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England on tour – Mexico and USA (1985)

Having previously recalled England’s summer tours to Australia (1983) and South America (1984), we now turn the clock back 35 years to England’s 1985 trip to Mexico and the USA. It was a chance for England to prepare for the following year’s World Cup in Mexico, but the tour would become overshadowed by the impact of the Heysel disaster…

It’s around lunchtime in Mexico on May 29, 1985 and the England squad are preparing to watch the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus from Brussels. For manager Bobby Robson the chance to see a game such as this is a welcome relief after a difficult few days. England had laboured to a 1-1 draw away to Finland in a World Cup qualifier, before losing 1-0 against Scotland in the Rous Cup. That was followed up by the Daily Mirror running a front page story calling for his dismissal as manager.

His plans for this summer tour to Mexico and the USA haven’t been easy. Bad winter weather and the demands of cup competitions caused a fixture pile-up that meant the majority of First Division teams still had league games to play after the final Saturday of the season. The nation is still coming to terms with the horrific Bradford fire on May 11, while English football’s reputation has been further tarnished by a series of deplorable instances of disorder in recent months – including at Birmingham City against Leeds United and Luton Town’s FA Cup meeting with Millwall.

But at least now the England party are enjoying their first full day in Mexico and Robson can seemingly focus on football, with the likelihood of serious trouble on the tour limited due to the distance. The trip will prove critical for England in preparing for the heat and altitude they will face in a year’s time, assuming they qualify for the World Cup. It will also provide welcome tests against Italy and West Germany (the two sides to contest the 1982 World Cup final) either side of facing hosts Mexico, before the final game of the tour against USA in Los Angeles.

But as Robson and the England team settle down to watch the European Cup final, there is bemusement that they are not seeing any footage when the match is due to have started. They soon discover the horrific reality, that dozens of Juventus fans have died at Heysel and English football’s reputation has been dragged even deeper into the gutter. It’s devastating enough for everybody, but Robson quickly realises the severity of the task now in front of him. With English clubs facing a ban from European competition, there’s a genuine fear the national team could also become ostracised. There’s also the issue that England are scheduled to face Italy just eight days later in the Estadio Azteca.

A delicate situation

Robson would write the following year: “I had been told, when I took the job as England manager, that it was more than simply looking after a group of footballers; that it carried added ambassadorial duties and that when I signed my contract I would be joining the diplomatic service. The next morning I was to discover the truth of the statement, when it seemed as if the entire world had turned against England and especially against anyone who was involved with football.”

Far from being able to focus on his players adapting to the heat and altitude, Robson was now left to do all he could to ensure English football’s credibility could take any possible steps forward from its lowest point. He faced the delicate task of dealing with Italian representatives ahead of the game the following week.

“I cursed inwardly when the difficult task fell to me,” wrote Robson in his World Cup Diary as he recalled the duty of contacting Italian counterparts to convey sympathy and apologise on behalf of the English people, as well as to discuss what should happen next. Although a small number of Football Association representatives were with Robson, he was without the valued presence of Bert Millichip and Ted Croker who had been summoned back to London almost as soon as they arrived in Mexico.

Robson wanted the game to go ahead “in a spirit of mutual understanding”, but he was apprehensive about whether the Italians would see things in quite the same light. However, he would find their veteran manager Enzo Bearzot and other representatives to be most understanding. “They gave us a genuine welcome of friendship and told us how grateful they were that we had made the initial approaches to set up the meeting,” wrote Robson.

The empathy of the Italian delegation was the one positive England could cling to at a time when they faced being isolated from the rest of the world due to the hooligan epidemic. There remained fears FIFA could intervene and order the cancellation of the match against Italy, which would then put the other fixtures on the tour in serious doubt. However, the green light was given for the game to proceed and efforts continued by both the English and Italian parties to show a united front and collectively mourn those who had died. A memorial service was attended by both squads and Bearzot would reveal he and Robson had shed tears together when discussing the horror of Heysel. “We are men enough to admit it too,” he said.

There was little doubt the shadow of the disaster hung over the fixture. Robson believed his team needed to remind the world that English football had redeeming qualities, amid its ever-deepening association with the hooligan fraternity. He said the day before the game: “Because of the Belgian affair I think it is very important that we use this match to remind people that football should be about sportsmanship and fair play. Obviously we want to win, but there are times when the game of football comes first and winning comes second – and this may be one of those occasions.”

