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England in the Home International [British] Championship - History

British Championship Index

See Comment: Reviving the Home International Championship
England Cannot Afford Nostalgia-Driven Sentiment


The Home International Championship, more commonly known as the British Championship in its later years, was the world's first international football tournament.  It was also the most important tournament until the World Cup began in 1930.  It was contested annually by the national teams of the home countries--England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (reduced to Northern Ireland  after partition in 1921)--from the 1883-84 season through the 1983-84 season with intervals of five and seven years during the two world wars.  Altogether, it was held 89 times over 101 years, although one of the 89 competitions, the 1980-81 edition, was abandoned when both England and Wales refused to play in Northern Ireland because of civil unrest there.

England played 266 British Championship matches. When the tournament came to an end in 1984, they had played more British Championship matches than any other type although since then their friendly match total has eclipsed their British Championship total.  As of this writing,  just shy of one-third of the 821 matches England have played to a result were part of the British Championship, a percentage that has constantly diminished, of course, since the tournament's demise.  

The numbers alone indicate the huge role the British Championship played in the England team's history. But the intensity with which it was contested and, at least in its early years, the prestige that went with winning it made it all the more significant.  It featured as its climax the renewal of the oldest and fiercest rivalry in international football, the annual match between England and Scotland, which remained the highlight of the international season in the United Kingdom even after these two national sides began taking part in the World Cup and the European Championship tournaments in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Tournament's Birth

The Home International Championship began as a natural progression from the series of annual friendly matches the home country teams played against each other in the 1870s and early 1880s.  England began playing Scotland in 1872, Wales in 1879 and and Ireland in 1882.  Wales began playing Scotland in 1876 and Ireland in 1882.  Scotland's first match with Ireland in 1884 completed the itinerary and was the first match played in the first Home International Championship tournament.

The birth of the Home International Championship was intertwined with the creation of the International Football Association Board, the first and oldest of international football's governing bodies.  The first friendly matches between England and Scotland were played according to the laws of the country which hosted the match, English rules prevailing one year and Scottish the next.  In 1882, the Football Association, firm in its resolve there should be uniformity in the laws, invited the associations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland to discuss the formation of a board to settle their differences and to organise an international championship.  Scotland at first declined the invitation, relenting only after the Football Association threatened to end the yearly international matches.  At a meeting in Manchester on 6 December 1882, the four associations adopted a uniform code and established the International Football Association Board to legislate changes in the Laws of the Game, to settle differences in their interpretation and administration and to govern international play.  

With a satisfactory mechanism in place to regulate international play, the groundwork had been laid for formalisation of the friendly matches between the home country teams into an annual championship.   The Board, which has included representatives from FIFA as well as the four home country associations since 1913, still exercises hegemony over the Laws of the Game and thus has lasted longer than the tournament it was set up to regulate. 

The Tournament's Format

The tournament was contested annually, with each of the four teams playing the other three once.   That meant the tournament consisted of six matches, with each team playing three times.  That also meant there was always an imbalance in the number of home and away matches played by each team in a single tournament; in one tournament they played more matches at home than away and in the next more matches away than at home.

The team finishing with the highest number of points--awarded on the basis of two points for a win, one point for a draw and none for a loss--won the championship.  For most of the tournament's history, if two or more teams finished  with the highest number of points, they shared the championship.  Not until the 1978-79 season tournament was goal difference introduced as a means of breaking deadlocks in points.  It had to be used to determine the championship only once, in 1983-84, the competition's last season, when all four teams finished with three points.  Perhaps fittingly, Northern Ireland, the team which had won the championship the fewest times, was declared the winner on goal difference.

The failure to adopt a way of breaking deadlocks in points until very late in the tournament's history meant there was a relatively large number of shared championships.  In fact, 20 of the 88 tournaments played to a conclusion ended with the championship shared, 14 of them by two teams, five of them by three teams and one of them, in 1955-56, by all four teams.

