1 Gatting’s rebel England tour to South Africa, 1990
In the sole “Test” played by Mike Gatting’s side against South Africa they were rolled over in three days. They also lost the one-day series 3-1 and the tour was a financial disaster for the organisers, if not the players, who were well rewarded by the apartheid government. It was not, though, about what happened on the field.
Nelson Mandela was freed during the tour – “Nelson Mandela? He can’t bowl, can he?” replied Bill Athey when asked about his release – and protests surrounded the side from the moment they touched down in Johannesburg. Gatting dismissed the airport protesters as a “few people singing and dancing”. But that was only the start. Black hotel staff refused to serve the tourists and thousands turned up to demonstrate at matches. The tour was cut short. “They disgraced their country and their sport,” declared the Daily Mirror. “In hindsight,” said John Emburey, “it was a tour that shouldn’t have taken place.”
2 England’s rugby tour from hell, 1998
It might seem harsh on the man who steered England to the World Cup, but Clive Woodward has two claims to inclusion. There was the overblown, overhyped and whitewashed Lions tour in 2005, with Alastair Campbell, the spearing of poor Brian O’Driscoll etc, but the sheer scale of the defeats on his first England tour tips the balance.
On the first night of the trip to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa the players were encouraged to go out, have a drink and bond. With a desperately weakened squad – no Dallaglio, Hill, Johnson, Guscott, Leonard – and a daunting itinerary, Matt Dawson’s men needed all the bonding they could manage. Later that night Lewis Moody returned to the hotel with Peter Richards, the uncapped London Irish scrum-half, found nobody there so went out again. The pair, Moody recounts, returned again at 6am and it set the tone for off-field indulgence making up for on-field pain.
England played seven, lost seven: Australia won 76-0, New Zealand 64-22 and 40-10 and South Africa 18-0. Even the New Zealand academy amassed 50 points. Yet it was not utterly without merit. Jonny Wilkinson made his first start in Brisbane. “That experience taught me more in one leap than anything else can, or probably ever will,” he said years later.
3 Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, 1983-84
This had it all – historic defeats, poor selection, injury, unrest and, to cap it all, a tabloid scandal. It became known as the “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll tour”. On the field England lost a first series to New Zealand after being skittled in Christchurch for 82 and 93. They then matched the feat in Pakistan, bamboozled by Abdul Qadir’s leg-breaks in Karachi. Wisden described the tour as “depressing” and one of the “unhappiest ever undertaken” by England. “The 12 hours New Zealand took to win [in Christchurch] represented England’s nadir: they put up an exhibition that would have shamed a side in the lower reaches of the County Championship,” harrumphed the Almanack.
Meanwhile off the field… “There probably was some sex and possibly some drugs,” admitted David Gower in his autobiography. “A birthday cake was baked to a recipe that ... certainly didn’t follow Mrs Beeton’s original recipe.”
4 Flintoff’s Ashes whitewash, 2006-07
It started terribly and freewheeled chaotically downhill from there. Steve Harmison’s first ball has its own chapter in England’s Ashes infamy but there was plenty more to fill a tour book of horrors. Australia wanted revenge for 2005 and had it with knobs on. England, to offer an excuse of sorts, were battered by a good side. Ricky Ponting’s men were a level above Michael Clarke’s current team but England contributed plenty to their own demise, notably losing in Adelaide having declared on 551 for 6 in the first innings.
As the performances on the field fell apart, so things did off it. Andrew Flintoff, deputising for the injured Michael Vaughan as captain, has since said he suffered from depression as troubles mounted, breaking down in tears on Christmas Day.
He began drinking as his relationship with the coach Duncan Fletcher deteriorated and infamously turned up the worse for wear at a nets session. “I wasn’t the only one and it wasn’t just the players – most of the support staff were at it more than we were,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was like being on a booze cruise.”
5 Scotland’s shoddy 1978 World Cup
“We’re on the march wi’ Ally’s Army… and we’ll really shake them up when we win the World Cup…” So went the musical accompaniment to Scotland’s departure for Argentina – and, strange as it might seem now, they went with real optimism. Ally McLeod had a good side – Dalglish, Souness, Jordan, Buchan – and qualified ahead of Czechoslovakia, then the European champions. McLeod relished the attention. “What,” he was asked before Scotland departed (via an open-top bus tour of Hampden), “will you do after the World Cup?” “Retain it,” answered McLeod.
Then it all went pear-shaped; drubbed by Peru, held by Iran before that Archie Gemmill-inspired victory in vain over the Dutch. In between it all Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a dope test.
