International football in the 1970’s was a very different animal to the game we see today. There was no international window and fixtures were very much played on an ad hoc basis. There were far fewer games during the season itself, and the chance for experimentation in friendly fixtures were few and far between, normally in the end of season tours which were commonplace at that time.
Prehaps this explains why so many of the maverick characters which played the game at this time struggled to make an impact on the international stage. Don Revie in particular liked his teams to be structured and well organised, and despite his, or maybe because of, his inability to select a settled side during his tenure as England manager, there were very few opportunities afforded to the flair players of the 1970’s. Alan Hudson had sparkled briefly on his debut against West Germany before being cast aside and the careers of Frank Worthington and Rodney Marsh were over before they started in the international game. Another of those so called mavericks was given just one opportunity to show his worth to the England side in September 1976 as Charlie George collected his one and only England cap against the Republic of Ireland.
George, who had been a starlet in Bertie Mee’s double winning side at Arsenal in 1971, had moved on to Derby County by now and had scored a hat-trick against Real Madrid the previous autumn in the European Cup. He was the only new face in Revie’s side against the Irish who were managed and captained by the man Revie believed should have taken over from him at Leeds, Johnny Giles.
George was one of three changes made by Revie from the side that had kicked off World Cup qualification with a win against Finland, along with Brian Greenhoff and Ray Wilkins. Mick Mills, Gerry Francis and Mick Channon were the men left out. Kevin Keegan took on the captaincy. The former Leeds boss also experimented with some positional changes, moving Trevor Cherry into the midfield and filling the left back slot with Mr Versatile, Paul Madeley.
On a warm September night, Wembley was well populated, boosted by a large contingent of Irish fans backing the boys in Green. BBC were the broadcasters for the evening, with highlights in an International Football special.
It would be the visitors who would have the first real effort on goal when Steve Heighway moved down the left hand side before firing an effort from 20 yards which just whistled wide of the right hand post of his club mate and England goalkeeper, Ray Clemence.
England’s response came from an unfamiliar source as Cherry, in his more advanced role, tested Vic Kearns in the Irish goal with a long range effort after a nice lay off from the debutant George. The effort was straight at the keeper who needed to knock the shot down before collecting the ball cleanly at the second attempt.
Liam Brady was starting to make a name for himself at Arsenal and alongside Giles he ensured that the Irish were in total control in the middle of the park. Roy McFarland decided to take matters into his own hands to stamp some English authority on proceedings and dumped Brady to the floor, the Arsenal man getting a lecture from referee Hugh Alexander.
As the first half drew to a close, England started to come more into the game. First Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking combined to play in Colin Todd, who was playing in an unusual right back role. He floated a cross to the back post where Ray Wilkins arrived to head just over the crossbar.
Then a minute before half time the home side took the lead. Nice interplay between George, Todd and Keegan created the space for the England skipper to get in a cross which was met on the volley at the near post by Stuart Pearson to fire past Kearns. Despite the finish being slightly fortunate, the ball actually going in off Pearson’s thigh, it was enough for David Coleman to declare “That’s the best bit of football England have produced in the match” and it was enough to see England lead at the break.
The second half though saw the Republic dominate with Giles becoming an ever increasingly influential figure. The player-manager was at the heart of everything that Ireland did, and as the visitors gained the upper hand, so it became inevitable that an equaliser would come. Terry Conroy of Stoke City should have levelled matters but he headed over the bar from a floated Giles free kick.
However the goal was not long in coming and the only surprise was that Giles wasn’t involved. Instead it was Steve Heighway who drove into the penalty area, scooting past the statuesque Greenhoff before going over under a challenge from Ray Wilkins. Referee Alexander had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Gerry Daly calmly placed the spot kick in the bottom corner, sending Clemence the wrong way.
England were hanging on now and Ireland should have won the game late on. Once again it was Heighway who threatened the defence, driving a low shot which Clemence could only scoop into the path of Don Givens, but with history beckoning the striker could only side foot wide with the goal at his mercy.
The Charlie George experiment ended with his replacement by Manchester United’s Gordon Hill, and it was the substitute who created one last chance for England, playing a neat ball down the left hand channel for Keegan, but the Liverpool man was wasteful, blazing high and wide from six yards out.
For England it was a disappointing result, Giles had done his old boss no favours and left Revie still no wiser as to his strongest XI. Next up was a crucial World Cup qualifier against Finland in five weeks time, a game that England would not only need to win, but to win well if they were to put pressure on the Italians, who had yet to start their campaign.