The 1968 European Championship looked very different to its modern-day equivalent. Back then, rather than the bloated jamboree involving more than 20 countries, it was very much a mini-tournament. After a protracted qualifying competition, running over a couple of years with groups and then playoffs, a mere four teams were invited to contest two semi-finals and a final in the host country.
This particular version of the event involved Italy, who, despite being hosts, still needed to earn their place via the qualification process, England, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. As reigning world champions, England were favourites, but at the conclusion of the event, would merely end up taking the consolation prize of third place.
In relation to England, however, the tournament would be remembered for a different reason, containing as it did the first game a player representing the country was sent off. That unwanted distinction fell to Tottenham midfielder Alan Mullery.
After graduating through the ranks at Fulham, Mullery made his first-team debut in 1958 and quickly established himself as a regular in the starting line-up. The following year, he was handed the captaincy of the club after injury removed Johnny Haynes from the equation. In what was a less than ideal debut in his new role, he scored an own goal.
It proved to be merely a temporary setback, though, as Mullery settled into the role of the tough but elegant midfielder; a player with the capacity to create, but also fully capable of playing the enforcer role when required to do so. It was this growing ability that convinced Tottenham to fork out the not inconsiderable sum of £72,500 to take his services to White Hart Lane in 1964. International recognition was not far behind as Alf Ramsey selected him for a friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam in December of that same year.
If the player thought it was the beginning of an opportunity to force himself into the manager’s squad for the upcoming World Cup to be played in England 18 months later, however, he was to be disappointed. With the system Ramsey adopted at the time, Nobby Stiles was the man in possession of the shirt Mullery coveted, and the gnarled Manchester United player was understandably reluctant to relinquish it.
Such was the purpose and resolution of Stiles, not to mention the understandable loyalty offered to him by Ramsey, Mullery wouldn’t pull on an England shirt again until the season following the victory at Wembley when England became world champions. He would return to the team the following year, featuring in successive games against Spain and Austria across three days in May 1967.
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From there, Mullery would go on to become an established presence and featured regularly over the next 12 months or so, culminating in selection for the team to face Yugoslavia in the semi-final of the European Championship in Florence’s Stadio Artemio Franchi on 5 June 1968.
England’s path to the tournament had been completed following a rumbustious 1-1 draw at Hampden Park in front of some 130,000 fans, a game in which Mullery featured. It was played out in a tempestuous atmosphere, and the sort of robustly tough domestic squabble that would act as an hors d’oeuvre for what would later follow against Yugoslavia – after a two-legged victory over Spain cleared the pathway to Italy and the tournament proper.
Ahead of the game, it still seemed uncertain whether Ramsey would go with the younger Mullery for the big game or rely on the experience of Stiles. An injury to the latter during a friendly against West Germany four days earlier, however, settled the issue. Stiles was forced to sit out the game along with Geoff Hurst, who sustained an injury in the same encounter, as Mullery featured for England in his first major international tournament.
The game against the Yugoslavs was anything but a classic. Later, many England players would speak out about the robust approach deployed by their opponents as they sought to enforce their own patterns of play on the game. Mullery would be one of the most vocal critics, declaring: “Some of the tackles they were putting in were horrendous.”
He went on to say that it wasn’t just in contests for the ball that such things went on. “In those days there were no extra cameras in the grounds to pick up off-the-ball incidents,” he alleged, making it clear that throughout the game, England had been harshly treated. “If that game was played now, it would have been abandoned after 20 minutes because they would have had six players on their side and we would have had about nine.”
It wasn’t only the physical aspects of the game that caused frustration in the ranks of England’s players. Whatever the assertions flying around regarding their opponent’s approach to the game, there’s no doubt that Yugoslavia were a talented collection of players, resourceful and inventive moving forwards and resolute and uncompromising at the back. In qualifying, they had topped a group including West Germany. They then defeated France over two legs in a playoff. A 1-1 draw at the Stade Vélodrome was followed up by a comprehensive 5-1 rout in Belgrade to see them into the tournament proper.
After a bruising first-half where England appeared the better side, it was difficult to discern much constructive play, their attacks largely being contained by a zealous defence. It was fair to say, however, that England were also capable of dishing out similar sorts of treatment when induced to do so, and as Spanish referee José María Ortiz de Mendibil appeared less than willing to intervene to keep things under control, such provocation abounded, with the consequential action inevitable.
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It wouldn’t have been surprising if the numbers on both teams had been reduced by injury or dismissal by the time the break was called after the first 45 minutes. It was still 11-a-side, though, as the teams retreated to the changing rooms to tend bumps and bruises – and plot retribution.