McLeod lasted one more match before resigning. “I am a very good manager,” he insisted, “who just happened to have a few disastrous days, once upon a time, in Argentina.”
6 Capello’s World Cup chaos, South Africa 2010
It was after England’s grey, goalless draw with Algeria that Wayne Rooney gave vent down the nearest camera about the boos of supporters ringing around Cape Town. That was followed by John Terry declaring he and the rest of the team had issues with Fabio Capello, to the sound of silence from the rest of the team.
Before that came Rob Green’s howler against the US; after that there was the breezy dismantling by a young German side, and even the misfortune of Frank Lampard’s ghost goal. This was a catalogue of horrors from its delusional beginnings to embarrassing end.
7 Dwarf tossing and all that: England’s 2011 World Cup
Take a swaying Mike Tindall, fresh from his royal wedding and all the baggage that brings, grainy CCTV pictures, a “mysterious blonde”, dwarfs, plenty of alcohol, Manu Tuilagi in his pants, Auckland harbour and mix with some uninspiring and ultimately unsuccessful rugby and you have a sorry end to Martin Johnson’s long association with England. The off-pitch shenanigans, for which Tindall was later scapegoated with a £25,000 fine by the RFU, portrayed Johnson’s England in a poor light and added to the tame quarter-final exit after a sorry tournament left him nowhere to go but out of the Twickenham exit door.
8 England’s 1950 World Cup woes against the US
Mortensen, Wright, Finney, Milburn, Mannion, Matthews… England’s squad read like a Who’s Who of the national game. They travelled to Brazil among the favourites, regarded as Europe’s best, and arrived with a 10-0 warm-up win against Portugal in the locker. The opening game was duly won against Chile and so to Belo Horizonte. There is no footage of what happened next: Walter Bahr, the US captain, shot and Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian who earned a living washing dishes in New York, dived to deflect the ball home. “It was not a beautiful goal,” said Bahr. England then lost to Spain and that was that.
9 Team GB hits the rocks in Atlanta
The flat-lining 1996 Olympics were not among the great Games. For Britain, in particular, these were the grim Games, with one gold, eight silvers and six bronze, leaving them 36th in the medal table, looking up at Ethiopia, North Korea and Kazakhstan. They have never finished lower. There was only Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent’s triumph in the coxless pair to write home about, while two of the diving team, Bob Morgan and Tony Ally, ended up selling their Olympic kit on the streets of Atlanta to make ends meet. There was a silver, or rather golden, lining to all this as it prompted a radical overhaul of British Olympic sport – a process that reached its peak at London 2012.
10 ANC-Halfords and the 1987 Tour de France
ANC-Halfords were the first British professional team to be invited to the Tour – to the surprise of most of their riders, of whom only Graham Jones had ridden a major stage race before. From the moment the team assembled in West Berlin for the first stage and had to ride standard road bikes rather than the promised specialist time-trial ones, this was a farce on wheels. Only four of the nine finished and as the chaos mounted, and the money ran out, team owner Tony Capper disappeared in one of the team cars. En route riders slept on camp beds in schools and had to sell spare bike parts to raise cash. The team collapsed, with riders going unpaid. “It was like being on Elm Street,” said Shane Sutton, now Britain’s head coach, “a non-stop nightmare”.
In pictures: When sports tours go horribly wrong
In pictures: When sports tours go horribly wrong
1/5 Scotland's shoddy World Cup, 1978
Scotland went to Argentina with real optimism and a good side. But it all went pear-shaped - drubbed by Peru, held by Iran before the Gemmill-inspired victory in vain over the Dutch. To top it all off, Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a dope test.
2/5 Capello's World Cup chaos
Wayne Rooney vented to the nearest camera, John Terry declared that he and his teammates had issues with Capello - to the sound of silence - and Frank Lampard scored a ghost goal.
3/5 Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll
The 'Sex, drugs and rock n roll' tour of 1983-84 had it all. Historic defeats, unrest, tabloid scandal and injury. The tour was described as 'depressing' and 'one of the unhappiest ever undertaken'.
4/5 Clive Woodward's first England tour
The sheer scale of defeats on Clive Woodward's first England tour puts him on this list. After going out to drink and bond the first night, the off-field indulgence made up for on-field pain. England played seven and lost seven.
5/5 Team GB hits rock bottom in Atlanta
The 1996 Olympics were the 'grim Games' for Britain, who finished 36th in the medal table, behind Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and North Korea. Two of the diving team sold their Olympic kit to make ends meet. However, it prompted a radical overhaul of British Olympic sport.