We continue to look back at how England were faring 30 years ago by recalling the vital Euro ’92 qualifier away to the Republic of Ireland. ‘Gazzamania’ had gripped England in recent months, but Graham Taylor would opt to leave the star midfielder on the bench…
When anyone talks about Paul Gascoigne being dropped by England, it usually concerns the 1998 World Cup. To the strains of Kenny G in a La Manga hotel room, Gazza would be distraught as he discovered Glenn Hoddle was leaving him out of the squad. It was a decision that tended to split opinion, between those who found it inconceivable that Gascoigne could be left at home and others who totally appreciated why Hoddle was so concerned about the midfielder’s fitness levels. Either way, it was a sad and anti-climatic ending to a memorable international career.
Yet eight years earlier there had been an instance of Gascoigne not being picked for England that was arguably even more controversial. This was Gascoigne at the peak of his powers, amid ‘Gazzamania’ sweeping the nation, before he’d suffered a dreadful injury and without concerns over the player’s fitness. Just four months after the 1990 World Cup semi-final drama, Graham Taylor left Gazza on the bench for England’s Euro ’92 qualifier away to the Republic of Ireland.
It was Taylor’s first significant decision when it came to who was in the England team and it would dominate much of the post-match talk. As Hoddle would later discover, deciding England could cope without Gascoigne would be met with plenty of bemusement – not least from the player himself.
‘No room’ for Gazza
Gascoigne had travelled to Dublin with the England squad and was naturally expecting to play, only to then be informed he would be on the bench. “I was devastated,” wrote Gascoigne in his autobiography. “Graham never really explained to me why. He told the press it was for ‘tactical reasons’. All he said to me was that I wasn’t in the right state to play, which really pissed me off.” Gascoigne offered few positive words about Taylor in his book and being left out for this game certainly did not endear the new manager to him.
But Taylor was not afraid to make decisions he felt needed making, regardless of whether they would make him unpopular. “There was no room for Gascoigne’s type of player in this game,” he said at the time. The direct style favoured by the Irish meant the game threatened to bypass the midfield, while the bumpy pitch and windy conditions were also likely to limit the extent to which Gascoigne could play his natural game. Taylor would indicate he was concerned by how many distractions Gascoigne was facing away from football amid ‘Gazzamania’. “I find it hard to believe that they’re not having an effect,” he said.
There may have been other things that concerned Taylor. Gascoigne’s last two away appearances for England – as opposed to those on neutral territory – had seen him anger Bobby Robson by allegedly not following his instructions away to Sweden in September 1989 and giving the ball away for Tunisia to score in June 1990. This was going to be a game where concentration and discipline were key. During the World Cup, the only game Gascoigne played without making a telling contribution was the forgettable 1-1 draw with the Irish. Further to that, Taylor revealed in his autobiography published shortly after his death in 2017 that he had noted at the time how unimpressed he had been by Gazza’s display at home to Poland the previous month.
But the same book would finally shed light on what really prompted him to decide there would be no place for Gascoigne in the side. He revealed he “had been told by someone I trusted that the Ireland side were planning to wind him up and try to get him sent off”. Taylor would accept he had no proof that this was the case, but admitted it “reinforced my thinking that this was not a match for the volatile Paul Gascoigne to play in”. Evidently, Taylor had yet to build the level of trust necessary in Gascoigne to believe he could keep his cool and do what was required to ensure England achieved their primary objective of not losing.
Some could see what Taylor was thinking by leaving him out. “If Gascoigne shed tears at the decision they must have been tears of gratitude,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian. “This was not the Tottenham player’s sort of game. The match was performed in a high wind on a bumpy pitch, with nobody given much time on the ball.” But for others it would be interpreted as a rejection of Gascoigne’s ability and a preference for grafters over creative talent. In their eyes, a good result for England would be achieved despite Gazza’s non-selection rather than because of it. If they lost, then the knives would already be out and the honeymoon over.
Paul Gascoigne was on the bench for England’s away qualifier against the Republic of Ireland. Also pictured are Steve Bull, Gary Stevens, David Seaman and Peter Shilton (during his short spell in a coaching role).
