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Graham Taylor’s England: Part 7 – May 1991

We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by recalling May 1991, a month that included three matches for the team and the devastating injury Paul Gascoigne sustained in the FA Cup final…

It is open to debate when the feelgood factor surrounding Italia ‘90 and the England team began to fade on these shores, but May 1991 seems to be the standout month. In some respects it was a positive time, as England played three games and remained unbeaten under Graham Taylor. They now held the initiative in the bid to qualify for Euro ‘92 and also picked up silverware.

Yet there would be visible factors that suggested the treasured memories of the previous summer were making way for doses of reality. Stalwarts from the Bobby Robson era were being discarded from the squad; some of their replacements were met with lukewarm receptions from the press and public; England received criticism for their laboured display away to Turkey; and the attendances for home matches against the Soviet Union and Argentina suggested the high demand for tickets seen earlier in the season was not likely to be replicated again for a while.

But above everything there was the loss of the man central to England’s Italia ‘90 storyline. Having already missed a number of games under Taylor, Paul Gascoigne’s footballing future was plunged into uncertainty when he was carried off with a cruciate ligament injury in the FA Cup final. He now faced months out of action and England’s attempts to qualify for the 1992 European Championship would have to be completed without him. The ‘Gazzamania’ phenomenon that had gripped the nation since Italia ‘90 was now all but over…

Out with the old

For the first few months of his time managing England, Graham Taylor had been happy to largely work with what he inherited. He’d supplemented the squad with the occasional newcomer such as Ian Wright, but the nucleus of the side was at it had been towards the end of Bobby Robson’s reign. All that was to change ahead of a European Championship qualifier away to Turkey on the first day of May in 1991.

The North-East trio of Peter Beardsley, Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle were all left out of the squad. Age was certainly not on 34-year-old Robson’s side, but it was the first time since the 1980 European Championship that he was omitted from an England squad because the manager did not consider him worthy of a place. Waddle had played a pivotal role in Marseille reaching the European Cup final but he was deemed surplus to requirements by Taylor, having withdrawn injured from both qualifiers against the Republic of Ireland. Beardsley had been prominently involved with England for five years, but he evidently did not fit in Taylor’s plans amid growing uncertainty over his future at Liverpool.

All three men would return to win one more cap under Taylor (very shortly in Beardsley’s case), but the die had been cast. The manager, unhappy with England’s most recent performance at home to the Republic of Ireland, was going to do things his way. That was reflected in the side he picked away to Turkey. The team’s familiarity was further dented by Paul Gascoigne being out injured and Mark Wright picking up a knock, but Taylor rang the changes across the side and also discarded the sweeper system.

Wright was replaced by Gary Pallister, earning only his fourth cap. Taylor continued to seek the ideal partner for Gary Lineker in attack and he turned to Alan Smith, playing his first international for almost two years as their old Leicester City pairing was revived. The midfield was shaken up, with debuts handed to Geoff Thomas and Dennis Wise. Thomas, who was about to captain Crystal Palace to an impressive third place in the First Division, would team up in midfield with David Platt. The last time that had happened was with Crewe Alexandra in the Fourth Division.

The rest of the side had a more established look, with David Seaman from champions elect Arsenal keeping his place in goal and club colleague Lee Dixon holding down the right-back berth. Nottingham Forest duo Stuart Pearce and Des Walker added dependency to the defence, while John Barnes once more donned the number 11 shirt. What was more unfamiliar was the strip England wore, as they played in their sky blue third choice kit.

Gary Lineker in the sky blue kit England wore against Turkey.

The attire was far less of a talking point than Taylor’s selections ahead of the game. Jimmy Hill, joining Steve Rider in the London studio for the BBC’s live coverage, showed some understanding behind the choices and the intention of creating more chances than England had been doing. But he also hinted he wasn’t thrilled with some of the changes, adding: “As you and I well know, tomorrow it will be ‘come back Robson, all is forgiven’ if this experimental team doesn’t work.” Expectations were high, with Turkey amassing no points from three games so far in qualifying and having been thrashed three times by England in the 1980s.

But anyone assuming English success was overlooking a few elements. The Turks had been just one place adrift of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup and were now managed by Sepp Piontek, the man who had masterminded England’s downfall when in charge of Denmark during qualifying for the 1984 European Championship. England’s last visit to Turkey had not gone to plan almost exactly four years earlier, failing to get the breakthrough and having to settle for a goalless draw. In a further warning sign, England under-21s scraped a 2-2 draw in a meeting with the Turks the day before the Euro ‘92 qualifier.

However, the minimal expectation at senior level was an England victory. They took to the field in the Izmir sunshine buoyed by the news filtering through from Dublin, with the Republic of Ireland and Poland having drawn 0-0. It was the best outcome in terms of aiding England’s path to the finals. Win all their remaining games and they would qualify, regardless of what anyone else did. With the next two matches being against Turkey, they had a chance to get at least one foot in the finals before the final match in Poland in November.

