England’s Euro ’92 – 25 years on

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This summer marks 25 years since the 1992 European Championship. England went into the finals having lost just once in two years, but as with four years earlier it would end in bitter disappointment and leave the manager a target for the tabloids…

To the many youngsters who fell in love with England and football during Italia ’90 or older fans whose passion was rekindled that tournament, Euro ’92 was to represent the difficult second album. There would be none of the Gazzamania or nerve-jangling excitement that left millions across the nation on the edge of their seats two years earlier, nor was there an England side to feel proud of. Instead, they simply limped out of the tournament after two forgettable 0-0 draws and a defeat to hosts Sweden. For manager Graham Taylor it was a tournament that marked a turning point in his reign for the wrong reasons and his reputation would unfortunately never recover during his time in charge.

England achieved two points more than when they were whitewashed during Euro ’88, yet it is held up as a comparable failure. It would be simplifying things somewhat to say England’s failures in West Germany in 1988 were down to bad luck, but in their first two defeats to the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands they’d at least had a proper go with several chances somehow not going in. That story would have a happy ending, Bobby Robson recovering from being lampooned to bowing out a hero two years later.

But for Taylor and Euro ’92, there would be no such recovery and the tournament represented the start of things going horribly wrong. England’s cause was not helped by injuries to key personnel but they were criticised for their negativity in Sweden – they weren’t the only culprits – and Taylor was becoming a target for sections of the media. He had lost just twice in two years when Euro ’92 ended but he was under pressure and now needed to enjoy a turnaround similar to Robson’s at Italia ’90 to win over the doubters. Sadly, he would never get the chance as England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

But it could have worked out differently. Taylor had led England to the finals as unbeaten group winners in a tight section including the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Turkey. Their only defeat under him so far was in a friendly to Germany and England certainly couldn’t be discounted in Sweden, for the eight-team European Championship. With only the group winners from each qualifying section having made it, this was a tournament promising high standards and little margin for error.

At the draw in January, Taylor hoped to avoid Germany, the Netherlands and neighbours Scotland who had qualified for the Euros for the first time. He got his wish, England being placed in the preferable-looking group with Sweden, France and Yugoslavia. His mood was lifted further by the draw allowing them to stay in Malmo and Stockholm as he had wished. “We couldn’t ask for much more than we got,” beamed Taylor.

Certainly, many seemed to share the view that England had got what they wanted and a place in the last four was the minimum target. “Graham Taylor rode his luck as England were given a European Championship draw that should give them at least a semi-final place,” proclaimed Steve Curry in the Daily Express. But being placed in the ‘easier’ group at the European Championship and avoiding the Germans was not a good omen. In both 1980 and 1988 England had received favourable draws only to crash out.

No game looked a given either. France had rebuilt after being absent from the last two major tournaments and were enjoying a lengthy unbeaten run, seeing them touted as a favourite to win it. Sweden had home advantage and had finished above England in qualifying for Italia ’90. And Yugoslavia could boast an impressive collection of players who had won admirers during the 1990 World Cup. But even as the draw was being made doubts were being cast upon Yugoslavia’s participation in the finals amid civil conflict back home. Just 10 days before the start of Euro ’92 it was confirmed qualifying group runners-up Denmark would take Yugoslavia’s place.

Any planning by Taylor for England’s first game against Yugoslavia could now go out of the window, but they were tipped to beat Denmark who were not held in quite the same esteem as their swaggering side of the mid-1980s. The Danes had not, contrary to the myth, needed rounding up off the beach to head to nearby Sweden but they would only have less than a fortnight to psychologically adjust to definitely being in the finals. But goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel sounded a warning to Taylor and his men. “England could make the mistake of underestimating Denmark,” he said.

Injuries plague England

Underestimating opponents was becoming the least of England’s concerns. Injuries were mounting, with several players ruled out of the finals. Paul Gascoigne had not played for more than a year since the 1991 FA Cup final, while at right back England seemed cursed. In quick succession Taylor lost Rob Jones, Lee Dixon and Gary Stevens, the latter’s hopes ending after England’s final warm-up match in Finland. But he wasn’t the only casualty that day, with John Barnes going down injured and immediately ruled out. “I’ve known him for a long time and I desperately wanted John to play for me in a major championship,” rued Taylor. “The seriousness of the injury to Barnes has hit everybody hard. He’d worked like hell to get himself fit.”

Graham Taylor was left to contend with a mounting injury list.

With players such as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle having controversially been axed, England were now left short of both flair and tournament experience. The seasoned trio of Terry Butcher, Bryan Robson and Peter Shilton had all retired from international football and England were much-changed from two years earlier, but sadly not for the better. As the injuries mounted Keith Curle and Andy Sinton were drafted into the squad, but things then got worse as it came to light Mark Wright was a doubt.

A club versus country row broke out over whether the injury had been held back from Taylor, but ultimately Wright was the latest to be ruled out and England failed in their bid to call Tony Adams up as a late replacement. England’s 20-man squad was already a player light and particularly short of defensive options. Although England have often been hit by injury concerns ahead of major tournaments, it is hard to think of another occasion when they had it as bad as this.

England went into the finals having avoided losing games, but without convincingly winning them either. A 2-0 victory over France in February had been impressive and provided a big lift ahead of meeting the same opponents in Sweden, but since then England had drawn with Czechoslovakia, CIS and Brazil and narrowly edged past Hungary and Finland. The goalscoring form of captain Gary Lineker was proving a concern ahead of the finals and his impending international retirement. In three successive friendlies he had failed to get the goal he needed to equal Bobby Charlton’s England record and he seemed to lack some of his old predatory instincts. But it was hoped he would recapture his past form on the big stage.

Struggling against the Danes

The tournament began with Sweden and France drawing 1-1, which suited England who would go top if they beat Denmark 24 hours later. Taylor was adamant things were going to go well. “Let me do the worrying. That’s what I’m paid for. Just sit back and enjoy it,” he declared prior to the Denmark game. But there were things to worry about, not least the lack of a recognised right back. Curle, a central defender, would play there against the Danes in Malmo for only his third cap. At the other end Lineker would partner Alan Smith, rekindling memories of their Leicester City days.

Keith Curle performed as a makeshift right back for England against Denmark.

Once again, England struggled in their opening game when fancied by many to get a victory. They almost came totally unstuck, as John Jensen hit the post for the Danes during the second half. “That was our moment of good fortune,” reflected Taylor after a night in which Curle had struggled playing out of position (he would never be capped again) as England laboured to a 0-0 draw. Asked afterwards to sum up his feelings, Taylor told the BBC he was “satisfied” – drawing criticism from pundit Jimmy Hill who believed the performance had been a demonstration of players earning a lot of money to demonstrate they were not masters of their craft. Taylor would later hit back at Hill, one of several instances of the England camp and media being at odds out in Sweden.

“All is not lost by any means,” wrote Curry. “But Taylor has to be asked again just what he is playing at with his team selections and tactical switches.” England stayed in Malmo for their next match against France three days later, with violence in the city once more blighting an England European Championship campaign. On the field Taylor again made changes, midfielder David Batty came in for Curle, while Alan Shearer became the latest forward to be paired with Lineker. Sinton, who had so nearly missed out on the finals, replaced Paul Merson. Carlton Palmer was to play as sweeper.

Sterile and goalless

“The most sterile defensive international I’ve ever covered,” was commentator Barry Davies’ description of the France match in his autobiography and the cagey contest certainly lacked in attacking enterprise. Eight years earlier Michel Platini had inspired France to European Championship glory in style as captain. Now, as manager, he seemed to have fallen into the same trap as others in fearing losing during the last major tournament to apply the two points for a win system. It was also the last act before the backpass rule was introduced, with a fear of losing stinking the place out during the first few days of the tournament. England didn’t escape criticism but emerged with marginally more credit following yet another 0-0 draw, in which Stuart Pearce’s free-kick rattled the woodwork.

Stuart Pearce managed to keep his cool after an incident with Basile Boli.

But that wasn’t what Pearce’s afternoon was mainly remembered for. Blood poured from his face after he appeared to be headbutted by Basile Boli, in an incident which went unpunished. Asked afterwards, Pearce told the media it had been an innocent incident but years later he explained why he said this when he knew full well what had happened. “Common sense told me that if I’d said it was deliberate, then the first thing they would have done is dig out all the footage of me over the years and I’d be crucified,” he said, adding he received a thank you fax from Boli for his sportsmanship.

