England Qualifying Campaigns: 1990 World Cup – Robson’s slow road to redemption

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Ahead of England returning to qualifying action next month for Euro 2016 after a poor record at the World Cup finals in Brazil, we recall when they came home from the horror show of Euro ’88 and began the process of attempting to make it to Italia ’90. Bobby Robson was a man under pressure and faced a tough job rebuilding pride and his reputation. It was a rocky path at times, but he would get them there although he would have to wait for the finals for the tide to properly turn in his favour…

England’s route to Italia ’90 really began in December 1987 when the qualifying draw was made. At that point Robson’s side were still celebrating qualifying with an unbeaten record for the European Championships and being one of the favourites to win it. They had no reason to fear other sides in the World Cup qualifying draw and were one of the seeded teams. The draw, not unlike the eventual qualifying process as a whole for England, would prove to be a case of ‘could have been better, could have been worse’.

They crucially avoided the Dutch from pot two, landing Poland who had reached the past four World Cups but were entering a period of decline. They could have drawn an easier side from pot three than Sweden, but they had not qualified for a major tournament for a decade. And Albania were a candidate for the weakest team in pot four, being something of an unknown quantity to the English. The Three Lions were favourites to progress, but being drawn in one of the groups with just four teams meant they would have to finish top to be sure of a World Cup spot. In an era before play-offs became the norm for second place sides, if they had the poorest of the runners-up records from the three groups with four teams in then they would miss out.

But thoughts of the World Cup were put on hold as England focused on their Euro ’88 preparations. Gradually, things began to go wrong with Terry Butcher ruled out with a broken leg and the goals drying up as the finals approached. When they began, Robson’s men would infamously lose all three games and the manager found his future under scrutiny. The use of the term ‘Plonker’ by Del Boy to Rodney in Only Fools and Horses may have been good natured, but it certainly wasn’t when tabloid newspapers screamed out the term about Robson after a bad result. Crucially though, the FA stood by him after Robson appeared set for the axe as the side flopped in West Germany.

Those who demanded my resignation – and I am thinking in particular about specific newspapers – will be disappointed to hear me reinforce my decision not to quit. It might have crossed my mind, fleetingly, when I wondered if my family could cope with almost intolerable strain, that I should step down. But I am not a quitter and will not back down,”  Bobby Robson in his first programme notes after the European Championship.

Robson wields the axe
As the dust settled on Euro ’88, Robson knew he had to act and make tough decisions to regain the winning formula by dispensing with members of his core squad of players. Kenny Sansom, Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley and Dave Watson played for Robson for the last time in the finals, while Viv Anderson and Peter Reid were never recalled after winning their final caps shortly before the tournament. Tony Adams played the first three games after Euro ’88 but was never picked again by Robson and fellow central defender Mark Wright was discarded until April 1990 before coming back to prominence at Italia ’90.

In their place would emerge an abundance of new players, gradually phased in with 17 new caps awarded between September 1988 and December 1989. The key men to enter the squad were Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker, David Platt and Des Walker, who would all start the 1990 World Cup semi-final, while players such as Steve Bull and David Rocastle would also establish themselves in the squad. For several others like Brian Marwood, Mike Phelan and Mel Sterland it would be a very short international road, but they could at least console themselves with the knowledge they had been capped at full level by England. Robson gave several players from the under-21s their chance at full level and also utilised the England ‘B’ squad as a means of assessing the talent available.

A different era
1988 was a very different era to today’s football world, with Luton Town and Wimbledon having just won the two main domestic cups. Chelsea and Manchester City would be spending 1988-89 in the Second Division (when that term still meant the second tier). International football tournaments and qualifying campaigns operated on a two points for a win basis and this was still the era of the old Czechoslovakia, USSR and Yugoslavia taking to the field. The Berlin Wall had yet to fall and the 1990 World Cup would be the final tournament East Germany and West Germany both competed in. Hopes of the ban on English clubs competing in Europe had been ended by further hooliganism in recent months, including at the European Championship. It was genuinely feared the national team could be next to pay the price for the ‘English disease’ and be given a ban from major tournaments if there was further serious disorder.

But domestically there were also moves into the modern footballing world. The summer saw some big money transfers, including Gascoigne’s £2.2 million switch from Newcastle United to Tottenham Hotspur. ITV splashed out to secure exclusive coverage of the Football League. Their deal would have particular emphasis on the ‘Big Five’ (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs) and the First Division title race. The BBC countered, striking a deal for exclusive terrestrial rights of the FA Cup and England matches. England fans would be hearing a lot from Jimmy Hill in the coming years.