Strange goal, strange game

In what was becoming a recurring theme this season, Barnes started brightly for England and a mazy run led to him being inches away from scoring. However, Taylor’s men were not having it all their own way and more potent opponents may have taken advantage of English defensive lapses. But they survived to lead at the break, courtesy of a strange goal by Wise. Pearce floated a free-kick into a crowded penalty area, with Pallister heading it in Wise’s direction. He went in for the ball with the Turkish goalkeeper Hayrettin and it found its way into the net, amid a suspicion it may have struck his arm.

One midfield debutant had scored for England and another almost did likewise, Thomas having an effort pushed away just moment after Smith had struck the woodwork. The momentum seemed to be with England here, but they were unable to press home their advantage and became increasingly tepid as the game wore on. Thomas made way for Steve Hodge at half-time, for what would be the Nottingham Forest midfielder’s final cap. His time on the field yielded no goals for either side, with England having to hang on for the win amid growing Turkish pressure.

Dennis Wise scored the winner for England against Turkey.

There was an odd mood at the end. England had the win and the destiny of the group was in their hands, but they hadn’t given the desired display and had almost been punished for it. David Lacey in The Guardian wrote that England gave “a performance which recalled the bad magic of Tommy Cooper yet had none of the master’s timing and few of the laughs”. He showed no mercy towards the newcomers, proclaiming Thomas “looked out of his depth” and match-winner Wise “simply did not look a player of England quality”.

Hill’s prediction about calls for Taylor’s predecessor to return to the fold proved true even in victory, with Lacey noting that chants of Bobby Robson’s name were heard in the stadium. Robson, his popularity enhanced by the previous summer’s World Cup, must have wished he’d been afforded such public acclaim during his troubled times as England boss. He could certainly empathise with Taylor, who was already coming in for criticism. But his cheerful persona remained. “We’re English, we’re in business and we’re in a period of change,” he told the media.

But not everyone was enamoured with the direction things were going. “England need Gascoigne fit and available,” wrote Lacey as he reflected on the insipid display in Izmir. Events 17 days later meant Gazza would be neither of those things for the foreseeable future.

A very ‘English’ final

The 1991 FA Cup Final was billed as Cloughie against Gazza. It may seem a little odd to build up a clash as being between the manager of one team and the star player of another, but that reflected the magnetism the pair had. Nottingham Forest against Tottenham Hotspur was very much an ‘English’ final in terms of personnel and some of the key characters were about to play prominent roles during the afternoon.

It was a final that pitted together the manager so often linked with the England job against the man who would ultimately succeed Graham Taylor. Brian Clough and Terry Venables walked out at Wembley holding hands and it set the tone for an afternoon which produced the unexpected, from Gary Lineker having a penalty saved to Des Walker heading the winner into his own net. But even as Gary Mabbutt went up to collect the cup for Spurs, the main headlines did not concern the outcome of the match.

As we all know, Paul Gascoigne was now in a hospital bed after his rash challenge on Gary Charles – more on him next month – ended with Gazza coming off considerably worse. Having played such a prominent role in getting Spurs to the final, now Gascoigne barely featured in it. Nor was he likely to be playing for any team anytime soon. A planned big-money move to Lazio was put on hold and Taylor would have to do without him going forward. The surgeon who operated on him confirmed Gascoigne would not play again in 1991, but would hopefully be back the following year.

It meant that England’s qualifying campaign for the 1992 European Championship would be completed with Gascoigne having played just one game along the way. Whether he would be back to full fitness in time for the finals, nobody could be sure. Likewise, whether England would get there for them.

More changes from Taylor

Many English players were starting to head off on holiday but, in terms of matches played, the national team were incredibly only halfway through their season. Three days after the cup final, England were in action again against the Soviet Union. This was part of the England Challenge Cup tournament, similar in format to the disbanded Rous Cup with Argentina being the other side involved in the three-team competition. Even if Gascoigne had been fit he wouldn’t have featured, with Tottenham having a rescheduled league game to play the following night at Manchester United.

With no players involved from Saturday’s final, Taylor rang the changes across the back. Chris Woods returned in goal after a three-game absence, while full backs Gary Stevens and Tony Dorigo made their first starts under Taylor. Paul Parker returned to the heart of the defence, alongside Mark Wright who captained England for the only time.

He was picked to wear the armband ahead of Platt, who was again joined by Thomas and Wise in midfield and Barnes in his familiar role. Smith retained his place in attack and, with Lineker unavailable, Ian Wright was picked alongside him. Just weeks after being annexed from the squad, Beardsley was back in it and took his place on the bench.

