Since 1962, England had not been successful in a World Cup qualifying campaign. They were at the 1966 and 1970 tournaments as hosts and holders, respectively, and then missed out in the 1974 and 1978. But for this campaign they were more hopeful.
FIFA had increased the number of qualifiers for the finals from 16 to 24, and 14 places were now up for grabs, although Spain, as hosts, had pinched one of them. The 33 nations would be divided into 7 groups, 6 with 5 teams and 2 groups with just 3 teams.
England was drawn into Group 4 along with Hungary, Romania, Switzerland and Norway.
These days that would look like a real group of death, but back in 1980 Switzerland and Norway were considered minnows. Switzerland hadn’t been to a World Cup Finals since England in ’66, and had never been to a European Championships. Norway had never come close to qualifying for anything, although they did compete in the 1938 World Cup in France.
Romania competed in the first three tournaments, between 1930 & 1938, but the only time they qualified for the competition was in 1970, when they were in England’s group. Hungary were considered the main threat to England. They had competed in the 1978 Finals in Argentina, and finished 4th in the 1972 European Championships.
England had qualified for the 1980 European Championships and this would be manager, Ron Greenwood’s opportunity to take charge of a whole World Cup qualifying campaign rather than the two matches he was in charge for the ’78 tournament.
One other major change for qualifying back then was that games were played whenever countries could agree dates. Rarely were 2 games played at the same time in the same group. It was this situation which lead to FIFA changing the rules and developing an international calendar, as clubs could be at a disadvantage if they lost players to an international match, when their opponents may not.
The main reason for highlighting this campaign is because it was a complete roller-coaster ride from start to finish. England were expected to qualify comfortably from a group they only needed to finish 2nd in, yet they made it as difficult as possible for themselves.
Ron Greenwood – Took over the national job in 1977 when Don Revie left for a lucrative position in the Emirates. Had been successful at West Ham, where he lead them to FA Cup and European Cup-Winners Cup success.
Peter Shilton (Nottingham Forest), (4 appearances, 3 clean sheets, 1 goal conceded) – Ended up as the most capped England player, but battled with Clemence to be first choice. First capped by England in 1970.
Ray Clemence (Liverpool), (4 appearances, 7 goals conceded) – Greenwood couldn’t decide between either keeper. First capped by England in 1972
Viv Anderson (Nottingham Forest), (2 appearances) – First black player to play a full international for England.
Kenny Sansom (Arsenal), (5 appearances) – Was most capped full-back until Ashley Cole beat his record. Made his debut for England in 1979.
Phil Neal (Liverpool), (5 appearances) – Won League, Cup, League Cup and European Cup winners medals with Liverpool. First capped by England in 1976
Mick Mills (Ipswich Town), (5 appearances) – Club captain who often captained his country. Could play full-back on either side. First capped by England in 1973
Phil Thompson (Liverpool), (5 appearances) – Another player who captained his club and country. First capped by England in 1976
Russell Osman (Ipswich Town), (3 appearances) – Important part of the successful Ipswich side, he played his first games for England during this qualifying campaign.
Dave Watson (Southampton), (6 appearances) – Was at his 6th club by 1980. Won FA Cup winners medal for Sunderland in 1973. First capped by England in 1974
Alvin Martin (West Ham United), (1 appearance) – Won FA Cup winners medal in 1980. This qualifying campaign saw him earn the first of his 17 caps during this campaign.
Bryan Robson (West Bromwich Albion), (8 appearances, 1 goal) – Earned his first cap for England in February 1980, and by the end of the campaign had moved to Manchester United.
Eric Gates (Ipswich Town), (2 appearances) – Won FA Cup and UEFA Cup winners medals with Ipswich. This campaign included his only caps for England.
Ray Wilkins (Manchester United), (3 appearances) – After 6 years at Chelsea, Wilkins had just moved to United. He was first capped by England in 1976, and ended up with 84 caps.
Trevor Brooking (West Ham United), (4 appearances, 2 goals) – The archetypal ‘one-club-man’ he was first capped by England in 1974. Only made 47 appearances, but by 1980 had become a crucial part of England’s team.
Terry McDermott (Liverpool), (8 appearances, 3 goals) – Made his debut for England in 1977. Had won European Cup, League and League Cup winners medals with Liverpool, with a knack for scoring important goals.
