Whatever Happens, Can We Keep Calm?

The last time England lost their opening group game, they still reached the quarter-finals and Gary Lineker still got the Golden Boot. Any chance we could remember that?

Last Updated: 13/06/14 at 15:50 Post Comment

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Four years ago, the shattering effect of Rob Green's blunder against the USA undermined Fabio Capello's campaign comprehensively, all the psychological weakness that the Italian had sought to address bursting forth against Algeria and, after Jermain Defoe's crucial goal, against Slovenia, too.

Second place in a group the Sun had proclaimed was E A S Y (England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks) pitched us up against Germany in the last 16. Though that game was not as one-sided as the 4-1 scoreline suggests, and England would have been perfectly capable of losing to Ghana, without Green's blunder such powerful opposition would surely have been avoided.

Yet opening games are rarely so determinant of future fates. The last time England faced Uruguay competitively was the dour, goalless opening to the 1966 World Cup, one of the games that helped persuade plain Mr Alf Ramsey to ditch wingers en route to becoming a Sir. While opening defeats at Euro 88 (1-0 to the Republic of Ireland) and Euro 2000 (3-2 to Portugal) were followed by first-round exits, the second of these departures was far from preordained. And what happened the last time England lost their opening game at a World Cup?

In 1986, England faced Portugal competitively for the first time since the 1966 semi-finals. Carlos Manuel's goal, 14 minutes from time in Monterrey, condemned Bobby Robson's side to defeat. Little better came in the second game, against Morocco, with Bryan Robson injured out of the tournament and his replacement as captain, Ray Wilkins, sent off for throwing the ball with dissent in the direction of the referee. Two games, no goals, one point.

Still, with the four best third-placed runners-up going through too, all was not lost. Three goals against Poland inside 35 minutes by Gary Lineker met no reply and propelled England towards the famous quarter-final against Diego Maradona's divine Argentina and Lineker towards the golden boot (and ultimately our TV screens), via a double against Paraguay in the last 16. Portugal were the only non-qualifiers from the group, having lost 1-0 to Poland and then being stunned 3-1 by Morocco, who finished top of the pile, which earned them a date with West Germany.

If there is a theme to be drawn from opening games, it is that they can lead to a change of approach from the manager. Ramsey tried a different winger in each group game - John Connelly against Uruguay, Terry Paine against Mexico and Ian Callaghan against France - and only the last of these was capped again, and not until 1977. And Alf was far from alone in re-working his tactics.

Mark Hateley, a typical English center-forward, was discarded after the blanks against Portugal and Morocco in 1986, clearing the way for Lineker's partnership with Peter Beardsley. At Italia 90, Robson fielded a 4-4-2 in the 1-1 draw against the Republic of Ireland, but then discarded Steve McMahon to bring in Mark Wright as a sweeper.

In 1998, Glenn Hoddle stuck with Euro 96's Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham for two games, before substitute Michael Owen scored against Romania and earned a starting place at the expense of Sheringham, with famous results.

Defeat against Italy would leave Roy Hodgson in a very tight spot, undoubtedly. The pressure will be on even if a result is achieved but in a manner that suggests it would be a struggle to beat decent opposition. But there would still be time for things to go right - and, in victory, there would still be time for things to go wrong, as Portugal discovered in 1986.

England's number one patriotic paper, The Sun, used a combination of the performance against the Republic of Ireland in 1990 and off-field trouble to call in an editorial for the team to come home there and then. A couple of weeks later, the same space told the semi-finalists: 'We always knew you could do it.' We should fervently hope for a better display in Manaus than there was in Cagliari 24 years ago but we should hope for a sense of proportion whatever happens.ý

Philip Cornwall

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