But that gesture was little consolation for England as they stared potential elimination in the face. For the fourth major tournament running they had no wins on the board after two games. “In my mind there are two games gone and three still to go,” Taylor optimistically told the media, as he remained defiant England could go all the way. To do that they would definitely have to score against the Swedes, who led the group after beating Denmark 1-0. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian that a third goalless draw would see England “flying home amid a barrage of criticism approaching the intensity of that which greeted Bobby Robson and his side after all three matches had been lost in the 1988 tournament”.

Swedes eliminate Turnips

The foreign invasion of English football had yet to properly take hold by the summer of 1992, but a growing number of overseas players were plying their trade on these shores ahead of the Premier League launching a few weeks later. In their opening game of the tournament England had been unable to score past Manchester United’s goalkeeper Schmeichel, while Eric Cantona of Leeds United was in attack for France in the second match. Now Arsenal’s Anders Limpar was gearing up to face England and seemed to want to play mind games beforehand, as he launched a stinging attack on goalkeeper Chris Woods who had been the regular number one since Shilton’s retirement in 1990. “It’s incredible Woods gets in the side,” declared Limpar. “He let in seven goals playing for Sheffield Wednesday at Arsenal. Woods is weak on crosses and for me he is the weak link in the team.”

But Woods was not the only player whose performances were of concern to England. Lineker had seldom looked like ending his drought during the previous two games as rumours grew that all was not well in his relationship with the manager. “He contributed in exactly the way I thought he would,” said Taylor rather cryptically after the France game. The goalscoring record was ebbing away along with England’s chances in the tournament. The match against Sweden could be his last chance. In yet another shift of system and personnel, Lineker now had no other natural forward alongside him for the Sweden match. Shearer and Trevor Steven made way for Tony Daley and Neil Webb.

England had to attack and they made a marvellous start through their main goal outlet besides Lineker – attacking midfielder David Platt, who scored after four minutes. Now they had to negotiate the next 86 minutes and they would be through to the semi-finals. As Denmark were surprisingly beating France, England held top spot in the group. They successfully got through to the break with the lead intact.

But half-time would offer a worrying warning sign to Taylor. In an interview 20 years later, he recalled asking the players at the break if any of them had anything to say. “They looked shattered,” he said. “The only player who said anything was Nigel Clough, who was a substitute. It really hit me at the time that we do take tired players.” Taylor’s case was not helped by the First Division having reverted to 22 teams the previous season, meaning players faced four extra games on top of multiple cup demands. Apart from the Premier League having reduced in size to 20 clubs, many of the same concerns apply 25 years later.

England go behind against Sweden.

Where England had excelled in the first half, they wilted after the break. The Swedes have made a habit of scoring headers against the Three Lions over the years and Jan Eriksson duly netted that way after 51 minutes from a corner. A 1-1 draw would be enough for Sweden to advance, but it would eliminate England and Taylor could see the game slipping away. Ten minutes later he made a decision that would pass into infamy. Captain Lineker was substituted, making way for Smith. England had needed to change things and Lineker was not looking his old self, but it would be a decision that led to Taylor coming under fire. If England didn’t get a goal without Lineker, then the player would never get another chance to equal the goalscoring record.

To make things worse for Taylor, England seldom threatened and on 82 minutes they fell behind. A delightful link-up between Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin ended with the former gracefully placing the ball beyond Woods’ reach. “Brilliant. Brilliant goal,” exclaimed commentator Davies. It was a move that perhaps underlined how far this England side lagged behind, being beaten by an effort of quality.

As Denmark were 2-1 up against France, an English equaliser would lead to lots being drawn to decide who went through with Sweden. But it was never likely to come and the side meekly exited the competition. In 45 minutes England had gone from top to bottom of the group. Of the 11 players England had on the field at full time, only Pearce, Platt and Des Walker had featured in the World Cup semi-final two years earlier. Injuries, international retirements and players being dubiously axed had left England looking a weak side. To compound England’s misery, they returned home outshone by Scotland who beat the CIS 3-0 and had played with honour in losing to the Dutch and Germans. As England crashed out, a previously tepid tournament seemed to spring into life with the goals now flying in and Denmark defying all expectations to win the tournament.

Taylor deservedly received many tributes when he sadly died earlier this year, but the morning after the Sweden defeat saw him and England heavily criticised. Curry wrote: “England learned last night that when it comes to illuminating the world of football they carry not so much a burning torch as a flickering candle.” Lacey afforded Taylor some sympathy over the injury situation, but added: “Despite the unavailability of Paul Gascoigne, the loss of John Barnes and a complete absence of suitable right backs, the England manager was always going to face severe criticism if his team failed to reach the semi-finals. But his decision to take Lineker off half-an-hour from the end with the score at 1-1 will surely stoke up the critical furnaces further still.”

Even those at the heart of the England camp could see the problems Taylor was creating for himself by hauling off Lineker, regardless of whether he thought it was the right decision. Assistant Lawrie McMenemy later wrote in his autobiography: “It was quite simply the wrong decision. I could not believe what Graham had done, how a manager of his experience would not see the danger to himself, if nothing else, from the decision.”

But ultimately, it was a witty play on words that created the most lasting damage for Taylor. The manager saw the funny side of the ‘Swedes 2, Turnips 1’ headline in The Sun, but what followed went beyond a joke and did nothing to help his reputation in the eyes of the average man in the street. He was now being portrayed as ‘Turniphead’, the coverage increasingly vitriolic.  Euro ’92 had not been a success for him and mistakes were made, but the personal attacks were unwarranted and they would unfortunately get worse in the months that followed.

All told it had really just been a typical England European Championship campaign, as they have so often ended early and in bitter disappointment. Euro ’92 felt worse because of what had been achieved two years before in Italy and given the group England were placed in, but ultimately various factors made it one to forget for all involved. There was plenty of nostalgia in England for the 25th anniversary of Italia ’90 two years ago. We suspect we won’t be seeing much this June to mark a quarter of a century since Euro ’92.  Try Denmark instead.

  • For a more detailed look back at how Gary Lineker missed out on becoming England’s record goalscorer during the tournament, see here
  • To read the tribute we wrote to Graham Taylor when he sadly died earlier this year, see here

Remembering the England B team

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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the last match played by England B, a team which often struggled to capture the public imagination and could disappear from view for several years…

Long time, no B

Since the 1950s England B have taken to the field only sporadically. They went more than 20 years without playing before being revived under Ron Greenwood in 1978 and not many of his successors would frequently make use of the team. They played just once in the first five years under Bobby Robson before a semi-regular revival ahead of Italia ’90, while the next incumbent Graham Taylor regularly had the team playing games in his first two years in charge before abandoning the idea. Since 1992 the team has played just six times, last appearing in 2007. An official total of 57 matches for England B since 1947 is low, but as we will soon see this does not tell the story of the number of times when England’s ‘reserves’ have taken to the field.

To B, or not to B…

As said, the England B name could often disappear from view for a long time. But this did not mean the basic notion of the side did not exist as various ‘FA XI’ teams fitted the bill. In 1969 England met Mexico two days after they had done so in a full international with a significantly changed team that was very much a ‘B’ side. But this would instead be deemed an unofficial international, as would a match played against Colombia by the second string in 1970 immediately before a full international between the sides.

Steve Perryman turns out for England B, which turns out to be the A team…

And there have been instances where sides that England fielded were dubiously classed as A rather than B teams, such as the significantly weakened side that visited Australia in 1980. Perhaps the most striking example was the B side England took to Iceland in 1982, with manager Ron Greenwood not even present as the A team were playing Finland the next day. And yet it would be upgraded to a full international, at least allowing players including Steve Perryman the chance to say they had earned a full cap. It is debatable though that if this match was deemed an ‘A’ fixture, why a similar match against Belarus at Reading prior to the 2006 World Cup wasn’t when every member of England’s starting XI would be going to the finals.

Nobody seems to B here

Even when – as now – England’s senior side never strayed from Wembley for home games, the public rarely turned out for B team matches across the country regardless of how strong the team was. Not helped by the fact the side could disappear from view for years, coupled with the fact they only played friendlies and the side was perceived as the ‘reserves’, low crowds were the norm. A reasonably attractive looking B international between England and the Republic of Ireland in December 1994 at Anfield, with local favourites including Robbie Fowler featuring, attracted a crowd of just 7,431. And that was a relatively big turnout compared to some, such as 3,854 at the City Ground in 1984 to see Gary Lineker come off the bench against New Zealand or just 3,292 at St Andrews in 1980 to see England B beat Australia.

