England Football Online
Contact Us Page Last Updated 29 March 2024

England's History in Preliminary Competition

England in the 1949-50 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Walter Winterbottom - result: QUALIFIED (by five points)

The British Championship of 1949-50 was designated Group One of the World Cup qualifying competition, but as the home nations only played each other once during each season, Scotland and Wales had two home fixtures each, whilst England and Ireland had only one each. The top two teams were to qualify for the final tournament in Brazil, and after two games each, England and Scotland were guaranteed the top two placings. England defeated Ireland, 9-2, at Maine Road, Manchester, on 16 November, 1949 to book their place, as well as Scotland's, with both leaders having a maximum four points from their two games each, and Ireland and Wales, with no points, unable to catch them. All that remained was to decide who would win the group, and also the British Championship, when Scotland met England at Hampden Park, Glasgow on 15 April, 1950. The Scottish Football Association surprisingly declared that they would only go to Brazil if they were the British Champions, and true to their word, they declined the invitation after losing to a single Roy Bentley goal at Hampden.


England in the 1953-54 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Walter Winterbottom - result: QUALIFIED (by four points)

Just as in the previous competition, the British Championship doubled up as a qualifying group; this time it was Group Three. Once again, it was Scotland and Wales that benefited from two home games, with England and (now Northern) Ireland only playing at home once. England again qualified as a result of winning their first two games, due to there being qualification placings for the top two in the group. They secured their place in Switzerland, when they beat Northern Ireland, 3-1, at Goodison Park, Liverpool, on 11 November 1953. Two weeks later, any thoughts they might have had about winning the competition were surely dispelled when Hungary beat them, 6-3, at Wembley, in a friendly.

Four days before Scotland met England at Hampden, Wales lost at home to Northern Ireland, guaranteeing Scotland a top-two finish, though they were still a point behind England and they would have to beat them to win the group. Scotland took an early lead against England, on 3 April, 1954, but they lost, 4-2. This time, both countries went to the final tournament, but with the draw having already been made, England, as British Champions, went into the easier group. Scotland had to face the defending champions, Uruguay.


England in the 1956-58 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Walter Winterbottom - result: QUALIFIED (by two points)

England were drawn in Group One of the qualifying competition and faced continental opposition for the first time, in Denmark, along with near-neighbours, the Republic of Ireland. This time, they played both home and away fixtures against their group opponents and only the group winners would automatically qualify for a place in Sweden. The competition began a season earlier than in previous years (1956-57) and ended (for England) at the end of that season, though other qualifiers continued in the following season into 1958.

After England won their first three games, only the Republic of Ireland could catch them, if they won their last two games. The first, on 19 May, 1957, was at Dalymount Park, Dublin, against England, who knew that a point would be enough for them to qualify in their last fixture. England had beaten the Irish, 5-1, at Wembley, eleven days earlier, but they found themselves a goal down after only four minutes in Dublin. When all seemed lost, in added time at the end of the game, England somehow managed to rescue the point they needed, with John Atyeo's header from Finney's cross.

It was the first qualifier that England had failed to win, but with the Republic winning their final game in Copenhagen, five months later, it proved that if England had lost in Dublin, they would have faced a difficult play-off with the Irish for a place in the tournament. Tragically, four members of the England team (Byrne, Edwards, Pegg and Taylor) would not live to see the World Cup finals, as they were killed in the Munich air disaster in February 1958.


England in the 1960-62 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Walter Winterbottom - result: QUALIFIED (by four points)

England were paired with Luxembourg and Portugal in Group Six. With Luxembourg conceding fifteen goals in their first two games, all seemed set to be decided on the games between England and Portugal. England were rather fortunate to escape from Lisbon with a point, thanks to Ron Flowers' equalizer, eight minutes from the end and they expected to have to beat Portugal in the final match of the group, at Wembley, on 25 October, 1961. Less than three weeks before the decider, Portugal, inexplicably, lost 4-2 in Luxembourg, and left England needing only a point at Wembley to qualify. They were two goals up inside ten minutes, and with no further scoring, England comfortably wrapped up the group.

Strangely, neither of their scorers at Wembley (the Burnley pair of John Connelly and Ray Pointer), played in the final tournament, in Chile.


England in the 1962-64 European Nations Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Walter Winterbottom/Alf Ramsey - result: eliminated (6-3 on aggregate)

England entered the European Nations Cup for the first time and were drawn against France in the first round of the knockout competition. It was played over two legs, almost five months apart, during which time, England changed their manager. Walter Winterbottom's last meeting with foreign opposition was a disappointing 1-1 draw at Hillsborough, Sheffield. The second leg, in Paris, on 27 February, 1963, was Ramsey's first match in charge and he oversaw his charges outplayed in a 5-2 defeat. He would have been under no illusions about the size of his task, but just over three years later, they were champions of the world.


