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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 11 – October 1989

We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by recounting the World Cup qualifier in Poland this week in 1989. England would get the point they required to make it to Italia ’90, but they would make hard work of it…

It’s 0-0 in the dying seconds between Poland and England in October 1989 and Bobby Robson’s side are moments away from securing World Cup qualification. Suddenly Ryszard Tarasiewicz takes aim from outside the box. It’s a Sliding Doors moment in English football. Let’s suppose for a minute the ball dips under the crossbar and goes in. After not conceding a goal in 539 minutes during the qualifying programme, England have finally been undone at the last. There’s no time to recover and they are now relying on other results to go their way to make the finals. But they don’t. Over the next few weeks, victories for Sweden in Poland, West Germany against Wales and Romania over Denmark conspire to cost England a place at Italia ’90 as they finish as the worst runner-up from the groups containing four teams.

It marks the end of the road for Robson and, as has so often happened during his reign, he comes under fire from the tabloid press. His years in charge have included two failures to qualify for major tournaments and another one when they were whitewashed at the finals, with his England side having not gone beyond the last eight in any competition. Whatever he does in the future, he can never shake off the sense of having achieved nothing more than mediocrity in the eyes of many when managing his country. England will be absent from the World Cup. No World in Motion, no joy as David Platt scores a last-gasp winner against Belgium, no heart-stopping drama against Cameroon and no Gazza’s tears in Turin. Paul Gascoigne remains largely unknown outside football circles and he must wait to grace a major tournament. Football’s renaissance in England will have to wait.

Of course, the reality was different. The shot shook the crossbar and rebounded back out. Seconds later it was all over. England had got the point needed to ensure qualification and a momentous summer would follow in Italy, as Robson bowed out as a national treasure and Gascoigne was the most talked-about individual in England. It’s a reminder of how fine the margins can be. A tiny bit more precision from Tarasiewicz and they would not have gone to the 1990 World Cup. How differently that era might be remembered had that been the case.

Life begins at 40

The trip to Poland was to be a significant one for Peter Shilton, who had turned 40 the month before and remained England’s number one. It was also a chance to reach closure over the events of 16 years earlier, when he had taken part of the blame for Poland’s goal at Wembley that ultimately cost England a World Cup place. On that occasion England had to win, now they only needed a draw. And even that might not be necessary depending on how things panned out elsewhere.

One myth that seems to have emerged is Robson blindly went on picking Shilton in his later years, ignoring concerns over his age and discounting younger talents such as Chris Woods and David Seaman. Robson addressed the issue in the 1990 autobiography, admitting he had seriously considered retiring Shilton after Euro ’88 when he had reached 100 caps and conceded four times in two games at the finals. Robson effectively put Shilton on trial during a friendly against Denmark in September 1988 and saw enough to keep him in his plans, but not without ensuring his club form was closely monitored. Woods had been given his chance to seize the number one shirt when selected against USSR at Euro ’88 and, in Robson’s eyes, had not impressed. It kept the door open for Shilton.

Peter Shilton had remained England’s regular goalkeeper after Euro ’88.

Robson would see Shilton enjoy something of an Indian summer in the 1988-89 season. He played his part as England finished the season unbeaten after conceding just three goals, while Derby County enjoyed a strong campaign to claim fifth place in the First Division (they let in just two more goals than champions Arsenal). When Robson considered calling time on Shilton’s international career in 1988, he noted how he felt the goalkeeper was increasingly staying on his line and was susceptible to long-range shots. But he would see improvement and believed it was not coincidence, suggesting Shilton had taken the key decision to keep in shape and cut alcohol from his diet. “It made him brighter and his reactions looked sharper,” wrote Robson in 1990. “He saw the long-shots earlier and dealt with them a lot better.”

