My favourite England v Italy match was in November 1977. England had been drawn with Italy in the qualifying group for the World Cup to be held in Argentina in 1978. Back in those days Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union existed so there were only enough countries for groups of 4. Along with Italy and England were Finland and Luxembourg and so the matches between the big two were going to decide the winner of the group. Only one team qualified, so those two matches would be crucial. Italy had won the first game in Rome the year before when England were managed by Don Revie. Failure to score enough goals against Finland and Luxembourg meant England went into this game needing to win by quite a few. Revie had been lured to the Middle East by the promise of unbelievable wealth and so Ron Greenwood was put in charge. His first match in charge had been a friendly at home to Switzerland when he selected 7 players from the Liverpool side who had just won the European Cup. England drew 0-0, and then went to Luxembourg and could only manage a 2-0 win.
So it was to a full house at Wembley that England ventured to try and find some way of reaching the World Cup Finals. They had missed out 4 years earlier, due to a stubborn Polish defence and England were facing the prospect 16 years since they successfully went through a qualifying campaign. Greenwood was bold with his selection, handing first caps to Peter Barnes (Manchester City), Steve Coppell (Manchester United) and Bob Latchford (Everton). Barnes would play wide on the left with Coppell wide on the right and Latchford was the target man up front. Keegan would play just off Latchford as Greenwood was looking to re-create the Toshack/Keegan partnership so successful at Liverpool during the 70’s. The midfield was policed by Ray Wilkins (Chelsea) and Trevor Brooking (West Ham). Brooking and Keegan would go on to form a lethal partnership and England were rarely beaten when both of them were on the pitch together.
Italy contained some good players. Dino Zoff in goal, Claudio Gentile and the captain, Giancinto Facchetti in defence. Marco Tardelli, Franco Causio and Giancarlo Antognoni in midifield with Roberto Bettega and Francesco Graziani up front. Zoff, Tardelli, Causio and Gentile would all be in the squad which won the World Cup in Spain 1982.
A fantastic atmosphere as the crowd cheered every attack. Coppell linked up with Keegan, but his shot went over the bar. Brooking was involved in everything, and in the 11th minute he had the ball on the right wing and his cross into the area was met by Keegan’s header which looped over Zoff and England were in front. The goal difference between the two sides was still in Italy’s favour, but only by 1 goal. Peter Barnes had a couple of chances to increase England’s lead but he shot wide on each occasion. He then went on a mazy run past several Italians in the area, but Zoff saved the shot.
As the half was coming to an end, Emlyn Hughes played a ball into the Italian box and Benetti half cleared it. As the ball was running out towards the corner flag on the right wing, Keegan chased it with Tardelli. Before the England captain could get to the ball, Tardelli elbowed Keegan in the face. Unbelievably, the ref took no action.
At half-time England lead 1-0. The second half was virtually one-way traffic as England pushed for the second goal. Dave Watson forced a good save from Zoff when he volleyed from a corner. Then with 10 minutes to go, Keegan picked up the ball on the right and as he neared the area, twisting and turning, he flicked the ball into the area where Brooking was unmarked. Brooking slotted the ball past Zoff and England were 2-0 up. At least at this stage Italy had to win in their last match against Luxembourg.
It was a famous win for England, but all in vain as Italy beat Luxembourg 3-0 to win the group and qualify for the World Cup Finals. For England, though, this promised better things to come after the dire years of Don Revie.
ENGLAND: Clemence (Liverpool); Neal (Liverpool), Hughes (Liverpool), Watson (Man City), Cherry (Leeds); Wilkins (Chelsea), Brooking (West Ham); Coppell (Man Utd), Latchford (Everton) [Pearson (Man Utd)], Keegan (Hamburg) [Francis (Birmingham)], Barnes (Man City)
GOALS: Keegan (11), Brooking (80)
ITALY: Zoff; Tardelli, Gentile, Facchetti (Cuccureddu), Mozzini; Causio, Benetti, Zaccarelli, Antognoni; Bettega, Graziani (Sala)