10 years earlier, England were proudly proclaimed as champions of the World. Following this horrific afternoon in Rome, the Three Lions had never looked further away from winning the World Cup again. A comprehensive defeat to Italy meant that England would now need a minor miracle to make it to the finals in Argentina and struck probably the career ending blow for Don Revie’s reign as England manager.
Following England’s disappointing 2-1 win over Finland the previous month, Italy had finally kicked off their campaign with a fixture against the group minnows Luxembourg. The Azzuri breezed to a 4-1 win, a result which matched England’s opening win in Helsinki. Goal difference was sure to be vital in the group, but the matches between these two sides were pivotal in how the group would develop.
This match though, rather than being a potential triumph for Revie, turned into a disaster and was a classic example of everything wrong with his reign as England boss. Once again there was inconsistency in selection and a lack of cutting edge left his side well short of what was required.
Revie made six changes from the side that had beaten Finland at Wembley, completely remodeling his back four by bringing in Dave Clement, Mick Mills, Roy McFarland and Emlyn Hughes. After being overrun at times in the middle of the park by the Finns, he filled his midfield with grit and determination by selecting Trevor Cherry and Brian Greenhoff, His biggest gamble however was up front where he chose the mercurial Stan Bowles to play alongside Mick Channon and Kevin Keegan in a three man forward line.
Over 70,000 packed the Olympic Stadium in Rome whilst those back home in England had to wait until Sportsnight that evening to watch the action, with the authorities worried that if the game was shown live, people may skip work. David Coleman was in the commentary box for the BBC.
Italy started brightly, Franco Causio firing wide from the edge of the box on six minutes. England seemed content to sit back and defend, Revie reverting to his early Leeds United days where not losing was almost as important as winning. The opening 30 minutes saw England concede a host of free kicks in and around their penalty area but for the most part Italy were ineffectual in attack with Ray Clemence only being forced into a couple of comfortable saves.
The dangerous game England were playing came back to bite them in the 36th minute as Italy took the lead. Another free kick was conceded 20 yards from goal and this time the low strike from Giancarlo Antognoni deflected off Kevin Keegan on the end of the wall and into the net past Clemence.
England’s response was a cursory one, but they did at least manage a shot on goal, although Brian Greenhoff’s effort following a half cleared Bowles corner was way over the crossbar.
Revie’s half time team talk must have been to urge his men to take a few more chances going forward because they started the second half on a much more positive note. They put together their first real move of purpose, with Brooking, Keegan and Channon all combining to create the space for Channon to put a ball into the box, but Greenhoff again was high and wide, this time with a header.
But despite this slightly better performance, the result was sealed in Italy’s favour in the 77th minute with a classic goal. Romeo Benettio made a run down the right hand side and his cross was met by a powerful diving header by Roberto Bettega that flew into the net past a completely wrongfooted Clemence.
The toothless performance of England’s attacking players was highlighted when once again the response came via Brian Greenhoff, but at least this time the defensive midfielder managed to get a shot on target, his rising effort from the right hand corner of the box pushed over the bar by the woefully underemployed Dino Zoff.
As England pushed hard for some sort of response the game began to get a little niggly and Antonelli Cuccureddu was booked for a foul on Keegan. England’s final effort once again came from a defensive midfielder as Trevor Cherry forced Zoff into a wonderful save, diving at full stretch to hold a shot which was heading for the top corner.
England’s frustration began to boil and Channon was booked for an off the ball incident with Marco Tardelli just before referee Abraham Klein brought England’s miserable afternoon to an end with the final whistle.
Revie claimed after the game that he was happy with the performance and was quoted as saying “I couldn’t have asked any more from my team today.” The media however were far from convinced by these platitudes and the following mornings newspapers screamed that “Revie Must Go”. The result put England in danger of missing out on a 3rd consecutive major championship and the beleaguered England boss knew that unless there was a dramatic improvement in performance, the writing was on the wall.