1966. Sir Alf Ramsey had reached the pinnacle with his team at Wembley Stadium. This was it. England were now on top of the world and had future dominance at their feet. Four years later and a West Germany quarter-final comeback, that dominance was shattered.
Failures to qualify for the tournaments in Germany (1974) and Argentina (1978) would mean that England would be in the international wilderness for over a decade. 12 years it would take before the nation that gave the world the game would be back on its centre stage. After the failure of the Don Revie era, who took over from Ramsey following his failure to reach the ’74 tournament. Revie couldn’t adjust to the national team after having great success domestically with Leeds United. He left for the riches of the Middle East before the end of the qualifying campaign for the ’78 World Cup.
Ron Greenwood was the man appointed to right the ship and steady the team through a path that was the darkest the England team had known. He was the first choice of the Football Association, but not of the fans. The popular choice on the street was that of Brian Clough, but he would go down as arguably the greatest English manager never to manage the national team. Greenwood was a great tactician and knew his job was clear. Get England back to the World Cup.
His qualifying campaign was so full of drama that at one stage he had resigned on the plane home from a qualifier, only to be talked round by his players. Then with qualification literally out of their hands they were handed a lifeline by some unlikely results and only needed a draw against Hungary, a game they won 1-0, to reach the finals in Spain.
Greenwood was very much a traditionalist and he had his favourite players. Yes, he tried out the new players that were emerging at the time. Tony Morley, Cyrille Regis, Eric Gates amongst the names that missed out on travelling, opting to take his tried and tested players.
An opening group game 3-1 win against France, with the fastest goal in finals history by Bryan Robson after just 27 seconds, set the team up well and with another win against Czechoslovakia (2-0) they were already assured of extending their stay in the Mediterranean heat. They rounded off the group with a third win, a single goal victory over Kuwait.
The second phase wasn’t a straight knockout round. Instead, and as part of the expansion to 24 teams, the round was made up of 4 groups of 3 teams. Old enemy West Germany would be the first test, and after a goalless draw the odds were in England’s favour to progress. The Germans beat hosts Spain and England knew a win by two clear goals would see them through to the semi-finals. Spain would not want to go out of their own tournament with a loss held England at bay, and when Greenwood rolled the dice and brought on his two superstars with 25 minutes to go it seemed too late. Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan had a quarter of the match to win the game. They almost did. Brooking was wide with a long-range effort and Keegan agonisingly flashed a header wide when it seemed easier to score.
England went out undefeated but with pride restored. Greenwood would now step down and his successor had something to build upon. Bobby Robson was that man. His Ipswich Town team had conquered Europe, and finish runners-up in the First Division in two consecutive seasons, playing free flowing attacking football. After an inconspicuous start and failing to qualify for the European Championships in France he set about his goal of taking England to another World Cup.
Big wins over Finland and Turkey set them on their way, but three straight draws in the middle of the campaign meant they had to finish strong. A win against Turkey at Wembley in October ensured qualification before the last game, a goalless draw against Northern Ireland, which also saw them progress to Mexico. English teams were winning many European competitions and the confidence of the players in the squad was high. Newcomers such as Peter Reid, Steve Hodge, Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley, who had a collective 27 caps between them would go on to be key members of the team as they progressed.
The group they were drawn in didn’t strike much fear but after an opening loss to Portugal (1-0) the pressure was on. Worse followed when they played Morocco, not only were they on the brink of elimination after a 0-0 draw, they lost captain Robson to a shoulder injury, and then his midfield partner Ray Wilkins was sent off for petulantly throwing the ball at the referee. The incidents were a minute apart just before half-time. But still a win in their last game would see them through.
Poland were the opponents, and what happened next made believers of us all, and put a certain striker in the spotlight of football fans across the globe. Lineker’s first half hat-trick is not only one of the most famous trebles in England’s history, but also of the World Cups. In a game they had to win England finally showed up. Great linking play and fluid movement. The win set up a second-round clash with Paraguay, the format revised away from the nonsensical group format of four years previous. The South Americans were more suited to the conditions but the new-found confidence amongst the England team was far too much for them and this time, despite another two gaols for Lineker, it was Beardsley who shone the brightest in another 3-0 win.
England were in the last eight and a date at high noon with Argentina in the huge Azteca Stadium. Argentina were being guided through the tournament by their superstar Diego Maradona, talked about as being the best player in the world. Ever. However, on this day we saw the best and worst of the little man. He’s gone on record as saying his first goal was the fault of the referee as he failed to spot his handling of the ball as he somehow managed to jump higher than Peter Shilton to punch the ball into the goal. If that was the case, he was probably the only one inside the stadium and those watching in their millions on television. The goal stood the game went on. A few minutes later his genius status returned as he glided across the turf leaving would be tacklers in his wake. Inside the 6-yard box he managed to shoot low and avoid a challenge by Terry Butcher to put the Argentines 2-0 up.
The game was up. Or was it. Bobby Robson threw on John Barnes and he jinked one way and another and put a cross delightfully onto the head of Lineker, his sixth goal in three games, which would be enough to win the Golden Boot, and England were back in it. The duo almost carbon copied the trick a few minutes later but this time Lineker just missed the ball. It was a defeat that left the most bitter taste in the mouth. An incident that is still talked about to this day.
So much was the confidence in the team as they progressed in both the ’82 and ’86 tournaments that the players will tell you that they believe they could’ve gone on to win them but for “that missed header” and “that handball”. How very English.