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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 1 – Summer 1988

In the first part of a new series tracing how England went from failing to score a point at Euro ’88 to reaching the semi-finals at Italia ’90, we look back 30 years and recall what Bobby Robson would describe as “the worst summer of my life”…

In 2016 England came home to great criticism over how they had performed at the European Championship, only to go on and restore pride by reaching the semi-finals of this year’s World Cup. It was a pattern we recognised. Over the next two years we will be recapping how England recovered from a nightmare Euros in 1988 to coming so close to reaching the 1990 World Cup final, with English football dragged out of the gutter and embraced again that summer in Italy.

It’s a period that has plenty for us to dwell upon, with two characters central to proceedings. Manager Bobby Robson withstood constant – and at times very personal – press attacks to bow out as a national treasure. The run at Italia ’90 was aided by the unforgettable involvement of Paul Gascoigne, who had been uncapped in the summer of 1988 but was universally known two years later. And the 1990 World Cup would see English football at last start to move on from a dreadful 1980s in terms of off-field incidents.

But before the pleasure came the pain. In June 1988 England’s rugby union team had been beaten twice by Australia while on tour, their cricketers were getting ripped apart by the West Indies and home interest in Wimbledon was over in a matter of days. And to cap it all, England’s footballers failed like they had never failed before at a major tournament – with the nation’s yobs sparking genuine fears that the side would now be withdrawn from international competitions…

Big hopes…

Flicking through Shoot! magazine on the eve of the tournament and there is little hint that this could be a summer of doom for Robson’s men, even taking into account that the magazine would be largely read by young England fans. Amid the usual cliches about all games being tough and nobody taking anything for granted, there was a visible optimism throughout the England camp. Anything less than a semi-final spot seemed inconceivable.

“The spirit and understanding within Bobby Robson’s squad has been carefully developed during the last three or four years and we are quietly confident of the end product doing the business here,” wrote Gary Lineker. Boss Robson would state he would be “disappointed if we don’t go through to the semi-finals”. Namesake and captain Bryan Robson said: “I certainly feel we can achieve more than any other England team I’ve been part of.” They weren’t actually saying England would win it, but a place in the last four for the first time in 20 years seemed the minimal expectation.

What could possibly go wrong?

And it was not just within the England camp that their chances were being talked up. Franz Beckenbauer, manager of hosts West Germany, was rating England as a major threat, writing: “When I look at England’s strongest line-up I must admit it seems like an untouchable force.” Meanwhile, his forward Rudi Voller was speaking enviously of the service Lineker was receiving from John Barnes and Peter Beardsley.

But just before every reader put down their copy and began counting down the days until England would win the European Championship, they would get a slight realty check. In response to a letter about Barnes, columnist Jimmy Greaves would state how important it was that he and Liverpool colleague Beardsley delivered for England. “We’re going to need plenty of goals because the defence isn’t up to much,” he wrote. His words would prove sadly prophetic. A week after that edition of SHOOT! hit the shelves, England were planning for their flight home…

A rapid exit

We’ve previously recalled England’s three defeats in as many games at Euro ’88 so won’t spend too much time recapping on Robson’s men being edged out against the Republic of Ireland (0-1) and the Netherlands (1-3), before giving a pitiful display against the Soviet Union (1-3) when elimination had already been confirmed. The manager considered it the worst performance of his reign and he knew the pressure would mount.

A dreadful week was capped by disorder on the streets of Düsseldorf involving English hooligans prior to playing the Netherlands, which jeopardised the competitive future of the national team. England were not the only culprits, but the dreadful reputation that had been built up meant serious questions were now being asked over how to cure the ‘English disease’.

“The challenge is bigger than broken windows in Düsseldorf,” commented The Guardian. Sport Minister Colin Moynihan – a man who endured plenty of mockery from the football community – would criticise the FA for accepting any tickets for the tournament, but this line of thinking seemed to overlook that the trouble during the finals was on the streets far more than the terraces.

Bobby Robson feels the strain of England losing all three games.

And while answers were sought over matters off the pitch, an inquest was beginning into England’s failure on it. Various arguments were put forward, including defensive shortcomings and profligacy in front of goal; the tactics used and familiar concerns over how English players compared technically with the continent’s best; burnout from a demanding domestic season, particularly for Barnes and Beardsley; the impact of English club sides being banned from Europe (an argument that slightly contradicts the one before it in terms of how many games clubs would be playing, but it was felt English-based players were missing out by not meeting leading foreign opposition at club level); the decision to play warm-up matches against Aylesbury United and Heilbronn, rather than strong international opposition; and good old fashioned back luck.

It would be a very simplistic view to put England’s failings down just to good fortune not being on their side, but lady luck certainly wasn’t wearing an England shirt out in West Germany. England created enough chances to beat both the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands, but the ball seemed fated not to go in – never more so than when Glenn Hoddle took a free-kick against the Dutch that hit the post, rolled across the goal and stayed out. Compare that to two years later in the knockout wins over Belgium and Cameroon when key things would go England’s way and they emerged victorious in games they could – or, as plenty of observers would insist, should – have lost. It can be a game of fine margins.