Robson was about to discover just how prophetic his words would be…

Paying the penalty

England had three Italian-based players in their side in Trevor Francis, Mark Hateley and Ray Wilkins, with all of them being in demand for press interviews following the events at Heysel. “I’m very sad for the Italian people about what’s happened,” said Wilkins. “I just wish it hadn’t have happened. But I’ve got no hesitation whatsoever in going back to play with the Italian people.” The trio were all named in the team to face Italy.

England and Italy players line up together prior to the match.

They were joined in the side by Peter Shilton, debutant Gary Stevens, Kenny Sansom, Trevor Steven, Mark Wright, Terry Butcher, captain Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle. Earlier in the week, The Times had reported a near-full house was anticipated for the game but this turned out to be a long way off the reality. Little more than a year before the stadium would house a crowd of more than 100,000 for England’s World Cup clash with Argentina, there were only a few thousand spectators present at the Estadio Azteca for this match. In such a vast arena, it would feel almost like behind closed doors football and the trend would continue throughout the tour.

The sides once more showed solidarity as they entered the field together rather than separately and then stood next to each other during the national anthems. But a competitive edge returned to proceedings as the game began. Italy had the advantage of having already played a game on the tour, drawing 1-1 with Mexico four days earlier. But it was England who came closest to going ahead in the first half, Butcher failing to head home in the penalty area.

The game would follow an uncannily similar pattern to what the two sides went on to serve up five years later in the third place play-off at Italia ’90. All the goals came in the final 20 minutes, with Peter Shilton taking the blame for the opening Italy goal; an excellent header drew England level; and then the Italians claimed a 2-1 victory courtesy of a late and disputed penalty.

Terry Butcher in action for England against Italy.

Bryan Robson missed a glorious chance to break the deadlock during the second half and England were made to pay for it with 17 minutes remaining. Shilton was caught out by an effort from the edge of the box by Salvatore Bagni that looped over him and into the net. Whether it had been intended as a cross or it was a brilliantly measured shot only Bagni could say, but the end result was that England now trailed in a game where they had looked set to earn at least a draw.

But parity was restored within two minutes, with the two substitutes who had come on for England playing a key role in making the goal. A dummy from Glenn Hoddle allowed the ball to run to John Barnes. He whipped over an excellent cross for Hateley to head into the net. But in the closing moments England were to be on the wrong end of a controversial decision that led to the players and management having to bite their tongues to avoid undermining the good relations built up between the teams in recent days.

Pietro Vierchowod burst forward into the England area and went down as Stevens challenged for possession. It seemed an innocuous challenge and replays would suggest Stevens played the ball, but the Mexican referee Antonio Marquez Ramirez immediately pointed to the penalty spot. ITV commentator Brian Moore sounded as surprised as anyone, uttering: “It looked anything but a penalty.” Alessandro Altobelli stepped up to score past Shilton. But there was still time for England’s anger to be compounded even further, as substitute Gary Lineker went down when challenged in the Italian penalty area but nothing was given.

A year later Robson would be seething about the ‘Hand of God’ goal being awarded against his team in the stadium. But back in June 1985 the circumstances surrounding the fixture meant he had to keep his feelings to himself when he felt his side had been the victim of bad decision-making by the referee. The following year he would reveal exactly how he felt about the incident, writing: “I still maintain it was the sour taste of Brussels that cost us an honourable and deserved draw in the Aztec Stadium that day.” It would not be the last time on the tour that he would feel unhappy over a refereeing decision.

But there were positives to take from the game. Stuart Jones wrote in The Times: “It did not matter that England lost their opening fixture of the tour. It did not matter that they missed several clear chances to win it. It did not matter even that they were the victims of a ludicrous and decisive penalty in the closing minute… The public display of diplomacy and friendship that was wrapped around the unmistakably honest commitment of the players was far more important.” England had lost the match, but they had won the battle to start the very long road back to restoring the nation’s credibility in football circles.

