REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN - @paulmcparlan
Why would anybody be attracted to the concept of writing a history of England’s fraught World Cup campaigns? As a country, we have only appeared in as many World Cup semi-finals as Sweden and in less finals than Czechoslovakia – a country that no longer exists. Whilst football writers in Brazil and Germany have several successful tournaments to regale to an eager public, we have the solitary win in 1966 to celebrate that nobody under the age of sixty can actually remember. Fortunately, author Gary Thacker can recall that game and in this excellent account reminds us of the trials, tribulations and occasional moments of joy that supporting the national team can bring.
Thacker himself is a football writer with a growing reputation. His first book – “I Don’t Even Smoke” describing his experience as a Chelsea supporter was well received and he is a regular contributor to several of the more cerebral genre of football magazines such as The Football Pink and These Football Times. His writing style has won him many plaudits.
His latest offering is a real labour of love, coming in at just under five hundred pages as he recalls all of England’s World Cup campaigns since we made our first appearance in the tournament in 1950. Some footballing histories are often an excuse for an info-dump; fortunately, this is not one of them. From the opening pages, the author draws the reader in and maintains your attention.
The book not unsurprisingly starts off with the 1966 World Cup which the author recollects from personal experience. Yet, it is the back stories that the author brings to the surface, such as the Argentinian boxer Horacio Accavallo pulling out of a proposed fight with Walter McGowan in protest at England’s victory over Argentina that engage the most. Thacker has several neat turns of phrase that prevent this from being another dry footballing history.
After the final, it is a case of back to the future as the author reviews the 1950 World Cup competition, England’s first, and then leads us through every tournament ending in Brazil 2014. However, what gives the book an extra dimension is the fact that it is not just the World Cup itself that is covered but every single game that leads up to each final. Accordingly, the four years that intersperse each tournament are dedicated to analysing England’s progress through the qualifying groups for both the European Championships and the World Cup. In addition, the author assesses the friendly games between competitive matches and the various summer tours, that most would have consigned into their collective unconscious, yet still had an impact on the eventual team selection for the finals stages as the likes of David Platt, amongst others caught the manager’s attention in such fixtures.
A number of themes appear consistently across England’s football history. The ineptitude of the leadership of the Football Association is a constant factor. Sir Alf Ramsey was removed from office in the shabbiest of manners; Bobby Robson was effectively told that he would be sacked unless England won the World Cup in 1990 and despite being one of the country’s most successful managers in our World Cup history, Sven Goran Eriksson was precipitously dispensed with after becoming the victim of a tabloid sting. When everyone in the country wanted Brian Clough as manager, the F. A. gave us Ron Greenwood and when we all expected Harry Redknapp to be appointed, we got Roy Hodgson. As Terry Venables was to find out, being viewed as a “cockney wide boy” was never going to convince the suits at the Football Association. A few good results were enough to panic the same people into extending Fabio Capello’s contract by two years, despite the fact that his linguistic command of English would have struggled to obtain a G grade at GCSE. One can only admire the much-maligned Don Revie for his intuition in seeing that his days were numbered and swiftly departing to coach the United Arab Emirates with the added incentive of a massive pay increase.
The increasingly insidious influence of the tabloid hacks is considered here. Even now, the appalling character assassination of both Bobby Robson and the even more unfortunate Graham Taylor via the back pages still makes you cringe. Thoroughly decent men hounded and persecuted for simply trying to do their best. Glenn Hoddle made the error of voicing some personal religious opinions which led to a tabloid storm. This concluded with the F. A., now apparently an arbiter of religious morality, deciding his beliefs were not compatible with the role of England manager. Both Sven Goran Eriksson and Sam Allardyce were also putty in the hands of the press, falling victim to Sixth Form type scams that any normal person would have seen coming. Still, regardless of how good a manager you are, if the tabloids have it in for you, you can rely on the Football Association to back them, not the national coach.
The intense level of meticulous research undertaken by Thacker is impressive. He has sat down to watch countless hours of obscure England encounters on YouTube and spent days locked away researching reports of matches that most of us have long forgotten. However, if you want to know when Micah Richards made his England debut or who was the first England player to receive a yellow card at a World Cup, this tome is here to provide the definitive answer. If the name of Benny Ulloa means little to you, he was the linesman who failed to flag Maradona’s handball in 1986, thus convincing the Tunisian referee to award the goal. In a brilliant piece of research, the author has uncovered the fact that Senor Ulloa wrote to the referee for three more years saying “There was only the hand Of Shilton” until the overwhelming weight of evidence to the contrary ensured that he had to take responsibility for his misjudgement.
Reading the book is almost like reliving your life again as you start to recall where you watched each particular competition and the inevitable sense of disappointment you felt as a series of defensive calamities, injuries to key players and outrageous refereeing decisions conspired to halt the nation’s progress. Yet, the author is able to offer a thoughtful and reflective perspective on these events so that in most cases you are able to stoically accept England’s fate.
The book also delves into the realms of politics; does it really hold true that Harold Wilson’s Labour Government lost the 1970 election due to the nation suffering intolerably from England’s calamitous defeat against West Germany and deciding Wilson was personally to blame? For the conspiracy theorists amongst us, it is worth noting that no subsequent General Election has been held immediately after an England World Cup exit.
There are so many snippets that occur at regular intervals to engage readers. In the 1954 World Cup, no drawn games were allowed so any encounter that was tied was required to have an extra thirty-minutes to resolve the outcome. In 1962, Argentina became the only country ever to fail to progress from the group stage on goal average. Even better, England were the beneficiaries by 0.66 of a goal. In 1974, Scotland became the first country to similarly lose out on goal difference!
So many players have worn the Three Lions over the years that it is easy to forget that Darius Vassell was once considered a key player for Sven or that Alf Ramsey took Peter Osgood to Mexico and then never selected him for a single game. If he and not Jeff Astle had played against Brazil, the course of history could have been so different. Other names that made fleeting appearances included John Fashanu and Stuart Ripley but the name that resonated most with me was Laurie Cunningham – how did he end up with a mere six England caps, a third of the total achieved by Carlton Palmer, who actually collected more caps than Cunningham and Matt Le Tissier combined.
Each World Cup campaign also allows the author to explore other themes that were prominent in each tournament. Scotland’s disastrous trip to Argentina in 1978 is examined in detail which should bring a smile to most England fans. I defy anybody not to be moved by the recounting of the fate of Pablo Escobar who was assassinated after he returned to Columbia after the 1994 contest. Also, the notorious Battle of Santiago clash between Chile and Italy in 1962 is recalled in gruesome and painful detail. Each World Cup has a unique back story which reminds you that the world does not revolve around our national side.
For such a detailed read, I would query the lack of an index, which I feel is essential if you want to return to check a particular detail and given the intense levels of research undertaken, the inclusion of a bibliography would have been useful. Some readers may also find the lack of photographs frustrating. Given the length of the book, more judicious editing may have helped from time to time as well.
However, this is an engrossing read, written in an engaging , thoughtful style. I would recommend taking it tournament by tournament to fully appreciate the depth of research that the author has undertaken. England, despite our lack of trophies, has a rich hinterland of history with the world’s most prestigious sporting contest and Gary Thacker has brought it vividly to life here. If you love football, if you love England, you’re going to love this.
Cheers, Tears and Jeers - A History of England and the World Cup by Gary Thacker is available from all good book shops and online from Amazon HERE