The Tournament's  Champions

England won more home nation championships than any other team.  Of the 88 tournaments played to conclusion, England won 54.  They won 34 championships outright, and shared 20, 14 with one other team, five with two other teams and one with all three other teams.  England won exactly half of the 68 championships that were won outright.  They also were one of the teams sharing the championship all 20 times that it was shared.  Scotland won 41 championships, 24 outright and 17 shared.  Wales won 12 championships, seven outright and five shared.  Ireland/Northern Ireland won eight championships, three outright and five shared.  One tournament, that of 1980-81,  was abandoned.

Home International Championships Won Overall - Seasons 1883-84 to 1983-84
Teams Tourns Ab. Outright
Shared with 1 Team Shared with 2 Teams Shared with 3 Teams Shared Total Total Wins
England 89 1 34 14 5 1 20 54
Scotland 89 1 24 11 5 1 17 41
Wales 89 1 7 1 3 1 5 12
Northern Ireland
89 1 3 2 2 1 5 8
All 89 1 68 14 5 1 20 88

England led the way in championships won largely because of the record they amassed after the Second World War.  Before that, the competition was much more evenly balanced between England and Scotland.  Wales and Ireland/Northern Ireland never dominated, but each enjoyed a time of relative success, Wales between the two world wars and Northern Ireland just before the competition ended.

Scotland had prevailed in the series of 12 annual friendly matches played against England before the first Home International Championship tournament in 1883-84, winning eight and drawing two against two losses.  This decisive win/loss margin was attributed primarily to the superiority of Scotland's team-oriented passing game over England's individualistic dribbling game and the advantage gained because most of Scotland's players, drawn from the Glasgow area, were able to practice together regularly while the England players, spread all over the country, only met on the train to Glasgow or at the pre-match dinner in London.  

In 1882, the Corinthians club was founded in London and assembled the best amateur players, primarily from past and present Cambridge University and Oxford University sides, in the hope that through playing together they would become the primary player pool for an England team capable of beating the Scots.  Three years later, in 1885, the Football Association allowed professional players to appear in both club and international play, but the Scottish Football Association did not follow suit until 10 years later, which gave England a temporary but telling advantage..  

These developments had little effect at first.  Of the first seven Home International Championship tournaments, Scotland won four outright while England won only one outright, the two teams sharing the other two.  But in the 1890s, England redressed the imbalance, winning six of the next nine championships outright while Scotland won three.  As the 1913-14 season closed, just before the First World War forced a five-year break in play, England had a slight edge in championships won, 19, including 13 outright and six shared, to Scotland's 16, including 10 outright and six shared.

Home International Championships Won Before the First World War - Seasons 1883-84 to 1913-14
Teams Tourns Ab Outright
Shared with 1 Team Shared with 2 Teams Shared with 3 Teams Shared Total Total Wins
England 31 0 13 5 1 0 6 19
Scotland 31 0 10 5 1 0 6 16
Wales 31 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
Northern Ireland
31 0 1 0 1 0 1 2
All 31 0 25 5 1 0 6 31

England's Home International Championship performances during the inter-war years were usually mediocre.  In the 20 inter-war tournaments, they won only three championships outright and shared another four for a total of just seven wins.  Scotland won seven championships outright and shared another four for 11 wins.  Wales, too, won more outright championships than England, six, while sharing one, for a total of seven wins, the same as England.  During this period, too, England suffered their worst ever Home International Championship defeat, as the Scotland side celebrated as "the Wembley Wizards" destroyed them on their home turf, 5-1.

Home International Championships Won Between the World Wars - Seasons 1919-20 to 1938-39
Teams Tourns Ab Outright
Shared with 1 Team Shared with 2 Teams Shared with 3 Teams Shared Total Total Wins
England 20 0 3 3 1 0 4 7
Scotland 20 0 7 3 1 0 4 11
Wales 20 0 6 0 1 0 1 7
Northern Ireland
20 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
All 20 0 16 3 1 0 4 20

England's poor inter-war record meant that as the 1938-39 season closed, just before the Second World War led to a seven-year break in play, Scotland held a thin overall edge in championships won, 27, including 17 outright and 10 shared, to England's 26, including 16 outright and 10 shared. 

