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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 15 – May 1990

We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago, recalling the final two home games prior to Italia ’90 and the fallout from the news that Bobby Robson would be moving on after the tournament…

May 1990 was to be a pretty crucial month for England in terms of their preparations for Italia ’90. They would play home friendlies against Denmark and Uruguay before heading out to Sardinia for the finals. There was also to be the small matter of Bobby Robson finalising who would be in his 22-man squad.

The number of places still realistically up for grabs had dwindled the previous month after the entertaining 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia, with the performance of players including Paul Gascoigne and Steve Bull virtually ensuring they would make the squad. That night had also seen Trevor Steven boost his chances of being selected, while Steve Hodge had re-emerged as an option for England on the left of midfield. It all meant David Rocastle was in danger of missing out. Mark Wright’s return to the fold meant he appeared to be edging out Tony Adams in the fight for the last central defensive spot.

Robson named a 26-man squad for the friendlies at home to Denmark on May 15 and Uruguay on May 22, from which four men would be told they were not going to the World Cup. This was realistically going to be be one player per position, including in goal as Robson prepared to decide over whether David Seaman or Dave Beasant would be selected along with Peter Shilton and Chris Woods. But his midfield plans for the Denmark game were hit by the FA Cup final between Manchester United and Crystal Palace going to a replay. This would take place just two nights later and meant Bryan Robson and Neil Webb were unavailable.

England’s side was largely as expected. Shilton was in goal, with the familiar back line of Gary Stevens, Stuart Pearce, Terry Butcher and Des Walker once more picked. Gascoigne was joined in centre of midfield by Steve McMahon, with Hodge selected again along with John Barnes and Chris Waddle. The latter was wearing the number nine shirt as Bobby Robson selected just one natural striker in Gary Lineker, as he sought to find the right balance with the players available and looked to see if Barnes could sparkle more in a free role.

It was the third time England and Denmark had met in friendlies in the two-year cycle since Euro ’88. Their fortunes had been similar. They had both finished with no points in the European Championship, had each won at home to Brazil since then and had both come second in their qualifying groups for Italia ’90. But England had, crucially, collected a point more and that meant they had qualified while the Danes missed out due to having the worst record of the runners-up from groups containing four teams.

Denmark were now left to plan for the future and start preparing for trying to qualify for Euro ’92. In a week when Manchester United’s goalkeeping situation was in the spotlight, the man who would go on to spend much of the decade between the sticks at Old Trafford was on the field at Wembley. Brondby goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was still relatively unknown at the time, but this was less the case with Michael Laudrup – who had been part of the ‘Danish Dynamite’ side that won at Wembley in 1983. He was joined in the side by younger brother Brian, as well as defender Kent Nielsen who had just helped Aston Villa finish second in the First Division.

Where the Czechs had offered space for England to exploit, the Danes kept it tight. Just 27,643 fans were at Wembley, making for a low-key atmosphere. They would not be too impressed by what England offered. Slack marking could have been punished if Lars Olsen had not hesitated when through on goal, allowing Des Walker to make a last-ditch tackle. Michael Laudrup also went close as the Danes continued to look the more likely side to forge ahead.

A goal from Gary Lineker gave England victory over Denmark.

But it was to be England who did so. The only goal in the second half would become the latest ‘did it cross the line?’ moment at Wembley, as Hodge crossed for Lineker. His shot hit the underside of the bar but was correctly adjudged to have crossed the line. England made five changes during the game, with Woods, Rocastle, Bull, David Platt and Tony Dorigo all entering the action. Woods was called upon to make a vital late save to ensure victory, denying Henrik Andersen from close range. He clearly remained the main challenger to Shilton, but just three substitute appearances since Euro ’88 meant he was unlikely to usurp him as number one during the World Cup.

It hadn’t been the most fluid of England displays, but they had at least retained the winning habit. “Minuses at the start. Pluses at the end,” summarised Barry Davies at the end of his commentary for the BBC. A 1-0 win over Denmark had marked the start of England’s long unbeaten run in September 1988. What turned out to be the final game in the 17-match sequence had produced the same result.

