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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 2 – September 1988

In the second part of our series covering events 30 years ago as England went from failing to earn a point at Euro ’88 to reaching the Italia ’90 semi-finals, we look back to September 1988 and a friendly against Denmark…

Turn the clock back 30 years this month and the English football landscape looked rather different. Liverpool had been league champions in 10 of the last 16 seasons; Luton Town and Wimbledon were the holders of the two main domestic cup competitions; and Chelsea and Manchester City were both playing in the Second Division.

But as with now, there were suggestions far too much money was being spent in the game. ITV had secured exclusive rights to the Football League in a deal worth £11 million per year. That and the biggest transfer fees paid that summer may seem like pocket money compared to today, but at the time it was considered a major outlay if clubs were forking out £2m on a player – as was happening at the top level.

One of the most high-profile moves concerned Paul Gascoigne, who opted to join Tottenham Hotspur rather than Manchester United as he left Newcastle United. The PFA young player of the year had gained many admirers but had yet to win a full England cap. But now all that was about to change. England were returning to action after losing all three games at Euro ’88 with a Wembley friendly against Denmark on September 14 and Bobby Robson named Gascoigne in his squad. It was a key moment for the 21-year-old.

There had been calls for revolution in terms of personnel after the Euro woes, but Robson would instead favour evolution as he sought to ease in some new names and only dispense with a few of the old guard. Arsenal had a strong contingent of emerging English talent and the uncapped trio of Paul Davis, David Rocastle and Michael Thomas were all named in the squad, as were Gascoigne, Nottingham Forest’s Des Walker and Sheffield Wednesday’s Mel Sterland.

Although England were affected by illness and injury to players such as Gary Lineker and Trevor Steven, there would also be some significant absentees such as Glenn Hoddle, Kenny Sansom and Mark Wright who were out of favour. There would be a welcome return for Terry Butcher after a lengthy injury lay-off, with his experience having been greatly missed in the defence. “I want to see if certain players can bridge the gap between the under-21s and the senior side but I won’t be making changes just for the sake of changes. We’re in a transitional period but we’ve still got to get results,” declared Robson as his squad was announced.

The fans stay away

When the Danes had last visited Wembley five years earlier, the crunch Euro ’84 qualifier had attracted a crowd of 82,500. Now there would be little more than quarter of that turning up. A combination of the fact it was only a friendly, England flopping at the Euros and Denmark being in decline after their ‘Danish Dynamite’ years all made it a turn-off to spectators. “Tickets for this game are selling like hot cakes in a heatwave,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian. A mere 25,837 turned up, despite the match not being shown live on television (BBC’s Sportsnight showed highlights).

Denmark had caught the eye in the mid-1980s and beaten England in 1983, but now there were hints their glory days were over. Their record at Euro ’88 was identical to England, although manager Sepp Piontek – a man whose glum demeanour was at odds with the expressive football his side produced – believed this did not represent a footballing crisis for Denmark in the way it did for England. “I think the Danish remember more easily the success that a small football nation achieved. They are grateful for it,” he said, while also being quoted as criticising England for persisting with “out of date” tactical approaches. The Danes had already returned to action, beating Sweden who were in England’s World Cup qualifying group.

Shilts survives the cull

It may have been a friendly that had not caught the public imagination, but Robson was viewing the game as vital and one he could not afford to lose after the pointless showing in West Germany. A key decision concerned the choice of goalkeeper. Peter Shilton had 100 caps in the bag and it had seemed the most likely time to replace the custodian, as he approached his 39th birthday.

Robson admitted later to having some concerns about Shilton following Euro ’88, but wasn’t about to discard him yet. “I doubted if Shilts would still be the number one choice but I decided to have another look at him in the friendly against Denmark,” he wrote in the 1990 edition of his autobiography. “He deserved an early look after all he had done and if he had been nervy or shaky in that match I would have waved him bye-bye.” The fact Shilton remained regular goalkeeper for two years confirms he impressed Robson that night in the 45 minutes he played.

Ultimately, it was a side oozing familiarity. Rocastle was to be the only uncapped player in the starting line-up, although Mick Harford had just one substitute appearance to his name and Steve Hodge had not featured for more than a year. Picked at full-back were Gary Stevens and Stuart Pearce, the latter having been injured for the Euros but now dislodging Sansom as regular left-back. Butcher partnered Tony Adams in the centre of defence. In midfield, Bryan Robson retained the captaincy, accompanied by Hodge, Rocastle and Neil Webb. Harford partnered Peter Beardsley in attack, with Davis, Gascoigne and Walker on the bench with Chris Woods and Tony Cottee.

The decision to keep most of the new boys out of the side attracted criticism. “He has selected a cautious rather than cavalier team to try and rebuild England’s shattered image. I am disappointed that Robson has spurned the chance to introduce Des Walker in defence and Paul Gascoigne or Paul Davis in midfield,” wrote Steve Curry in the Daily Express.

A win at last

The Danes were not as recognisable as the swaggering side of previous years, with the likes of Preben Elkjaer, Soren Lerby and Jesper Olsen not involved. But their familiar names included Michael Laudrup, who five years earlier had almost scored in the opening moments at Wembley. History repeated itself here, as he ran through the English defence but his effort struck the outside of the post.

It was a let-off for England and with the half-hour mark approaching they broke the deadlock, Webb – one of four Forest players to feature on the night – prodding home after Danish goalkeeper Troels Rasmussen punched the ball into his path in a crowded goalmouth.

Paul ‘Gascgoine’ comes off the bench for his England debut.

The second period brought a plethora of substitutions, with Woods, Cottee, Gascoigne and Walker all entering the action as England held out for the win, although they had one moment of panic when Butcher played a bad back pass which let the Danes in. However, he would atone for his error by getting back to win the ball off Laudrup as he prepared to shoot. England had won but the praise was rather faint. Curry wrote: “Neil Webb’s pumped life into the corpse of English football last night, but victory was as empty and hollow as a quarter-filled Wembley.”

Harford was taken off after 70 minutes and never capped again, but the man who could look back at the night with the greatest sense of regret was Davis. It had been agreed that each side could use four substitutes and he would be the odd man odd, watching on as his colleagues on the bench got on. It was as close as he came to playing for England. An incident three days later that left Southampton’s Glenn Cockerill with a broken jaw was caught on camera and landed Davis with a lengthy suspension, almost certainly affecting his international prospects. Although Sterland and Thomas had not made the bench against Denmark, they would earn England caps before the year was out. But Davis never represented his country at senior level.

Delight on the face of Bobby Robson as he walks off with Sepp Piontek.

Bobby Robson looked visibly delighted as he walked off that England had gained victory. But, having endured plenty of press criticism after Euro ’88, he wasn’t keen to instantly let bygones be bygones with some of his harshest critics. Criticism of his selections against Denmark had further deepened his unhappiness towards the media and his press conference after the match would be brief. After again justifying his team choices, he told the assembled scribes: “You are lucky to have me here today talking to you. The team has won, and that says it all. I don’t have to talk to you. Write what you like.”

The night had illustrated the growing chasm between the manager and press – and it was a relationship that would deteriorate even further before 1988 was out.

  • Next month we will look back at October 1988, when England’s World Cup qualifying campaign began against Sweden.

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

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