next? England had only had two full-time managers before. They’d got extremely lucky with the first one, but the second had been a disaster. Which way to go, for the third? The popular choice was Brian Clough. He’d won the First Division title with Derby County in 1972 and had just taken Nottingham Forest to the Second Division title.

Clough was interviewed for the job two days after England’s failure to quaify for the 1978 World Cup had been confirmed in December 1977, but he was already at a disadvantage. The West Ham United manager Ron Greenwood had been in temporary charge since Revie’s sudden departure, and had impressed with a 2-0 win against Italy. And Clough didn’t exactly help himself on the day of the interview, criticising England’s bold new kit design to FA Secretary Ted Croker and joking that someone who entered while he was waiting should take the lift rather than the stairs on account of his age without realising that the person he was mocking was on the panel that would be interviewing him.

A week later, Ron Greenwood was appointed as the new England manager. Brian Clough, meanwhile, would take his newly-promoted Nottingham Forest team to the First Division title in 1978, and spent the next two years as the champions of Europe.

It took Greenwood three games to record his first win as England manager, but with his first two matches coming against West Germany and Brazil, the standard of opposition was at least high. Qualification for the 1980 European Championships was the next target. In theory, the bar for this had been reduced somewhat. Previous “finals” had been four team affairs, with just the semi-finals and final being played in the final tournament, but UEFA had taken the decision to expand this to eight teams for the 1980 iteration in Italy, and with more qualifying places came a better chance of getting through, right?

As things turned out, this time it did. They started their qualification group a little slowly, throwing away a 2-0 lead before eventually winning 4-3 against Denmark in Copenhagen and being held to a 1-1 draw in Dublin by the Republic of Ireland. From there on, though, their progress was fairly stately. The point dropped in Dublin turned out to be the only one that they dropped from their eight matches, and with the teams below them in the group – the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Bulgaria – all taking points off each other, they ended up qualifying with ease, even though only the group winners were going through. England ended up six points clear that the top of their group, and they qualified without having to kick a ball, when Northern Ireland beat the Republic by a goal to nil in Belfast. England’s match against Bulgaria on the same evening was postponed on account of fog.

Preparations for the tournament, however, proved to be a mixed bag. On the positive side, England looked quietly impressive in beating Spain 2-0 in Barcelona and world champions Argentina 3-1 in a friendly at Wembley. The Home Internationals, however, were a different matter. A 4-1 defeat to Wales in Wrexham was their worst international defeat in more than a decade and a half, and their other performances – a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland and a 2-0 win against Scotland – weren’t a great deal more impressive. And on top of this, Trevor Francis, who’d become England’s first £1m player a little over a year and had scored the winning goal in the 1979 European Cup final, ruptured his achilles tendon towards the end of the 1979/80 season and would miss the tournament.

And, as it ever seems to be with England, a proportion of the damage done to their chances was self-inflicted. Less than two weeks before the start of the European Championship finals, the FA sent a sixteen man squad to Australia to celebrate the centenary of the game landing in the Antipodes for the first time. A virtual B team beat Australia 2-1 at the Sydney Cricket Ground with no major concerns, but with four of the sixteen-man squad for that match also going to Italy, there were valid questions to ask about the amount of travelling that some players were being asked to do at such a time.

Furthermore, getting through this group was going to be difficult. The eight teams involved in Euro 80 were divided into two groups of four, but there would be no semi-finals, with only the two group winners proceeding any further, to the final itself. England had been drawn against the hosts Italy, who were undergoing considerable turmoil themselves in the slipstream of the Totonero scandal, which led to 33 players – including some internationals – being put on trial in Rome charged with fraud, having allegedly accepted money to fix the results of games, Belgium and Spain.

England’s first match was against Belgium in Turin, and the writing was already on the wall. Hooliganism had made its inevitable jump from the club game to the international game three years earlier, when England supporters rioted in Luxembourg before their qualifying match there, and there were further disturbances in centre of Turin the night before the match, which resulted in 36 arrests. Indeed, perhaps the only likely impediment to trouble on the day of the match was sluggish ticket sales. With locals apparently disinterested in any matches that didn’t involve the host nation, just 15,000 had been sold for the England vs Belgium match.

It all started so differently, though. After 25 fairly evenly-matched minutes, Ray Wilkins seized on a failed Belgian clearance, lobbed two defenders put himself through on goal, and lifted the ball over Jean-Marie Pfaff to give England. It was, in short, one of the finest goals ever scored by an England player. The lead, however, didn’t last for very long. Four minutes later, Jan Ceulemans equalised for Belgium, would even this would turn out to be the least of England’s problems, that afternoon.

