With England fully in preparation mode for the forthcoming World Cup qualifier in Finland, and with Italy their main rival in the quest to qualify for Argentina 1978, Don Revie went back to experimental mode for the second match of the 1976 US Bicentennial tournament.
Following on from the heartbreak of a last minute loss to Brazil, the England manager decided to make seven changes for the clash with Italy. In part this was to have a look at some of the fringe players at his disposal, but was also a way of keeping his cards close to his chest for the bigger battles to come. Only Phil Thompson, Mike Doyle, Trevor Brooking and Mick Channon remained from the defeat to Brazil, with Channon handed the captains armband. There were debuts for Jimmy Rimmer in goal, Ray Wilkins in midfield and Gordon Hill on the flanks. Dave Clement and Phil Neal came in as the full backs, Tony Towers started in midfield and Joe Royle returned to the forward line.
Italy on the other hand were pretty much at full strength. With the game being played in New York City, it was almost like a home game for Enzo Bearzot’s men and they were determined to put on a show for the thousands of Italians in the crowd and to lay down a marker for the qualifiers to come. The line up included Dino Zoff, Giancarlo Faccheti, Franco Causio, Giancarlo Antognioni and future England manager, Fabio Capello.
The game was played at 8pm local time at the Yankee Stadium, an interesting choice with the baseball season in full swing. It meant that the baseball diamond was still in place, with one end of the field covered in dirt and the other the lush grass of the outfield. The late start meant that ITV decided not to show the game live (1am in the UK) but as delayed coverage in the following days World of Sport programme. Brian Moore provided the commentary with Kevin Keegan using his rest from the squad to begin his co-commentating career.
England started the match attacking the baseball diamond end and had the better of the early exchanges. Ray Wilkins fired just wide of the post and then his fellow debutant Gordon Hill started a move which flowed on through Towers and Channon before the ball was driven across the goal towards Hill who had continued his run and forced a fine low save from Zoff.
Despite the fine start, England would shoot themselves in the foot twice in three minutes to hand the initiative to the Italians. On 15 minutes Mike Doyle was caught in possession 35 yards from goal by Roberto Bettega, The Juventus striker moved the ball on to Francesco Graziani who fired past Rimmer from the edge of the box. Brian Moore was unsympathetic in the commentary box, stating “Graziani the scorer and England only themselves to blame.”
Three minutes later and Graziani doubled his tally and Italy’s lead. Once again it was a defensive shambles by England, as firstly they allowed the Italians to walk the ball freely down the right side of the pitch before crossing to find Graziani totally unmarked six yards out to head home and make it 2-0.
It was all Italy and they went close to extending the lead on several occasions, with Antognioni fizzing an effort just over the bar from 30 yards out and Causio denied by a fine save by Rimmer. Just before the break Italy were denied a third, Francesco Rocca drove down the wing and got right to the byeline before pulling the ball across the goal where Paolino Puligi arrived at the back post, only to be denied by a goal line block by Dave Clement.
Joe Royle, speaking on a Sky Sports rerun of the game prior to the 1998 World Cup qualifier between the two nations, revealed that “Don Revie had a total sense of humour failure at half time” and laid into the team for the lacklustre first half performance. He replaced Rimmer, who would never play for his country again, and handed a first cap to Joe Corrigan and brought on Mick Mills to replace Phil Neal at left back. The England side went out with a flea in their ear and produced eight minutes of magic to totally turn the game on its head.
The renewed urgency that Revie was looking for was displayed immediately as a quickly taken free kick saw Brooking stride forward with the ball. He fed Royle who got a shot away and although Zoff saved the initial effort, Channon was on hand to fire in the rebound.
Just a minute later England were level. A corner floated in from the right was met by Phil Thompson and he headed the ball firmly back across the goal where the ball crept in at the far post for the Liverpool central defenders one and only international goal. 3 minutes into the second half it was 2-2.
Incredibly England were not finished just yet. A simple ball into the area caught the Italian defence flat footed and Channon slid in unchallenged to force the ball past Zoff and put England ahead. The comeback was complete.
England continued to press on, attempting to capatalise on the crumbling Italian confidence. Another simple ball into the box found Royle unmarked, but Zoff was equal to the strikers header, managing to get down at full stretch to keep the ball out of the net.
Italy were rattled, and when the Italians are rattled they tend to lose the plot. Belgian referee Alfred Delcourt penalised England for a foul in midfield. Tony Towers kicked the ball away to allow England a little time to regroup, not knowing that his innocuous act would be the catalyst for all hell to break loose. Brian Moore in the commentary box was as astonished as every one in the stadium when Antonigoni, off camera, rushed in and “just belted Tony Towers.” A booking resulted for both players.
From the ensuing free kick Antognioni, his temper still boiling, unleashed a wild shot which appeared to be heading nowhere until Graziani stuck out a boot and diverted it just past the post. Italian tempers were not improved by coming so close to an equaliser.
The Italians had a lucky escape at the other end minutes later as Channon came close to a hat-trick. The England skipper was allowed to run freely down the right hand side and drive into the area. As Zoff rushed out, Channon slid the ball under him, only to see the ball come back off the outside of the post.
As time wore down, Italy became more and more desperate. Antognioni again tried his luck from distance with a free kick which whistled past the post. Then in stoppage time, once again the Italians lost their cool as they were denied an equaliser. A shot from the edge of the box was half blocked, with the ball looping up into the air. Corrigan in the England goal leapt up to catch the ball and was clearly barged by Capello as he was doing so. The Manchester City keeper dropped the ball under the challenge and Facchetti swept the ball into the net. Fortunately for England the referee was not going to be fooled and ruled out the goal instantly, prompting more unseemly scenes in the final seconds. Off the ball Wilkins was grabbed and thumped by an Italian player as was Mick Mills before Brooking was hacked down by Mauro Bellugi, who was booked.
The final whistle was promptly blown by the referee to end a feisty affair, although the recriminations would go on after the game, with Trevor Cherry claiming that he was spat on whilst warming up as a substitute. The result was a big one for Revie’s side, showing that they could bounceback from adversity and would have given him great confidence for the challenges ahead. The next of those would be against Team USA, who they would need to beat and hope for an Italian victory over Brazil after the South Americans went top of the tournament table with a 2-0 win over the hosts. More importantly though the blue touchpaper had been lit for the qualification battles to come.