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Graham Taylor’s England: Part 1 – September 1990

Our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago resume – under a new name – by looking back to September 1990 and a friendly against Hungary. It would mark England’s return to action after Italia ’90, the start of Graham Taylor’s reign and the first game as captain for Gary Lineker…

Over the past two years we have been recalling England’s matches from three decades previously in the series From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion, tracing how Bobby Robson’s side went from failing to score a point at Euro ’88 to coming within a whisker of making the World Cup final. With positive feedback having been received over that, the decision has now been taken to continue looking back at how England were faring 30 years beforehand.

This now means the focus changes to life after Italia ’90 and the reign of Graham Taylor. This may be met with the reaction that a lot of doom and gloom will lie ahead, but it’s a chance to properly look back at this era and assess if the criticism that came his way was justified. Did Taylor pick the wrong players or did he have the misfortune to be in charge at a point when he was not spoilt for choice in terms of personnel? How much were his plans derailed by a succession of injuries to key players? How did a reign that started positively with a lengthy unbeaten run descend into being viewed as a huge flop? Were England’s failings later on in his reign primarily down to Taylor getting it wrong or was fortune not on his side?

The two-year cycle from 1990 to 1992 may not generate anything like the same sense of nostalgia for England fans as the period that went before it, but in some respects it was a lot more similar than many will recall. England were unbeaten during 1988-89 and their two losses from open play the following season were narrow defeats in a home friendly and against the host nation at a major tournament. Qualification was achieved with an unconvincing draw in Poland, as they finished with three wins and three draws and then drew their first two games at the finals. A high number of players were given their first caps during the 1988-1990 period, with some establishing themselves and others swiftly fading from the scene.

The exact same pattern would repeat itself from 1990 to 1992, yet the mood could scarcely have been more different after England’s limp showing at Euro ’92. It was to sadly mark a turning point for Taylor, now the subject of venomous front page ‘Turniphead’ jibes and unable to steer England to the 1994 World Cup. For the first time in his managerial career he would concede he had failed. When Taylor left the role he was younger than Gareth Southgate is now, his dream of delivering glory for his country never materialising. The stigma of failure would be hard to shake off.

The personnel he selected certainly changed during his reign. When England played their first game under Taylor, all bar one of the 13 players involved had been to the World Cup and eight of them had appeared in the semi-final drama. Yet come the defeat to Sweden two years later only four players on the pitch had featured on that unforgettable night in Turin. Equally significantly, Stuart Pearce and David Platt were the only players who appeared against the Swedes who went on to feature during Euro ’96. Gary Lineker, bidding an anti-climatic farewell to international football, would later express his view that this team was much weaker than what he had been a part of previously.

It would therefore be easy to dismiss this era as better best forgotten. But the two-year cycle from the start of Taylor’s reign was not without its high points. He enjoyed a year-long unbeaten start as England manager, which included five games against nations who appeared at Italia ’90; England edged out a strong Republic of Ireland side to qualify for Euro ’92; and young striker Alan Shearer emerged, scoring on his debut in an impressive friendly win over France in February 1992.

There would be other talking points, as Taylor showed nobody could take their place for granted. Lineker was controversially hauled off during his last cap against Sweden at Euro ’92 and Paul Gascoigne – with Gazzamania still in full swing – was left on the bench away to the Republic of Ireland in November 1990. Peter Beardsley, Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle had all featured prominently under Bobby Robson, but none of them would play again for Taylor after 1991.

Taylor certainly didn’t seem afraid to make big decisions. During all three away qualifiers for Euro ’92 he picked at least two players in the starting line-up who had either never played for England before or had not done so for a significant period of time, choosing to throw them into the side for these potentially difficult games rather than easing them in during a friendly or home fixture. Although England’s performances did not always earn praise, they gained positive results in these matches and that took them through to Euro ’92. Fortune seemed to be on their side in this qualifying campaign in a way that it was not when they fell short in seeking to reach the 1994 World Cup.

All that lay in the future as England returned to action after the 1990 World Cup. There was a new sense of optimism as the 1990-91 season began, with England facing Hungary at Wembley.

A Taylor-made opportunity

It was an open secret during the 1990 World Cup that Graham Taylor was to succeed Bobby Robson as manager, although an impasse over compensation between the Football Association and Aston Villa meant he was not confirmed in the role until mid-July. Although he was a far from unanimous choice among the English public, his appointment was hardly some Mike Bassett-esque desperate measure. Paying tribute after Taylor’s death in 2017, Sir Alex Ferguson would say he had been “the natural choice to become England manager when he did”. When it came to knowing how to win football matches, Taylor had proven himself many times over.