Beaten at last

England now had a week until their next game – the annual match against Scotland was not going ahead, marking the end of one of British football’s oldest traditions – but it remained a busy time during the World Cup preparations. World in Motion was released and was met with popular acclaim, while Bobby Robson was left to decide upon his final 22-man squad for the finals.

In 1988-89, Arsenal won the First Division title with a side largely comprising English players. During the two-year cycle since Euro ’88, there had been caps for Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Brian Marwood, David Rocastle, Alan Smith, Michael Thomas and Nigel Winterburn (with Paul Davis being an unused substitute). But there would not be a single Gunner in the World Cup squad. Although David Seaman would join Arsenal during the summer, he was still with QPR as he prepared to go to the World Cup after getting the nod over Dave Beasant (but there would be a twist there, as we will recall next month).

Adams was given a glimmer of hope as there was an injury concern with Mark Wright – as so often seemed to happen with him ahead of tournaments – when the squad was announced. But the Derby defender was given the all-clear to head to the World Cup. Smith lost out due to a combination of Bobby Robson only selecting three natural forwards and favouring Steve Bull.

Perhaps the unluckiest man of all was Rocastle, who had featured prominently during qualifying but had not impressed Robson during his recent outings. Robson wrote later in the year: “Rocky was unlucky to have a dip in form at the wrong time, but both he and his young Arsenal team-mate Michael Thomas would come again.” But cruelly, this wouldn’t be true. Thomas would not earn another cap, while Rocastle never graced a major tournament and he would die at a tragically young age in 2001.

Robson now prepared for the tournament dress rehearsal at home to Uruguay on May 22, coming up against a side England could feasibly face again in the last 16 of the World Cup (if England won Group F and Uruguay finished second in Group E). Bryan Robson returned to the side in place of McMahon, while Paul Parker took Gary Stevens’ place at right back on a night when England wore red shirts. Uruguay had last visited Wembley for the opening game of the 1966 World Cup, when they stifled England and ground out a 0-0 draw. Here they showed greater attacking intent and were rewarded as goals from Santiago Ostolaza and Jose Perdomo earned a 2-1 win, inflicting England’s first defeat since June 1988 and first home loss since June 1984 (both against the Soviet Union).

John Barnes scored an excellent goal for England against Uruguay.

The previous Wembley loss had been swiftly followed by a famous win in Brazil, which featured a memorable John Barnes goal. Here he would produce another moment of magic early in the second half, brilliantly controlling a cross from Stuart Pearce and volleying the ball into the back of the net to make it 1-1. Coming at a time when there was growing perplexity over why Barnes did not reproduce his club form in an England shirt (a subject for another day), the goal was a reminder of what he could potentially deliver on the big stage. It also meant he had now produced telling contributions for England against all of South America’s ‘big three’.

If Barnes came out of the evening with greater credit than normal, the same could not be said for Peter Shilton. A lot of comments get posted on social media about Shilton’s later years playing for England. It is certainly open to debate if Shilton should have still been number one at the age of 40, if anyone else may have fared better in the semi-final against West Germany or if he should have ensured he was not beaten by the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986. But the notion some seem to have that he was a hopeless old duffer who Bobby Robson had gone on blindly picking while he continually cost England games in this era is not really backed up by statistics – or the manager’s own comments at the time.

Robson wrote in 1990 that he had effectively put Shilton on trial after Euro ’88 and kept a close eye on his performances for both England and Derby County. He had seen the veteran goalkeeper keep a high number of clean sheets subsequently for England, including in all six qualifiers for Italia ’90. Shilton took plenty of plaudits for his display in the vital 0-0 draw in Poland in October 1989 and would earn them again after the nerve-jangling World Cup quarter-final win over Cameroon, with Jimmy Hill declaring “Shilton was the cornerstone”. It is also worth noting that Derby had had one of the best defensive records in the First Division in successive seasons.

