How International Football Became a ‘Dead Fortnight’: The End Of Splendid Isolation

Back in the last international break, managerial veteran Harry Redknapp – while performing as a pundit on BT Sport – expressed dissatisfaction at the break for international football as a ‘dead fortnight’. Tellingly, he’s not the only one.  Jose Mourinho blamed the international break for disrupting his team’s rhythm when they dropped their first points of the season in a 2-2 draw at Stoke City in early September.

Very often the break is of great annoyance to fans, especially when players return back to their clubs after the break with injuries. The week off from league action for international fixtures has over the years inspired much ire on social media, such as this little ditty on YouTube, titled: ‘I Hate the International Break’. But one thing that might surprise football followers under the age of thirty is that this very such fortnight-long interruption to the league season is a relatively new one in English football history.

In fact, nothing akin to an ‘international break’ could be spotted within the English game until as late as the Qualification process for the Italia ’90 World Cup. And in this instance, it was only with regard to the week ahead of the qualifying matches.  Never was there a break ahead of friendly fixtures. The very first instance of an international break came ahead of England’s home qualifier against Sweden in mid-October 1988. No doubt there were two factors behind its sudden appearance around this time – one had been that for the first time since the end of the First World War, the top division of the Football League had been reduced from twenty-two to twenty sides, meaning that the English top division suddenly had the time freed up to implement it with four less games to play each season.

The second had been that England were humiliated with three straight defeats at Euro ’88 the previous summer and playing too many games in comparison to their European counterparts, as well as a lack of preparation ahead of international football fixtures, were cited as causes for concern. Unfortunately for England, it initially didn’t seem too great a benefit, as they were held to a 0-0 draw (as shown below) by the Swedes, with further pressure was heaped on an under pressure Bobby Robson, who mainly bore the brunt of failure at Euro ’88 from the popular press. Prior to this point however, there’s little evidence of English football having much in the way of difficulty squeezing international fixtures in between two sets of weekend league games.  In fact, four days before the 1987 League Cup Final between Arsenal and Liverpool, several of the participating players were involved in Euro ’88 qualifiers.

The Weekend Starts Here…..

Anyone under the age of thirty might also be surprised that mid-season weekend England international fixtures were simply a non-existent occurrence until the aftermath of Euro ’96 with Glenn Hoddle’s first game in charge of England in early September 1996. The game was a trip to Moldova which brought a 3-0 away win and an international debut for David Beckham.  That season it was followed by further weekend trips away to Georgia two months on and a home friendly against Mexico the following spring – both of which were played on a Saturday. The following October, qualification to France ’98 was secured by England with a Saturday evening goalless draw to Italy away in Rome.

Weekend international fixtures were cemented within the football calendar during the Euro 2000 qualification process, when UEFA reformatted the qualifiers to include back to back fixtures on the weekend and in the following midweek.  For England, this first occurred in early to mid-October 1998, when a weekend  goalless home draw with Bulgaria had been followed by a 3-0 away win in Luxembourg four days later. What actually is surprising is that mid-season Saturday afternoon home nation international games did occur prior to the mid to late-1990s, but the Football League’s programme of fixtures pretty much went on reasonably un-effected and certainly didn’t feel the need for a fortnightly break between fixtures to accommodate it.

The biggest example of this had been the perennial England v Scotland fixture, which though it became a marquee end of season televised event during the 1970s, went un-televised before the late 1960s and used to be played out as a 3PM Saturday fixture during the football season (usually in April). The 1968 game (which as well as being part of the British Home International Championship, also doubled up as the qualifying group for Euro ’68) took place in February at Hampden Park, while down at Highbury, Manchester United were playing Arsenal in a league fixture. Despite United being in the hunt to retain their title with just a one-point cushion over second place Leeds United, the Reds had to make do without England star Bobby Charlton who was performing for his national side at Hampden Park that same day.

Luckily for United, Denis Law had been overlooked by Scots National side and George Best’s Northern Ireland had been playing in the week, as Matt Busby’s side pulled off a 2-0 away win over the Gunners to keep their hunt to retain their title on course. Euro ’68 selections were also to affect another title-chasing side heading to Highbury later than season in May.  Leeds United were still in the hunt for their first ever league title and stood three points behind League leaders Manchester City with two games left to play and a game in hand over their rivals. As well as injuries to centre-half Jack Charlton and goalkeeper Gary Sprake, the West Yorkshire side were also without Norman Hunter and Terry Cooper, who were on international duty to face Spain in the second leg of England’s Euro ’68 Quarter Final tie.