A year earlier the Soviet Union had been tipped by Bobby Charlton to win the World Cup. They fell a long way short of doing that, but they would go on to qualify ahead of Italy for the 1992 European Championship. That was achieved amid political upheaval and it would be, in name at least, the last time the USSR faced England. Their visit had certainly not captured the English imagination, just 23,789 turning up at Wembley. Although it was not unknown for England home games to attract low crowds, the turnout represented an ominous drop in numbers from some recent bumper attendances amid the post-Italia ‘90 euphoria.

Alan Smith in action for England against the Soviet Union.

Those that turned up were rewarded with a fairly entertaining game, as England scored more than twice for the first time since Italia ‘90. It was also the first occasion since then that they had fallen behind, with Vladimir Tatarchuk’s shot deflecting off Mark Wright and deceiving Woods in the ninth minute. But England led by the break, Smith’s opening international goal followed by Platt scoring from the spot after he had been felled. A fine save by Woods kept England ahead, as they brought on Beardsley for Ian Wright and David Batty for Wise.

They were on the field when England got the third to seal victory late on, a slick passing move ending with Platt firing home. It was one in the eye for anyone who believed Taylor’s only approach was for the ball to be hoofed long and it offered encouragement going forward, with Platt looking increasingly assured on the international stage. Beardsley provided the assist, but it would be his final contribution for England under Taylor. He never picked him again.

Old rivalry, new faces

Argentina and the Soviet Union drew 1-1 at Old Trafford two nights later, meaning England would lift the trophy if they avoided defeat against the World Cup runners-up at Wembley on the Saturday. The sides had not met since the ‘Hand of God’ game five years earlier, with England’s only two survivors from that game being John Barnes and Gary Lineker – who together had linked up for one goal and so nearly another in the heat of Mexico.

The visitors weren’t just unrecognisable from back then, but also the World Cup of the previous year. Goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea and captain Oscar Ruggeri were joined by a cluster of newcomers, as they looked towards the future. England were doing likewise and Batty and Diego Simeone would share space on the field, with neither having been born when the sides met in the turbulent World Cup quarter-final clash at Wembley 25 years earlier that had helped ignite the rivalry.

But they would each play prominent roles when the sides faced other in the 1998 World Cup, as would Seaman who returned in goal here. Dixon, Pearce and Walker all regained their places in defence, accompanying Mark Wright. Platt and Thomas again joined forces in midfield, with Batty and Barnes also starting. Lineker returned to the side and wore the captain’s armband, with Smith alongside him up front.

Had the game produced a match-up between Gascoigne and Diego Maradona then the odds are that Wembley would have been full, but instead a moderate turnout of 44,497 was recorded. Maradona had been hit with a 15-month ban for testing positive for cocaine, with a number of names on the visiting team sheet meaning little to the average Englishman. With England also in something of a transitional period personnel-wise, it was not a fixture that whetted the appetite as much as would have been hoped.

Gary Lineker heads England in front against Argentina.

England wore their third different strip during the month, this time donning red shirts. They would look on course to gain some revenge for the events of five years earlier. A week after being on opposing sides at Wembley, Pearce’s long free-kick into the area found its way to the diving head of Lineker, who broke the deadlock. England were offering a positive performance and Pearce would provide another assist after the break, a neat move ending with him crossing for Platt to head home. The defender almost got on the scoresheet himself shortly afterwards, bursting forward and being inches away from turning home Batty’s incisive ball. At around this point in the game Barnes made way for Nigel Clough, two years after his previous England cap.

The old adage about 2-0 being a dangerous lead had rung true in recent meetings between the sides, with Argentina having fought back to draw 2-2 at Wembley in 1974 and England having almost done likewise in the 1986 World Cup. Argentina seemed unlikely to mount a comeback here, but they did so by scoring two goals that could have feasibly come straight out of an English training ground. Corners around the midpoint of the second half led to Claudio Garcia and Darlo Franco both placing the ball out of Seaman’s reach, earning Argentina an unlikely draw on an afternoon containing four headed goals.

It was disappointing for England to let a 2-0 lead slip, but they had at least done enough to win the England Challenge Cup. Lineker collected the trophy, while his manager was in a positive frame of mind despite failing to win. He noted that the performed produced “more of the things I’m looking for than in any of the seven previous games”. Patrick Barclay in The Observer took a similar stance, writing: “England gave by far their finest performance under Graham Taylor, the trouble being that it only lasted an hour.” It hadn’t so much been a game of two halves as three thirds, with England in command for the first two before being pegged back.

This really should have been the point that the England team packed up for the summer, a year on from a demanding World Cup campaign and with no qualifying matches scheduled during June. But instead they still had some four games left to play, which were arranged prior to Taylor’s appointment as manager. Worse still, they were on the opposite side of the world and Taylor would be without a number of established players for the friendlies against Australia, New Zealand (twice) and Malaysia…

englandmemories View All

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

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