Alan Mullery became the first player to be sent off for England in 1968
The grainy black-and-white footage of England’s 1968 European Championship semi-final didn’t quite manage to capture one of the more infamous moment in the country’s football history, although Alan Mullery does not need YouTube to recall the incident perfectly.
The cameraman at Stadio Comunale in Florence is just panning away when Mullery, incensed by a tackle from Yugoslavia’s Dobrivoje Trivić in the final minute of England’s 1-0 defeat, turns around and kicks out at his opponent, who promptly crumples to the floor. What is recorded is the moment the Spanish referee, Jose Maria Ortiz de Mendibil, charges over to Mullery and, with an elaborate flourish of his arm, orders the Tottenham midfielder from the pitch – the first sending-off for an England player in their international history, which then stood at 424 matches.
It remains the sort of pub trivia question which Mullery has grown weary of answering, although he knows he only has himself to blame – even if he does maintain England were more sinned against in the dirtiest game he had ever experienced.
“I can’t call myself a dirty player but there was so much going on. With a minute to go the fella runs his boots down my calf and blood was coming out of my leg. I didn’t like that much and turned around and kicked him straight in the balls,” said Mullery.
“Why would I kick someone with a minute to go? Because they were kicking the life out of us for the 89 minutes before that.
“Being the first to be sent off didn’t go down well with my family or supporters. The only one who came up to me afterwards to shake my hand was Alf Ramsey.
“It’s 50-odd years ago and I still get people coming up to me asking if I was the first player to get sent off for England at senior level. I just say, ‘yes’, and that’s it. You can’t change it. People have memories, there are history books and there is the internet. I’m not happy about it but it took place in the spur of the moment and I have to live with it for the rest of my life.” (watch video below)
Half a century on from that first-ever appearance in a European Championship semi-final, and football’s moral relativism has changed somewhat. Whereas red cards were considered shameful for players in 1968, these days they are considered more of an occupational hazard – even if the likes of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney can testify to the impact they have on a player’s career.
The Euros themselves are a very different tournament, too; 53 years ago, England’s qualification route was finishing top of the British Home Championship, which started a few months after winning the World Cup, and progressing straight to the semi-finals.
The main lesson from 1968, for Mullery, is that being favourites does not always translate to winning – a point Gareth Southgate and his players would do well to remember ahead of their own meeting with an underdog opponent, Denmark, on Wednesday.
“They [England] won the World Cup and two years later there were a couple of changes but it was very, very strong side,” Mullery said. “We were confident. Everyone knew what they had to do but it was one of those days you didn’t want to play against Yugoslavia because of what they were.
“They were a nasty lot to play against. They were a dirty side who kicked everybody and if you were on the floor after a kicking they trod on you. They had all the dirty tricks you could find. They just wouldn’t let you play, they would kick you and there was not a great deal you could do about it.
“You are that close to being top and when it’s over and you’re not, it’s the saddest place to be.”
Yugoslavia eventually won by a single goal scored by Dragan Džajić before losing the final to Italy, who had won their semi-final against the Soviet Union on a coin toss after a 0-0 draw.
Against Denmark, Mullery will be hoping for an early goal like England managed against Ukraine, a victory that has got the country dreaming of a first Euro triumph.
Harry Kane got England off to a flying start against Ukraine
“It was very unusual that my wife watched Saturday’s game because she’s not into football, if you can believe that. But even she watched it,” he said.
“Four minutes in the first half and one minute in the second half. You score really early at those moments and you’re on your way to heaven. It’s a good place you’re going to. And you can see that confidence grow in everyone when you have those early goals. In the Premier League or Championship, if you’re 1-0 up after four minutes you’re on a high.
“If we had that early goal against Yugoslavia, it’s a different story.”
Mullery is also wary of Denmark, who bring with them what Gareth Southgate calls a “powerful wave of emotion” after Christian Eriksen collapsed in their first game of the tournament and fought for his life.
“The situation with Eriksen has given something more to play for than a trophy,” Mullery said. “They have been playing very, very well. He’ll be watching the game and they will be playing for him and will be giving as much as they can. It will be a tough game.”