England in the 1964-66 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Alf Ramsey - result: QUALIFIED as hosts


England in the 1966-68 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Sir Alf Ramsey - result: QUALIFIED (by a point and 3-1 on aggregate)

The European Nations Cup was renamed the European Championship and the qualifying competition was organized into groups along the lines of the World Cup. As in the first two World Cups that the home nations had entered, it was decided that the British Championship would be used as a group, though this time using two consecutive championships, so that teams would meet each other both home and away, with only one team qualifying for the quarter-finals. The newly-crowned World Champions suffered their first defeat since the World Cup, when Scotland beat them, 3-2, at Wembley to win the first of the British Championships. Scotland then lost their advantage by losing to Northern Ireland in Belfast, six months later, in their first game of the second British Championship. As Scotland had drawn their first game, the previous year, against Wales, in Cardiff, it meant that England would win the group, if they could avoid defeat at Hampden in their return fixture with Scotland on 24 February, 1968. Martin Peters gave England the lead in the twentieth minute. The Scots were level before half-time, but it wasn't enough to prevent England winning the group and regaining the British Championship.

In the quarter-finals, they met defending champions, Spain over two legs. Bobby Charlton gave them a slender lead to take to Madrid, by scoring the only goal of the first leg at Wembley, six minutes from the end. Amancio levelled the tie, just after half-time in the second leg on 8 May, but goals from Martin Peters and Norman Hunter sent the World Champions through to the final stages of the tournament in Italy, the following month.


England in the 1968-70 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Sir Alf Ramsey - result: QUALIFIED as holders


England in the 1970-72 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Sir Alf Ramsey - result: QUALIFIED (by two points) from group, eliminated in quarter-finals (3-1 on aggregate)

England were drawn in Group Three with Greece, Malta and Switzerland, and did not begin their fixtures until February 1971. Of their opponents, they had only previously met the Swiss, and it was Switzerland who were their only challengers for a quarter-final place. Both countries had maximum points when they met in Basel, England winning by the odd goal in five, thanks to an own-goal winner. Victory in the return, at Wembley, four weeks later, would put England through, but they were held to a 1-1 draw. However, they still had one match remaining, away to Greece, on 1 December 1971 and they could afford to lose by three goals and still win the group on goal difference. They won, 2-0, with Geoff Hurst (his last for England) and Martin Chivers netting in the second half.

England's quarter-final opponents were West Germany, who had ended England's reign as World Champions in the quarter-final of the 1970 World Cup. They were, again, to prove England's nemesis and beat them, 3-1, at Wembley, in the first leg. Two weeks later, on 13 May, 1972, in the second leg in Berlin, England tightened up their defence, but could not make any dent in their aggregate deficit. The game ended goalless, and England were out. West Germany went on to lift the trophy in Brussels.


England in the 1972-74 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Sir Alf Ramsey - result: eliminated (by a point)

Following a World Cup where they had qualified as hosts, and then one as holders, England found themselves having to win a World Cup qualification group for the first time in twelve years. They were paired with Poland and Wales in Group Five. With little room for error, England were held to a 1-1 draw at Wembley by the Welsh, after beating them in Cardiff. They then suffered their first ever World Cup qualifying defeat; 2-0, in Poland, with Alan Ball being sent off, but they could still qualify if they could win the return at Wembley on 17 October, 1973. England threw the kitchen sink at the Poles, but a combination of near misses, desperate goal-line clearances and some unorthodox goalkeeping, somehow kept the score at 1-1 and England were out. Sir Alf Ramsey was eventually sacked, six months later and Poland went on to finish third at the World Cup, in Germany.

England in the 1974-76 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Don Revie - result: eliminated (by a point)

England faced Cyprus, Czechoslovakia and Portugal in Group One of Don Revie's first international competition as England's manager. They made a great start, beating the Czechs, 3-0, at Wembley and no one could have guessed that their opponents would be the ones lifting the trophy in Belgrade in 1976. England ended up playing all of their three home games first, because the fixture in Cyprus was postponed due to political unrest on the island. A goalless draw at Wembley with Portugal would not have been a problem, but England then lost to the Czechs, after taking the lead in Bratislava and thus, handed the group initiative to them. The Czechs could only draw in Portugal, but it was enough to put them level on points with England, who were ahead on goal difference by only one goal, with just one game apiece remaining. England were under great pressure to beat Portugal, in Lisbon, on 19 November, 1975, knowing that the Czechs only had to better their score by one goal, when they went to Cyprus, four days later.

Portugal, who could still qualify themselves, if Cyprus were to somehow beat the Czechs, took an early lead to pile the pressure on England. Mick Channon equalized, before half-time, but it ended in a draw, eliminating the Portuguese and leaving the Czechs needing a single-goal victory in Limassol on 23 November. They were three goals up at half-time and cruised into the quarter-finals without further score, formally ending England's challenge. A 3-0 victory would still have taken them through if England had won 3-1 in Lisbon.

