Magyars & Thatcher

When Hungary visited in 1981, England hadn't got to the World Cup finals for 11 years. Cris Freddi went with his heart in his mouth, which improved his singing

Call this our culmination. England’s last qualifying match. We’d been to all the others at home and reck­oned we’d suffered enough. They hadn’t been convincing in any of the others, even the 4-0 opener against Norway. It took them most of the first half to score, the third goal was a penalty, and the fourth was three min­utes from time. I’d missed that one, Mar­iner’s only good goal for England, because I was swapping nips of rum with two Norwegian fans. There was also the most beautiful woman ever seen at Wem­bley, a classic white-haired ice goddess. Drifting involuntarily towards her in the coach park, I found myself shaking hands with her equally stunning boy­friend, straight out of the Thor comics. Oh well, who needs the perfect woman when you’ve got two World Cup points?

We got another couple against Switzerland, but only after following a convincing first half (Mariner’s good header from Trevor Brooking’s free-kick) with a shocking second. We were with two opposition fans again, real cowbells and all, and they enjoyed Mick Mills playing in midfield (“He is your captain?”), where he trod on the ball and fell over. Then the best thing about the goalless draw with Romania was the crowd booing the guest of honour, one of Thatcher’s ministers. This set us up nicely for the next three matches, and on balance we were glad they were all away from home and we didn’t go.

A famous win in Budapest (Trevor’s brilliant shot sticking in the stanchion) was sandwiched by two terrible 2-1 defeats, the first in Switzerland, the second that helluva beating in Oslo. And that seemed to be that, extending the nightmare wait till Mexico 86 – but then Romania miraculously imploded against Switzerland, losing after taking the lead. Unforgivable, that. At least we would never lose at home.

So here we were, suddenly. Needing only a draw in this place where we didn’t lose, against a team who’d already qualified. Surely this time. We got there an hour early so we could stake our claim to a crush bar­rier. It stops you being shifted about during a match and gives you something to hold on to, to bring up some white on your knuckles. Surely this time.

I doubt if any of us remembers the actual football very much. We were even at the wrong end for the goal. Somebody hit a shot (Brooking, I think), low and weak and going too far left. Then it seemed to take a deflection, but actually it was a case of me having another bad view of a Mariner goal. Digging it out from under his feet, he scuffed it just inside the left-hand post.

We were too nervous to start counting any cracks in the eggs – for all of about five minutes. Then I started shouting and yelling louder than anyone in the im­mediate vicinity. Because I knew we were there now. We were going. More than an hour left, but you couldn’t have any doubts. Well look at them, I’m shouting. Look at the expletives deleted. They haven’t come here to play. Why should they? They’re getting us into the club because they’re already members.

Two main memories. The second one first. After Hun­gary had stood and watched (except the kid Sallai, who got himself booked for kicking Keegan all night) and that one goal had been more than enough, we’re staying behind afterwards and I’m swearing now, even though I lost my voice in the first half. If they don’t come back out and applaud us, I’m going to go in there and drag them out. They save their skins by coming out and clapping with their hands above their heads. Damn right. We deserved it. It’s the only time in my life I sang in tune.

I hadn’t made it to the local choir festival when I was 11. The top year in every school was allowed to send 30 kids. There were 31 in our class. I even lost a sing-off, to Leslie Liberda the Polish foghorn. Fifteen years later, I’m in a crowd of 40,000 for a Wales match at Wemb­ley, and people are turning round to ask who’s making that noise when I tried the Eng-land chant where you have to hold the notes.

They should hear me now. I’m so much in tune I can’t hear my own voice – which was the story of our lives at the time. For the England team, 1981 was stat­istically the worst year ever (naturally we discount 1876). But us, young men around town with a few quid in our pockets, we could stand at Cambridge Circus and every street led to some kind of a buzz (even before they started Sportspages). Angelucci’s and the Centrale, like in the songs. Camisa’s and the Dog & Duck. The rock band I fronted played at the ICA and the Almeida (no need to sing in tune if everything else is miked up enough), and Tottenham won the FA Cup. As mentioned above, the Hungary match was a culmination.

Even then, not particularly political though I was, you couldn’t quite lie back and bask. I stayed up and watched the whole of election night in 1979 (trying to wear down a blind date, which shows how young we were), and had a slight sinking feeling nobody else seemed to share. Oh well, at least 1981 was the year of the riots (I emerged blinking onto Balham High Road and found they’d trashed it overnight) – so it didn’t look as if she could last for ever. In the end, she probably claimed credit for reaching the finals. We hadn’t done it the time before, under a Labour government, and didn’t do it the first time after she was kicked out. Maybe Hungary did a deal with Mark Thatcher.

Still, eh, never mind. We were there, for the first time since we were in short trousers, so this was a cul­mination for a whole generation. And although we got there under Thatcher, we never won it under Thatcher – so it really was my season. If one of your countries doesn’t win it, there’s a chance the other one might. Tardelli’s celebration of his goal in the final was the best in history, and the sound that came out of his mouth was about the same as mine when Hungary were playing out time. In the stadium, no one can hear you scream. In tune or out.

From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month