Home International Championships Won Before the Second World War - Seasons 1883-84 to 1938-39
Teams Tourns Ab Outright
Shared with 1 Team Shared with 2 Teams Shared with 3 Teams Shared Total Total Wins
England 51 0 16 8 2 0 10 26
Scotland 51 0 17 8 2 0 10 27
Wales 51 0 7 0 1 0 1 8
Northern Ireland
51 0 1 0 1 0 1 2
All 51 0 41 8 2 0 10 51

After the Second World War, England at last became dominant in the Home International Championship. In the 38 post-war tournaments, one of which was abandoned, they won 18 championships outright and shared another 10 for a total of 28 wins. They won 11 more outright championships and three more shared championships than Scotland, their closest rivals, and twice as many championships overall, 28 to 14.  Among their victories was their biggest ever against Scotland, 9-3 at Wembley in 1961.  Their post-war performances gave them a rather substantial overall margin in championships won.

Home International Championships Won After the Second World War - Seasons 1946-47 to 1983-84
Teams Tourns Ab Outright
Shared with 1 Team Shared with 2 Teams Shared with 3 Teams Shared Total Total Wins
England 38 1 18 6 3 1 10 28
Scotland 38 1 7 3 3 1 7 14
Wales 38 1 0 1 2 1 4 4
Northern Ireland
38 1 2 2 1 1 4 6
All 38 1 27 6 3 1 10 37

The Tournament's Logistics

For the first 29 years of the Home International Championship--from the 1883-84 season to and including the 1911-12 season--England's matches against the other home countries were played all at home one season and all away the next, with two exceptions.  In the 1887-88 season, England played against Ireland and Scotland away, but against Wales at home although they also played Wales at home in both the preceding season and the following season.  And in the 1901-02 season, England played Wales and Ireland away but Scotland at home.  The match against Scotland was originally played away, at Ibrox Park in Glasgow on 5 April 1902, but the collapse of a stand killed 26 spectators, destroyed the game's competitive integrity and rendered the match a debacle although it was played to its conclusion, a 1-1 draw.  It was replayed at Aston Lower Grounds in Birmingham a month later, on 3 May 1902, when the teams again drew, this time 2-2, and the Football Association has since regarded the Ibrox Park match as an unofficial international.

Beginning with the 1912-13 season, the 30th time the Home International Championship was contested, England played an alternating schedule in the competition, two home matches and one away match one season and one home match and two away matches the next.  In seasons when England played Ireland/Northern Ireland away, they played Scotland and Wales at home, and in seasons when England played Ireland/Northern Ireland at home, they played Scotland and Wales away.  This alternating pattern continued until the competition's last season, 1983-84, although it was disrupted twice.  In the 1972-73 season, England played all their Home International Championship matches at home because civil unrest forced Northern Ireland to play their home match against England at Goodison Park in Liverpool.  And in the 1980-81 season, the competition was abandoned because both England and Wales refused to play in Belfast, also as a result of civil unrest, and those two matches were cancelled, although England still played Wales and Scotland at home that year.

The time of the season at which England's Home International Championship matches were played also varied over the years.  In the competition's first 31 seasons, until the First World War, England played their three matches at some point between February and April.  Only once was there even a slight departure from this calendar, when the 1902 match was replayed in early May after the Ibrox Park disaster.  England's match against Scotland was England's last in the competition in all but two seasons, the competition's first season in 1883-84 and its fifth in 1887-88.  

Beginning with the 1919-20 season, the competition's 32nd year, England's match against Ireland/Northern Ireland was moved to the early part of the season, usually October.  And beginning with the 1927-28 season, the competition's 40th year, the match against Wales was also moved to early season, usually November.  Apart from two seasons in which one of these two annual matches was moved to February--the Northern Ireland match in 1934-35 and the Wales match in 1935-36--they were contested early in the season through the beginning of the Second World War, which forced a seven-year hiatus in play.  The Scotland match remained last on England's annual home internationals agenda, usually played in April but very occasionally in late March.

A similar arrangement resumed in 1946-47, the first season after the Second World War hiatus, and continued until 1967-68.  England met Wales and Northern Ireland in October and November, playing the away matches in October and the home matches in November.  Thus England played Wales away in October and Northern Ireland at home in November one year and the next year played Northern Ireland away in October and Wales at home in November.  England continued to meet Scotland in April, whether the match was home or away.  Departures from this routine were rare.  England's first post-war match, against Northern Ireland in Belfast in 1946, was played in late September rather than October.  And England's match against Scotland in 1967-68 was moved from April to February because it doubled as a qualification match for the European Championship final tournament, which was held in June, 1968, and the usual April date would have come too late for it to serve that purpose.

