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England’s Mexico ’86 – A Robson Rollercoaster

In the latest of our recollections of previous England World Cup campaigns we turn the spotlight on the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. England would recover from a poor start to reach the quarter-finals, only for two very contrasting and unforgettable goals from Diego Maradona to end the dream…

If ever an England World Cup campaign would appear to encapsulate their general history at the tournament, it would be 1986 in Mexico. There were moments of hope and despair; there were injury concerns over a star player; there would be the challenge of playing in a warm climate at the end of a long domestic season; there was an England player in his first World Cup who shot to international stardom; there was a very controversial moment during a vital match; and England exited, as so often, in the quarter-finals.

It was to be Bobby Robson’s first major tournament as England manager, having failed to qualify for Euro ’84 but then been unbeaten en route to Mexico. The turning point in his reign had been the famous win in Brazil in 1984, but he was still not without his critics and the World Cup would represent the acid test of his abilities – particularly as it would take place in such a different climate to back home.

England had gained some insight into what they would experience in terms of heat and altitude by going to Mexico in June 1985 for a series of games and in December Robson returned there for the draw. England were not seeded and would be the last of the 24 sides drawn out. In an era when draw pots were based upon pedigree rather than geography, England came perilously close to being placed in a mouthwatering group with fellow Europeans West Germany, Denmark and Scotland. But to Robson’s relief it was Uruguay who were pulled out in that section, meaning England were in Group F with Poland, Portugal and Morocco.

Although England would not have chosen to be based in Monterrey  – the low altitude would potentially make it difficult to adjust later in the competition should England play elsewhere, while the stadia they would play at was not considered the best – they knew they could have had it far tougher than this. They had avoided top sides such as Brazil and each group game would kick-off at 4pm (Mexican time), where the conditions would be preferable to the alternative of noon starts in blistering heat. The downside to the match timings was that back home they would not begin until the late time of 11pm due to the time difference.

Poland had taken third place at the World Cups of both 1974 and 1982, but were considered one of the weakest top seeds. Portugal had reached the semi-final of Euro ’84 and then beaten West Germany during World Cup qualifying, but their defensive record en route to Mexico suggested they were suspect and it would be their first World Cup since their Eusebio-inspired run to the semi-finals in 1966. And Morocco would be the unknown quantity, having the most limited World Cup pedigree of the four sides in the group but keen to build upon the African impact of 1982 when Algeria and Cameroon both came close to getting into the second round at the expense of prominent football nations. A big difference this time around was it wasn’t just the top two who would go through, as the best four third place sides would advance to the next round – which would now be played on a knockout basis.

As soon as the draw finished, Robson was heading off to Monterrey to secure England’s accommodation. The different climate meant this was a World Cup where preparation would be key, but Robson would face difficulties along the way. He could not bring the FA Cup final date forward from May 10, just three weeks before the tournament began and after England would start their preparations in Colorado. Despite being virtually neighbours he was unable to arrange a meeting with Sir Alf Ramsey so he could learn from his experiences of managing England at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico (the pair offered differing accounts of why it did not take place, but Robson was then left fuming as Ramsey criticised some of his England team selections in a newspaper article). And just at the point when England could least afford them, the injuries struck.

Mark Wright, who had begun to establish himself at centre back, was ruled out of the tournament after breaking his leg in the FA Cup semi-final between Southampton and Liverpool. But this was overshadowed by the concerns over captain Bryan Robson, who had endured an injury-plagued spell that culminated in him dislocating his shoulder in March 1986 for the second time in just over a year. His World Cup participation was in doubt and it was a big blow, not least to his England manager and namesake who revered the tenacity and contribution of his captain.

Bobby Robson would try and persuade Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson to let their mutual skipper undergo an operation that would enable the shoulder to be repaired in time for the finals. But the power was in the club’s hands and with United paying the player’s wages and still in with a chance of the title, it was little surprise Atkinson rejected the request. England were now left hoping and praying Robson would make it to Mexico.

