Not-so-great expectations: England's international heritage belies the painful truth as Euro 2012 heartache awaits

The Three Lions have been burdened by lofty ambitions drawing from a more prosperous period, but now more than ever, those hopes have faded as they prepare to face France
By Keir Radnedge

England has a matchless football heritage. Trouble is, this cannot be bartered for goals and clean sheets out on the pitch. A self-deceptive belief in linkage has contributed to too many painful hangovers.

Ever since the 1990s, when England reached the semi-finals of both the World Cup (in 1990) and European Championships (albeit as hosts, in 1996) every succeeding task force has been expected by media and fans to play a keynote role at each finals tournament.

Oddly, given the notion of superiority which has surrounded the English game for many decades, this has not always been the case.

First, a history recap. England did not enter the World Cup until 1950, hence missing the three tournaments in the 1930s. As for the European Championships, England stood aloof from the initial event in 1960 and crashed out early to France 1964 so it was a decade or more before anyone really cared.

Now the natural expectation is that England, one day, will win the European prize. Not, of course, that anyone expects it this time around.

At the pinnacle of the world game, expectations were anything but high when England set off for the World Cup in Switzerland in 1954.

Embarrassed memories lingered of the horror of that 1-0 defeat by the United States in 1950 when England had gone to Brazil as joint favourites with the hosts (who also suffered their own humiliation, against Uruguay in the final game).
England's Euro record
Did not enter
Did not qualify
Third place
Did not qualify
1976 Did not qualify
1980 Group stage
Did not qualify
1988 Group stage
1992 Group stage
Group stage
Did not qualify

Not only that but when it came to 1954 England’s pride was at its lowest ebb ever. The reasons were clad in red shirts. In the autumn of 1953 England’s domestic invincibility against foreign teams had been exploded 6-3 by Ferenc Puskas’s Hungary. The following spring, just to prove it was no accident, Hungary thundered seven past England in Budapest.

Reaching the World Cup quarter-finals was considered, in the circumstances, something of a minor success.

Four years later England also travelled to the World Cup under the shadow of insecurity. Four months earlier the Munich air disaster had deprived manager Walter Winterbottom of stalwarts Roger Byrne (left-back), Duncan Edwards (left-half) and Tommy Taylor (centre-forward) as well as reserve right-half Eddie Colman and left winger David Pegg.

Winterbottom’s patched-up team then crashed 5-0 to Yugoslavia in a warm-up friendly on the eve of the finals. No wonder Sweden in 1958 remains the only occasion on which England, having qualified for the finals, failed to make it beyond the group stage.

Considering the depressing legacy of 1954 and 1958 it is all the more remarkable that England were World Cup winners only a short time later, in 1966. Triumph over West Germany at Wembley set the bar unattainably, and probably unfairly, high for all the successors to Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Co.

At least the World Cup casts its net wide. The finals of the first three European Championships featured only four teams and the next four editions just eight. England reached the finals only four times in those pioneering years. It took the ‘football’s coming home’ finals of Euro 96 to raise expectations.

Now the natural expectation is that England, one day, will win the European prize.

Not, of course, that anyone expects it this time around.

Follow Keir Radnedge on