Beginning with the 1968-69 season and until the 1980-81 season, the entire annual tournament was moved to a single week at the end of the season so that it no longer disrupted domestic club league and cup competitions. The tournament's six matches, including England's three, were played over a one-week period in May, although in 1970 they were played in April to allow England to engage in preparations for that June's World Cup final tournament in Mexico, which included an extensive acclimatization period in that country plus a short tour to South America.   England's match against Scotland remained England's last in the competition every year.  In the 1980-81 season, the last in which this one-week tournament schedule was put in place, the competition was declared abandoned when the England and Wales matches against Northern Ireland were cancelled following those two teams' refusals to visit Belfast during the strife surrounding the Maze Prison hunger strike.  However, England still played against Wales and Scotland during the following week.

The competition's last three seasons saw reinstitution of a schedule resembling that followed during its earliest years.  In 1981-82, England met Northern Ireland at home in February, Wales away in late April and Scotland away in late May.  The end of that season brought the World Cup final tournament in Spain, for which three of the four home nations--England, Scotland and Northern Ireland--had qualified, and that may have played a role in abandoning the one-week end-of-season arrangement for the home nations tournament that year.  But the one-week, end-of-season schedule was not reinstituted the following season, 1982-83, when England met Wales at home in February, Northern Ireland away in late May and Scotland at home in early June.  Nor was it reinstated in the competition's last season, 1983-84, when England met Northern Ireland at home in April, Wales away in early May and Scotland away in late May.

The Tournament's Status

Home International Championship matches were, in substance, derby matches on an international level.  In part because national pride remained a strong force within each of the home countries, these matches were often played with an intensity, indeed, a ferocity, seldom found in any competition anywhere.  The players and fans of the other home nation teams liked nothing more than a victory over England, by far the biggest of the home countries in population and dominant both politically and economically.  For many of them, the match against England was the highlight of the season.  That most of the rival players knew each other-- they played with and against each other in England's Football League--made the rivalry all the more fiery.

For a large part of the competition's history, winning the Home International Championship carried prestige that went beyond temporary bragging rights among the home nation teams.  There was more at stake.  Because of the early pre-eminence of British football, teams winning the Home International Championship were widely regarded as the world's best until well into the 20th Century.  The tournament may well have deserved this status until the end of the 1920s, although even that is not free from doubt given Uruguay's marvellous displays in winning the Olympic Games tournaments of 1924 in France and 1928 in Netherlands.  England were unbeaten by foreign opposition until 1929, but they had not yet met any South American side and were not to do so until the 1950s.

Yet British claims to footballing superiority persisted after the advent of the World Cup in 1930 and until shortly after mid-century.  The home countries' refusal to enter the three World Cup competitions held before the Second World War meant these claims were not put to the test beyond occasional friendly matches.  Several away losses and rather fortunate home victories in England's friendly matches against Continental European teams in the 1930s put these claims into question.  But rationalisations--adverse climactic conditions, weak officiating, poor pitch conditions, player exhaustion resulting from the long Football League season and even plain bad luck--were readily available and far too attractive for a few adverse results in closely-contested matches abroad to move the English football establishment, media and public to examine the prevailing assumption that English football always had been and continued to be the world's best.  Much of the rest of the world did not share the English view.  To take one example, Vittorio Pozzo, the famed long-time coach of Italy's national team, including the sides that won the World Cup championships in 1934 and 1938, was a great friend and admirer of English football, but said that England would not have progressed beyond the quarterfinals in World Cup competitions played abroad.

