We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by focusing upon the home friendly against Czechoslovakia in April 1990. It was a night that would belong to Steve Bull and Paul Gascoigne…
Whenever any Englishman gets nostalgic about Italia ’90, the odds are Paul Gascoigne will soon be mentioned among their main memories of that summer. But he could quite easily have had little or no involvement in the tournament. A majestic display at home to Czechoslovakia in April 1990 would at last convince Bobby Robson that Gazza was capable of a place in his World Cup team and delivering on the biggest stage.
The game against the Czechs took place 12 months after Gazza had scored his first international goal to clinch a 5-0 win over Albania at Wembley. But it had been followed by Robson lamenting that Gascoigne “played in every position except the one I told him to play in”. If Robson’s post-match interview conveyed an underlying affection for Gazza, then it was less in evidence the following September. The manager again felt Gascoigne had failed to comply with his instructions when he came off the bench during the goalless World Cup qualifier in Sweden.
The seven months since then had done little to reassure Gascoigne he was a certainty to go to the World Cup. He found himself either watching on from the bench or banished to the B team. Robson did not doubt that Gascoigne had talent, but he had great reservations about whether the player could successfully apply that ability on the big stage and stay disciplined. He noted in the 1990 edition of his autobiography how he had been concerned about Gascoigne’s “Mars Bars-induced weight problems and volatile temperament”.
By April 1990, the prospects of Gascoigne featuring prominently at the World Cup appeared to be fading. Bryan Robson, Neil Webb, Steve McMahon and newcomer David Platt all seemed to be ahead of him in the fight for places in centre midfield. That was without factoring in whether Bobby Robson may consider if David Rocastle, Trevor Steven and Steve Hodge could do a job for England in the middle (wide positions were now monopolised by John Barnes and Chris Waddle).
Further to that, Robson had not ruled out other midfielders coming into the fold. There was speculation early in 1990 that veteran Ray Wilkins could be in line for a surprise England recall after being out of the picture for more than three years. Although Wilkins was a different type of player to Gascoigne, there would be limits on how many midfielders Robson could realistically name in his squad and Gazza knew he could not afford to be pushed further down the pecking order. Ultimately, Wilkins did not get called up but Robson confirmed he had seriously toyed with the idea.
Paul Gascoigne made headlines with his performance at Wembley.
The visit of Czechoslovakia to Wembley on April 25 would be billed as crunch time for Gascoigne in terms of going to the World Cup. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “Gascoigne, now jauntily established as the squad’s red nose, is being given the opportunity to show he is more than comic relief.” Robson would certainly recognise Gascoigne had a lot more to offer than simply being the team joker, insisting he had “matured a bit and learnt a lot”.
“All eyes will be on him tomorrow and this is his chance to do well for himself,” said Robson ahead of the game. The notion that it was do or die for Gascoigne’s World Cup prospects may have become a little overplayed, given Robson wrote later in the year he had already pencilled him into his tournament squad some time earlier. But one suspects he would have found himself at the World Cup only on the periphery if he had fluffed his lines against Czechoslovakia.
This was his chance to shine and he took it with a virtuoso performance…
Bull leads the charge
While much of the emphasis of that Czechoslovakia game may be about Gascoigne, he would share the limelight with another player who proved he deserved to be part of the World Cup squad. Steve Bull’s goalscoring exploits seemed to come out of the pages of Roy of the Rovers, especially when he netted on his England debut in 1989 against Scotland while, technically at least, still a Third Division player with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
But now he needed to guarantee his spot in the World Cup squad, as he took his place in the starting line-up against the Czechs – where the man seeking to keep him out was a fellow Second Division player, West Ham United’s recent signing Ludek Miklosko. In 1986 Bobby Robson had named four natural forwards in his squad – Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley, Mark Hateley and Kerry Dixon – but now he seemed minded to just take three. It was realistically a choice between Bull and Alan Smith to accompany Lineker and Beardsley. Bull had confidence in front of goal and was featuring more for the team, but Smith boasted greater experience of playing at the top level and had also previously formed a partnership with Lineker at Leicester City.
Bull seemed to be leading the charge. He was starting for the senior side, whereas Smith was picked for the B team to face the Czechs at Sunderland the night before. But Smith boosted his prospects by scoring both goals in a 2-0 win, on a night when he was partnered by local favourite Marco Gabbiadini in attack. However, the man to mainly benefit from the game was Webb as he put his injury nightmare behind him. He did enough at Roker Park to provide assurances he was ready to return to the main squad.
David Seaman would be doing that even sooner. He started the game for the B team and would now be on the bench at Wembley 24 hours later, as he appeared to be edging ahead of Dave Beasant in the fight to join Peter Shilton and Chris Woods as goalkeepers selected to go to the World Cup. Woods would have been the substitute but for a freak accident the day before, when it was reported he lacerated a finger while trying to cut through the elastic in his tracksuit bottoms. It summed up a frustrating couple of years for him, with the chance to usurp Shilton as number one after Euro ’88 having slipped away.
The match was taking place during the final fortnight of the league season, with injury concerns leading to the withdrawals of some regular players. Barnes and Waddle were not involved, so Bobby Robson turned the clock back to the 1986 World Cup by playing Trevor Steven on the right of midfield and Steve Hodge on the left. Both men had only featured sporadically in the intervening four years and would be looking to ensure they were in the World Cup plans. Beardsley was another absentee, along with Gary Stevens and Paul Parker. The absence of the latter two paved the way for Arsenal’s Lee Dixon to make his debut.