Robson added: “His reactions were good, his sighting got better and the timing of his dives was in harmony with his reactions. I talked to him and told him how pleased I was that he was back to his best. He wouldn’t admit to it, but I was sure that stopping the traditional drinking after matches had made a major difference.” Shilton had kept his place and Robson appreciated him as one of the old heads who could steer the side through difficult tests. That had been true the previous month, when Shilton and Butcher earned the plaudits following the 0-0 draw in Sweden. In Chorzow, Shilton would further justify Robson’s continued faith in him and roll back the years to keep the Poles out.

Tense times

Bobby Robson was afforded the privilege of a blank weekend in the First Division ahead of this crucial game, with the squad spending it on home soil before heading out to Poland. John Barnes joined long-term injury victim Neil Webb on the absentee list, but captain Bryan Robson – who had missed the previous game in Sweden – was back in action and would lead the side to his manager’s delight.

The team was as expected given the personnel available. Shilton would be in goal, with Gary Stevens, Stuart Pearce and Des Walker joining Butcher in defence. Robson was accompanied in the heart of midfield by Steve McMahon, with David Rocastle and Chris Waddle picked out wide. Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker were once more paired up front, as the latter hoped to again get the better of the Polish defence having netted four times in two previous meetings. McMahon, now given his chance to establish himself in the side in Webb’s absence, was ready for the challenge and confident qualification would be secured. “I for one will not bottle it,” he declared. “I don’t think anybody in the team would.”

Steve McMahon seeks to win possession for England away to Poland.

When Albania took a shock lead away to Sweden the previous weekend, there was brief hope that England’s place in the finals could be virtually secured prior to the trip to Poland. But that was never likely to happen, with the Swedes coming back to win 3-1 and draw level on points with England with each still facing away tests in Poland. England, who would play two weeks earlier than the Swedes, had the superior goal difference and would almost certainly finish top of the group by winning. But a point would be sufficient to guarantee qualification as one of the best runners-up. But if they lost, they would be reliant on others doing them a favour.

Two years earlier, Bobby Robson’s side had needed only a point in Yugoslavia to qualify for Euro ’88 but had gone on the front foot and enjoyed a memorable 4-1 victory. However, there was to be no repeat here as they played it more cautiously and struggled to make the same imprint on the game. 1989 was a year that was significant in Poland’s political history, less so on the football field. The Poles were left with a mathematical rather than realistic hope of making the finals and were going through a period of transition, evidenced by their side being significantly changed from the one which had lost 3-0 at Wembley in June.

It wasn’t just different in terms of personnel. They were to adopt a noticeably positive formation as they picked just three men at the back and selected a high number of attack-minded players. England, eternally loyal to a 4-4-2 approach, would struggle to handle it and looked stretched in midfield as the Poles continually swept forward. With the visiting midfield having to help protect the defence, there was little opportunity to get forward and calm the nerves. It would make uncomfortable viewing for those tuning in to live BBC coverage of this early-earning match back home. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “Robson’s format looked tired and dated, and incapable of stopping a side playing with imagination, cunning skill and speed.”

The Poles continually applied pressure on England, running at them through the middle and making good use of the wings. Both Englishmen on the right – Stevens and Rocastle – would have question marks placed against them after struggling to stop Polish forays forward, as Shilton was repeatedly called into action. Celtic’s Dariusz Dziekanowski was twice thwarted by Shilton from close range, while future Everton man Robert Warzycha was inches away from outside the box as Shilton reacted well. Robson’s theory about Shilton having improved in his judgement of long-range efforts was continually put to the test, as he kept out Piotr Czachowski’s well-struck drive and then produced arguably his best save of the lot as he turned the same player’s curling effort away for a corner

Terry Butcher gets in a header during a rare England attack.

England posed little threat going forward, though they might have snatched an undeserved lead when McMahon fired narrowly wide and goalkeeper Jaroslaw Bako struggled to deal with Waddle’s cross. But there was widespread relief that England had made it to half-time with the game goalless. BBC pundit Jimmy Hill would express his bemusement that England looked unfit despite having had the privilege of spending several days together, while Bobby Charlton repeatedly voiced concern over the amount of space before afforded to the Poles and the lack of teamwork displayed by England. “There’s been no build-up. There’s been no pattern of play. They’ve given possession away so easily. I bet the Poles can’t believe how easy it’s been,” he said.

