England v Hungary, Friendly, 1978
My favourite match ~ James Thomson recalls his first visit to Wembley but the memories differ slightly from reality
In 1978 England were at one of the lowest points in their history. They had failed to qualify for World Cup for the second successive time, their manager had left mid-campaign to the more lucrative UAE and Ron Greenwood's appointment ahead of Brian Clough had left many distinctly underwhelmed.
In spite of all this there was a hint of optimism in the air. Since Don Revie's departure Greenwood had experimented with basing England's side around Liverpool, including a recall for the ageing Ian Callaghan against Luxembourg, but for the home fixture against Italy he had been bolder and rewarded with an exhilarating 2-0 win. England had then narrowly lost to West Germany and drawn with Brazil before winning the Home International Championship, sealed with a 1-0 win at Hampden Park against a Scotland side who were bound for Argentina.
As a football-mad nine year old I knew all about the results, having been allowed to stay up to watch the Italy game and sat, enraptured, in front of the Home Internationals, but little about the background. All I knew was that England's team was packed with the stars that I read about in each edition of Shoot and that Greenwood had been wise enough not to include any of the recently-relegated Newcastle United players who adorned my bedroom wall.
It was against this backdrop that Hungary, who had qualified for the World Cup, visited Wembley for a friendly on May 24. International football was still seen as the pinnacle of the game rather than the inconvenience that many Premier League clubs and fans seem to see it as now and a crowd of 74,000 turned up to see a side that hadn't qualified take on a side whose greatest years were firmly in the past. I remember being stunned when I found out that this was more people than lived in my home town.
This was to be my first visit to Wembley. I was obsessed with football in a way that only a small boy can be – my copies of Rothmans were dog eared, I'd read Nobby Stiles's autobiography and I suspect that I was unbearable for days beforehand. Everything was to be perfect; my dad picked me up from school, which was unheard of, we went to McDonalds for tea – something which was a novelty rather than the ubiquitous experience that it is today and necessitated a trip to Slough – and we arrived at the ground in time to buy a scarf, a rosette and a programme. The scarf and rosette are long gone but I still have the programme, filed away with other relics of a 1970s childhood.
Recently I revisited the memories of that halcyon evening and realised that many of them, which I had clung to for years, were fundamentally flawed. I remember stepping into a stadium illuminated by floodlights which made all the colours, and especially the pitch, almost unnaturally vivid. But we would have arrived at the ground at around 7.30 on a late May evening, a time at which there still would have been quite a bit of natural light, so I must have superimposed the memories of how the stadium looked later in the evening.
When I found the highlights on YouTube I realised that even my recollections of the England goals were hazy. For the first goal I remembered Dave Watson's towering header and Kevin Keegan's run but had completely forgotten Peter Barnes's scuffed finish. It was the fourth goal that really surprised me, however, for I have long held a memory of Tony Currie hitting a left-foot shot from miles outside the penalty area. I was quite taken aback to find that it was a right-foot shot from just outside the box: still a great goal but not quite the stuff of legend that I remember it being.
This was the start of a long, if occasionally fraught, relationship that I had with the England team. Ten years later I stood in a crowd of 20,000 for a friendly against Denmark with half the stadium closed. Ten years after that I stopped going altogether, the early excitement having long since given way to ennui. I saw some great England games and some dreadful ones but nothing will ever top the night that England beat Hungary 4-1. It would now be derided as a meaningless friendly but at the time made a nine-year-old's year.