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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 13 – March 1990

We resume our series following England’s fortunes 30 years ago by focusing upon their friendly clash with Brazil at Wembley, as Bobby Robson stepped up his preparations for the 1990 World Cup…

England had gone into hibernation for the winter after beating Yugoslavia in December 1989 and some three months passed before they returned to action. Plenty had happened of sporting interest in the interim. The tide had started to turn for Alex Ferguson with Manchester United’s FA Cup run; Liverpool and Aston Villa had emerged as the two contenders for the First Division title; the Commonwealth Games had been staged in Auckland; England’s cricketers had surprisingly gone ahead in the Test series away to the West Indies (before inevitably losing); and the nation’s rugby union players had suffered a painful defeat to Scotland in the Grand Slam decider for the Five Nations.

England manager Bobby Robson had been left to focus on his plans for the World Cup without the benefit of working with his players since before Christmas. All he could do was watch club games and make his own judgements, with plenty of players still in the reckoning to make his final squad of 22. The original plan for the end of March had been for England to visit the Republic of Ireland, but the friendly was cancelled after the sides were paired together in the World Cup draw. However, England would be visiting Dublin later in the year anyway after being placed in the same qualifying group for Euro ’92.

Although a B international between the sides would still go ahead in Cork, England were left to find an alternative opponent at senior level. They aimed big and were rewarded by setting up a clash with Brazil at Wembley on March 28. With Scotland hosting Argentina on the same night, it was a chance for British football to compare itself with the South American giants. Robson predicted that whoever won the World Cup would have to overcome Brazil en route, rating them as favourites.

Not too many were backing England to go all the way as the spring of 1990 arrived, despite remaining unbeaten since the horror show of Euro ’88. Brazil, who had ended a surprising 40-year wait to win the Copa America the previous year, were also coming into the game off the back of a good run of form and a 14-match sequence since their last defeat (the same as England). Friendly wins away to Italy and the Netherlands suggested this was going to be a tough night for Robson’s men. The manager himself knew that, while it was only a friendly, the pressure on him would grow again if England lost and looked second best.

It is open to debate how good Brazil were in 1990. Few talk about them in the same breath as the great side of 1970, the expressive but heartbroken team of 1982 or the star-studded squad they boasted later in the 1990s. It was an era when Brazil were adopting more traditionally ‘European’ tactical formations than the free-flowing approach that had often paid off in the past. Revered players such as Zico and Socrates were no longer on the scene, while rising star Romario was to miss this game through injury – being reduced to a bit-part role at the World Cup. However, they had a proven striker in Careca who played alongside Diego Maradona at Napoli and had regularly netted at the 1986 World Cup. Several players in the side at Wembley – such as Jorginho, Branco, Dunga, Bebeto and goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel – would go on to feature prominently in Brazil’s 1994 World Cup triumph.

But in the 1990 finals they would score just four times in as many matches, bowing out in the last 16 to arch-rivals Argentina. It would be only the second time England had progressed further at a World Cup than the Brazilians. All that lay three months in the future as a crowd of 80,000 gathered at a newly all-seater Wembley in March 1990 for a friendly that would not be without its controversy…

The final countdown

The visit of Brazil marked England’s first match of the 1990s and there was a sense that a new era was beckoning – at least in terms of television coverage. New channel BSB would be showing the game live for the small number of people who had purchased the ‘squarial’, while satellite rival Sky had started to see the benefit of broadcasting any live football that was up for grabs. Three days earlier they had shown Chelsea beating Middlesbrough in the Zenith Data Systems Cup final at Wembley.

On that same day, a group of England players took part in a recording session with New Order for the team’s World Cup single World in Motion. John Barnes, not for the only time in his football career, earned the chance to show some serious rapping as he was picked over the likes of Des Walker and Peter Beardsley for a cameo role that he would forever be associated with. It was still early days for World in Motion, but these were crucial steps in ensuring it hit the right notes after the last couple of official England songs had flopped in the charts. Footage from the Brazil game would be used as part of the video.

Bobby Robson would be more concerned with finding the right England side for the World Cup. Rather than experiment with personnel against Brazil, he wanted to see what his regular side could produce against one of the best teams in the world. At least nine England players on the pitch could have been predicted to start by anyone with the slightest interest in the team, so familiar was the shape of the side. Peter Shilton was in goal, with Gary Stevens, Stuart Pearce, Terry Butcher and Des Walker in defence. Robson went for two wingers in John Barnes and Chris Waddle, with Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley yet again paired in attack.

Terry Butcher captained England against Brazil.

But it was in the heart of midfield where the manager continued to cast the net. With captain Bryan Robson and Manchester United colleague Neil Webb both nearing the end of lengthy injury lay-offs, the opportunity existed for others to stake a place. Steve McMahon had featured regularly during the season and looked like making the World Cup squad, but he knew he needed to impress to earn a starting berth at the tournament. He would be joined in the middle by David Platt, earning only his third cap and starting an international for the first time.

Little more than two years after playing in the Fourth Division with Crewe Alexandra, Platt was enjoying an excellent season with Aston Villa and would soon be voted PFA Player of the Year. Bobby Robson, not for the first time in his England reign, would lament that “you can’t replace Bryan Robson”. But he believed a combination of McMahon and Platt could offer England the strength and attacking threat he always trusted his captain and namesake to provide.