But there were occasional exceptions, mainly when the side ventured to traditionally lower division grounds and it became a big deal to stage such a fixture. More than 10,000 packed into Walsall’s new Bescot Stadium in 1991 to see the side play Switzerland, and almost as many watched Glenn Hoddle score against New Zealand at Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road in 1979 shortly before his first full cap. The side’s brief revival in the mid 2000s with strong sides picked saw crowds of more than 22,000 attend games at Reading and Burnley against Belarus and Albania respectively. Just as the concept seemed to start appealing to the public, it vanished again.

This will B as good as it gets

For many players, a B team cap would be the pinnacle of their international careers as they fell just short of the A side. Steve Bruce was a prime example, captaining England B against Malta in 1987 but never earning a full cap. He would join plenty of other members of the ‘great uncapped’ over the years – such as Adrian Heath, Paul Lake, Dennis Mortimer and Derek Mountfield –  in turning out for the B team but never the A, when in another era they would almost certainly have made it.

Steve Bruce playing for England B, but no full caps would be forthcoming.

With hindsight, some past B team line-ups look like Fantasy Football teams where a couple of makeweights have been included alongside star names to meet the budget limit and it can be surprising to recall that they were ever in the England fray. The England B side that met Iceland during an end of season tour in 1989 is a good example of the diversity on show. Steve Bull, Tony Dorigo, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker and David Platt all went on to feature during Italia ’90, but their colleagues who enjoyed gametime that day included Tony Ford, Terry Hurlock, Tony Mowbray, Andy Mutch, Stuart Naylor and David Preece. They would never win a full cap between them and some spent much of their career below the top-flight.

Even for some players who did earn a few full caps, the B team would provide a welcome opportunity to boost their international experience as their path was otherwise blocked. Goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, who had the misfortune to be around at the same time as Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton, would earn a record 10 England B caps – one more than his tally for the A side.

It will soon B the A team

For some players, B team success would immediately followed by a call-up to the senior squad. Bull was a prime example of this, as his elevation to stardom in May 1989 looked like it had come from the pages of Roy of the Rovers. After a prolific season in the Third Division with Wolves, Bull – who had already played for England under-21s – and strike partner Andy Mutch were called into the England B side for matches against Switzerland, Iceland and Norway on the aforementioned tour. For Mutch the tour was to be as good as it got, but for Bull it would immediately lead to better things. Goals against Iceland and Norway didn’t go unnoticed and he was called up to the senior squad for the Rous Cup match against Scotland just days later, famously coming off the bench to score while technically still a Third Division player.

Steve Bull – the prime example of a player to thrive on a B team call-up.

Even for some already capped players, they needed to prove themselves with the B team before properly establishing themselves. One example was Paul Gascoigne, who in November 1989 found himself slumming it for the B team against their Italian counterparts in Brighton rather than playing in a glamour friendly between the A sides at Wembley 24 hours later. The bumper crowd of more than 16,000 who the saw the 1-1 draw at the Goldstone Ground could feel smug a few months later at having seen two of the standout players of Italia ’90 on the same field – Gascoigne and Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci.

Getting a B in the bonnet

Like reserve football, for some players the B team would represent a big step up on the way to the full ranks while for others it was an unwanted reminder they were not first choice for their country. Probably the best remembered outburst came from Chris Sutton, who in February 1998 snubbed his England B selection against Chile as he took umbrage over not being in the main squad to face the same opponents. “If someone doesn’t want to play for their country at any level I won’t force them. That’s his decision,” said England boss Glenn Hoddle, having seen the forward effectively end his international career by pulling out. Sutton would later concede he should have acted differently.

Chris Sutton would see his England career curtailed by his refusal to play for the B side.

One of the stronger England B line-ups travelled to Algeria in December 1990, the majority of the side being capped at full level. One eye-catching selection was Bryan Robson, who had captained England for eight years under Bobby Robson but now faced the challenge of convincing new boss Graham Taylor he was worthy of a place in the senior squad after six months out injured.

“What the hell do you want to go there for?” Robson recalled his Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson asking him, while the veteran midfielder was left asking the same question as he was moved around in defence. Playing in atrocious conditions and with his team-mate Neil Webb being sent-off, the 0-0 draw was a sobering experience for Robson. “For me the whole trip was a waste of time,” he wrote in his autobiography, seeing the clock tick towards the end of the international career.

It just won’t B enough

A few weeks on from Sutton snubbing the England B team, he was probably left feeling justified in his actions when he saw the fate that befell Matt Le Tissier. The Southampton star’s international career had proved frustrating and he had not been capped at full level for more than a year when he was picked for the B side against Russia in April 1998.

Matt Le Tissier in fine form for England B, but it counts for nothing.

If he was to make the plane to France for the World Cup, then he had to produce in this audition in front of a sparse crowd at Loftus Road. He did just that. In front of the watching Glenn Hoddle, Le Tissier scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. But the call from Hoddle never came. “Looking back I do wonder why I was even there,” he said in 2014 about his B team experience. “I had the best game of my career, scored a hat-trick and it still wasn’t good enough to get in the squad. It made a bit of a mockery of the idea. I can understand why people said it was a waste of time, as it turned out to be.” He would never be capped again.

Will we B seeing the team again?

In the decade since the side last played, the B team has faded from view with few lamenting its absence. One notable exception was David James, who in 2010 called for the side’s revival as he believed there was a “massive void” between the under-21s and senior side and the B team was the answer – particularly for late developers. James wrote: “It’s not glamorous, it won’t get you a big-money contract anywhere, not many people bother turning up to watch you and you get a funny coloured cap when you play, but I would argue that it does help the England coaching staff to identify talent for the senior side. And it helps the player by giving him a chance to be involved in the national set-up – from playing international football to just being part of an England camp. Best of all, there is no age discrimination.”

And there is a pretty good summing up of England B. It lacked in glamour but served a purpose and in some cases definitely helped players progress to the full ranks.

England’s Qualifying Campaigns: 1998 World Cup – Hoddle’s dream start

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Twenty years ago England were looking to qualify for their first World Cup since 1990, being involved in a straight contest for top spot with Italy. It all boiled down to an unforgettable decider in Rome in October 1997…

After the high emotion of Euro ’96, England were quickly back in competitive action as they focused on their next key task – getting to a World Cup finals after failing to make it four years earlier. They had a new manager, Glenn Hoddle having been announced as Terry Venables’ successor prior to Euro ’96. But any hopes Hoddle had of being able to spend plenty of time during the tournament with the side he was about to inherit were quickly dashed. “These are my finals. You get yours next time,” Venables later recalled telling him, accusing his successor-in-waiting of “arrogance” in his autobiography. Although it had been an open secret during the 1982 World Cup that Bobby Robson would replace the retiring Ron Greenwood and again in 1990 that Graham Taylor was to succeed Robson, there was no official announcement made until after England bowed out. But this time it was confirmed beforehand and Venables appeared particularly unhappy with the arrangement, a joint press conference feeling awkward despite the smiles on show.


There was an uncomfortable handover from Terry Venables to Glenn Hoddle in 1996.

Hoddle was therefore left looking in from the outside as England almost won Euro ’96, but he would have just two months to wait until his first match. The previous December had seen the 1998 World Cup qualifying draw made and it could probably have been kinder to England, with 1994 runners-up Italy the obvious main threat as group seeds. Poland were familiar opponents from recent qualifying groups, but Georgia and Moldova had never met England before. Both had enjoyed wins over Wales during Euro ’96 qualifying and England’s away trips could potentially be daunting trips into the unknown. Only one side would qualify automatically, but unlike when England had missed out on making it for 1974 to Poland and 1978 to Italy there would be a play-off place for the runner-up.

The new boss was only 38, but already had been in management for five years. He had won promotion with Swindon Town, before a three-year reign at Chelsea had yielded no major silverware but lengthy runs in both the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. Hoddle knew the international scene well from his playing days, where he had been capped 53 times (a criminally low figure in the eyes of his admirers). He also had experience of playing abroad and his stylish reputation as a player was mirrored in how he wanted this team’s to play. Even strong critics of his man-management skills have praised his coaching and technical abilities.

