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Ron Greenwood’s England returned home from the 1982 World Cup finals an unbeaten side, having conceded just one goal in the five games they played. In the final reckoning, Sheriff Abubakar might well have made all the difference after all.

Of all the outlandish incidents in preparation for their first World Cup in 12 years, it was Abubakar’s offer of witch doctor services that came from the outer reaches of left-field. Greenwood politely declined the kind offer, and instead took Don Howe as his trusted counsel.

Howe, despite his organisational talents, arguably proved to be the handbrake which stopped England reaching the business end of Spain 82. Greenwood and Howe acted as two polarising counterpoints.

Greenwood, one of the great free-thinkers of the English game and an advocate of open and attacking football, was offset by the caution and conservatism of Howe. Had the sliding scale between the two been tilted a degree or so more towards Greenwood than it was, then Ron’s 22 might well have gone all the way to glory.

England were fortunate to reach the 1982 World Cup. While Greenwood had initially proved to be a stabilising influence on the national team within the slipstream of rancour, disorganisation and under-performance that marked the Don Revie era, he had come under increasingly vitriolic media scrutiny during a disjointed World Cup qualifying campaign.

When England were defeated by Norway on an iconic evening in Olso in September 1981, it largely cancelled out the campaign-saving victory in Budapest against Hungary some three months earlier. Having already lost in Romania and Switzerland, the trip to Hungary had been one laced with foreboding. When England walked out at the Népstadion, it was just seven days beyond the jarring loss to Switzerland in Basel. Legend has it that Greenwood resigned on the flight to Bucharest but was talked out of his chosen course of action by his coaching staff and several senior players.

When England swaggered away from the Népstadion with an unexpected 3-1 victory, it came from a Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking-powered performance. It was a game which permeated an aura that the players who took to the pitch had done it for Greenwood the man, rather than solely for Greenwood the manager. It was a victory that reattached the wheels to England’s faltering World Cup bandwagon.

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Having been so painstakingly placed back on track in Budapest, the frustration of defeat in Oslo, where England slipped to a 2-1 loss, having led 1-0, was all too stark. It was further compounded when, a fortnight later, Romania and Hungary played out a mutually beneficial goalless draw in Bucharest.

Greenwood could only watch pensively from the sidelines throughout October as his three main rivals faced off against each other, clinging to the hope that results would combine to still give England something to play for when Hungary travelled to Wembley in November.

With Hungary essentially holding all the cards, Romania themselves needed just a win and a draw from two games against Switzerland to reach the finals at England’s expense. With only a month of qualifying remaining, Greenwood was hoping against hope.

Greenwood’s sense of hope, however, was rewarded. Romania promptly hit the self-destruct button. Beaten on home soil by the Swiss, the Romanian FA swiftly dismissed their entire coaching team, a one which had been led by Ștefan Kovács, the former two-time European Cup-winning Ajax coach.

Added to the devastating loss of their potent attacking midfielder, Marcel Raducano, who defected to West Germany during a trip to Dortmund, Romania threw themselves into a self-inflicted state of disarray, just as the finish line appeared before them. By the time they laboured to a goalless draw in Switzerland, only an England loss at Wembley a week later would be enough to send them to Spain.

From a seemingly hopeless position, Greenwood was gifted an open door to the 1982 World Cup finals. An early goal from Paul Mariner settled the nerves, and Hungary, having already qualified, failed to rise to the occasion.

From a fraught qualifying campaign to a sedate clinching of their place at a first World Cup since Mexico 70, Greenwood had endured a turbulent two years in comparison to his first three years at the helm. Greenwood successfully steadied the volatile situation he initially walked into in the autumn of 1977. Revie’s cloak and dagger exit from the job, to take on the same role for the United Arab Emirates but for a much higher salary, had left the FA high and dry. With qualification for the 1978 World Cup all but out of reach and growing calls for Brian Clough to be handed the job, the FA instead turned to Greenwood, initially in a temporary capacity.

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A futile but impressive 2-0 victory over Italy in a Wembley World Cup qualifier clinched Greenwood a full-time contract for the England job. From the scattergun approach to squad and team selections that Revie had taken, Greenwood took a more measured outlook. While everyone was under consideration, he cultivated a closely knit central core to his squad.