Celebrations following the Belgian goal led to fighting in the stands, and this led to the involvement of the Italian police, who thre tear gas grenades into the crowd in an attempt to contain the trouble. Some of these, however, were thrown back onto the pitch by supporters. England goalkeeper Ray Clemence had to be treated for the effects of the tear gas, and German referee Heinz Aldinger was forced to suspend the match while some degree of order was restored. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the players didn’t resume at the intensity that that they’d been displaying beforehand, and the match ended up petering out to a 1-1 draw, although Tony Woodcock did have a goal marginally ruled out for offside with fifteen minutes to play.

Few people had much to say about the team’s performance after the match, though. With the match and its appalling scenes having been shown live across Europe, this was a particularly shaming moment for the FA, although in terms of punishment they got off pretty lightly. Despite some calls for the team to be expelled from the tournament altogether, the FA were eventually fined £8,000 for the disturbances, a result which the FA themselves knew to be very lenient, with FA Chairman Sir Harold Thompson saying that, “It could have been a lot more serious for us, but it is a pity we have to pay for the actions of those sewer rats.”

Considering what had preceded it, England’s second match against the hosts, also in Turin, might have been an accident waiting to happen. Italy had drawn their opening 0-0 with Spain, with Spain then losing to Belgium in Milan. With only the winners going through to the final – the runners-up would play a third/fourth place play-off – the losers of this match, would be out of the competition with a game to spare. It was a tense evening. The Mayor of Turin had threatened to cancel the match, and he banned the sale of alcohol inside the stadium on the night. Unlike some of those that had preceded it, this match had captured the imagination of the local population, and the crowd of almost 60,000 turned out to be the biggest of the tournament.

England’s travelling supporters, this time very much in a minority, kept a low profile, and the match passed off without major incident, with some fighting inside the ground before the match being quickly broken up. On the pitch, meanwhile, things didn’t go England’s way. Italy were less than impressive themselves, and England almost took the lead when Ray Kennedy’s shot thudded out off the crossbar. With eleven minutes to play, though, Marco Tardelli did find a way through to give the hosts the lead. With a game to spare, England were effectively out of the 1980 European Championships.

There was still controversy afterwards, but this time at least it wasn’t about the ‘behaviour’ of England’s travelling hooligans. The day after the match, an Italian newspaper reported that Kevin Keegan had accused the Romanian referee of having taken a bribe from the Italians before the match. This was, of course, a particularly hot topic in Italy at the time, and it took a couple of days before the journalist concerned admitted that he had misquoted Keegan.

Ron Greenwood made six changes for the final game against Spain in Naples, where a paltry crowd of just 14,440 saw Trevor Brooking and Tony Woodcock score to give England a 2-1 win. Later that evening, Italy failed to break Belgium down in their final group match, and the resulting goalless draw saw Belgium through to the final, while Italy would have to satisfy themselves with a place in the third place play-off. West Germany went on to beat Belgium 2-1 in the final in Rome, while Czechoslovakia beat Italy  9-8 on penalty kicks to claim third place after a 1-1 draw in Naples.

Such was the lack of interest in the tournament in England that, when it was confirmed that there was no chance that they’d be reaching the final, the BBC cancelled their live coverage of it, scheduling a Tommy Steele film instead. Four years later in France, with no home countries having qualified, the BBC only showed one live group match and the final, while ITV passed on it altogether, only showing highlights of the semi-final between Spain and Denmark.

Considering the repeatedly appalling behaviour of England supporters throughout qualifying campaigns and the 1982 World Cup finals, it was probably a relief to the entire rest of the continent when they failed to qualify for the 1984 finals, and such relief is understandable. England supporters would cause trouble to some degree at every major tournament they qualified for until the 2002 World Cup, and that tournament proved to be something of an outlier, on account of its distance from this country. The same has happened at every European Championship finals they qualified for since then, too.

It was 1980, however, that set the dismal template for what would follow. The bellowing, braying morons in the stands with little apparent interest in the game itself, and the ham-fisted response of the Italian police. Ultimately ineffective fines for the FA, and the impotent bellowing of the press and rent-a-quote government ministers after matches. In the years that followed the events of the 11th June 1980, it has become a familiarly wearying set of rituals.

But the behaviour of England supporters in Turin in 1980 weren’t the only dismal precedent set that summer. After beating Spain in their final group that match, it would take England a whole twenty years before they won a European Championship finals match that wasn’t played at Wembley. Even with the tournament expanding to 16 teams from 1996 on, England didn’t get past the group stages of the European Championships until 2004, with the sole exception to this being when they hosted the competition in 1996. On the pitch, England have certainly been worse in the European Championship finals than they were in 1980. Away from it, though, their appearance in Italy that year provided a template that we’ve been trying to eliminate ever since.