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When the Football League took on the world…

On this weekend in 1987 Bobby Robson was in charge of the home team at Wembley with Bryan Robson captaining it. For once though they weren’t leading England but a Football League XI. To mark the start of the League’s centenary season, the team faced the Rest of the World in a celebration match. As a slight diversion from our usual looks back at past England fortunes, we today recall the start of the seemingly never-ending centenary celebrations.


A couple of months after It’s a Royal Knockout was screened, the Football League seemed to be trying its best to go one better with this multi-cast farce known as the Mercantile Credit Centenary Classic on August 8, 1987. It was played the week before the start of the league season, meaning the Charity Shield had to be moved and played on the unusually early date of August 1; there was a great hoo-ha over whether Diego Maradona would turn up and play, eventually doing so for a reported £100,000 (an extortionate fee at the time); Wembley was far from full with a crowd of 61,000, many stayaways not willing to pay the hefty ticket prices for a match being shown live on ITV; there was a never-ending series of 13 substitutions, rendering the match almost meaningless as a serious contest; and the Football League celebrations just seemed to go on and on after this.

‘The 100 years bore’ was one headline about the laborious centenary celebrations. It wasn’t until 14 months later when Arsenal beat Manchester United at Villa Park to win the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy that the Football League’s party finally ended, having attracted a fair bit of criticism along the way (most notably for the centenary festival tournament at Wembley in April 1988). And in many ways it was the beginning of a long goodbye for the 92-club Football League as we knew it then, given the Premier League breakaway would follow as soon as 1992. 

The strong English presence

Until the early 2000s August was a dead month for international football so far as England were concerned, so this was about as close as they came with Robson and Robson leading the charge. There were seven Englishmen in the Football League starting line-up, with Neil Webb the only uncapped player. Players to come off the bench included further uncapped Englishmen in Arsenal’s Alan Smith and Coventry City goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic, the latter never going on to appear at full level for his country. The Football League had just one player hailing from outside the British Isles in the side, namely Argentina’s Ossie Ardiles who replaced Webb in the closing stages. How different things would be if a Premier League team played in such a fixture now!

Terry Venables was in charge of the Rest of the World team, but he did come across some problems trying to get clubs to release players. AC Milan’s newly-signed Dutch duo of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit were absent, along with Rangers defender Terry Butcher – who was not given permission to play despite being suspended for his club’s opening match of the season on the same day. The match would carry some obvious similarities with how the FA had marked its centenary 24 years earlier, when England beat the Rest of the World 2-1.

One player Venables was not going to struggle to get to play was his Barcelona forward Gary Lineker, who took his place as the sole Englishman in the visiting line-up. While most of the focus was on Maradona’s presence, there was also a welcome appearance for French star Michel Platini at the very end of his playing career. He had never played at Wembley and neither had the guest of honour at the event – Brazilian legend Pele. His compatriot Josimar, who had shone at the previous year’s World Cup but would soon slide into obscurity, took his place in the starting line-up. The lengthy cast of other players to feature for the visitors included Sweden’s future Liverpool defender Glenn Hysen, Portugal’s Paulo Futre, USSR goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev and his international team-mate and the reigning European Footballer of the Year, Igor Belanov.


Caption competition time over what Pele is saying about Diego Maradona!

With the plethora of substitutions, the ‘exhibition’ nature of the match and the fact some overseas players were some way off starting their new season, it was difficult to view this as a serious clash. In The Observer match report the following day, reporter Frank McGhee criticised the multi substitutions and the impact they had on the occasion. “The organisers seemed so intent on massaging the egos of every player chosen for the squads that they entirely lost sight of the original purpose of the game – to entertain the crowd and the alleged one billion television viewers around the world,” he wrote.

Perhaps the main talking point was the constant booing of Maradona, 14 months after the Hand of God. Venables had urged fans to clap Maradona rather than boo him, but the reality was unsurprisingly different. Some saw it merely as the jeering of a pantomime villain, but others found it more sinister and felt it painted a poor image of the English nation. The following Monday’s opinion column in the Daily Express condemned the “yobbish behaviour of fans” and feared it could prolong the ban on English clubs from European competition. “Their behaviour was televised worldwide, which will confirm the impression that our stadiums are disgraced by morons hardly able to remember all the words of Here We Go,” they added. Football writer Steve Curry made reference to Maradona being “tediously jeered each time he touched the ball”, expressing his belief a better spectacle may have been enjoyed had the match been played in late September when players were back to full fitness.

Robson delights Robson

It was a good day for Manchester United players. Defender Paul McGrath had a decent game, while his mate Norman Whiteside came off the bench to put the Football League 2-0 up in the second half. That goal came either side of two strikes from their club captain Bryan Robson, who showed his trademark goal scoring instincts from midfield in the 3-0 success. Arsenal and England left-back Kenny Sansom added creativity and was involved in the first two goals, while Northern Irishman John McClelland, of Watford, was an unlikely star with some vital clearances. If taken literally at face value (which few were doing), then the Football League had proved itself to be three goals better than the rest of the world combined. “We should all be delighted with the way the afternoon has gone for English football,” said Bobby Robson afterwards. The performance of Webb did not go unnoticed and he would make his England debut the following month, as Robson returned to the day job of leading England to the Euro ’88 finals.

But not before he had expressed consternation about the continued questioning after the centenary mach about Maradona and his big payday, rather than the Football League winning the game. “I don’t believe it. If we had been beaten 3-0 the knives would have been out. Because we have won no one seems the slightest bit interested,” he moaned, as he once more had cause to resent the press. 

It wasn’t the last time words to the effect that “no one seems the slightest bit interested” would be heard regarding the Football League centenary celebrations. 


If every picture tells a story, then this one shows just how many players were given the chance to get a game.

englandmemories View All

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

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