England qualified with ease for the 1980 European Championships in Italy, the first eight-team European finals tournament, and England’s first major finals for a decade. Greenwood had successfully put England back on the international footballing map.

However, in Italy it was caution which held England back. A draw with Belgium, in a tear gas interrupted encounter, was followed by a late and narrow defeat to the hosts. By the time England resembled a closer visage of a traditional Greenwood side, in their final group game against Spain, they were unable to progress in what was an unsatisfactory tournament format. With a little less caution, the draw against Belgium could have been converted into a win, and a draw might have been obtained against Italy.

Between Euro 80 and Spain 82, Greenwood largely opted for continuity in his squad. Despite calling up 40 players for his provisional party, 16 of the 22 players he took to Italy also travelled to Spain.

The reasons for the numerical depth of Greenwood’s initial provisional squad were grounded in the basis that neither the FA or UEFA had had the foresight to bring forward their showpiece club finals. England’s last two serious warm-up matches before the finals, against the Netherlands and Scotland, came within an eight-day span that also included the FA Cup final – and its subsequent replay – and the European Cup final. With an array of players from his squad involved in both Tottenham and Aston Villa’s chase for honours, being involved in those games proved to be both sweet and sour experiences for some.

Ray Clemence, keeping goal for Spurs at Wembley in the two FA Cup final games against Queens Park Rangers, essentially lost out to Peter Shilton in Spain on the back of achieving at club level. Having alternated between his two world-class goalkeepers for the previous three years, Greenwood had long stated he would go to the World Cup with a defined first choice keeper.

Because of Clemence’s club commitments, Shilton kept goal in both the Netherlands and Scotland games, thus stealing the march on his rival. He wouldn’t be the only player to suffer due to being forced to make a belated arrival to Greenwood’s squad. Glenn Hoddle, as so often, was left on the periphery of the team, while Aston Villa’s Tony Morley, at the peak of his powers, was desperately unfortunate to miss the final cut altogether, losing out to the less explosive Graham Rix in a selection heavily influenced by Howe.

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Of the other players to miss out on the squad, Cyril Regis would have been difficult to ignore had he not succumbed to injury, while the West Ham United pair of Alvin Martin and Alan Devonshire were also unlucky. Martin, given he played in central defence on the evening England beat Hungary at Wembley to gain qualification, was particularly hard done by.

Russell Osman, Terry Butcher’s partner in central defence at Ipswich Town, could also argue that Steve Foster was lucky to win a place in the squad ahead of both himself and Martin. As for Foster, he was openly surprised that he got the nod from Greenwood in a squad which had just three recognised centre-backs. 

Amidst the frustrations of a fragmented preparation for the finals, and set against the backdrop of the Falklands War, a conflict which at one stage put serious question marks over whether the home nations would even take part in the World Cup, Greenwood was confronted with two seismic injury problems.

With Keegan nursing a back problem and Brooking suffering a groin issue, England were a long way from getting close to the line-up which had won in Budapest, the line-up which was widely regarded to be Greenwood’s strongest. Only five of the side that had won so convincingly in Hungary walked out to face France at the San Mamés in Bilbao.

Within 27 seconds of England’s return to the World Cup finals, they were 1-0 up. Bryan Robson opened the scoring, and despite Gérard Soler levelling the game midway through the first half, Robson again, and then Mariner, added second-half strikes to give Greenwood a dream start to the tournament. It was a spectacular result for England, against what emerged to be one of the best teams in the tournament. Yet it can be argued that the outcome of that opening game served France better.

Greenwood had erred on caution for the opening game, partly at the insistence of Howe but also due to the absences of Keegan and Brooking. The result against France simply reinforced the concept of Howe’s conservatism being the correct path for the remainder of the tournament.

While France altered the composition of their midfield, changes which re-energised Les Bleus and took significant steps toward the formulation of the Carré Magique, Greenwood’s midfield continued to play the percentages. There was no room for flair – something at odds with Greenwood’s inner ethos. 

Read  |  France’s Carré Magique of Platini, Giresse, Fernández and Tigana

In the England midfield, Robson was joined by his Manchester United teammates Ray Wilkins and Steve Coppell, plus Rix, the man who had prospered the most from the delayed arrival to the provisional squad of Morley, and the injury problems of Brooking.

