In terms of childhood memories, few can compete with the excitement of watching the world’s best footballers competing for the highest honour in the game – The World Cup! And of course you got wall to wall coverage on TV – live matches being a rarity at that time.
Sadly I was more of a baby than a child when England won their one and only World Cup – at Wembley in 1966. I was just shy of one year old at the time, and although I’d like to believe the rumour put about by my parents that I was watching Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst et al in their finest hour, gurgling “Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land” at the black and white TV, I have a feeling this may have been stretching the truth.
My Dad on the other hand was lucky enough to be at the final, and indeed was at all of England’s matches. I only found this out in adulthood, but when grilling him about what to me would have been the greatest thing ever; his reply to what being at the final was like was… “tense”. Is that all I replied??? Well to be fair that was probably spot on. Whilst Dad witnessed England’s greatest ever moment, I became the proud owner of a commemorative World Cup 1966 tie with the Jules Rimet trophy emblazoned upon it, given to me by my Dad. A classic 60’s thin number in claret. I still have it somewhere…if only I could remember where!
At the age of five, the 1970 World Cup came a bit too soon for me to fully appreciate. However, at that time, I was given my first football – a Bobby Moore World Cup football – bought by my Uncle. A treasured and fondly remembered gift. My other abiding memory of the 1970 World Cup was the Esso World Cup coin collection. At that age I would be shipped off to the suburbs of Birmingham to stay with another Uncle for a couple of weeks during the summer. On this occasion Uncle Mike presented me with the Esso booklet to collect the coins with the profiles of each of England’s 1970 World Cup squad on them. Of course this meant that everyone in the family was now committed to filling their cars up with Esso petrol in order for me to complete the set. I have mislaid many things in my time since, but I really regret losing that Esso Coin collection.
Little did I understand at the time, the importance of some of the players on those coins would be for me, as a Chelsea supporter, with Peter Bonetti and Peter Osgood both in the squad, and then many years later interviewing Peter Osgood and enjoying a chat and a cup of tea with Bonetti, Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters. That particular World Cup has long fascinated me with England’s trials and tribulations in Mexico, the iconic match (and Bank’s save and Moore’s tackle) against Brazil, the tragedy of the quarter-final exit to West Germany and of course the Brazil side and Pele – arguably the greatest side playing the most sublime football ever.
I think it is fair to say that the 1970 tournament planted a seed and fuelled my passion for football although I probably did not realise it at the time. So much so, that I couldn’t wait to see England play in the next World Cup finals in West Germany in 1974. But of course, it was not to be, thanks to a talented Poland side, an astonishing goalkeeping performance by Jan Tomasweski aka ‘the Clown’, and some uncharacteristic errors by the likes of Bobby Moore, Norman Hunter and Peter Shilton.
I was allowed special dispensation by Mum to watch this catastrophe on TV and I remember to this day how distraught I was at the outcome. After all, England had been World Champions 7 years earlier and had been favourites in the previous World Cup. How on earth could the World Cup continue without England, the inventors of the game, not present?
But when you are nine years old, you move on quickly, and the 1974 World Cup brought the temptations of a whole month of football on the box. Also, by this time I was thoroughly immersed in playing football at every available opportunity. Here presented before us was a whole array of new and exotic footballers to watch and learn from, and then replay the match in the garden afterwards, accompanied by your own commentary on your latest trick, flick and goal.
For me, this was the World Cup of Johan Cruyff and the total football of the Dutch team. I remember everyone at school trying out the ‘Cruyff turn’ the day after watching Holland play Sweden, accompanied by deferential tones! When they blew it in the final against the dreaded Germans, I was as gutted as I would have been had England lost. I was also impressed by one Gerd Muller ‘Der Bomber’ – West Germany’s formidable and chunky striker – horrible but brilliant at the same time!
The 1974 World Cup also introduced the concept of football being an inherently unfair sport. Britain’s sole representatives were Scotland – a decent side then with many of the ‘dirty’ Leeds team in it and Dennis Law and a young Kenneth Dalglish. I remember rooting for the Scots and being genuinely disappointed that they managed to somehow get eliminated in spite of being unbeaten.
All in all one of my favourite World Cup’s and the 1978 version – with England of course – couldn’t come soon enough!! But yet again, at the very impressionable age of thirteen, when my engagement in football and support of the national side was total, England let me down!!!
This time, confident and obsessed, I watched every England qualification game. We had a decent side, and a cracking kit, and two minnows in Finland and Luxemburg and only the mighty Italy stood in our way. I remember the point at which we blew it vividly. Away to Italy in November 1976, we were undone by a bullet header from the grey haired Roberto
Bettega in the 77th minute to compound us to a 2-0 defeat. I can still hear Barry Davies screaming “Bettega” in disbelief and pain. This defeat was under the management of the reviled former Leeds Utd manager, Don Revie. Revie, like us, saw the writing on the wall and took the United Arab Emirates money to avoid the ignominy of being the second England manager to fail to qualify for a World Cup. Of course, the defeat to Italy was our only defeat and we ended up level with Italy on points, but they went to the World Cup courtesy of a better goal difference, and we had to watch it at home on TV.
At least the 1978 World Cup gave us ticker tape, short shorts, Scotland to laugh at, Archie Gemmell’s goal and the Ossie Ardiles flick to practice at school and in football training. Small consolation!
Still at school for the 1982 World Cup, ‘this time, more than any other time’ things would surely be different. For a start we had qualified on merit for the first time in my lifetime. We had one of the best players in the world in Kevin Keegan, and a former Chelsea hero Ray Wilkins in the side.