While England progressed to the semi-finals of the tournament, Leeds crashed to a 3-4 defeat which ended their title hopes, with Manchester City pipping local rivals United to the title on the final Saturday of the season. No doubt, had any managers in the Premiership era such as Wenger, Mourinho or Ferguson faced such a dilemma as to lose one or two top players to international duty for a vital game in the title race, they would be apoplectic with righteous anger and develop the mother of all persecution complexes. It seems however that sides before the 1970s merely seemed to just accept this as being a victim of their own success.

One sanction that the clubs had at their disposal with regard to losing several players to a call-up for the England v Scotland game, or any weekend international football fixtures, was to lodge a request to the Football League to have the game postponed until the midweek. This however was a move which was often used sparingly, especially prior to the permitting of floodlit football by the FA in the mid-1950s, as a game rearranged for a midweek afternoon could have knocked as much as 20,000 off of an attendance figure. Another point also worth noting however, is that – up until relatively recently – very often, most clubs weren’t actually affected by international call-ups during an international week.

The English Game Goes International

In the days before substitutions became a regular occurrence in international football during the late 1960s, the international call-up was limited to just the starting eleven (whereas for the recent Malta and Slovakia games, Gareth Southgate named a twenty eight-man England squad). It’s also easy to forget these days that outside of the home nations and the Republic of Ireland, up until the last three decades or so, hardly ever were English based players called upon for duty during an international week. Active international footballers for national sides outside of the British Isles were practically non-existent before the 1970s. In fact, the commitments of overseas international fixtures were actually one factor behind the long-standing insularity of the English game toward overseas players.

Newcastle United had two Chilean brothers playing for them during the 1950s called George and Ted Robledo (the former actually bagged the winning goal in the 1952 FA Cup Final against Arsenal, a good sixty-three years before his compatriot Alexis Sanchez got on the Wembley scoresheet for the Gunners). Both of the brothers, however, were actually raised in South Yorkshire and had only developed an international football career of sorts on returning to their homeland to play for Chilean side Colo Colo in 1953.  Even Man City’s heroic German keeper Bert Trautmann, who famously played on in the 1956 FA Cup Final with a broken neck, was never capped by his homeland as the West Germans then had a policy of not selecting those who played outside of the Bundesliga (Trautmann was based in England after being captured as a POW during the War).

Liverpool in the 1930s were notable for fielding at least six South African born players, only one of whom – Gordon Hodgson – played international football for South Africa (though once based in England, he had changed national sides – as was permitted back then – and won three caps for England). There had in fact long been a history of antipodeans switching nationality to represent England at football, starting with South African born brothers Frank and Reg Osbourne who turned out for England in the 1920s and Johannesburg-born Bill Perry who found fame scoring the winning goal in the ‘Matthews’ Final for Blackpool in 1953. Also, Ipswich Town’s Colin Viljoen in the 1970s, who would have been denied the chance to play for the nation of his birth due to sanctions placed on South Africa because of the Apartheid regime, had been selected by Don Revie for England on two occasions.

During the 1980s, two English-based players raised in Australia – Tony Dorigo and Craig Johnston – also chose to play for England over Australia. As Johnston explained it to an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald many years later, he approached Australia’s Soccer Federation in the summer of 1980: ‘I said, ‘here I am, I’m Craig Johnston. I will play for Australia. But I’m injured, I’m broke, and I need to come home for the off season. Can you help me?’ And they said, ‘We don’t know who you are, we’re not a charity, we can’t help you’. His then manager at Middlesbrough at the time, John Neal, also explained to him: ‘You can’t go to Australia because you won’t get in the first team. And secondly, a friend of mine, (the then England boss) Ron Greenwood, wants you to play for England’.

It’s fair to say that Australian players based in Britain during the 1980s were pressured to choose British home nation sides over playing international football for their home country. As Craig Johnston explained it: ‘the Scottish, the English and Irish football all get up in arms when their players go abroad. We just happen to go 10, 20 or 30 times further and struggle with jetlag’. Johnston played twice for England at Under-21 level and received a call-up by Bobby Robson in 1987, but was never actually capped by the Three Lions at senior level. Australian-born Tony Dorigo of Italian parentage, also faced a similar dilemma around the same time, as a young player at Aston Villa (and then later at Chelsea and Leeds United).

