World Cup qualification was seen as being just between England and Italy but as the Three Lions had learnt from their last two failed campaigns, it would not just be the head to head to head battle which would be crucial in the group. Although the failure to beat Poland was seen as pivotal in failing to qualify for the last World Cup, it was the home draw against Wales that had made that fateful night a must win game. Don Revie’s first campaign had also spluttered with draws against Portugal, those dropped points meaning that defeat against Czechoslovakia in Bratislava was all the more crucial.
England then could not afford to slip up against Finland in the campaign to reach Argentina. They had already done the business in Helsinki with a 4-1 win to start the qualification process, but a draw against the Republic of Ireland in their last friendly had dented confidence a little bit. In stark contrast, the Finns were heading to Wembley with their tails up after thumping Luxembourg 7-1 in their last match, to go above England on goal difference at the head of Group 2. England would need a win to heap the pressure on Italy, who would start their campaign with a match against the minnows of Luxembourg in three days time.
Once again Don Revie made major restructuring to his side, with five changes from the team that had drawn against the Republic of Ireland the previous month. Kevin Beattie came in at left back for Trevor Cherry and Phil Thompson returned to the heart of the defence. Revie though was looking for goals and in a 4-2-4 formation he brought in Mick Channon, Dennis Tueart and Joe Royle, leaving Trevor Brooking and Ray Wilkins holding the fort in the middle of the park.
ITV had the coverage of this one with highlights of the game shown that evening. Brian Moore was in the commentary box with Jack Charlton alongside him.
The bold attacking formation picked by Revie paid instant dividends with England taking the lead on four minutes. A corner by Brooking was flicked on by Thompson and Joe Royle powered a header goalwards. Despite a magnificent save, albeit by a Finnish defender, Tueart was hand to follow up and make the need for a penalty meaningless, tapping the ball into the net.
Royle almost doubled England’s lead, heading onto the roof of the net from a Brooking cross before Tueart forced a save from Goran Enckleman after some good work by Channon. However at the break England were only 1-0 up and the crowd were beginning to get a little frustrated.
Those frustrations turned to full blown anger three minutes into the second half when Finland equalised. Aki Heiskanen was allowed to drive through the heart of England’s threadbare midfield before finding Jurki Neiminen whose weak shot somehow managed to sneak past Ray Clemence and creep into the net just inside the post.
Luckily for England there response was a quick one. Channon once again was the provider of the opportunity, driving to the byeline before pulling the ball back to the six yard line where Royle stooped to head home and restore England’s lead.
With goal difference potentially being crucial, the win was not really enough for England so the attacks continued. Kevin Keegan, skippering the side again, was denied by a fine save from Enckleman who got down well to push a shot away.
However the policy of all-out attack left England succeptible to the counter attack and they had Clemence to thank for holding on to the win when he made a save from substitute Esa Heiskanen late on.
England did put the ball into the net a third time, but Kevin Beattie’s header was ruled out by an offside flag from the Swedish official and the game ended with boos ringing round Wembley Stadium and the team leaving the field to choruses of “What a Load of Rubbish”.
The result prompted Revie to apologise to the 92,000 fans who had turned out. After the match he said “We didn’t play well and there’s no denying that fact. We lost our rythym, our passing, thinking, positional sense and everything when a second goals didn’t come quickly. We worked on our finishing for six solid days and when it mattered we didn’t hit the target. We’ll just have to work harder.”
Those words were of little consolation to the majority of the England supporters and rumours were soon spreading of Revie’s support base in the FA beginning to crumble. Already deeply unpopular with many of the FA Board, including head of the international committee Sir Harold Thompson, his methods and commercial interests were coming under question. If he was to restore his reputation, a win in the crucial game against Italy was imperative.