The Nearly Men: England’s 1982 World Cup

Most people think that the closest England has come to winning the World Cup since 1966 was 1990. It’s obvious, surely – we lost only in the semi-final, and then on penalties. Think back to Chris Waddle’s vicious screamer just going the wrong side of the bar, and he looking at once so tall and yet so crushed as he walked back to his team mates. 1990, then, is the closest we’ve come. Right? Wrong.

Not 1990. There are footballing and psychological reasons to count that team out. In footballing terms, only truly outrageous luck brought England to the semi-final at all. We played badly in every game except for that match with West Germany. Against Belgium, we were unable to escape our own half so comprehensively outclassed were we, and had Cameroon kept their discipline, they too would have seen us off. Most predictions for the scoreline in that semi-final were in the order of 4-0 to the Germans, and reasonably so.

There were very talented players in the 1990 team – Lineker, Beardsley, Gascoigne, Walker, Waddle and Barnes would all make the current squad. But there was no sense of development since 1986, and the team went out to the 1990 tournament more in hope than in expectation. And it just wasn’t a time to win. Pete Davies chose the title of his book well. All Played Out sums up more than just football.
I think that they were lucky men, not nearly men. No, my nearly men come from the generation immediately before that one. Stand forward Ron Greenwood’s England, the undefeated team of 1982. Here’s how they lined up.

Look at the dates of birth! Mills, Shilton, Corrigan and Clemence all 1940s children. The baby of the squad, if you could ever imagine him in that role, was Terry Butcher, born in December 1958, and therefore 23 at the time of the tournament. This was a mature squad, but a seriously capable one. Imagine having to choose your goalkeeper from Shilton, Clemence and Corrigan. What about midfield? Bryan Robson is there, and so is Steve Coppell, a man who had he not had to retire at 27 through injury would have been considered one of England’s greatest ever players. Glenn Hoddle is there. So is Ray Wilkins.

So are Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking, but I’m going to return to them in a moment.

In charge of this tough, experienced but cultured squad is Ron Greenwood, a manager who shares with Erickson a media image that was far from the truth about him. It’s little known that, in the early 1960s, Greenwood was seen as one of the most creative and capable coaches in world football – and that he came close to getting the England job that went to Alf Ramsey. While Ramsey took England to the World Cup in 1966, and then went on to build the greatest England side to go to a tournament in 1970 (there have been greater England sides than that one – but not in tournament years – look at the 1961 England team, or the 46-48 era, or the side Revie could have chosen to pick in 1975 to see what I mean) Greenwood was building a team at little West Ham that would win both FA Cup and European Cup Winner’s Cup, huge and wholly under-rated achievements. Moore, Peters and Hurst were proteges.

Greenwood was in semi-retirement when the England call came. His appointment, rumours say, was in part intended merely to cheer up this depressed, sensitive man, and to reward his long service at the FA. Some way to cheer up a man – and some way to reward him. If England managers had any sense, they’d be dragged onto the throne struggling for all they’re worth.

It’s said that he shouldn’t have got the job, that Clough was the man. And Clough was the great manager. But the trouble with the England job is that there is always some genius coach ready to ride to the rescue if only the FA would see the light (I’m borrowing Bobby Robson’s choice of words here)..

And qualifying for 1982 was famously shambolic. We weren’t supposed to lose to Norway back then. With hindsight, that game was the first sign that Norway were producing some very good players, that Scandinavian football as a whole was on the rise. After all, 1982 was the year a Swedish side won the UEFA Cup. Coached by a certain Sven Goran Erickson..

But qualify we did, and after the failures to do so in 1974 and 1978, anyone who was around at the time will remember the sheer determination and drive that went with the team to Spain.