Graham Rix (Arsenal), (3 appearances) – Made his England debut during this campaign. Spent 13 years at Arsenal, where he won an FA Cup winners medal in 1979.
Glenn Hoddle (Tottenham Hotspur), (1 appearance) – Made his England debut in 1979. Struggled for force a regular place until the mid-80’s, and ended up with 53 caps.
Laurie Cunningham (Real Madrid), (1 appearance) – Became the first black player to represent England at any level (Under-21). After success at West Brom, he moved to Real Madrid in 1979.
Tony Woodcock (FC Cologne), (4 appearances, 2 goals) – Began his career with Nottingham Forest and was part of their League and European Cup wins in 1978 and 1979. Made his England debut in 1978.
Paul Mariner (Ipswich Town), (6 appearances, 3 goals) – Part of the successful Ipswich side during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Earned his first England cap in 1977.
Gary Birtles (Nottingham Forest), (1 appearance) – Part of the Forest that won the European Cup in 1979 and 1979. Earned his first cap during this qualifying campaign.
Steve Coppell (Manchester United), (6 appearances) – Was first capped under Greenwood in 1977, soon became a regular.
Trevor Francis (Nottingham Forest), (3 appearances) – The first £1m player when Clough signed him for Forest. Scored the winning goal in the 1979 European Cup Final.
Kevin Keegan (Southampton), (4 appearances, 1 goal) – Won league championship medals with Liverpool and Hamburg, European Player of the Year in 1978 and 1979. Won European Cup with Liverpool in 1977 and was in the Hamburg team that lost to Forest in 1980.
Peter Barnes (West Bromwich Albion), (2 appearances) – Began his career with Man City, before he became West Brom’s record signing in 1979. Was first capped by Greenwood in 1977 in the same match as Steve Coppell
Peter Withe (Aston Villa), (1 appearance) – Won the League with both Nottm Forest and Aston Villa. Made his England debut during this campaign.
Tony Morley (Aston Villa), (1 appearance) – Won League Championship medal with Aston Villa, made his England debut during this campaign.
10th September 1980
England 4-0 Norway
McDermott (37, 75, pen), Woodcock (66), Mariner (85)
Shilton (N.Forest); Anderson (N.Forest), Thompson (Liverpool), Watson (Southampton), Sansom (Arsenal); McDermott (Liverpool), Robson (West Brom), Gates (Ipswich), Rix (Arsenal); Mariner (Ipswich), Woodock (Cologne)
England kicked off their campaign at home to Norway. This was considered to be the easiest fixture of the group and so it proved. Greenwood handed first caps to Ipswich’s Eric Gates and Arsenal’s Graham Rix. Liverpool’s Terry McDermott gave England a 1-0 half-time lead, and then Tony Woodcock (FC Koln), Paul Mariner (Ipswich) and another from McDermott gave England a comfortable 4-0 win.
24th September 1980
Norway 1-1 Romania
29th October 1980
Romania 2-1 England
Radacanu (35), Iordanescu (pen 75); Woodcock (64)
Clemence (Liverpool); Neal (Liverpool), Thompson (Liverpool), Watson (Southampton), Sansom (Arsenal); McDermott (Liverpool), Robson (West Brom), Gates (Ipswich) [Coppell (Man Utd)], Rix (Arsenal); Birtles (N.Forest) [Cunningham (R.Madrid)], Woodcock (Cologne)
England travelled to Bucharest, having never lost to Romania. Back in the ‘70’s & ‘80’s, there was a general suspicion about countries from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, and this game did little to dispel this myth. Romanian players constantly fell to the ground in attempts to get penalties, something that was still largely unknown in the English game. Raducanu gave Romania the lead in the first half, which Tony Woodcock equalised midway through the second period. England were level for just 10 minutes before Camataru finally won a penalty and Iordanescu converted the kick, with just 15 minutes to go. England couldn’t draw level and so they had received their first setback.
