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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 16 – June 1990

We continue our series recalling England’s fortunes 30 years ago by focusing upon events during June 1990, as Italia ’90 began. It’s fair to say things got better as the month progressed…

May 1990 had ended with the outgoing England manager Bobby Robson at loggerheads with the tabloid press as the side headed out to Sardinia. It was a relationship that would be further put to the test during the ensuing weeks, as England’s World Cup campaign got under way and negative headlines surfaced with unfortunate regularity. For all the nostalgia that surrounds England’s campaign, there were difficult moments along the way.

June had barely begun when criticism poured in again, as footage emerged indicating Terry Butcher had headbutted an opponent during England’s friendly away to Tunisia. A few months earlier, Butcher had been held up as a national hero for playing on while covered in blood away to Sweden. Now there would be calls for the vice-captain to be sent home over his actions. His manager would not contemplate taking such an action, but did reprimand Butcher in front of his colleagues.

The performance against Tunisia had given further ammunition to the critics, only a late Steve Bull equaliser saving England from a second successive defeat. After Paul Gascoigne had played with such maturity during the win over Czechoslovakia in April, here he would offer his manager cause for concern. The Tunisian goal stemmed from Gascoigne losing possession, while Robson would be unimpressed by Gazza’s antics in front of the opposition bench following Bull’s equaliser. Robson wrote later in the year: “It was hardly Brazil we had scored against in a five-goal thriller, and he was being his usual immature self.”

It all made for an uneasy start to the month and there had been little indication that this was an England side capable of seriously challenging for the top prize. They did at least chalk up big wins in practice matches against Cagliari (6-0) and a Sardinia XI (10-2), with the latter game including a deliberate Steve McMahon own goal that was to be a symbolic warning sign to England fans over the consequence of any misbehaviour (Robson had rejected a request for England to do this at home to Uruguay a couple of weeks earlier, feeling it was easier to make such a gesture when the game was not a full international).

The threat of hooligans further tarnishing England’s reputation was severe, with tournament organisers hoping that isolating the team on Sardinia for the group stage would act as a solution along with a heavy police presence. Criticism from the tabloids and whether the yobbish fraternity would wreak havoc overseas were two headaches Robson had endured throughout his reign, with both remaining as prevalent as ever in his final weeks in the job. Scenes of violence in West Germany during Euro ’88 remained fresh in the mind, along with England failing on the field. The nightmare scenario would be an action replay on both fronts in the World Cup.

But there was some good news early in the month. World in Motion had proved an instant success and on June 3 it knocked Adamski’s Killer off its perch at the top of the charts. It was the first time since Back Home in 1970 that an England song had held the number one spot, with only This Time (We’ll Get it Right) in 1982 having made any impression in the charts since. Now the team would dream of reaching a similar position during the World Cup, but few experts were predicting it…

A stormy start

Mention Italia ’90 to someone who lived through it and you can get two very contrasting responses. The first is that it was absolutely brilliant, full of wonderful memories including England coming so close to glory. There’s the lasting images of Bobby Robson dancing for joy on the touchline, Gazza’s tears, Roger Milla’s celebratory wiggle and Salvatore Schillaci emerging from obscurity to be Italy’s goal machine.

And the other viewpoint is that it was an abysmal tournament, characterised by low scoring, defensive tactics and cynical conduct. It was the last World Cup where two points for a win was applied in the group stage, while the backpass rule had yet to come into force. The tournament would also mark the last hurrah for the old offside rule, where the advantage lay with the defender if level with the attacker rather than the other way round. It all added up to a World Cup where playing it cautiously could pay off.

And so the tournament divides opinion more than most. The World Cup had actually started fairly promisingly, with the opening few days including Cameroon’s shock win over Argentina and West Germany turning it on as they put four past Yugoslavia. But England’s clash with the Republic of Ireland on June 11 would mark an unfortunate turning point, as the sides served up a lamentable contest that did nothing for the reputation of British Isles football in front of the watching world.

Nine of England’s players looked a certainty to be picked, based on how often they had been playing for the side. Peter Shilton was in goal, with Butcher joined in defence by regular colleagues Des Walker, Gary Stevens and Stuart Pearce. Wingers John Barnes and Chris Waddle were selected, along with captain Bryan Robson in midfield and Gary Lineker in attack. That just left the question of whether Gascoigne would start in midfield and if Beardsley would return up front. They were both selected by Bobby Robson, as England sought revenge for their defeat to the Irish almost exactly two years earlier at Euro ’88.