England in the 1976-78 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Don Revie/Ron Greenwood - result: eliminated (on goal difference)

Finland, Italy and Luxembourg were England's opponents in Group Two and it was always going to come down to a two-horse race between the former champions, England and Italy, neither of whom dropped a point against the other two nations. Italy drew first blood against England with a 2-0 win in Rome, leaving a better goal difference as England's only realistic hope to qualify, assuming that they could win the return against the Italians, at Wembley. Don Revie was obviously, not hopeful, because he quit at the end of the 1976-77 season. Ron Greenwood took over as caretaker-manager, to see them through the qualifying campaign. England did not concede a goal in their three remaining games, but Italy's 6-1 win against Finland in Turin, three days after England could only score twice in Luxembourg, left them four goals better off than England.

England played magnificently in beating Italy, 2-0 at Wembley, on 16 November, 1977, to finish their fixtures, two points clear, and they now had an identical goal difference to Italy, but frustratingly, it wasn't enough. On 3 December, Italy faced Luxembourg in Rome, and like the Czechs, two years earlier, needed only a single-goal victory to eliminate England, and like the Czechs, they scored three without reply, and booked their place in Argentina.


England in the 1978-80 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Ron Greenwood - result: QUALIFIED (by six points)

With Ron Greenwood installed as the permanent manager, England took on their first five-team pool. Their opponents in Group One were Bulgaria, Denmark and (paired together for the first time) Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Following a decade of qualification failures, England sailed through the group, dropping only one point; against the Republic of Ireland, in Dublin. With two home matches remaining, only the Republic could catch England, on goal difference, but England still had a nine-goal advantage. With England set to face Bulgaria at Wembley on the evening of 21 November, 1979, Northern Ireland notched a historic first goal and victory against their neighbours, in Belfast, in the afternoon and England were through to Italy. The Wembley game was postponed for a day, because of fog, but England secured two more victories to win the group in style. Northern Ireland finished runners-up, but only the group winners went through to the final tournament in Italy.

England in the 1980-82 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Ron Greenwood - result: QUALIFIED (by a point)

England went to hell and back in Group Four, though on paper, it looked simple to finish in the top two amongst Hungary, Norway, Romania and Switzerland. Astonishingly, they suffered three defeats; in Romania, Switzerland, and (most surprisingly) Norway. Having also drawn with Romania at Wembley, England had one game left and seemingly little hope as they watched their group opponents play their games in hand.

Romania's last two games were home and away, against Switzerland. Three points would have taken them beyond England's reach and if Hungary won their last two home games (against Switzerland and Norway), they would also qualify, before they came to Wembley.

The Swiss then re-ignited their own qualification ambitions by going to Bucharest and winning 2-1, against Romania. This was a huge boost to England, but there was now only a point between all five countries, with four fixtures remaining. Hungary took the opportunity to win their home games convincingly and the four points gave them the group and qualification.

When Switzerland lost in Hungary, it also meant that England now knew that beating Hungary would almost certainly take them through to Spain, and it got better, just a week before the final fixture, at Wembley. Switzerland and Romania cancelled each other out in their last game, in Bern, which ended goalless. Whilst this eliminated the Swiss, it put Romania a point clear of England. However, because of their superior goal difference, England only needed a point against Hungary, at Wembley, on 18 November, 1981, to secure the runners-up spot that had seemed highly unlikely, two months earlier.

It was a nervy evening, but Hungary had already qualified and England joined them by completing the double over them, having previously beaten them in Budapest. Paul Mariner stumbled as he slotted home the only goal in the fourteenth minute. Somehow, England had avoided missing out on their third consecutive World Cup.


England in the 1982-84 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Bobby Robson - result: eliminated (by a point)

England faced Hungary again in Bobby Robson's first competitive campaign. Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg were also in Group Three, but only the group winners would qualify for the final tournament, in France. England were held to a goalless draw by Greece, at Wembley, but it was Denmark that became their biggest challengers. The Danes came to Wembley and shocked England with a 1-0 victory, which put them a point ahead, with a game in hand.

Hungary were already eliminated, but gave England a glimmer of hope by beating Denmark, in Budapest. This left Denmark needing to win their last game, in Greece, to win the group, because if the Greeks took a point, England could overtake Denmark on goal difference, by winning in Luxembourg, in their last game.

Both matches were played on 16 November, 1983, but the Danes kicked off first and won, 2-0, so it was all over. On the same evening, England's game became a huge anti-climax. They won 4-0.

England in the 1984-86 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Bobby Robson - result: QUALIFIED (by three points)

Robson's first World Cup saw England pitted against Finland, Northern Ireland, Romania and Turkey in Qualifying Group Three. England always looked comfortable, despite being held by Romania, at Wembley, just as they had been four years earlier. Two teams were to qualify, and with two games to go, England led by two points. The only teams that could catch them were Northern Ireland and Romania, who met in Bucharest on 16 October, 1985, with the Irish surprisingly winning 1-0. Due to their impressive goal difference, England were now virtually guaranteed a place in Mexico, but they made it mathematically certain, by beating Turkey, 5-0, at Wembley, that evening.

