Our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago continue by looking back at the European Championship qualifier at home to Poland in October 1990. Graham Taylor’s second match in charge would include a memorable goal for one England forward, but mark the end of the international road for another…
Graham Taylor’s England reign had begun in September 1990 with a 1-0 home friendly win over Hungary, with a performance that was satisfying rather than scintillating. The feelgood factor remained after Italia ’90 and it would still be in evidence five weeks later when England played their first Euro ’92 qualifier at home to Poland.
This was to be the last European Championship finals to contain just eight teams and the qualifying process promised to be brutal. England and the Republic of Ireland had both been present in the last eight of Euro ’88 and Italia ’90, but only one of them would qualify for Euro ’92 – and that was assuming they claimed top spot rather than Poland or Turkey. If England were regarded as the favourites to qualify, then it was only by the slenderest of margins from the Irish.
In recent years there had been virtually nothing to separate the records of the two nations. The Irish were unbeaten at Lansdowne Road since March 1986, while England had lost just once at Wembley since June 1984; both nations qualified as group winners for Euro ’88 and then went out in the group stage (albeit with Jack Charlton’s side having a lot more to be proud about); they each made it through to Italia ’90 after finishing second in their respective qualifying groups; and they both returned home from the World Cup to rapturous receptions after progressing far following a series of tight contests, including drawing with each other in the group stage.
It was certainly likely to be close. But Taylor would express concern that the two nations did not become so preoccupied with each other that they left the door open for anybody else to claim top spot instead. It was unlikely to be Turkey, who England had twice beaten 8-0 in recent years. But Poland could not be discounted and Taylor would not be far off being proven right, with the Poles entering the final round of matches 13 months later in with a chance of qualifying.
But all that lay in the future back in October 1990 as England met Poland at Wembley and began the road to Sweden.
A man in demand
Graham Taylor was a busy man in October 1990, while still adjusting to the day-to-day demands of the England job. He was to make an appearance on the Saturday morning BBC show Going Live!, while the cameras followed him around for a 20-minute feature on Sportsnight. Three years before the pain of Rotterdam, this would prove far less memorable and damaging than the documentary that would be made about England’s 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign.
This feature would convey Taylor’s determination to make the most of his time when it wasn’t an international week. He was going out to the clubs and monitoring how his players were getting on in training, rather than just watching them in action occasionally. He would acknowledge that the role would not be easy, as he joked: “At the moment I’m one game, one win. So the time to get out is now, I suppose.”
Lawrie McMenemy was to serve as Graham Taylor’s assistant.
Taylor had enjoyed a good start to his England reign by being given the green light to appoint a full-time assistant, a request Bobby Robson had not been granted eight years earlier as his sidekick Don Howe had to combine his international role with club duties. Lawrie McMenemy was not an old mate of Taylor’s, but they had come up against each other as managers and had the common ground of having both worked their way up from the lower divisions to the top level. McMenemy had enjoyed success at Southampton, but an ill-fated stint at Sunderland had taken its toll and he had not been in management since 1987.
He said the request from Taylor to work with him – under the convoluted title of ‘assistant to the manager’ – came out of the blue while both men were in Italy performing TV work during the World Cup. Thirteen years after McMenemy was interviewed for the England manager’s job when it went to Ron Greenwood, he would now be second in command with the national team. “My chance had gone so the offer from Graham was way beyond my expectations and as I had no football commitments to consider was able to tell him on the spot I would be delighted and proud to work with him on behalf of the England national side,” wrote McMenemy in his memoirs.
Another man who would be part of the management team was coach Steve Harrison, who had worked under Taylor at club level. “About the only bright spot in Graham Taylor’s reign was having Steve Harrison as coach,” declared Paul Gascoigne in his autobiography. Alas, this appears to have been due to him being “a great prankster” rather than because he brought in revolutionary coaching methods. Harrison would ultimately go one joke too far, leaving his roles with both England and Millwall the following year after literally providing some toilet humour in a hotel room.
