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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 12 – November/December 1989

In the latest of our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago, we recall friendlies against Italy in November 1989 and Yugoslavia the following month, as well as the 1990 World Cup draw taking place…

On the night of November 15, 1989, most eyes across Europe were on the final games in the qualifying process for the following year’s World Cup. Sides including West Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland made it through, while notable absentees from the finals would be France and Denmark. One nation not on edge that night was England, who had scraped through in their final qualifier away to Poland the previous month. Although Sweden had leapfrogged them to top spot since then, England knew they would definitely go through as one of the best runners-up regardless of what happened in the other groups. It meant Bobby Robson would have eight months to plan for the following year’s World Cup finals in Italy.

The first stage of that process would be a glamour friendly against the Italians at Wembley on November 15. Although England were unbeaten since being whitewashed at Euro ’88, critics had happily pointed out that they had not met any footballing heavyweights during the run. This was not totally by choice, given the threat of trouble had led to a friendly meeting in Italy the previous year being scrapped. But now they were coming up against one of the few sides considered capable of winning the World Cup.

Robson would find England friendlies were a bit of a no-win. If he stuck with his regular side and they achieved a good result, then he would have it rammed down his throat that such games didn’t matter and he should be experimenting. But if he duly did that and the results didn’t come, then he would be under fire. He had experienced that 12 months earlier in Saudi Arabia and it was something he wasn’t willing to put himself through again.

A game of two halves

The side selected against Italy would ooze familiarly. Of the starting line-up, only possibly Steve McMahon – who had been on the fringes of the side prior to Neil Webb’s recent injury – did not look a certainty to be going to the World Cup. But even he was more than likely to make the squad, with his main challenge being to convince Bobby Robson he was worthy of his place in the main XI.

The rest of the team picked itself. Peter Shilton was in goal, with Gary Stevens and Stuart Pearce at full-back and Des Walker joining Terry Butcher in the centre of defence. Bryan Robson captained the side from the centre of midfield, accompanied by McMahon, with wingers John Barnes and Chris Waddle both selected along with forwards Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker.

Terry Butcher competes for the ball.

But there would be more novelty in who was on the bench. The uncapped quartet of Dave Beasant, Mike Phelan, David Platt and Nigel Winterburn would all look to come on, along with Steve Hodge – who had not played for England for more than a year – as the audition process really began for the World Cup squad. That had also been the case 24 hours earlier at Brighton’s Goldstone Ground when England and Italy drew 1-1 at B level and the players on show included Paul Gascoigne and Salvatore Schillaci – who would both go on to make such an impact during Italia ’90. Beasant had come off the bench in that game and could now do likewise at senior level the following night at Wembley, 18 months on from his heroics in the FA Cup final for Wimbledon.

It would be very much a game of two halves – one in which England’s regular side played, the other seeing the substitutes enter the action. At the break, Shilton and Robson – with more than 190 caps between them – were replaced by newcomers Beasant and Phelan. Midway through the second half there would be further changes, as Pearce and McMahon came off and Winterburn and Hodge entered the action. But the man who would go on to make the biggest impact for his country would be the last to come off the bench, Platt winning the first of his 62 caps when he replaced Beardsley 12 minutes from time.

Walter Zenga comes out to claim the ball during an England attack.

The one constant throughout the 90 minutes was the performance of Waddle. His displays for England had not always generated praise, but here he shone and appeared to be benefiting from his summer switch to Marseille. He produced a good cross for Barnes, who saw his header saved by Walter Zenga during his side’s first serious attack. After the break his free-kick would lead to Lineker putting the ball in the net, only for it to be disallowed. Another ball in created an opening for Phelan, who so nearly scored from outside the box. Later he sparked uncharacteristic havoc in the Italian box when he played the ball into the goalmouth, with Beardsley and Stevens both coming close to breaking the deadlock.

It was a third successive 0-0 draw for England, but there was a more positive reaction than had greeted the previous month’s stalemate in Poland. Although Italy had started the brighter and had a goal ruled out themselves, England had grown into the game and competed well with a leading side. The one frustration was the goal did not come, with the 1989-90 season so far monopolised by stalemates. “Had we won 2-0 that night no one would have complained,” wrote Robson the following year. David Lacey in The Guardian summed matters up by writing: “England showed last night that they were not a bad side, without proving conclusively to themselves that they were a really good one.”

England would normally have gone into hibernation for the winter at this point. But there was still one game left during the 1980s against Yugoslavia at Wembley on December 13. By then, they would know who they would face during the World Cup group stage.

A familiar feeling

England had been granted seeded status for the 1990 World Cup, something that was viewed as controversial given their recent World Cup performances, their failure to win the qualifying group and the way they had flopped at Euro ’88. Suspicions would be raised over their status being about ensuring they could be isolated on Sardinia for the group stage, as concern persisted over what damage a section of their followers were capable of causing. Jimmy Greaves was not impressed, saying on Saint & Greavsie: “In the true context of a sporting event, the best teams should be seeded in the World Cup. England are clearly not [one of] the best of the six teams. They didn’t even finish top of their group.”