It was a mixture of regulars and fringe men that started the game. Shilton was in goal, with Dixon joined in defence by Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Stuart Pearce. Gascoigne and Bryan Robson were in the heart of midfield, with Steven and Hodge either side of them and Bull partnering Lineker up front. It was the first meeting with Czechoslovakia since the group stage of the 1982 World Cup, which had also been the last time the Czechs had graced a major tournament. But they had qualified for the 1990 World Cup under Dr Jozef Venglos – soon to take over at Aston Villa – and would fancy their chances of finishing in the top two of a group containing Italy, Austria and the United States.
Those who arrived at Wembley early were able to enjoy the night’s undercard, with Andrew Cole scoring as England and Czechoslovakia drew 1-1 at youth level. If there weren’t many present to see that, then the assembled congregation wasn’t much bigger come the time the seniors kicked off. Just 21,342 attended – lower than all three Football League play-off finals at Wembley the following month – and it was a figure that would have been even smaller but for many Wolves fans attending to cheer on Bull.
England had not conceded any goals during qualifying for the World Cup, while the Czech defence was breached just three times en route to the finals. Therefore, the smart money was on a tight game in which defences dominated. It proved to be anything but.
Gascoigne’s glorious night
Just 10 minutes had passed when the Czechs served notice of their wish to go at England. A sweeping move ended with tall forward Tomos Skuhravy being able to find space in the defence to win a header and score past Shilton. It was a firm indicator of the aerial threat posed by Skuhravy and the Czechs would use him to good effect during the World Cup, as he netted five times to help them reach the last eight.
But his contribution at Wembley would soon be overshadowed by another man who would shine in Italy. After 17 minutes, Gascoigne lofted an absolutely delightful ball through for Bull to score. Hodge won possession with an excellent sliding tackle to seize upon hesitancy by Labos Kubik; Gascoigne displayed both vision and confidence to provide such a measured assist; and Bull looked every inch an international striker as he controlled the ball with his chest before unleashing a tremendous finish on the half-volley. Three men, within seconds, had each taken a huge step towards being part of the World Cup experience.
Steve Bull scores England’s first goal against Czechoslovakia.
Gascoigne again played a prominent part in England’s second goal six minutes later. His corner caused havoc in the box and the ball would eventually find its way to Pearce, who netted his first international goal from within the six-yard box. The score remained 2-1 until the break, when Pearce made way for Tony Dorigo. Shilton once more left the action early as Seaman earned his third cap at senior level, while Walker – who, like Pearce, would be back at Wembley four days later to play for Nottingham Forest in the League Cup final against Oldham Athletic – was replaced by Mark Wright. It was Wright’s first cap since Euro ’88, having regularly watched on from the sidelines as Butcher and Walker became the established pairing.
Gascoigne was dictating proceedings from midfield and he stepped things up further in the 55th minute. Steven laid the ball into his path near the right flank, with Gascoigne showing both skill and power to burst past opponents and then produce a pinpoint cross that Bull headed home for his second of the evening. He nearly completed his hat-trick when he he headed wide from a Gascoigne free-kick, as the pair continued to link up well together and prove their worth to Bobby Robson.
England were sparkling in attack but looking less composed at the back and they were punished for conceding a free-kick on the edge of the box with 10 minutes remaining, Kubik placing the ball just out of the reach of Seaman to make the scoreline 3-2. It was the first time since the pitiful display against USSR at Euro ’88 that England had conceded more than once in a game.
That defeat had been the last game before Gascoigne’s England debut and in the closing stages here he would emphasise how much he could potentially offer during the World Cup. Wright displayed his competence at bringing the ball out of defence as he fed Dorigo, who swiftly played in Gascoigne. He put the seal on a fine display by charging through and firing into the net, peeling away in delight. “Thank you very much,” purred Barry Davies in his BBC commentary, as Bobby Robson wagged his finger to his colleagues on the bench as if to convey that he’d now seen exactly what Gazza could do in an England shirt.
Paul Gascoigne and Steve Bull both enjoyed a great night against Czechoslovakia.
An England match at Wembley had finished 4-2 for the first time since the 1966 World Cup final and Gascoigne’s display had the nation dreaming of further glory in the future. He had stood out as the leading performer, with Bull playing a major supporting role in the night’s success. For the first time since the previous June, somebody other than Lineker or Bryan Robson – who made way for McMahon during the second half against the Czechs – had scored for England. England netting four times was a welcome boost after a number of concerning struggles in front of goal since 1988. The one disappointment was that two goals had been conceded.
Gascoigne’s contribution dominated newspaper analysis of the game. “The England manager may still consider Paul Gascoigne to be ‘as daft as a brush’ but last night the brush was in the hand of a man who did not need artistic licence to make his point,” wrote Lacey, who hailed the midfielder for having “stuck to the script, answered his cues and still managed to provide a punchline with a well-struck goal in the final minute”.
It had been an entertaining game, England had stretched their unbeaten run and certain players had proved they were worthy of going to the World Cup. Bobby Robson could feel pretty happy with England’s progress as April 1990 neared its conclusion. But, as had so often happened during his rollercoaster reign, the mood would swiftly change. The following month would see the news break that his time at the England helm was drawing to a conclusion…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.