Out with the old, in with (some of) the new
England’s road to recovery would appropriately begin with a clash with fellow Euro ’88 flops Denmark in a friendly at Wembley in September, an unofficial decider for the wooden spoon winner of the tournament. Old campaigners like Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher were joined by three debutants. Gascoigne and Walker came off the bench, on a night when Rocastle also made his first appearance. Luton Town’s powerful striker Mick Harford won his second and final cap in attack as Robson tried to find an alternative big man to Hateley up front, while Stuart Pearce was now first choice left-back after previously being Sansom’s understudy. Neil Webb scored the winner in a low-key atmosphere, just 25,837 showing up.

Five weeks later came a more important test as Sweden visited Wembley in the opening World Cup qualifier. It proved to be a night of frustration as England were unable to break down their opponents, for whom defender Glenn Hysen ran the show. Gary Lineker (who was hospitalised with hepatitis shortly after the Euro finals) seemed to lack the sharpness and precision that had previously made him so deadly. The goalless draw was not a good start for Robson, who now faced a long five-month wait before the next qualifier.

Getting results but not much praise
Things would get worse before 1988 was out, a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia attracting the infamous ‘In the name of Allah, Go!’ headline. Robson wouldn’t be leaving and would justifiably point out how the Saudis had managed draws with several other established football nations, but that would not wash with many critics.  The match saw Robson experiment and recognise Arsenal’s strong start to the season with first caps for Michael Thomas, Alan Smith and Brian Marwood along with David Seaman (QPR) and Mel Sterland (Sheffield Wednesday). It was clear Robson was feeling the strain and was increasingly on the defensive with most members of the media, telling BBC commentator Barry Davies he was “impertinent” the following day over his line of questioning in his post-match interview.

The press vultures seemed to be growing in number as England began 1989 with an away friendly in Greece, but mercifully Robson’s side came from behind to win 2-1 and keep their unbeaten run going. Come March, the World Cup campaign resumed with a trip into the unknown as England travelled to Albania. It wasn’t a stirring performance and England could have fallen behind, but the watching audience back home on a Wednesday afternoon could at least enjoy a 2-0 win thanks to goals from John Barnes and Bryan Robson (who shrugged off a stomach bug to play and inspire his country to victory). Lineker’s ongoing poor form prompted concern, Jimmy Hill in the London studio calling for him to be dropped for the next match.

Football pays its respects
That match would be the return at Wembley against Albania late the following month. Initially the fixture had been overshadowed by a row over the scheduling over the crunch Liverpool against Arsenal clash for TV purposes, being due to be played just three days beforehand on the Sunday afternoon much to Bobby Robson’s annoyance. But this dispute was totally put into perspective by the horrific events at Hillsborough on April 15th, which sent football into mourning. The Liverpool against Arsenal match was understandably postponed. John Barnes withdrew from the squad, but Liverpool team-mate Peter Beardsley would play.

Wembley fell silent before kick-off 11 days on from the tragedy as English football paid its respects, with the team then turning in a committed display to win 5-0 and boost their goal difference and qualification hopes. Lineker kept his place and scored his first England goal for 10 months and the night was capped by Gascoigne coming off the bench to round off the scoring with his first international goal. Not that Robson was totally satisfied with the young talent, deciding to bring him down a peg as he told Sportsnight interviewer Tony Gubba that Gascoigne had “played in every position of the pitch except the position I told him to play in”.

A chance to experiment in attack
Before the summer break, England still had four matches to play. The Hillsborough disaster meant there was a prolonged end to the league season and limited England’s squad for the Rous Cup, with Liverpool and Arsenal players all absent. The three-cornered tournament was on its last legs, with Chile as the ‘other’ side struggling to capture the public imagination in England and Scotland. Not helped by a tube strike, a record low Wembley crowd for England of 15,628 witnessed a 0-0 draw that saw Wimbledon’s John Fashanu and Nottingham Forest’s Nigel Clough win their debuts in a new-look attack. The selection of the bustling Fashanu was not universally approved and his international career would last for just two matches.

Four days later (the night after Robson had been at Anfield to witness Arsenal dramatically clinch the league title) what turned out to be the last annual Scotland against England fixture brought a 2-0 win for Robson’s men at Hampden Park, with arguably the manager’s biggest selection gamble of his England reign paying off. The powerful Steve Bull was still technically a Third Division player with Wolves, for whom he had been scoring goals for fun for the past couple of years. That potency and confidence in front of goal was on show here as he came off the bench to seal a 2-0 win, ensuring he would stay in the fray.

