Thirty years ago today England met Israel for the first time in a friendly in Tel Aviv. England’s performance won few plaudits, but their 2-1 victory included the winner of the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition for 1985-86 – a volley by captain Bryan Robson. It provided a rare moment of joy for the player during a difficult few months…
England were having a busy few months preparing for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, playing at least one match in every calendar month from January to May. But the selection of the first two friendlies drew criticism and raised questions about their merit. In January England beat Egypt 4-0 in Cairo and the following month they travelled to Tel Aviv to take on Israel.
One of manager Bobby Robson’s arch-critics, Emlyn Hughes, slammed the decision to play Egypt and was also scathing about the Israel match. “There’s another joke trip lined up next month when England go to Israel. We won’t learn anything from that match either and by the time Mexico comes round everyone will be burned out,” he argued.
Israel welcome England in February 1986.
But for the England manager the match carried value. Writing in his 1986 World Cup Diary, Robson explained why Israel were chosen as opponents: “The reasons why we had picked Israel were that we were sure the weather in Tel Aviv would not hinder our preparations, that our fans would not be so stupid as to cause trouble over there and that we were reasonably confident that we would win. It was the sort of game a club manager likes to undertake pre-season against teams whom he knows will provide a test but are the sort of opposition where the club can play and enjoy their football.”
The first reason Robson gave for the choice of match would prove good thinking, given Britain endured bad weather in February 1986. The second was a sad indictment of how serious the hooligan problem had become for England. And the third reason given would quickly be put to the test, as England found their hosts looking to pull off a surprise victory.
The two Robsons
Bryan Robson (left) and Bobby Robson.
Much of the 1980s was all about the Robsons so far as England were concerned, with Bobby managing the team and namesake Bryan being his captain and inspiration in the heart of the midfield. The 1985-86 season was proving bitter-sweet for the player. He had helped Manchester United win their opening 10 league games and secured early qualification for the World Cup with England. But he had gone off injured during England’s win against Turkey in October, been sent-off playing for United in the FA Cup at Sunderland, seen his team’s title dream start to fade and then he sustained another injury against West Ham United in a league game in early February. Thankfully he was fit in time to play for England against Israel, but he went into the match with limited recent gametime under his belt.
Manager Robson fielded a strong side but England did not produce a good display in the first half, going in 1-0 down at half-time after an early breakaway goal by Eli Ohana that raised concerns about English defending. A dog running on the field was to be the most memorable sight for English viewers during the first half!
Six minutes after the break came the game’s turning point. Glenn Hoddle floated a lovely ball across to captain Robson, who scored with a delightful volley from the edge of the box. “It was a goal that would have graced the World Cup Final itself,” proclaimed England’s manager.
Bryan Robson volleys England level.
Barry Davies, commentating for live BBC coverage, was for once not in wordsmith mode. “Robson…yes….” was the rather low-key commentary of the goal, perhaps reflecting the fact it was only a friendly and Davies was unimpressed with England’s display. The celebrations were also muted, Robson settling for 1950s style handshakes with team-mates before making his way back to the centre circle.
But it proved sufficient to win the BBC Goal of the Season award, the only time an England goal has clinched the accolade (goals scored in major tournaments automatically miss out due to taking place after the voting finishes). Robson’s cause in winning the award was helped by the Football League TV blackout in the first half of the 1985-86 season, limiting the number of goals to choose from. It was perhaps not as well remembered as some other goals he scored for his country, but it was an excellent finish to win him an honour he missed out on the previous season for his volleyed goal against East Germany.
Coping without the captain
Bryan Robson’s World Cup ends prematurely.
As with Kevin Keegan in 1982, David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006, the back pages became dominated by a key England player’s bid to be fit for the World Cup. Robson won his battle to be fit enough to be in the squad for the finals, but concerns still lingered about the shoulder. Sure enough, in the second game against Morocco he went off with his arm in a sling.
It was a sad sight, as England were left to try and stay in the tournament without their captain and star man. But ultimately they would prove they could survive without Robson, going on to reach the quarter-finals. At the age of 28, the World Cup in Mexico should have been the ideal time for Robson to shine on the world stage and repeat moments such as the goal against Israel. But his injury curse had struck again at the worst possible time for him.