The British amateurs lost 5-1 to Bulgaria
20 July ~ On May 5, 1971, a Great Britain Olympic football team managed by Charles Hughes trotted out in the Vasil Levsky Stadium in Sofia for the second leg of the GB's attempt to qualify for the finals of the 1972 Olympic Games. The match would be the team's last ever outing and many of the players suspected as much beforehand. "We knew that was the end of it then," says Roddy Haider, GB's main striker. The Olympics were still clinging to the amateur ideal that had become nonsense in England.
The Isthmian and Northern League were theoretically amateur and provided the bulk of the GB but shamateurism, players taking secret payments but retaining amateur status, was rampant. Outside of Britain, definitions of an amateur differed widely. In the communist Eastern Bloc, there were no professionals. Players had state jobs but played full-time. Haider was with Hendon in 1971.
Eight of the Bulgarian side that GB had faced in the first leg had been to the previous year's World Cup finals. Striker Dimitar Yakimov was an army officer who had played in the 1962 and 1966 World Cup finals and was the Bulgarian league's top scorer. "I was marking some guy who was a major but I doubt he'd ever been in a barracks in his life," says Haider.
For the first leg, a pitiful crowd of just 2,200 witnessed one of the great upsets in the history of Olympic football at Wembley Stadium. A team of players from Hendon, Enfield and Wycombe that featured a solitary non-Englishman, Bill Currie of Albion Rovers, won 1-0. British football was held in such regard that the result was deemed acceptable in Bulgaria. "Our head coach [Hristo Mladenov] said 'that is a good result for us, boys'," recalls Bulgaria goalkeeper Stoyan Jordanov.
In Sofia, a crowd of 30,000 saw Bulgaria's players show what they could really do. GB were 4-0 down by half-time. Striker Peter Hardcastle, later a professional with Blackpool, recalls: "We only had two or three attacks. It could have been 20-0. They were taking pot-shots from everywhere. I've never played against players like that."
The game finished 5-0, consigning GB to a 5-1 aggregate defeat. Currie was dropped after the first leg. Of the 16 players in Sofia, 15 were English. Perhaps fittingly, given the Anglo-Welsh nature of the 2012 squad, the only non-Englishman in the squad in Sofia was a teenage goalkeeper from Rhyl called Grenville Millington. Later a League player with Chester, Millington says: "It wasn't a happy journey back as some of the players had been together a long time and it was a sad end."
A proposed tour of Scandinavia that summer by the GB side was taken over by England's amateur team, also managed by Hughes. Three years later the FA dumped the amateur credo. Now all footballers were simply "players". With no English amateurs and little interest elsewhere in Britain, the Olympic side was history – until now. Steve Menary
Steve Menary is the author of GB United? British Olympic football and the end of the amateur dream (Pitch Publishing 2010)