Bobby Robson and Dutch counterpart Thijs Libregts shake hands after the sides were paired together in the World Cup draw.

Spain were the side England got the seeded nod ahead of, but the Dutch might have also felt they deserved the status after winning Euro ’88 and finishing ahead of West Germany in their qualifying group for the World Cup. However, they would pay for having failed to qualify for the previous two World Cups. They were a side England wanted to avoid from the second set of seeds, but didn’t.

If that wasn’t bad enough, then England found themselves paired with another side who had beaten them at Euro ’88 in the Republic of Ireland. There was an uncomfortable sense of deja vu that the trio would all be in the same group again, with the fixtures panning out exactly the same way. At least the fourth side in the group differed, with Egypt looking an easier proposition than the Soviet Union had been.

Robson was in Rome and gave his reaction to facing two of the same opponents again, saying: “It is more than ironical, it is unbelievable. It is certainly not the draw I had anticipated. We can’t change it, so let’s look forward to it.” That night, the past, present and future Match of the Day presenters were together on the show, as Lineker and Jimmy Hill joined Des Lynam to reflect on the draw. While others had voiced disappointment over the lack of variety thrown up by the draw, Lineker saw positives as he recognised the chance for England to lay to rest the pain of Euro ’88. “They say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place so hopefully it won’t,” he said with a knowing smile.

The goal drought ends

All this lay six months away, with more pressing concerns for Robson being to find a winning formula in friendlies and to decide on his 22 players to take to the finals. Even the fixtures for these warm-up games were proving problematic. They had been due to visit Dublin in March to face the Republic of Ireland, but this was called off shortly after the draw paired them together. It had been planned for England to conclude the 1980s with a December friendly away to the Netherlands, but the potential consequences if there was crowd trouble had led to it being scrapped three months beforehand. It just wasn’t worth the risk so close to the finals.

Instead, England would play at Wembley as Yugoslavia provided the opposition. It was a decent enough fixture, with the Yugoslavs having qualified for the finals and boasting players who would look to make an impact in Italy. Robson would this time experiment from the start. Paul Parker, Michael Thomas, David Rocastle and Steve Bull would all get the chance to prove they were worthy of going to the World Cup. The selection of Bull, starting an international for the first time, seemed to suggest Robson was looking to find the right approach in attack after the three recent blanks.

Robson opted to pair Bull with Lineker, as he looked to see if this partnership could function as well as Beardsley-Lineker often had. “They are both goalscorers and that is what we have been short of this season,” declared the manager. “So let’s see whether it will work.” The wait for a goal would soon end, but it would be thanks to somebody else – a man who had regularly got on the scoresheet throughout the 1980s.

England’s first match of the decade against the Republic of Ireland in February 1980 had marked Bryan Robson’s international debut. He had become synonymous with the side during the decade, holding the captain’s armband from 1982 onwards. Injury lay-offs apart, he was the first name on his namesake and manager’s team sheet as he put his body on the line in every game he played. Now approaching his 33rd birthday, the 1990 World Cup was likely to represent his international swansong. He was clearly determined to succeed.

The goal drought would end after 38 seconds, for the fastest recorded international goal at Wembley. Waddle curled a free-kick into the box and Robson found space to head home. But, having rediscovered their scoring touch, England would then be breached at the other end for only the third time in 1989. With 17 minutes played, Haris Skoro went on a solo run before producing an excellent finish past Shilton. The score remained 1-1 at the break, when Beasant replaced Shilton again and Tony Dorigo came on for his debut – 18 months after being an unused squad member during Euro ’88 – in place of Pearce. Further changes would follow midway through the second half, as Rocastle and Thomas made way for Hodge and Platt. Neither Arsenal man had impressed Bobby Robson on the night and they would both ultimately miss out on a place in the World Cup squad, with Thomas never capped again.


Bryan Robson scored twice for England against Yugoslavia.

It probably didn’t help their cause that England scored shortly after they had gone off. An impressive run by Parker ended with the ball finding its way to Robson via a good flick-on by Bull, with the captain firing into the bottom corner of the net. It was his 26th and final England goal and proved decisive as the side won 2-1. “Bobby Robson will be relieved at not having to sit out three-and-a-half months on a bad result,” wrote Lacey. “But the England manager will not have learned anything fundamentally new.”

Waddle had once more impressed. “Sir Stanley Matthews came in before the game and I told him to watch out for Waddle,” wrote Bobby Robson. “Neither he nor I was disappointed. He was outstanding and I was beginning to think that we had a World Cup winner in our midst.” There was suddenly a bit of belief over what England could achieve.

1989 had been a better year for England than 1988, with the side completing a calendar year unbeaten for the first time since 1971. But the real acid test of their revival post-Euro ’88 would come the following summer. As the nation said goodbye to the 1980s, thoughts were already turning to the World Cup in Italy. Those plans would be stepped up the following March when England were back in action against Brazil…

englandmemories View All

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

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