Although severe doubts over his fitness persisted, Robson duly took his place in the squad – one of just seven England players heading to Mexico who had been in the 1982 World Cup party. Much had changed over the course of four years, with most of the ‘Dad’s Army’ players Bobby Robson inherited from Ron Greenwood having left the international stage and been replaced by a younger group. The days of Admiral kits were also long gone, England now donning an Umbro strip.

England may not have been widely touted as a favourite to win the World Cup in the way the likes of Brazil were, but they were in a group of decent sides who couldn’t be discounted and would expect at the very least reach to the latter stages. They were also going into the finals having not lost for almost a year, with a friendly win away to the Soviet Union in March being a standout result.

While the foreign presence on these shores was nothing like it is today, even back then Bobby Robson would struggle to find many English players to select from certain top clubs. Liverpool’s double winning side had such a strong celtic influence – plus the odd overseas import – that no members of England’s squad were with them at the time, while third choice goalkeeper Gary Bailey was the only Manchester United player on the plane besides Bryan Robson. But at a resurgent Everton there was a greater English presence, with Peter Reid, Trevor Steven, Gary Stevens and leading domestic scorer Gary Lineker all part of Bobby Robson’s squad.

England spent time adjusting to the heat and altitude before the finals, continuing their good form by beating Mexico 3-0 in Los Angeles and Canada 1-0 in Vancouver. Mark Hateley scored in both games to effectively clinch his place in the side for the start of the World Cup, but there were concerns for strike partner Lineker after he went off against Canada with a wrist injury. “It was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced. I thought my World Cup was over,” he told FourFourTwo in 2014. Mercifully it turned out only to be a small fracture and he was free to play, although he would sport a cast on his wrist during the finals.

It happened in Monterrey

After all the build-up, England finally began their World Cup campaign against Portugal in Monterrey on June 3. Peter Shilton was unsurprisingly picked in goal, with Everton’s Gary Stevens at right back and regular left back Kenny Sansom also selected. The two Terrys – Butcher and Fenwick – would play in the centre of defence. Bryan Robson, Glenn Hoddle and Ray Wilkins were in midfield, accompanied by a natural winger in Chris Waddle as Hateley partnered Lineker up front.

In a match that bore strong parallels with England’s opening game of Euro ’88 two years later against the Republic of Ireland, they created but failed to take their chances and were punished for a defensive lapse. Lineker, who had been feeling unwell, might on another day have scored a hat-trick as his predatory instincts deserted him – most notably when he failed to turn the ball home from close range after a great run by Waddle. It seemed as though England would have to settle for a 0-0 draw, only for things to suddenly get much worse 14 minutes from time. Miranda Diamantino went on a run down the right flank and surprisingly turned Sansom. He crossed the ball for Carlos Manuel, who had been left unmarked and converted from close range with England defenders caught out of position.

It had come against the run of play, but Portugal had gained revenge for their semi-final defeat in 1966 and were looking good for a place in the next round. They could have scored another, even Bobby Robson admitting it looked like Fenwick had fouled Paulo Futre in the area with a challenge that went unpunished. England’s tournament hopes were far from over, but it meant they could not afford to slip up again.

Their first defeat for almost a year had come at the wrong time and the manner of the Portuguese goal would rankle with manager Robson. “All of our back four were at fault. If any one of them had played it correctly we would not have conceded that first goal,” he wrote in his World Cup Diary. Although England had not been great, they had played well enough that ordinarily they would have got a result. But critics such as Emlyn Hughes, a man who frequently incurred Robson’s wrath with his comments during this period, would not be offering much sympathy. “We’ve been beaten by a very poor Portuguese side,” he damningly declared during analysis on the BBC, as he took England’s defending to task.