England's quick dismissal from the first World Cup they entered, the 1950 tournament in Brazil, for which they qualified as winners of the Home International Championship of 1949-50 and where they lost to the U.S.A. and Spain at the initial group stage, cast further doubt over British claims to superiority.  But the English football community, press and public gave the World Cup exit scant notice.  The message had to be delivered with sledgehammer force, and soon it was.  England's  devastating 6-3 loss to Hungary at Wembley Stadium in November, 1953, their first defeat on home soil to a team from outside Britain and Ireland, withstood rationalisation and made it plain English and therefore British claims of superiority had become illusion now shattered beyond resurrection.   The Home International Championship no longer could be said to determine anything more than footballing supremacy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

On three occasions,  the Home International Championship tournament was used as a qualifying competition for the World Cup and the European Championship final tournaments.  The home international matches for 1949-50 and 1953-54 doubled as qualifying matches for the World Cup final tournaments of 1950 and 1954.  The home international matches for 1966-67 and 1967-68 also served as qualifying matches for the European Championship final tournament of 1968.  This doubling up was an early indication of the fixture congestion difficulties that eventually led to the Home International Championship's demise.

The Tournament's Demise

England's participation in the World Cup was the beginning of the end for the Home International Championship.  The home nations tournament no longer carried the significance it once had.  More than that, England now had World Cup qualifying matches to play as well as the home internationals and friendly matches and, if things went right, final tournament matches every four years.  The birth of the European Championship, known as the European Nations Cup until 1968, and England's entry into its second, 1964 tournament meant England now had to play qualifying matches in one of the two major tournaments every single year and, if they qualified, final tournament matches every two years.

As early as the mid-1960s, with the growing importance of the World Cup and the emergence of the European Championship, the Football League, which then had the top level English clubs playing in its First Division, began pressing for an end to the Home International Championship because of the demands it made on players.  At first the Football Association resisted, and the home country associations sought to ameliorate club grievances in other ways.  As a temporary respite, they agreed to use the Home International Championship matches of 1966-67 and 1967-68 as qualifying matches for the European Championship final tournament of 1968.  As a longer-term solution, beginning with the 1968-69 season, they moved the entire home nations tournament to a one-week period following the end of the domestic season.  

The Football Association finally yielded two decades later, however, when it announced in 1983 that England no longer were willing to play annual matches against Wales and Northern Ireland and that the 1983-84 edition of the British Championship would be the last in which England would take part.  At the same time, the Scottish Football Association announced Scotland also would no longer play yearly matches against these two home nation teams.  Left with only two teams, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Home International or British Championship came to an end.

The fan violence and other disturbances that marred some home internationals from the 1960s to the 1980s made ending the British Championship an easier decision. Yet the primary reason for the tournament's demise after the 1983-84 edition was fixture congestion combined with the dwindling attendances at all but the England-Scotland match.  Most of the crowd problems occurred when England and Scotland met, and if those problems had been the main reason for ending the British Championship, then those matches would have been ended, too.  Instead, England and Scotland continued to meet each other annually for the next five years in the Rous Cup.

Ted Croker, general secretary of the Football Association at the time, explained in his autobiography, The First Voice You Will Hear Is ..., p. 245 (Collins, London, 1987):  

[A]s long as the home international championship continued, we had eight [World Cup or European Championship] qualifying matches and six home internationals in each two-year programme, that is, 14 matches plus, we hope, participation in a finals tournament.  No leeway was left for other matches.  That was the main reason for abandoning the Home International Championship.

The European Championship competition is against European countries, obviously, and similarly the World Cup qualifying games are in opposition to familiar European countries.  So much for the need for experience against South American opposition!  When we took part in the 1982 World Cup finals only one of our opponents, Kuwait, was from outside Europe.

Another problem is that with the seeding that goes on in the international competitions we tend to avoid many of the countries we need to play for experience, such as West Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Spain.  To be drawn against such opposition is not impossible but is still unlikely, even in five-nation groups.

Therefore, to meet these teams, we must arrange friendly matches.  By careful planning we have managed to play Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Holland, West Germany and Russia [sic: the Soviet Union] at Wembley in recent years.  These facts help to highlight the difficulty of persisting with the home internationals and explain why they were dropped in 1985.

Bobby Robson, then England's manager, echoed that thinking in his notes in the match programme for the last British Championship meeting between England and Northern Ireland on 5 April 1984, a 1-0 win for England:


Tonight's match is an historic occasion as we bring down the curtain at least as far as the British Championship is concerned on our long running series of clashes with Northern Ireland.  