As Dorigo explained it in an interview with Four Four Two in 2011: ‘At around 18 or 19 (years of age) Australia approached me to see if I wanted to play in their World Cup qualifiers. I thought that was fantastic, so I went into the Villa manager Tony Barton to tell him the situation. Australia has some crazy games, against the likes of Fiji and American Samoa, basically some dodgy Oceania games.Tony Barton looked at me and said: ‘Tony, you have just got into the first-team in the English First Division, we have got Manchester United away and Liverpool at home coming up and you want to go away for five weeks to play the likes of American Samoa?’ He basically laughed me out of his office and told me I was not going to be joining up with Australia’.

The answer to Dorigo’s international football dilemma was eventually to be found a lot closer to Villa Park, in that: ‘England came along and asked me to play for them if I hung around for another year and got my British citizenship….It was very different back then to what it is now – the players in the Premier League today fly all over the world to play for their countries. They just did not allow that to happen in my day’. One of the earliest examples of English sides signing overseas international talent – and from the Southern hemisphere to boot – was the double signing of Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa for Spurs after the Argentina ’78 World Cup.

Ossie’s Dream Brought No Selection Nightmare for Spurs….until the Falklands

The selection headache for Spurs was slightly minimalized by the fact that despite being a part of the Argentina ’78 squad, ‘Ricky’ Villa was never selected for the national side again. ‘Ossie’ Ardiles was also called up less often, as there was the benefit of Argentina as World Cup holders not having much in the way of competitive matches.  The Argentines were automatic qualifiers for Espana ’82 and the Copa America also, with just ten member sides, had no long drawn out qualification route, as all member sides qualify for the Finals which are played out during what is the summer off-season in Europe.  However, when Spurs started their victorious 1981 FA Cup run in January of that year, they were without Ardiles who had been called up for Argentina to face West Germany and Brazil in the World Champions’ Gold Cup in Uruguay.

This oddity of an international football tournament was conceived to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the World Cup and involved all sides which had won the tournament, except for England who declined to enter and were replaced by the Dutch (who despite some hugely talented players have never been crowned World Champions).  With England having a lost decade with regard to competing in international tournaments during the 1970s, Ron Greenwood and the FA were actually keen to be involved. The move however was vetoed by the Football League clubs, who did not want their players involved in such a tournament during the middle of the season.

The next time in which Ardiles would be called away from Spurs on international duty, it resulted in Ossie missing the run-in to 1981/82 season, including that year’s FA Cup Final in which Spurs retained the trophy after a replay with QPR.  Bizarrely, rather than it being an inconvenience, it turned out to be a lucky escape for Ossie as Britain and Argentina had by this point became embroiled in the Falklands conflict. No such luck however for Ricky Villa who wasn’t called up for the World Cup squad.  Under heavy government pressure, Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw was actually forced to eliminate Villa from selection for English football’s marquee event.

The League of Nations

However, the rarity of players like Ardiles and Villa in the English game at the start of the 1980s was part of why international football used to hold such allure. In an era when English sides had barely any talent beyond these Islands and in an era of three TV channels which barely showed much English and Scottish league games, let alone weekly Spanish or Italian League, it was a showcase of talent which the British public rarely saw. Contrast that with the last international break, when as many as one hundred and thirty-seven Premiership players were called upon for full international duty for various nations across the globe and you get something of an idea of the change which has occurred.

The growing internationalization of the English top tier has also gone some way to divorcing the link in the minds of fans of their own club side being something of a feeder to the national side. Though with the presence of players from the Celtic fringe from the very beginning (i.e. the ‘Scotch professors’ from Preston North End’s nineteenth century ‘invincibles’ onwards), it was not always strictly the case that English clubs sides would be predominantly English. That said, with the introduction of Premiership TV money and the Bosman ruling removing much of the restrictions on non-English players, there became the rise of club sides which were predominantly non-English which had the by-product of fans of such club sides identifying less with the England national side – particularly so when it was predominantly made up of players from rival clubs.

As an example of such internationalizing of English club sides, last march Liverpool had as many as twenty-three of their players called up for international duty to represent countries as diverse as Brazil, Belgium, Greece, Holland, Germany, Senegal, Estonia, Croatia, Serbia, and England as well as Under-21 and Youth internationals for other home nations such as Wales, Scotland and near-neighbours across the sea in the Republic of Ireland. In contrast, Man United’s relegation squad of 1973/74 previously held what was then a record number of ten players who were called up that season for international duty with Martin Buchan, Alex Forsyth, George Graham, Jim Holton and Lou Macari for Scotland; Wyn Davies for Wales; George Best, Trevor Anderson and Sammy McIlroy for Northern Ireland and Mick Martin for the Republic of Ireland.

As will be seen in Part two of this series, what this has led to is a general inflation – and by extension a devaluation in the general currency – of what it actually means to be considered an international footballer within the English game in the late 2010s.

Summary