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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 6 – March 1989

Our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago continue by putting the spotlight on March 1989 and a trip to Albania for a World Cup qualifier, as the pressure eased a little on Bobby Robson with victory…

The overused cliche about there being no easy games in international football has never been totally accurate. But if ever there was a period when it carried a fair degree of truth it was in the late 1980s in Europe. With perennial whipping boys such as Andorra and San Marino having yet to join the party, the perceived minnows of the time were not always pushovers.

This was evident during qualifying for Italia ’90. Iceland earned draws in both meetings with the Soviet Union; Cyprus picked up a point against France; Malta secured two draws against a Hungary side who had been to the last three World Cups; and even little Luxembourg, so often on the end of heavy defeats, would end the campaign with a point to their name after a shock late equaliser against Belgium.

And so England could take nothing for granted when they met Albania for the first time in Tirana on March 8. The Albanians were the group outsiders as England, Poland and Sweden contested the fight to make it to Italy, but they had already proved they were no pushovers. Poland and Sweden had both needed goals in the closing stages to defeat them and a visit to Communist Albania was seen as representing something of a trip into the unknown.

During the 1980s England had been held in qualifiers away to Finland and Turkey and lost to Norway, when in each instance their opponents were considered among the weakest sides in their group. Albania fell into that category but regularly gave established visitors a scare, having won at home to eventual semi-finalists Belgium in qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. Few were taking English success for granted – but anything less would see the pressure on Bobby Robson intensify further.

A need to win

Although England were unbeaten in four games since flopping at Euro ’88, they had attracted more criticism than praise in the process and their only competitive match had brought a 0-0 draw at home to Sweden in their first World Cup qualifier. The criticism had been pouring in towards Robson and he knew victory was imperative in Albania, saying: “If English teams want to play football at the highest level then we have to go to places like Albania and win matches. If we don’t, then the country doesn’t deserve to be playing in the World Cup.”

Certainly, there was little doubt this was considered a must-win for Robson and England. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “While a draw in Tirana would not be a mortal blow, it would still be a depressing result. England have yet to score a goal or win a match in the present competition. Their morale could do with a victory; for Bobby Robson anything less will mean another mauling from the mass media.”

It’s fair to say relations between Robson and sections of the press pack weren’t great after a series of attacks on the manager. That relationship was about to be tested further, as Robson took exception to stories being published suggesting certain players would face the chop if England failed to get the desired result. It was one story too far for Robson and he took the rare step of banning England players from speaking to the media before the match.

“Looking back over the tough games during the past year there is no doubt the pressure has reached the peak and it will take the heat off if players stop talking to newspapers,” said Robson, who would continue to give interviews. He hoped his players would do their talking on the field by earning the desired result.

David Rocastle pictured playing for England in Albania.

Robson was afforded the rare luxury of most First Division games being postponed the Saturday beforehand to aid the national team’s cause, although Gary Lineker remained on club duty with Barcelona. The manager spent his Saturday afternoon watching England’s rugby union side beating France in the Five Nations. It was a welcome result for English sport fans, who now hoped the footballers would deliver in Tirana.

A warm welcome

There would be a sense of this being like a cup tie between an unknown quantity and a glamour club and that was reinforced by thousands of Albanians lining the streets to catch a glimpse of the likes of Lineker, John Barnes and Bryan Robson. Manager Robson, who had endured his fair share of abuse in recent months, particularly appreciated the welcome and would praise the Albanians for this gesture in his programme notes for the return game a few weeks later.

Not too many England fans would make such a trip back then, but the away support was boosted by a goodwill delegation led by the magazine When Saturday Comes who attracted publicity as they sought to improve the image of the travelling Englishmen. They would make the long trip by coach and it would not be a totally enjoyable experience, given some of the elements of England’s away support they came across out in Tirana.

Tim Cooper, reflecting several years later on the trip in the Evening Standard, said an element of the English support at the under-21s match the day before – which England won 2-1, with Steve Bull making his debut – made the Nazi salute during the national anthem and friction would grow during the trip between the fans. “It was enough to chill the blood,” wrote Cooper. “We were in the heartland of Communism and were among fascists.”

Captain Bryan Robson overcame a stomach upset to lead the side. Peter Shilton was in goal, with Gary Stevens and Stuart Pearce picked at full-back and Terry Butcher in defence with Des Walker. Robson was joined in the heart of midfield by Neil Webb, with David Rocastle on the right and John Barnes on the left. Natural winger Chris Waddle was moved into attack, as Bobby Robson continued to try and find the desired partner for Lineker.

All about the result

The match was being screened live on the BBC on a Wednesday afternoon and those who tuned in didn’t have long to wait to see England make their breakthrough as Barnes converted after Rocastle’s ball into the box was diverted into his path with 16 minutes gone. It was a rare high point in an unconvincing first half for England as they struggled to adapt to the bumpy service, with Shilton called upon on more than one occasion to keep the hosts out as they cut through the English defence.

But crucially the visitors still held the lead and they would double it shortly after the hour-mark, with Barnes this time whipping over a free-kick that Robson headed in. It was a goal described by Jimmy Hill in the BBC studio as “something we do well in British football” and it provided some welcome breathing space. Albania rarely looked like pulling a goal back as England successfully saw out the game to win 2-0 and top the group at this early stage.

England may not have given a classic display but fortune had been with them in a manner that had seldom been evident in the previous year and victory was absolutely critical. The pressure on Bobby Robson had eased a bit. Lacey wrote: “Robson’s waning position as manager has surely been strengthened by yesterday’s result – and the result was always going to be more important than the performance.” England indeed had those precious points and thoughts were turning again to spending the summer of 1990 in Italy. Maybe things were at last starting to go the way of Robson?

One man who was not having much luck when turning out for England was Lineker, whose past predatory instincts were deserting him. He had not scored for his country since the previous May, not helped by having suffered hepatitis in the interim. He had been presented with a couple of chances here, including rounding the goalkeeper after being set free by Bryan Robson before failing to hit the target. But the old confidence in front of goal seemed to have gone. Along with Waddle he was replaced in the closing stages by Peter Beardsley and Alan Smith and, during post-match analysis, Hill called for Lineker to be left out for the next game – believing that missed opportunity exemplified his current limited self-confidence.

Hill said: “The kindest thing that Bobby Robson can do, and psychologically the best thing, is to get him out and take him off the defensive – drop him for a match and bring him in again and he’ll be attacking. As it is he’s defending, trying to do his best.”

That next game for England would be the return qualifier against Albania in late April. A row was brewing over the scheduling of the Liverpool against Arsenal title showdown, which was due to be shown live on ITV just three days beforehand. It was reported that the Football League had rejected the chance to move the fixture to the Saturday teatime. Bobby Robson was once more incensed over the lack of help being given to the national team, as several of his side would be in action so soon before a key international. Although England would be expected to beat Albania regardless, there were no guarantees. The last thing the manager needed was to spend his Sunday afternoon fretting about injuries to the likes of Barnes and Rocastle.

Ultimately the match wouldn’t happen that weekend, but only because of the worst circumstances imaginable. By the time England next took to the field, football was in the grip of tragedy.


englandmemories View All

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

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