To win the group, England had only to avoid a nine-goal thrashing against Northern Ireland, at Wembley on 13 November, but the match had more significance for Romania, who had to win in Turkey and hope that England won, to pip Northern Ireland on goal difference for the second qualifying place. Their suspicions were aroused by the fact that a draw would give England and Northern Ireland exactly what they needed. Romania won, and the Wembley game was goalless, so the Irish secured the runners-up spot and for the second successive World Cup, England denied Romania a place in the finals.


England in the 1986-88 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Bobby Robson - result: QUALIFIED (by three points)

England were back in a four-team pool for the first time in a decade, when they met Northern Ireland, Turkey and Yugoslavia in Group Four. Yugoslavia were their only real challengers for a single place in Germany, but England went to a foggy Belgrade for the deciding match on 11 November, 1987, needing only a point to go through. They were four goals up after 25 minutes and only conceded once in the second half, to qualify in style.


England in the 1988-90 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Bobby Robson - result: QUALIFIED (by a point)

Another four-team pool pitted England against Albania, Poland and Sweden in Group Two. For additional drama, two could qualify, but only if the runners-up had a better record than the second place in one of the other four-team groups.

It was a close call for England, who dropped a point to Sweden, at Wembley. With the return also goalless, in Stockholm, it was all down to both teams having to go to Poland for their final game. England were six goals better off on goal difference, so victory in Chorzów on 11 October, 1989 would surely have been enough to win the group. However, England also knew that a point would be enough for qualification, as nine points was higher than the runners-up could win in Group One.

As a result, it was a cautious performance and Peter Shilton was called upon to make several fine saves to keep his goal intact, but they hung on for a goalless draw to finish the campaign at the top of the group, having scored ten goals without reply in their six matches. Poland hit the bar in the last minute.

Two weeks later, Sweden won 2-0 in Chorzów, to leapfrog England and win the group. Meanwhile, in Group One, Romania beat Denmark to qualify. Denmark would also have qualified, ahead of England, if Poland had scored and beaten England with the last-minute effort that hit the woodwork. Then, there would have been no Italia '90 for us and no Gazza tears!


England in the 1990-92 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Graham Taylor - result: QUALIFIED (by a point)

Graham Taylor's England were up against Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Turkey, in Group Seven, with one team going through to Sweden. This was an extremely tight group, with most games drawn, the Irish holding England at Wembley.

Going into the final games (played simultaneously) on 13 November, 1991, England held a two-point advantage over Poland and the Republic, but the Irish had the best goal difference. England were again in Poland for their last qualifier, but this time in Poznań. A point would be enough, as it was two years earlier. Ireland won 3-1 in Turkey, and Poland were ahead at half-time against England, a scoreline that would have put the Irish through on goal difference. With thirteen minutes remaining, Gary Lineker volleyed England level and they again held on to reach the finals.


England in the 1992-94 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Graham Taylor - result: eliminated (by two points)

England were in Group Two with Netherlands, Norway, Poland (again), San Marino and Turkey; six teams with two places in the USA up for grabs. Costly errors were made in drawing at Wembley against Norway and the Netherlands; the latter after being two goals up, but England also lost to Norway in Oslo, though they did manage their customary late point in Poland.

Norway led the group from start to finish, leaving England to battle with the Netherlands for the runners-up spot. When England went to Rotterdam, they were behind the Dutch on goal difference, but they still had to face San Marino in their last game. Avoiding defeat was essential to give them every chance, but a controversial incident when Koeman escaped a red card and then, five minutes later, scored the first goal, proved to be the turning point and England lost 2-0.

The only hope for England on the last day (17 November, 1993) was for the Dutch to lose in Poland and for England to score seven goals against San Marino in Bologna. England did manage to score seven (despite conceding one after only eight seconds!), but the Netherlands won 3-1 and took the runners-up spot. Graham Taylor resigned in the following week.


England in the 1994-96 European Championship Preliminary Competition

coach: Terry Venables - result: QUALIFIED as hosts


England in the 1996-98 World Cup Preliminary Competition

coach: Glenn Hoddle - result: QUALIFIED (by a point)

Glenn Hoddle's first campaign saw England paired with Poland for the third consecutive World Cup qualifying competition. Their opponents in Group Two were Georgia, Italy and Moldova. One team went through, with the runners-up having to play a two-legged play-off to reach France. This was England's first qualifying campaign where three points were awarded for a win.

Just as when England and Italy had been drawn together, twenty years earlier, this group soon became a two-horse race. In their first meeting, Italy inflicted on England, their first ever World Cup home defeat; Chelsea's Zola striking the killer blow at Wembley. England qualified for, at least, the play-offs, when they beat Poland in Chorzów, for once, and they even beat Italy, 2-0, in a friendly tournament in Nantes.

The Italians were perhaps, a little over-cautious. They only conceded one goal in their eight matches (in Moldova), but two goalless draws, in Poland and Georgia, meant that England, who kept on winning, moved ahead of the Italians by a point, with one game left. That game was the return fixture in Rome, on 11 October, 1997.