England prepare to start their Euro ’88 campaign and it would be all downhill from there.

But it wasn’t just bad luck that contributed to England managing a mere two goals in three games, compared to 12 in their final two Euro ’88 qualifiers. There had been great optimism over what England’s four-pronged attack could deliver with Barnes, Beardsley, Lineker and Chris Waddle all expected to shine. But none did, Robson believing Barnes and Beardsley were spent after going full tilt at a double attempt with Liverpool, while Waddle was still returning to sharpness after an injury lay-off. Some warning signs had been there in the tournament preparations, England scoring just five goals in their last six full internationals going into the finals.

But the curiosity during the tournament was Lineker, lacking the potency of two years earlier as he missed a series of chances against the Irish. The significance of a key striker delivering was reinforced when Marco van Basten scored a hat-trick past Peter Shilton for the Dutch. Robson would soon get his answer over why Lineker had been unimpressive and complaining of not feeling right, as he was admitted to hospital with hepatitis shortly after the tournament. It would take Lineker some time to get back to his best.

At the other end of the field, pre-tournament fears about England’s defence came home to roost. Terry Butcher was out injured with a broken leg and was greatly missed, with nobody else offering his experience and leadership in the centre of defence. England’s cause was not helped by Dave Watson and Mark Wright carrying knocks as the start of the tournament approached. Wright partnered Adams for the first two games and Watson then played in the dead rubber against USSR, as the defence was breached seven times in three games and looked exposed. Adams took much of the blame, but Wright would not play for England again until April 1990 and Watson had been capped for the final time.

Bobby Robson walks off with physio Fred Street after defeat by the Netherlands.

With hindsight at least, England had been guilty of standing still. They remained resistant to adopting ‘continental’ tactical approaches – most notably the sweeper system – and retained a wish to play two wingers that often left them outnumbered in the heart of midfield.

Just six of the 20 players in the squad had not been to the World Cup two years earlier. Of those, Wright had only been absent in Mexico due to injury and fellow central defender Watson was on standby for the World Cup squad, while left back Tony Dorgio would start and end the Euros as uncapped. That left only Adams, Steve McMahon and Neil Webb as players going to the finals who had established themselves in the squad in the intervening two years (Stuart Pearce would almost certainly have been another but for injury). No chance would be taken on emerging talents such as PFA Young Player of the Year Paul Gascoigne, who was uncapped this time 30 years ago.

Gazza instead played for England under-21s as they reached the final of the Toulon Tournament in France. England’s failings meant Robson knew he would have to make personnel changes and there were players he could look at such as Gascoigne and David Rocastle. But there was also the vital question of who he would discard.

Several squad members would never be capped again under Robson, most notably the long-serving Kenny Sansom – a decision made easier for the manager by the defender losing his place at Arsenal – and Hoddle. For all his admirers who felt the team should be built around him, the gifted midfielder was regularly described as an enigma and critics would disparagingly call ‘Glenda’. They were given ammunition during the display against the Soviet Union, when he gave the ball away for the first goal.

“It is said of Glenn Hoddle that he is reluctant to play a simple pass,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian. “In Frankfurt, he refuted that by playing any number of simple passes straight to Soviet feet.” Robson, who had increasingly been using Hoddle only from the bench, would state he now had to make a decision on “whether he was a luxury, whether we could afford to play him”. The answer would become clear by Hoddle never playing another match for England.

Under pressure

For the only time England were whitewashed at a major tournament – making a nice little profit for anyone who placed a bet on it happening at odds of 40-1. Tabloid criticism had taken hold after the exit was confirmed, but the performance against the Soviet Union took things to a new level. Had England won that then Robson could have maintained that England had been unlucky. But the shambolic performance meant they would be remembered as having no points and, going forward, seemingly no hope.

There is no question that Robson was under great pressure, from the media if not his FA bosses. He wasn’t going to walk away but did raise the subject of his future with FA chairman Bert Millichip, who swiftly gave his blessing for the manager to carry on. The hooligans may have indirectly helped Robson, as their conduct meant the FA had rather more pressing concerns to deal with than being able to win football matches. Results would become almost academic if the side was taken out of the Italia ’90 qualifying process because of the hooliganism epidemic.

“I am desperately concerned that our international team is at risk. It is a subject I did not want to discuss, but I can’t avoid it now,” Millichip admitted at the time. Such an action ultimately didn’t happen, but there were still serious concerns over what the future held.

Robson took a holiday to Bermuda that summer with wife Elsie, but he would struggle to relax as the pressures of the job weighed on his mind. “That was the worst summer of my life,” he wrote two years later. With the start of the Italia ’90 qualifiers imminent, Robson knew that he would have to deliver if he was going to silence his critics after a summer to forget.

  • Next month we will focus on September 1988, when England’s post-Euro ’88 rehabilitation began with a friendly against Denmark at Wembley.

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

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