This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
It had been 12 long years since England’s last appearance at the European Championship. The intervening period saw the end of Alf Ramsey’s tenure and Don Revie’s defection to the Middle East.
After a brief stint as caretaker, Ron Greenwood had been appointed manager; England looked smooth in qualification dropping just one point away to Ireland. The newly expanded format divided eight countries into two groups of four with a round-robin to decide the semi-finalists. England would play Belgium in their opening game at the Stadio Comunale in Turin.
Greenwood broadly stuck with the players who had seen him through qualification. Kevin Keegan was in the form of his life with two Ballon d’Or awards on the sideboard. He was top scorer in qualifying and crafted a telepathic understanding with Trevor Brooking, a playmaker in the classic number 10 mould.
Obdurate centre-half Dave Watson marshalled a tight defence while David Johnson and Tony Woodcock led the offensive. A stubborn Greenwood selected Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence in alternate games with the latter getting the nod this time.
Belgium were something of a Trojan horse, slipping through the qualifiers with four wins and four draws. They were a useful side but should have posed few problems for this England. The main threat came from attacking midfielder Jan Ceulemans, who scored 29 goals for Club Brugge in their recent league glory. Winger Francois Van der Elst starred in an Anderlecht side that won the Cup Winners’ Cup twice in the 1970s.
But the heartbeat of the Belgian side was diminutive midfield general Wilfried van Moer. The 35-year-old broke his leg playing for Belgium against Italy in 1972 and struggled to find any level of fitness, not playing international football for more than four years. However, national manager Guy Thys recalled Van Moer for the qualifiers in 1979 – and he was instrumental in a 2-0 victory over Portugal.
The tiny general became a fixture although rarely able to complete the full 90 minutes. Thys knew how Van Moer could influence a game if only for an hour, and a substitute was quietly worked into the tactical plan.
England made a promising start and carved out the best chances early on. However, close marking and a smartly executed offside trap kept the Belgians on equal terms. Keegan had what appeared to be a perfectly good goal ruled offside in the 22nd minute, but England’s reward was close at hand.
Ray Wilkins gathered the ball and slipped the offside trap with a smart lob. In space with the defence behind him, Wilkins lobbed again as goalkeeper Pfaff was off his line. It was no less than England deserved but such joy would be short-lived.
England’s unique brand of football hooliganism reared its ugly head when Belgium equalised. The Three Lions’ sloppily failed to clear a Van Moer corner; the ball ran loose to Ceulemans who coolly slotted home. Italian fans in the stadium gleefully baited their English counterparts and violence erupted as the Italian police charged to separate rival fans. Tear gas was used but a sharp breeze blew across the pitch and the players were clearly affected by the substance.
The game re-started after a ten-minute break but all momentum was lost as it petered out to a 1-1 draw. Crowd violence during the game was no surprise as there had been trouble in Turin the previous evening resulting in 36 arrests. Few remember the game or splendour of Wilkins’ goal; only an ugly minority wrapped in a Union Jack flag. For England, it was a ritually slow start to the tournament and a monkey clinging tightly to their back.
By Brian Penn