There was a gap of just three days before England’s next game, when they met Morocco in front of a crowd of just over 20,000. The Moroccans had drawn 0-0 with Poland in their opening game and were unlikely to be a pushover in the stifling heat. Bobby Robson fielded an unchanged side, but as the break beckoned his plans were infamously thrown into disarray. There had been concerns over Bryan Robson when he went down against Portugal, but he had got up and played on. But when he played the ball past Morocco’s Mustapha El-Biyaz in the penalty area his tournament was brought to an abrupt halt, as he fell down and this time didn’t get up.

He wrote in his autobiography: “As I went past him he grabbed me by the right shoulder and pulled me back. I fell in agony. The shoulder had come out again. Everybody thought it was the fall that did the damage but it wasn’t, it was their player pulling my shoulder… I was led away, clutching my shoulder, and the tears were of frustration and annoyance as much as pain.”

Robson was helped off and made way for Steve Hodge, but within minutes England’s woes deepened when Ray Wilkins controversially received a second yellow card over how he threw the ball back towards the referee. Whether the dismissal was merited or not, England’s World Cup was turning into disaster and they had lost their captain and vice-captain in a matter of minutes during a goalless first half.

A defeat would see England staring elimination in the face and represent a major scalp for Morocco. Yet despite their numerical advantage the Moroccans seemed to retreat during the second half and become fearful of losing, as England were able to settle and see out a fogettable goalless draw with Tottenham’s Gary Stevens replacing Hateley in the closing minutes (“there’s only two Gary Stevens,” would be amusingly chanted) as Bobby Robson tightened things up. But even though they had coped with 10 men, criticism would come England’s way for their overall performance, their failure to beat Morocco and the fact they had yet to score. Chants calling for the manager’s departure could be heard from a section of the support.

Bobby Robson was now left to reassess his options with Wilkins suspended and Bryan Robson injured, both ultimately playing no further games in the competition. As the nation slumped off to bed, ITV pundit Mike Channon offered a ray of hope as he expressed his belief that the enforced changes could be to England’s advantage five days later against Poland. “I think they’ll probably go and play a lot better,” he predicted, correctly anticipating Hodge and Peter Reid – who had been contending with injury problems of his own – would come into the starting XI and Hoddle could thrive. But the boss was looking at making other changes, dropping Waddle to the bench and picking Trevor Steven instead as the side’s shape was altered.

The turning point

In attack the manager was also left to make a change, with the partnership between Hateley and Lineker having yet to bear fruit. Lineker had been in potent form for Everton but had not scored for England since the previous October. He would later admit that his lifelong dream of playing in the World Cup was turning into a big letdown, with the side playing in intense heat before low crowds on poor quality pitches and both his personal and the team’s form being disappointing. The inventive Peter Beardsley would come into the side and Robson opted to drop Hateley. Lineker knew it could easily have been him.

Poland had beaten Portugal 1-0 in their second game, meaning just two goals had been scored in the opening four games in the group. England knew a win was needed to guarantee qualification but, depending upon other results, a scenario even existed whereby they could possibly sneak through in third place without scoring a goal if they drew 0-0. But as with their most recent meeting with Poland in 1973, England knew they had to deliver or their World Cup dream would be over.

They started nervously and could have fallen behind in the opening minutes, but then it all clicked together and the selections paid off. Lineker netted a first half hat-trick, the first two coming after impressive team moves in which England’s creativity and movement seemed so much more assured than in the previous two games. In 45 minutes England, who also had a Hodge goal disallowed, had gone from facing the trip home to virtually sealing their place in the next round. In scorching conditions England did the correct thing after the break in seeing out the game and the 3-0 win. Fans jubilantly did the conga in the stadium, while millions back home celebrated. The relief was etched on Robson’s face.

