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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 8 – May 1989

We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by focusing upon their involvement in the last Rous Cup in May 1989. It would see a record low crowd gather to see Chile visit Wembley, before a Third Division forward would famously find the net for England away to Scotland…

As Bobby Robson prepared to sort his squad for the Rous Cup in May 1989, he was desperately short of attacking options. With Arsenal and Liverpool both involved in a prolonged title race due to rearrangements after Hillsborough there would be no chance of Peter Beardsley and Alan Smith playing up front, with winger John Barnes missing for the same reason. Gary Lineker was also going to be unavailable while on club duty with Barcelona.

And so places were up for grabs now in the England attack. Robson had during the season opted for Lineker and either Beardsley or Smith to partner him, with Tony Cottee having also been utilised from the bench. Other players were going to have to be given their chance up front.

During his reign, Robson had regularly had to endure calls for Brian Clough to take his place as England manager. But now he was putting the focus on the next generation of the Clough family as neat forward Nigel became the latest member of the Nottingham Forest side to become part of the England squad. Having impressed during Forest’s recent League Cup triumph, he was getting his chance to prove he could handle the international stage. The Cloughs would join the select band of fathers and sons to both play for England, 30 years after Brian’s two caps for his country.

More divisive was Robson’s decision to turn to John Fashanu from Wimbledon, who would offer a physical presence in the attack after Mick Harford’s withdrawal from the squad. Some footballing purists were not overjoyed with the selection of a man central to Wimbledon’s success while using the long ball game. His involvement in a tunnel altercation with Manchester United’s Viv Anderson earlier in the season had not helped him win admirers either. But Robson’s assistant Don Howe, who had worked closely with Fashanu at Wimbledon, championed the player’s cause and he was to be given his big chance. Having helped Wimbledon win the FA Cup 12 months earlier and then scored in the Charity Shield, Wembley would not be an unfamiliar setting for him.

As the squad initially convened, Steve Bull was not in the picture as he was in the England B side on a three-match tour of Switzerland, Iceland and Norway. But within days his life was to change significantly…

Where is everyone?

On the evening of Tuesday, May 23, almost 42,000 fans were gathered at Anfield to watch Liverpool beat West Ham United 5-1 in a rearranged match that was of great importance at both ends of the First Division. Meanwhile, little more than a third as many spectators were gathered at Wembley to watch England face Chile in the Rous Cup. The crowd of 15,628 – or 14,218 according to John Motson during his commentary for BBC highlights – was a record low for an England home game in front of the Twin Towers and the FA Vase and FA Trophy finals during the month had both attracted higher Wembley attendances.

There were extenuating circumstances, most notably a Tube strike that undoubtedly reduced the attendance. But it is questionable how many fans would have made their way to Wembley that night regardless of it. The absence of several key players and the limited attraction of Chile – who lacked the household names that some of their subsequent teams have boasted – meant many fans opted to vote with their feet. In this era, it wasn’t particularly uncommon for sub-30,000 crowds to be registered for the less appealing Wembley internationals. But this took things to a particular new depth and a low-key atmosphere was in store.

England’s line-up against Chile featured a mixture of regulars and newcomers.

Chile were making their first visit to these shores and were to also play a friendly against Northern Ireland during their stay, but they hadn’t exactly been top of the guest list. Plans for Argentina or Spain to be the visiting side in the Rous Cup had fallen through and it was to be Chile who accepted the invitation to take part. Although they had qualified for World Cups on a semi-regular basis and had drawn 0-0 at home to England five years earlier, they were considered an unknown quantity compared to South America’s big three of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay – as well as the emerging Colombia who had graced the previous year’s Rous Cup and possessed a couple of big personalities.

But it would still be a welcome fixture for England – only the second time during the season they had met opposition from outside Europe. Robson’s men were unbeaten since being whitewashed at Euro ’88 and they would be looking to triumph at home to Chile and then come out on top away to old rivals Scotland four days later.

But the Chile game didn’t quite go according to plan. England fielded a side that was part-familiar, part-experimental. Peter Shilton, Stuart Pearce, Neil Webb, Des Walker, Terry Butcher, Chris Waddle and captain Bryan Robson all started and had played regularly during the season. They would be joined by Paul Parker and Paul Gascoigne, who were making their first starts but had made an impression as substitutes against Albania the previous month. And newcomers Clough and Fashanu were paired in attack. To add to Wimbledon’s proud night, their midfielder Dennis Wise was among the five England substitutes. However, he would not come on and his first cap would not arrive for another two years.

If anybody compiles a list of great England games at Wembley then it’s fair to assume this match won’t feature on it. Bobby Robson would bemoan Chile’s “spoiling tactics” after seeing his side fail to break the visitors down in a stop-start contest that brought limited satisfaction. Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas – just months before being at the centre of major controversy during a World Cup qualifier away to Brazil – was in good form and twice kept out Gascoigne free-kicks, with the midfielder continually going close. “It’s a joy to see him play with so much freedom and enthusiasm,” said Motson.

Waddle would be denied from close range when his header was stopped by Rojas, with the goalkeeper later thwarting Clough on the one occasion he came close to a debut goal with a looping header. Nothing was given when Butcher appeared to have his shirt pulled while in the Chile box and then Cottee, who had come on as a substitute for Fashanu three days after playing at Wembley for Everton in the FA Cup final, had an effort cleared off the line as Rojas was beaten for once. It was the last chance on a night when England had created the majority of openings, Chile’s best effort seeing Shilton mark his 106th cap by showing plenty of agility to keep out Osvaldo Hurtado’s audacious chip. But they would be the more satisfied at the finish of this goalless contest that had not been been particularly good-spirited or inspiring.

John Fashanu’s two England caps both came in the 1989 Rous Cup.

