BY PETE SPENCER

Now that England have secured qualification for the World Cup in Brazil next summer there will obviously be the wave of expectation and discussion as to what is possible for the team to achieve and how far can they go.

This is my own personal take on this as there is really only one thing I want from the World Cup. I just want one moment of magic to take away with me. One instance we can look back on in years to come and talk about. I actually think a last eight finish for England will be a creditable achievement. Qualification was a struggle at times, but ultimately, the performances in the final two matches were some of the best we’ve witnessed since well before the last World Cup. When you consider the potential squad additions such as Ross Barkley, Ravel Morrison and hopefully a fit Jack Wilshere, there is a little more reason for optimism than some would have had you believe a month or two ago.

On the subject of the last World Cup, I have witnessed England take part in seven World Cup finals tournaments and I have to say that was unequivocally the worst. There was nothing to cheer about whatsoever. I suppose the only highlight was Steven Gerrard’s early goal against the United States but the team never kicked on from there and each game became a completely excruciating experience.

What I would really like is for England to beat a decent side in the knock-out stages. When I think back to all the international tournaments I have watched since my first in 1978, England has competed in seven out of nine World Cups (including 1978 where they were absent) and always made it past the group stage. But in just three of those seven tournaments have they won a further match afterwards. In the European Championships, it’s an even worse tale with an identical seven out of nine tournaments competed in, yet only making it past the group stage on just three occasions. Of those three occasions, England have only won one match in the knock-out stages of the European Championships when they beat Spain at Wembley during Euro ’96.

That win over Spain was against a side that had the potential to make it to the Final. In 2002, Denmark won their group and represented a tricky opponent which England swept aside fairly comfortably. These two matches are the only wins in a knock-out stage England have managed since 1982, and came against sides which they could confidently be expected to beat. England won’t be seeded for the forthcoming World Cup which means they will be drawn into a group with a potentially big nation. This then increases the chances of finishing 2nd in the table and, in theory, drawing a big team in the knock-out stages. This is where I hope to find my ‘moment’.

I believe every country goes into a World Cup looking for their ‘moment’. One moment of magic, a goal, a performance, even a victory where you can look back in years to come be proud of your country. Here are some of the ‘moments’ I have enjoyed down the years. 

1982 – Spain

England took their bow on day three of the tournament, against France in Bilbao. The match kicked off at 4.15pm, and it usually took me 15 minutes to get home from school. I got back two minutes into the game and England were already a goal up. England’s preparations for the tournament had been thrown into disarray when both Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking were injured for the opening game. During qualification they had played some of their best football when both were on the pitch, but now had to navigate the group stage without either of them. Right from the kick-off, Trevor Francis knocked the ball back to Ray Wilkins in the centre circle and he waited for Steve Coppell to burst forward down the right, he played the ball ahead of him but Coppell was denied room to cross by Maxime Bossis, who knocked the ball out for a throw. This was clearly something England had been working on in training as Terry Butcher came up from the back to take his place on the near post. Coppell took the throw and Butcher flicked it on as the French defence were more concerned with defending the throw than marking anyone. Butcher’s flick was the cue for Bryan Robson to arrive, unmarked, in the six yard box and he knocked the ball past Ettori for a stunning start. 27 seconds were on the watch when the ball went in to break the record for the fastest goal in World Cup history.

England went onto win the game 3-1 against a French team consisting of Platini, Giresse, Tigana and many who would go onto to lift the European Championship just two years later. That was really as good as it got for England during that World Cup, though they were never beaten, they always lacked the firepower which could’ve seen them reach the semi-finals. But they had achieved something to be remembered for many years to come with Robson’s record-breaking goal.