As the new management team settled in, their predecessors were moving on with their footballing lives. Howe was managing QPR, while Robson’s PSV Eindhoven had been knocked out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in the first round by French side Montpellier. He reappeared in England during October to promote his autobiography Against the Odds, which largely focused on his England reign and Italia ’90 in particular. In it he gave his backing to his successor.
He wrote: “Graham Taylor, I have no doubt, is the right man for the right moment. A strong character and a very good coach who will bring the best out of his players. If he ever should need me I will be available. I shan’t get in his hair and I can promise now that he will not pick up the newspapers every other day to read me telling him how to do the job or criticising him in any way at all.” It was a thinly-veiled dig at Sir Alf Ramsey, who had incurred Robson’s wrath by criticising his team selections through a tabloid newspaper.
Robson knew better than anyone how much criticism would come Taylor’s way from the press if things did not work out. It wouldn’t be a problem just yet, but in time he would see his successor enduring similar treatment to what he had gone through.
Letting the Bull loose
Robson took almost four years to select an unchanged England side, but Taylor was managing it in his second game as he stuck with the team that beat Hungary. That meant Steve Bull retained his place in attack, as thousands of fans once more prepared to travel from the West Midlands to Wembley to support him. In many respects the Wolverhampton Wanderers striker seemed a man Taylor would readily identify with, having had to work his way up from the lower reaches and offering a physical presence in attack – something Taylor had regularly sought as a club manager.
Bull was glad to get the nod to start. “I haven’t got to go out and prove anything now,” he said. “I’ve just got to play well and score goals, because that is my job.” That was certainly still the case with Wolves, scoring five goals during the first week of October. But there would still be some doubts expressed by critics about whether he could replicate his Second Division goalscoring exploits in international football, despite having so far netted four times for his country in a dozen caps – including two in an excellent personal display against Czechoslovakia.
His striking partner Gary Lineker would captain the side, while there was hope John Barnes could again thrive in a role similar to that which he had played against Hungary. Paul Gascoigne and David Platt would pull the strings in midfield, with the sweeper system again utilised as Mark Wright joined Lee Dixon, Stuart Pearce, Paul Parker and Des Walker at the back. Chris Woods was selected in goal, starting two successive internationals for the first time after years of being Peter Shilton’s understudy.
The Republic of Ireland had laid down a marker earlier in the day by thrashing Turkey 5-0, meaning England knew it was imperative they won too. The match was taking place on the 17th anniversary of the infamous 1-1 draw against Poland which denied England a place at the 1974 World Cup. The circumstances would be different this time around with it being at the start of the qualifying programme, but Taylor knew that a similar outcome would leave England up against it.
The Wembley attendance of 77,040 was a firm indicator of post-Italia ’90 euphoria and ‘Gazzamania’, with it being the biggest crowd for a home qualifier since September 1983. Expectations for England to deliver were high, particularly as the Poles had just been beaten 3-2 at home by the United States in a friendly. But football is rarely an exact science and Taylor knew Poland would be no pushovers, with memories still clear of the struggle England faced when they drew 0-0 to qualify for the World Cup a year earlier.
Ryszard Tarasiewicz had shaken both the crossbar and English hearts in the dying seconds of that game and he would twice force Woods into action in the first half here, as the Poles sent out a signal of intent. At the other end, Barnes whipped over an excellent cross that Dixon blazed over from close range. Dixon then turned provider for England’s next clear chance, as Bull had his header blocked by goalkeeper Jozef Wandzik. It was the sort of opportunity the striker would have expected to convert, but he made up for it by pressurising Wandzik into conceding the corner which led to England making the breakthrough shortly before the break.
England regularly made use of a set-piece routine during this era, with a corner being headed on into the path of a striker. That duly happened here, with Gascoigne taking the corner and Wright heading it on. The ball fell perfectly for Lineker, who instictively headed goalwards but saw his effort handled with two Polish defenders stood on the line. BBC commentator John Motson wondered if the ball had gone in, but the referee pointed straight to the spot. Nobody would be cautioned, but England crucially had the opportunity to go go ahead.