It had to – because we had tough opponents. Starting with France. This was the first great French side since the War – the team of Platini, Giresse, Bossi, Six, and Tigana. They’d win the 1984 European Championship, and their remnants would finish third in the 1986 World Cup. In 1982, they were disgracefully beaten by West Germany (in their eventual semi-final) and hampered further by some quite incredible refereeing. Against such stardust England fielded:

Shilton, Mills, Sansom, Thompson, Butcher, Robson, Coppell, Francis, Mariner, Rix, Wilkins (Phil Neal came on for Sanson in the 90th minute).

Note: players in that squad make up nearly half of the top ten most capped England internationals.

What do you think happened? Well, England won 3-1, taking the lead after 27 seconds.

The team followed up this wonderful start with a 2-0 victory over Czechoslovakia, keeping the same side but replacing Robson with Hoddle after 46 minutes. That win meant qualification. and a relatively leisurely 1-0 win over minnows Kuwait secured the top spot. It was a first round to be proud of.

But these were, as I have said, nearly men. And, nearliest of all, were Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking. Both men had played decisive roles in the qualifying tournament, but both came into the Finals themselves with injuries. You may already have noticed their absence from the first round sides.

Both were hard to replace, and it speaks volumes for the likes of Graham Rix and Paul Mariner that they had successfully stepped up. For all their efforts, however, this was not an ideal scenario.

Keegan was perhaps just at the end of his peak in 1982. He’d been England’s best player for most of the previous decade, but his international career was held back by the team’s dramatic post-’73 loss of confidence. Keegan was a charisma player, the England captain, and filled that role in a way that hasn’t been matched since. The incredible enthusiasm that radiated off him masked an inner brittleness, a need for outside approval, but all that made him justifiably feared as an opponent.

Brooking was and is steadier in temperament. As a player, the “gentleman” tag masked the skill that only Hoddle in the 1982 squad exceeded, skill that was matched by an unusual sensitivity to the idea of “team” and fitting with the players around him. It was a Brooking goal that got England to Spain, in the end. Not coincidentally, Brooking was one of the last of Greenwood’s original West Ham team (Martin Peters was still playing for Norwich City in the First Division as late as 1980) and his absence through injury removed from England a crucial slice of Greenwood that would prove fatal in the Second Round of the World Cup.

Never in a position to take it easy, England were up against Germany and Spain in a round-robin group whose winners would take part in the semi-final. In their first-round success, it was significant that four of the team are among England’s ten most capped players. The statistic that mattered in the Second Round is that none of the team are among England’s top ten goalscorers. Indeed, only two – Robson and the injured Keegan – are in the top twenty.

England scintillated against West Germany, with another unchanged side. On particularly good form that day was Steve Coppell, putting on perhaps his best ever performance in his shortened England career. Anyone who saw the match in person or on television will still have clear mental images of him outpacing the German defence time and again, panicking with accurate crosses. West Germany dug in, but could consider 0-0 a lucky escape. Not since 1975 and Alan Hudson’s epic had we so bullied our dearest rivals.

Unfortunately, with three teams in the group, it was impossible for matches to be played simultaneously. West Germany’s 2-1 win over Spain meant therefore that England had a target. Beat Spain by at least two goals, or go home. So, a 2-0 win or better, against the hosts, in Madrid, in the Bernebeu Stadium.
In the 64th minute, with the match goalless, Rix and Woodcock were withdrawn, and England’s nearliest men, Keegan and Brooking, finally stepped onto the pitch at the World Cup Finals.

Neither were properly fit. But it was the right move for Greenwood to make, and how agonisingly close it came to coming off. Keegan missed a header he would surely normally have buried; Brooking too failed with a chance that the fit man would have taken without thinking. England dominated the match, yet again – as they had in every game of their World Cup.

0-0. Five matches, four of them against serious opposition. No defeats. One goal conceded, six scored. All this from a side that was missing its two most influential players until the last thirty minutes of their tournament, the two players who, had they been fit, would have seen England through to the semi-final against a French team they’d already comprehensively beaten.

The Nearly Men? I think so.

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