Different World, Different Outcome
When Billy Laboured Against Opponents From The East
Lithuania wasn’t even recognised as a nation, in football or otherwise, when Billy Wright was immaculately plying his trade and making friends across the world.
Nor did England play matches in March. And the thought of the captaincy being passed around like it now is…….well, it just didn’t happen.
Times have changed enormously in the international game and the list of English centurions continues to grow, regardless of the fact that it might now take only a cameo role as a substitute to earn another cap.
Billy’s were full appearances, none as a substitute, and he led from the front by captaining his country 90 times as well as being the first man from these shores to rack up a three-figure haul of international outings.
With a nod to the side Gareth Southgate’s men were beating in a World Cup qualifier this teatime, though, we can reflect on the unusual pattern of matches played by ‘England’s finest footballer and gentleman’, as Sir Jack Hayward called him, against the massive land that had Lithuania within its borders for decades.
Billy had to wait until the winning of his 92nd cap to face the USSR for the first time – and was then in opposition to them again another three times before hanging up his famous three lions jersey.
It was in Moscow in the last match before the 1958 World Cup finals that England first famously fielded an all-Molineux half-back line of Eddie Clamp, Billy and Bill Slater, with Wolverhampton-born Albion man Don Howe at right-back.
The 1-1 draw was a big improvement on the 5-0 hammering in Yugoslavia a week earlier but, as was the FA’s way, the planning for the tournament was somewhat awry.
Billy recalled in the wonderful A Hero For All Seasons book written by Norman Giller in 2002 that the squad arrived in Sweden only two days before their first game in the tournament and ‘were not the best-prepared team in the finals’.
By coincidence – and surely this would never happen these days – the first assignment in the tournament was also against the Soviets, who were pegged back from two up in Gothenburg in a 2-2 draw salvaged by Tom Finney’s late penalty.
Again, England had the Wolves trio together (and that was in the absence of Ron Flowers), as they did for the follow-up goalless deadlock with Brazil and the 2-2 draw with Austria in Boras. Then came the USSR once more.
Clamp was left out this time but, further up the team, Peter Broadbent came in to keep the quota of players from the League champions to three.
And Billy described it as one of the lowest moments of his career when a 1-0 defeat brought about a painful exit. “I knew in my heart that that this would be my last World Cup and we had let ourselves down,” he said.
Caps 92, 93 and 96 had come for him against the Soviets and his 98th followed when he was face to face with the same opponents in the following October, this time at Wembley. England won that one 5-0 but it was what the Wolves and national skipper called ‘hollow revenge’.