1968 was a turbulent year. In much the same way as in 2017, social unrest and division swept across the globe due to the actions of a small number of world leaders, and the equilibrium of the planet felt in danger from a litany of severe natural disasters.
Events across the political landscape had threatened to de-rail the feel-good factor of the psychedelic sixties. The divisive war in Vietnam had led to protests across the United Kingdom, and resulted in 91 police injured and 200 demonstrators arrested. Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech also stirred up a palpable sense of discomfort and division.
Further afield, 1968 brought the assassinations of two key civil rights activists – Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. These were dark times and things felt uneasy; people were in need of escapism and togetherness.
Led by the ground-breaking sounds of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, English music was doing its bit. It was football’s turn to momentarily lift the gloom, as it had done so emphatically on home turf two years earlier.
Heading into the 1968 European Championship tournament, the England squad consisted of a host of reigning World and European champions, and with recently-knighted Sir Alf Ramsey at the helm, optimism was high.
A significant year in English football
As England prepare to take on Germany and Brazil this week, it was games against these two footballing giants, either side of Euro ’68, which live long in the memory.
Ask a football fan of any age in this country about England’s performance in the 1966 World Cup, and they’ll reel off the main details – Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against West Germany, the controversial goal, Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary, and the brilliance of Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks and Bobby Charlton.
It’s the same with the match against Brazil at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico – Moore’s sublime tackle on Jairzinho and Banks’s stunning save from Pele’s header.
What might not come so easily is the tournament sandwiched in between – the 1968 European Championships held in Italy. With only four teams participating in the final stages, reigning World Champions England had to settle for a third-place finish.
Exactly a week before England’s semi-final against Yugoslavia, Bobby Charlton captained Manchester United to the European Cup, beating Benfica 4-1 in extra-time at Wembley. United were the first English club to achieve such a feat. George Best is rightly credited with running amok in the final that evening, but it was Englishman John Aston who bagged the Man of the Match award.
The final standing at the top of the league table in the 1967/68 season mirrors exactly as it stands today – Manchester City in first place, sitting just ahead of local rivals Manchester United. In footballing terms at least, things were looking rosy in 1968.
A new tournament format
1968 brought a new setup, the tournament changed from European Nations’ Cup to the European Championship. A group phase replaced the old home-and-away knock-out stage, although in the event of a draw (aside from the final), a coin toss would decide the winner.
Four countries took part after initial qualifying – Italy, Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and England. The British Home Nations championship doubled up as one of the groups and was topped by England. Ramsey’s side then beat Spain both home and away to progress to the semi-final thanks to goals from Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters and Norman Hunter.
A war of attrition and Sir Alf’s kind gesture
The semi-final against Yugoslavia is most memorable for Alan Mullery becoming the first player ever to be sent off while playing for England. In a rough-house encounter – a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia – Mullery retaliated to a bad tackle from Dobrivoje Trivić by giving him a good kick in the conkers:
“The back of my sock was red, the blood was pouring out and my heart was beating really fast. In sheer anger I turned round and kicked him in the how’s your fathers, and down he went like a sack of spuds”
Mullery expected a hostile reception from his manager, but it never came. Ramsey said “I’m glad somebody retaliated against those b******s”. When Mullery arrived home, the Football Association fined him £50. Initially concerned about raising the funds, he needn’t have worried:
“Alf was very, very good to me… He paid the fine, which was absolutely unbelievable. Fifty quid was a lot of money in 1968”
Mullery’s red card still haunts him. When Alan Smith was sent off for in 2002 against Macedonia, he said: “The next day one of my grandchildren phoned me up and said: “Grandad, you’re in the paper.” Mullery was top of a list of players sent off while playing for England. “That’s what I have to put up with.”
Back in 1968, Mullery had to watch the third-fourth play-off match from the stands as England strolled to a 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union. The goals came from likely sources – one apiece for Charlton and Hurst.
Italy – champions of Europe
Italy had spent the previous two years rebuilding after their humiliating exit at the hands of North Korea in the 1966 World Cup. New coach Ferruccio Valcareggi had some outstanding individuals, such as goalkeeper Dino Zoff, left-back Giacinto Facchetti, attacking midfielder Sandro Mazzola, and forwards Luigi Riva and Pietro Anastasi.
In progressing to the final, Italy had to rely on luck, correctly guessing the coin toss after a 0-0 draw with the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia took an early lead when Golden Boot winner and Red Star Belgrade legend Dragan Džajić struck past a helpless Zoff. With 10 minutes remaining, Italy equalised through a trickling free kick from Angelo Domenghini to set up a replay.
Two days later, the hosts cruised to a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from Luigi Riva and Pietro Anastasi. Unsurprisingly, the Team of the Tournament was dominated by Italians. Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst were the only representatives from England.
It was not meant to be for England in Euro ‘68, although the country rallied around their national heroes after the rough and tumble of the Yugoslavia semi-final. Four years earlier in the 1964 tournament, England did not even make it to the qualification stage, losing 6-3 on aggregate to France in the preliminary rounds.
A third-place finish in 1968 felt like a relative disappointment as expectation had become so great following England’s World Cup triumph. It’s a burden of expectancy which still exists to this day.
The European Championships, if only for a short time, offered some respite from the troubling political backdrop in the summer of 1968. With hindsight, it’s a lesson which can be applied to the uncertainties of 2017 – and also from a sporting context – when heartbreak and loss appear to continue unabated, better and more prosperous days often lie ahead.