There would now be a gap of just three days until England returned to the stadium to take on Mexico. This game would unusually be part of two different competitions, the Copa Ciudad de Mexico (comprising England, Italy and Mexico) and the Azteca 2000 Tournament (England, Mexico and West Germany). But the matches were, in essence, glorified friendlies which were primarily about building towards the real thing 12 months later.

That process involved making sure as many players as possible played matches in the conditions. The only players to start against Mexico who had done so against Italy were Sansom, Robson, Wilkins, Hateley and Francis. Barnes and Hoddle would now play from the start, along with Viv Anderson, Terry Fenwick, Dave Watson and goalkeeper Gary Bailey (earning his second and final England cap). There was another sparse crowd at the Azteca despite Mexico playing.

The England team that faced Mexico in June 1985.

England would again fail to take chances, be on the wrong end of a refereeing decision and be punished defensively. Hateley, Hoddle and Francis all went close before Mexico took the lead through Luis Flores on 20 minutes. But still England showed attacking intent and Wilkins had an effort hooked off the line before the break.

The second half saw England begin to feel the heat and offer less threat in attack, but they thought they had equalised when Hateley’s header was in turn headed into the net by Anderson. But the defender was adjudged to have fouled Mexico goalkeeper Pablo Larios. Terry Venables, co-commentating for the BBC, insisted the goalkeeper had been punished by Anderson for flapping at the ball and was adamant the goal should have been allowed to stand. “I think there’s no doubt at all it was a goal,” he said. It was a view shared by Bobby Robson, who had seen England narrowly beaten amid controversial decisions twice already on the tour.

It meant that England had lost three games in a row for the first time since the 1950s and they had not even been in the lead at any point in their last five matches. While the results may have been considered of secondary importance on the tour, Robson knew he could ill-afford further defeats before returning home. They would be without Francis, Hateley and Wilkins, who went back to Italy due to club commitments in the Coppa Italia.

Dixon‘s double delivery

England had another three-day gap before their next game. By this point they had spent two weeks in Mexico, whereas their opponents West Germany had just arrived. Robson believed Franz Beckenbauers side could struggle to adapt to the conditions and he would be proven right. Almost exactly 15 years after West Germany had ended England’s reign as world champions in Mexico, there would be a degree of revenge for the Three Lions as they enjoyed a comfortable victory.

Robson again made changes, with Peter Reid and Kerry Dixon – who had both made their debuts after coming off the bench against Mexico – starting the game. They would join Shilton, Stevens, Sansom, Hoddle, Wright, Butcher, Robson, Lineker and Waddle in the side. Captain Robson missed a good chance to break the deadlock early on but atoned for it when he struck on 34 minutes, with the goal owing much to an excellent ball through from Hoddle.

Wright would state in a retrospective TV documentary about the 1990 World Cup semi-final that he could not recall Shilton ever saving a penalty in several years playing together for club and country. He had evidently forgotten about the meeting between England and West Germany five years earlier in Mexico. With half-time approaching, Wright lunged in and fouled Uwe Rahn in the penalty area.

The West Germans were enduring an uncharacteristically barren run when it came to scoring penalties and it continued, with Shilton diving the right way and denying Andreas Brehme. It meant England remained in the lead at the break and they would build upon it during the second half, as they coped better with the conditions. A surprising charge up the field by Butcher played in Dixon to score on 54 minutes, with the same player sealing a 3-0 win midway through the second half.

That goal was created by Barnes – who had come on for Lineker – and it would be similar to the two crosses he famously provided from the same area of the field during the World Cup against Argentina a year later. This time he played in a measured ball that Dixon headed out of the reach of Harald Schumacher. Although the tour had given Bobby Robson cause for concern about how his two wingers would fare if they played for 90 minutes in the blistering heat, he had now twice seen Barnes come off the bench and make an impact.

Another man who had most certainly delivered was Dixon, whose goals capped an impressive first season playing in the top-flight with Chelsea. He was almost speechless when interviewed on ITV at the end of the game, saying: “I’m over the moon. I don’t know what to say.” He had now staked a serious claim to be back in Mexico 12 months later for the real thing.

Glenn Hoddle, pictured in action against West Germany, enjoyed a successful game and tour.

