The World Cup glory of 1966 must have seemed like a distant memory come the early 1980s. Failure to qualify for the 1974 tournament had cost Sir Alf Ramsey his job, with the 1978 qualification campaign thrown into turmoil as soon as Don Revie decided to quit and defect to the United Arab Emirates in 1977. Revie's replacement, Ron Greenwood, narrowly failed to get England to Argentina - kindly pointed out to us in the lyrics of Andy Cameron's Tartan Army ("England cannae dae it, 'Cos they didnae qualify") - so by the time the draw was made for the 1982 qualification matches, England were desperate to get back to the top table of world football.
When the draw was made in Zurich on October 14, 1979, it appeared that it had been kind to Greenwood. Hungary, Romania, Switzerland and Norway, was on paper a handy draw, especially as two teams from the group qualified automatically for the finals. "England have been handed a golden passport to the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain," stated the Mirror's Nigel Clarke, David Miller of the Express adding that "If England fail to qualify for the 1982 World Cup Finals they should be retired forever to a shelf in the British Museum". England expected, as usual.
Greenwood also admitted that it was a good group, naturally adding the standard caveat that "there are no easy internationals these days". For once though, this cliche proved accurate. England started the group well enough, an easy 4-0 win over Norway at Wembley ensuring that Edvard Munch's and Roald Amundsen's boys had taken a hell of a beating, yet a 2-1 loss in Romania, and a 0-0 draw at home against the same opponents muddied the waters, spreading anxiety through the veins of English supporters.
Sandwiched in between the Romania matches was a nervy 2-1 win at Wembley over the Swiss in November 1980. As the players left the pitch to a crescendo of boos from the 70,000 crowd, they were in little doubt that things had to improve, the press seemingly shocked that England had not handed out a Norway-style thrashing to a country they viewed as far inferior to the England team. If Greenwood was hoping for a change in fortunes, then he was in for a number of disappointments in 1981, including the return match in Basel.
England's form going into the Swiss fixture was hardly awe inspiring; a 2-1 friendly defeat at home to Spain, followed by the 0-0 with Romania, a 1-0 loss against Brazil, and a 0-0 Home Championship draw against Wales in front of just 32,280 at Wembley, got the press sharpening their axes. When Scotland left Wembley with a 1-0 win, the obituaries for English football were once again being written. England's worst run in over 100 years consisting of no wins in five, and scoreless in the last four, only served to heap further pressure on an already beleaguered boss. England needed to respond in their next qualifier on 30 May 1981, otherwise the consequences did not bear thinking about for the England manager.
The England cause was certainly not helped by the absence of many Ipswich and Liverpool players in the Home Championship matches. Ipswich's UEFA Cup win and Liverpool's third European Cup triumph may have pleased their fans, but for Greenwood it was an extra headache he could have well done without, preventing him from selecting the likes of Clemence, Mills, Neal, Thompson, Butcher, Osman, McDermott and Mariner, in matches that he desperately needed to win.
The timing of the Switzerland match, right at the end of a gruelling season, was also not ideal. To think that in an era of small squads, Ipswich had played an exhausting 66 matches, Liverpool 63, and Nottingham Forest 56, highlights the fact that many of the players upon which Greenwood would be relying on, were probably running on empty.
Switzerland's new coach, Paul Wolfisberg, had less concerns. Having recently taken charge of the national team - combining it with his role as coach of SC Lucerne and running an architectural business - Wolfisberg's attacking philosophy had already begun to pay dividends in his first two matches; an impressive 1-0 friendly win in Czechoslovakia, and a 2-2 draw against Hungary, a match in which they had led 2-1.
Recalls for the Grasshoppers striker Claudio Sulser, who Brian Clough was apparently interested in signing, and the FC Zurich forward Ruedi Elsener, gave impetus back to the side, and 48 caps experience in the process. "I have told the players we have nothing to lose," stated the chain-smoking Wolfisberg on the eve of the match, and what had looked like an easy match when the draw was made, all of a sudden took on a menacing quality. "Make no mistake, Switzerland are capable of inflicting the defeat which could cost Greenwood his job," reported David Miller on matchday. How true.
Such was the magnitude of the match to both Greenwood and England, that it was no surprise when the line-up announced by the manager contained so much experience. Out were the flair players in Hoddle and Peter Barnes, although there was a return for the injured skipper Kevin Keegan and the previously rested Trevor Francis. The Daily Mirror christened Greenwood's selection his Dad's Army team, yet also admitted the selection had been forced upon the manager due to the nature of England's previous performances.
Clemence; Mills, Watson, Osman, Sansom; Coppell, Robson, Keegan (c), Wilkins; Francis, Mariner
Corrigan, Neal, McDermott, Withe, Barnes
England started the match in a determined fashion, closing down the Swiss and creating a few half-chances, and having a decent shout for a penalty turned down after a Francis shot appeared to strike a Swiss arm in the box. England's mass appeal for a penalty was waved away by the East German referee Adolf Prokop, and as the half progressed, the visitors seemed bereft of any ideas going forwards.
And then to two minutes of utter calamity. One Swiss goal was bad enough, but to concede two in a little over a minute was unthinkable. The ease in which both goals were scored was shocking, and unfortunately the harrowing scenes were not only limited to the pitch, as England's fans decided to show their disgust in the only way they could accurately convey.