Against Czechoslovakia, however, it took the second half intervention of Hoddle to help break the deadlock. It’s easy to see why Greenwood was lulled into a cautious approach, given two wins had been gleaned from two games played. Yet the second of those only came thanks to the more expansive notions of Hoddle.

When Hoddle was brought in for the final group game against Kuwait, he was part of a side that cruised along in second gear for the vast majority of the game. It was a performance that did his prospects of being given a starring role in the second stage group games no favours. As the opening round of games ended, there was still no sign of a return to fitness for either Keegan or Brooking.

As England moved on to Madrid for the second round group stages, it was here that good fortune eluded them. As group winners, Greenwood’s side gained no advantages whatsoever. While runners-up France were placed in a group alongside Austria and Northern Ireland, England were rewarded for their success by facing West Germany and Spain.

In the opening game of the group, England were up against West Germany and resorted to the line-up which had served them well against France and Czechoslovakia. As a result, there was no place for Hoddle. The two sides cancelled one another out as England enjoyed the better of the early exchanges, while Karl-Heinz Rummenigge struck the crossbar with just three minutes remaining.

Again, caution had held England back when perhaps the introduction of Hoddle, as had been the case against Czechoslovakia, might have helped pick the West German defensive lock. When a second half change was made, however, it was Tony Woodcock who replaced Trevor Francis in a like-for-like alteration. The safer option was taken with the theory being that Woodcock, of Köln, might have unsettled the West German defenders he faced on a regular basis.

On an evening when, due to the heat and humidity, the pace of the game slowed down dramatically, the space Hoddle would have been afforded could have made the latter stages of the match a very different proposition. It was a leap of faith that Greenwood and Howe resisted.

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Three nights later, West Germany beat Spain 2-1, leaving England with the task of finding a minimum of two goals against the hosts to progress to the semi-finals. In the absence of the injured Coppell, Greenwood turned to Woodcock instead of Hoddle. With Keegan and Brooking fit enough to take up places amongst the substitutes, it immediately meant that Hoddle would play no part in the game, despite also being named on the bench. If the need arose for a change, Keegan and Brooking would automatically be the two players Greenwood would turn to.

England were second best for much of the game until the introduction of Keegan and Brooking. On two occasions, Spain should have taken the lead, on an evening when the hosts belatedly played to their true potential. With caution finally thrown to the wind, Keegan and Brooking took the game to Spain, Brooking having an effort parried away by Luis Arconada and Keegan glancing a header wide of the post when it was easier to hit the target. Another goalless evening ushered England out of the World Cup and brought an end to Greenwood’s reign as national manager.

After 12 years away from football’s greatest show on earth, many positives were spun from England’s 1982 World Cup campaign. There were, however, a number of frustrations, some of which were completely out of Greenwood’s control, offset by others that were entirely self-inflicted. Being denied the services of both Keegan and Brooking for so long was the biggest problem that was beyond Greenwood’s control, but not countering that with an element of flair was entirely the choice of the management and his coaching staff.

While both the metronomic Robson and the erstwhile Wilkins performed well in the centre of midfield, the skill of Hoddle might have produced the goals which eluded England during the second round group games. Conversely, the presence of the more skilful Morley in the wide positions might have made a difference also. The fact that England’s goalscoring output regressed game after game and still didn’t prompt a braver team selection is quite telling.

England weren’t far from being a contender for the winning the 1982 World Cup. Fine margins of misfortune and errors of choice made the difference. Due to injury, Keegan and Brooking were restricted to just 26 minutes of World Cup football, while Hoddle started just one game despite being available throughout, and played not a single minute against either West Germany or Spain.

Spain 82 was a missed opportunity which couldn’t be corrected at a future tournament. Greenwood’s time in charge was over, while only seven members of his squad would travel to another major tournament. For the rest, it was their first and last shot at a World Cup. Ultimately, it was caution which held them back.

Thirty-five years on, England have rarely entered a major tournament with a better chance than the one they had in Bilbao and Madrid. Maybe Sheriff Abubakar would have been useful after all 

By Steven Scragg   @Scraggy_74