1986 – Mexico

This World Cup started disastrously for England and after defeat to Portugal and a miserable goalless draw with Morocco they faced a ‘must-win’ match with Poland where once again, a draw would not be enough. With Robson injured and Wilkins suspended, Bobby Robson was forced into changes and he also realised Peter Beardsley was a much better partner for Gary Lineker than Mark Hateley. During an age when hyperbole was an unknown quantity, this was definitely a massive game for England. Nine minutes in and Hoddle played a long ball forward from near his own area to find Lineker on the halfway line. He nodded the ball square to Beardsley who then played it back to Lineker and England were away. As Lineker surged towards the Polish area he then looked to his right and found Trevor Steven on the edge of the ‘D’. This was the cue for right-back Gary Stevens to join the attack and he played the ball into the six-yard area where Lineker had carried on his run, anticipating a pass, and the Everton striker knocked the ball into the roof of the net and England had an ideal start. 189 minutes into the World Cup and England had finally found the net. Five minutes later and England built from the back as Kenny Sansom played a ball forward to where Beardsley came deep, and his brilliant first time pass sent Hodge away on his own down the left wing. Hodge played a dangerous cross into the six-yard box and again, there was Lineker to get to it first and as it hit the back of the net the roar from the England fans at home must’ve matched those in the stadium. These were two goals which came to sum-up Lineker as he challenged his colleagues simply to put the ball into the right areas and he’d do the rest. His commitment and anticipation were what made him stand out as one of England’s finest goalscorers.

England now found themselves two goals to the good and daring to think the unthinkable. Twenty minutes later and England had a corner on the left which Steven floated into the six-yard box where Mlynarczyk, the Polish keeper, misjudged the flight and missed the ball. It landed for Lineker, who controlled the ball off his chest and hit it left-footed on the half-volley again into the roof of the net. 35 minutes into the game, Lineker had a hat-trick, England were 3-0 up and now their passage into the next round was assured. It was a terrific return to form and suddenly there was optimism around the country. Another comfortable win in the Second Round against Paraguay lead to a battle with Argentina for a place in the last four. We all know what happened next as both the ‘sinner and saint’ facets of Diego Maradona’s personality were on show, denying England further progress.

But we had that near-perfect first 35 minutes from England and Lineker to hold dear for many a year.

1990 – Italy

Much of the football in the early stages from England mirrored much of the football from the rest of sides as the 1990 contained some of the worst football ever witnessed on the international stage. But England unearthed a real gem. Paul Gascoigne was the rising star of English football and manager Bobby Robson was under increasing pressure to let him loose in the full side. Robson had given Gascoigne his first cap as a substitute against Denmark in September 1988. By the time of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Gascoigne had appeared 11 times for his country, scoring twice, and started in each of the four games leading up to the competition. He was the most exciting young talent seen in this country for a while. The football may have been poor but Gascoigne was easily the shining star and ended up one of the most talked about footballers to emerge from a World Cup. Think back to Pele in 1958, Maradona in 1982 and now England had one of their own. Gascoigne could infuriate managers as he would often play the game as he saw it rather than the way they wanted, but fans loved him. Of the three main types of midfield player, the tackler, the passer and the runner, Gascoigne was at his most exciting with the ball at his feet, dribbling past players and creating space and chances for others. There were times when the chances he created were simply too good for the players he played with.

During the early group games against Republic of Ireland and Netherlands, we were privileged to bear witness to some of his precocious talent and two particular moves stood out as typical of the player. In the first half, unmarked he picks up the ball in the centre-circle and immediately makes his way forward towards the Dutch goal. Ronald Koeman was first to challenge and he skips past him with ease. Richard Witschge appears from his right but Gascoigne puts his arm up and then when the Dutchman tries to push him off the ball, he just bounces off in the opposite direction, all the time retaining possession. This takes him past Adrie van Tiggelen who, like Koeman, goes to ground, but Gascoigne’s progress is finally halted by Frank Rijkaard. It was similar to a run he attempted against the Irish which ended in a stern challenge as if to emphasise the only way to stop this kid was to resort to strong-arm tactics.

