England bugbears

England Bugbears World Cup Maradona

This week I have been thinking about some football bugbears. The little things in football that annoy me and leave me gnashing my teeth. Some of these are unique to the modern game, such as the ridiculous price of tickets, half-and-half scarves, selfies in football grounds, and VAR.

Other gripes, though, are more deep set and relate to events and situations in the past. These concern happenings which have taken on a life of their own and have passed into folklore, thus becoming urban legends almost.

Age-old myths

Some time ago I wrote an article on the subject stating some examples of these myths that particularly annoy me. Included were: Brian Clough being ‘the people’s choice’ to manage England, Vinnie Jones ‘sorting out’ Steve McMahon at Wembley ‘88’,  Fergie knocking Liverpool off their perch, and Terry Venables’ time in charge of England being considered a success.

As a somewhat belated follow-on, I will focus on further England-related annoyances in this article.

Maradona is the enemy of the game

Getting straight to the point, this national obsession with degenerating Diego Maradona for his handball against England some 33 years ago now is embarrassing. Take a sample of the football-following British population, and it’s a safe bet that the majority will happily label Maradona a cheat.

Buy an iconic Diego Maradona poster
Buy an iconic Diego Maradona poster

Take Terry Butcher for example.

No shrinking violet himself on the field, and certainly never one to shy away from a tackle or indeed any kind of challenge, and yet get him started on the topic of Maradona and that day in Mexico, more than three decades in the past, and the man fairly turns an apoplectic puce.

Why is this? Yes, Maradona cheated, but no more or less than the majority of players have or would have done given the chance. Did Butcher never deliberately foul an opponent? Did Butcher never try to hoodwink a referee into making a decision or changing his mind regarding one?

Perhaps if Butcher and his mates had concentrated on doing their jobs and actually getting a tackle in, then Maradona would never have scored his second goal that day and England may have progressed to the semi-finals thus making all of this harping on both academic and redundant.

Yet it continues. We still hear the same voices claiming England were cheated out of the World Cup in 1986. The truth is somewhat different, though, as England were never really in the game until the last twenty minutes when Bobby Robson belatedly introduced John Barnes into the fray and his pace almost saved the game for England.

The only actions of note prior to Maradona’s first goal were the number of times those bastions of fair play and integrity in the England team kicked Maradona on a rotation basis.

Perhaps the distaste for Maradona comes simply from the fact that he failed to admit the handball after the game, and described the goal as being scored ‘from the head of Diego and the hand of God’.

England: the last bastions of fair play?

However, this whole notion of fair play where the England team is concerned is a bit tenuous in the first place. Let’s go back to 1966 and the World Cup on home soil. The quarter-final clash against Argentina was one of the most controversial matches of all-time, and yet folklore has it that it was the Argentinians who were mostly at fault in a bruising match.

Indeed, England manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, went as far as to label the South Americans ‘animals’ after the match. However, England actually committed more fouls in that match, and England’s winning goal – the only goal of the game – looked distinctly offside.

In a previous match in the tournament, the sweetness and light that was Nobby Stiles caused dismay with a truly shocking challenge on France’s playmaker, Jacques Simon, that put him out of the game. Although the referee took no action at the time, there were those who subsequently called for Stiles to be dropped from the side for such an open display of thuggery.

Also on track in the 1966 World Cup was Jack Charlton’s deliberate handball in the semi-final victory of Portugal. With Gordon Banks beaten by a Eusebio header, Charlton had no compunction about flinging himself along the goal line to punch the ball away. Although Eusebio subsequently scored the resulting penalty and England held on to prevail by a 2-1 scoreline, Charlton wasn’t even booked for his piece of blatant cheating.

So, in summary, the hypocritical English notion of ‘fair play’ combined with the incessant whining in some quarters over Maradona’s felony of ’86 does not compute.