The manager continued to resist adopting a sweeper system and he remained faithful to ‘English’ tactical approaches, as he believed in deploying two natural wingers to supply crosses to the front duo. His tactics did not receive widespread support. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian on the morning of the game: “If Bobby Robson were organising a pop concert at Wembley he would have to call it Sounds of the Sixties – and the early Sixties at that. The 4-2-4 system was being found out before the Beatles were really in. For Platt and McMahon, read the Everly Brothers.” It may have only been a friendly, but Robson had his chance to show that a system he believed in could beat a leading nation.

A night of ‘three goalkeepers’

Lacey ended his match preview by expressing his view that “the sweeperless English defence will need Walker’s speed and Shilton’s goalkeeping to get it out of trouble”. But in the opening minutes they got it into trouble. A collision between the pair meant England would have to play the majority of the game without their veteran goalkeeper, as Chris Woods came on for his first international appearance since September 1988. With Dave Beasant and David Seaman both having featured in recent internationals, Woods needed to cement his place as the most serious challenger to Shilton.

He would be relatively untroubled during the first half, during which England went ahead. A Beardsley corner in the 37th minute was flicked on by Barnes for Lineker – who revealed subsequently he had to play in boots that didn’t match, after one of them split before the game – to head home from close range. It was a move that delighted Robson, having seen a training ground routine worked to perfection. Three years earlier Lineker had opened the scoring at home to Brazil with a header at the same stage of the game and the visitors had immediately equalised. They didn’t do so here, although Branco tried his luck from distance with a free-kick that Woods gathered at the second attempt.

Gary Lineker heads in the winning goal.

Branco continued to impress for Brazil, with BBC commentator John Motson predicting he could be one of the stars of the World Cup. After the break the future Middlesbrough man again forced Woods into a save from a free-kick as Brazil showed desire to gain a positive result. They may well have got one, but four years on from the ‘Hand of God’ England would themselves benefit from a contentious use of the arm. The substitute Muller managed to get between England’s defenders and rounded Woods, only to see his effort cleared away at the last by Pearce.

The initial question was whether it was another ‘did it cross the line?’ moment, with Motson inevitably drawing comparisons with a certain incident at the same end in the 1966 World Cup final as the referee Klaus Perchel went over to consult his linesman. It wasn’t a goal, but that wasn’t the only reason the Brazilians surrounded the referee. An action replay indicated Pearce had kept the ball out with his hand. It was an incident that VAR would have had a field day with nowadays, but 30 years ago it was a case of having to accept the judgement of the officials. The luck was very much with England.

Even though the stakes were lower, it’s interesting to compare the reaction to England being the beneficiary of a use of the hand to the outcry when Diego Maradona had applied his against them in 1986. Lacey didn’t mention it until several paragraphs into his match report, while BBC co-commentator Trevor Brooking appeared to offer no condemnation as he described it as “a good goalkeeping save”. When asked in 2002 for his memories of the Brazil game, Butcher – who has never hidden his contempt for Maradona over his actions in 1986 – would state he could not recall the handball. In the aftermath of the game, Bobby Robson would be quoted as saying that the only person whose view counted was the referee. In his autobiography later in the year, Robson merely wrote that “luck went our way”.

His opposite number Sebastiao Lazaroni would cut a frustrated figure in reaching the same conclusion, as he wryly joked that England had used three different goalkeepers during the evening in Shilton, Woods and Pearce. The clearance would prove decisive as England held out for a 1-0 win, with Muller squandering a late chance to equalise when he headed over from close range. Although the Brazilians had offered characteristic technique at times, they had not been as flamboyant as other sides they have fielded down the years and were also less threatening in front of goal. It offered a telling indicator of the summer that would follow for them.

Robson, who had now twice led England to victory over Brazil, would express disappointment over his side lapsing into playing “hurly, burly First Division football” in the closing stages, rather than keeping possession. But he would also be pleased they had competed with a leading football nation and beaten them, even if luck had been on their side over the Pearce incident.

Butcher and Lineker with the trophy England were presented with after the game.

The unbeaten run now stood at 15 games, with just four goals conceded in that time. It may have only been a friendly – although a trophy was presented at the end – but England were building momentum in terms of results and gearing up nicely for the World Cup challenge. With Scotland also winning 1-0 against Argentina, it had been a successful night for British football as two prized scalps had been claimed. But these were not the games the year would be remembered for. The true tests would come in the World Cup in June.

The B-eginning of the end

Platt had done enough to feel confident he could make the World Cup squad, Robson describing his performance as “quietly effective”. Meanwhile, Woods was almost certain to spend the summer in Italy after a solid performance. But many of the others attending auditions that week would realise their chances of spending the summer in Italy were all but gone. The England B team suffered a heavy 4-1 defeat to the Republic of Ireland, despite taking the lead through an excellent Dalian Atkinson strike. The scoreline would carry repercussions, given all 14 outfield players England used in Cork would fail to make the World Cup squad.

Among them was Tony Adams, now reduced to a peripheral figure in the England set-up after starting every game at Euro ’88. Matt Le Tissier would struggle to make an impact and be replaced by Paul Lake, who also saw his World Cup chances ebb away. An imminent injury nightmare meant it was as close as he would get to making the senior side. Other players such as David Batty and Carlton Palmer would eventually get the chance to establish themselves in the England team, but not until after the 1990 World Cup.

One man whose World Cup hopes remained uncertain was Paul Gascoigne, who replaced Beardsley in the closing stages against Brazil but faced competition for one of the midfield spots in the squad. The following month would see him given the chance to convince Robson of his worth, as Czechoslovakia came to Wembley. It was an opportunity he would firmly grasp…

englandmemories View All

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

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