1970 World Cup: England's Greatest Heartbreak?

Despite an excellent performance which helped to lift the nation out of the doldrums of football hooliganism and the Hillsborough disaster, Italia 90 and the semi-final defeat to West Germany on penalties is undoubtedly England’s most painful ever moment. Beyond that, however, the defeat to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final arguably holds as much heartbreak as the more recent defeat to Croatia at the 2018 World Cup.

The story goes that Sir Alf foolishly subbed off Bobby Charlton when leading 2-0, only for England to lose all structure and confidence, letting their lead slip to 2-2 and then going on to lose in extra time. At the time, supporters were quick to blame Banksy’s 'dicky tummy' as Peter Bonetti dropped a series of clangers. England, as Bobby Moore said to Pelé after the group stage defeat to Brazil, wouldn’t “see you in the final”. 

Were England truly capable of reaching the final in 1970, or did they just fall short in the León heat against a star-studded West Germany including golden boot winner Gerd Müller, legendary libero Franz Beckenbauer and Berti Vogts? And would they have beaten eventual finalists Italy in the semi-final, a side with legendary forward Gigi Riva and arguably the greatest full back of all time in Giacinto Facchetti? Would they have learned from their mistakes against Brazil in the group to beat them in the final, despite this edition of Seleção arguably being viewed as the greatest international team of all time?

Perhaps it was the arduous pre-tournament preparation and the tough group which caught up with England in the quarter final. Before the campaign had even stared there had been controversy. Captain Bobby Moore being involved in ‘jewellery gate’ after being falsely accused of robbing a bracelet in a jewellery store in their pre-tournament friendlies in Colombia. Not the ideal preparation for a side involved in the 'group of death' - fellow European outfits Romania and Czechoslovakia, the latter beating Hungary 4-1 in a playoff in neutral Marseille to get to Mexico, joining tournament favourites Brazil in one of the toughest groups in World Cup history. 

One hit wonders?

However, this didn’t give the country a sense of trepidation. On the contrary, as defending champions, the nation was enthralled by the sense of modernity of the England squad and the culture surrounding the World Cup as a whole. Such confidence was emboldened by the England squad releasing a special album in the before the tournament, entitled ‘The World Beaters sing the World Beaters’. The record covered a selection of 60s hits, most famously a cover of The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, featuring 1966 final goalscorer Martin Peters on vocals. The album also included Back Home. The success of the lead single became the inspiration for the full album after being released in April. As the official tournament song it was performed by the entire squad, with lyrics such as ‘We will meet with best like before, we’ll be put to the test, knowing we’ll give all we’ve got to give for the folks back home’ proving particularly foreboding. 

The 1970 World Cup would also be the first to be shown on colour television, an issue that would prove difficult in England’s match vs Czechoslovakia but overall adding to the exoticness and grandeur of the tournament. What better way for the Boys from Brazil to become adored by the British public than their iconic yellow and blue strips illuminated in the Mexican sun for the first time in colour. The atmosphere in England was thus similar to the latter stages of ’66 as the nation was to be swept away by World Cup fever. But the atmosphere did differ in the England squad, primarily due to the large changes in personnel from ’66 and arguably, a stronger England squad than ever before. 

Keith Newton and Leeds’ Terry Cooper became Ramsey’s two new full backs, replacing George Cohen and Ray Wilson, and though Jack Charlton still travelled, his starting spot had been taking by Everton’s Brian Labone and not Norman Hunter (who also travelled). Banks and Moore were stalwarts, and in midfield, Ramsey kept the ‘wingless wonders’ formation from ’66 (essentially a narrow 4-4-2 diamond to modern eyes). Peters, Charlton and Ball remained the same, but Alan Mullery took over from Nobby Stiles as defensive midfielder, a player with true elan alongside his ball winning duties, and even took over his number 4 shirt from him (as Labone did for Jack Charlton’s number five). 

