Saturday, April 18, 2015

 The year came to a close with the final standings in the European Championship qualification groups. The tournament was changed, following the formula of the World Cup. The host of the finals – Italy – qualified automatically. The rest of the European countries were divided into 7 groups, the winners going to the finals in 1980. Unlike the World Cup, the winners of the previous European championship had to go through the qualification phase. Two years of group matches finished by the end of 1979. The group stage was not without drama, highs and lows, but there were also easy and difficult groups – some winners were easily predictable and did not have much difficulties. 
Group 1 – five teams: England, Eyre, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, and Denmark. The Danes were the outsider, England was the big favorite, and the rest were considered equal. Easy group for England – they had no match, all opponents playing convenient for England football. England was a big disappointment since 1972, failing to reach 2 World Cup finals and missing the final stages of the 1976 European championship  too. However, short of some major English blunder, they were considered sure winners: the opposition was too weak. Denmark was still lowly team, Bulgaria was in a decline since 1974, the two Irish squads were perhaps capable of occasional heroic match, but no more. Even if England was not in good form, the fairly equal opponents most surely were going to cancel each other out. And they did precisely that. More or less, the only surprise was the away win of Northern Ireland in Bulgaria – 2-0. England had no real opponent and was head and shoulders above the rest. 
Northern Ireland finished 2nd and perhaps this squad tells why: the Irish were unable to field 11 classy players. They did not have a full team first division players – Derek Spence played for Southend and Bryan Hamilton for Swindon Town. Nothing new, really, but spirit was not enough of a weapon. England had an easy sail, losing only 1 point though the campaign – a 1-1 tie, visiting Eyre. 1. England 7 1 0 22-5 15 2. Northern Ireland 4 1 3 8-14 9 3. Eyre 2 3 3 9-8 7 4. Bulgaria 2 1 5 6-14 5 5. Denmark 1 2 5 13-17 4 
England to the finals – after three consecutive failures in the 1970s! The team looked more than impressive, lead by Kevin Keegan. Well, it looked like England was going to restore her fading glory.