After going four years without taking any penalties prior to the World Cup knockout rounds, England were now regularly testing their nerve from the spot. Lineker took the penalty in a similar fashion to the first he had scored against Cameroon, burying it into the corner of the net as the goalkeeper dived the other way. The Poles were becoming sick of the sight of him, having now scored five times in four games against them.
Gary Lineker celebrates with Paul Gascoigne and Steve Bull.
He wouldn’t add to his tally here, going off with a facial injury early in the second half. Taylor opted to make a double substitution, with Bull also making way as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle entered the action. Beardsley had enjoyed a potent start to the season, which included a hat-trick for Liverpool against Manchester United. However, some 18 months had passed since his last England goal.
It looked like nobody would be adding to the scoreline here, with Waddle and Barnes both denied by Wandzik. The game was meandering towards an acceptable but forgettable 1-0 win for England going into the final seconds. Then Dixon played a ball down the right flank to Beardsley, who let fly from an acute angle from outside the box and doubled the lead. “That is improvisation of a very high order,” proclaimed Motson, with Beardsley having spotted the gap left by Wandzik and brilliantly placing the ball out of his reach. It was a fine goal and those who had stayed until the end at Wembley savoured the moment.
England had a 2-0 win on the board, taking two points – UEFA were yet to adopt three points for a win – and already seeming to be in a straight fight with the Republic of Ireland to qualify. “It was a hard earned victory. I’m very pleased because that’s how it’s got to happen,” declared Taylor.
Peter Beardsley is congratulated by fellow North-Easteners Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle after making it 2-0.
Barnes again seemed to be offering more for England with Taylor in charge, while Gascoigne’s performance was not without its positives. He saw an effort blocked in the first half; took the corner which led to the penalty being awarded; played a wonderful ball through for Waddle that almost produced a second goal; and went on a mazy run during the second half that brought a save out of Wandzik. Yet the expectation levels were now such that merely putting in a decent display was not really satisfying demand. “There were few explosions of either the skilful or temperamental kind,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian. What nobody would have predicted was this would be the only game Gascoigne played in the entire Euro ’92 series.
A winning start
Two games, two wins and no goals conceded. It was the start Taylor would have sought, bar maybe having scored more than three goals. They hadn’t produced a great display yet, but nor had they done anything to bring the feelgood factor to an abrupt halt. They were winning games and confidence was high. “The best team won and the proof is in the goals,” conceded Polish boss Andrzej Strejlau.
It was, for once, a day which had brought footballing delight across the British Isles in European Championship qualifying matches. Wales had recorded an impressive 3-1 win over Belgium, while Scotland enjoyed a 2-1 success against Switzerland. Northern Ireland battled to a creditable 1-1 draw against eventual Euro ’92 winners Denmark, a few hours after their southern neighbours had thrashed Turkey. England had completed the set by winning against Poland and they could now start to focus on facing the Republic of Ireland in Dublin a month later. It was sure to be a big test that neither side could afford to lose.
For Bull, the credits were starting to roll on an international fairytale that had begun with a goal against Scotland in May 1989. It wasn’t quite all over. He made the bench away to the Republic of Ireland, but Taylor opted not to use him. In January he came on as a substitute for a strong Football League XI – managed by McMenemy – away to their Italian counterparts. A month later he was in the England B team away to Wales, before being an unused squad member for the return game against the Irish in March. Soon he was out of the picture altogether, with Taylor now looking at other options in attack and offering a recall to Alan Smith.
This game against Poland was ultimately Bull’s final cap. There would be a postscript to the Taylor-Bull story, as the pair would later work together at Wolves. Although Taylor would take the blame for the club being ready to sell their cult hero to Coventry City – a move that fell through – Bull said upon his former manager’s death in 2017 that Taylor had insisted it was not his decision. Bull joined the tributes to Taylor, hailing him as “a good manager to play under” and seemingly having long forgiven him for not offering him more opportunities with England.
When Bull sat on the bench in Dublin in November 1990, he would be accompanied by a rather surprising figure. Paul Gascoigne was sensationally left out of the side for this crunch Euro ’92 qualifier. It was Taylor’s biggest decision since taking the job and will be recalled in more depth next month…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.