Top ten greatest England finals performances

Date published: Tuesday 3rd July 2018 7:19 - Ian Watson


10) England 3-0 Denmark – World Cup 2002
Sven’s men eased into the quarter-finals by blowing away the Danes before half-time, with Rio Ferdinand claiming and celebrating his first international goal, despite his header actually going away from the net before Thomas Sorensen chucked it in.

Michael Owen and Emile Heskey gave the Three Lions a formidable lead to protect in the second half. “England’s defence was like a wall, said Thomas Gravesen. “It was so difficult to get through. Even the strikers defend brilliantly.”

Nicky Butt played his role so well that Pele declared him the player of the tournament so far. “The player I like is Butt,” said the Brazil legend before his nation faced England. “He’s been the best player up to this point. He’s a tremendous midfielder. He’s a good marker, he’s passionate, he gets forward and he passes well.”

What did Butt make of the compliment? “Pele was talking crap.”


9) Croatia 2-4 England – Euro 2004
England qualified for the knockout stages of a European Championship for the first time on foreign soil with a display that left much to be desired defensively but so much more to be admired.

In fairness, this was the golden generation. James, Neville, Terry, Campbell, Cole, Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Owen, Rooney – that side should have been blowing opponents away. And despite going behind and conceding later from another set-piece, that is almost what they did to Croatia.

Wayne Rooney bagged a couple following his brace in the previous game against Switzerland to become the tournament’s top scorer, with Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard getting themselves on the scoresheet too. The victory set up a quarter-final meeting with hosts Portugal, which saw England suffer a familiarly heartbreaking defeat.


8) England 3 Poland 0 – World Cup ’86
Bobby Robson’s England were in the mire going into their third and final group 6 clash with Poland in Monterrey. They had lost their opener against Portugal and been held to a goalless draw by Morocco, with Bryan Robson carried off and Ray Wilkins sent off.

“England will be playing 4-4-f*cking-2,” said Robson – perhaps – as he tweaked his formation, ditching 4-3-3. It paid immediate dividends with Gary Lineker netting a first-half hat-trick as ‘England soared into the second phase of the World Cup with an exhilarating display of attacking football’, according to the Football Monthly report.

The victory left Robson in defiant mood: “People can say what they like about me, but never ever accuse my players of lacking character. This was a phenomenal performance given the pressure they were under. Phenomenal!”


7) Colombia 0-2 England – World Cup 1998
“Now Owen’s scored, there’s going to be only one winner here,” said Kevin Keegan on ITV during England’s second group match in France. His optimism, not for the first time, was misplaced and Romania earned a last-gasp win to leave Glenn Hoddle’s men in a shoot-out with Colombia to reach the last 16.

Hoddle had so far resisted the urge to start Michael Owen and David Beckham together, with Beckham being accused of a lack of focus by the England boss. So, of course, the Manchester United midfielder proved him wrong with a superb performance crowned with his first international goal – a trademark 25-yard set-piece on 29 minutes which was the first free-kick England had scored at a finals tournament.

Darren Anderton’s opener ten minutes previously was quite a strike too. In the end, Colombia were grateful to keeper Farid Mondrago for keeping the score down. “I’m absolutely delighted with that performance,” Hoddle said. “We really could have won by four or five goals.” Their next performance wasn’t bad either. But…


6) England 2-2 Argentina – World Cup 1998
‘Who knows if England would have overthrown the feared Argentinians had David Beckham not been sent off through a mixture of his suicidal petulance and over-reactive refereeing?’ asked the Daily Mail’s match report from St Etienne. ‘But what no-one can deny is that they were playing thrillingly enough to make their dream quarter-final with Holland a distinct possibility.’

Indeed it was a performance and a match that had a bit of everything. Two goals inside the opening ten minutes as each side exchanged penalties; a wonder goal from wonderkid Owen, who rounded the world’s deepest ever defender before blasting high into the net; a clever set-piece to equalise – all that was in the first half.

The second half began badly for England and worse for Beckham. His red card for reacting to Diego Simeone’s foul provoked hanging effigies and death threats. But his team-mates did all they could to bail Beckham out, with a backs-to-the-wall display that was crowned by Sol Campbell’s late headed winner – until the ref got involved.

Penalties came and penalties went precisely as we had come to expect. David Batty and Paul Ince missed, but Beckham was the fall guy on the night Owen truly announced himself on the global stage.