In the second half, Gascoigne ran into the Dutch penalty area and received the ball wide on the right. Koeman again went to challenge him and seemed to have curtailed his progress as help came in the shape of van Tiggelen. Gascoigne seemed to be trapped down near the bye-line but he suddenly produced a beautiful bit of skill with his right heel to knock the ball behind his left foot, turn and leave the two Dutch defenders floundering in a move to rival the legendary “Cruyff-turn”. As if that wasn’t enough, his ball in was somehow missed by Lineker at the far post, denying Gascoigne eternal World Cup glory having played an integral part in a crucial goal. In the next game against Egypt, he again beat several players as he toyed with them moving the ball from left foot to right whilst keeping perfect balance. At one point he was able to showcase his ‘turn’ again in a tight space to take out three Egyptian defenders. It was Gascoigne who produced the free-kick into the area which Mark Wright climbed to head England’s only goal of the game.

Gascoigne was more than just a brilliant player. He was a big personality, as nutty as a fruitcake, as daft as a brush and capable of almost anything. In the second round against Belgium as penalties seemed inevitable, Gascoigne was given the ball midway into his own half. He feinted to play a pass with his right foot, turning onto his left to take out one player and then he was away and clear. As he was challenged from his left, he invited the tackle which lead to a free-kick. As if he’d planned the whole move, Gascoigne took the kick himself and floated the ball into the area where David Platt’s volley won the game. In the quarter-final against Cameroon, England were 1-2 down coming into the final five minutes when Gascoigne again took it upon himself to change things. Once again running from midfield he waited for Lineker to make his run and found him with a superb through ball and Lineker was able to tempt the keeper into a challenge which ultimately lead to the penalty Lineker equalised with.

Gascoigne was prompting praise from all areas and not just that of the English. Franz Beckenbauer claimed he would sign him if he was president of a club and Gascoigne almost won the semi-final against West Germany, which he was ultimately remembered for his tears once realising a yellow card denied his availability for the final. As it was, England’s failure during the shootout rendered this an irrelevance but he had melted everyone’s hearts. His World Cup performance resulted in a big money move to Lazio the following summer, but the next two England managers would make sure this was his one and only World Cup.

1998 – France

If Gascoigne was the young star of Italia ’90 then Michael Owen was undoubtedly his equivalent in France ’98. England manager, Glenn Hoddle, appeared reluctant to give the 18-year-old his head too soon. Given a starting place against Chile and Switzerland in early 1998, he scored his first goal coming on as a substitute against Morocco in May to become England’s youngest ever goalscorer. He was on the bench for the opening game against Tunisia but within seven minutes of his replacement of Teddy Sheringham against Romania, he had equalised. This earned him a starting place in the next match against Colombia which England won, but it was his performance in the second round match against Argentina which had everyone talking. Had England managed to hold onto a draw against Romania they would’ve met Croatia in the second round, but as it was, they were up against their arch rivals Argentina in a classic encounter which was possibly the game of the tournament. Both teams had traded penalties in the opening 10 minutes as the game began at a frantic pace. The move began as Paul Ince dispossessed Claudio Lopez just outside England’s area and immediately fed it forward to David Beckham. Beckham looked up and found Owen in space in the centre-circle, and clipped the ball to him. Owen’s first touch took the ball just beyond the nearest Argentine challenge and he was away. The defender, Jose-Antonio Chamot, managed to stay with the pace of Owen but didn’t count on the youngster’s determination to hold him off. As Owen moved towards the area, Roberto Ayala, positioned in the ‘D’, was ready to pounce but Owen’s pace was too hot as he dropped his left shoulder, moved to his right to allow himself space for a shot. Owen was now 15 yards out and finished beautifully into the top left-hand corner of the Argentine net for a truly memorable goal. England now lead 2-1 and their teenage sensation had announced himself on the world stage.