It is also a somewhat sad occasion since we are breaking from tradition in disbanding the Home International series, although the matter was clearly given very long and careful consideration by the Football Association before any decision was taken.

From a purely personal point of view, I feel that since the inception of the Championship the world has become a much smaller place and it is right for us to think in terms of playing top-class foreign opposition, rather than our British neighbours.

However, it does not mean we will not be playing each other again.  The annual clash with Scotland remains, virtually by popular demand, while we have been drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group as Northern Ireland and will meet them at Belfast on February 27 next year and again at Wembley on November 13.

I feel our players will be better served pitting their skills against continental opposition, rather than against those they meet week in, week out, during the season or, as often happens, against their very own club mates.

Quite naturally, there will be some anti-feeling, at least initially, among some supporters.  But I feel confident that after the first year or so common sense will prevail and the logic of the decision will be more widely understood and accepted.

The prevailing view in Wales and Northern Ireland was that it all came down to money.  Harry Calvan, then Irish Football Association president, declared in the match programme for Northern Ireland's last home game in the British Championship, against Scotland on 13 December 1983:

This is a sad and serious blow to the I.F.A. because of the substantial financial loss which will be almost impossible to recover.  We are therefore gravely disappointed and sad that 100 years of genuine friendship, sporting tradition and close co-operation seems to have been sacrificed for financial expediency.

There is no doubt that money was a major factor.  As David Lacey, former chief football writer for The Guardian, recently wrote:

The reality is that the British Championship, which was what the home internationals had become, was put out of its misery in 1984 after staggering past its 101st year. Attendances had declined to a point where the English and Scottish FAs, if not the Welsh and Northern Irish, could see no future for the competition. 

In that final spring only 14,250 watched Wales beat England 1-0 at Wrexham and a mere 7,845 turned up in Swansea to see a 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland, the eventual winners of the final tournament.  True, Scotland's 1-1 draw with England was witnessed by a crowd of 73,064 at Hampden but only 24,000 had bothered to go along to Wembley to see England beat the Irish 1-0.

The England-Scotland fixture continued for another five years, for the Rous Cup, but was beset by biennial bouts of English hooliganism in Glasgow before being abandoned after 1989. 

There were few mourners for the demise of the home internationals, although the Welsh and Northern Irish bodies could ill afford to lose the income even from the most meagre gates.  The tournament had outlived its time and certainly the feeling in England was that the national side would be better employed playing the sort of opposition it was more likely to encounter in the World Cup or European Championship.

David Lacey, "Unhappily for Wales, Larry Lloyd is no longer England's centre-half," The Guardian, 9 October 2004.

After the Home International Championship

As it turned out, the end of the Home International Championship meant that England rarely played the other home countries thereafter.  Apart from the five annual Rous Cup contests with Scotland, which began in 1985 and ended in 1989, England have met the three other home country teams only when the fortuities of the draw put them in the same World Cup or European Championship qualification group, playoff series or final tournament group.  England have not played a single friendly match against the other home country sides since the British Championship's demise.

Over the 15 years following the Rous Cup's last edition in 1989, England have played Scotland only three times, in the group stage at the European Championship final tournament of 1996 and twice in 1999 in the home and away playoff series conducted to determine which second-place teams in the preliminary competition groups qualified for the European Championship 2000 final tournament.  They have played Wales only once in the 20 years since the two teams last met in the British Championship, and that was only very recently, in the World Cup 2006 qualification match played in October, 2004.  The two teams will meet in the second qualification match in 2005.  Finally, England have played Northern Ireland four times over the past 20 years, in the two World Cup 1986 qualification matches played in 1985 and the pair of European Championship 1988 qualificaion matches played in 1986 and 1987.  They will meet Northern Ireland twice more in 2005 in World Cup 2006 qualifying matches.

Recently there have been proposals to recreate the British Championship.  Whether regular matches against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would provide the kind of competition England need to gain success on the broader international stage is highly questionable.  It is our view that England cannot afford this indulgence in nostalgia-driven sentiment, although they surely ought to find room to play friendly matches against the other home countries every few years if they have not met them in qualification or final tournament matches for some time  The Home International Championship long played a significant role in international football, but England's needs have changed with the times, and this venerable tournament was properly consigned to history in 1984.