Switzerland vs England: It can't be as ugly for England as Basel '81

Glenn Moore remembers a previous visit to Switzerland that was marred by riots, defeat and a manager trying to quit

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Riots on the terraces, a humiliating defeat, the England manager resigning: whatever happens when England play in Basel on Monday night, it is unlikely to plumb the depths reached when they played there  in 1981.

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Then, as now, England flew to Switzerland at a low ebb. Ron Greenwood’s team had not won in five games nor scored in four, all at Wembley. After missing out on the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, qualification for 1982 was in the balance and Greenwood was under such severe pressure he wrote later: “I had a sense of shame for I felt the fault was mine. I could sense people were looking at me as if I had committed some crime.” 

Nevertheless, a team containing Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson, Ray Clemence, Kenny Sansom, Trevor Francis and Steve Coppell should have been good enough to beat a Swiss side largely drawn from the inconsequential domestic league.

Indeed, for nearly half an hour England were the brighter side. Then Alfred Scheiwiler played a neat one-two with Claudio Sulser that took him through a static England defence to put the Swiss one up. A minute later a quick free-kick released Sulser to dance past Russell Osman and Sansom to double the lead.

England fans began to riot. It was no surprise to the watching English media.

Michael Hart, who covered the match for the Evening Standard, recalls: “We had a press game the day before, at which we came back from 3-0 down to win 5-4 after Bobby Charlton gave a rallying talk at half-time, then scored a typical Charlton goal to win it. But even though it was just a press match there was quite a crowd and the atmosphere was ugly. This was the old England Travel Club and the FA had lost control of it. The following day they rioted in the stadium.”


“It was in that era, which is thankfully behind us now. As a player you just got on with it and tried to put it aside,” said Clemence, who had been left with streaming eyes in Turin the previous year when tear gas was used on fighting fans. It was used again in Basel, and while the players were not affected this time, with £60,000 damage caused (the equivalent of £225,000 now) the city’s police chief  said: “If we do not see them here again for 50 years it will be too soon.”

On the pitch, Greenwood reacted to the goals by replacing Francis with Terry McDermott and with England looking better balanced, the substitute pulled a goal back in the second period. It was not enough, however, and Greenwood, who had endured such headlines as “In the name of God, go now”, decided to do just that.

But with England facing another qualifier a week later away to group favourites Hungary, and staying in Switzerland to train until then, Ted Croker, secretary of the FA, and Dick Wragg, chairman of the international committee, persuaded Greenwood to stay on for a week, and keep his decision to himself.

“It was a long week of doom and gloom,” recalls Trevor Brooking, who had been left on the bench for the Swiss game but was recalled, along with Phil Neal, Phil Thompson and McDermott, for the Hungary match. “ ‘Ron resorts to Dad’s Army’ was one headline,” says Brooking, then 32. Brooking scored twice as England won 3-1, their first victory in Hungary since 1909.

“We played Saturday night but flew back on the Sunday,” says Brooking. “Everyone was chirpy, then we got on the plane and Ron, who never enjoyed the media scrutiny, told us he would be quitting when we landed.”

There was, Francis recalls, “an impromptu meeting among the senior players”. Then, says Brooking: “Kevin Keegan, Mick Mills and myself had a chat to Ron and told him the lads wanted him to stay and take us through the remaining qualifying games to the World Cup.”

The press were also on the plane, but none of this was noticed. “No one would expect a manager to resign after a great win,” says Brooking, “and they were down the back, feeling a bit sheepish.

“They all said ‘well done’ to us after the game but the first editions of the Sunday papers were on the plane. They’d gone to print before the match and, assuming we’d lose, had lists of the players who should be dropped, with crosses on their photos. There were about eight of us, including me.”

The players agreed not to say anything, but the cat was almost let out of the bag when England landed. Hart recalls: “Dick Wragg, who had flown back earlier from Switzerland, was all ready at the airport with a prepared statement. Ron told us later he had to rush over and tell him he wasn’t resigning after all.”

The story came out many months later, after Greenwood had taken the team to the brink of a World Cup semi-final. “It shows the respect he had from the lads,” says Brooking. “Now it would be on Twitter by the time we landed.”