David Lacey would write in The Guardian: “The only English strike that proved effective last night was the one undertaken by the Tube drivers which helped reduce the crowd to 15,628.” He would offer little encouragement to England’s new forwards, writing that Clough “looked like a fourth-former who had wandered into the upper sixth by mistake” and expressing his belief that the night had confirmed “Fashanu has a long way to go, and possibly too far, to be considered seriously as an international prospect”.

Incidentally, England and Chile were not the only teams to grace the Wembley turf that night. This was an era when another England side tended to play a match a couple of hours before the main event and that evening’s undercard featured England’s women appearing beneath the Twin Towers for the first time as they were beaten 2-0 by Sweden. The English women’s game has come a long way in the ensuing 30 years.

Robson lets the Bull loose

Robson would perhaps have reached the same conclusion as Lacey on Clough as he would never select him again during his reign, but Fashanu would be given another chance four days later against Scotland. However, injury concerns led to Robson looking for another attacking option to join the squad. He was willing to take a gamble, albeit a calculated one. Steve Bull, who in the past two seasons had been in prolific form in the lower divisions with Wolverhampton Wanderers, was drafted into the senior squad after recently appearing at under-21 and B level. He was still technically a Third Division player and his only experience at a higher level than that had been a handful of league outings for West Bromwich Albion. But registering more than 100 goals for Wolves in the space of two seasons illustrated the player’s potency and confidence and Robson had seen enough to believe he could hold his own on the big stage.

Not helped by violent scenes at Wembley the previous year, there was a growing sense that the annual clashes between England and Scotland may be nearing an end. Headlines would again be made here for the wrong reasons and that represented another blow for the fixture, but nobody walking away from Hampden Park in the May sunshine could have said with certainty it was the end of an era. It was not until later in the year that it became clear the oldest international fixture was set to be removed from the calendar and even in the months after that stories would occasionally surface about the match potentially being staged a different time in the year to normal or held at an alternative venue. However, it would not be until the luck of the draw paired the sides at Euro ’96 that England and Scotland met again and the Rous Cup was also binned off after the 1989 tournament.

The match remained rich in heritage and desire but it wasn’t even the most high-profile game televised that weekend, given the unforgettable title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal the night before. Robson was at Anfield as a pundit for ITV and he saw two players pushing for a World Cup spot the following year – Alan Smith and Michael Thomas – score the goals that gave the Gunners title glory in the most dramatic of circumstances. He would now head north of the border hoping to see other England players prove their worth. On a sad note, news also broke of the death of former England manager Don Revie who had left the role in acrimonious circumstances to work in the UAE in 1977 but had spent the closing stages of his life cruelly afflicted by Motor Neurone Disease. Frank McGhee, paying tribute in The Observer, sought to remind readers that Revie’s departure from England “was a jump that pre-empted the push being planned inside the FA at the time”. FA personnel would be notably absent at his funeral.

Against the Scots England made three changes from the Chile game, with Gary Stevens replacing Parker and Trevor Steven making his first England appearance of the season. Gascoigne would spend his 22nd birthday on the bench before a late cameo showing. Cottee was given a starting place at the expense of Clough. This was a rare era in which England squad members were plying their trade north of the border, due to a combination of the European club ban and Rangers flexing their muscles under Graeme Souness. Butcher and Stevens were both playing at Rangers, while Steven was also soon to join them.

Bryan Robson had the first serious chance of the game, forcing his Manchester United colleague Jim Leighton into a good save. At the other end Shilton – wearing a Scotland shirt due to a clash – was called upon to thwart Ally McCoist. England were to make the breakthrough midway through the half when a neat spell of passing led to Stevens producing an excellent cross for Waddle to emerge unmarked to head home.

Despite Scotland creating further opportunities, England held firm to lead at the break but injury had led to Fashanu leaving the field – never to again represent his country – and being replaced by Bull. He wasn’t intimidated by the occasion, taking on a pinpoint ball from the impressive Waddle to fire just wide of the goal during the second half. At the other end McCoist came closest to a leveller, as his shot was blocked by Shilton and the rebound rolled inches wide.

A moment to savour

The great Hugh McIlvanney, covering the game for The Observer, would hail Bull’s “fearsome simplicity and powerful directness” as the Wolves striker showed he was up to the challenge. BBC commentator Barry Davies would note how Bull was “out of the old fashioned mould” and praised the determination he was showing on his international debut. On an afternoon when critics had again questioned if Fashanu was up to a place in the England side, Bull was winning plaudits.

And as the game entered the final 10 minutes his big moment arrived. Stevens was again the provider, playing the ball forward. Bull won a challenge with Dave McPherson and showed his predatory instincts to peel away and shoot home. Brimming with confidence, he came close to adding another shortly afterwards as he again shrugged off defenders.

Steve Bull celebrates scoring on his England debut.

Scotsman McIlvanney was left to reflect: “This fixture may have been devalued beyond redemption but for the Scots an English victory as comprehensive as this one will always have sickening validity.” Given the absence of key players, England could feel pleased to have won at Hampden Park for the first time in seven years and preserved their unbeaten record in 1988-89, having also now kept four clean sheets in succession.

Although on the balance of play Scotland could have justified earning a positive result, England had seldom looked like being pegged back once they had gone ahead. Three days later England were confirmed as Rous Cup winners after Scotland beat Chile 2-0 in front of a sparse crowd at Hampden Park. It would be the competition’s final act, with England having won the Rous Cup in three years out of five and lost just one of the eight matches they had played in it.

But, as pleasing as getting a victory over their oldest rivals and collecting silverware always was, there was no denying what England’s big game at the end of the 1988-89 season would be. The World Cup qualifier at home to Poland a week later was a match England simply had to deliver in.

englandmemories View All

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

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