Beckham’s debut

Hoddle, who set about seeking to get England playing a 3-5-2 system, inherited a buoyant side that Venables had rebuilt and it would need little tweaking. David Platt was the most noticeable player to never be capped again, while Stuart Pearce had intended to enter international retirement but would remain in the side. Hoddle’s first game was a qualifier on September 1 in Moldova and it would mark David Beckham’s England debut. The 21-year-old midfielder’s reputation had grown further with his incredible goal for Manchester United against Wimbledon two weeks earlier and Hoddle now believed it was time to give him his big chance. Also making his England bow was full-back Andy Hinchcliffe as a surprise occupant of the number 11 shirt, while Alan Shearer began his reign as England captain after a summer in which he had made a record £15m transfer to Newcastle United from Blackburn Rovers. Gary Pallister and subs David Batty and Matt Le Tissier all played after not being in the Euro ’96 squad.

The qualifying campaign starts with a win in Moldova.

England had rarely strayed from Wembley in the past couple of years and Hoddle would have presumably preferred a first game other than a qualifier and a potential banana skin. Mercifully it all worked out well on this Sunday afternoon in Chisinau, England overcoming a nervy opening to lead 2-0 inside 25 minutes through Nick Barmby and Paul Gascoigne. Shearer wrapped up a 3-0 victory, with the hosts then hitting a penalty against the woodwork after Pearce was adjudged to have handled. It wasn’t a classic, but this was a good way to start for Hoddle. As Glenn Moore wrote in The Independent: “The match, played in a low-key atmosphere, was unexceptional. The performance, apart from a cluster of highlights, workmanlike. But the points were the thing and England have got the first three of Group Two.”

The next match was at home to Poland in October, Hoddle pairing Newcastle United duo Shearer and Les Ferdinand in attack and playing just one natural central defender in Gareth Southgate as Hinchcliffe again took his place in the side. The spirit of the summer was on show as almost 75,000 showed up, but they saw England fall behind after just six minutes. By half-time it was 2-1 to England thanks to two goals from Shearer, with the side successfully seeing the game out. Played two, won two. It was a good start for England and Hoddle and already clear it looked a straight fight for top spot with Italy, who had so far beaten Moldova and Georgia.

Three out of three

A month later England fans would unusually find the side playing on a Saturday lunchtime (UK time) for an away qualifier in Georgia,  being without Shearer but welcoming back Tony Adams who two months earlier had revealed his problems with alcoholism. Hoddle stood by Gascoigne despite reports he had attacked his wife, leading to some calling for Gazza to be dropped.

Tony Adams returned to lead England in Georgia.

Gascoigne repaid Hoddle by being involved in the build-up to Teddy Sheringham putting England in front, with Ferdinand adding a second before the break as England saw out the 2-0 win. “This is not an easy place to come and win,” said a satisfied Hoddle. “I showed the team a 45-minute video in which Georgia had torn teams apart. The tactics were right, the players agreed with them and the proof of it was in the performance.”

Hoddle had made a great start, but the real test lay three months away: Italy at home.

Advantage Italy

England went into the showdown with Italy having never lost a World Cup match at Wembley. The Italians were back on English soil after a poor Euro ’96, in which they were the most high-profile group stage casualty. England were without some key players including Adams, Gascoigne and David Seaman. Again England fielded just one natural centre back in Sol Campbell, while further up the field Le Tissier was given his chance to start.

Matt Le Tissier goes close against Italy, but is never capped again.

In many respects Hoddle and Le Tissier were kindred spirits, natural talents whose ability to pull off the spectacular was not enough to make them central to England’s plans. But Hoddle would show little patience with Le Tissier, hauling him off after an hour and never capping him again. A total of eight caps was considered pitiful in the eyes of the Southampton star’s admirers. Another selection of interest was goalkeeper Ian Walker, starting an international for the first time after two sub appearances. It was a big game to throw him into the side as England had to cope without the experience of Seaman.

Gianfranco Zola had arrived in England in recent weeks at Chelsea and he was to do the damage here, showing pristine control to take Allesandro Costacurta’s superb ball onto his right foot and fire out of Walker’s reach (aided by a deflection off Campbell). Le Tissier would head inches wide as England pursued an equaliser and Campbell had the ball hooked away from him in front of goal. The final chance fell to Shearer, but the impressive Italian goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi again thwarted him. The match was slipping away from England and the Italians saw the game out to win 1-0. England knew three vital points had been squandered to their main rivals for top spot. Hoddle tried to keep things in perspective, saying: “It’s a setback, not a disaster.”

March brought Hoddle’s first friendly, a 2-0 home win over Mexico. A few days later England were given some hope when Italy were held to a draw by Poland and in late April Hoddle’s side stayed in the hunt by beating Georgia 2-0. On the eve of Labour’s General Election landslide, the old Shearer and Sheringham double act did the trick as both scored, although it wasn’t until a cleverly worked indirect free-kick ended with Shearer scoring in stoppage time that the game was wrapped up.

Saturday night on Channel 5

It was to be a busy end to the season, beginning with England facing South Africa at Old Trafford in a friendly in which Ian Wright scored his first international goal since 1993 to earn a 2-1 win. But of far more concern was England’s qualifier in Poland seven days later, a match best remembered for being shown on the newly-launched Channel 5. “The channel that brings you England goals,” bemusingly proclaimed commentator Jonathan Pearce. Viewers would happily see two of them, the SAS pairing again coming up trumps as Shearer gave England an early lead – but later missed a penalty – before Sheringham wrapped up a 2-0 victory late on. It was an impressive triumph for England, who had cemented a top-two spot. It was now a question of whether they could overhaul the Italians to go through automatically, with everything to boil down to the final match in Rome.

The Shearer and Sheringham double act works again for England in Poland.

Before then the sides met again in France in the mini Le Tournoi competition, England turning in the style to win 2-0 and gain a degree of revenge for the result four months earlier. A 1-0 win over the French three days later meant England were surprise winners of the tournament before the final match against Brazil. Although England lost 1-0 to the world champions, there was pride and optimism as the team returned home with unexpected silverware. The question now was whether the team could repeat the success in France 12 months later at the World Cup. But first of all they had to qualify.

Ahead of the 1997-98 season beginning, England were dealt a blow when Shearer sustained an injury in pre-season with Newcastle United. It ruled him out for the remaining qualifiers – at home to Moldova in September, followed by the group decider in Italy a month later.

Paul Gascoigne slots home as England beat Moldova 4-0.

The build-up to the Moldovan match was totally overshadowed by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales 10 days previously. With little major football action taking place in the meantime, this was going to be an emotional night and the crowd paid its respects before kick-off. Candle in the Wind was played and some candles were on show in the crowd, with the minute’s silence impeccably observed. It evoked memories of when England had hosted Albania during Italia ’90 qualifying shortly after the Hillsborough Disaster. And there would be other similarities too: England won convincingly; Gascoigne was on the scoresheet; and the Three Lions moved a step closer towards qualifying. Ferdinand and Wright were paired in attack, the latter enjoying one of his best nights in an England shirt as he netted twice, with Paul Scholes having broken the deadlock in a 4-0 win.

That night in Rome

The national mood was boosted further with the news that Italy had been held to a draw in Georgia, meaning England now topped the group. All they had to do was avoid defeat in Rome a month later and they would be through as group winners. It was sure to be a major occasion. Some of the spirit of the summer of 1996 seemed to be resurfacing, with the match getting a pretty huge build-up. “The whole of England is behind you,” Prime Minister Tony Blair told Hoddle and his players. ‘By George We’ll Do It’ declared the front page of the Daily Express with many other tabloids going down a similar line. Sky were showing it live, ITV in full on delay almost immediately afterwards. It may have seemed a lot of fuss over a qualifying match, but a combination of England’s failure to make it four years earlier, the quality of the opposition and the fact there was no guarantee the runners-up would go through in the play-offs had made this a big deal.

Fears about trouble off the field were sadly realised, although much of the criticism was directed towards Italian police. It was always going to be a highly-charged night where England needed to keep their heads to qualify. Paul Ince, who had played in Italy for two years, was handed the captain’s armband. Ince would evoke memories of another stand-in captain, Terry Butcher, as he played on with his head bandaged and his shirt covered in blood during a vital World Cup qualifier and led by example. “I played a lot of games for England, including Euro ’96, but I think the Italy game is probably still the stand-out one,” Ince said in 2015. “At the time it was so important.”