That game had seen Ireland score early on and hold out for victory, but here it was England who made a swift breakthrough. Lineker – playing with a stomach upset that would later have infamous consequences – got the crucial touch to open the scoring, but the rather scrappy nature of the goal would sum up the night. It was low on quality, with the bleak conditions – including a storm more in keeping with the British winter – only adding to the sense that this was a grim spectacle between two sets of players who knew each other too well.

Gary Lineker puts England ahead against the Republic of Ireland.

Yet England still seemed on course for victory until Steve McMahon – who had just come on for Beardsley – lost possession and the ball unfortunately fell to the player on the field most likely to take advantage with his left foot. Kevin Sheedy fired beyond Shilton and levelled matters. England might still have claimed victory, with Bobby Robson adamant a penalty should have been awarded when Waddle went down in the box. But nothing was given, as England’s four-year wait for a spot-kick continued and the game ended 1-1.

Pete Davies, in the excellent book All Played Out, would write of the game against Ireland: “The thing degenerated into abject chaos. Either the ball ricocheted about like it was pinball, not football: or some rare and brief interruption that threatened English quality was abruptly terminated by another train crash of a tackle.” Whatever anyone’s views on the Republic of Ireland’s tactics, Jack Charlton had made them tough to beat and they had again ground out a positive result. England headed back to their hotel amid headlines such as ‘Bring Them Home’. It’s fair to say things got a lot better after this, but not without a few hiccups along the way.

The next few days would contain yet more problems. Robson and the squad had to continually withstand criticism over England’s performance, while a story was published in the tabloids suggesting sexual activity had been going on between a group of players and a hostess. The story was immediately dismissed by the team and represented a further dent in the relationship between the England squad and the press. Gascoigne was particularly incensed, his clown prince image abandoned during an interview with Des Lynam in which he took aim at the members of the press “who don’t want us to win the World Cup”.

A further blow for Robson would be the injury David Seaman sustained that curtailed his involvement in the World Cup. Although Seaman had been unlikely to be selected ahead of either Shilton or Chris Woods, Robson still recognised the need for England to have three goalkeepers at the tournament and was granted permission to add Dave Beasant to the squad. Seaman’s chance would come again, but this would be the only tournament squad Beasant was ever a part of.

A sweeping change

England returned to action against European champions the Netherlands on June 16. The scars had never completely healed from England’s 3-1 defeat at the European Championship, with chances narrowly missed in attack and Marco Van Basten tearing apart the back four. That remained the last time Mark Wright had started a game for England, but now he was selected in the side – as a sweeper.

Throughout Robson’s England era there had been a refusal to adopt the sweeper system. England had been a standard bearer for 4-4-2 in a way that would have made Mike Bassett proud. They had even spurned the opportunity to try it out in the odd friendly, Robson making clear prior to a trip to Denmark in June 1989 that it wasn’t on the agenda as he said: “Why use a sweeper system when we don’t fully understand it? You need pace in a flat back four and Walker provides it; so do Stevens, Pearce, and if necessary, Parker. We get the best out of our defenders because they are comfortable with the way they play.”

But 12 months later it would be brought in during England’s biggest game for some time. Although England’s good run since Euro ’88 had owed much to a sound defensive record, in recent games the back four had looked more vulnerable – conceding six times in five games. Robson believed Wright was the ideal man to come in and perform effectively in the sweeper role, complementing Butcher and Walker. It would trigger further changes too, with Paul Parker selected at right wing-back in preference to long-term regular Stevens and Barnes pushed forward as Beardsley was dropped.

‘Player power’ is often cited as the reason the change went ahead, as though Robson meekly let the team dictate this was how they would play. But it is a version of events refuted by most of those at the heart of the England set-up, with Lineker insistent it was the manager’s call. “It was nothing to do with the players,” said Wright in Henry Winter’s book Fifty Years of Hurt, although the same publication includes Waddle – his eyes opened to more ‘continental’ tactical approaches from playing for Marseille – recalling putting it to assistant boss Don Howe that a switch to three at the back could be beneficial. Robson would maintain in the autobiography he wrote shortly after the World Cup that he had planned to make the change for some time and it was certainly not down to ‘player power’.