“What did surprise me was the reaction of the press,” wrote Taylor. “They couldn’t see that I had picked a team to suit the situation and the circumstances.” The criticism aimed at Taylor during the Dublin trip was mild in comparison to the vitriolic treatment later in his reign, but it did give him an insight into just how much media pressure was placed on the England manager. It was also an indicator of how obsessed the nation was with Gascoigne. Never a natural spectator at the best of times, the midfielder cut a frustrated figure as he sat on the bench without being brought into the action.
Taylor would reshuffle his pack in midfield, going for a combination of Steve McMahon, Gordon Cowans and the in-form David Platt. Cowans was a fine midfielder in his own right, but his selection raised a few eyebrows. He was 32 and hadn’t played for England since March 1986, with seven of his nine previous caps having come as long ago as 1983. Taylor would insist Cowans for Gascoigne wasn’t a straight swap as the midfield shape was being changed, but that was to be a widespread perception as critics considered the new man to have favoured one of his own from Aston Villa over England’s Italia ’90 golden boy.
The shape of the side was further affected by the absence of John Barnes, who had started brightly under Taylor but was out injured. That left the door open for Chris Waddle to start, only to also pick up a knock and miss out. Taylor would opt to field Peter Beardsley in attack alongside captain Gary Lineker, with Steve Bull dropped to the bench and never capped again. Another man missing out was Paul Parker, with Taylor deciding it was not a match suited to the diminutive defender’s qualities in the same way it wasn’t for Gascoigne’s.
This meant Tony Adams was recalled to the side after a two-year absence. Adams would be alongside Mark Wright in the defence for the first time since England’s 3-1 loss to the Netherlands at Euro ’88, although this time around they would be accompanied by the assured figure of Des Walker. Lee Dixon and Stuart Pearce retained the full-back slots, with Chris Woods starting a third successive international in goal.
This was a golden age for the Republic of Ireland, having reached the last eight of both Euro ’88 and Italia ’90. But not everybody in England was an admirer. Jibes would regularly be made about how Jack Charlton would pick anyone with the most tenuous link to Ireland, while their ‘put ’em under pressure’ direct approach would attract criticism similar to what Taylor’s Watford had endured as they challenged the old order. But every player called up by Charlton would insist they considered themselves Irish regardless of where they were born, while the tactical system bore fruit – particularly at Lansdowne Road. They won every home qualifier en route to Italia ’90, with the Irish having not lost in Dublin since Charlton’s first game in March 1986.
It was going to be a real test for Taylor. The likes of Paul McGrath, Ray Houghton, Niall Quinn and John Aldridge were all household names who had won major honours at club level in England. A crowd of 46,000 packed into Lansdowne Road, with the majority hoping to see the Irish triumph. England had not visited Dublin for 12 years, with a planned friendly earlier in the year scrapped after the sides were drawn together at the World Cup. But the luck of the draw meant they would now make the trip a few months later.
November was traditionally a strong time of year for England, who had last tasted defeat in the month in 1976 away to Italy in a World Cup qualifier. The nightmare scenario was history would repeat itself, with only one side going through and England potentially then needing to win every subsequent game and make up the goal difference to qualify. But the smart money was on a draw. The Irish were strong at home, while you had to go back to September 1981 for England’s last away qualifying defeat. With only two points for a win, the fear of losing was such that neither side was likely to take risks.
ITV had the rights to an England game outside a major tournament for the first time since May 1988, but it would not go smoothly for them. Technical problems meant Brian Moore’s commentary could not be heard during the first few minutes of the game, while Central opted out of showing the match live due to it clashing with events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Coventry bombings. Viewers in the Midlands faced trying to access another region’s coverage of the match, or experiencing a Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? scenario and avoiding the score until later in the day.