England showed discipline in both matching the Italians and seeing the game out, on a night which was always going to seem a long 90 minutes as long as it stayed at 0-0. But during the first-half England came closest to breaking the deadlock, Ince’s powerful volley saved by Peruzzi and Beckham firing just over after excellent hold-up work by Sheringham. Italy stepped it up a gear after the break, sub Enrico Chiesa being denied by Seaman before a heart in mouth moment as Alessandro del Piero went down over Adams’ outstretched leg in the area. But there was a growing sense this was going to be England’s night when del Piero was booked for diving, before Angelo de Livio picked up his second booking following a challenge on Campbell.

England simply needed to keep their heads and see the game out as the seconds ticked away. The match moved into stoppage time for an unforgettable few moments. England caught Italy on the break and Wright, who had run his heart out all night, suddenly found himself rounding Peruzzi but hitting the post from an acute angle. Sheringham was dispossessed and Italy swept away, England seeming to lose concentration for the first time in the game. Del Piero got to the byline and crossed into the area, where Christian Vieri was lurking. It looked like the most heartbreaking ending for England but he headed inches wide of the goal. Every England fan, whether in Rome or back home, breathed a huge sigh of relief. “You’ve had the drama of top-level sport encapsulated in those last few seconds,” proclaimed Sky commentator Martin Tyler.

Seconds later the final whistle sounded and England were back in the World Cup finals, clinching their place on a momentous night. The Italians may have had the better head-to-head record but England’s consistency had seen them through with the most points. Their defence had been breached just twice in eight games (never on foreign soil) and Hoddle’s tactics had paid off. He shared in a jubilant group hug with his coaching staff as the final whistle sounded. On the field Wright sank to his knees in joy, having finally appeared to have booked his place in a squad for a major tournament. Sadly for him fate would intervene, as it would – for different reasons – with his mate Gascoigne who was equally ecstatic at the time qualification was clinched. Various newspaper headlines about England having achieved ‘The Italian Job’ were inevitable, but also merited.


Celebrations for England in Rome.

The match in Rome would mark about the midway point between Hoddle’s announcement as England manager and his departure. And it was really as good as it got, a performance that is still hailed two decades later. The qualifying campaign had been the calm before the storm so far as his regime was concerned – controversies such as omitting Gascoigne from the France ’98 squad, the publication of Hoddle’s World Cup Diary and views on reincarnation that ultimately proved his downfall were still to come. Hoddle had made an excellent start, his tactical beliefs proving vindicated. The Italy game was not a totally happy time in his life as he revealed in his diary he was planning to end his marriage upon his return home. But football-wise there would be few occasions that would rank as highly as that unforgettable night in Rome.

 

Great England Goals – Norman Hunter v Wales (1973)

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The 1974 World Cup qualification programme would go down in infamy for England, as the 1966 winners failed to even make the finals two tournaments on. There weren’t many highlights for the fans to look back at fondly, but one would be the thunderbolt goal scored by Norman Hunter against Wales on this day in 1973…

1973, Norman Hunter and Wembley weren’t the best of combinations. In May, Hunter was part of the Leeds United side that surprisingly lost to Sunderland in the FA Cup Final. In October, Hunter’s infamous error against Poland proved costly as England conceded the goal that ultimately stopped them qualifying for the World Cup. But on a happier note, in the previous home qualifier in January, Hunter had scored a screamer against Wales.


The visit of the Welsh marked the first World Cup match at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. As on that famous day, England were managed by Sir Alf Ramsey and captained by Bobby Moore. But Alan Ball was the only other player from the 1966 final taking to the field, although the side did contain Norman Hunter who had been an unused squad member in that triumph and made one substitute appearance at the 1970 tournament. This was realistically going to be the defender’s last chance to properly figure at a World Cup. With England having started the campaign by beating Wales in Cardiff two months earlier, there seemed little cause for concern ahead of this rare January international.

All that changed after 23 minutes, John Toshack scoring from close range to give Wales the lead. Suddenly it didn’t look so certain that England would be at the finals in West Germany. They now began to attack with vigour, but – in an ominous warning sign for what would later lie ahead with Poland and Jan Tomaszewski- they came up against a goalkeeper in good form in Gary Sprake. But the one man who would beat him shortly before the break was Hunter, his Leeds United colleague.

Hunter was involved in bringing the ball forward as England attacked in numbers. Colin Bell drove the ball into the box, with it being deflected away into the path of Hunter. He struck the ball goalwards with venom from outside the box, his left foot drive flying into the roof of Sprake’s net. “Sprake knows all about Norman Hunter but he knew nothing about that,” proclaimed BBC commentator David Coleman as Wembley erupted with delight. It had been a goal to savour.

“Oh, how England need forwards who can shoot like that,” reflected Geoffrey Green in The Times. Norman Giller in the Daily Express wrote of a goal that was “fashioned out of nothing”. In the Daily Mirror, Frank McGhee said: “It is in a way a tribute to England’s equaliser in the 40th minute that a ‘keeper in Sprake’s superb form was left frozen in disbelief at the ferocity and power of the Norman Hunter shot that flew past him from 25 yards.” Green also called it at 25 yards, Giller gave a more conservative estimate of 20. Wales’ Leighton James, in an interview in 2004, recalled it as being 30. But regardless of just how far out it was, there was no getting away from the fact that Hunter’s goal had caught the eye. “You did not see him often over the halfway line. It showed how much pressure they put on us,” recalled James.


Hunter would generally be known for his ‘bites yer’ legs’ reputation rather than his goalscoring ability, scoring just 22 times in 679 Football League appearances. For England he was hardly prolific either, the only other goal he scored in 28 caps coming against Spain in 1968. But against Wales he drove in a goal to remember. 

It sadly wasn’t what most people would be talking about the following day, England having to settle for a 1-1 draw and being booed off the pitch. It wouldn’t be what most primarily remembered his England career for either, the mistake against Poland nine months later sadly – and perhaps unfairly – sticking in many minds far more. But Hunter’s goal against Wales had been one to treasure, a prime candidate for any list of forgotten great England goals – a left-footed drive from distance that flew past Sprake. It was a Bobby Charlton-esque goal from the most unlikely of sources.

Book Review – Hope: My Life in Football

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This week we turn the spotlight on women’s football and review the recently released autobiography of Hope Powell, who managed England from 1998 to 2013 after previously enjoying a lengthy international playing career. The book provides an interesting insight into someone who came to symbolise progression for the women’s national team but also for the stature of the female game in England… 

Hope Powell last month celebrated her 50th birthday and it has been a life in which she has often found herself fighting the odds. Her childhood was not always easy, growing up in a household where her mother was the victim of domestic violence. As a girl growing up playing football Powell was very much in the minority, her younger days falling into an era when females playing the sport would attract derision and be viewed with perplexity.

Even when she made it to becoming an England international it was a world away from the professional women’s game that has now developed, having to pay to play at club level. Powell would be a role model for any black girls looking to make it in the sport, having to deal with an instance of racism in her playing days. And she is also one of the most high-profile openly gay figures in English football, snubbing an approach in recent years to manage Nigeria’s women for reasons including the nation’s policies towards same-sex relationships.

And even as a female manager within the women’s game she found herself in the minority, Powell blazing a trail by being the first – and so far only – woman to manage the England side. A constant theme of Hope: My Life in Football is how she has had to fight for equality, resenting the way men are given managerial jobs in the women’s game but not the other way round.

“We need more women in the top jobs,” she insists, while also reminding readers that her successor Mark Sampson is “less experienced and less qualified than me”. She was once linked with the manager’s job at Grimsby Town, but maintains she neither applied for the post nor received any contact from the Mariners about it. There was an approach from non-league Windsor which she considered taking, but the timing was not right for her. Powell would become the first woman to gain her UEFA pro-licence qualification, working closely with such established football names as Stuart Pearce to achieve it. Kevin Keegan emerges in the book as a supportive figure of England’s women, while a converted Howard Wilkinson would also prove a particular ally of Powell’s.