Earlier in the day, in the other semi-final, Italy and the Soviet Union had played out a goalless draw across 90 minutes and extra-time, before the hosts were granted victory via a coin toss. As the second half got underway, there appeared every likelihood that this game would follow a similar track. It seemed the archetypal encounter when one goal would surely settle the issue. As the anger continued to simmer then boil in sudden bursts of violence and the game wound its way towards a conclusion, the breakthrough came.
With just five minutes remaining on the clock, a high cross into the England penalty area deceived Bobby Moore. Waiting behind him, Dragan Džajić neatly controlled before firing past Gordon Banks. Convinced that it was the winning goal, the Yugoslavs piled on top of the scorer in celebration as England’s players contemplated defeat.
If anyone suspected that the goal would temper the approach of England’s opponents they were to be disavowed; just a few minutes later, Mullery’s patience would snap in a moment when the red mist engulfed better reactions and he lashed out at Dobrivoje Trivić.
Mullery picks up the story: “Every Yugoslav player that day spent the whole game kicking all of us, but this one guy – Dobrivoje Trivić – he was the worst. He was quite exceptional. We were losing 1-0 with about a minute to go and this coward – and that’s what he was, because he wouldn’t confront people, he’d just kick them from behind – had a go at me. He raked his studs, whatever they were made of, down my calf. Blood started pouring out, and I just turned around and kicked him in the how’s your fathers.”
If that reads as some kind of intended justification for his actions, Mullery was also quick to say that he realised it had been an aberration: “The referee was about two yards away. If I’d realised he was that close I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it was sheer frustration. Of course, he shows me the red card and I’m off.”
Mullery was unaware that the reaction would mark him out for a particularly unwanted distinction: “I had no idea at the time that no England player had ever been sent off, it never even entered my head. It was a moment of anger and frustration, but I’ve had to live with it for so many years now.”
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Trudging from the pitch, head bowed, he was met at the sidelines by Stiles, who walked with Mullery to the changing rooms. They had hardly reached the door when the final whistle was blown and slumped down awaiting the arrival of the remaining members of the team and officials. Mullery expected the worst, as he later related: “I got in the bath as quickly as possible. The next thing, Alf was coming into the dressing room and he wasn’t very happy to be fair. But he wasn’t particularly unhappy with me, he was unhappy with the way the Yugoslavians had kicked lumps out of us all game, and the referee who never did anything about it.” Mullery was also quick to apologise to his teammates for his actions, although given the state of the game, and the time remaining, it made no difference to the final outcome.
Despite the manager expressing his wrath about the officials, Mullery wasn’t spared the inevitable tongue-lashing he expected. “He had a few harsh words with me for what I’d done,” the player would say. Outside of the sanctuary of the changing room, however, Ramsey adopted the tone that made his players both respect him and be prepared to give their all for him. “I’ve got to say he was very, very good with me,” Mullery revealed. “He stood up for me after that – he even paid the £50 I got fined by the FA. He was very strong for his players, was Alf, and that’s why any player that ever played for Alf Ramsey, they all loved him. He was a player’s manager.”
England would go on to defeat the Soviet Union 2-0 to take third place at the tournament. Stiles returned to the line-up replacing the suspended Mullery, who watched from the stands both contemplating past indiscretions and pondering implications for his future with the national side.
He had little reason to worry, however, and with age diminishing the powers of Stiles, he would play a further 16 games under Ramsey before becoming a key member of the squad that travelled to Mexico and faced Romania in the opening game of England’s defence of their title in the 1970 World Cup. Although the tournament saw the crown relinquished, Mullery acquitted himself well. He featured in every game and scored to give England the lead in their quarter-final against West Germany. He would also go on to feature further in the England team up to and including the qualifying competition for the 1972 European Championship, eventually ending with 35 caps.
For all that he achieved, though, both with England and Spurs, Mullery laments that it’s the time he became the first England player to be sent off in the country’s 424th international encounter that so many people still remember him for. Interviewed by The Guardian in June 2009, he stated: “I’d love to change it, but you can’t change history. I’m going to the England game against Andorra next week and if someone gets sent off I guarantee my phone will be going. It’s something you have to accept for the rest of your life and that’s all there is to it. It’s part of the punishment. I was the first England player to be sent off, but can you tell me who the second was? I’ll bet you can’t. Everybody remembers the first.”
It’s difficult not to feel at least some measure of sympathy for Mullery, especially given the apparent provocation in the game concerned, but as he says, it’s a cross he seems destined to bear for some time. Famously, Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” For Alan Mullery, however, if any such conversation touches on the events of 5 June 1968 in Italy, he’d probably prefer not to be part of it.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze