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Graham Taylor’s England: Part 4 – December 1990

Our latest recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago focus on December 1990. England did not play a full international during the month, but there were two games of interest for fans of the national team and we recall them both today…

For Bryan Robson in 1990, see Kevin Keegan in 1982. The captain’s World Cup campaign was tarnished by injury, leading to them appearing in only a fraction of Engand’s tournament. Neither man suggests in their respective autobiographies that they would have retired from international football had the World Cup gone personally to plan, but it perhaps represented a natural time to do so as they were not realistically going to be involved four years later. Instead, they were left wanting to right the wrongs of the summer. Unfortunately for them, they now faced the challenge of convincing a new manager they should be in their plans and age was not on their side. Their lengthy England careers would end in anti-climatic fashion.

Keegan never played again for England after taking exception to Bobby Robson not contacting him to inform he was leaving him out of the side away to Denmark in September 1982. Eight years later, Bryan Robson missed the first three games of Graham Taylor’s reign through injury and question marks remained over his international future. Taylor would have understandable concerns. Robson’s 34th birthday was approaching; he had spent more time on the treatment table in 1990 than on the field; most of his contemporaries had left the England scene and the team’s new midfield stars – Paul Gascoigne and David Platt – were about a decade younger; and the team had come close to winning the World Cup in his absence after he returned home.

But Robson’s qualities including leadership and experience were not going to be ignored by Taylor. The captain had set his sights on leading the team to the 1992 European Championship, which would allow him to grace another major tournament and potentially reach the tangible 100-cap milestone. Conversations with Alex Ferguson had led Taylor to believe Robson’s future may lie in a sweeper role rather than as a midfield general. His return to the England fold in December 1990 would see him deployed at the back. After years of captaining the senior team, Robson now found himself turning out for the B side away to Algeria in atrocious conditions…

A storm in a B cup

We would normally only mention B team results in passing, but the game in Algeria on December 11 warrants a closer look. Firstly, it was unusually being held in isolation from matches played by the senior England team and Taylor would be in the dugout. Secondly, it was one of the strongest B teams England have ever fielded. Fifteen players featured during the game and not one of them could be considered to be just making up the numbers.

The team contained two players who had been in the World Cup squad (Robson and Neil Webb); a further seven who had been capped by England at senior level under Bobby Robson (Nigel Clough, Gary Mabbutt, Gary Pallister, Alan Smith, Mel Sterland, Michael Thomas and Danny Wallace); and three more who would soon earn their first caps (the Crystal Palace trio of Nigel Martyn, Geoff Thomas and Ian Wright). That left only three players who were never capped at full level, with Gary Ablett, David Burrows and John Lukic having all won the First Division title with their clubs. The common denominator was that no player on the field had so far played for the senior team under Taylor.

Robson had only just returned to action after six months out injured and his club manager was far from happy about him turning out for the England B team. “What the hell do you want to go there for?” Robson recalled being asked by Ferguson when he discussed the match in his autobiography. If Robson’s selection was a test to see if he really wanted to stay involved in the England set-up under the new regime, then he was not going to fail it by pulling out. But Ferguson’s words would ring in his ears as he found the trip to be an unenjoyable slog, without even the consolation of a full cap at the end of it. For a man who had so far played 87 full internationals for England, this was reserve team football at its unglamorous worst.

Coach Steve Harrison and Graham Taylor endure a soaking during the game.

Snow fell in Britain on the weekend before the game, with Taylor and a number of players having problems reaching Luton Airport. The squad then endured a lengthy wait for their flight and upon arrival in Algiers could dispel any notion that they were about to enjoy a couple of days in sunnier climes, as they found the weather as undesirable as back home. Robson recounted a training session being interrupted due to hailstones, while torrential rain and strong winds were prevalent throughout the trip and did not ease off come the match (which was briefly halted by a floodlight failure). Although England were facing Algeria’s A team, only a few hundred spectators braved the elements.

The game was an instantly forgettable 0-0 draw, played in dreadful conditions. “Seldom has an England party undergone so much hassle and travelled so far to so little apparent purpose,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian. Most of the headlines were made by the dismissal of Neil Webb for his part in a scuffle. He would contend he was more sinned against than sinner, but it was rare at this point for any England player to be ordered off and questions were raised over whether he would face punishment for his actions. Taylor would back Webb and keep him in his plans.

Robson would earn words of praise from Lacey for his display, but the captain would later dismiss the trip as “a waste of time”. Not only had the game brought little in the way of early festive cheer, but the veteran star was not feeling the same bond with Taylor as he had with Bobby Robson. He wrote: “In his team talk, Taylor went on about people working down pits and in factories and I was thinking, ‘What’s this got to do with the game? Any chance of hearing about the Algerian team?’ I realised there and then that we weren’t on the same wavelength.”

Bryan Robson in action for England in Algeria.

At least Robson had recently enjoyed a bumper payday from a crowd of almost 42,000 turning up for his testimonial between Manchester United and Celtic. One of his long-time England colleagues would not attract anything like as many spectators for his own benefit match…

Shilton’s gala farewell

The early 1990s may seem to represent the dawn of the modern footballing era, but when the schedules for December 1990 and January 1991 are recalled it feels like a bygone age. If Ferguson was unhappy about Robson heading off to Algeria for a B international, then today’s bosses would be incandescent with rage over the demands placed on players back then on top of the ever-hectic league programme. Drawn League Cup matches still went to replays, while FA Cup ties would take as many games as necessary to settle. Top flight clubs took part in the Soccer Six tournament in early December and, in mid-January, a strong Football League XI headed to Naples to take on their Serie A counterparts.

A number of star players were also taking to the field for a non-competitive match a week before Christmas, as Peter Shilton’s testimonial game was held at White Hart Lane between England and an Italia ’90 XI. It took place shortly after the 20th anniversary of the goalkeeper’s England debut and five months on from his 125th and final cap against Italy. This would not be a full international and the team would not even wear the Three Lions emblem on their shirts. But Taylor and Lawrie McMenemy would still be in charge for a game that had the air of a prestige friendly, although the Italia ’90 side would not exactly resemble a best XI from the tournament.

The scheduling of the match and efforts to attract spectators would not be without their problems. Although it was presumably considered easier to hold such a game in London rather than the East Midlands, Shilton had never played a home game at White Hart Lane. Many fans could simply not afford to pay good money to watch what was essentially a glorified kickabout so close to Christmas and, unlike for Robson’s testimonial, there would obviously not be thousands of away supporters helping to boost the gate. With nations including Italy, the Netherlands and the newly-unified Germany all in international action that week, plenty of players were absent who may have been otherwise involved.

One star name who claimed not to have received an invite was a certain Diego Maradona, with the pair having hardly become close friends after the ‘Hand of God’ incident four years earlier. Maradona brought the snub up in his autobiography and didn’t hold back. “Oh my heart bleeds,” he wrote. “How many people go to a goalkeeper’s testimonial anyway? A goalkeeper’s!” The answer was just 12,181 fans, who braved the December cold.

The attendance might have been even lower but for the presence of Tottenham’s two England stars in Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, with the latter having been voted Sports Personality of the Year two days earlier after winning hearts with his talent and tears during the World Cup. Another man on the field who would forever be synonymous with Italia ’90 was Roger Milla, although the most famous player in his team was someone who had retired long before the tournament in Michel Platini. Other household names to take to the field included Carlos Valderrama and Gheorghe Hagi.

Shilton would keep goal for England for the final time, with fellow World Cup squad members Robson, Gascoigne, Lineker, Terry Butcher, Des Walker, David Platt and Chris Waddle all in the starting line-up along with former England defender Viv Anderson. Also selected were Tony Daley and Matt Le Tissier, who were both uncapped at this point. The game was still its infancy when a soft penalty was awarded after Platt went down in the area, with Lineker once more getting the better of Cameroon’s Thomas N’Kono.

The England team that appeared in Peter Shilton’s testimonial.

Le Tissier doubled the lead before the break, when the Italia ’90 side make a plethora of changes including bringing on former Spurs star Ossie Ardiles. A month after being controversially left out of the England side away to the Republic of Ireland, Gascoigne was now afforded some consolation as he produced a clever run and finish to score past Packie Bonner. Shilton, who had conceded six goals during Derby County’s defeat by Chelsea the previous weekend, rolled back the years with a couple of impressive saves during the hour he was on the field. David Seaman replaced him, while Keegan made a guest appearance for England late on along with Spurs players Paul Allen and Paul Walsh.

Six years after hanging up his boots, it was Keegan who had the last word by heading in Gascoigne’s cross. England’s past and present stars had linked up together and the team had enjoyed a 4-0 win. But nobody was getting carried away. This was only a testimonial and the night had been about Shilton rather than England’s shape. Despite the crowd being lower than he may have hoped, he would still describe the turnout as “absolutely tremendous”.

The month had acted as a reminder that England’s old guard had either left the scene or the exit door was beckoning. Taylor was looking towards the future and he could enjoy his Christmas dinner in 1990, with the team having enjoyed a positive year. They would next be in action in early February when they faced a rematch from the World Cup, with Cameroon coming to Wembley for a friendly. The conditions could barely have been more different to those on that unforgettable night in Naples…

englandmemories View All

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

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