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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 10 – September 1989

We resume our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by recalling the World Cup qualifier away to Sweden in September 1989, on a night when Terry Butcher was bloody marvellous…

The 1988-89 season had been one of rehabilitation for England after the horror of being whitewashed during Euro ’88, with Bobby Robson’s side completing the campaign unbeaten and making a positive start in attempting to qualify for the 1990 World Cup. But, as they returned to action in September 1989, the pressure was back on. Coming unstuck in Sweden would leave their qualification hopes in doubt, ahead of another testing trip to Poland the following month.

England were, on paper, good enough to go to Stockholm and earn a positive result. But the omens weren’t good. Not only had England failed to score against the Swedes in their last three meetings, but the match was taking place in their grimmest month. ‘September-itis’ had plagued England in recent years. Their two most recent defeats in qualifiers had both occurred during the month, against Norway in 1981 and Denmark in 1983. Furthermore, the only two defeats suffered by Robson’s side since June 1985 outside of major tournaments had both been during away games in September – losing to Sweden in 1986 and West Germany in 1987.

That 1-0 defeat in Stockholm three years earlier had only been in a friendly, but it had emphasised the fact that England were generally sluggish in September when the domestic season was still in its infancy. They were now preparing for a vital World Cup qualifier just 18 days after the opening day of the 1989-90 league season, when Neil Webb had marked his Manchester United debut by scoring in style in a 4-1 win over champions Arsenal. He would once more be taking his place in the England midfield, but his club colleague Bryan Robson wouldn’t be. A rib injury meant he would miss an England game for the first time since February 1988, with his namesake and manager – not for the first time in his reign – finding it hard to contemplate playing without his captain. “His loss would be momentous,” said Bobby Robson the week before the game. “He was our best player in every match last season.”


Bobby Robson now faced a key test of his managerial abilities as England visited Sweden.

The injury provided the opportunity for Steve McMahon to start in midfield, with Terry Butcher deputising as captain. But on the whole the side was very familiar. Although a draw would not be a bad result, England were to avoid playing it cautiously. Robson was to select John Barnes and Chris Waddle on the wings and pair Peter Beardsley with Gary Lineker – now playing his club football back in England after joining Tottenham Hotspur from Barcelona – in attack. Peter Shilton was to keep goal less than two weeks before his 40th birthday. Butcher would lead a defence also containing Gary Stevens, Des Walker and Stuart Pearce. A figure of interest in the Swedish side was defender Glenn Hysen, who had moved to Liverpool in the summer.

A complicated picture

The World Cup qualification process was starting to become a little complex. Put simply, if England won in Sweden then they would almost certainly win the group and ensure a place in the finals. But all other equations were less straightforward. If they drew, then they would still be top of the group with one game remaining but could be overhauled.

However, avoiding defeat in Poland again the following month would probably be sufficient to take them through to the finals as one of the best two runners-up from the three groups containing four teams. But if they took no more than one point from the two games – the two points for a win system was still in use in international football – then they would be in serious danger of missing out on a summer in Italy.

And it wasn’t just their performances on the field that could determine whether they made it. The reputation a section of England’s followers had developed during the 1980s had threatened to trigger the side’s exclusion from major tournaments, with violence during Euro ’88 having increased that possibility. Any further instances of serious disorder when England travelled abroad would spark genuine concern that they would be left with little option but to withdraw from Italia ’90.

Now that threat seemed real after dozens of individuals were detained by police during the trip to Sweden, with it being reported that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was asking the football authorities to seriously consider England’s involvement in the World Cup. They wouldn’t go that far, but England’s planned friendly away to the Netherlands in December was swiftly called off. It just wasn’t worth the risk.

Don’t mention the war

All Bobby Robson could do was focus on ensuring England were good enough to qualify on the field. He had his own reasons for feeling angry prior to the game, when he complained that a private training session had been gatecrashed by Swedish journalists – potentially undermining his plan to successfully deploy two wingers. The match was taking place 50 years to the week that the Second World War had begun, with the conflict clearly on Robson’s mind as he voiced his unhappiness when he said: “Didn’t we try to keep D-Day secret? When the Germans sent their doodlebugs, did they tell us what was coming?” It would not be the last comments he would make out in Stockholm referring to the war.

