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England’s Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’88: Peaking Too Soon

In the latest look back at past England qualifying campaigns for major tournaments, we recall their road to the 1988 European Championship in West Germany. Bobby Robson’s side looked awesome at times in sealing their place and ended with a tremendous qualifying record. What a shame that form wasn’t carried over into the finals tournament…

After the drama and controvery of Mexico ’86, England could look forward to the rest of the 1980s with hope with a relatively young squad. Unlike after the previous World Cup, this time around virtually all the squad would stay in contention for a place and there would be few changes in personnel as thoughts turned to seeking to reach West Germany. Ray Wilkins would soon see time called on his England career, but he was still involved as the qualifying campaign got under way.

England’s very presence in the qualifying campaign had initially been in doubt, with it feared the ban on English clubs in Europe would spread to the national team. But in October 1985 they were given the green light by UEFA to participate. Having failed to reach Euro ’84 (albeit after losing out to an excellent Denmark side), the minimum requirement would be to get through this time. But by now the fear of what English hooligans would do on foreign soil was such that when a qualifying draw was made attention was as much about avoiding serious trouble as having an easy ride on the field.

Draw Delight

Bobby Robson was on a skiing holiday when the draw was made on Valentine’s Day 1986, but he could barely hide his pleasure at being in a group with Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Turkey – teams they would be expected to finish above and where trouble would hopefully be avoided. “Overall I am delighted that we will be able to concentrate on our football,” said Robson.

Both Northern Ireland and Turkey had been in England’s qualifying group for Mexico ’86, with neither managing to score against them and the Turks conceding 13 goals in the two games. The Northern Irish had enjoyed an excellent decade so far, but Billy Bingham faced a rebuilding exercise with players such as Pat Jennings having bowed out and limited quality available to replace them. Probably the biggest threat to England’s place in the finals came from Yugoslavia, who had failed to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico but had made it to Spain ’82 and France ’84. Only the top team would progress.

A strong start

England’s first match of the 1986-87 season brought a 1-0 friendly defeat to Sweden but the serious stuff begian a month later as Northern Ireland came to Wembley for the opening qualifier. There was a clearer gulf between the sides than in the World Cup qualifying campaign and far less public interest, as just over 35,000 were there to see it. Billy Bingham had rather oddly chosen to get married on the day of the game, before seeing his side lose 3-0. Now playing for Barcelona, World Cup top scorer Gary Lineker scored twice including a delicious chip to leave manager Robson proclaiming he was the best striker in the world. Given the form he was in, it was hard to argue with that claim at this point.

A month later, England made it two home wins out of two as Yugoslavia visited Wembley. Despite having to field a makeshift defence with goalkeeper Chris Woods earning a rare cap in a competitive match and Gary Mabbutt back in the side after a three-year absence, England emerged triumphant in a physical contest. Mabbutt scored a superb header before Viv Anderson completed the 2-0 win, in a match beat remembered for Glenn Hoddle having his head bandaged after a clash of heads with Steve Hodge. It hadn’t been easy, but England had made a superb start to the campaign. 

However, Bobby Robson was left to defend the reputation of his side after they were labelled “too aggressive” by opposite number Ivica Osim, who was angry after his player Semir Tuce sustained a suspected broken leg. “We were hard and competitive, but never malicious or brutal,” retorted Robson, who would now have a three-month break before leading his side into battle again.
Friendly Fire


England started 1987 with a memorable 4-2 friendly win away to Spain in Madrid, with Lineker scoring all four and Arsenal defender Tony Adams becoming the first player born after the 1966 World Cup to win a full England cap. It made for a happy 54th birthday for Bobby Robson, who had turned things round from a tough start in the job.