The scheduling of the match was certainly far from ideal. The absence of floodlights at Lansdowne Road meant the match would be played early on a Wednesday afternoon, which even 30 years ago felt like an antiquated idea for a game so close to home. But there were few alternatives. Weekend internationals involving British Isles sides only tended to take place at the end of the season, when England were already committed to playing other fixtures including going on tour. The Irish were accustomed to their home games during the season being on Wednesday afternoons and television was not going to be able to dictate when it took place.
A familiar outcome
Anybody who had pulled a sickie to watch the game live must have been wondering why they had bothered following a dull first half, with the mutual need to avoid defeat and the blustery conditions both impacting on the entertainment value. Lineker fluffed England’s best chance, while at the other end the Irish could have been awarded a penalty when Andy Townsend went down in the box. England had been denied what Bobby Robson had felt should have been a spot-kick in the World Cup meeting, but now the luck was on their side here.
The match would improve after the break, with England now having to contend with the strong wind blowing towards their goal. That was never more evident than when Ireland were awarded a free-kick near the halfway line. England would have been prepared for Mick McCarthy to launch the ball into the box, but they wouldn’t have anticipated him coming within inches of scoring as Woods frantically back-pedalled.
It looked like a long second half may await England as they sought to hold out for a draw. But then a rare moment of quality on an afternoon of mediocrity changed the game in their favour on 67 minutes. Lineker played a neat ball to McMahon, who galloped forward and fed the ball out wide to the advancing Dixon. England were keeping the ball on the ground and Dixon’s cross eluded Lineker, but it fell perfectly for Platt who had timed his run to perfection and scored past Packie Bonner. There was delight for all England players, fans and management, with Taylor’s game plan looking set to earn maximum points.
Platt had done exactly what Taylor knew he could do from managing him at club level, but 11 minutes from time another of his Aston Villa signings would deny him a precious victory. Beardsley had squandered a chance to double the lead and England were soon punished, with the ball bouncing out of Platt’s reach and being launched into the box by Steve Staunton. Substitute Tony Cascarino had two England defenders near him but managed to get his head to the ball and power it out of the reach of Woods as the vast majority of the crowd rejoiced.
England now had to stay focused as the Irish grew in confidence, with Houghton firing over in a crowded box and then wasting a glorious chance to win it after a rare slip by Pearce. For the second time in 1990, a meeting between the Republic of Ireland and England had been played in poor conditions, lacked finesse and the Irish had come from behind to draw 1-1. But this time around some credit would come England’s way for the battling spirit they showed to gain a point. “They’ve worn those shirts with a lot of pride and done very well,” declared Taylor when interviewed by ITV just seconds after the final whistle.
Gordon Cowans made a surprise return to international action after a gap of almost five years.
Going into this week’s friendly clash at Wembley, England have not beaten the Republic of Ireland for 35 years. This was as close as they’ve been, just 11 minutes separating them from an impressive victory. On the balance of play it was hard to make a case that England had really deserved to win, but nor had they looked second best during an even contest. “A fair result in a highly predictable game,” was Jimmy Greaves’ assessment. The basic aim of not losing had been achieved. It meant the return game at Wembley was one where whoever won would be expected to qualify, but the group would remain wide open if it was another draw.
Cowans and McMahon played the full 90 minutes in Dublin and earned praise from Taylor, but neither man would ever be capped again. McMahon had been unfortunate to come to the fore at a time when Bryan Robson was central to the England side, and then to be usurped by Platt during Italia ’90 when he finally appeared to be getting his chance to cement his place. Cowans had been handed an England recall by Taylor when he probably accepted his chance had gone. Neither man may have been much like Gascoigne in terms of personality or playing style, but Taylor had put his faith in both players showing maturity and calmness in the Dublin pressure cooker and he was pleased with their contributions.
Taylor had shown by dropping Gascoigne that nobody could take their place in the side for granted. That certainly applied to the captain his predecessor had adored so much. Bryan Robson was in Dublin only in the role of pundit with ITV, having been out of action for five months. But in December he would be playing again and twice representing England. Yet neither would be a full international, as he would appear for the B side away to Algeria before playing in Peter Shilton’s international farewell game. We will recall both matches in the next chapter…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.