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The biggest upsets in England's history

Alex Perry
September 5, 2013
Denis Law scores in Scotland's most famous win over England as Manchester United team-mate Bobby Charlton watches on © Getty Images

As expected, England are stuttering their way to qualification for next year's World Cup - and still remains very much in the balance. To put your minds at ease, here are ten matches where England were just a bit more rubbish than they are now…

10. San Marino 1-7 England

World Cup qualifier; November 17, 1993; Stadio Renato Dall'Ara, Italy

Just three years previously, England had stormed their way to the Italia '90 semi-finals. As a result, they were handed a relatively straightforward qualifying group for the next World Cup, to be held in the US.

Holland and Norway provided the only real test for the two automatic qualifying spots, while Poland and Turkey were nowhere near the forces they are today. Then there were world football's whipping boys, San Marino.

But Graham Taylor's men had blundered their way through the process. They were beaten in both Oslo and Rotterdam, while Poland held them for a share of the points. It meant England needed to win by seven clear goals in San Marino and hope that Holland lost to Poland in Warsaw.

But just 8.3 seconds after kick off, the ball was in the back of the England net after a sloppy Stuart Pearce passback was seized upon by computer salesman Davide Gualtieri for what remains the fastest goal in World Cup history.

With Holland cruising to a 3-1 win against Poland, it rendered England's result meaningless. But to add insult to injury, Taylor's men got the seven goals they needed - it was the one they conceded that would have done for them anyway if the Poles had done the business.

It's a wonder it took Taylor a whole week to resign…

9. England 1-3 Australia

Friendly; February 12, 2003; Upton Park, London

A failed Sven-Goran Eriksson experiment, the Swede's decision to field two separate sides in each half backfired as the Socceroos earned a well-deserved win with goals from Tony Popovic, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton.

Eriksson handed debuts to strikers Franny "Fox in the Box" Jeffers and a 17-year-old Wayne Rooney - at the time England's youngest ever full international.

One scored that night, the other went on to become one of the country's finest forwards.

8. England 2-3 Romania

European Championships; June 20, 2000; Pays de Charleroi, France

At the 1998 World Cup, Romania had surprised England in the group stage, a late Dan Petrescu goal securing a 2-1 win moments after Kevin Keegan, commentating for TV, had declared: "Only one team can win this now - England." Oops.

Although that result did not prevent England from progressing, it meant they faced arch rivals Argentina in the second round, and exited infamously on penalties following David Beckham's red card.

Two years later, Keegan was England manager. The Romanians awaited in the final group game and at 2-2 in the 89th minute, a path to quarter-finals was all but assured.

But then Phil Neville stuck out a leg and sent Viorel Moldovan crashing to the ground just inside the box, giving Ioan Ganea the chance to tuck the ball past Nigel Martyn and break England hearts.

That was England's last game to date against Romania, against whom their record is far from impressive with just two wins from 11 meetings.

7. Wales 4-1 England

British Home Championship; May 17, 1980; Racecourse Ground, Wrexham

Matches between these two neighbours are often tense, low-scoring affairs, and England were in the middle of a period of domination at the now-defunct British Home Championship - better known as the Home Internationals.

And when Paul Mariner headed the visitors in front after just 16 minutes, an England win seemed on the cards.

But Wales, led by the formidable Terry Yorath, had other plans, and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas equalised just three minutes later. Then, just after the half-hour mark, Ian Walsh headed the hosts in front and sent the 25,000-strong Welsh crowd into raptures.

It just got worse and worse for England, as Leighton James and a Phil Thompson own goal completed the unlikely scoreline.

"It was a struggle from the start and the own goal summed up how the match went," Thompson said after the match.


6. Poland 2-0 England

World Cup qualifier; June 6, 1973; Slaski Stadium, Chorzow

It wasn't often that Bobby Moore had an absolute stinker on the football pitch - so, when he did, it was guaranteed England would struggle.

