When the draw was made for the Euro 1984 qualifying groups, everyone in England seemed to be mightily chuffed at the teams we would be facing in Group Three: Hungary, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg. "England on easy street" stated the Daily Express, Steve Curry adding that "England could not have hand-picked more favourable opposition than the draw for the 1984 European Championships." The then manager Ron Greenwood waded in with "You can't disguise the fact that this is a very good group for us." No pressure then for the new manager Bobby Robson, as surely this would be a cakewalk.
Without the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see why the press and current manager were so happy with the draw. Hungary were seen as the biggest threat, and England had beaten them twice in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup (3-1 in Budapest and 1-0 at Wembley). Greece had qualified for Euro 1980 but had only won 3 games in trying to qualify for the following World Cup, and two of those were against Luxembourg, who the very phrase whipping boys had probably been invented for. The other Greek win in that group came in October 1980 in Copenhagen against Denmark. The Danes were not seen as a major obstacle, even though they had beaten eventual champions Italy 3-1 at home during a World Cup qualifier, and under the management of German Sepp Piontek they had experienced a relatively glorious 1981. As well as their unexpected Italian victory, the Danes had beaten Romania and Iceland in friendlies, won Nordic Championship games against Sweden, Finland and Norway, and beaten both Greece and Luxembourg in World Cup qualifying matches in an exciting 12 months for the national team. No one knew it at the time though, but this was definitely a team starting to gain confidence and momentum.
If England had been unaware of the Danish improvement then they were given a rude awakening when the two teams met in Copenhagen on September 22, 1982. Although England drew 2-2 it was a lucky point for the visitors, with the Danes playing superb free-flowing football. Bobby Robson was big enough to admit that his team were fortunate to get anything from the game: "It would have been a travesty of justice if we had won. They were a brilliant team." Harry Miller in the Daily Mirror uttered one of the first statements of realism: "Perhaps we had all underestimated a Danish side who, after all, beat World Champions Italy 3-1 just a year ago." England had twice taken the lead through Trevor Francis, but had it not been for Peter Shilton the night could have been even more embarrassing than any English supporter had comprehended before kick-off. Jesper Olsen's excellent run and finish gave Denmark a richly deserved point in the final minute, but the overall feeling was that England left Copenhagen as relieved men. The Danish population was probably just as happy to see the back of their visitors too, as the usual band of violence followed England around during this era and over 100 arrests were made after the match.
Greece away was a much happier occasion for Robson, as his side ran out comfortable 3-0 winners (Woodcock 2, Lee). Robson's first win as England manager put England firmly in charge of the group, according to the Daily Mirror's Frank McGhee, even though the Danes had scraped a narrow 2-1 victory in Luxembourg to leave both teams on three points after two matches. The scene was now set for an English-Danish tussle, as Group Three qualification became a two-way fight between Robson's and Piontek's teams.
One of the many modern day footballing cliches is the tedious "there are no easy games at international level anymore", although San Marino's thrashings during Euro 2012 qualification seem to suggest this is a load of media-trained players spouting nonsense. However in 1982, not even the most gullible of football fan would have believed this statement, as El Salvador proved, losing 10-1 to Hungary at the 1982 World Cup. England's 9-0 demolition of Luxembourg, in front of just 33,977 people at Wembley, merely emphasised the visitors role in the group as cannon fodder. Luther Blissett scored a hat-trick on debut (his only international goals), and along with Mark Chamberlain (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's old man) they became the first black players to score for England. England seemed back on track and were top of the group, although the Danes had a game in hand. Above all, the boost to England's goal difference was very much appreciated.
It is often perceived that England's failure to qualify for Euro 1984 was mainly due to the home loss against Denmark. But equally as telling come the final reckoning was the 0-0 draw at Wembley against a determined Greece. The Greeks came and parked the bus, plane and team coach, leading to howls of derision from a frustrated Wembley crowd. "GREEK FARCE" lambasted the Daily Mirror, as England's lack of penetration proved costly. After the goal glut against Luxembourg, England were brought down back to earth with a bump, and now only led the Danes by three points, who had only played two games to England's four. It was two points for a win back then, but even so England's road to Paris was looking decidedly bumpy.
The same paper that had derided England's efforts against Greece, completely changed their tune after a comfortable 2-0 home victory over Hungary (goals from Trevor Francis and Peter Withe). "England strode towards the European championships finals with a decisive and clear victory over the danger men from Hungary at Wembley last night" commented Frank McGhee, completely oblivious to the Danish cloud looming on the horizon. Denmark's 1-0 victory at home to Greece meant that nothing had changed in the group, and when the Danes narrowed the gap to one point with a 3-1 victory in Copenhagen over the Hungarians (still with a game in hand), all was set for a clash of the top two at Wembley. England would be faced with a chance to crush the Danish uprising and take control of the group. The Danes on the other hand could confirm to themselves that they were the real deal, something which must have been made a lot easier when they dismantled the eventual European champions France 3-1 in Copenhagen a fortnight before their Wembley date of destiny.
