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Graham Taylor’s England: Part 6 – March/April 1991

Our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago continue by looking back at the crucial home European Championship qualifier against the Republic of Ireland, as well as news breaking of the planned creation of the Premier League…

England and the Republic of Ireland have met just 17 times down the years and almost a quarter of those games came in a series of intense clashes from 1988 to 1991. All of the four games had a lot riding on them. All of the games had the added subplot of Ireland being managed by a 1966 World Cup winner and their side containing a number of English-born players. All of the games saw England unable to get the better of the Republic.

The saga began at Euro ’88, when the Irish marked their first appearance at a major tournament by famously beating the English. Two years later there was a turgid 1-1 draw at Italia ’90, followed in November 1990 with another stalemate in Dublin in a European Championship qualifier. Now four months later came the next clash and one that effectively looked winner takes all in terms of qualifying for the finals, even though the group would only be at the halfway stage.

Demand for tickets at Wembley would easily outstrip supply, the lack of quality in the two most recent meetings failing to deter thousands upon thousands of English and Irish fans from seeking to attend the showdown. “They could have sold this out three times over,” said John Motson as he started his live commentary for the BBC. Seldom since English football’s greatest day 25 years earlier had there been such interest in an international at Wembley. A man who had been on England’s victorious side that day would now look to plot their downfall.

Jack Charlton came perilously close to doing so…

The pressure game

Charlton’s team had withstood criticism over their direct “put ’em under pressure” tactics and selection of players not born in Ireland, but their ability to get results was excellent. If one were to try and find fault with their record it concerned their ability to win on their travels. Since beating England at Euro ’88 they had played 11 competitive games outside Dublin and their only victory in open play had come against the minnows of Malta. That, however, was the glass half-empty take on things as they had seldom lost and had been the equals of many big names. Playing England at Wembley would not faze them.

So it was that a tight encounter was expected, following two 1-1 draws the previous year. It would be England’s first home qualifier shown live on terrestrial television since facing Denmark in September 1983. That remained England’s last defeat in a qualifying match, costing them a place at the following year’s European Championship. The nightmare scenario for Graham Taylor and England would be history repeating itself.

1983 also remained the last year England had fielded a teenager, when John Barnes and Nick Pickering made their international debuts. Bobby Robson had generally preferred for younger players to serve an international apprenticeship in the under-21s or B team before getting their opportunity at senior level, but Taylor was now offering a big chance for a youngster who was enjoying the season of his life. Still a couple of months shy of his 20th birthday, Lee Sharpe had played a prominent role in Manchester United’s runs in the Rumbelows Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup and he had just been voted PFA Young Player of the Year. To cap it all Taylor drafted him into the senior England squad, naming him on the bench against Ireland.

If Sharpe was called upon, then he could turn to the familiar guiding hand of Bryan Robson captaining the side from midfield. Paul Gascoigne was out injured and facing a race against time to be fit for Tottenham Hotspur’s FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal the following month. At least David Platt was available again after missing the friendly against Cameroon the month before, but Chris Waddle would be ruled out just a week after starring for Marseille against AC Milan in the European Cup.

Although the circumstances behind why Waddle would be overlooked by Taylor for much of his reign ran a little deeper – a subject for exploring later this year – it was certainly suggested at the time that withdrawing injured ahead of both qualifiers against the Irish did not help his cause. Barnes had also missed the trip to Dublin, but he was in the side for this game in a free role.

England would field the same defensive combination they had used in Dublin, which meant Tony Adams was back in the side after being incarcerated in the interim. Taylor was willing to accept the man had served his punishment and Adams accompanied Des Walker and Mark Wright in the heart of the defence. Lee Dixon and Stuart Pearce were picked on the defensive flanks, but one change from the away game concerned the choice of goalkeeper. David Seaman got the nod over Chris Woods, who was on the bench along with Sharpe, Gary Stevens, Geoff Thomas and Ian Wright.

This game would turn out to be the end of an era for England, even though no player was making his final appearance for his country. Bryan Robson was captaining England for the last time after holding the armband since November 1982, while this would also be the final occasion that the familiar forward pairing of Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley was deployed. Lineker had scored his first England goal when the Irish last visited Wembley in 1985. They were a tougher nut to crack now.

Taylor had so far been largely willing to work with what he had inherited from the World Cup squad, both in terms of personnel and shape. This game would go a long way to deciding he would be doing things his own way in the future.

The same old scene

Charlton was managing at Wembley for the first and only time. He insisted during the build-up that his team had never played for a draw and he could not be accused of approaching the game cautiously. Forwards John Aldridge and Niall Quinn were supported by Ray Houghton, Kevin Sheedy and Andy Townsend. Paul McGrath would complement the other midfielders by repelling English attacks, while a back line of Denis Irwin, Steve Staunton, David O’Leary and captain Kevin Moran contained a good blend of experience and emerging talent. The Irish side was completed by seasoned goalkeeper Pat Bonner.

The games between England and the Republic of Ireland were taking on a familiar pattern. England go ahead, the Irish battle back to equalise and the game ends 1-1. It had happened twice in the previous year and this night would complete the hat-trick. But there would be a shift in the storyline here. In the two previous games England had smelt victory before conceding an equaliser well into the second half; here they were pegged back before half-time and they would be considered the more fortunate team to get anything out of it.

But it had started so promisingly for Taylor’s side. Just nine minutes had passed when Pearce whipped over a cross that Staunton failed to head properly clear. It was returned with interest by Dixon, whose shot took a wicked deflection off Staunton and beat Bonner. These days it may have gone down as an own goal, but most sources credit it to Dixon. It was the only time he found the net for England.

Lee Dixon celebrates England taking the lead.

But rather than acting a springboard for England it seemed to galvanise the visitors. McGrath had an effort hooked off the line, with the ball falling to Moran who struck the woodwork. Ireland had demonstrated on several previous occasions that they would not submit after going behind and the same spirit was in evidence here. A particularly torturous passage of play for England saw the Irish pen them deep in their own half for about three minutes, with each clearance being met by the ball being lofted back at them as the visitors dictated the game. Robson and Platt had to increasingly retreat, limiting their ability to support the forwards.

Charlton had once more got the opposition sussed and the Irish drew level in the 27th minute. McGrath floated a ball into the box and Quinn peeled away from Adams to net past Seaman. England had three central defenders on the pitch, yet Quinn had been allowed to find space and score. It was a poor goal to concede and typified a night in which the Irish seemed to offer greater cohesion in their play. Their approach was not universally loved, but it worked.

England made it through to half-time without falling behind. BBC co-commentator Trevor Brooking called for Taylor to sacrifice a defender and add numbers in the midfield by bringing on Sharpe or Thomas. He got his wish, as the first player to represent England who was born after the 1966 World Cup made way for the player who was about to become the first born after the 1970 World Cup to be capped by the Three Lions – Sharpe coming on for Adams at the start of the second half. It helped clam things down a bit, but the Irish were still carving out chances. Sheedy had an opportunity in the area, but crucially it fell onto his right foot rather than left and he failed to convert.

If matches were decided on the balance of play then England would have got something out of their Euro ’88 meeting, while the Irish would probably have been awarded victory here. The outcome of both games hinged upon the contribution of Houghton. Having headed in an early winner in Stuttgart, he now squandered a glorious opportunity to give the Irish maximum points in the closing stages at Wembley. Substitute Tony Cascarino laid the ball into his path and he looked set to score with only Seaman to beat, but he placed the ball inches wide of the post. Charlton held his head in his hands on the bench, knowing victory had been there for the taking.

Mark Wright and Niall Quinn challenge for aerial supremacy.

One can only wonder how differently things might have been had Houghton scored and Ireland qualified. It would have piled the pressure on Taylor early in his reign, but it may also have acted as a learning curve for him ahead of the World Cup qualifiers – assuming he kept his job – in the same way that the aforementioned loss to Denmark was for Robson in 1983. He would also presumably have never been subjected to the tedious ‘Turniphead’ front page jibes, given they stemmed from England’s defeat to Sweden at the European Championship and the wittier ‘Swedes 2, Turnips 1’ headline.

As it was England had emerged unbeaten from their two clashes with the Irish and could still fancy their chances of qualifying. Both sides were level on four points after three games (it was still two points for a win), being joined there the following month by Poland who completed the double over Turkey. All three nations were still in the running and the results in the second half of the qualifying programme would be decisive. The Irish had the better goal difference, but England could make that up if they delivered against Turkey.

Charlton would be unimpressed by BBC interviewer David Davies assuming he would be “delighted” with the draw when asked afterwards, with Big Jack insisting his team should have won. It was a view shared by others, with England’s performance more disappointing than the result. Tellingly, some of the critics were not those normally associated with providing damning assessments of the team.

Brooking could not be accused on this occasion of sitting on the fence. “They haven’t played well,” he said. “Looking through the England side I can’t see anyone who will walk off the field happy with their performance and really seasoned professionals like Bryan Robson, Stuart Pearce have been shadows of how we know they can play.”

You’d have been hard pushed to find anyone declaring England were the better side. Even a bitterly disappointed Taylor would concede: “We certainly didn’t deserve to win.” Darker days would lie ahead later in his reign, but at the time this was the worst he had felt. To make matters worse, he found observations he made about Ireland’s goal were construed in the press as him having a go at Seaman. The night had perhaps acted as an inkling of what lay ahead once the going really got tough.

Taylor would also comment on how the Irish were “physically stronger than us”. He may have particularly considered this to be the case in attack, where Beardsley and Lineker only made fleeting contributions to proceedings. Lineker looked fatigued and made way for Ian Wright late on. It is probably not a coincidence that in the future Taylor would often select a physical presence in the forward line, with Beardsley the player sacrificed. Taylor would also be concerned with the defence, saying: “We were like a boxer who keeps inviting his opponent to punch him on the chin.” Adams, having only recently got back in the side, would not play for England again until October 1992.

Premier plans

The dust settled and the players went back to their clubs in time for the Easter weekend. But a week later there would be a major development as news broke of plans for the Football Association to establish the breakaway Premier League – or a ‘Super League’ as it was widely called at the time – from August 1992. We all know the end outcome and everybody has their own views on the merits or otherwise of its existence. But what is interesting to note here is the proposed benefits to the England team that were widely reported on at the time.

The blueprint would talk of the intention of “establishing England at the apex of the pyramid of playing excellence” and how “the Football League should occupy a subordinate position to that of the England team”. One of the main proposals to help meet the objectives was to reduce the top division to 18 clubs, despite the fact it was about to go back up to 22 teams from 1991-92. Three decades have passed since the blueprint was published and the league has still yet to dip below 20 clubs.

The broadcaster Mike Ingham, who enjoyed a close working relationship with the then England manager in later years on 5 Live, would state in his autobiography: “Graham Taylor read his blueprint and concluded that there was no advantage in it for him. He was right.” Taylor made no such comment in his own memoirs, but did recount how the Premier League’s creation would allow more blank weekends ahead of midweek internationals (back in 1990-91 Taylor was afforded just two, prior to the home game against Poland and away clash in Turkey). “I hadn’t anticipated it would actually create a whole different set of problems,” he wrote.

What those problems were is a matter for discussion in the future. Taylor’s focus as May 1991 dawned was the seven games England still had left before packing up for the summer. The first of them would be the most important, away to Turkey in a European Championship qualifier. Taylor was about to show this was now his England team by omitting three mainstays of the Bobby Robson era from his squad and handing out new caps…

englandmemories View All

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

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