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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 9 – June 1989

Our series recounting England’s fortunes 30 years ago now focuses upon a World Cup qualifier at home to Poland in June 1989, followed by an away friendly against Denmark…

A myth seems to have built up over the years that Poland are something of a bogey side for England. The reality is very different, the Poles having beaten England just once in 19 meetings. But the fact that they stopped England qualifying for the 1974 World Cup has uneasily lurked in the mind whenever the sides have come up against each other since then – which due to the luck of the draw has been rather frequently in competitive games.

And talk of that infamous night in October 1973 was seldom more rife than when the Poles were back at Wembley for the first time on June 3, 1989. The circumstances weren’t quite the same, but England essentially were left with the same task 16 years on – needing to win on home soil. If they didn’t, then they would be in serious danger of missing out again on a World Cup spot with the two toughest fixtures still to come away to Sweden and Poland.

The one man still standing from the 1-1 draw in 1973 was goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who had taken part of the blame for the goal conceded while opposite number Jan Tomaszewski was making headlines as the Poles held out for the point they needed. At the time Shilton was a relative youngster, but now he was three months shy of turning 40. The Poland game would see him equal Bobby Moore’s record of 108 England caps and victory would help finally banish memories of 16 years earlier.

But the one meeting of the sides in the intervening period had gone some way to helping achieve that already, Gary Lineker’s hat-trick in the 1986 World Cup igniting England’s campaign. A repeat of that 3-0 scoreline would leave England with one foot in the finals the following year…

A dose of reality

The previous weekend had seen Michael Thomas and Steve Bull make headlines when finding the net in fairytale style for Arsenal against Liverpool and England against Scotland respectively. Now they were brought back to reality somewhat as they turned out for England’s under-21s against Poland at Plymouth. But Thomas would boost his hopes of establishing himself in the senior squad by netting the decisive goal in England’s 2-1 win, while Bull was to be back among the big boys when Bobby Robson’s men visited Denmark for a friendly a few days later.

But the mood they would be in on that trip hinged on matters at Wembley against Poland. This was the third of four games for England in a 16-day period and unquestionably the most important, given it was a World Cup qualifier. A year on from the nightmare of being whitewashed at Euro ’88, England now had a chance to go into the summer on a high and with one foot in the World Cup finals.

The England side that faced Poland at Wembley.

Robson had resisted calls for a drastic overhaul of his side in the last 12 months, instead favouring some small but significant changes in terms of personnel. No fewer than eight of the side that would start against Poland had been key members of the European Championship squad. The three exceptions included two men – Terry Butcher and Stuart Pearce – who had only missed the tournament due to injury, leaving fellow defender Des Walker as the sole player in the side against the Poles who had made his England debut since Euro ’88. He had become a regular during the season.

And so the side oozed familiarity. The other players picked were Shilton in goal and Gary Stevens at right back, with Bryan Robson skippering the side from midfield and Neil Webb accompanying him (Webb would join Robson at Manchester United before the summer was out). The natural wingers of John Barnes and Chris Waddle were both chosen and the established forward pairing of Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker returned after both men had been absent from the recent Rous Cup matches due to club commitments. No Arsenal players would make the starting line-up the week after they had claimed the title, but David Rocastle and Alan Smith took their places on a bench that also included Paul Gascoigne from Spurs.

Apart from those heading to the Potteries to see Port Vale win promotion to Division Two against Bristol Rovers, all footballing roads led to London on June 3. At Brisbane Road, Leyton Orient were overcoming Wrexham in the second leg of the Fourth Division play-off final (this was the last season before they were staged at Wembley); at Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace overturned a first leg deficit to return to the top-flight at the expense of Blackburn Rovers; and at Wembley, a crowd of almost 70,000 gathered hoping to see England deliver against the Poles. The match was not shown live on television in the UK, as was the case for the majority of England home games in the 1980s.

Banishing memories of ’73

That 1973 meeting had marked a turning point in the fortunes of both sides, with Poland having gone on to reach the latter stages at four successive World Cups and England failing to qualify for two of them. But the Poles had now entered a period of transition, no longer able to call upon Zbigniew Boniek and others who had featured prominently in past successes. The goal Poland had scored at Wembley in 1973 had come on the break and Shilton may have briefly replayed that horrible moment in his mind as he saw the Polish class of ’89 threatening to do likewise in the opening stages here.

But he made a comfortable save and soon attention would be fixed on his Polish counterpart. A lovely ball by Beardsley set Lineker away and he was crudely hacked down by visiting custodian Jaroslaw Bako just outside the area while through on goal. Under current rules it would have been a straight red card, but back in 1989 Bako escaped with a yellow despite having clearly prevented a goalscoring opportunity. Even the normally reserved Trevor Brooking would speak out about the goalkeeper’s actions when co-commentating for BBC highlights, while Jimmy Hill branded the foul “an injustice” and called for red cards to be shown for such professional fouls. From the following year he would get his wish.

Jaroslaw Bako kept goal for Poland during their 3-0 defeat by England.

But if England felt aggrieved then justice would be served after 25 minutes, with Lineker confirming he was back to his best after a year beset by hepatitis and a lack of goals. Barnes played the ball through to the Barcelona forward, whose initial shot was saved by Bako. But Lineker showed his old predatory instincts had returned as he reacted quickly to turn the rebound in from an acute angle. If Poland’s basic gameplan had been to contain England, then it had been undone with less than a third of the match played. Yet they would almost draw level before the break as Walker headed away captain Waldemar Prusik’s goalbound header, while early in the second half Jan Urban narrowly fired wide.