September 21, 1983: a dark and gloomy night at Wembley, bristling with nervous tension and importance to both sides. Win, and England would be in the driving seat, draw and the Danes would still be in pole position. A defeat for the home team just didn't bear thinking about. The latter option looked as if it was praying heavily on the minds of Bobby Robson's men, as they put in a performance that suggested that the occasion was simply too much for them. Frightened was a word bandied about in the papers the day after England's 1-0 defeat, and it is hard to argue with the fact that on the big stage England simply froze. Allan Simonsen's winning penalty in the 38th minute stunned the Wembley crowd, and England's subsequent showing did little to improve the mood of anyone unfortunate enough to watch this insipid display. Full credit of course had to be given to the "dazzling Danes", but for England a few home truths had to be addressed late September back in 83. To think that this was the first time this particular blogger had ever seen a live England match on television. What an introduction.
Simonsen sinks England
England's hopes of qualification were now pretty slim. But with the pressure off they put in a top display in Hungary, winning 3-0. Having Bryan Robson back in the team, and Glenn Hoddle in inspirational form helped the cause no end, and goals from Hoddle, Lee and Mariner secured the two points. The Danes demolished Luxembourg 6-0 on the same night, leaving England gripping on grimly for survival. And then on October 26, 1983, hope reared it's ugly head, as Denmark lost 1-0 in Hungary, allowing England to dream a Greek tragedy on the group leaders on November 16.
Denmark topped the group by a point, but England's superior goal difference meant that the Danes had to match England's result to progress to France. Seeing as England were away in Luxembourg, the situation was made that much clearer to the Danes: win or bust. What made proceedings a little stranger was the fact that England would know the result of the Danish match beforehand, with the kick-off in Greece scheduled for 4pm English time, England starting at 6.15pm. As England effectively had two points in the bag, all eyes would be on Athens, indeed ITV were to show the last half-hour live from Greece, in the hope that the English viewing public would get the result they wanted prior to the live coverage of the second half from Luxembourg starting at 7pm. It is the sort of situation that Sky would be all over now, but back then the viewing public would get to see only 75 minutes of live action with absolutely no hype, no naff montages, no match tag lines such as D-day, Elimination Wednesday, or Unmissable. And, if I'm being honest, a small part of me liked it that way.
The problem for ITV was that the Danes were already 1-0 up when their coverage started, and by the time most people had settled down with their tea, Allan Simonsen had again broken English hearts by doubling Denmark's lead on 47 minutes. So we were then subjected to a torturous and a slightly pointless second half from Athens, knowing that Denmark were going to France and that England were out. This in turn made viewing of England's 4-0 victory in Luxembourg even more peculiar, a kind of "so-what" feeling enveloping the nation. The final gap between Denmark and England may have only been a point, but to most it felt like a chasm.
Inevitably after such a crushing blow to English sport the post-mortems began. Robson was urged to rebuild, Malcolm Macdonald offered his opinion that Robson had to be ruthless, and many felt that young players such as Nigel Spink, Mark Wright, Brian Stein, Paul Walsh and Mark Walters were the future (Wright excluded, these players would eventually gain a grand total of 8 caps between them). But if Robson thought that failure to qualify for Euro 84 was bad enough then things were going to get a whole lot worse for him in the next few months. An inevitable defeat against France in Paris, a woeful 1-0 loss to Wales in Wrexham, and an abysmal showing against the USSR at Wembley, led to calls for Robson's head. The 2-0 defeat at Wembley to the Soviets has been shown on ESPN Classic in the last year, and two things stand out: firstly, just how bad England were, and secondly, just how hated Robson was by the Wembley crowd on that day. Cries of "What a load of rubbish" and "Robson out" could quite easily be heard on the television coverage, and it is quite amazing to consider this attitude towards the manager when we now know just how widely admired he is in this country. Shocking indeed, but at the time the fans were unleashing their frustrations on the easiest target, and unfortunately for him, Robson took it in the neck.
It was probably a blessing for Robson that he then took England off for a short tour to South America, and although they weren't quite out of sight and out of mind, to escape the pressure cooker of England must have been a relief to the beleaguered boss. Then to the general astonishment of everyone, England only went and beat Brazil 2-0 in the Maracana, John Barnes scoring a wonder goal that would hang over him in a good and bad way for years to come, and Robson had gained the breathing space that he badly desired. By the end of 1984, England had beaten Finland 5-0 at home and Turkey 8-0 in Istanbul, and their World Cup qualification was already looking a lot healthier than their Euro 84 efforts.
It transpired that after England's defeat to Denmark that Robson had offered his resignation, stating that Brian Clough should take over from him. The FA rejected this move, many feel this was due to their inherent distrust of Clough, but it is an interesting Sliding Doors moment. If the FA had accepted Robson's resignation then the chances are that he would not be a widely loved figure in the English game as he is nowadays, he might not have ended up managing PSV, Barcelona and Porto, he would be remembered as an England failure, and the mind boggles to wonder what would have happened to England under Clough. But for whatever reason, the FA stood behind their man. The Denmark defeat would be Robson's only loss in 28 qualification matches, and as the Danes went on to lose on penalties in the semi-finals of Euro 84 we soon realised just how good a team we'd been knocked out by. In retrospect there shouldn't have been such a national outcry after our failure to qualify for Euro 84, but at the time it was hard to look past the fact that England's easy street and turned into the road from hell.
For some more info on the rise and rise of this exciting Danish team, please visit Rob Smyth's excellent piece on the Guardian website.