Seven years after lifting the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley, Moore was at fault for both goals as Sir Alf Ramsey's side whimpered to a World Cup qualifying defeat in Chorzow. A costly swing-and-a-miss from Moore allowed Robert Gadocha to slide in for the opener, before the defender was caught in possession in his own half by Wlodzimierz Lubanski, who raced away to put the tie beyond doubt.

England's misery was completed late on as Alan Ball was sent off after an altercation with Leslaw Cmikiewicz.

It was the first competitive match in which England wore a yellow jersey. Perhaps they were aiming to emulate Brazil, who had secured their third World Cup triumph just three years earlier.

It didn't work, as England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Needless to say, yellow shirts have only ever been worn once since.

5. Northern Ireland 1-0 England

World Cup qualifier; September 7, 2005; Windsor Park, Belfast

Between the turn of the century and this match, Northern Ireland won just six games - and these were against world heavyweights such as St Kitts & Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago.

On the other hand, Eriksson had an excellent record in the qualifying stages of major tournaments. So a walk in the (Windsor) Park for England, right? Wrong.

Eriksson was experimental, again, with his line-up in a bid to accommodate David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the starting XI - including Beckham in the now infamous "quarterback" role.

It came back to haunt Eriksson when David Healy outpaced Beckham, who may as well have been wearing a helmet and shoulder pads, and thrashed the ball past Paul Robinson for Northern Ireland's second win against England in 23 meetings.

4. England 3-6 Hungary

Friendly; November 25, 1953; Wembley Stadium

"We thought we would demolish this team. England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way."

You could always rely on Sir Bobby Robson for an honest quote.

Led by the legendary Ferenc Puskas, Hungary humbled England both tactically and technically. The Olympic champions and a side well ahead of their time, Hungary never won the World Cup that their infrastructure, talent and potential deserved - falling to West Germany in the 1954 final.

The result led to a review of the antiquated training and tactics used by the England team (sound familiar?), who went on to win the World Cup in 1966.

3. Norway 2-1 England

World Cup qualifier; September 9, 1981; Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo

England, fresh from an away victory against Hungary - who would go on to win the group - arrived in Oslo in high spirits. Norway were nowhere near the respected side they are today and all was going to plan for the visitors when Bryan Robson notched the opener.

But goals from Roger Albertsen and Arne Larsen Okland sent the home crowd wild and Norway held on for the win and sparked this outburst from Bjorge Lillelien, one of the most famous pieces of commentary of all time:

"Lord Nelson! Lord Beaverbrook! Sir Winston Churchill! Sir Anthony Eden! Clement Attlee! Henry Cooper! Lady Diana! Maggie Thatcher! Can you hear me, Maggie Thatcher? Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!"

2. England 2-3 Scotland

British Home Championship; April 15, 1967; Wembley Stadium, London

Hang on, England had just won the World Cup. They were meant to be unbeatable. Alas, a 3-2 victory at Wembley, thanks to goals from Denis Law, Bobby Lennox and Jim McCalliog, led to Scotland crowning themselves world champions.

Summed up in this excellent video, which we have to assume was created by a Scot, "a small band of rebels ventured into Empire territory basking in world domination" for a match which "symbolised the struggle between good and evil".

Highlights of the game follow the very humorous opening gambit.

1. USA 1-0 England

World Cup; June 29, 1950; Estadio Independencia, Brazil

When part-time dish washer Walter Bahr attempted a shot from the edge of the area and student accountant Joe Gaetjens poked it in at the far post just before half-time of a World Cup match in the Estadio Independencia in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, it turned out to be the only goal in a game that shook the world.

There may be no easy games at international level any more, but back then there was - and this should have been a routine walkover for England who, in their next four games against the States, notched 30 goals.

Is it still the biggest upset of all time? You'd be hard pushed to find someone who argues otherwise…

This short documentary on that famous victory for the Americans is highly recommended.

Alex Perry is an assistant editor at ESPN and tweets at @AlexPerryESPN

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