As a result of the disaster to qualify for the 1974 finals Sir Alf Ramsey was sacked, and after a brief spell where Joe Mercer was put in charge, they began the qualifying tournament for the 1978 finals with Don Revie of Leeds United in charge. Failing to qualify for the previous competition meant England were unseeded in the qualifying draw. They were drawn in a four-team group where only the winners would qualify, with Finland, Luxembourg and Italy. The two minnows were not expected to provide any problems but Italy were one of the strongest European nations.
The first match was Don Revie's eighteenth in charge but the team was not a settled one. The last two members of the 1966 winners, Alan Ball and Martin Peters had fallen out of favour, and Revie continually tinkered with the side. In the match played in Helsinki on the 13th June 1976 England ran out easy winners 4-1.
Finland v England
Date: 13th June 1976
Score: Finland 1 v 4 England
Finland: Enckleman, Vihtalie, Maekynen, Tolsa, Ranta, Jantunen, Suomalainen (Pyykko), Heiskanen E, Heiskanen A, Rissanen, Paataleinen
England: Clemence, Todd, Mills, Thompson, Madeley, Cherry, Keegan, Channon, Pearson, Brooking, Francis G
Goals: Finland: Paatalinen 27 England: Pearson 14 Keegan (2) 30, 60 Chanon 56
In the return match four months later it was clear that goal difference was going to play a big part in determining the group and England were out for a big score. The team was packed with goalscorers and a large crowd turned up at Wembley on the 13th October 1976 expecting a goal feast. Despite the best possible start when Dennis Tueart scored after only four minutes England struggled to break down the Finnish defence. The half time talk did not have the desired effect and disaster struck when the Finnish equalized on the 48th minute. The lead was restored four minutes later by Joe Royle (52nd minute) but England could not score again despite going close on several occasions only won the match 2-1.
England v Finland
Date: 16th October 1976
Score: England 2 v 1 Finland
England: Clemence, Todd, Beatie, Thompson, Greenhoff, Wilkins, Keegan, Channon, Royle Brooking (Mills), Tueart (Hill)
Finland: Enckleman, Heikkinen, Vihtalie, Maekynen, Ranta, Heiskanen E, Pyykko, Toivola, Nieminen, Heiskanen A, Paataleinen
Goals: England: Tueart 4 Royle 52 Finland: Nieminen 48
The most important match so far took place against Italy in Rome on the 17th November. The need to avoid defeat led to a defensive approach to the match and the team only retained five of those that had played against Finland Italy named seven Juventus players. England had an encouraging start to the match but fell behind when an Antognoni free kick was deflected into the net off of Kevin Keegan in the thirty sixth minute. The match was put beyond England's reach in the seventy-seventh minute when Roberto Bettaga powered a header into the English net. England were staring elimination in the qualifying stages for the second time in a row in the face.
Italy v England
Date: 17th November 1976
Score: Italy 2 v 0 England
Italy: Zoff, Cuccureddu, Facchetti, Gentile, Tardelli, Causio, Benetti, Antognoni, Capello, Graziani, Bettega
England: Clemence, Mills, Clement (Beatie), Mills, Greenhoff, McFarland, Hughes, Keegan, Channon, Bowles, Cherry, Brooking
Goals: Italy: Antognoni 36 Bettega 77
They would have to wrack up big scores against Luxembourg and beat Italy in the decider at Wembley to progress. They duly dispatched Luxembourg 5-0 at Wembley on 30th March 1977 with goals from Kevin Keegan (10th minute), Trevor Francis (60th minute), Ray Kennedy (66th minute) and a brace from Mick Channon (70th and 80th minute penalty).
England v Luxembourg
Date: 30th March 1977
Score: England 5 v 0 Luxembourg
England: Clemence, Gidman, Cherry, Kennedy, Watson, Hughes, Keegan, Channon, Royle (Mariner), Francis T, Hill
Luxembourg: Zender, Fandel, Margue, Mond, Pilot, Zuang, di Domenico, Dresch, Braun, Phillipp, Dussier
Goals: England: Keegan 10 Francis 60 Kennedy 66 Channon (2) 70, 80 (pen)
They could not match that feat in the return match in Luxembourg played seventh months later on 12th October 1976. Revie had resigned by this time and was replaced by Ron Greenwood who picked five Liverpool players for the match. They only managed to breach the Luxembourg defence twice winning 2-0 with goals from Ray Kennedy (30th minute) and Paul Mariner (90th minute).
Luxembourg v England
Date: 12th October 1977
Score: Luxembourg 0 v 2 England
Luxembourg: Moes, Barthel, Fandel (Zangerie), Mond, Rohmann, Zuang, Michaux, Braun (di Domenico), Phillipp, Dussier, Moncelli
England: Clemence, Cherry, Watson (Beattie), Hughes, Kennedy, Callaghan, McDermott (Whymark), Wilkins, Mariner, Francis T, Hill
Goals: England: Kennedy 30, Mariner 90
England entered the last group match knowing only a resounding victory over Italy would give them a chance to progress to the finals. The match was played at Wembley in front of a full house on the 16th November 1977. They took an early lead when Kevin Keegan scored in the eleventh minute from a Trevor Brookings cross. They could not break down a resolute Italian defence and only scored once more, with a goal from Trevor Brooking (81st minute) making the final score 2-0. This meant an Italian victory in their final match against Luxembourg would eliminate England. They duly obliged with a 3-0 win and England were eliminated on goal difference and had failed to reach the finals for the second time in succession.
- Before England’s final game Italy and England both had eight points – but England from 5 matches to Italy’s four, with Italy playing Luxembourg in their final game.
- England really needed to win by three or four goals to give them a realistic chance.
- Near the end of a poor World Cup qualifying campaign, winning this game salvaged some pride and hope for the future for England.
- Debuts for Coppell, Latchford and Barnes.
England v Italy
Date: 16th November 1977
Score: England 2 v 0 Italy
England: Clemence, Neal, Cherry, Wilkins, Watson, Hughes, Keegan(Francis T), Coppell, Latchford (Pearson), Brooking, Barnes
Italy: Zoff, Tardelli, Mozzini, Facchetti (Cuccureddu), Gentile, Zaccarelli, Benetti, Antognoni, Causio, Graziani (Sala), Bettega
Scorers: England: Keegan 11 Brooking 81
England were eliminated