Standing up for herself

Powell certainly gives the impression she is not a woman to be messed with. During the book she recalls clipping an un-named member of Team GB’s men’s football team around the back of the head for ogling her players; of putting Derek Fazackerley straight when he thinks she is the new office girl at the FA, rather than the women’s team manager; and of standing up to a misogynistic man in Jordan who pushed in front of her, leaving him mumbling apologies. Most significantly she managed to help free her mum from a life of domestic violence, putting her own personal safety at risk to confront her mother’s partner and involve the police to ensure her mum could move on to enjoy a happier life. Any football challenge has been minor by comparison, although it has been far from straightforward.

Powell found herself banned from playing football with boys as a child, so she ended up defying her mum’s orders and joining Millwall Lionesses. By the age of 14 she was playing first-team football and she would quickly break into the England squad. In 1984 she helped England reach the European Competition for Women’s Football against Sweden, Powell getting an unwelcome insight into how conservative England remained about women’s football compared to elsewhere. The first-leg in Scandinavia was a big deal to the locals, the return game so insignificant to most of English football that no ground in London was made available by the clubs to stage the match (it was eventually played at Luton). Powell writes: “Swedish football was so far in advance of our own in terms of its development, it was almost embarrassing.”

Changing times

For an English women’s footballer in the 1980s there was little glamour, even if playing for leading clubs such as Millwall Lionesses and Friends of Fulham as Powell did. She writes: “A lot of the games were watched by two men and a dog – sometimes it was just the dog. When I look back at the conditions we used to put up with, we really had a lot of dedication and determination. Many of the pitches we played on were disgusting mud-heaps, on which the ball just about rolled.” An appearance at Old Trafford in the Women’s Cup Final saw less than 1,000 spectators dotted around the ground for the showpiece of the domestic game. When she played for England at the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, the team endured sleepless nights travelling on trains between venues and Powell says she was left out of pocket by the trip – a tournament that attracted little interest in the English press.


Fast forward 18 years and things had well and truly changed, as Powell began to feel the amount of media intrusion towards her players at Euro 2013 was an unwelcome distraction. As she herself admitted it was a case of being careful what you wish for, having sought for so long for an increased profile for the women’s game and then discovered the negative elements of it.

That level of increased interest was at least partly down to Powell, who since 1998 had been in a job where success was judged on more than just results. She also looked to increase interest in the women’s game and see youngsters develop. Given the end results she can be seen as having succeeded in all fields, England qualifying for several major tournaments (and reaching the Euro 2009 final) as they began to find themselves in the top bracket of women’s sides. Young talent would emerge and perhaps most significantly, the English female game became almost unrecognisable from years before in terms of interest and status including the creation of professional leagues. The presence of a Team GB women’s team at London 2012 – led by Powell, who as with when she was unexpectedly offered the England job in 1998 initially considered turning it down – would also help increase the profile.


Yet for all her achievements, it was reported when Powell was sacked in 2013 after a poor European Championship that many players were not sorry to see her leave and saw her management as a “dictatorship”. Powell’s claim that there was “cowardice” from her players who backed away from taking penalties in the shoot-out against France at the 2011 World Cup – comments she says in the book were said in the heat of the moment and not meant for publication – could not have helped the situation. Critics may happily point out that Sampson took England further in 2015 than Powell ever did at a World Cup (Powell refuses to take any credit in the book for that third-place finish). Powell also believes certain people at the FA resented the level of control she had been allowed to gain over its female international football structure, something she puts down to the organisation getting her “on the cheap” and expecting her to be responsible for all levels.

But even those who fell out with Powell would surely concede that she helped the women’s game progress in England, being ready to take on the conservative elements of the FA and fight for improvements to the sport. She writes: “When you’re working class and black, never mind having a same-sex partner, you learn early on in life that you’re going to have to fight for everything you achieve… you will come up against people who have a total sense of entitlement and privilege. They pretty much run everything, from the government to companies and organisations, including the FA, who are threatened by people like me. We don’t fit their mould and, when we get into positions of authority, they’re not really quite sure how to deal with us. Throughout the time I worked at the FA, they were legion.”

Powell did not in any way fit the stereotype of an FA employee and she was anything but a yes-woman, continually fighting the establishment and seeking to strengthen the women’s game. She was not without her critics as England boss but Hope did indeed help give hope to many girls and women that they could make it in football – and enjoy a much more attractive career than the one she had on deserted mud-heaps in the 1980s. Her story is one that has been worth telling.

  • Hope: My Life in Football by Hope Powell with Marvin Close, is published by Bloomsbury.

RIP Graham Taylor

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We were extremely sorry to learn yesterday of the death of former England manager Graham Taylor at the age of 72.

Graham Taylor enjoyed great success as a club manager with Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa – winning a total of seven promotions and coming close with the latter two clubs to becoming champions of England . His career included giving the first chance in professional football to such a talent as John Barnes. He was widely regarded as a nice man who made time to help people. And his co-commentaries for matches on BBC Radio 5 Live were enjoyed by many. And yet for some people, all that he would be remembered for was his three years managing England and writing him off as a downright failure because of it. Browsing one discussion forum yesterday , the first reply to a post about Taylor’s death was someone pointing out what an awful England manager Taylor was. No “but he seemed a nice man” or “but he did very well at club level”. Just bitterness and remembering ‘Turnip’ as a catastrophic failure when in charge of his country.


Sadly, of course, Taylor failed to steer England to the 1994 World Cup – the only time they’ve not qualified for the tournament since 1978. Mistakes were made along the way including the tactical approach in certain games and some dubious team selections, as well as some of the old guard such as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle appearing to be sacrificed prematurely. Substituting Gary Lineker in the crunch defeat by Sweden during Euro ’92 attracted criticism from press and public, while Taylor would not enjoy the same rapport with Paul Gascoigne as either his predecessor or successor. There were much-criticised losses to Norway and the USA within days in June 1993. And the infamous fly-on-the-wall documentary about the World Cup qualifying campaign would do Taylor’s reputation few favours. Did he not like that indeed?

But his reign wasn’t quite the all-out nightmare it is often portrayed as. Taylor didn’t lose a match in his first year at charge and his side were beaten just once prior to Euro ’92. England qualified unbeaten for that tournament and during his reign they only lost once on home soil. Taylor could forever claim the controversial refereeing display during defeat to the Netherlands cost him both qualification and – as he told the linesman – his job. For all their disappointments in that campaign, England would probably have still got to the USA had Norway not suddenly emerged as a force. 

Four years earlier England had qualified for the World Cup by just the width of the crossbar against Poland in the decisive qualifier, Bobby Robson going on to depart a hero after reaching the semi-finals. Taylor would rue how things went against him that night in Rotterdam, plus the late equaliser conceded in the home meeting. It’s a game of fine margins and he knew once his side failed to make it to the USA that he would never get a chance to turn things around. Taylor might also have felt expectations were inflated to unrealistic levels when he took the job amid the post-Italia ’90 euphoria.


The Impossible Job documentary about the qualifying campaign would lead to more mocking of Taylor, but the perception of him as a foul-mouthed individual was unfair. Yes the evidence was there that he used a lot of expletives, but it has to be put into the context of a man under great pressure and in an environment where “industrial language” is applied to get through to many players (if Gazza’s autobiography was anything to go by, then even Sir Bobby Robson frequently spoke in such a way when in a football environment). So many people who met Taylor say what a nice man he was, while his reign at Watford saw him work to achieve more than just success on the field. In an era when crowd trouble was rife, Watford were the ultimate family club – the staff putting on productions for young fans to enjoy and families happily flocking to games and sitting in the safety and comfort of a dedicated enclosure. He was also an early champion of black players, men such as Barnes and Luther Blissett thriving under him at Watford. As England boss he would also give a number of black players their chance at international level.

That spell at Watford really brought Taylor to national attention, following an almost-invincible Fourth Division title success at Lincoln City. But as Watford rose from the Fourth Division to runners-up in the top-flight in just six seasons, not all the publicity was positive. His direct style attracted critics, Taylor being at pains to defend the approach. “I hate sophisticated football,” he told John Motson in one interview – and he could say with justification that the old-school directness worked well. 

But that criticism would seem gentle compared to what he had to endure, particularly from The Sun, in the second half of his England reign. ‘Swedes 2, Tunips 1’ was a witty headline. But much of what happened subsequently was anything but. The ‘Turniphead’ images became a nasty and tired joke, merely intensifying some people’s hatred of the man. Even when he resigned as manager there was a spiteful front page. It’s little surprise Taylor later rejected the chance to present a retirement gift to the responsible sub-editor. The son of a sports journalist, Taylor would have good reason to resent some of the individuals within the industry.


After the public humiliation with England the easy option for Taylor would have been to go abroad for a well-paid, low-pressure job. But it was to his immense credit that Taylor would within months take the manager’s job at Wolverhampton Wanderers, becoming the first ex-England manager to manage again at club level on home soil (excluding Sir Alf Ramsey’s caretaker stint at Birmingham City). Although the Molineux reign was perhaps not as successful as hoped, Taylor did lead the side to the First Division play-offs. 

But it was a return to his spiritual home of Watford where he would really re-establish himself, the old Vicarage Road magic – with old mate Elton John again at the helm – resurfacing as successive promotions were achieved to take the Hornets to the Premier League. Although relegation was suffered the next season, Taylor could take pride in what he had achieved and feel he had proved some of his critics wrong. Even though he ‘retired’ in 2001, there was clearly still hunger there as he would the following year again take charge at Aston Villa.

After all the flack he took as England manager, one might have thought the last people he would want for company were the English press. But his role as a radio summariser would regularly see him in their company, many sports journalists having tweeted what a nice man he was and how much he will be missed. Taylor’s assessments of matches were enjoyed by many. Former BBC TV commentator Barry Davies pondered in his autobiography that, having heard Taylor’s analysis and read his thoughtful columns, if things might have worked out differently for the manager if his chance with England had come later. With the benefit of hindsight he would almost certainly have done some things differently.


Taylor was a patriot, pointing out that he was a fan at club level of Scunthorpe United and he grew up with England as his “big team”. He found it hard to grasp why others could not view the national team as such a priority. Tony Dorigo, who played under Taylor, tweeted last night that “there wasn’t a more committed Englishman and for that he had my admiration”. Like Bobby Robson before him, Taylor really longed to succeed with his country. It didn’t work out as hoped, but the man’s overall career and other qualities in life were appreciated by many. The many tributes paid in the last 24 hours are full evidence of that.

RIP Graham, a good, honest man who will be sadly missed.

England’s qualifying campaigns: 1994 World Cup – did we not like that?

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December marked the 25th anniversary of the draw being made for the qualifying stages of the 1994 World Cup. The campaign would become infamous as England, semi-finalists at Italia ’90, failed to make it to the USA and Graham Taylor’s managerial reign ended in ignominious fashion.

The weekend of December 7-8, 1991, was certainly one for draws being made. On the Saturday lunchtime, Saint & Greavsie viewers saw a certain Donald Trump help make the Rumbelows Cup quarter-final draw. That night, Match of the Day broadcast the FA Cup third round draw – with title protagonists Leeds United and Manchester United paired together for the second time in a day. And the following day the 1994 World Cup qualifying groups were decided. Few could have envisaged just what a calamitous campaign lay ahead for England.

For the first time England were placed in a group of six sides, European football having welcomed an influx of new countries following the break-up of the Soviet Union. But England would not meet any of them, and apart from minnows San Marino – entering only their second major qualifying tournament – there was little in the way of originality. The Dutch, who seemed set to provide the sternest test, had met the English at both Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 (and it was a distinct possibility they could also face each other at Euro ’92). Poland were in England’s group for the third qualifying tournament in succession, while Turkey had been paired with the English in three other campaigns in the past decade. You had to go a bit further back for the last clashes with Norway, England infamously losing to them during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup.

If the draw lacked in novelty for England fans, then at least on paper it looked like the side had a strong chance of progressing. The Three Lions only had to finish second to qualify, having always finished at least that high in every previous qualifying group even when they failed to make it. The Dutch were an obvious threat, but no other side in the group had qualified for a major tournament since Poland reached the 1986 World Cup. But as with the Poles 20 years earlier and Denmark a decade before, England had landed a joker in the pack who were about to represent their undoing. Norway had beaten Italy in Euro ’92 qualifying and they would pose a serious threat to the established order.


The pressure was increasing on Graham Taylor after Euro ’92.

At the time the draw was made, Graham Taylor was enjoying a decent reign as England boss having lost just once since taking over in the summer of 1990 and qualified for Euro ’92. But then came the turning point of the European Championship in Sweden, a negative England crashing out in the group stages as the ‘Turnip’ taunt began against the boss. He had seemed tetchy when dealing with the media during the competition and now faced a tough challenge to win over the doubters, not helped by his controversial decision to sub Gary Lineker in defeat by the Swedes.

It was the forward’s last act for his country before retiring, as Taylor now sought both a new captain and star striker. Alan Shearer – fresh from a big-money move from Southampton to Blackburn Rovers – would be the ideal man to fill the latter role, while Stuart Pearce became captain. But injuries would deprive Taylor of both men for part of the campaign, midfielder David Platt taking the captain’s armband and often being the main goal threat. One man back in the picture was Paul Gascoigne, returning to action after more than a year out injured and now playing in Italy for Lazio.

Pegged back by Norway

By the time England next took to the field in September 1992, the new Premier League was under way. Paul Ince was handed his debut as he began his lengthy England career in a 1-0 defeat. But it was Taylor’s last chance to experiment for the qualifiers. The expansion of the qualifying programme meant competitive football would dominate the agenda in the coming months, starting with a home qualifier against Norway in October. In an era before the international calendar as we know it now, Norway had already played three qualifiers and won them all – laying down a marker by thrashing San Marino 10-0 and beating the Netherlands 2-1. They were not to be underestimated.

Paul Gascoigne returned for England against Norway in October 1992.

The build-up was overshadowed by Gascoigne’s ill-judged jokey response when asked by a TV interviewer to say hello to Norway. As the words “f*** off Norway” left his lips they were clearly going to create headlines, assistant boss Lawrie McMenemy trying to limit the damage as he reprimanded the player for his actions. For Taylor it was imperative England got off to a good start and they looked set to do just that when Shearer gave them a second half lead. But as England looked set to see the game out, they were undone by a long-range equaliser from Kjetil Rekdal. It ended 1-1, representing a point dropped by England (UEFA were still applying the two points for a win system) on a night when they had created more chances than the visitors. “Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve from life and this was one of those nights,” reflected Taylor, who remained confident of qualification.

Five weeks later, Taylor expressed his wish for England to give him an early Christmas present by delivering at home to the Turks. Although Turkey had been thrashed by England three times during the 1980s, they had looked much-improved in two narrow defeats during Euro ’92 qualifying. The old order was to be re-established here, the impressive Gascoigne scoring twice in a 4-0 win as England ended a difficult year in better spirits. The resurgence of Gazza was a pleasing sight, but Taylor issued some words of caution: “Gascoigne is not fully fit yet. He knows that himself and the difference could be as much as another two goals out of him.” Rarely did Gascoigne seem as happy or loved under Taylor as he did during the reigns of Bobby Robson or Terry Venables.

John Barnes was abused by a section of the Wembley crowd during England’s win over San Marino.

A joyless 6-0 win

In February England hosted the whipping boys of San Marino, amid the sad news about the legendary Bobby Moore being seriously ill with cancer. He was at Wembley to co-commentate for radio, just a week before he would lose his fight for life. It was not a glorious match for Moore to say farewell to the Twin Towers, England only holding a 2-0 lead until midway through the second half. The floodgates then finally opened, England eventually winning 6-0 with Platt scoring four of them. There would also be a solitary international goal for Carlton Palmer (memorably met with Taylor asking “what was he doing in the f***ing box?”) and a debut strike for Les Ferdinand.

Platt could have equalled Malcolm Macdonald’s achievement of scoring five times in one match for England, only to have his late penalty saved. But the night had already been soured by the jeering of England’s John Barnes. England had won comfortably, but there was little to feel buoyed about. Gascoigne’s display had concerned Taylor, who said: “There is something there with the player that isn’t right and it is affecting his fitness.”

Paul Gascoigne scores for England in their win in Turkey.

Next up was England’s trip to Turkey the following month, goals from Platt and Gascoigne providing a 2-0 win in a hostile atmosphere in which the players were struck by coins. Taylor’s side had seven points from eight and all looked positive going into the huge game at home to the Netherlands in late April.

