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The Best of British

AT THIS time of the year, my mind often thinks back to the British Home Championship of days gone by.

It would see England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play each other in a mini league, with many of the fixtures at the end of the campaign. It always seemed to finish with England playing the Scots at either Wembley or Hampden Park, live on tv with either Brian Moore or David Coleman commentating.

Sadly, for various reasons, the competition that had lasted for 100 years came to an end in 1984.

But how did it come about in the first place? Well, by the 1880s football was an established sport throughout the entire United Kingdom and all four home nations had their own football associations.

The four nations would play friendly matches between themselves quite regularly but they were not organised in any formal manner.

On December 6, 1882 at an annual meeting between the associations to discuss a set of formal rules that they would all agree to stick to, it was decided to officially organise these fixtures and have something at stake.

This saw the birth of the British Home Championship – the world’s first international football competition.

The competition was held every season (except for the war years), beginning in the 1883-84 season. Each team played the others once, home or away, so that all teams played three matches in total.

Teams would play one or two matches at home and the remaining away and this would alternate year on year so that any home advantage would change each season.

Two points were awarded for a win and one point for a draw. If more than one team finished the competition with the same number of points, then the championship was shared (goal difference came in later).

That first year began with Scotland beating Ireland 5-0 on January 24, 1884. William Harrower scored the very first goal and the Scots would go on and win the inaugural tournament.

In 1902, the Scotland v England match played at Ibrox Park in Glasgow saw a tragedy. During the first half, part of the terracing in the overcrowded, newly-built West Stand collapsed – 26 people were killed and more than 500 injured.

Play was stopped but was eventually resumed because officials feared emptying crowds could interfere with rescue attempts and lead to further panic.

The match ended in a 1-1 draw. Afterwards, both Football Associations agreed that it had been a mistake to continue and voided the result. The match was replayed a month later at Villa Park with all the proceeds from the match donated to a relief fund for victims of the disaster.

The 1950 Championship was used as qualification for that year’s World Cup in Brazil. The top two teams would go to the finals.

Both England and Scotland were guaranteed the two spots before the last match between the pair of them. The Scottish FA then declared they would only go to the World Cup if they beat England and became British champions. They played at Hampden Park and lost 1-0 to the English thanks to a goal from Roy Bentley.

Scotland refused to go as runners-up and so missed what would have been their first appearance at a World Cup.

The only year that all four teams finished on equal points was 1956, and so the championship was shared between all of them.

By the 70s, goal difference would be used to separate the teams.

In 1967, the year after England had won the World Cup, the final match came down to a winner-takes-all clash between England and Scotland at Wembley. England needed a win or a draw to clinch the championship, while Scotland had to win to triumph.

The Scots won 3-2 with Denis Law scoring the winner and, as it was England’s first defeat since winning the World Cup, the visitors referred to themselves as the ‘Unofficial Champions of the World’.

Ten years later again, the title came down to the final game between England and Scotland at Wembley. Again, the Scots won the match 2-1 with goals from Gordon McQueen and Kenny Dalglish, but this time the friendly pitch invasion by the overjoyed Scottish supporters went too far as they ripped up the pitch and broke the goalposts.

In 1979, England got their revenge with a 3-1 win over the Scots at Wembley with Kevin Keegan scoring one of his best ever goals after a one-two with Trevor Brooking.

Because of the troubles in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s, there were issues with them hosting matches at home and so they would play their home games in Glasgow or Liverpool.

But in 1981, Northern Ireland did not want to move their matches against England and Wales. Both teams were thus unwilling to travel to Belfast to fulfil fixtures and so the tournament was abandoned and uncompleted.

With football hooliganism on the increase, declining attendances and a crowded fixture list, the end was nigh, and the 1983-84 competition was the final one.

Scotland drew 1-1 with England in the last ever match. England’s Tony Woodcock scored what would be the last ever goal.

It ended appropriately with all four teams level with one win, one draw and one defeat each. Northern Ireland finished top on a goal difference of plus one.

When the competition came to a close after a hundred years of history and 87 tournaments, England finished with the most wins – 34 plus another 20 that were shared.  Scotland had won 24 times and shared it on 17 occasions, Wales had seven wins and five shared, while Northern Ireland finished with three victories, including the last ever in 1984, and had shared five others.

The Irish Football Association remain in possession of the trophy.

The four Home Nations still clash from time to time in one-off friendlies, World Cup or European qualifiers.

England beat Scotland at Euro ’96 with Gazza’s wonder goal and in the two-legged play-off for Euro 2000, England won the first leg 2-0 with both goals from Paul Scholes at Hampden, although the Scots won the second leg at Wembley with a Don Hutchison goal.

England came from behind to beat Wales 2-1 in the Euro ’16 tournament in France. Goals from Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge cancelled out Gareth Bale’s early strike. However, it was Wales who went further by reaching the semi-finals, knocking out Northern Ireland in the last 16.

I know there is no chance of the competition being revived these days, but I do believe it is a shame.

Like the fantastic Six Nations in rugby, the annual clashes between the Home Nations might not always have been top quality. But there was always a sense of excitement and the chance of bragging rights with friends from around the country was great fun.

With respect, I would rather see England play one of the other home nations than a game against some minor international country in a meaningless friendly. Sadly, it’s another piece of football’s past that has gone forever – apart from the memories.

This article was brought to you by Late Tackle football magazine, the national football fanzine, 'by fans for fans'.
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