But against Uruguay he would take the blame for England’s defeat, sparking concerns about his age and the speed with which he could react. “The only disappointment was, of all people, Peter Shilton,” wrote Robson later in the year – a sentence underlining the trust he had in his goalkeeper. Shilton was caught out by a looping header by Ostolaza and a free-kick by Perdomo that he would have expected to keep out.

Some damning headlines came Shilton’s way, but he would also have his supporters among the press pack. Experienced writer Frank Keating in The Guardian later in the week voiced his unhappiness over the criticism directed towards Shilton and boldly declared: “It is enough now to have a comforting near-certainly that Uruguay’s two goals at Wembley will represent the goalkeeper’s sole mistakes for the next six weeks.”

Robson was philosophical about the unbeaten run coming to an end, telling the BBC after the game: “It’s not death. It’s not the end of the team, is it?” Meanwhile, Robson’s old friend Hill made no attempt to hide his pleasure that England had at last been beaten as “the one thing I don’t want to hear is how brilliant England are and how long they’ve been unbeaten”. Both men had been in the game long enough to know the real judgement would come when England’s World Cup games began the following month.

It was an attitude shared by others who watched it. “The press were extremely fair the next morning,” wrote Robson in the 1990 edition of his autobiography. But very quickly he would have realise to loathe certain tabloid scribes again…

A stormy departure

As England prepared to head off to Sardinia later in the week, rumours began to circulate that Robson would be leaving England after the World Cup to manage PSV Eindhoven (European Cup winners as recently as 1988). Robson did not want the news to become public knowledge ahead of telling his players in Sardinia the following week, but now he was left with little option but to confirm it was the case he was leaving. He had sought assurances he would be remaining in the job going forward – his contract was due to end the following year – and had not received them from his bosses at the Football Association, leading to him reluctantly having to be open to offers from elsewhere for the sake of a guaranteed income.

The end of a World Cup campaign marked a natural time for a manager to move on. Ron Greenwood had done so in 1982 and West German boss Franz Beckenbauer was among those doing so now. One of the more measured appraisals of Robson’s impending departure came from Matthew Engel in The Guardian (the only paper Robson claimed to read), as he wrote: “There can be no real surprise. Robson has served eight years and aged about 20. He will be 61 when 1994 rolls around. If England were to win the World Cup, there would be no point in hanging around for an anticlimax; if they do badly it must be time for a change. He knew that.”

But a barrage of criticism came Robson’s way from other sections of the press. After facing constant calls for his departure during the previous couple of years, Robson would now note the hypocrisy as he read headlines branding him a ‘traitor’ even though he did not wish to leave the role. To such a patriot as Robson it was hurtful stuff, with his negative feelings towards the tabloid press intensified by stories appearing at the same time about alleged past events in his private life (speculation he was resigning because of what was being published proved unfounded and only heightened his anger).

Bobby Robson was an unhappy man as he attended a press conference to discuss his impending departure from the role of England manager.

It all made for a stormy press conference ahead of the team heading abroad, as Robson slammed the “garbage” that had been printed. His relationship with the press pack had seldom been easy, but now it had hit rock bottom. Robson pledged upon England’s arrival in Sardinia that his only focus was signing off with a glorious tournament. “I’m here to give this attempt to win the World Cup every single moment of my attention,” he stressed. It was becoming apparent who his likely successor was, with Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor made clear favourite by the bookmakers.

One man who wouldn’t be taking over as England boss was Manchester City manager Howard Kendall, who swiftly ruled himself out of the running despite having a release clause in his contract allowing him to talk to the FA. “I honestly feel that my place is with Manchester City,” said Kendall, whose glories with Everton in the mid-1980s remained fresh in the mind. Within a few months the chance to return to the Toffees would prove too hard to reject.

By then Robson was back in the ranks of club management for the first time since 1982 and away from the constant scrutiny of the English media. But as June 1990 dawned he was still very much the England manager and once more infuriated by the tabloid press as he prepared for the World Cup. His swansong as England manager was to be one to remember…

englandmemories View All

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

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