Switzerland's midfield dynamo Fredi Scheiwiler must have been as surprised as anyone when his one-two with Sulser resulted in him having the freedom of England's penalty area in the 28th minute. Running on to the ball lifted over an England defence that seemed to be in a daydream, Scheiwiler rifled a shot past Ray Clemence on his near post, just to complete the general ineptitude of the goal from an English perspective.
The team, low on confidence to begin with, had barely a minute to absorb what had just happened, before Switzerland doubled their lead. The hole which opened up through the heart of England's defence was again frightening, as Sulser surged past Osman like he wasn't there, and after getting through Sansom's attempted tackle, the Swiss forward poked a left foot shot beyond Clemence's grasp to send the home crowd into ecstasy.
Unfortunately, English fans within the ground did not react kindly to the mess they had seen unfold before them, so decided to create some of their own. Fighting broke out on the terraces, as a minority of England's travelling supporters, fuelled by alcohol and anger, began to take revenge on anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. Twenty people were hurt inside the ground, in what was given the obligatory 'Battle of Basel' title, and with pub windows smashed in, and shops looted before and after the match, the reputation of the English on the continent had taken another battering.
Although some English fans pleaded their innocence, claiming a group of Italian-Swiss youths had instigated much of the trouble, condemnation for the actions of the hooligans was widespread. FIFA official Jacques Georges attended the match, stating: "Your so-called fans are a disgrace to their country. I will certainly report their behaviour", his thoughts echoed by Minister of Sport Hector Monro: "This continuing disgraceful behaviour reflects very badly on this country".
Many measures were discussed in the wake of yet another night of English shame, one to go alongside Luxembourg and Turin from recent years. The FA secretary Ted Croker called for a ban of all English travelling supporters for future matches, with various MPs declaring that anyone convicted of violence abroad should have their passports confiscated. Some even suggested a complete ban of England competing at all in international competitions. The way the team performed that night in Basel, it might have been a blessing in disguise to supporters of both England and our continental friends if such a ban had been imposed.
There was a little more to cheer in the second half at least. The introduction of Terry McDermott in place of Francis worked for Greenwood, the Liverpool midfielder latching on to a Coppell pass to bring England back into the match on 54 minutes. That it was England's first goal in just under eight hours indicated the sorry state of the national team at the time, but that aside, England were now back in the match and with a chance to test the Swiss resolve.
The inevitable English pressure did arrive, though the creativity was short in supply, something that Greenwood belatedly attempted to fix by introducing Barnes for the ponderous Watson. Alas, Barnes was unable to work any miracles in the ten minutes that Greenwood gave him, and although Robson would go close, keeper Burgener pulling off a good save, the equaliser never arrived. England had lost their first game against Switzerland since 1947, and Greenwood must have wanted the ground open up and swallow him whole.
"It was bad play that cost us this match, two unbelievably simple defensive mistakes. You can't legislate for that," uttered a tired and dejected looking Greenwood on the day after the nightmare before. "I don't feel very bubbly right now," the England boss went on, neatly summing both his own mood and that of the English national team at the time. Admirably Greenwood offered no excuses, even if Switzerland's match-winner Sulser did hint at the fatigue factor: "The chiefs of the game in England must change things. How can England expect to play critical matches at the end of such a hard domestic season?" A valid point, but the verdict of Wolfisberg was also dangerously close to the truth: "We thought England would be more forceful, but we found them easy to control".
Calls for the manager's head were instant, hardly surprising given the appalling run of results and the now very realistic prospect that England were once again not going to be present at a World Cup tournament. Logically there would be no knee-jerk reaction from the FA, due to the fact that a week later the team faced a crucial qualifier in Budapest, but all press hacks agreed that defeat in Hungary would surely spell the end for Greenwood. "If England lose in Budapest at the end of this particular week, his days as England manager are surely over," wrote Miller. The noose was tightening.
Someone once mentioned that football is a funny old game. Written off by all and sundry, England went to Hungary and won 3-1, putting World Cup qualification back in their own hands, and giving Greenwood a stay of execution. But not wanting to do things the easy way, England slumped to that infamous defeat in Norway, appearing to kill off any hopes of reaching Spain. Two steps forwards and three back, as ever with the national side. Greenwood was ready to resign after the Swiss defeat, and after the Norway debacle, he must have regretted that the players had talked him out of it. It was a good job they had, as there was yet another twist in this tale.
Ironically, Switzerland were to be England's saviours, their renaissance under Wolfisberg thankfully continuing through to the end of the qualification matches. A shock 2-1 win in Romania raised English hopes, and when the same two teams drew 0-0 in Bern, England now only required a draw from their final home game to qualify for Spain. Thanks to a Paul Mariner strike, England had successfully negotiated their way out of a World Cup qualifying group for the first time since the 1962 tournament - they qualified as hosts and holders in 1966 and 1970 respectively - and they did not disgrace themselves in Spain, exiting the tournament unbeaten, in the second group stage.
All of that looked a pipe dream when England were humiliated in Basel, as Greenwood and his men were lambasted for having the temerity to lose to such a minnow. Yet the very team which inflicted that defeat were ultimately responsible for getting England to Spain, a welcome notice to the English that the footballing world was a changing landscape. Surely the lessons had been heeded, complacency and arrogance banished as a thing of the past. Not a chance. When the qualification campaign for Euro 1984 started, it was as if English heads had been buried in the sand, more of which you can read here if it takes your fancy.