The Dutch – who had changed manager twice since winning Euro ’88 – had been surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw by Egypt in their opening game in Palermo, the watching Robson concluding it was probably a combination of an under-par display from the Netherlands and an impressive one from the Egyptians that led to an even contest ensuing. In a scenario that England fans can well relate to, the Dutch had spent the build-up to the tournament fretting about a star player’s fitness as Ruud Gullit had endured a lengthy injury lay-off. He made it in time, but would seldom stand out during a World Cup in which the Dutch camp seemed to be lacking in unity.

Bobby Robson sends on substitute Steve Bull against the Netherlands.

It was a night when most things went to plan for England. Gascoigne sparkled and showed he belonged on the big stage, at one point doing his own take on the legendary Cruyff turn to almost create a goal; England kept the Dutch at bay, as Shilton kept a clean sheet on the night he broke Pat Jennings’ world record for international caps; and England went in search of the win while the game was goalless. Lineker had the ball in the net but it was ruled out for the use of an arm, while Pearce drove a free-kick into the net in the dying seconds. The only trouble was it was indirect and nobody touched it. It finished 0-0, but there was a renewed sense of optimism over England’s display.

If Robson’s assertion that it had been “a superb match” was not shared by everyone, there is no doubt it had been a pleasing England performance and comfortably a more entertaining game than what had been served up five days earlier. It was certainly not a bore draw, unlike the following day’s sterile meeting between the Republic of Ireland and Egypt that left all four teams in the group deadlocked on points and goals. Robson could feel vindicated that his tactical switch had yielded everything he sought apart from an England victory.

At long last a degree of positivity was on display in the newspapers. Hugh McIlvanney wrote in The Observer that England had earned “an honourable goalless draw”, adding: “Just how honourable the result was can be gauged by Ruud Gullit’s declaration that the Dutch were lucky to have it.” Yet there was also a lingering feeling of what might have been. David Lacey in The Guardian expressed his fear that England “might not get as good a chance again at this World Cup to defeat one of the tournament’s stronger sides”, as he drew comparisons with how the team fared at the 1982 World Cup. But the mood was now brighter and hopes had grown of a prolonged run at the tournament.

All Wright on the night

Prior to the game against Egypt on June 21, Robson attended a farewell lunch with members of the press pack – some of whom had not exactly been on his Christmas card list over the years, but he would gratefully receive a parting gift from them. Robson would soon be free of the pressures managing England brought, but he wanted to stay in the role for a little while longer. The last way he would want his reign to end would be with defeat to Egypt, his England years forever to be defined by such a humiliation.

The qualification picture was complex. All four sides in Group F had identical records, so if that trend continued – during England v Egypt and Netherlands v Republic of Ireland – then lots would have to be drawn to determine who finished in which position and who would be going home. It was not an unrealistic possibility given how tight the games had been. To further complicate matters, a side finishing third would go through with a draw but would be eliminated if they lost without scoring (due to the best four thirdplaced sides progressing). The simple scenario was win and progress.

For all the praise that had come the way of the usage of the sweeper system, Robson now abandoned it. He believed this was not the sort of game where it was needed. He certainly did not take the threat of Egypt lightly, having watched them several times since the draw was made and continually seen them get decent results. The success Cameroon had enjoyed in winning their group represented a big achievement for African football and the Egyptians would now look to join them in the last 16.

Butcher, a defensive mainstay for so long, was dropped as Wright kept his place. With Bryan Robson having gone off against the Netherlands with an Achilles injury and turning to faith healer Olga Stringfellow in a desperate bid to play again in the World Cup, McMahon came into the side. Steve Bull, having come on in the previous two games, was given his chance to start alongside Lineker.

Mark Wright celebrates scoring the winner for England against Egypt.

‘Not a classic’ would be the polite description of a forgettable game. Little of note happened in the first half, while elsewhere Gullit put the Dutch in front against the Irish. As things stood a draw would take England through, but they could not afford to settle for it. They would run the risk of having to play West Germany in the next round if things stayed as they were and they were drawn in third place, while they could end up being eliminated altogether if the Irish equalised.

They duly did so, but by then England had gone ahead. Wright capped a good personal display by scoring his only England goal, getting the vital touch on a Gascoigne free-kick. It proved sufficient to claim the win and top spot in a mundane group that had produced just seven goals in six games. “This was the tightest of groups,” said a relieved Bobby Robson. “There was nothing being given away and we have beaten Egypt when other teams could not do it.”