29th October 1980
Switzerland 1-2 Norway
19th November 1980
England 2-1 Switzerland
Tanner og (22), Mariner (36); Pfister (76)
Shilton (N.Forest); Neal (Liverpool), Mills (Ipswich), Watson (Southampton), Sansom (Arsenal); Coppell (Man Utd), McDermott (Liverpool), Robson (West Brom), Brooking (West Ham) [Rix (Arsenal)]; Mariner (Ipswich), Woodcock (Cologne)
England were back to winning ways when Switzerland came to Wembley. An own goal gave England the lead after 22 minutes, which Paul Mariner then doubled 10 minutes before the break. Pfister grabbed a goal back for the visitors, and there was a nervous 15 minutes left to hang on, but hang on they did.
To highlight the inconsistencies in the international calendar, Hungary didn’t play their first match of the group until April 1981, when England had already played 3 matches.
28th April 1980
Switzerland 2-2 Hungary
29th April 1980
England 0-0 Romania
Shilton (N.Forest); Anderson (N.Forest), Osman (Ipswich), Watson (Southampton), Sansom (Arsenal); Coppell (Man Utd), Wilkins (Man Utd), Robson (West Brom), Brooking (West Ham) [McDermott (Liverpool)]; Francis (N.Forest), Woodcock (Cologne)
England had suffered their first defeat at home to Spain in a friendly in March and their form didn’t improve when Romania were the visitors. A frustrated crowd watched as England made heavy weather of opponents they really should’ve been beating.
Then came one of the most crucial periods for the group. May and June included 6 matches and after this we would have a good idea who the challengers would be
13th May 1981
Hungary 1-0 Romania
20th May 1981
Norway 1-2 Hungary
England then travelled to Basle to meet Switzerland. Between then and the Romania game, England had played 3 matches, all at home and failed to score in any of them. Brazil 0-1, Wales 0-0 and then Scotland 0-1.
30th May 1981
Switzerland 2-1 England
Scheiwiler (28), Sulser (30); McDermott (54)
Clemence (Liverpool); Mills (Ipswich), Osman (Ipswich), Watson (Southampton) [Barnes (West Brom)], Sansom (Arsenal); Coppell (Man Utd), Wilkins (Man Utd), Robson (West Brom); Francis (N.Forest) [McDermott (Liverpool)], Mariner (Ipswich), Keegan (Southampton)
England were able to pick Kevin Keegan for the first time in this qualifying campaign, but were still without Trevor Brooking. England struggled to get a grip of the game and then suffered a disasterous period midway through the first half as Scheiwiler and then Claudio Sulser gave Switzerland a 2-0 lead. Terry McDermott got a goal back 10 minutes into the second half, but England, again, couldn’t breakthrough and another away defeat put their chances of qualifying in jeopardy. Next up, Hungary.
3rd June 1981
Romania 1-0 Norway
Between the Swiss and Hungarian games, Romania made England’s task even harder as their 1-0 win over Norway moved them to the top of the group. England couldn’t afford any more slip-ups.
6th June 1981
Hungary 1-3 England
Garaba (44); Brooking (19, 60), Keegan (73)
Clemence; (Liverpool); Neal (Liverpool), Thompson (Liverpool), Watson (Southampton), Mills (Ipswich); Coppell (Man Utd), McDermott (Liverpool), Robson (West Brom), Brooking (West Ham) [Wilkins (Man Utd)]; Mariner (Ipswich), Keegan (Southampton)
These days, clubs wouldn’t sanction England stealing them for summer matches, but back then this was commonplace. England had arranged these two fixtures in attempt to secure qualification, but things hadn’t turned out like that. This was a tense match and one that England couldn’t afford not to win. For once, England produced the goods. One of the reasons was probably down to the fact they were able to pick both Keegan and Brooking, and the difference was obvious.
18 minutes in and Brooking scored. The relief is evident. England had been much the brighter side and deserve their lead. Then right on half-time, a mistake by Clemence allows Garaba to equalise for the home side. Instead of folding, England came out determined in the second half and on the hour Brooking grabbed his 2nd goal, and what a good one it was. In a move that was typical for the time, Keegan and Brooking combined for the West Ham players shot had the ball caught in the stanchion and England were 2-1 up. England’s luck then seemed to have changed as they were awarded a rather dubious penalty when Keegan was tackled in the area. England’s captain stepped up and converted the kick.
Finally an away win and it was such an important one that now left Hungary slightly nervous about their qualification chances.