Up front, even though Jimmy Greaves was now out of the national fold, there was an abundance of options to partner Geoff Hurst. In Francis Lee, Peter Osgood (fresh off winning the FA Cup with Chelsea, Jeff Astle (who had scored the winner in the FA Cup final 2 years earlier) and Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke- an array of talent so good that Ramsey had to leave out Martin Chivers, Tottenham’s record signing at the time. In the opener against Romania, England dominated the game. Hurst would break the deadlock in the 65th minute with a drilled finish under the goalkeeper after a clipped Alan Ball cross as England held out for a 1-0. 

Brazil vs England

The match against Brazil needs no introduction. Buoyed by their emphatic 4-1 over Czechoslovakia in their opener, Brazil continued to play with their signature verve. Bombarding England despite resilient displays from Moore, Labone and Mullery, and most famously Banksy in goal with that save (the story goes that Moore, instead of praising him, said ‘why didn’t you catch it?’, which was met by a series of expletives by Banks- not quite riposte but a great response nonetheless). Just before the break, after Mullery looped a ball out wide to the onrushing Tommy Wright, his whipped cross met an unmarked Lee 7 yards out, who could only direct his header straight at Felix. A forgotten chance, one equally as presentable as Astle’s. 

Brazil had a stonewall penalty turned down before the break, as Mullery hauled down Pelé, but nothing was given. 0-0 at half-time. Jairzinho, the only ever player to score a goal in every round of a World Cup finals, fired Brazil into the lead in the 59th minute, capitalising on a slip from left back Terry Cooper to slam the ball into the roof of the net. Ramsey was to be forced into two changes with Charlton and Lee being replaced by Colin Bell and Astle respectively. The latter would famously miss a chance from ten yards out with just the keeper to beat after a ricochet, and is often chastised for that one moment, but, apart from the pride of drawing with Brazil, drawing the game wouldn’t have done England too many more favours at the finals, as they still would’ve finished second in the group on goal difference. As for Brazil, beating the reigning champions certainly gave them the vindication of tournament favourites they were looking for.

England sealed second spot in the group with a 1-0 win over Czechoslovakia. Ramsey would’ve been satisfied with the result, given the rotated side, both forwards rested with Clarke and Astle starting, and with Jack Charlton coming in for Labone at centre back. The game is remembered for two reasons- one, Allan Clarke, the only uncapped member of the squad, scored on his debut with a coolly taken penalty, the only England player to score on his debut at a tournament. Secondly, for the one of only two times in World Cup history, England didn’t wear white or their change colour of red, instead opting for a sky-blue number, the nominated away kit for the tournament. 

However, due to the poor quality cameras of the time, along with the feint kit numbering and ferocious sun of Guadalajara, viewers back home and players alike found it difficult to distinguish between English sky blue and Czechoslovakian white, exacerbated by the same short and socks colours for each. The contrast between the shade and the heat didn’t help the issue either. It was decided that England would wear red against West Germany, not just to ease colour clash concerns but also perhaps as a nod back to the kit colours in their triumph over the same opposition in the final 4 years earlier. 

The kit clash is well illustrated here

And so, to West Germany in the quarter final in a scorching hot León, a city also 1,815m above sea level. England would undoubtedly pay the price for not beating Brazil who faced a much weaker Peru in their quarter final. The side was unchanged from Ramsey’s original preferred XI with one exception- Peter Bonetti came in goal for Gordon Banks, the latter laid low by food poisoning. Bonetti only found out the news on the coach to the ground, yet ‘was looking forward it’, to quote Mullery. 

England started the game the better side, Bobby Charlton frequently trying his luck from range before the Three Lions made the breakthrough just after the half hour mark. Mullery picked up the ball on the halfway line and played a lovely sweeping ball to the right flank for Newton, taking out 3 West German midfielders in the process. Newton, after drifting forward to the edge of the box, threaded the needle toward a packed area around the penalty spot. Meanwhile, Mullery had continued his run and darted into the penalty area, meeting the cross face-on to emphatically sweep home into the right-hand corner. England were 1-0 up and deservedly so. 