1970: the (second) best team in the world

Four years after England’s World Cup success they headed out to Mexico as second-favourites behind Brazil to lift the trophy. It was widely considered that England’s 1970 side was as good if not better than the ’66 vintage, and a lot of neutral observers had England down to meet Brazil in the final.

The actuality was England really had a pretty dismal tournament with single goal victories over Romania and Czechoslovakia the only spoils to show. A group match defeat to the fancied Brazil, also by a single goal, meant England qualified for the quarter-finals in second place in the group.

An awful 3-2 defeat after extra-time at the hands of West Germany put paid to any hopes of retaining the trophy, and yet to this day we are told how good that particular England side was when the facts appear to suggest otherwise.

In my opinion, Sir Alf gets rather a favourable ride when it comes to his legacy relating to this tournament. Often the defeat to the Germans is laid at the feet (or hands) of stand-in goalkeeper, Peter Bonetti, who was arguably at least partially responsible for two of the three goals conceded that day. However, two wins from four matches cannot be considered a success nor the sign of a particularly good side.

That 1970’s quarter-final appearance was the best performance in a World Cup on foreign soil until 1990 and should not be forgotten. The fact that England returned from Italia ’90 to a heroes’ welcome following an agonising semi-final penalty shoot-out loss to West Germany created another myth that has perpetuated ever since: namely that England were a good side in 1990.

They weren’t. They really weren’t.

1990: a team of heroes?

In seven games, England managed the grand total of one victory within the originally allocated 90 minutes, and that was a 1-0 group stage victory over those masters of world football, Egypt.

England were placed in Group F alongside the Republic of Ireland and Holland as well as the Egyptians, and six of the most mind and arse-numbing games of football then followed. The only victory of the entire group was the aforementioned match decided by a Mark Wright header, and just seven goals were scored in total throughout.

My goodness, it was a hard group to watch!

Anyway, England’s solitary victory combined with draws against the Irish and the Dutch saw them top the group and into a last 16 clash with Belgium. A sprightly opening 20 minutes or so gave rise to the hopes that England had turned the corner, but this optimism was to be misplaced as the next 99 minutes reverted to type.

With the last seconds of extra-time ticking by, a piece of magic set up by Paul Gascoigne and executed by David Platt allowed England to snatch a barely-deserved spot in the quarter-finals.

Cameroon awaited, and to say they were underestimated is an overestimation (see what I did there?). In fact, Bobby Robson had had the Cameroonians watched by Howard Wilkinson in advance and Wilkinson had reported back that England had ‘nothing to fear’ and had practically ‘been granted a bye to the semi-finals’.

With 82 minutes played, the scoreboard at the Stadio San Paola read: Cameroon 2 England 1.

Some bye, then.

Largely outplayed, and certainly out-fought, England were on the brink of elimination and, pretty much, humiliation. Then with less than 10 minutes to go Gary Lineker was brought down in the box, and keeping his nerve he gave England a lifeline they barely deserved.

Another Lineker penalty in extra-time secured England a somewhat fortuitous 3-2 victory and a date with destiny with the Germans once more.

Rising to the occasion in Turin, England put in their one world-class performance of the tournament and went toe-to-toe with West Germany before famously falling short on penalties for the first time.

Incidentally, Peter Shilton faced six penalties at Italia ’90 and failed to get anywhere near saving any. His preferred technique when facing penalties was to not gamble by deciding where to dive before the kick was taken, but instead to wait until the kick had been taken and then hope that his reflexes kicked in and he was able to make the save.

Some people (me for one) always felt he refused to take a gamble because he didn’t want to risk the ‘humiliation’ of being seen to dive the wrong way.

The third-place play-off game was lost 2-1 to hosts Italy, and so it was back to Luton Airport and a drive through streets thronged with a quarter of a million people.

So, there we have it.

Accepted wisdom states that Maradona was a cheat; England are and always have been a pure as the driven snow (or at least as white as the shirts they don); England had the second best team in the world in 1970, and, finally, the 1990 vintage was a fantastic team.

All nonsense, of course. Or is it?