By the summer of 1990 he had five promotions on his managerial CV and no relegations, as well as leading two clubs to second place in the First Division after inheriting them lower down the ladder. He had demonstrated he could take over as manager of a new team and quickly achieve success, leaving all three clubs he had managed in a higher division to where he found them. Lincoln City finished as Fourth Division champions under Taylor in 1975-76, before he repeated the feat with Watford two years later.

Graham Taylor was appointed England manager in July 1990.

The Vicarage Road success story ran and ran. Little more than six years after he arrived with the club in the Fourth Division, Taylor was guiding the Hornets to victory over Kaiserslautern in the UEFA Cup after finishing second in the First Division. Manchester United were knocked out of two cup competitions by Taylor’s Watford before they had even reached the First Division, while other big names would frequently come a cropper against the Hornets during his reign.

An FA Cup final appearance in 1984 was another feather in his cap, before a three-year spell at Aston Villa from 1987 to 1990 saw him revive the former European champions. He took Villa from the Second Division to being Liverpool’s main challengers for the title, ultimately running out of steam but doing enough to qualify for Europe as the ban was relaxed. Taylor finished higher in the table in 1989-90 than any other English manager, meaning he could claim his appointment to the England role was meritocratic. Without Taylor, Villa finished 15 places lower in the table in 1990-91.

Although working with the England senior team was to be a new experience for him, he wasn’t a total novice when it came to international football. He had combined club management with being in charge of the England Youth side, while also taking charge of the B team away to Malta in 1987. He had watched the 1990 World Cup at close quarters, spending the tournament in Italy performing punditry work for ITV. Such experiences did not automatically mean he would succeed in international football, but they all helped in his preparation. It was a role he had craved, writing in 1991 that managing England had always been his ambition above everything else.

Not everyone was quite so pleased to see him realise his goal. Critics would point out he had not won a major honour. He had never played for England at any level, while his experience of managing in Europe consisted of a mere three rounds in the UEFA Cup with Watford. But the biggest question mark against his name concerned tactics, as he fought to convince his detractors that he was not a route one merchant.

Watford’s rise to the top had split opinion. Some saw it as a wonderful footballing fairytale starring Taylor and Elton John, with the club defying the odds to qualify for Europe and only be denied major honours by the dominant Merseyside duo. But others considered the tactics deployed to be abhorrent, almost perceiving playing a direct style as a means of cheating their way to the top. Taylor was not going to stand back and be pushed around by such critics. He would be at pains to justify that his team did far more than just hoof it forward, especially when they had a player as talented as John Barnes in their ranks. He also preached his belief that the way they played provided entertainment, believing the average fan would rather see their team creating multiple chances and scoring goals than than playing “sophisticated football”.

But his reputation stuck. Taylor was therefore going to struggle to get all members of the press pack on his side as England manager, with the likes of Brian Glanville and Jeff Powell having been unimpressed by the tactical approach at Watford. Glanville would later brand him “a curious and mistaken choice for England”. Yet it was hoped that Taylor, whose father had been a sport journalist, would be able to foster a happier working relationship with the media than Bobby Robson had largely enjoyed.

But perhaps the biggest challenge of all for Taylor was created while he waited to take over as England manager. A mixture of guts and good fortune played a big part in England reaching the World Cup last four, before pushing West Germany all the way. Suddenly, expectations had rocketed and they were perhaps greater than they realistically should have been. Had England crashed out early, then the timing would have been Taylor-made for the new man to come in and do a similar job to what he had done at Villa – reviving them and getting them back competing. But instead he was, for the first time, entering a footballing game of snakes and ladders where the chance to fall down was a lot higher than it was to climb higher…

A positive start

England’s first game after the World Cup was a friendly at home to Hungary on September 12, after being switched from the original venue of Budapest. If the attendance of 51,459 does not look particularly laudable given Wembley’s capacity, then it needs to be put into context. Only about half that number showed up for the most recent September Wembley friendly against Denmark in 1988, while the first home game after the 1986 World Cup – a European Championship qualifier against Northern Ireland in October 1986 – had pulled in a crowd of just 35,300 despite being a competitive match against fellow UK opposition. Bar the odd glamour game such as Brazil and Italy, this attendance was comfortably above the usual turnout for a Wembley friendly.

Hungary were merely the supporting act for England’s post-Italia ’90 reunion. The Hungarians had regularly qualified for World Cups until 1986, but they had been absent from the 1990 tournament and would not grace another major competition until Euro 2016. This was a game which would appear to offer Taylor a decent chance of a winning start, though it was not guaranteed.

For all the hysteria surrounding England at this point, they had only won three of their past nine games – two of them after extra time. England had also become plagued by September-itis, winning just twice during the month in the previous decade . Taylor would want to become the first England manager since Don Revie to start with a win and build confidence ahead of the European Championship qualifying campaign.