A terrific defensive display kept the scoreline blank and England had pipped the unbeaten Italians, without managing a goal against them. Italy beat Russia, 2-1 on aggregate, in the play-offs and joined England in the finals.


England in the 1998-2000 European Championship Preliminary Competition

coach: Glenn Hoddle/Kevin Keegan - result: QUALIFIED (3-1 on aggregate from group, and 2-1 on aggregate)

Incredibly, England faced Poland in their fifth successive qualifying competition. Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Sweden joined them in Group Five, with one place in the finals at stake, and the runners-up heading to the play-offs.

England suffered a post-World Cup hangover, losing the opening match to Sweden, in Stockholm, with Paul Ince being dismissed and then being held to a draw at Wembley, by Bulgaria. The Swedes ran away with the group and England (now under Kevin Keegan) had to fend off their old friends, Poland for the runners-up spot. They beat them 3-1 at Wembley in Keegan's first match, but England then dropped points, though they did become the only team to take a point from Sweden, in a goalless draw that saw Paul Scholes become the only England player ever to be sent off at the old Wembley Stadium.

When England went to Warsaw, on 8 September, 1999, for their last match in the group, they were level on points with the Poles, but ahead by virtue of the new head-to-head rule (3-1 on aggregate). However, Poland also had another match, away to Sweden, who had already qualified. They could knock England out by beating them, or by drawing both games. England would also be through to the play-offs if they could win, because then Poland, even by winning in Sweden, could not overhaul England on aggregate.

Understandably, it wasn't a classic. David Batty received England's third red card of a forgettable campaign, six minutes from the end, but England held out for a goalless draw (yet another tense finish in Poland!) and they then had to wait for a month for their fate to be decided. Fortunately, Sweden beat Poland, 2-0, in Stockholm, on 9 October, and England took their place in the play-off draw, having finished nine points behind the group winners.

Scotland were drawn against England. Paul Scholes settled the first leg with two first-half goals at Hampden, but with qualification almost assured, England then proceeded to play dismally in the second leg, at Wembley, four days later, on 17 November. Scotland pulled a goal back and restored some pride by holding out for a 1-0 win. England qualified for Belgium and the Netherlands, but it was difficult to understand how they had managed it.


England in the 2000-02 World Cup Preliminary Competition

coach: Kevin Keegan/Howard Wilkinson/Sven-Göran Eriksson - result: QUALIFIED (on goal difference)

Avoiding Poland in a qualifying competition for the first time since the 1988 European Championship, England were up against Albania, Finland, Germany and Greece in Group Nine and yet again, they were playing catch-up, after a bad start. Germany beat them in the old Wembley's last fixture, prompting Keegan to resign. Howard Wilkinson came in for the next game (a goalless draw in Finland) in a caretaker capacity, before Eriksson became their third different coach in their first three games.

Catching Germany seemed highly unlikely when England went to Munich for the return, six points behind them, and four goals behind on goal difference (FIFA still used goal difference when teams were level, rather than the head-to-head rule used in UEFA competitions). One of the greatest performances in England's history, an astonishing 5-1 victory, turned the group on its head, and England beat Albania, four days later, to go top on goal difference, with one game remaining, having also made sure of a play-off place, at worst.

To qualify, England had to match Germany's result at home to Finland, when Greece came to Old Trafford on 6 October, 2001. As it turned out, Germany were held to a goalless draw, so England only needed a point, but a rejuvenated Greek side (that would go on to win the European Championship, three years later) twice took the lead and it took a dramatic David Beckham free-kick, in the third minute of added time to send England to Japan, on the back of a 2-2 draw.

Germany beat Ukraine, 5-2 on aggregate in the play-offs and then bettered England by reaching the final.


England in the 2002-04 European Championship Preliminary Competition

coach: Sven-Göran Eriksson - result: QUALIFIED (by a point)

Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Slovakia and Turkey joined England in Group Seven. Turkey had just reached the World Cup semi-finals and they were expected to be England's biggest threat, though England slipped up in a 2-2 draw with Macedonia, at Southampton.

They beat Turkey, 2-0, at Sunderland and maintained their advantage going into the last game, having beaten Slovakia to secure, at least, a play-off berth. The final match saw England go to Istanbul on 11 October, 2003, needing a point to secure their trip to Portugal, with Turkey having to win. In a volatile atmosphere, David Beckham missed an early penalty, but the Turks were unable to score their first ever goal against England and it ended in a draw.

Turkey failed to make the finals, after Latvia, surprisingly, beat them 3-2 on aggregate, in the play-offs.


England in the 2004-06 World Cup Preliminary Competition

coach: Sven-Göran Eriksson - result: QUALIFIED (by four points)

Eriksson's last qualifying campaign was Group Six, competing with Austria, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, Poland and Wales. England were in good form in the 2004-05 season, but they stumbled at the beginning of the following season, losing to Northern Ireland, in Belfast. They had already done enough to secure, at least, a play-off place, however. With two games left, they were five points behind Poland, who had only one game to play; at Old Trafford, against England.

