Football: England's day of the `dirty thieves'

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It has been 36 years since England's footballers last beat the Italians on their home soil. Here some of the victors of that historic match recall how a broken nose and swaggering contempt played into England's hands.

Amid the miscellaneous excitements of a memory Johnny Haynes shares with nine other past England footballers is an incident that brought down the wrath of 90,000 Italian supporters.

Recalling England's 3-2 victory at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on 24 May 1961 - their last against the Azzurri on Italian soil - and anticipating my sceptical response to the uncharacteristic image he was about to put forward, Haynes said: "We were level 1-1 but right up against it early in the second half when I collided with their goalkeeper Buffon going for a through ball."

"You went for a through ball!" I said.

Haynes chuckled. "Yes, I went for a through ball," he replied. "Anyway, Buffon had to go off with a broken nose and was replaced by a youngster (Giuseppe Vavassori, making his international debut) who looked very nervous. The crowd wouldn't accept that Buffon's injury was an accident and they really gave it to me, shrieking abuse and threats.

"Mind you, losing Buffon didn't seem to affect Italy's confidence because they continued to give us the run-around and it took three marvellous saves by Ron Springett to keep us in the match."

In the press box, Frank McGhee, then of the Daily Mirror, couldn't take his eyes off the Juventus inside-forward Omar Sivori who had turned out for Argentina before becoming available to Italy under a now defunct rule of residence.

"There was a nasty streak in Sivori," McGhee said, "but what a player. He could dribble, pass, shoot and had great imagination. That day Sivori was on his own, causing havoc all over the place."

Sivori's 44th-minute equal-iser, five minutes after the late Gerry Hitchens had opened the scoring, fired him up for a second-half performance that caused McGhee to suppose that England's run of six victories and one draw, including a 9-3 thrashing of Scotland at Wembley, would end in disappointment.

"Losing their goalkeeper was a big blow to Italy and would prove crucial, but when Brighenti finally broke Springett's resistance in the 75th-minute I imagined England losing by three or four goals," he added.

Sivori, squat and swarthy, was everywhere, but his swaggering contempt for the opposition carried the seeds of its own destruction.

England's right-back, Jimmy Armfield, now a technical consultant to the Football Association, said: "When Sivori started taking the mickey instead of getting on with the game I began to feel that we might still get something. Ron [Springett] was in tremendous form - one save from Italy's outside right Mora was as good as any I've ever seen, including Gordon Banks' from Pele in 1970 - and whenever I played with Jimmy Greaves I expected him to score."

Before the match, Greaves' response to speculation over a transfer from Chelsea to Milan had been diversionary. "It was pretty obvious that a deal had been struck and that Jimmy was trying to wriggle out of it," McGhee said. "He confirmed this the next day when England moved on for a game against Austria in Vienna, but he'd done enough in Rome to make Milan even more determined to sign him."

Shortly after Italy went ahead Greaves raced back to help dispossess Sivori and won a throw-in. He took it himself, picked up a return pass and set off for goal. When two defenders closed in Greaves slipped the ball through to Hitchens, who equalised with a shot that passed between the nervous new goalkeeper's legs for a 75th-minute equaliser.

Armfield said: "I can still see the Italian players looking at each other in disbelief and I was then convinced that if our luck held we'd beat them. Of course there was nothing like as much at stake as there will be when England play Italy in Rome on Saturday, but with the 1962 World Cup finals only 12 months off, our manager, Walter Winterbottom, stressed how important it was to remain unbeaten."

Haynes, now living in Edinburgh, could not recall exactly how England's winning goal came, but it was his trademark through ball five minutes from time that provided Greaves with a perfect opportunity.

"A classic Greaves situation, on his own, with no one in tackling distance and only a now-terrified goalkeeper to beat," McGhee reported. "It is hardly necessary to add that he scored...low and hard with a left-foot shot."

The Olympic Stadium, for those madding thousands of Italian supporters, had become a place of gross injustice.

"I didn't like the sound of them - somebody told me afterwards that they were chanting `dirty thieves' - so I was astonished to hear the skipper [Haynes] suggesting that we do a lap of honour. `Are you mad,' I said. `If we get too close to this lot they won't let us out of here alive.' "

The mood of Italy's supporters hadn't improved by the time England left the stadium. "It was still ugly," Haynes said. "They crowded around our bus shouting and throwing things until the police made way for us. We had plenty to celebrate and later there was quite a party."

Five days later England lost 3-1 in Vienna. "We still had to make sure of qualifying for the World Cup, so I could understand Walter wanting to have a look at other players," Armfield said, "but it might have been better to keep the same team.

"The lads who came in [Brian Miller in midfield for Bobby Robson and John Angus in place of Mick McNeil at left back] did well enough, but after the events of Rome we never seemed to be up for it."

Among the issues at stake that warm afternoon in Rome was whether Bobby Charlton would at last realise his potential. Unsure of how to get the best out an immensely gifted footballer, England and Manchester United used him on the left wing, the position he filled in Rome and where he continued to play until transformed by Alf Ramsey's idea of operating in close support of the strikers.

When England won the World Cup five years later, Charlton was the only one of the five survivors from Rome in Ramsey's squad to be selected for the final against West Germany. Armfield, Springett and Ron Flowers didn't appear at all, and Greaves couldn't budge either Geoff Hurst or Roger Hunt after dropping out with an injury.

Haynes' international career ended prematurely when a car crash shortly after leading England in the 1962 World Cup finals left him with a permanently damaged knee. Made England's first pounds 100 per week footballer by his only professional club, Fulham, on the removal of the maximum wage in 1961, he won 56 caps and widespread acclaim as one of the game's creative players.

Reflecting further on the events of May 1961 he said. "As the link players in a sort of 4-2-4 formation, Bob Robson and I were given a chasing. It's going back a long way but I remember that clearly. That and the collision with Buffon, whose nephew plays for Parma. And Jimmy Armfield's face when I suggested the lap of honour."

Haynes will watch tomorrow's match on television. So will McGhee whose retirement years are partly taken up by reporting for the Observer. He has a thought that England supporters may think disturbing. It is that in size and features Gianfranco Zola bears a resemblance to Sivori. Plays a lot like him too.