England’s time in Cagliari had seen them only earn praise once, but things were starting to look favourable for them. If they could overcome Belgium in the next round, then they would face Cameroon or Colombia at the quarter-final stage. They would also have the benefit of playing all their games at Italia ’90 in the evening, after a succession of struggles in the afternoon heat in recent tournaments.

The late, late show

The progression to the knockout phase meant England could at last head to the mainland and feel a part of the real World Cup experience. But one man wouldn’t be hanging around. Four years on from his World Cup being curtailed due to a dislocated shoulder, captain Bryan Robson was flying home after reluctantly accepting defeat over yet another injury. Although Gascoigne claimed in his autobiography that drunken high jinks caused the injury that sent the captain home, Robson rejected this in his own memoirs. He had indeed sustained a toe injury in an incident while fooling around with Gazza, but that had been before the tournament started. It was an Achilles injury that was putting him out of the tournament. This would mark the beginning of the end, Robson spending six months out injured and only playing three more times for England. Robson and Robson were both heading for the exit door.

Bobby Robson certainly regarded it as a blow to lose his on-field leader and key midfielder. England were not yet thriving in his absence, having been rather unconvincing in the win over Egypt: The man who seemed to be the main beneficiary of Robson’s misfortune was McMahon, who would keep his place against Belgium in Bologna. The sweeper system returned, with Butcher back in the side and wearing the captain’s armband. Bull dropped down to the bench.

While the Belgian class of 1990 may not have been as star-studded as the current crop, they were no footballing lightweights. Under Guy Thys they had reached the final of the 1980 European Championship, beaten holders Argentina in the opening game of the 1982 World Cup and made it to the semi-final of the 1986 World Cup. During the group stage of Italia ’90 they had enjoyed a 3-1 win over a Uruguay side that had ended England’s long unbeaten run shortly before the World Cup. Much of their threat came from a midfield featuring the likes of Jan Ceulemans and Enzo Scifo.

Most experts beforehand predicted it would be tight. This wasn’t fence-sitting, but a realistic take on the likely outcome. There had been 15 all-European clashes so far at the World Cup and only three had been won by a margin of more than one goal. England had played out a large number of draws and narrow wins during their rehabilitation since Euro ’88. The trend would continue here. Robson had been disappointed so far with the impact his two wingers had made in Italy, but he would see Barnes put the ball into the net only for it to be flagged offside in a debatable call. Lineker spurned a chance to put England ahead early in the second half, being denied by Belgian goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme.

But any bad fortune England suffered in attack was negated as they rode their luck at the other end. This included Ceulemans rifling a shot against the post in the first half, with Scifo doing likewise after the break with an audacious long-range effort. Predictions of a tight contest were ringing true in a game where one goal was always likely to settle it, with a goalless 90 minutes taking the match to extra-time. By then Barnes had gone off with a knock as Bull came on, while David Platt appeared as a substitute for the third successive game as he took McMahon’s place. A pairing of Gascoigne and Platt left England without a natural holding midfielder, but did offer attacking impetus. It was a move which reaped the desired reward.

With extra-time nearing its conclusion, both Butcher and Walker were playing on while carrying knocks. England could have been forgiven for wanting to protect the defence and settle for penalties. But Gascoigne found one final burst of energy to take the ball forward and earn a free-kick. Robson, recognising this was the last chance they would have to score, noted that Gascoigne appeared to be shaping up to try his luck from a similar long-range distance to which he famously scored in the FA Cup semi-final the following season. The manager hollered at him to play the ball into the box.

Joy as David Platt gives England victory against Belgium.

Gascoigne took note of his manager and the end result would be cherished forever. A floated ball into the area was perfectly volleyed home by Platt. Robson danced a jig of delight on the touchline and Butcher and Waddle would perform their own memorable victory celebration when the final whistle sounded a minute later. England’s World Cup campaign thus far had not been particularly exhilarating, but they had now achieved a win in dramatic circumstances to reach the last eight. They may not have dominated the game, but they had been rewarded for seeking the win in the dying seconds.

Lacey wrote that the goal was the result “of the soundest piece of advice Bobby Robson has given any player from the bench during his eight years as manager”. The one blemish during the evening had been Gascoigne collecting a yellow card, a caution that would have significant consequences later in the tournament.

But for now the nation could look forward to England facing Cameroon on July 1 in Naples. Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson, having scouted Cameroon during their 4-0 loss to the Soviet Union in the group stage, suggested to Robson that England could be set for a “bye”. It would prove to be anything but…

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

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