My abiding memory of that moment is from Brian Moore’s commentary. Moore, an ITV commentator of considerable repute, had been commentating on football since I can remember and had seen players of the like of Greaves, Best, Charlton, Dalglish, Keegan, Rush and Brooking and yet, here he was virtually in raptures at the breathtaking run by a completely unflappable and innocent kid who seemed unconcerned at the glare he was under from the whole planet.

“Beckham now to Owen, and here’s another Owen run and he’s gonna worry them again. It’s a great run from Michael Owen and he might finish it off …..ohhhhh what a wonderful goal from Michael Owen”.

My second favourite memory of that goal is the reaction amongst the England subs, particularly Paul Merson, who cannot believe what they’ve just seen. Ultimately the game was to end in disappointment with a sending off for Beckham and the customary failure in the dreaded penalty shootout, but at least we had Michael Owen to cling onto.

2002 – Japan and South Korea

England embarked on their first World Cup under a non-English manager as Sven-Goran Eriksson led them to Japan and South Korea. England had taken a first half lead in their opening game against Sweden only to end up with a point. This then lead to the big clash against Argentina. The two had only met once since the St. Etienne game, in a friendly in 2000, and this game was billed as a heavyweight clash. Argentina had won their opening match against Nigeria and knew another win would guarantee progress to the knockout stage. Ever since the draw was made the previous November, the game was set-up as a Beckham vs. Simeone clash. Diego Simeone was public enemy No. 1 amongst many England fans for what they saw as his goading of Beckham to get the Manchester United player sent off in France four years previously. It was also another chance for the Argentine defence to get to grips with Michael Owen, and the Liverpool forward made his presence felt early on as his strong run had the defence back-peddling but his shot hit the post and was cleared.

As half-time approached England attacked down the left and the ball eventually found Owen just inside the area. He took on Mauricio Pochettino, who stuck out his left leg and down went Owen for a penalty kick. Cue David Beckham. Interestingly enough, Simeone tried to put him off by walking in front of him and wishing him well as he was waiting to take the kick. England held its breath as Beckham stepped up and fired the ball straight down the middle and England were in front. Beckham had endured some of the most fearful abuse and criticism after France ’98 as some sought to blame England’s defeat purely on his petulance. Being David Beckham meant there are some who still haven’t forgiven him, but to get a spot-kick against Argentina where it seemed to be him against, not only the Argentine nation but also his own, he proved he was big enough to carry the weight of expectation and England had pulled off a famous win.

Once qualified, England treated the nation to another performance similar to the Poland game in Mexico ’86 with an almost perfect first half against Denmark. Four minutes into the game, Martin Laursen had mis-directed a header out for a corner, which Beckham floated to the far post. Goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, then of Sunderland, misjudged the flight and Rio Ferdinand, one of the players of the tournament, rose highest at the back post to head the ball back to the keeper who juggled with it and his backward momentum took the ball back over the line. After 22 minutes England attacked with real purpose again as Nicky Butt found Trevor Sinclair wide on the left. He cut inside and played the ball along the ground into the area where Butt knocked it forward and suddenly Owen found himself free and his left foot shot wrong-footed the keeper and England were two goals to the good. Half-time beckoned as England had a throw in on the right which Danny Mills took and another poor Danish header allowed Beckham to play it inside for Emile Heskey, just inside the ‘D’. Heskey, with little backlift, jabbed the ball from side on and his shot contained enough power to surprise Sorensen and England were 3-0 up.

It was champagne football reminiscent of the fare they had served up against Germany in the qualifiers and many were pinching themselves to believe England could go all the way. As it was Brazil were just too streetwise in the quarter-finals and England progressed no further, but at least we had revenge against Argentina and the Danish demolition to savour.

