When We Were Heroes: Man United's Gary Bailey and the England U21 Champions of 1984

If England U21s have any chance of winning the Euros, they need to match the spirit of '84.
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If England U21s have any chance of winning the Euros, they need to match the spirit of '84.

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When We Were Heroes: Man United's Gary Bailey and England's U21s Champions of 1984

Many people believe that the last time England won a major international honour was way back in ’66; Nobby dancing, Bobby wiping his hands before meeting the Queen, and all that.

Not so.

In 1984 at the UEFA Under 21s in Spain a group of our finest youngsters - and Oxford United’s Kevin Brock – took on Europe’s elite and triumphed, beating the hosts in a closely-fought two-legged final.

So who were they, these unacknowledged heroes? These youthful band of brothers who, for nearly three decades, have had to endure Geoff Hurst et al being elevated to national treasures, wrongly representing the last time our country was great. Who were the unsung boys of 84?

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In any ‘development’ team (as Brooking and co now annoyingly call the Under 21s) there’s always a jumbled mix of future stars, solid pros who play consistently in the top flight yet unfairly get overlooked at the very highest level, and nonentities who soon drift into lower league obscurity. The boys of 84 are no exception.

In goal stood Gary Bailey, who my granddad never trusted because he swore the United keeper resembled an SS officer. A touch racist perhaps but then again I never took on the Nazis like he did. The full-back positions were taken up by Spurs’ Gary Stevens, who later had his knee cartilage splattered into row Z by Vinnie Jones, a career-ending act of thuggery that still shocks to this day, whilst on the other flank roved the forever under-rated Mel Sterland.

Sterland, a future title winner with Leeds, has let himself go slightly these days. In truth he’s ballooned into a porker. You suspect he has taken revenge on any winger who once skinned him by doing likewise then eating him whole. Back then though he was a tenacious, whippet-thin defender with plenty of promise. The singular full cap he ultimately won is almost a mockery to his abilities.

The centre-back pairing was Danny Thomas alongside ‘Big’ Dave Watson. I cannot recall off-hand if Watson was indeed nicknamed ‘Big’ but its almost compulsory for any sturdy defender called Dave. Either way he carved out an impressive career with fifteen years service at Everton where he amassed a clutch of silverware.

Across the midfield was the aforementioned Brock, Steve Hodge – forever associated with admiring close-up Maradona’s mazy dribble at the Azteca stadium rather than actually attempting a challenge – Stoke flyer Mark Chamberlain, and Paul Bracewell.

Let’s pause for one moment and return to that jumbled mix. Bracewell is the epitome of the second type, who illogically encounters a glass ceiling internationally despite their considerable talent. A classy all-round midfielder who won numerous honours during his peak at Goodison Park, he was a key component of one of the greatest club midfields this country has ever produced (Sheedy, Bracewell, Reid and Steven). Yet during the course of his career he won precisely three full England caps. The inferior Hodge stole twenty-four.

During the era of Charlie Hughes and his caveman tactics, where endeavour was valued over artistry, where later Carlton Palmer would gain twice as many appearances for his country than Matt Le Tiss, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. But it still grates. Up front were the duel aerial threat of Mark Hateley, who was voted player of the tournament, and Howard Gayle.

The format of the tournament was different to what it is today. From the quarter final stages onwards it departed the host nation and became a series of home and away two-legged affairs. England easily routed France in the quarters 7-1 on aggregate then squeezed past a typically stubborn Italy. Spain however was a different proposition with the prowling Emilio Butragueno spear-heading an attractive side. Nevertheless the lion cubs secured a magnificent 1-0 victory in Seville before bringing them back to, of all places, Bramall Lane for a culture shock. Here Hateley and Gayle scored a goal apiece to retain the trophy they also won two years previous.

They were undoubtedly a special bunch – England’s most successful team of all time in fact - and though none individually went on to gain a hundred appearances for their country, star in arty aftershave ads, or date a pop star, collectively they deserve a place not just in the history books, but also in our hearts.

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