With talk surrounding a Great Britain football team played down ahead of the 2012 Olympics, Neil Andrews looks into the history of a Great Britain team

In a little over 18 months time Team Great Britain will end a partly self-imposed exile of 40 years to begin their first quest for an Olympic football medal since the summer of 1972. However, far from being comprised of the best footballing talent available from every corner of the kingdom, the British team will be made up almost entirely from the England Under-21 side, with a couple of over-age players as permitted by the International Olympic Committee. Because despite sketchy reassurances from FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have decided to swerve an invitation from Lord Coe to take part, in order to protect their status as independent nations.

Understandably all three had concerns that a Great Britain team would be the thin end of a wedge that could ultimately see them – and England – disappear from international football altogether. For their part, FIFA have often eyed the British Isles as a possible solution for reducing the number of competing countries within the UEFA qualifying zone. But it wasn't always so. Football's world governing body was once grateful for the assistance of the home nations in helping them out of a financial hole.

In 1946, the first post-war FIFA Congress saw the four UK associations welcomed back after an absence of almost 20 years, thanks largely to some splendid diplomacy from president Jules Rimet and his future successors, Arthur Drewry and Sir Stanley Rous. To help celebrate this momentous occasion, a match between a select XI from the UK and a team from the Rest of Europe was arranged for the following year.

As a gesture of goodwill it was decided that the gate receipts from the game would be donated to FIFA, who, although not exactly broke, were going through an austere patch due to the lack of competitive action during the Second World War. And so on May 10, 1947, 137,000 fans packed into Hampden Park to watch what the press had dubbed the "Match of the Century" while FIFA pocketed the best part of £35,000.

The Great Britain side, playing in blue in honour of their hosts, was selected by new England manager Walter Winterbottom, who picked five of his fellow countrymen for the starting line-up, including Stanley Matthews and Wilf Mannion up front. However, Winterbottom sprung a surprise by selecting the then uncapped Scottish inside-forward Billy Steel, who had only played a handful of games for Morton, and then playing him alongside fellow Scot Billy Liddell in what proved to be something of a masterstroke. But, controversially, there was only room for one Ulsterman in the team, West Brom defender Jackie Vernon.

The continentals, meanwhile, held a trial game in front of 60,000 spectators in Rotterdam before their Austrian coach Karl Rappan selected his squad and retreated to a training camp in Troon. Rappan's team eventually comprised nine different nationalities, including the Republic of Ireland's Johnny Carey, but circumstances dictated that the away team was not as strong as it could have been, with several leading European footballers unavailable for the match.

Despite this apparent weakness the "Rest" started the stronger of the two sides and dominated the opening stages. The game was eventually won and lost, however, thanks to a crazy four-minute period in the first half when Britain scored three times, including one from the penalty spot following a bizarre handball from Czecho­slovakia's Josef Ludl, who dived full-stretch into the box to stop a Matthews pass.

Consequently, the match was all but over as a contest and Britain won comfortably 6-1, with Mannion and Tommy Lawton scoring twice. Steel stole the plaudits with a raking 35-yard drive that seemed to catch France's Julien Darui out in the opposition goal. Yet although most contemporary reports agreed that the Hampden crowd were treated to a hard-fought exhibition match full of skill and grace, the margin of the home side's victory split opinions.

The Daily Telegraph patriotically declared that the Brits had given their opponents a "lesson in football" and "outplayed the cream of Europe", while Pathé News simply stated that "British soccer is still the World's best". The football correspondent of the Glasgow Herald, however, offered a more cautious tone and felt the hosts had been flattered by the result, which owed much to the enterprise of Mannion and Steel up front rather than because of any tactical or skilful superiority. Indeed, it was the quality of the finishing that was the real difference between the two sides, with Sweden's Gunnar Nordahl in particular guilty of wasting three good early opportunities to put the visitors ahead with only Frank Swift to beat.

The home side's flat-footed, one-dimensional approach of giving the ball to Matthews out wide also came in for criticism, the feeling being that the continentals were quick to identify and nullify the threat from the wings. And George Hardwick, who captained the side, was singled out as one of Great Britain's weakest links after Denmark's Karl Aage Praest gave him a torrid time down the right flank, turning him inside out not once but twice in the build-up to Nordahl's goal for the "Rest". Rather bizarrely, Lawton was also admonished, despite his double, for not being more dominant in the air and "shamefacedly" accepting the congratulations from his team-mates after he forced Carlo Parola to turn the ball into his own net for the fifth goal.

It was mooted that the fixture could become an annual event in the international calendar. But it would be another eight years before the two sides came together again, this time to celebrate the Irish FA's 75th anniversary in 1955. Only Matthews and Liddell returned for Great Britain, while Europe fielded a completely changed and much stronger side that ran out comfortable winners, an 11-minute hat-trick from the Yugoslav Bernard Vukas sealing a 4-1 victory.

The match would prove to be the last time that all four home nations would officially come together in a competitive fixture, although a Great Britain XI would go on to lose 6-4 to their European counterparts in Matthews's farewell game in 1965. England, Northern Ireland and Scotland did join forces to play Wales as part of the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969 (a repeat of the 1951 fixture that celebrated the Welsh FA's 75th anniversary) and a UK team, consolidated by a couple of Republic of Ireland and Danish players, played a one-off encounter against a select European side to mark the country's entry into the Common Market at Wembley in 1973.

But that is as close as anyone has come to getting a British team together since then, and, as hard as Sebastian Coe might try, that statistic doesn't look like chang­ing anytime soon.

From WSC 287 January 2011

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