Football: `I can still hear Revie's voice - the desperation not to let in any more'

As England prepare to face Italy at Wembley on Wednesday, Ken Jones recalls some of their classic encounters
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The Independent Online
More than 20 years on from a defeat by Italy in Rome that undermined seriously England's attempt to qualify for the 1978 World Cup finals, and led ultimately to Don Revie's scandalous defection, Roy McFarland remembers him yelling anxiously from the touchline.

With Finland and Luxembourg in the group, goal difference loomed as a key factor in Revie's troubled mind when Italy went into a 2-0 lead. "I can still hear his voice," McFarland, now manager of Cambridge, said last week, "the desperation not to let in any more goals."

Then Derby County's centre-half, McFarland recalls embarrassment too. "We were completely outplayed, outclassed. Some of our players didn't want to admit it, but Italy were far superior in every aspect of the game, even tackling which was supposed to be one of our strengths. I never imagined that our front players, Kevin Keegan and Mike Channon, could be made to look so ineffective. And we didn't have anybody to compare with Roberto Bettega, who caused us all sorts of problems. It really was a shattering experience."

A dire result of stagnant thinking in club football, England's technical shortcomings persuaded Revie to believe that he had taken on an impossible task. "I made the mistake of not realising how important it was at Leeds to have players available from the other home countries and the Republic of Ireland," he said privately. "The more I think about it the clearer it becomes that England aren't good enough."

A month earlier, on 13 October 1976 and following a 4-1 victory in Helsinki that summer, England laboured to defeat Finland by just 2-1 at Wembley. Later, realising that the five goals England subsequently put past Luxembourg probably would not be enough to make the return against Italy critical, Revie abandoned the cause, secretly taking up a job in the Arab Emirates.

McFarland retains some sympathy for the man whose tenure as England manager ended in disgrace. "You only have to look at what Don achieved at Leeds to see that he was an outstanding manager," he said. "He was a very thorough man who had the misfortune to be in charge of England when we were a pretty poor lot. I don't think many people realised just how far we had fallen behind until that match against Italy. Don tried to lift us afterwards but you sensed that deep down he didn't think we were good enough to qualify."

When Italy turned up at Wembley on 16 November, 1977, with the comfort of a home game still to come against Luxembourg, they needed only to ensure that England, by then under Ron Greenwood's stewardship, did not run up a big score. Coming down to a matter of pride, goals from Keegan and Trevor Brooking were not nearly enough. Absent from the World Cup finals since 1970, England's years in the wilderness were further extended when Italy qualified on goal difference by coasting past Luxembourg in Turin.

In the long history of encounters between the two countries there are far better experiences for England to look back on. In May 1948 a team that included such notable virtuosos as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Wilf Mannion defeated Italy 4-0 in Turin, one of the goals a remarkable effort from Stan Mortensen who sent in a 30-yard shot from the goal-line.

The next year, as a teenage professional with Southend United (no seats for us, just a ticket to stand on the terraces) I saw the great Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper, Bert Williams, give a brilliant performance when England defeated Italy 2-0 with a rare goal from Billy Wright and another from Jack Rowley of Manchester United.

It was at Southend that I heard grisly tales from our trainer, Wilf Copping, about a match against Italy in 1934 recalled in history as the "Battle of Highbury". Along with goalkeeper Frank Moss, Eddie Hapgood, George Male, Ray Bowden, Ted Drake and Cliff Bastin, one of seven Arsenal players in the England team, Copping was famous for his tackling.

Copping is long gone but nobody was ever encouraged to take him lightly. His face appeared to be all forehead, his nose mangled above the jutting chin from which he scraped bristles with the remains of a cut-throat razor lubricated only by cold water. "Come on," we used to say, "tell us about that match, how you sorted out the Italians," and his eyes would glint. Never sent off or booked, hard but fair people said of him, though you had to suspect otherwise, Copping must have been some proposition.

Certainly that match furthered his reputation. Italy were the reigning world champions at a time when England stood arrogantly aloof from the burgeoning competition. Well coached by one of the game's great figures, Vittorio Pozzo, fired up by promises from Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, the Italian players were rumoured to be on a win bonus of pounds 100, astonishing for the time, cars and exemption from military service. England had no manager and the players could take their pick of a medal or a pounds 5 match fee.

Matthews, then only 19, was on England's right wing as Drake won his first cap. "It wasn't very nice," I remember Drake telling me, by all accounts understating the case. "Eric Brook missed a penalty in the first minute but we were three up after after a quarter of an hour. Eric scored twice and I got the other.

"There was this clash of styles you see. We were more robust and in those days you were allowed to charge the goalkeeper. Well, in England we could. When I charged the Italian they went crazy. From then on it was a sleeves up job and I think Wilf and Eric had theirs rolled up to the shoulders."

It was right up Copping's alley. Speaking many years later, Bastin recalled: "There was never much joy in playing against foreign opposition in those days because there was always a lot of body-checking and shirt-pulling. But the Italians went berserk at Highbury. It all started when their centre-half, Monti, went off with a broken nose."

Luisito Monti, a talented but notoriously bad-tempered Argentinian who played for Juventus, left the field screaming that he had been deliberately kicked. "That was it," added Bastin. "Eddie Hapgood's nose was broken by an elbow and Ted Drake was badly fouled. I was kicked in the back and everyone finished with some sort of scar. But Wilf kept saying, `Don't worry, Cliff, I'll look after you,' and he did."

One of the things I remember Copping telling us was that he frightened two Italian players from the field. Fingering the blue scars that were a legacy of his days in the Yorkshire coalfield, he did not put it quite so delicately. "Once they turned nasty I got stuck in, and got a couple of the bastards off inside 10 minutes. It was a bloody tough game. But I'll tell you what - I enjoyed it."


England and Italy have met 17 times since their first match in 1933. Both have won six times, with five drawn:

1933 Rome England 1 Italy 1

1934 Highbury England 3 Italy 2

1939 Milan Italy 2 England 2

1948 Turin Italy 0 England 4

1949 White Hart Lane England 2 Italy 0

1952 Florence Italy 1 England 1

1959 Wembley England 2 Italy 2

1961 Rome Italy 2 England 3

1973 Turin Italy 2 England 0

1973 Wembley England 0 Italy 1

1976 New York England 3 Italy 2

1976 Rome Italy 2 England 0

1977 Wembley England 2 Italy 0

1980 Turin Italy 1 England 0

1985 Mexico City England 1 Italy 2

1989 Wembley England 0 Italy 0

1990 Bari Italy 2 England 1