A crushing blow

Barnes enjoyed a far more positive response from the Wembley crowd than a few weeks earlier and within two minutes had scored a delightful free-kick to break the deadlock. When Platt doubled the lead midway through the half all seemed good in the world, England giving one of their best displays under Taylor. But a touch of class by Dennis Bergkamp reduced the deficit and England would lose the injured Gascoigne thanks to Jan Wouters’ elbow. Taylor later fumed: “It was a premeditated assault, utterly disgraceful. And he didn’t even get a caution.” It wasn’t the last time Taylor would rue refereeing decisions during the qualifying process. But it looked like England would see the game out until five minutes from time. Des Walker had been immense for England at Italia ’90 but was now suffering a dramatic loss of form.


England were frustrated when the Dutch visited Wembley.

Walker panicked into pulling back Marc Overmars, the referee pointing to the spot with Peter van Vossen levelling as the game finished 2-2. The smart money would have been on a draw beforehand and England still stood a good chance of making it, but it was a crushing blow to have squandered victory. They had now been pegged back in home games against their main two rivals. “We played very well in both of those games and if we had won just one, which we deserved to, we would have been ok,” reflected Taylor 20 years later. Mathematically his statement wasn’t quite correct, but things may well have panned out differently had England seen out either of those games.

The nightmare in Oslo

The first serious doubts that England would make it came at the end of the season. During fixture negotiations England had been handed away trips to Poland and Norway within five days, in an era when double headers were rare. If England could take three points or more they would look favourites to make it to the USA, but a defeat in either clash would be worrying. The first match was a Saturday night trip to Poland, England showing their limitations as they trailed at half-time and almost fell further behind. They got out of jail with a first England goal for substitute Ian Wright to salvage a 1-1 draw

Ian Wright rescues England in Poland.

If that had been disappointing, then what followed over the next fortnight would go a long way to sealing Taylor’s fate. England went into the away game against Norway having not lost a World Cup qualifier since their previous visit in 1981, but they produced a performance that sadly merited that run coming to an end. A decision to switch to three centre backs failed to help matters and England missed the combative presence of the suspended Ince, as the side slumped to a costly and deserved 2-0 defeat. For the first time England were in real trouble, while Norway moved closer to qualifying. They would duly top the group.

England or the Netherlands would miss out, with most predicting the former. Taylor was taking a hell of a beating from the press, ‘Norse Manure’ being one standout headline. In The Independent Joe Lovejoy wrote: “For England to qualify they will probably need maximum points from their last three games, which means beating the Dutch away – a task which looks light years beyond them. They were second-best throughout against the group leaders, who might easily have had more than the two goals they scored either side of half-time, through Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen.”

From bad, to worse…

Feeling low from the Norway defeat, England now headed off to the USA to compete in the US Cup against Brazil, Germany and the hosts. If the main aim of the trip was to help England prepare for the World Cup in America a year later then it was already looking a futile exercise. But they did get one piece of positive news while out there, with the Netherlands being held to a draw by Norway in a World Cup qualifier to keep England in with a shout. Any pleasure from that result quickly evaporated on the same evening as Taylor’s side sank to a 2-0 defeat to the USA. It provided more ammunition for Taylor’s critics, ‘Yanks 2, Planks 0’ the latest headline to scream out how badly things were going. Goalkeeper Chris Woods would be a fall-guy, never being capped again.

To their credit, England picked themselves up and produced much-improved displays in drawing 1-1 with Brazil and narrowly losing 2-1 to Germany. But the damage had already been done and the Norway and USA defeats were what the summer would be remembered for. A run of six games without a win meant Taylor urgently needed a response from his side as they prepared for the final three qualifiers. The first was at home to Poland in September, as England at least beat another of the top four sides. The win was wrapped up inside an hour as Ferdinand, Pearce and Gascoigne scored in a 3-0 success. The one downside was Gascoigne picking up a caution to rule him out of the following month’s showdown in the Netherlands, while they would also be without Pearce.

A night of controversy

It wasn’t quite going to be winner takes all in Rotterdam, but to all intents and purposes it was. The sides were level on points so whoever won would need just a point from their last game (the Dutch away to Poland, England taking on San Marino in Bologna) to be sure of going through. If it was a draw then things would get complicated, England needing to beat San Marino by a sufficient score to take them through on goal difference (assuming the Dutch beat Poland). It was a scenario that would suit Taylor’s team. The build-up saw Taylor have an infamous exchange with journalist Rob Shepherd at the press conference, captured in the fly-on-the-wall documentary about the campaign that would soon make headlines (we will save assessing that show for another day).

Given how much was at stake, if you look at it as a neutral for a minute then this was actually a bloody good game of football in which both sides went in search of the result they needed and created several decent chances. The Dutch were always a threat with wingers Marc Overmars and Bryan Roy continually a danger, while at the other end Tony Dorigo and Paul Merson both hit the post and Tony Adams had an effort cleared off the line. 

But controversy and key incidents were never far away, not all to England’s detriment given Frank Rijkaard’s goal was dubiously ruled out in the first half. During the second half the same player was somehow denied by David Seaman. Yet those moments would not live in the memory. Instead it would be the lasting sight of Ronald Koeman hauling back goalbound David Platt at 0-0. The referee initially appeared to award a penalty, eventually determining it was a free-kick on the edge of the box. But more contentious was the decision not to dismiss Koeman. “Is that not a sending off offence?” asked ITV co-commentator Ron Atkinson, rhetorically. Taylor was understandably livid on the touchline.

Graham Taylor experiences a painful night in Rotterdam.

As is well-known, Koeman duly scored a retaken free-kick with Taylor’s wounds deepened by England not having the chance to themselves retake a free-kick after being charged down in similar circumstances. Bergkamp wrapped up the 2-0 Dutch victory to effectively seal England and Taylor’s fate, as the manager told the linesman that his mate had cost him his job. “That blond man should not be on the field,” he said angrily when interviewed by ITV immediately afterwards. The man’s fury and pain was clear for the nation to see, knowing he would now face even more calls to leave.

The inevitable becomes reality

It was a low point, but – although criticism was pouring in over England’s impending absence from the World Cup – there wasn’t the same level of disappointment over England’s display as there had been in Norway. But the damage had been done. England needed the Dutch to lose in Poland and for them to beat San Marino by at least seven goals (assuming Poland only won by a one-goal margin). A big England victory was feasible, and it was possible that the Netherlands could could unstuck in Poland. But most were resigned to the inevitable, the Dutch good enough to get the result they needed against a side already out of the running.

Captain Stuart Pearce leaves the field after England fail to qualify for the World Cup.

England duly scored seven in front of a sparse crowd in Bologna (four netted by Ian Wright), but all their game against San Marino would really be remembered for was for embarrassingly going 1-0 down within seconds to one of the world’s football minnows. It was the final humiliation, symbolic of a campaign of failure. And before the end the BBC sacrificed live coverage to switch to Wales against Romania, as they clung to the hope of seeing a British side reach the USA. By then England’s chances were long gone, the Dutch winning 3-1 in Poland. Only at the moment when the Poles had levelled it at 1-1 had there ever been a glimmer of hope. Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “There was no act of God to provide the miracle for England – just a parable of painful failure as the dream died in the bitter cold of Bologna.”


Taylor’s departure was inevitable, but it would not be confirmed for almost a week. ‘That’s Yer Allotment’ proclaimed The Sun’s front page, again accompanied by a picture of his head as a turnip. The man had failed to take England to the finals, but the joke had gone too far. It was now getting extremely personal and generating an unnecessary level of hatred against a decent man. Taylor’s record in itself was not bad, but in three matches that had really mattered – against Sweden at Euro ’92 and then the World Cup qualifiers in Norway and the Netherlands – England had been beaten and that was sadly what many would remember his reign for. 

England would not be at the finals and for Taylor – so successful with Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa – it constituted his first real failure in football management. He had taken stick for his style of football before but now it was for his inability to get results. The flack he had taken – along with predecessor Bobby Robson – created the impression managing England was no longer seen as quite the dream job it once was, as the FA began looking for a successor.

On the night of the qualifying failure, Terry Venables was a pundit on the BBC’s Sportsnight. He remained non-committal when questioned by Des Lynam if he wanted the job, but within weeks he would be in the role as England looked towards Euro ’96 on home soil after a painful World Cup qualifying campaign. The failure under Taylor was a distant memory by the time of Euro ’96, but it would never be totally forgotten…