The game remained in the balance until the final 20 minutes, when England at last gained breathing space. Lineker headed the ball out to Stevens on the right flank, with the full back whipping over an excellent cross for Barnes to score on the volley with his left foot. Lineker would again demonstrate he had far more to his game than simply scoring goals by his role in the build-up to England going 3-0 up seven minutes from time, linking up well with substitute Rocastle in a move that ended with Webb stroking the ball home. Polish defensive errors had helped but the goal wrapped up the win for England and it was all smiles around Wembley.

John Barnes in action for England against Poland.

On the same weekend five years earlier Bobby Robson had been barracked by the Wembley crowd following a 2-0 loss to the Soviet Union and he had endured his fair share of abuse since then. But as the manager and his players walked off following this win they would hear the fans cheering, something John Motson noted at the close of his commentary. “That’s what we want to see,” he said, adding that the result had given the side a “realistic chance” of making the finals. There was still a bit of work to do, but England had control over their destiny.

Robson had every right to feel delighted. His faith in his chosen line-up had been vindicated and his decision to field two wingers – which had attracted criticism in the past – had paid off with Barnes and Waddle both earning praise. Robson knew he would be enjoying a far happier summer in 1989 than that which he had experienced in 1988. Many of the headlines were made by Lineker, who had once more haunted Poland and impressed with his all-round showing. “It really was one of his best footballing displays that he’s given us,” purred the manager.

Finishing unbeaten

Robson would admit this win would have been the ideal way for England to end the season, but they still had one more game to negotiate four days later. Robson was taking England back to Copenhagen, where his England reign began seven years earlier. The friendly away to Denmark was going to be a double celebration, helping mark the Danish FA’s centenary and seeing Shilton win a record 109th cap for England.

Peter Shilton became England’s most capped player against Denmark.

A friendly it may have been, but England’s manager was not taking it lightly. He dismissed any notion that he would use the game to experiment with the starting line-up or system, knowing his side would complete the season unbeaten if they avoided defeat. And although he could rest more easily after England had delivered in recent qualifiers against Albania and Poland, he knew his critics were still lurking and would strike if they saw his team taken apart by the Danes.

Unusually it was the second friendly meeting of the sides in the same season, having faced the Danes at Wembley back in September. Denmark had been the other side to be whitewashed during Euro ’88 and they too had shown signs of recovery since then, having put together a decent run of form and beaten Greece 7-1 in a World Cup qualifier the previous month. The ‘Danish Dynamite’ side that had beaten England back in 1983 and won admirers – but not silverware – during Euro ’84 and the 1986 World Cup was making way for a younger crop containing the likes of Peter Schmeichel and Brian Laudrup, who joined his brother Michael in the side against England.

The England side that faced Denmark.

England made two changes from the side that beat Poland, with Paul Parker replacing the injured Stevens and Rocastle given the opportunity to start on the right flank instead of Waddle. Lineker would again look sharp and unsuccessfully appealed for a penalty when he went down in the area following a challenge by Aston Villa-bound Kent Nielsen.

But another key decision would go in Lineker’s favour on 27 minutes, as Webb ran through and found the forward unmarked to place the ball home. There were suspicions of offside but the goal was allowed to stand. England led at the break and Robson made two substitutions, as Waddle replaced Barnes and Steve McMahon made his first England appearance since Euro ’88 in place of Webb.

The Danes stepped it up in the second half and drew level on 56 minutes as Lars Elstrup fired in a powerful drive that slightly spoilt Shilton’s big night by beating him at the near post. A goalkeeping change was made shortly afterwards, Shilton receiving a standing ovation as David Seaman came on for his second England appearance. At the other end of the field, Bull was brought on for Beardsley and he would become involved in a skirmish with Jan Bartram as both sides showed a desire to claim a positive result.

A 1-1 draw was a fair outcome and there was satisfaction tinged with the odd cause for concern about England’s display. “More and more the defence is becoming as heavily dependent on Des Walker as is the attack upon Gary Lineker,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian. Considering he had been uncapped 12 months earlier, Walker’s emergence at centre back had been one of the highlights of England’s season, while Lineker’s return to form gave everyone reason to be optimistic. Soon he would be playing his club football in England once more, ending his three-year spell at Barcelona by signing for Tottenham Hotspur.

And so, England had finished a campaign unbeaten for the first time since 1974-75. Although the opposition faced was hardly like-for-like, the fact they had gone from conceding seven goals in three matches at Euro ’88 to three in 10 games during 1988-89 made for positive reading. While it was true that England had not come up against any side realistically likely to win the World Cup the following summer, they had played several teams who could well qualify for it and confidence was beginning to return with the side believing they could gain good results. The season had not been without its low points, most notably the draw away to Saudi Arabia that had prompted media hysteria. But overall Robson could feel pleased and optimistic, having refused to walk away amid heavy media pressure after the nadir of Euro ’88.

Bryan Robson was one of two men – Pearce being the other – to have played every game for England during the season. But when they were next in action away to Sweden in September for a crucial World Cup qualifier the captain would be sidelined, summing up a night mainly remembered for injuries…

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

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