There were also one of the two best runner-up places to play for from the eight European groups and England knew that they would have a great chance of guaranteeing one of them, just by beating Austria in their penultimate game, at Old Trafford on 8 October, 2005. A Frank Lampard penalty gave them the points, though David Beckham was sent off in the second half. England then had to wait a few hours, before the Netherlands beat the Czech Republic, 2-0, in Prague in Group One. This meant that whoever finished runners-up in that group could not better England's record. So, with the joy of mathematics, England and Poland were both on their way to Germany.

Four days later, on 12 October, England were back at Old Trafford for the small matter of deciding the group winners. Frank Lampard again scored the winner, with ten minutes left. The 2-1 victory was enough to lift England above the Poles, who had needed a point to win the group.


England in the 2006-08 European Championship Preliminary Competition

coach: Steve McClaren - result: eliminated (by a point)

With a new boss at the helm, England were placed in a seven-team pool for the first time. Their opponents in Group E were Andorra, Croatia, Estonia, Israel, Macedonia and Russia. There were no play-offs this time, with the top two teams qualifying automatically for the finals in Austria and Switzerland.

England were held to a goalless draw by Macedonia at Old Trafford and then lost, 2-0, to Croatia, in Zagreb. They then recorded five successive 3-0 victories to put themselves back in contention. When England went to Moscow to face Russia, they were three points behind Croatia, but five ahead of Russia. Though they led at half-time, the Russians came back to win 2-1, and with two games remaining for both Croatia and Russia, to England's one, qualification was now out of their hands.

Four days before England's final game (which was against Croatia at the new Wembley Stadium), they were thrown a lifeline. Not only did Croatia lose in Macedonia, to stay within England's reach, but Russia lost in Israel to a goal scored in added time. This left them two points behind England, who now, miraculously, only needed a point against Croatia to qualify (thanks to their 4-2 aggregate lead against the Russians), whilst a 2-0 victory would even win them the group on goal difference, by making their head-to-head record with Croatia 2-2 on aggregate. Furthermore, the Croatians had now qualified, thanks to Russia's defeat in Tel Aviv.

It was all too good to be true. On 21 November, 2007, England were two goals down inside 14 minutes. They recovered to draw level, but the Croatians were always dangerous and Petrić's winner, 13 minutes from the end, meant that Croatia became the first country to beat England both home and away in a qualifying competition. They won the group and even though Russia could only muster one goal in Andorra, it was enough to take them above England into the runners-up spot.

Steve McClaren was sacked on the following day.


England in the 2008-10 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Fabio Capello - result: QUALIFIED (by six points)

England's new Italian manager took England through Group Six, against Andorra, Belarus, Croatia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Croatia were the obvious concern, but they were disposed of very efficiently, with a 4-1 beating in Zagreb, going some way to vindicating the previous competition's results. In truth, it turned out to be an easy group for England. Their eighth successive victory, a 5-1 thrashing of Croatia at Wembley, on 9 September, 2009, took them through to South Africa as group winners, with two games to spare. They lost their next game, to Ukraine, with goalkeeper, Robert Green sent off in Dnepropetrovsk. This was vital to Ukraine's chances, for it put them ahead of Croatia, and they held on to take second place and qualify for the play-offs, though they lost 1-0 to Greece on aggregate and failed to join England in the finals. England finished the campaign with a ninth win out of ten games, against Belarus, at Wembley.


England in the 2010-12 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Fabio Capello - result: QUALIFIED (by six points)

Fabio Capello took England through another relatively comfortable qualification, from Group G, ahead of Bulgaria, Montenegro, Switzerland and Wales. They remained unbeaten, but they did drop points at Wembley to both Montenegro and Switzerland; the Swiss taking a two-goal lead before England fought back to draw.

England beat Wales at Wembley to give them the safety net of the play-offs if they did not win the group, but they went to Podgorica, to face Montenegro in their final match on 7 October, 2011, needing a point to secure qualification. Just after the half-hour mark, they were two goals up and cruising, but a rush of blood saw Wayne Rooney sent off and Montenegro drew level in added time. Although the dropped points denied Montenegro a shot at winning the group (they still had one game left), the result did secure them a place in the play-offs, as Wales beat Switzerland in Swansea to end the Swiss challenge. However, the Czech Republic beat Montenegro, 3-0 on aggregate in the play-offs.

When England arrived in Ukraine for the tournament (from their base in Poland), Capello had resigned and Roy Hodgson had taken over.


England in the 2012-14 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Roy Hodgson - result: QUALIFIED (by a point)

England were in Group H, with Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, San Marino and Ukraine. Their biggest rival was Ukraine, who held them to a 1-1 draw at Wembley, but England's 4-1 win over Montenegro at Wembley in their penultimate match kept them a point ahead and guaranteed them a play-off place at worst. Four nights later, on 15 October, 2013, only Ukraine could deny them a place in Brazil as group winners, as they won, 8-0, in San Marino. England had, therefore, to beat Poland at Wembley. A goal in each half (from Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard) maintained their unbeaten record and won them the group. It was the sixth time that they had faced the Poles in a final qualification match. Only the first (forty years earlier) had been unsuccessful.