Before half time, Lee, after a driving run from the right was hauled down in the box. In fact, to quote English commentator Hugh Johns, ‘ a crafty right hook from Schnellinger’, but seemingly following the standard at the tournament no penalty was given. After half time, England doubled their advantage with another tremendous move, Hurst picking up the ball in the number 10 role, rolling it in front of Newton, who indeed was ‘blazing forward’ to quote the memorable line from Johns, who hung a ball towards the far post where Peters, advancing from the left side of the diamond, nudged the ball home into the near post despite goalkeeper Sepp Maier’s best efforts to claw it out.

From then on, the story goes that Ramsey took off Charlton and everything 'went to pot', including Bonetti’s hands. However, Beckenbauer clawed one back in the 68th minute, when Charlton was still on the pitch. Not only that, but Ramsey, perhaps cowing to public pressure to keep Charlton on for as long as possible for his maturity and experience, subbed off Charlton later than the Czechoslovakia game where England were leading, as well as the Brazil game. Beckenbauer advanced to the edge of the box to fire the ball across goal underneath the diving Bonetti. 

However, England weren’t rattled by this, and arguably played even better than the first half between the 68th minute and the leveller in the 86th. Colin Bell gave England that bit of zip going forward, a few of his efforts forcing Maier into some good saves, and a clipped ball to Hurst of which the centre forward glanced agonisingly wide of the post by an inch, quite literally. Also in that time, Bonetti made a crucial save from Muller from 5 yards out after the forward turned Newton inside out, again contrary to the common narrative. 4 minutes from time, Uwe Seeler equalised with a bizarre backwards looping header, Bonetti admittedly caught halfway between staying on his line and halfway out for the cross, exposing his relatively small height for a man between the sticks (5ft 11). 

Muller breaks English hearts

Ramsey’s team talk emulating the words of the ’66 final ([we’ve beaten them once, now go beat them again]) proved to no avail, as even though England rallied in extra time, half chances for Hurst and Labone the closest England came. England eventually wilted completely in the heat, succumbing to a Müller goal 12 minutes from time after a header back across goal was met by a marvellous acrobatic finish from Der Bomber, again with Bonetti caught in between two worlds.

And that was that. The World Champions were out, to the devastation of the country. It is said that the defeat and the following downed morale of the country contributed to Harold Wilson’s shock defeat in the 1970 general election four days later to Conservative Ted Heath- it makes sense, one unexpected defeat causing another, see this brilliant article by Frank Keating for more -The Guardian

At the time, and after the end of tournament, even after West Germany's humbling of England at Wembley in 1972, the two countries had still won the same number of international tournaments as each other (the solitary World Cup)- its staggering to see how far the gulf is now. Is that gulf due to the butterfly effect of England’s defeat in Leon? At least in part, the doldrums which the defeat put England in were one they failed to climb out of for the entirety of the 1970s- they next qualified for a major tournament in 1980 and the next World Cup was, incredibly, 12 years away.

Gordon Banks, who fell asleep after England’s second watching the game on his bedroom TV, thought the squad were pranking him on their return. He was as shocked as the nation. Bobby Charlton has maintained that the 1970 side weren’t better than the ’66 squad as they didn’t win it- but this is too harsh an assessment, and one perhaps made easier by the fact that he has a winners medal. As for Mullery, Labone, Clarke and many others, 1970 was a punishingly painful what-might-have-been. They had showed their quality in the tournament, overall dealt well in the unearthly heat, and gave the most emphatic champions ever their closest game of the tournament. Perhaps had they beaten Italy in the semi-final, they’d have learned from their group encounter to turn Brazil over and retain their crown, potentially making an even more enthralling and glorious summer than ’66 at the dawn of a new world.

That, however, is another what-if. Like Banks’s stomach, Mullery’s legs and Astle’s miss, in a long list of painful England memories over the years, there perhaps aren’t so many as haunting as the volume of them in that Mexican summer.

For a more detailed account, Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Anatomy of England’, Henry Winter’s ’50 years of hurt’ and especially Jeff Dawson’s ‘Back Home’ are thoroughly recommended

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Alfie Wilson. Alfie is a History and International Relations student at KCL - You can follow Alfie on Twitter @AlfieSWilson

©The Football History Boys, 2020

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