For all England’s tournament woes they remain Europe’s leading qualification experts- 1 defeat in their last 46 (and that was a dead rubber) is an enviable qualification record. I’m counting down here their 10 best qualification performances I’ve witnessed;
10. England 3-0 Poland (Sep 1993/ World Cup 1994)
The game that almost saved Graham Taylor, after the infamous loss in Norway Taylor’s England needed a win at home to Poland to keep the campaign alive. Taylor looked to have finally found the winning formula with a strong physical side with Gascoigne providing the flair, Lee Sharpe the pace and Les Ferdinand the power upfront. And for one night they resembled a Jose Mourinho side, Ferdinand powered home a header after 5 minutes, Gascoigne scored a clever second and Stuart Pearce lashed home a free kick early in the second half. Sadly Gascoigne (not for the first time) picked up an untimely suspension and Ferdinand got injured meaning England arrived for the decisive game in Holland with Carlton Palmer back in the side and all that was left was for Taylor to utter his timeless catchphrase and our dreams of a summer in the States were over.
9. England 3-0 Scotland (Nov 2016/ World Cup 2018)
Currently the stand out performance from Gareth Southgate’s brief tenure with England. England started well and Daniel Sturbridge headed a poachers effort in mid way through the first half. Scotland rallied after the break and should have equalised when first James Forrest and then Robert Snodgrass missed presentable chances, moments later Adam Lallana headed in a second and it was game over. With the pressure off and Scotland disheartened England played some neat and tidy football finishing with 68% of possession and added a third through Gary Cahill. How Raheem Sterling missed from 2 yards out for a fourth is anyones guess, but a biggest win over Scotland in 4 decades isn’t a bad way to introduce yourself as England manager.
8. England 3-0 Russia (Sep 2007/ Euro 2008)
Steve McClaren’s one good night as England manager- yes he did have one! England were playing catch up when Guus Hiddink’s talented Russian side rocked up at Wembley. With Rooney absent McClaren gave the much maligned Emile Heskey a recall hoping he could rekindle his old partnership with Michael Owen, it worked wonderfully well on the night. Heskey’s power and pace caused havoc in the Russian defence and Owen was at his predator best scoring twice in the opening half hour (his final goals for England). The Russians had a goal wrongly chalked off for handball and showed plenty of verve in attack, but always looked like conceding more and Rio Ferdinand drilled home a third late on. It was a performance of calm confidence and authority, qualities sadly lacking in Moscow the following month or against Croatia when a brolly entered England folklore.
7. England 3-1 Poland (Mar 1999/ Euro 2000)
Call it destiny, call it fate but England had an uncanny knack of drawing Poland in the 90s- in 5 consecutive qualifying campaigns the 2 countries were drawn together. This was Kevin Keegan’s first game as England manager and he quickly discovered he had a player similar to himself (only with red hair and no perm); Paul Scholes. Scholes gave a masterly display of attacking midfield play scoring twice in the opening 22 minutes. He completed the hat-trick in the second half and King Kev was up and running. Sadly under Keegan that was as good as it got, but when it did go well Scholes was always in the thick of it.
6. Switzerland 0-2 England (Sept 2014/ Euro 2016)
After the disastrous World Cup campaign of 2014, England arrived in Switzerland for their Euro 2016 opener expected to lose or at best salvage a draw. What followed was a masterclass in counter attacking football, with a new midfield triangle of Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson & Fabian Delph controlling the game. In the second half Arsenal new boy Danny Welbeck got a deserved opener and as Switzerland pressed for an equaliser Welbeck sprinted forward for a stoppage time second. The most difficult fixture from a simple group negotiated England went on to post their only 10 wins from 10 qualifying campaign. The less said about the finals the better.
5. Italy 0-0 England (Sep 1997/ World Cup 1998)
‘Hoddswallop’ was the verdict of The Sun after Glenn Hoddle’s first big qualifier ended in a 1-0 loss to Italy at Wembley. But slowly Hoddle rebuilt belief and England went on to win every other qualifier whilst the Italians suffered costly nil nil draws in Poland & Georgia, it all meant a draw from the final qualifier in Rome would send England to France and Italy the playoffs. England produced an excellent defensive performance largely on the back of a solid defensive trio of Adams-Campbell-Southgate and a busy midfield display from the tigerish pairing of Paul Ince & David Batty and Ian Wright harassing the Italian backline, the sort of thing you hope to see in a Champions League quarter final second leg (Man City take note!) Wright went for glory at the death, when the corner flag was a more logical option and Christian Vieri almost nicked it in injury time but England hung on for a deserved point and their World Cup tickets.
4. England 5-1 Croatia (Sept 2009/ World Cup 2010)
After their hammering a year earlier in Zagreb a sombre Croatia showed up at Wembley 2 years on from their great triumph over the Wally in the Brolly. England needed a point to ensure qualification, Croatia were struggling to make the play offs. In the 8th minute England won a penalty which Lampard stroked away and when Gerrard headed home the second 10 minutes later it was clear this was to be an execution. Bilic cut a dejected figure on the sidelines as Capello’s England exacted vengeance for the humiliation of 2 years previous. Three more goals followed in the second half as England completed a flawless qualification (8 played, 8 won, 2 to play). Had the World Cup been played that autumn they may have made the final, how quickly things changed.
3. England 2-0 Turkey (Apr 2003/ Euro 2004)
Turkey were on a high entering this Euro qualifier having finished 3rd at the previous years World Cup. Tensions were high at The Stadium of Light following a series of controversial games for English club sides in Turkey (in particular against Galatasaray). Sven gave young forward Wayne Rooney his first competitive start but initially Turkey looked dangerous with a series of neat passing moves, but Rooney dropped deep and began causing their defence problems. In the second half England pushed the Turks deeper and deeper into their own half and got a richly deserved goal through superstitute Darius Vassell. Turkey lost their cool and gave away a late penalty, Beckham duly dispatched and when Gerrard (accidentally) pushed a Turkish player with his arm while celebrating he received a shove in the back to which he got the repost of Steven celebrating in the players face- that’ll learn ‘yer!
2. Croatia 1-4 England (Sept 2008/ World Cup 2010)
Rarely have England turned up for a qualifier so unfancied. Croatia had done the double on them in the previous qualification campaign and had an imperious home record. But Croatia were soon put on the blackfoot by Theo Walcott, the Arsenal winger drilled a low shot from the right home to give England the half time lead. Croatia grew frustrated and a violent elbow to the face of Joe Cole saw them down to 10 men. England then simply hammered home their numeric advantage with Walcott adding a second, Rooney a brilliant third and despite pulling a goal back Croatia had no answer to Walcott who duly completed his hat-trick. The final session of keep ball was reminiscent of that famous Leeds- Southampton game from the 70s, Croatia really didn’t know what day it was. Stunning.
1. Germany 1-5 England (Sept 2001/ World Cup 2002)
Never any doubt this was number 1. After falling behind to Carstan Janker’s early strike England found their rhythm and a goalmouth melee saw a swift equaliser through Michael Owen. England were excellent throughout the first half but Germany almost went ahead on the stroke of halftime through Sebastian Deisler’s point blank effort he somehow smashed straight at David Seaman, England broke, won a corner, Gerrard hit a volley and the rest is history. With England ahead a pedestrian German side tried to dominate possession but were repeatedly caught out, Scholes & Beckham shredded the German backline and Owen smashed in 2 more, when Emile Heskey runs through your defence for the 5th you know you’ve been hammered. A memorable night and a result that genuinely shook the football world, qualifying never gets better than this (that late free kick against Greece a month later only made it sweeter.)