Just as in the previous World Cup, Ukraine finished runners-up to England and then lost in the play-offs. This time, they failed to hold on to a 2-0 first-leg lead and went down, 3-2 on aggregate, to France.


England in the 2014-16 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Roy Hodgson - result: QUALIFIED (by fourteen points)

England qualified from Group E with three games to spare. Their opponents were Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino, Slovenia and Switzerland. It looked an easy group on paper and that is exactly how it turned out. Their seventh consecutive win, 6-0 against San Marino in Serravalle, on 5 September, 2015 made them the first team to qualify for the final tournament, after hosts, France. Three nights later, a 2-0 victory against Switzerland at Wembley, with Wayne Rooney becoming the first player to score fifty goals for England, won them the group. They went on to win the two remaining games and completed a 100% record of ten wins for the first time.

With the tournament being extended to 24 qualifiers, there was already a big safety net for the top teams. Two qualified from each group, plus the best third-placed team, whilst the other third-placed teams went into the play-offs. Slovenia were the only team to score, and lead, against England, but Switzerland took the runners-up spot, nine points behind England, with Slovenia in the play-offs, where they were beaten, 3-1 on aggregate, by Ukraine.

England in the 2016-18 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Sam Allardyce/Gareth Southgate - result: QUALIFIED (by eight points)

Sam Allardyce lasted only one game in charge of England, but it was a victory in Slovakia in the opening match of Group F which also included Lithuania, Malta, Scotland and Slovenia, with only one team going through automatically to Russia.

Southgate took over and England won the group with a 94th minute Harry Kane goal against Slovenia at Wembley on 5 October, 2017. It was the third time in the campaign that England had secured points beyond the ninetieth minute. The victory in Slovakia had been by virtue of a 95th minute goal and Kane had also cropped up in the 93rd minute against Scotland at Hampden to rescue a point, after two late free-kick goals had left England facing a likely defeat to their oldest rivals.

Slovenia were the only team to prevent England scoring, in Ljubljana, but it was Slovakia who held off a late charge by Scotland to secure second place on goal difference, though it left them with an inferior record to every one of the other eight European group runners-up and wasn't enough for them to qualify. England completed the campaign having stretched their unbeaten qualifying record to 39 games and eight years in both the World Cup and the European Championship.

England in the 2018-19 Nations League Preliminary Competition

manager: Gareth Southgate - result: QUALIFIED (by a point)

After unexpected success in finishing fourth at the World Cup, England were immediately plunged into an extremely tough group for the inaugural UEFA Nations League. Group A4 in the top league also featured Croatia (the team that had beaten them in the World Cup semi-final) and Spain, one of the favourites to win the competition.

With only four games each to play, and relegation to League B for the team finishing bottom of the group, there was very little room for error and England got off to the worst possible start by losing to Spain at Wembley. Then, when Spain thrashed Croatia, 6-0 in Elche, it looked like England were left with a relegation battle against the team that had outfought them in the World Cup. There was a big surprise in store, however.

England went to Seville and were three goals up against Spain at half-time. The expected second-half onslaught did not disappoint, but England held on for a famous 3-2 victory and, all of a sudden, they were in with a shout, but they needed Croatia to help them out. Exactly a month later, there was an equally dramatic encounter in Zagreb, where Croatia twice responded to Spanish equalisers to win 3-2 with a 98th-minute winner. Defeat left Spain still top of the group, but they had now completed their fixtures.

Wembley hosted the final game on 18 November, 2018, whereby the winner secured a semi-final place and a draw gave it to Spain. There was also the small matter of a goalless game relegating Croatia on goal difference and a score draw sending England into League B on away goals. So, with absolutely everything balanced on a knife edge, Croatia took a 57th-minute lead, against the run of play, and it was all beginning to look like a repeat of, not only, the World Cup semi-final, but also the defeat against Croatia, eleven years earlier, that dumped England out of the European Championship in the same arena.

With twelve minutes left, England needed two goals to both escape relegation and win the group. Incredibly, they got them, through Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane, who left it until the 85th minute to book England's trip to Portugal in one of the most dramatic of all endings. Spain finished runners-up and Croatia were relegated to League B (though they were given a reprieve when League A was increased to 16 teams for the next Nations League in 2020).

England in the 2019-21 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Gareth Southgate - result: QUALIFIED (by ten points)

England were drawn in Group A with Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Kosovo and Montenegro, and proceeded to ruthlessly smash the opposition out of sight by scoring an incredible 37 goals in the eight games. They scored, at least, four times in seven of the games; the exception being in a 2-1 defeat to Czech Republic, who finished runners-up, six points behind England, and also qualified for the continent-wide finals. The solitary loss came after 43 games undefeated in World Cup and European Championship qualifiers stretching back ten years to 2009.

