This month in 1983, England made the long trip to Australia to play a series of friendly matches. Coming a year after the World Cup finals and at the end of a long domestic season, entertainment was at a premium. It proved a struggle for Bobby Robson’s men in a tour perhaps most notable for how unrecognisable the England team was.
A few months after England’s cricketers had returned home from Down Under minus the Ashes, it was now the turn of the nation’s footballers to head for Australia at a time when the Cricket World Cup was dominating the back pages. England were in good spirits after starting the month with a 2-0 win over Scotland at Wembley. But as on the Three Lions’ last visit for a single match in 1980, Australian soccer fans were to miss out on seeing many of the top English players in the flesh. The touring commitments of some club sides took precedence and notable absentees included captain Bryan Robson and his Manchester United colleague Ray Wilkins, Tottenham Hotspur’s Glenn Hoddle and Arsenal’s Kenny Sansom, while Liverpool’s Phil Neal and Sammy Lee joined the tour late. Watford duo John Barnes and Luther Blissett loyally flew in straight from their club’s trip to China to help boost the squad.
With the side in transition and seasoned players such as Trevor Brooking, Kevin Keegan and Mick Mills having seen time called on their international careers in the past year, Bobby Robson was left with one of the least experienced England squads in history for the three match tour. The matches would bring first caps for Mark Barham, John Gregory, Nick Pickering, Nigel Spink, Danny Thomas, Paul Walsh and Steve Williams, while Barnes and Derek Statham went on the tour with just one previous appearance to their names.
It would be nice to think that the Magnificent Seven earning their first caps would go on to enjoy long international careers, but none did. Barham, Pickering, Spink and Thomas never appeared again, while Gregory, Walsh and Williams collected just nine more caps between them. Statham would also never feature again as he failed to dislodge Sansom from the left back slot, leaving just Barnes as the one success from the new crop. British television coverage of the tour was limited, consisting of reports rather than detailed highlights or live coverage.
In his World Cup Diary book covering 1982 to 1986, Robson reflected rather ruefully on the tour. Maintaining he inherited the situation, he said the original plan had been for the first team to go to South America with the ‘B’ side heading to Australia. But the dearth of players to pick from meant England were left to just send their best available side to Australia and to leave the South American venture for a year. “I had to make all the right noises about looking at fringe players and all the rest of it,” Robson wrote. “But in truth neither I, nor England, gained anything from this long, tiring trip where we were always on a hiding to nothing against a team desperate to prove themselves worthy of full status.”
Robson appears to have not approved of the approach of Australia’s manager Frank Arok, who he felt was “looking for a place in history by beating us and Australia went into the three games as though they were life-and-death World Cup finals” while adopting a defensive strategy that he believed removed the potential entertainment for spectators. Arok’s strategy was though understandable. Although Australia had appeared at the 1974 World Cup, they had been overshadowed by New Zealand’s presence at the previous year’s finals in Spain. Claiming the scalp of the Poms – or at the very least running them close – would enhance the Socceroos’ reputation, irrespective of how under-strength England were.
it probably wasn’t too beneficial to meet the same side three times in eight days. What might have worked better would have been for England to play a match against New Zealand as part of the trip, or for another side to have toured at the same time and met both Arok and Robson’s men while there.
Bobby Robson on a tour that would not stand out as a highlight of his eight-year reign with England.
The England line-up for the opening match of the tour at Sydney Cricket Ground looks like a Fantasy Football team where most of the money was blown on a couple of players. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton was winning his 51st cap, while forward Trevor Francis was making his 38th appearance for his country. Apart from them, only defender Terry Butcher had reached double figures and four of the starting line-up were newcomers. It proved a frustrating match for England as they drew 0-0 and struggled to break down the Australian five-man defence. Robson’s side had a penalty appeal turned down when Terry Butcher appeared to be manhandled in the box, but it had been a sobering experience and boos were heard from the crowd at the end.
Before the match Robson had described the middle of the pitch as being “like a dried up river bed” but afterwards he was reflecting on the limited entertainment provided. “I’m sorry the match turned out to be no advertisement for soccer,” he told the media. “It was a disappointing spectacle with both teams to blame, and probably us a little more as we were favourites.” Arok seemed to have little concern about thrilling the crowd, declaring his side were “fantastic” and then claiming: “Entertainment was the duty of England, not us.”
Did it cross the line?
Seventeen years on from the 1966 World Cup Final, the English football public were given the chance to again ask that question of “did it cross the line?” over a goal they scored. Admittedly a friendly match in Brisbane against Australia was not something most people were getting worked up about, but Martin Tyler in his report for ITV was certainly keen to build-up the incident. Walsh scored the winner in the second half, but the debate concerned whether the ball had gone out of play before Gregory pulled it back for the Luton Town forward to net his only international goal. At least England had chalked up a win on the tour and played better, In a match that saw Neal appear at right-back after joining the party.
The final match of the tour saw Pickering and substitute Spink win their only England caps, on another day to forget for Robson’s side in Melbourne. Although Trevor Francis put them ahead during the first-half, an unchallenged Neal put through his own net shortly afterwards. There was to be some drama in the second half, as England were awarded a penalty which Francis converted. But a retake was ordered after the referee said he had not signalled for Francis to take the kick and this time the forward fired over the ball, as Australia held out for a second draw against England in three matches to Arok’s delight.
England returned home with three months to prepare before their next match – what looked like being a winner-takes-all Euro ’84 qualifier against Denmark. Gregory kept his place but it proved a black night for manager Robson, as the Danes claimed a deserved 1-0 win and went on to make the finals as England missed out. As Robson later wrote: “The trip to Australia was of limited value, and on reflection, scant preparation for the European Championships.” Australia would probably directly gain more from the series as two years later they met Scotland in the play-offs to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, but the Scots would end their dream with a 2-0 aggregate success. The Aussies had to wait until 2006 to reach the finals again.