Lineker strikes again

Morocco beat Portugal to surprisingly clinch top spot and send the Portuguese home. But finishing second was to England’s advantage. Morocco’s ‘reward’ for topping the group was a meeting with West Germany, while third place Poland would play Brazil. England would meet Paraguay, generally regarded as the weakest of the South American sides in Mexico. Although England would have to decamp to Mexico City, adapt to higher altitude and face a noon kick-off, they would also enjoy the benefit of a week’s rest before the game.

If Monterrey had seemed a bit cut off from the heart of the World Cup given the low attendances, then Mexico City – which was recovering from a devastating earthquake the previous year – would be the opposite with England to be based there for as long as they remained in the tournament. The Azteca Stadium had seemed futuristic during the 1970 World Cup and remained the nation’s top football venue – although complaints would be aired about the quality of the pitch – with almost 100,000 fans showing up for the Paraguay match. There was a new-found buoyancy surrounding England and the only change from the previous week was Alvin Martin replacing the suspended Fenwick.

Again England did not start well and Shilton was twice called upon to prevent Paraguay forging ahead – one of them after a dreadful back pass by Butcher. They took advantage of the let-off to gain the lead moments later, Lineker turning the ball home from Hodge’s assist.

The impetus was now with England and on 56 minutes they scored their only goal in the tournament that was not converted by Lineker. Beardsley netted a Lineker-esque goal from close range while his strike partner was off the field after taking a whack to the throat. He recovered to wrap up the 3-0 win as he converted following good work by Hoddle and Stevens (the Spurs version, who had come on for Reid).

It perhaps wouldn’t stick in the memory as much as the Poland game, but the victory was as clinical and the odds for England to win the World Cup were shortening. But next up was a major test – against Argentina and Diego Maradona.

Don’t mention the war

The clash would take place 20 years to the round since England’s quarter-final success over Argentina at Wembley, in which Antonio Rattin was controversially dismissed. But any talk of Argentina seeking revenge for that was nothing compared to the line many journalists were pursuing.

The match would take place just four years on from the Falklands War. Questions would continually be asked about the diplomatic situation and Bobby Robson was in no mood to play ball. “Don’t waste time on questions like that,” he angrily told one reporter during a press conference, threatening to bring it to a halt if the line of questioning continued.

But even taking the Falklands context out of the game it was still going be a big occasion, millions back home planning to tune in for the 7pm kick-off (BST) on a Sunday night and seeing how England contended with Maradona. When the sides had last met in a friendly in 1980 he had looked a precocious talent, almost scoring a magnificent goal. Now widely regarded as the greatest player in the world, he was central to Argentina’s plans. If England could control him they would have every chance.

There was plenty of hype surrounding the fixture, but there are reminders that this was a simpler time in many respects. Robson would receive phone calls in his hotel room from members of the public wishing him well; upon arrival in Mexico City some English players endured a sleepless night as the hotel they initially stayed at was next to a busy road; and on the eve of the Argentina game the England squad endured a farcical situation as they were refused permission to train at the Azteca and a lock picker had to be found so they could gain entry to the nearby Atlantic Stadium, the players having to change on the pitch. And this was the day before the biggest game England had played for years!

Fenwick came back in for Martin, but otherwise the England side would be unchanged and it was becoming increasingly familiar. Robson opted against a man-marking policy on Maradona. “I hardly needed to warn them about Maradona but told them not to have a phobia about him,” he wrote.

By half-time there was little to report. Fenwick received an early booking for hacking down Maradona, while a rare England opportunity saw Beardsley find the angle too acute to hit the target. But as the sides left the field it was fair to say the match was not living up to the hype.

But the second half most certainly would though and it has been constantly recalled over the ensuing 32 years. As is well known, Maradona would undo England with both his hand and feet, before John Barnes came on for the first time in the tournament and put over two brilliant crosses for Lineker – one converted, the other somehow kept out in the closing minutes. England were beaten 2-1 and out of the World Cup, Reid recounting in his autobiography how tempers boiled over as the players made their way to the dressing rooms. He wrote: “All hell broke loose, it was absolute mayhem.”