Qualification was assured with a 7-0 Wembley trouncing of Montenegro on 14 November, 2019 in England's thousandth international, though it would be 19 months before they took their place in the tournament, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Bulgaria and Kosovo (who scored three times against England at Southampton, conceding five) entered the play-offs by virtue of their rankings from the previous year's Nations League, but both lost in the semi-finals; Bulgaria losing 3-1 at home to Hungary and Kosovo going down 2-1 in North Macedonia.


England in the 2020-21 Nations League Preliminary Competition

manager: Gareth Southgate - result: eliminated (by five points)

England were placed in Group A2 with Belgium, newly-promoted Denmark, and Iceland as League A was extended to 16 teams and four groups of four, with again only one going through to the semi-finals, which would be in Italy. At the halfway stage it was going well for England. They had conceded their first goal from the penalty spot, but recovered to beat Belgium at Wembley and go top of the group, but then, it all fell apart.

On a sour night at Wembley, England surrendered their initiative and lost to Denmark. Harry Maguire was sent off and the only goal came from a highly-dubious penalty. Reece James also received the red card for arguing with the referee after the final whistle. This left England, realistically, needing to win in Belgium, on 15 November, 2020, where they were two goals down after 23 minutes and heading out of the competition. A 4-0 win against Iceland in their last game wasn't even enough to win them the runners-up spot, as Denmark's Wembley penalty had given them a superior head-to-head record against England. Belgium were comfortable winners of the group.

England in the 2021-22 World Cup Preliminary Competition

manager: Gareth Southgate - result: QUALIFIED (by six points)

Another comfortable qualifying campaign for England, who won Group I ahead of Albania, Andorra, Hungary, Poland and San Marino.

England won all but two of the ten games, scoring 39 goals in the process, more than any other team in the European qualifying groups. Poland, who snatched a point in Warsaw with a 92nd-minute equaliser, finished runners-up, and Hungary were the other side to stop England from winning, after taking the lead at Wembley with a penalty given for dangerous kicking by Luke Shaw, when his opponent appeared to feign injury, despite the lack of contact. Both of these games were 1-1 draws.

A 5-0 Wembley win against Albania, in their penultimate game, with all of the goals coming in the first half, secured a play-off place, at the very least for England, but it was not until their last game, three nights later, on 15 November, 2021, that they won the group. It was achieved in emphatic style in Serravalle, as they hit double figures for the first time since 1964, against a woeful San Marino side that shouldn't really have been on the same pitch.

Poland headed for the play-offs where a 2-0 home win against Sweden took them to Qatar.


England in the 2022-23 Nations League Preliminary Competition

manager: Gareth Southgate - result: eliminated (by eight points, relegated by four points)

A disastrous Nations League campaign saw England relegated from the top league after an inexplicably appalling run of results following directly on from a 22-match unbeaten run (excluding the penalty shootout in the European Championship Final).

Group A3 saw England paired with Germany, Hungary (who had achieved two successive promotions after starting in League C) and European champions, Italy (who had surprisingly failed to qualify for their second successive World Cup finals).

With the first four fixtures being played in June 2022, England failed to get any kind of momentum, scoring only from a Harry Kane penalty in Germany which won them a point. They also took a point at home to Italy, but lost home and away to Hungary, culminating in a four-goal defeat at Molineux, England's heaviest loss since 1964 and the first time that they had conceded four goals at home since a rather more famous Hungarian team had hit them for six in 1953. John Stones's sending off merely added to the incredulity of the situation.

Three months later, on 23 September, 2022, Italy put England out of their misery by relegating them to League B with a single-goal victory and they went on to win the group by also winning their last game, in Hungary. A last day 3-3 draw with Germany at Wembley, including an England fightback from two goals down to lead, before conceding a late equaliser, gave the fans hope that they could still mount a strong World Cup challenge in the next two months, but it all painted a very grim picture after such a glorious period of success.


England in the 2023-24 European Championship Preliminary Competition

manager: Gareth Southgate - result: QUALIFIED (by six points)

England's opponents in Group C were Italy, Malta, North Macedonia and Ukraine. Italy had beaten England on penalties in the final, less than two years earlier, and had then relegated England in the Nations League, but England had their revenge, completing the double over them to qualify for the finals in Germany, and winning the group at the same time. The 3-1 victory at Wembley, on 17 October, 2023, was on the fiftieth anniversary of England's most traumatic qualification match against Poland at the same site, but this time they were convincing winners.

England were held to 1-1 draws by Ukraine, in a game that took place in Poland, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in North Macedonia in the last game of the group. Italy secured the second qualification spot after holding off the challenge, by 2-1 on aggregate, of Ukraine, who went on to the play-offs for the eighth time in their last eleven qualifying competitions where play-offs were part of the format. They were successful for only the second time, defeating Iceland 2-1 in Poland.