Everton’s excellent campaign had caught the attention of Bobby Robson and Paul Bracewell’s substitute appearance meant a player from the Toffees had made their England debut in three successive games. Bracewell was now seeking to establish himself in England’s midfield, where Hoddle shone against West Germany. ITV pundit Jimmy Greaves believed it had probably been Hoddle’s best performance for England since his debut against Bulgaria in 1979, adding: “He really commanded the situation.”

England had ended their stay in Mexico by beating West Germany for only the second time since 1966, albeit against a side that had not properly acclimated. But the result was a welcome victory after a grim run of results. They would now be expected to finish the season with another comfortable win as they headed to Los Angeles to face the United States.

Finishing with a flourish

If the Estadio Azteca in the 1980s would forever be associated with games in the 1986 World Cup, then the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles would be synonymous with athletics during the 1984 Olympics. Less than a year after it had played host to such lasting images as the Mary Decker and Zola Budd incident, little more than 10,000 spectators gathered at the stadium to see if the United States could pull off a shock comparable with what they had achieved at the World Cup 35 years earlier.

Robson had sought to give every England player on the tour a game and this meant goalkeeper Chris Woods would earn his first cap at the age of 25, completing a memorable season in which he had won the League Cup and been relegated with Norwich City. He would be joined in the side by Anderson, Sansom, Hoddle, Fenwick, Butcher, Robson, Bracewell, Dixon, Lineker and Waddle.

England had scored 24 times in three meetings with the USA since the 1950 humiliation and there was little indication from the Americans that they were going to be able to reverse the trend with an inexperienced squad. Their English assistant coach Ron Newman admitted the USA would “do well to go down by anything less than 3-0 or 4-0”. Attempts to strengthen the reputation football had in the USA had taken a hit with the collapse in recent months of the North American Soccer League.

Newman duly saw the USA keep the score down to 5-0, with yet more penalty drama on the tour as Arnie Mausser saved a Hoddle spot-kick. By then England were already a goal up, a delightfully weighted ball through by Hoddle being taken on the chest by Lineker and superbly volleyed in. It was only Lineker’s second goal for England and it would forever rank as one of his best. England continued to create chances but would only score once more before the break, with Hoddle again the provider as Dixon netted.

Kerry Dixon scored twice for England against USA.

The goals flowed slightly more in the second half, with Lineker heading in from close range and then Dixon getting his second after substitute goalkeeper Tim Harris allowed a shot to crawl through his legs. Watson, Reid, Steven and Barnes all entered the action during the second half and it was Steven who completed the scoring on 81 minutes. Bracewell controlled the ball well, allowing his Everton colleague to find the net. It had been a professional display by England and it represented a pleasing note to end the 1984-85 season.

But very quickly there would be a sour note. The squad arrived back at their hotel to find several rooms had been ransacked, with personal belongings taken. “Someone had known we were going to be out all afternoon and they had made a hasty sweep of the rooms,” wrote a frustrated Robson. It summed up a season in which football matters on the field had been overshadowed by events off it.

England returned home after a trip that bore some strong parallels with their experiences in Mexico a year later. They had started slowly before recording two comfortable wins; they would be infuriated by key refereeing decisions in the Estadio Azteca; Reid was establishing himself in the midfield ranks and Hoddle would earn praise for his contribution; Barnes showed the impact he could make if he came off the bench and whipped crosses into the box; and Lineker had started to demonstrate in the USA game that he was a striker capable of delivering in international football.

On the other side of the coin, Dixon now had a record of four goals from just three caps but he would never score again for England. He would only make one late substitute appearance during the World Cup. Bryan Robson started every game during the tour but would only feature in England’s first two games of the World Cup amid an injury nightmare, while Anderson, Bailey and Woods would all only watch on from the sidelines. They at least made it back to Mexico, but – either due to injury or non-selection – there would be no place in the World Cup squad for Bracewell, Francis, Watson and Wright.

England’s 1985 tour had not been without its problems, but it had provided a welcome taster for the conditions England would face in a year’s time. As the squad headed back home, Bobby Robson stayed out in America. Determined to ensure the team would be as prepared as possible for the World Cup and the challenges the altitude would create, he headed off to Colorado Springs. He was impressed by what he saw and earmarked it as England’s base ahead of the World Cup. Now all they had to do was ensure they qualified for it…

englandmemories View All

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

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