Mutual respect between the sides and fans had been limited and that would become even more apparent after Maradona’s opener. A language barrier failed to prevent Butcher confronting him about it, Maradona insisting it was scored with his head. Later he would become somewhat more committal about his actions, knowing exactly what he had done. “Whoever robs a thief gets a 100-year pardon,” he said, the context of his comments being fairly clear.

That goal would be the major talking point afterwards as the Hand of God term soon became universally applied. Most fingers of blame at the time were pointed towards Maradona for committing such an act and getting away with it, but others took criticism too. The Tunisian referee Ali Bennaceur came under fire for not ruling it out, with some critics including Robson believing he should not have been handed such a major match. Also taking criticism was Hodge for slicing the ball back to put England in trouble, while Shilton increasingly with the passage of time takes stick for being outjumped by a smaller man.

We all know what’s coming when we see it now, but at the time there was a lot of confusion. BBC commentator Barry Davies failed to spot the use of the hand and wrongly concluded it must be offside that England’s players were protesting about. Back in the London studio, Hughes also admitted he had initially thought the ball was headed. But others saw things more clearly. Bobby Robson wrote: “I immediately knew it was a handball and I waited for the officials to sort it out.”

He would be left flabbergasted by the goal being given and his anguish would grow when Maradona scored his unforgettable second minutes later as he weaved his way through opponents. But even Robson would admire the strike, writing: “There was no lack of discipline on our part, no errors, just the genius of one player who went through half our team to score the best goal of the competition so far.”

One thing that’s often forgotten amid the Hand of God obsession is that England came in for some criticism at the time for how they played, having offered little in attack until the cameo appearance of Barnes. BBC pundit Terry Venables would recognise that the comeback started too late, saying: “It’s like the boxer who waits until he gets hit on the chin until he fights back and if the other guy fights better than him he doesn’t get back.” SHOOT! magazine provided surprising support for Maradona under the headline of ‘Don’t Blame Diego!’, writing: “England went out on an error – but it was bigger than Maradona’s hand. It was their own negative approach – not a shot on target for nearly an hour. Only when two down did they really try to win.”

The fact that England would have played Belgium in the semi-final added to the sense of what might have been. The England squad headed home, many of them having experienced different tournaments to that expected beforehand. Players such as Beardsley, Hodge, Reid and Steven had now established themselves in the side, while Shilton found himself wearing the captain’s armband due to the loss of Wilkins and Bryan Robson.

Whereas Robson remained captain over the next four years, for Wilkins his sending off against Morocco marked the beginning of the end. Bobby Robson insisted in his book that Wilkins was still firmly in his plans but he would pick him just twice more, his eyes having been opened to other options in midfield.

Hateley had fallen from first choice forward to backup after Beardsley’s emergence, but for Lineker the World Cup represented a life-changing experience. Although he was already a household name in England thanks to his goalscoring exploits, the tournament elevated him to global stardom and he would soon make a big money move to Barcelona. His six goals meant he occupied top spot in the scoring chart and he faced an anxious wait to discover if he would finish as Golden Boot winner. On the night of the final he was in his future natural habitat of the BBC studio, as Argentina won but Maradona failed to score. For the only time in World Cup history, an England player was top scorer.

It represented some consolation for Bobby Robson, who remained out in Mexico for the remainder of the tournament and was left wondering what might have been as he made his way to the Azteca Stadium for the final. England would not return home as heroes as they did four years later, but nor were they viewed as failures. It was probably comparable with their record at the 1982 tournament in Spain and they had realistically reached par, enjoying two comprehensive victories while out in Mexico. In keeping with Robson’s reign, it was a rollercoaster where England experienced highs and lows.

The lasting memory though would be that second half against Argentina, when Maradona’s hand and feet ended their dream…

  • For a more detailed look back at Bryan Robson’s injury woes in 1986, see here.

englandmemories View All

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

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