5) Germany 1-1 England – Euro ’96
Urgh. Football was coming home until it was grabbed off the street, bundled into the back of a van and smuggled back to Germany.

Before the penalty heartbreak, England gave a performance of typical spirit and fight. The Germans were certainly a match for Venables’ men though they struggled to live with the grey-shirted Three Lions in the opening stages, with Paul Ince’s volley being acrobatically saved before Alan Shearer headed in an opener with only five minutes on the clock. Germany recovered their composure, though, and levelled through Stefan Kuntz on 16 minutes.

Extra-time arrived and both sides went for the Golden Goal. Anderton hit the post and Paul Gascoigne was inches away from Shearer’s cross when, even today, you expect Gazza to toe it in. When penalties arrived, the first ten were perfect. Then Gareth Southgate stepped up…

“If somebody told me you are going up to heaven and you can take one game with you, I think I would take that England game,” said Barry Davies after talking the public through it for the BBC. “I’d try to get the result changed when I got up there, though.”


4) England 1-1 Germany – World Cup ’90
Italia ’90 was the best or worst tournament ever, depending on who you listen to. The Three Lions’ performances also lurched between extremes, from their opener against Republic of Ireland after which La Repubblica asked ‘Is this all there is to England?’, to the semi-final against Germany which Andreas Brehme declared “a fantastic match involving two great teams – it was the final before the final”.

After a last-gasp win against Belgium and a couple of penalties to squeeze past Cameroon, England’s luck ran out in Turin. “We hit the inside of the post, they scored a really lucky goal and we lost on a shoot-out,” said Gary Lineker, which sums it up perfectly.

Germany progressed to the final after being pushed all the way for 120 minutes. What if Bobby Robson’s men had triumphed in the shoot-out and gone on to face Diego Maradona and Argentina again. “Would England have beaten them?” Brehme pondered. “Definitely, 100 per cent.”


3) France 1-3 England – World Cup 1982
‘Cracking Start! Both the result and the performance made it England’s most promising start to any European or World Cup tournament for many years,’ enthused Football Monthly after England, without Keegan and Brooking, began their Spain ’82 campaign by beating a France team containing Platini, Giresse and Tigana.

Their tournament was only 27 seconds old when Bryan Robson volleyed in an opener for what was then the fastest ever goal at a World Cup finals. France levelled in the first half but Robson netted again midway through the second period before Paul Marriner sealed victory by scoring his fifth goal in consecutive internationals.

Ron Greenwood’s men went on to win all three first group games before remaining goalless in both second group phase games against Spain and West Germany. It meant England returned home undefeated. ‘English fly home with their heads in the air’ read The Times, and ‘England out with honour intact’ said The Guardian, which was a decade before England managers were being portrayed as turnips on the front page of national newspapers.


2) Argentina 0-1 England – World Cup 2002
After the manner of England’s defeat to Argentina in France, the two nations were absolutely destined to meet again four years later. It’s how football and its f*cked-up sense of humour works.

The Three Lions, and Beckham, had their revenge in Sapporo. The skipper smashed in the winning penalty just before half-time after Owen hit the deck in the vicinity of Mauricio Pochettino’s leg.

‘They outplayed the team who had come into this tournament as favourites. England defended with supreme discipline, passed and moved with wit in midfield and attacked with intensity,’ proclaimed the Daily Express, while Paul Scholes’ nine-out-of-10 display was hailed as ‘the greatest of his career’ by The Times. It got worse for Argentina when they failed to qualify from the group. Which was nice.


1) England 4-1 Holland – Euro ’96
Football was due home in 1996, and though it was eventually caught in a 22-year delay – presumably football travelled by Northern Rail – it felt like the journey was almost complete when England turned in what many considered to be their finest performance since 1966.

The euphoria possibly misted a few memories because though the Three Lions led at half-time thanks to Shearer’s penalty, Holland were coming on strong. “England really need half-time here,” said Barry Davies after the Dutch won their eighth corner. But after the break, Terry Venables’ side blew away their opponents with three goals in 11 minutes, Shearer’s second, sandwiched by a brace from Teddy Sheringham, being the highlight after a move involving his strike partner which was orchestrated by Gascoigne.

England even had time to allow Patrick Kluivert a goal which did for Scotland’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages – “the cherry on top” according to David Seaman, the man who conceded it. But regardless of whether it was a deserved consolation, as Venables put it: “We thrashed them. There’s no doubt about it.”

Ian Watson

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