On June 3rd, England took a big step towards the World Cup finals by beating Poland 3-0 at Wembley. For all the talk in the build-up of the Poles’ infamous last visit in 1973 when they qualified at England’s expense, this was a comfortable win for Robson’s men as Lineker found the net before Barnes and Webb wrapped things up. After four games England led the table by two points from Sweden, who had played a game less, with Poland being cut adrift. There was still work to be done to qualify, but Robson and his players could for once walk off Wembley to genuine cheers. The season ended with a 1-1 draw away to Denmark, Lineker again scoring on a night when Peter Shilton became England’s most capped player. Although it had not been a season when England met world class opposition, the statistics would show it was their first unbeaten campaign since 1974-75.

Sweating blood for the England cause
England’s World Cup qualifying programme resumed in early September 1989. For many years the Three Lions had been hit by ‘Septemberitis’, often suffering bad results in their first international of the season. It was not an ideal time to be facing a crucial qualifier away to Sweden. A draw would edge England towards the finals, although they would not be certain of wrapping up their place there. Reports of trouble involving English followers did not lift the mood as the side prepared for a vital clash. It was a night mainly remembered for injuries: captain Bryan Robson sat it out and watched from the BBC studio with Des Lynam, Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables; Neil Webb was carried off just weeks after joining Manchester United; and most famously of all, Terry Butcher refused to let the fact he split his head open and was covered in blood put him off, as he played on as his white England shirt became increasingly red. It was another 0-0 draw, with England not sparkling but not letting themselves down either. Lineker (now back playing in England with Spurs) again spurned chances and Waddle fired wide after appearing to have done the hard work with a jinking run towards goal.

“I felt we were the better side and it was a disappointment, in the circumstances, that we did not do better,” – Bobby Robson after the 0-0 draw in Sweden.

The draw meant England still had to get something in Poland a month later to be sure of going through. A win would ensure they topped the group, a draw would take them through as one of the best second place sides. It was a big game, with an international break the weekend before the match seeing Saint & Greavsie come live from the England team hotel. Poland’s hopes of making the finals were slim. They would have to win all three remaining games and overturn a fairly substantial goal difference to finish ahead of England.

By the width of the crossbar…
It was a far from vintage display from Robson’s men and they were pretty fortunate to get the draw they needed to make it through to Italy. Shilton gave a vintage display to keep the Poles out and lay the ghost of 16 years earlier to rest, but England rarely threatened and seemed ultra-cautious at times in the hostile Katowice atmosphere. Two years earlier in Yugoslavia they had gone at their hosts early in similar circumstances to wrap up qualification when a draw would have done it; this time around they seemed to let the need for a point dominate their thoughts. Perhaps the failings of Euro ’88 still preyed on their mind. In the dying seconds Shilton was finally beaten from 30 yards out by Ryszard Tarasiewicz, the relief being palpable as the ball struck the bar and bounced away to safety. Moments later the final whistle sounded and England were there, relief rather than joy being the main emotion. But they had qualified without conceding a goal and had not lost a qualifying match for a major tournament since September 1983.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear just how close England came to not making the finals. Had they conceded that last-gasp goal to Poland, they would have been reliant on any of three results going in their favour and none did. They saw Sweden leapfrog them to top spot in their group by winning in Poland, while Denmark’s defeat to Romania and West Germany’s win over Wales would have seen England finish as the poorest of the second-place teams by virtue of having scored less goals than Denmark. As it was, they finished a point ahead of them and the Danes – so stylish at the 1986 finals – had missed out.

England could start planning for Italy and did so with a friendly against the Italians at Wembley in November. The game once more ended 0-0 but was perhaps most significant for another new face, David Platt, making his international debut en route to being a key man for England the following summer. New caps were also handed out to Dave Beasant, Nigel Winterburn and Mike Phelan. Gascoigne had still yet to fully establish himself, playing in the B international against the Italians at Brighton instead.

Before the year was out England would ominously be placed in a World Cup group with European Championship opponents Netherlands and Republic of Ireland, along with Egypt. Preparations were gathering place the finals and a rare December friendly at home to Yugoslavia brought the curtain down on the 1980s, with Tony Dorigo becoming the 17th new cap since the summer of 1988. In a decade when the Robsons symbolised the England set-up, it was perhaps appropriate it would be captain Bryan who scored twice (including a first minute effort) to give England a 2-1 victory.

England would go into the new decade off the back of a 14 match unbeaten run, having qualified for the World Cup finals and started to lay the Euro ’88 mishaps to rest. A momentous and memorable year was in store, but that’s another story…

3 thoughts on “England Qualifying Campaigns: 1990 World Cup – Robson’s slow road to redemption

    […] group had a strong echo of the qualifying process a decade earlier for Italia ’90, with Sweden in front, England at risk in second spot and the Poles the only other side capable of […]

    […] 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: […]

    […] 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 […]

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