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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 3 – October 1988

We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes from 30 years ago by putting the focus on October 1988 and the start of Italia ’90 qualifying at home to Sweden. Problems persisted for Bobby Robson…

In the autumn of 1988 it was more than a decade since Brian Clough had been interviewed for the England manager’s job, yet the appetite remained among some sections of the media – not to mention plenty of the public – for him to finally be given the role. Although eight years had passed since Nottingham Forest’s last major trophy, they were starting to enjoy a renaissance with a young side – several of whom were now in Bobby Robson’s England set-up.

England’s rapid exit from Euro ’88 had intensified calls for Clough to replace Robson, but the Forest boss went public in support of the England manager. He told Saint & Greavsie during the finals that Robson deserved to stay at the helm. Clough refused to be drawn on whether he would be interested in the role if it became available, although many suspected he still fancied a crack of it.

But, regardless of whether Clough wanted the role or not (and if the FA would even consider him if the position became vacant), Robson remained a man under pressure. He had led England to a friendly win in September over Denmark, but now came the acid test – a World Cup qualifier at home to Sweden on October 19. England needed to make a winning start to Italia ’90 qualifying, or the critics from the summer would resurface en masse.

Robson felt that luck played a key part in England’s demise at Euro ’88 and he was reluctant to make sweeping changes, believing that the same personnel that had finished 1987 so strongly against Turkey and Yugoslavia could regain that winning habit. The line-up was oozing with familiarity, with only left-back Stuart Pearce yet to reach double figures when it came to England caps. He joined Gary Stevens, Tony Adams and Terry Butcher in defence in front of Peter Shilton, with Neil Webb and captain Bryan Robson paired in midfield. Wingers John Barnes and Chris Waddle were both selected, with Waddle to be deployed in a free role. The well-established forwards of Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker were selected, both having not scored for England since May.

Lineker would ordinarily have been one of the first names on the teamsheet, but Bobby Robson had been left to make a decision over whether to select him. The player had been recovering from hepatitis following the Euros and had only just returned to action with Barcelona as England prepared to get their qualifying campaign under way. But he wanted to be involved and Robson was ready to take the chance. “Gary says he is feeling better than he has for two years. Now he has to prove it,” he said ahead of the Sweden game.

The Swedes hadn’t visited Wembley for 20 years and they had been absent from major tournaments for the past decade, but their domestic game had been boosted by IFK Göteborg twice winning the UEFA Cup in recent years. Glenn Hysen had featured in those triumphs. Now playing his club football with Fiorentina, the defender’s assured display at Wembley would alert leading English clubs to his capabilities and he would sign for Liverpool in 1989.

Fears materialise

England had never lost a World Cup qualifier at Wembley and a defeat here would leave Robson under immense pressure. But to appease the public England needed to win – and preferably in confident fashion. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “The realistic fear is a draw, which would leave Bobby Robson and his squad on tenterhooks and the critics growing afresh.” His words would prove sadly prophetic.

Given that Robson would ultimately deploy a sweeper system during Italia ’90, it’s interesting to note the comments he made ahead of the Sweden game as he insisted on maintaining the conventional back four. “Our defence is competent,” he insisted. “If I could cancel the league programme for two years and keep 36 players together I could produce a sweeper system, but I can’t do that in a few days.”

A few days earlier the Football League’s laborious 100th birthday celebrations had finally drawn to a close with Arsenal lifting the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy. Now it was the Football Association’s turn to make a big play about an anniversary, marking its 125th birthday by inviting all former England players to attend the Sweden game. The night would also see a presentation made to Shilton in recognition of reaching 100 caps in the summer.

One welcome blessing for Robson was he had been successful in getting most of the previous Saturday’s First Division matches postponed – if they contained England players – as he was afforded more time with the squad and did not have to fret about potential injuries. It was a request which he had so frequently sought but had rarely been granted, an agreement of up to two blank weekends per season at last representing some progress and aided by the First Division being reduced to 20 teams.

Chances not taken

The Euro finals had seen England create chances and repeatedly not take them. The visit of the Swedes would represent an uncomfortable reminder for Bobby Robson of that summer, as his side again carved out opportunities but they were not converted.

Lineker lacked his usual sharpness in front of goal, heading over an impressive Barnes cross and then firing wide when put through by Waddle. A year earlier Lineker had completed his hat-trick against Turkey from a similar position, but this time his predatory instincts weren’t there. Although the Swedes were a better side than the Turks had been and closed him down quicker, this was still a chance Lineker would ordinarily have seized. Robson’s gamble to start with him had not paid off.

And Barnes continued to attract question marks when he pulled on an England shirt. His cross for Lineker had been excellent but it was otherwise a quiet night for the Liverpool star, who continued to produce displays for England that received ill-favourable comparisons with his showing against Brazil in 1984. “When Barnes took possession of the ball on the left it was hard to detect a shudder of apprehension in the Swedish defence,” wrote Lacey. “If anything there was a sigh of relief. Rio seems a long way away.” He made way for Tony Cottee with 11 minutes to go, while Des Walker had replaced Adams midway through the second half.

Sweden left Wembley with a point after a 0-0 draw. Waddle had the ball in the net early on but the whistle had already gone, as would happen with Lineker in the latter stages. Both sides had strong penalty appeals turned down and the Swedes forced Shilton into a couple of saves from distance. It wasn’t a classic, but England would feel that they had been the more dangerous side and were left to rue their inability to tuck chances away.

England had already dropped as many points from one qualifier for Italia ’90 as they had for the entire Euro ’88 qualifying programme, and this was with all three away matches still to come. To qualify England would have to either win their group or be one of the best two second placed teams from the groups containing four teams. It already looked a three-horse race for top spot between England, Sweden and Poland – who had started off with a win over Albania.

Don’t panic

It was too early to panic but there was some understandable unease about the task lying ahead for England, with the next two qualifiers against Albania being games they realistically had to win. Robson would contend that England had deserved victory against Sweden and therefore should have been praised for their display rather than criticised. He wrote in 1990: “I thought to myself that if I were a new manager sitting there, both the result and the performance would have been considered encouraging.”

But little mercy would be shown for Robson. Accidentally referring to Sweden as “Denmark” in his post-match press conference only gave ammunition to some of his strongest critics, as the tabloids declared it was time for the manager to leave.

James Lawton, who sadly died last month, was certainly not alone among the Wembley media in calling for a change. “It would be an act of compassion now to save Bobby Robson from himself. He cannot go on as England manager. He has nothing left to give,” Lawton wrote in the Daily Express, as he called for the FA to “swallow their pride and think about Brian Clough”. This assessment wasn’t what Robson would have wanted to be published but it was more mild than what some other tabloids were dishing out, with the Daily Mirror and The Sun competing with each other in the ‘Robson must go’ stakes. He found himself branded a ‘Plonker’ by the latter.

Robson crucially still had the backing of his employers at the FA, but it remained a difficult time and this was a match he had desperately needed to win to lift spirits. Almost five months would elapse until England’s next qualifier and the gloom would persist. But there was no chance of Robson walking away, declaring: “I have to rise above all criticism, some of it not worthy of an England team manager. You have to have a broad back, take criticism on the chin and soldier on.”

England may have not faced any more qualifiers until March 1989, but that did not mean they were entering hibernation. Next up was a trip to Saudi Arabia for a friendly in November, when relations between Robson and the press pack would hit rock bottom…

englandmemories View All

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

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