The match was being shown live on the BBC on a Wednesday teatime back home, with Bryan Robson watching on as he provided analysis from the London studio. He would see Butcher prove his worth as stand-in captain and praise McMahon’s contribution in the heart of midfield. He went close with a volley and played an excellent ball through early on that Lineker was unable to put away.

Lineker’s England goalscoring drought had ended a few months earlier, but his luck was out in Stockholm as he had a header saved by Thomas Ravelli following an excellent Barnes cross shortly before the break. He was again presented with a great chance during the second half, with Beardsley setting him free. But he was denied by Ravelli, who kept out both the original shot and rebound.

But it wasn’t one-way traffic. Shilton made a good save to deny Joakim Nilsson, before keeping out the best chance of the match during the second half when a suicidal back pass from the otherwise dependable Walker looked set to be punished by Mats Magnusson. Shilton would also have to be alert to prevent Butcher putting through his own net in the closing stages as the Swedes began to step it up a gear, while at the other end Waddle fired narrowly wide after cutting in from the left flank.

The 0-0 draw was certainly not pre-ordained, but it left both sides content in the knowledge they should make the World Cup provided they did not slip up in Poland the following month. England, in particular, now seemed to be almost there. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “If England are not home and dry in the World Cup, they are at least now in the driveway and feeling only slightly damp. The point they took from last night’s goalless draw with Sweden has made a place in Italy next summer highly likely, given their superior goal difference.” It hadn’t been a vintage England display, but nor had it been a poor one. ‘Satisfactory’ was probably the best way of summing it up.

Blood, sweat and cheers

Yet the result wasn’t what the match was remembered for. Instead it was the sight of Butcher playing on with blood pouring from his head following a clash in the first half. Although he received several stitches at half-time and his head was bandaged, his all-white kit turned increasingly red as the game progressed. The match would embody the player’s patriotism and determination to see England through to Italy, never contemplating leaving the field as he led the side manfully in Bryan Robson’s absence.

Butcher’s commitment struck a chord with his manager, who would declare in his post-match excitement that “people won VCs in the war for less than that”. It was a comment clearly not meant literally but inevitably taken as such by some, leading to Bobby Robson apologising after complaints were received. Robson was quick to clarify he had only meant Butcher’s full-blooded display was heroic in the footballing sense.

The image of a blood-stained Butcher would grace most back pages the following day, along with praise for him from the watching scribes. Steve Curry, who sadly died last month, wrote in the Daily Express: “England rolled back the years last night to find the two veterans who marshalled them to within a point of the World Cup finals. The heroic Terry Butcher and Peter Shilton were the men who held England together in the face of Sweden’s late pressure.”

But for one man the game had been a nightmare. Webb sustained a serious Achilles injury in the final 20 minutes of the game. If Bobby Robson and Alex Ferguson were both frustrated that Bryan Robson was out injured, they would now be despondent at having to plan for life without another shared midfielder as Webb faced six months on the sidelines. It would be wrong to say his career was effectively ended by this injury – he returned to action a few months later and helped create Lee Martin’s winning goal for United in the 1990 FA Cup final replay – but it can be argued that things were never quite the same again. Although he would make the England squad for both the 1990 World Cup and Euro ’92, he would struggle to re-establish himself in the side and earned just seven more caps for his country. Other players would begin to establish themselves in the midfield at his expense.

The most notable of them was Paul Gascoigne. But, after he had come on for Webb in Sweden, Bobby Robson seemed to be running out of patience with him. There was little question about Gascoigne’s natural talent, but Robson was growing increasingly concerned about the midfielder’s ability to follow instructions and stay disciplined when England needed to grind out results. “In Sweden I stuck him on and told him to play in midfield. The first thing he does is go and play in front of Gary Lineker,” bemoaned Robson later in the year. Gazza was now placed in international footballing detention as he dropped down to the B side, left to demonstrate that he could again make the step up to the top grade.

Gascoigne would not earn another England cap until the spring of 1990. But long before then, England needed to wrap up their place in the finals by avoiding defeat in Poland in October 1989. It would be a close-run thing…

englandmemories View All

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

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