2006 – Germany

England had qualified for the World Cup in Germany by virtue of beating Poland in their final qualifying game to top their group. Still under the tutelage of Eriksson, they beat Paraguay, then Trinidad and Tobago before they met Sweden. Sweden were somewhat of a bogey side for England as it was 38 years and 11 encounters since they had last beaten them. With Sweden failing to beat Trinidad and Tobago, they knew a draw would be the minimum they’d need. England’s form in the opening two matches had been patchy and disjointed despite two wins and no goals conceded. England were dealt an early blow when Michael Owen crawled off the pitch in the opening minutes after damaging a knee attempting a five yard pass.

Thirty five minutes in and no goals, which suited both teams, but then as England attacked down the right Beckham crossed to the far post where the gangly Peter Crouch headed the ball back across the goal. Tobias Linderoth had tracked Frank Lampard back and beat the Chelsea man to the ball and Sweden seemed to have dealt with the danger comfortably. But the ball was headed out to Joe Cole who was standing about 35 yards out from the goal, completely on his own. The ball came to him and he controlled it on his chest, as the whole Swedish defence launched their own version of the charge of the light brigade towards him. Cole’s chest control allowed the ball to bob up and slightly to his right and he met it sweetly on the volley and cut across it to give the ball enough fade, which meant it hit the inside of the upright and went in. Isaksson in the Swedish goal had plenty of time to see it but was helpless to reach it and England had the lead and one of the goals of the tournament.

As a 20-year old, Joe Cole had been selected for the previous World Cup but played no part. As a child prodigy, much was expected of him yet we were still waiting for him to reach his true potential despite a move to Chelsea. Was this his coming of age? Few of us cared at the time as he’d scored the sort of goal that if he’d been wearing a Brazilian shirt, would’ve been shown repeatedly on television throughout the world. Sweden equalised, but then Cole was again the instigator as he provided the cross for Steven Gerrard to head in at the far post and he looked to have won the game with just five minutes to go. But just as with Romania in 1998 or Sweden in 2002, England were unable to see the game out and Henrik Larsson’s last minute goal denied them a perfect record from the group matches. After seeing off Ecuador in the second round, England again faltered at the penalty shootout hurdle against Portugal in the quarter-finals as a match-up with either France or Brazil beckoned.

Ultimately, we were left with that sense of what might have been but at least we had Cole’s goal to remember.


2010 – South Africa

As I said earlier there was nothing about this tournament to hold onto. Steven Gerrard gave England an early lead in their first match against USA with a good move and it looked like we were on our way, but that was as good as it got. It comes to something when, for some people, the abiding memory is of a disallowed goal as Frank Lampard’s perfectly valid ‘equaliser’ against Germany was not given.

2014 – Brazil?

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As I mentioned earlier I am under no illusion that we can win the competition, we simply do not possess enough match-winning players, but we can compete enough to make the last eight and I would just like one of those moments of magic to take away with me. And maybe it will come from one of England’s bright new talents like Barkley or Wilshere. Here’s hoping.

England’s World Cup Record Since 1978

1978 – Did not qualify
1982 – Won their group. Second phase was another group stage with two other teams. Two goalless draws against Germany and Spain saw England eliminated.
1986 – Finished second in their group. Beat Paraguay 3-0 in the Second Round and then lost 1-2 to Argentina in the Quarter-Finals.
1990 – Won their group. Beat Belgium, 1-0, in the Second Round and Cameroon, 3-2, in the Quarter-Finals, but lost to Germany on penalties in the Semi-Finals.
1994 – Did not qualify
1998 – Finished second in their group. Lost to Argentina in the Second Round on penalties
2002 – Finished second in their group. Beat Denmark, 3-0, in the Second Round but lost 1-2 to Brazil in the Quarter-Finals.
2006 – Won their group. Beat Ecuador, 1-0, in the Second Round and then lost on penalties to Portugal.
2010 – Finished second in their group. Beaten 1-4 by Germany in the Second Round.

YOU CAN FOLLOW PETE ON TWITTER – @irishpete67

YOU CAN VIEW PETE’S BLOG HERE http://franklymrspencer.blogspot.co.uk/

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