I remember running all the way from school to home to get in front of the TV in time for England’s opening match against the highly rated French side. Just as well I got a shift on, as Bryan Robson, not yet the fabled ‘Captain Marvel’, scored a great goal in 27 seconds – the fastest of the 1982 World Cup as England romped to an impressive 3-1 win. This time we were up and running. We topped the group with further wins against Czechoslovakia and Kuwait.
The second phase (in a format that experts our still trying to figure out today!) pitted us against hosts Spain and old enemy West Germany. Sadly, our goal scoring form of our opening match deserted us, as we departed the tournament with two tame 0-0 draws, eliminated undefeated. Lady Luck had dealt us a cruel blow with the absence though injury of Keegan and Brooking, two players who, had they been fully fit might have made the difference.
In spite of the obvious disappointment at England’s failure, there was much to love about the 1982 World Cup and it is still my favourite. Not least England wore my favourite England kit – the one with the red and blue bands across the shoulders. We also had the 1982 Brasil team – the best team I have watched, and how they lost to a typically functional and disciplined Italy team with the brutal Gentile and genius poacher Paulo Rossi still defies belief. Players such as Zico, Falcao, Eder and the wonderful Socrates live long in the memory.
By the time the 1986 World Cup came around, I had things on my mind other than football. Now aged twenty, I was immersed in the ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ lifestyle of a University student living in London. But, if football is in your blood, you don’t ignore a World Cup especially if England is there. There was one notable change however; this was the first World Cup with England participating where the cynic in me had developed to the extent that I was beginning to abandon hope, let alone expectation.
The first two matches against Portugal and Morocco did not do anything to change my mind. A 1-0 loss to Portugal and a 0-0 draw with Morocco that saw ‘Captain Marvel’ Bryan Robson hobble off injured with a dislocated shoulder and vice-captain Ray Wilkins sent off for chucking the ball at the referee – all within 2 minutes – pointed to an early exit.
But cometh the man cometh the hour and the enforced changes worked wonders as the youthful Gary Lineker, replete with a plaster cast on his wrist, banged in a classy hat-trick, aided and abetted by Peter Beardsley to dispatch Poland 3-0 and we lived to fight another day! Even Chelsea legend Kerry Dixon got on with four minutes to go! The boy Lineker did it again scoring twice against Paraguay in the round of 16, and blow me, we were in the quarter-finals for the first time since 1970.
Argentina and Diego Maradona waited for us, and as we all know with sleight of hand and foot, he stuck a dagger firmly in to our heart and the dream was over for another four years. Sadly, I missed England’s best World Cup performance for twenty years, as three days previously I had embarked for Glastonbury to sample the delights of sun, mud, exotic substances, the Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, The Housemartins and Madness. World Cup 0-Glastonbury 1! It wasn’t until I got back that I realised the full enormity of Maradona’s crime and genius.
Having been spectacularly awful in the 1988 European Championships, I expected nothing short of woeful incompetence from the England World Cup side of 1990. The group stage did nothing to debunk this with two of the teams who had embarrassed us in 1988 – Ireland and Holland – in the group with us. The only bright light in the draws against them both in 1990 was Paul Gascoigne – but there was little sign of the madness to come.
If there was one underlying feeling about the 1990 World Cup for me, it was the return of hope. The last gasp winner by David Platt against Belgium followed up with Gazza’s touch and Lineker’s coolness in the quarter-final against Cameroon made us believe that this was our turn. We had the Germans in the semi-final. They didn’t look that good, and we had Gazza and Lineker – we were playing well. It was our turn for God’s sake!
England’s second most important match in my lifetime took place on 4th July. By now I had been working for three years – quite the adult! I rushed, no, ran back from the office to my house in Lots Road, Chelsea, clutching a crate of Stella Artois to get me through the match. I somehow sensed it would be a tense affair.
On arriving at home I discovered that my house mate had invited her German boyfriend to watch the match. World Cup bonhomie and camaraderie went straight out of the window as I informed the uninvited house guest that he would not be welcome, and it would be better for him if he watched the match somewhere else. With the enemy within duly dispatched I settled in to the match and watched quite possibly the best performance I have seen by an England team in such an important match. Even when we went one-nil down to a deflected Brehme free-kick, I felt that we would win, being clearly the better side.
As extra-time waxed and waned it slowly dawned on me that with chances being missed, fate was decreeing that that devil would fart in England’s face yet again. And so it proved with the defeat in the penalty shoot-out. Crestfallen, gutted, bereft at the injustice of it all I wandered, alone, down to the Ferret and Firkin pub and pondered that I would never see England win a World Cup, and experience what my Dad had in 1966.
From the resurrection of hope to its terminal demise in just 120 minutes. Nothing since has dispelled the feeling that as far as England winning a World Cup is concerned, I witnessed the ‘death of hope’ that day. Not even the so called ‘Golden Generation’ who bungled their way out of various World Cup’s since 1998 usually via the cruel fate of the penalty shoot-out, have changed this view.
But in a therapeutic sense, it works for me. I have had more joy watching Chelsea win pretty much everything in the last 10-15 years, and I am happy that I reserve all of my emotional energy for them. It means I can support and watch England a little more dispassionately.
England as a nation still expects, but I still expect it to end in tears as it so often has. But what if for once it doesn’t? Well that would be something wouldn’t it – for all the league titles, FA Cups and European trophies I have witnessed Chelsea winning at first hand, England winning the World Cup would probably top even that?
It’ll never happen though…will it?
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