April Fool’s Day brought a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast to preserve the 100% qualifying record, with Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle scoring. The month ended with another qualifier and the first disappointment, as England looked uninspiring away to Turkey. England had won 8-0 on their previous visit in 1984 but this time around they couldn’t manage one goal, as the hosts achieved a moral victory.  Clive Allen had been in prolific form for Tottenham Hotspur with almost 50 goals to his name during the season and he earned an England recall. But a disallowed effort was as close as he or anyone else would come to getting on the scoresheet in the goalless draw. To make things worse, Yugoslavia won in Northern Ireland on the same day to keep the pressure on. 

Pearce and Webb Join the Party

Mercifully there was no long-distance end of season tour in 1987, with England drawing Rous Cup matches with Brazil and Scotland as Stuart Pearce emerged as a a good rival for Kenny Sansom’s left back spot.

After a break of more than three months, England returned to action with a friendly trip to West Germany. The Euro ’88 hosts laid down a warning for the finals with a 3-1 win as the Three Lions again had a bout of ‘Septemberitis’ and started the season with a loss. The night was most notable for substitute Neil Webb becoming the 1,000th player to win an England cap. Almost inevitably not all the headlines concerned matters on the field, with reports of hooligans fighting on the streets of Dusseldorf doing nothing for the nation’s reputation while the European club ban remained in place.

Stuffing the Turkey


In October England’s qualifying campaign resumed as Turkey visited Wembley. Determined to avoid a repeat of the frustration in the away game, England went at their opponents from the off and led 2-0 within 10 minutes. They refused to take their foot off the gas and ended up repeating their 8-0 win over the Turks in 1984. Gary Lineker netted a hat-trick, with John Barnes (2), Bryan Robson, Peter Beardsley and Neil Webb also on target in the rout. Barnes and Beardsley had moved to Liverpool in the summer and were helping their new club romp towards the league title in style, with that swagger and confidence seeming to be successfully carried through into the England set-up. 

It had been a great night, but was tinged with disappointment as Yugoslavia beat Northern Ireland 3-0 to leave England still not certain of their finals place. It would now boil down to their final match in the group – their toughest-looking one away to the Yugoslavs on November 11. If England won or drew they would definitely qualify, but if they lost then they would be left clinging to the slim hope that Turkey could get a result against Yugoslavia in the final match in the group.

A perfect 25 minutes

ITV showed England’s match in Yugoslavia live on a Wednesday afternoon and those lucky viewers who were home in time from school or work watched in amazement as Bobby Robson’s men ran riot. There would have been an understandable temptation to keep it tight and settle for a draw, but Robson called it right by getting his side to go for the kill from the off. In the opening 25 minutes Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams all found the net to put England 4-0 up on a filthy day of weather in Belgrade. In a match containing similarities with England’s 3-0 win over Poland in the previous year’s World Cup the contest was settled by half-time, with the one disappointment being Yugoslavia ending the Three Lions’ perfect record of clean sheets in the group with a late consolation. 

But the 4-1 victory was a great cause for celebration back home, as England atoned for missing out four years earlier by making it in style this time. “I had to pinch myself when the third and fourth goals in,” said a delighted Bobby Robson afterwards. The manager had gone into the game knowing he could have lost his job had England failed to make it, now there was expectation the competition could be won. Since that defeat by Denmark in September 1983, England were unbeaten in qualifying matches which was a good measure of their consistency.

Having qualified with a record of five wins and a draw from six matches and a record of 19 goals scored and one conceded, there was a belief England could go on and lift their first major silverware since 1966. They had looked awesome and full of confidence when thrashing Turkey and Yugoslavia. But typically the euphoria didn’t last long. Within a couple of days of qualification being secured, newspaper stories suggested England could be withdrawn from the tournament if the hooligans struck again. And just six days after the Yugoslavia match, key defender Terry Butcher suffered an injury playing for Rangers that would rule him out of Euro ’88.

It was the start of a slow descent from heroes to zeroes for England, that would see their potency in qualifying evaporate and the tournament prove a nightmare for Bobby Robson…

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Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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