Gary Lineker captained England for the first time against Hungary.

One of his biggest dilemmas concerned his choice of captain. Bryan Robson was again out injured, although the door had not closed on his England career. Terry Butcher and Peter Shilton – who would remain involved with England for a short time as goalkeeping coach – had retired from international football. This meant a new face would lead their country. David Platt, who had thrived under Taylor at Villa and was now doing so for England, seemed a possibility but he was still fairly new to the international scene; Mark Wright had enjoyed a good World Cup but had barely played for England for two years before that; and Stuart Pearce seemed the most likely candidate, now firmly established in the side and seemingly a natural successor to Butcher in offering ultra-patriotic leadership.

But Taylor would instead opt to name star striker Gary Lineker as captain for the Hungary game. He had made his England debut three years before Pearce and, although not a regular captain at club level, was helped by the ‘squeaky clean’ image he carried at the time and ease at dealing with the media. Pearce’s chance would come later, but he would feel he was a more obvious choice for Taylor than Lineker to wear the armband back in 1990. “I am sure that in hindsight he would have gone for me rather than Gary,” wrote Pearce in his autobiography.

One of Lineker’s long-time England colleagues would hope a fruitful spell would follow under Taylor. Much had been made of how John Barnes struggled to replicate his tremendous club form on the international stage on a regular basis under Bobby Robson. Now it was hoped that Taylor, who he played under at Watford for six years, would be able to find the way for Barnes to thrive in an England shirt. “I want him to play as if he’s enjoying himself,” declared Taylor. Barnes had started the month by scoring a sublime winner for Liverpool against Aston Villa, reminding everyone of his talent. The hope was that it would be evident when he pulled on an England shirt.

Barnes was selected from the start but Chris Waddle wasn’t, as Taylor opted against fielding two natural wingers. But the sweeper system would remain after coming into use during the World Cup, with Wright adapting well to the role. Paul Parker was now moved into the middle with Wright and Des Walker, with Lee Dixon earning his second cap at right back and Pearce once more selected on the left. Platt and Paul Gascoigne were again paired in midfield in the company of Barnes, while Steve Bull was given his chance to prove himself in attack as he accompanied Lineker. With Shilton having made way, Chris Woods finally had his chance to emerge as regular England goalkeeper. This was some 12 years after he had played at Wembley for Nottingham Forest in the League Cup final. Although he had made sporadic appearances for England, the wait to establish himself as number one had been lengthy.

Woods would boost his prospects of fending off David Seaman by keeping a clean sheet, although it was far from his busiest night as Hungary’s main focus was on stopping England scoring. Taylor’s men showed attacking intent from the off, with excellent work by Barnes starting a move which ended with Dixon having a shot saved. The key moment came as half-time beckoned, with three of the stars of England’s summer playing their part. Gascoigne seized upon a poor Hungarian pass to win possession and find Platt, who took the ball forward. He had a shot parried by Zsolt Petry but the rebound fell to Gascoigne, who laid it into the path of Lineker to apply his predatory instincts and score from close range.

Mark Wright and David Platt compete for a header against Hungarian opponents.

He almost added another after the break, being inches away from volleying home after impressive work by Bull. England pressed for the second goal but it didn’t arrive, although they seldom looked like relinquishing their lead against moderate opposition. Taylor opted against making multiple substitutions, only bringing on Waddle and Tony Dorigo for Bull and Pearce respectively.

Much of the attention ahead of the game concerned Gascoigne and he could feel satisfied with his night’s work, having claimed assists for one goal that was allowed and for another that wasn’t. His inswinging free-kick during the second half was turned in as Wright battled for aerial supremacy in the box, but an infringement was spotted. Gazza also showed a willingness to apply the clown prince image when he stuck his tongue out at substitute Zoltan Aczel after being pulled back, rather than using his fists to show him how he felt.

Perhaps the biggest encouragement was the performance of Barnes. “I thought John had a super game and was the highlight of a fine England performance,” said Ray Wilkins when assessing the match with Bob Wilson during Grandstand the following Saturday. Barnes, given licence to create openings from a free role rather than being stuck out on the wing, played a fine ball through for Bull to score but the flag had gone up for offside. “The most telling performance was given by John Barnes,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian.

It hadn’t been a classic match or England display, but both had been encouraging enough. “More reassuring than inspiring,” was how Lacey saw it. It was a fair appraisal. England had done enough to win on both goals and merit, without making expectations soar even further. They had gone on the front foot and created enough chances to add to their tally.

Taylor, who was three days away from his 46th birthday, could feel pleased with the night’s work. “It was a very comprehensive 1-0 win,” he declared afterwards. He was off to a winning start. But the serious business would really begin the following month, as England played their first European Championship qualifying match at home to Poland…

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

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