17th June 1981
Norway 1-1 Switzerland
So, after a busy June, England had got their noses in front. Hungary were still the favourites and Romania were still in a threatening position just 1pt behind England with a game in hand.
9th September 1981
Norway 2-1 England
Albertsen (36), Thoresen (41); Robson (15)
Clemence (Liverpool); Neal (Liverpool), Osman (Ipswich), Thompson (Liverpool), Mills (Ipswich); McDermott (Liverpool), Robson (West Brom), Hoddle (Tottenham) [Barnes (Leeds)]; Francis (Man City), Mariner (Ipswich) [Withe(A.Villa)], Keegan (Southampton)
England then moved onto Olso to meet Norway, knowing that victory would put pressure on Romania and Hungary to try and overhaul them. Bryan Robson opened the scoring after 15 minutes, and England seemed pretty comfortable. Then, as in Basle in June, England fell apart for a crucial time in the match and never recovered. Albertsen scored from a cross in the 35th minute and then Thoresen pounced on a mistake by McDermott and the crowd went wild.
England had played Norway 5 times in their history, up to this point, winning all of them and scoring 24 goals, conceding just 2. This was to be a famous, famous win for Norway and set up an iconic commentary that simply must be listened to.
After the elation of winning in Budapest, England seemed to have thrown it all away with this performance. They had one game left, against Hungary, and now qualification was out of their hands. Romania had 3 matches before England would play again, and 5pts would secure qualification.
23rd September 1981
Romania 0-0 Hungary
If England fans thought this qualifying was tough on the nerves, the Hungarians weren’t exactly running away with it. Although this was probably not the result England wanted. England’s goal difference was keeping them top.
10th October 1981
Romania 1-2 Switzerland
Romania must’ve thought they’d won the group when they took the lead 10 minutes into the second half. In another example of crazy periods in these matches, Switzerland did to Romania what they had done to England in June. 2 goals in 7 minutes and they’d pulled off a remarkable win. This was exactly the result England were looking for. Remarkably, 1pt separated all 5 nations.
14th October 1981
Hungary 3-0 Switzerland
Hungary probably put together their best performance of the campaign and Switzerland’s dreams of going to Spain had taken a hit, but they were certainly not out.
31st October 1981
Hungary 4-1 Norway
Hungary seemed to have suddenly decided they were going to take this competition seriously and as the group was still so close, their October victories made all the difference. Norway’s slim hopes of qualifying were now dashed, and Hungary had secured their place in Spain.
Now just the small matter of who would be there with them.
11th November 1981
Switzerland 0-0 Romania
This was the result that neither side wanted. Switzerland’s chances were now gone, but Romania now needed Hungary to win at Wembley. Back at the beginning of June, Romania went to the top of the group when they beat Norway at home. They’d only picked up 2pts from their next 3 matches and that left their hopes hanging in the balance. England, remarkably, were still in it. Suddenly, the future was now back in their hands. Draw at Wembley against Hungary, they were through and with their opponents already certain of qualifying, it seemed a simple equation. But they were playing an East European nation and the English sense of conspiracy really came to the fore.
18th November 1981
England 1-0 Hungary
Shilton (N.Forest); Neal (Liverpool), Thompson (Liverpool), Martin (West Ham), Mills (Ipswich); Coppell (Man Utd), McDermott (Liverpool) [Morley (Aston Villa)], Robson (Man Utd), Brooking (West Ham); Mariner (Ipswich), Keegan (Southampton)
Almost at capacity, Wembley witnessed a nervous night that many of us have got used to over the years. England again to count on the Keegan/Brooking partnership and, as history would prove, they were at their best when these two were both on the pitch. Fortunately, Paul Mariner put England in front after just 14 minutes. Then they held the advantage, and didn’t let go.
It had been quite a ride. Just 1 win away from home against countries they really should’ve been beating, wasn’t the best performance. Maybe if Switzerland, Romania or Norway had, had more belief in their own chances, England would’ve been sitting at home in the summer of ’82.
As it was, their assault on the World Cup began in outstanding fashion as Steve Coppell scored the fastest goal in World Cup history (but that’s for another day)
Hungary, achieved a record too. They beat El Salvador 10-1. England progressed to the Second Round, Hungary didn’t. As Germany would prove in 2002, qualification can often count for nothing.