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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 7 – April 1989

In the latest of our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago, we focus on the World Cup qualifier at home to Albania in April 1989. The nation was struggling to come to terms with the Hillsborough Disaster, but the night did help lift the mood a little and it would be a significant game for Paul Gascoigne…

On April 15, 1989, Bobby Robson headed to Hillsborough to see the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. It was a logical place for the England manager to go 11 days before his side’s next game, given the high number of his players who would be featuring as well as others – such as Nigel Clough – who were knocking on the door for a call-up. This match would be a big test of any player’s capabilities.

The pressure had eased a little on Robson following England’s win in Albania the previous month, but he knew success in the return game at Wembley was imperative. He’d already voiced his unhappiness about ITV scheduling live coverage of Liverpool against Arsenal just three days before the match. Although England would be expected to beat Albania regardless, there were no guarantees and goal difference could also ultimately be important.

And so Robson took his seat at Hillsborough hoping to see the likes of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Stuart Pearce give encouraging displays that would bode well for the World Cup qualifier. Even from a neutral perspective this was a game to anticipate, BBC presenter Des Lynam later recounting saying to Jimmy Hill that he’d never looked forward to a match more.

And then, within minutes, football seemed totally irrelevant. There is nothing to be gained from repeating the details of the tragedy, except to convey our sympathies to all who suffered on that awful day 30 years ago.

Firmly in perspective

Two days later Robson was to announce England’s squad for the Albania game. It could barely have seemed less important and questions were being asked over whether the match would even go ahead. Robson believed the game would take place as planned, but he was to let the players decide if they wished to participate. “We can’t forget what happened or erase it from our minds,” he said. “Football is insignificant compared to a disaster of that proportion. But it is an important match for us and we will have to be ready for it as soon as possible.” It soon became clear that the game would take place as planned.

Awkwardly, the match programme had already gone to press before the disaster even though it was 11 days prior to the match. To avoid any perception that the programme had ignored the tragedy, an A4 sheet was included inside it signed by Bert Millichip and Graham Kelly in which they expressed their sympathies to all affected by the disaster.

Robson had regularly pleaded for his players to be afforded a blank weekend before important qualifiers, but in the circumstances he felt there were positives to be gained from most First Division games going ahead just four days before England faced Albania. “They needed to get a game out of their systems and that could benefit us,” he said of the players who were in action. The Liverpool versus Arsenal game that he had previously spoken out about was understandably postponed and most players reported for international duty. But a key absentee would be John Barnes.

“When the squad was announced I fully intended to link up with the squad and hoped to play in the game,” Barnes said. “But since then I have made certain promises to people that I feel I cannot break under the circumstances and I hope Bobby Robson understands my predicament.” Like everybody else, the manager was fully supportive of Barnes.

Meanwhile, there would be a recall into the attack for his Liverpool colleague Beardsley. His England form had been criticised and he had been dropped to the bench for recent games, but Robson was hopeful that Beardsley and Gary Lineker – who was enduring a barren run for his country – could reignite their successful partnership from a couple of years earlier.

Generation game

Peter Shilton was once more in goal for England, but he would be feeling his age as he had made his international debut before his opposite number, 17-year-old Blendi Nallbani, had even been born! Although Nallbani would have to pick the ball out of the net several times that night, he would certainly not disgrace himself.

Most of the England side was well-established, with Gary Stevens, Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Stuart Pearce in defence. Bryan Robson was captain, with his fellow midfielders being David Rocastle, Neil Webb and winger Chris Waddle. Beardsley and Lineker would look to click again up front.

A minute’s silence was respectfully observed before kick-off by the crowd of more than 60,000 and then the action got under way. England did not have to wait long for the breakthrough and Lineker was handed the piece of good fortune he had craved to regain his scoring touch. Albania headed the ball into his path and he was able to get his head to the ball to score past Nallbani. “Gary Lineker has got the goal he’s waited for for so long,” said BBC commentator John Motson, with the relief evident on the beaming face of Lineker.

A sense of renewed confidence among England’s front line was visible after 12 minutes, as Beardsley took advantage of Lineker’s assistance to score in composed fashion. That was the end of the scoring before the break, although Albania would produce an excellent strike only for it to be disallowed. Sulejman Demollari’s joy was brought to a swift halt as a team-mate was deemed to be offside and any hope the Albanians had of a comeback effectively went with it.

Bryan Robson’s luck was out in front of goal as he kept going close, but Beardsley was recapturing his scoring touch as he netted his second on 63 minutes. Lineker could again claim the assist as he chested it into his path and he would then have a goal ruled out for offside.

Paul Gascoigne’s England career had not really got going so far but he came on for his third cap midway through the second half in place of Rocastle and gave a little inkling of what might lie ahead when he represented his country in the future. He firstly headed across the box for Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Chris Waddle to himself use his head to net England’s fourth on 72 minutes. He then showed great trickery to almost score a fine solo goal. But with time ticking away came the moment Gascoigne had dreamt about.

Paul Parker, who had come on for his England debut in place of Gary Stevens, laid the ball into Gascoigne’s path. The midfielder shrugged off the Albanian defenders as he charged forward with the ball before firing confidently past Nallbani. The crowd loved it and Gascoigne treasured the moment, appearing to shout an expletive in the excitement. “And this really is a shining talent we’re watching, perhaps in it’s infancy here in international terms,” said Motson, who just over 14 months later would be describing Gascoigne’s tears in Turin.

“We need two balls”

There would be much love between Bobby Robson and Gascoigne, but the manager could occasionally express consternation at Gazza’s antics. He would even voice some reservations about Gascoigne when interviewed post-match, as he noted how “he played all over the pitch except the position I told him to play in” and gave his memorable quote about how “we need two balls – one for him and one for the team”. But he would also recognise the “rare talent that we need to nurture”, appreciating that this was someone who could provide excitement and who offered something different in the England midfield.

For Robson this was a welcome clear victory that eased the pressure, but it would forever be overshadowed by the horrors of 11 days earlier. David Lacey offered a fair summing up of proceedings as he wrote in The Guardian: “After the tragedy of Hillsborough and its sombre aftermath, no amount of good news from Wembley was going to free English football completely from its present shadow. All the players could do was win in as entertaining and comprehensive a style as possible, and this they achieved with something to spare.”

The nation was still in mourning and football was very much in perspective, but England had helped lift the mood a little. Liverpool would soon return to action and be seriously pursuing the double when England next took to the field a month later in the Rous Cup against Chile and Scotland.

englandmemories View All

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

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