IPSWICH TOWN WORLD CUP STORIES: England defender Mick Mills was so proud to captain his country
With England on the verge of being eliminated from the 2014 World Cup, what better way to lighten your mood than with a trip down Memory Lane? Ipswich Town legend Mick Mills also played his part for the Three Lions and skippered Ron Greenwood’s side to an undefeated campaign in 1982. Despite a solid tournament, England still went out in the controversial second round group stage though. Mills takes up the story.
“I stood a bit too upright in every picture and my chest was stuck out a little bit too far,” says Mick Mills.
The Ipswich Town legend captained England at the 1982 World Cup in Spain and, as he surveys the pictures from the tournament, will never forget that he was part of a very select group to captain England at a major tournament.
Mills led England to three group wins before two goalless draws saw the Three Lions exit the tournament at the controversial second mini-league stage.
“You are brought up with football being a team game, and a lot of conversations are about teams, but as an individual achievement, it doesn’t get much better,” said Mills, who then saw former Ipswich Town team-mate Terry Butcher skipper England, in Bryan Robson’s absence, in the Italy World Cup, in 1990.
“I was very proud to captain my country and that is just how I felt. I was proud to be in the team.
“The only stage bigger was the one that Bobby Moore found himself on in 1966.”
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Mills headed into the tournament as something of a veteran, aged 33, and conscious that this would be his last chance to get a crack at a major international crown.
There were times when he thought that his chances of playing at a major tournament had passed and, heading into the twilight of his career, few would have expected him to be pulling on the armband for Ron Greenwood’s team.
“I would not have been captain had Kevin Keegan been fit but he, along with Trevor Brooking, had problems with their fitness all tournament,” Mills explains.
“As soon as it became pretty obvious that they were not going to make the first game, I was made captain and that made everything even more special.”
They say age is just a number, but that particular figure has played quite a significant role in the England squad over the past few weeks and more may well have been made of Mills’ inclusion in the England squad, had he flown to Spain out of form.
“You read in the press about Ashley Cole not being picked for the World Cup squad and retiring from international football and they refer to his age. They don’t refer to Steven Gerrard’s age,” said Mills, discussing the contrasting fortunes of two of England’s 33-year-olds.
“It all depends on how you are doing at the time and how well you are playing for your club.
“I knew it was my last chance.
“I had only been in one World Cup qualifying squad in 1974 (England failed to qualify) and I did not feel part of it.
“I had appeared in a squad game in 1978 and I always felt there was a chance I might have made it had we qualified, but we missed out to Italy on goal difference.
“At that time, I had just won the FA Cup with Ipswich and I felt like I was at the pinnacle of my career so to see the chance to go to a World Cup disappear was a major disappointment.
“Imagine how I felt therefore when I was still involved in 1982. I thought that maybe it had come too late for me.”
England were drawn to play in a group against France, Czechoslovakia and Kuwait and sailed through qualifying without dropping a point.
With all England’s group games being played in Bilbao, it was the opening 3-1 win against France that stands out for Mills.
Bryan Robson put England ahead after just 27 seconds, Gerard Soler equalised, before Robson and Mills’ Blues team-mate Paul Mariner made the game safe.
“We all remember that game in Bilbao and how Ron Greenwood pulled off a bit of a masterstroke,” said the Surrey-born defender.
“He took the England squad out there (Bilbao) in March to play in a testimonial for a great servant to Atletic (Bilbao) and that player must have been delighted. We became popular with the local people.
“We thought that France would be the locals’ favourites but it was us, on a boiling hot afternoon.
“I don’t think I have ever played in heat like it and at half-time we were told to get our shirts off and we were wrapped up in freezing cold towels.”
The heat didn’t affect England though as Mills continues.
“We scored a fabulous first goal, it was quite amazing,” he explains.
“We had practiced the move on the training ground but everything had been done on the left, using Kenny Sansom’s long throw.
“Before the game, Steve Coppell announced that he had a decent throw and we decided that if the first throw-in opportunity came down the right we would take it.
“That is what happened, Terry Butcher got the flick-on and Bryan put us ahead.
“We ended up winning 3-1 and it was nice for all the Ipswich players. I captained the team, Terry (Butcher) got an assist and Paul Mariner scored.”
After the group stage, England went into a mini league of three with Spain and West Germany in Madrid in a unique format which saw the top team from England’s and the remaining three groups progress to the semi-finals.
Mills does not agree to this day with that one-off format, but also believes England’s switch to Madrid, as well as the recently-ended Falklands War, contributed to their exit from the tournament.
“You have got to have a first round stage as it gives teams an opportunity to bed in but no-one could understand why there was a second phase with no quarter-finals,” said Mills.
“That’s what we had to contend with and all of a sudden we were no longer favourites with the locals, most people hated us because of the Falklands War.
“We were very unpopular wherever we went and had a tough group.
“West Germany topped the group, not because they defeated us, but because they beat Spain.
“The hosts were virtually out of the tournament when they played us but they did not want England to go through and made it so difficult.
“We only conceded one goal throughout the tournament and ironically we had Brooking and Keegan back for that game and they both missed chances in the last 15 minutes.”
England were out, along with Spain and another big gun, Brazil, that particular team considered the best to have never won the World Cup by many.
“West Germany had beaten Spain and we knew we could go through,” explains Mills.
“We got up one afternoon after a sleep and Brazil versus Italy was on the TV.
“Brazil looked as thought they were going to win the tournament but then Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick and Brazil were out.
“Suddenly, heads turned in the room, our eyes fixed on each others’ and we felt ‘hello, the door is open’.
“Obviously it didn’t happen and people always look back at England reaching the semi-final in 1990 and the quarters in 1986.
“People tend to forget that we didn’t lose a game in 1982 and only conceded one goal, yet we are remembered as only reaching the second round.”