A close call

The second half saw England perform as a more cohesive unit and restrict the threat posed by Poland. For the first time since May 1987 and the final occasion in Bobby Robson’s reign, England resisted making any substitutions. Seaman, Paul Parker, Mike Phelan, Paul Gascoigne and Alan Smith remained on the bench, as the management trusted the chosen side and shape to see the game out. They did so as the Poles struggled to penetrate England in the way they had in the first 45 minutes, albeit after one notable scare with the game in its final seconds.

In what seemed to be a kiss of death moment, BBC co-commentator Trevor Brooking began declaring during the 90th minute how Shilton would be looking forward to going to the World Cup next year and seeking to emulate Dino Zoff’s achievements at a similar age for Italy in 1982. Barry Davies then pointed out that Shilton could pass Pat Jennings’ record tally of caps at the World Cup the following summer. But play was still going on and the Poles revived memories of the first half, as they again showed slick movement to create a final opening as the clock showed stoppage time was now being played. The ball fell to Tarasiewicz, who took aim from way out. Shilton was for once unable to stop a shot and he would see it rattle the crossbar, with the ball thankfully bouncing upwards and away. The final whistle sounded less than a minute later.

England were through with nine points from six games – it was still two points for a win – but there was little jubilation. Hill would state in his analysis that it was “only the grace of God” which had stopped the Poles snatching the win. Cynicism persisted after England had flopped at the Euros the year before and the performance in Poland had done little to silence the doubters. “England will have to reshape almost totally if they are to go to Italy with any more serious prospects than presenting themselves as fringe guests at the party,” lamented James Lawton in the Daily Express. A similar vibe could be picked up in The Guardian, as Lacey wrote of the impending summer in Italy: “Whether or not Bobby Robson’s players will achieve anything more than a suntan will be the subject of much discussion over the coming months.”

How the group table would look after the match. Sweden would subsequently win in Poland to leapfrog England into top spot.

One man who was immune to criticism afterwards was Shilton. For all the negative comments that get posted on social media about his later England years, the game in Poland was a reminder that he was still capable of holding his own in international football and putting his experience to good use on the big occasion. If he had not performed well, then England would almost certainly have lost and been sweating on matters elsewhere.

His manager certainly appreciated the performance, declaring Shilton had been “incredible”. It was a view backed up by many of the watching scribes. In the Daily Express, it was stated: “England’s amazing 40-year-old goalkeeper gave yet another stunning display of his ageless skill and spirit, making four brilliant saves to deny Poland for the 0-0 draw which guarantees next summer’s place in Italy.”

Peter Shilton is all smiles with Bobby Robson and Bryan Robson after his display against Poland.

Lacey wrote: “As long as Shilton remains fit and in form England will always have a chance of survival, but they still need that extra bit of inspiration if they are to make any sort of impression in Italy next year.” Gascoigne would duly offer that inspiration, but he was kept on the bench for the Poland game and would soon be dropped to the B team. Another man who would be central to the World Cup success, David Platt, had not even gained a senior cap yet.

Both men would need to convince Robson they were worthy of a place in the World Cup squad, amid a growing realisation in the ensuing weeks of just how precious the point gained in Poland had been. Sweden would win 2-0 in Poland to clinch top spot in the group on 10 points; West Germany defeated Wales 2-1 to go through with nine points as runners-up behind the Netherlands (imagine if only group winners had qualified); and Romania beat Denmark 3-1 to win the group and leave the Danes on eight points. They were to be the unlucky runner-up, but had England conceded that goal in Poland then they and Denmark would have been level on points and goal difference – but with the Danes having scored more goals.

It had been a tight qualification process and England had not made easy work of it. But they had shown defensive resilience by not conceding any goals in six games and Robson’s side were unbeaten since the horror show of Euro ’88. Now there were eight months to prepare for the finals in Italy, starting with a major test as the Italians visited Wembley in November 1989 for a friendly. More on that next month…

englandmemories View All

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

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