The summer of 2021 has been a memorable one for English football. But the majority of odd-numbered footballing summers down the years have not been so captivating. That was certainly true of 1991. Later than usual due to having been focusing upon the Euros in recent weeks, we look back 30 years to England’s tour of Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia at the end of Graham Taylor’s first season in charge…
June and July 1990 represented one of English football’s most momentous periods, with the team coming so close to World Cup glory at Italia ‘90. Fast forward a year and things wouldn’t exactly be so emotional and energising. No euphoria over nerve-jangling wins; no shoot-out agony; no Bobby Robson; no Gazza; no World Cup.
But June 1991 was far from a blank month for England. Despite having no competitive games lined up, they would play four friendlies to bring the season to a close. The team would be clocking up a fair few air miles in the process, with their tour taking in games away to Australia, New Zealand (twice) and Malaysia. It remains the last multi-country tour England embarked on. Factors including the increasing presence of qualifying matches in June, moves towards mini-tournaments being staged in one nation and the development of a more stringent international calendar all contributed to the days of teams hopping from country to country to play friendlies at the end of a season coming to a close.
The tour bore some parallels with England’s three-game trip to Australia in 1983 under Robson. Both fell at the end of the manager’s first season in charge and it was the one summer in four – under the agreement in place at the time – in which clubs had first call over taking their players on tour. A cluster of newcomers were handed their debuts, but failed to establish themselves in the side; the schedule was demanding at the end a long season and England could not take the games lightly, with the hosts desperate to get one over on them. As in 1983 England avoided defeat on the tour, but the side won few plaudits in the process.
This was not a tour Taylor expressed fondness about when it was happening and the passage of time appeared not to have generated feelings of nostalgia in later years. It was a trip that produced wins, but little else to put a smile on the manager’s face.
An unfamiliar squad
Critics of Taylor’s tenure may see that England headed to the other side of the world at the end of the 1990-91 season and pin the blame on the late manager for lining up such a trip, believing both the travelling time and the matches arranged carried few benefits. But the tour was not of Taylor’s choosing. He insisted he inherited it when he took the job, with the venture having primarily been lined up to mark the centenary of the New Zealand Football Association.
A man of decency who had worked his way up from the lower divisions, Taylor recognised what such fixtures meant to the teams facing England and the ramifications of pulling out. He wrote in his autobiography that, with hindsight, the tour should not have been afforded full international status. But he knew downgrading the games to England B fixtures would have probably left him without all his established stars.
He was already without a few of them. Players from Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United would all be unavailable, with clubs having first call as they embarked on their own overseas adventures. There was also the unfortunate absence of Paul Gascoigne amid his long-term injury woe, while Chris Waddle would once more not be involved – having played in the European Cup final for Marseille on the Wednesday before England’s first game of the tour. There had been more shoot-out heartache for him, without taking one this time.
England’s captain and star striker Gary Lineker would be on the trip, but not for all of it. He would leave the tour for the third game to go and play for Tottenham Hotspur in Japan, before returning for the final match against Malaysia. “The situation is preposterous,” reported The Guardian. “In a year’s time, after Lineker has played 60-odd matches, England may have a tired striker in the European Championship.” The words were to be unfortunately prescient.
Like an England rugby union squad during a British and Irish Lions’ summer, Taylor was left to work with the best of what was left. He could thankfully still turn to a number of key members of the Italia ‘90 side in Paul Parker, Stuart Pearce, David Platt, Des Walker and Mark Wright, as well as established squad member Chris Woods who kept goal throughout the tour (as if in recompense for all the times he sat on the bench during the Peter Shilton era). Other players who had featured for England during the season such as David Batty, Nigel Clough, Geoff Thomas, Dennis Wise and Ian Wright would also be on the plane.
But Taylor was left to take a cluster of uncapped players. Nine of them would be on the trip, although Keith Curle (who sustained a broken jaw in a training session courtesy of David Batty) and goalkeepers Tony Coton and Nigel Martyn never got on the field. Curle and Martyn would make the squad for the European Championship the following year, but Coton would cruelly remain uncapped amid suggestions of pressure from certain FA bigwigs not to pick him. A trip to the other side of the world without getting a moment’s action was understandably a frustrating experience, writing in his autobiography: “I returned with jet-lag and a few bottles of duty free, but nothing I could give pride of place on the wall of my study.”
Six players made their international debuts on the tour and not one of them would earn more than a handful of caps, play for England under any manager other than Taylor or be part of the 1992 European Championship squad. Yet their credentials should not be instantly dismissed. David Hirst was in prolific form, while Steel City rival Brian Deane offered some desired height in attack and he would later become Leeds United’s record signing; Mark Walters had played in Europe for Aston Villa and Rangers and was about to move to Liverpool; emerging right-back Gary Charles had appeared in the FA Cup final and was accustomed to playing in a defence containing Pearce and Walker; John Salako had just helped Crystal Palace finish third in the First Division, while Earl Barrett was part of a buoyant Oldham Athletic side and he offered versatility in terms of where he could operate defensively.
It was a time for experimenting, but Taylor knew people would still judge the team on results. Not only did he have to contend with inheriting the tour, but also its baffling itinerary. About 40 hours would separate playing Australia in Sydney to meeting New Zealand in Auckland. A five-day break would occur before facing them again in Wellington, with the tour concluding four days later in the sapping heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpar against Malaysia. The venture would involve a lot of travelling and the scheduling of the first two games meant players would enjoy limited rest time between them.
Winning games but not plaudits
The first day of June marked the start of England’s tour, a week on from playing Argentina at Wembley. They were facing Australia in Sydney, in an era when the Aussies were revelling in bashing the Poms in team sports. They came to Great Britain and won rugby league’s Ashes late in 1990, shortly before having few problems retaining cricket’s more famous equivalent on home soil. The Wallabies would beat the hosts in rugby union’s World Cup final at Twickenham in November 1991, while Great Britain’s reign as Olympic men’s hockey champions was emphatically ended with a 6-0 defeat by Australia in Barcelona in 1992.
So football was a rare area where England still held the upper hand, having reached the World Cup last four a year earlier when Australia had once more failed to qualify. But Taylor was well aware that, friendly or otherwise, the Socceroos would be desperate to defeat them in Sydney. Although England were unbeaten against Australia in full internationals, they had previously recorded two narrow wins and two uninspiring draws when fielding under-strength teams Down Under. Any talk of a comfortable England win was unrealistic.
England fielded a mixture of regulars and newcomers, with the defence close to its strongest and a couple of other stars taking their place on the field. Woods was behind a back line of Parker, Pearce, Walker and Mark Wright. Batty, Thomas and Platt continued to be England’s midfield trio, while Taylor opted for three natural attackers in Clough, Lineker and Hirst. Fresh from winning the League Cup and promotion with Sheffield Wednesday, Hirst had recently scored twice for England B against Switzerland and now earned his first senior cap at the age of 23. One man particularly disappointed to miss out was the Australian-born England defender Tony Dorigo, who went on the tour but never played.
It may have been a memorable occasion for Hirst and fellow debutant Salako (who replaced him at the break), but this was not exactly a match to fondly recall for the rest of the nation. “We won 1-0 but it was a horrible game,” was about the extent of what Taylor chose to recall of the match in his autobiography. England emerged victorious only because of an own goal by Ian Gray shortly before the break.
Taylor’s side struggled to take control of the game, but the one positive was they had victory. “It’s been a battle and we’ve come out with the win,” was Taylor’s most uplifting take on the match. When John Motson suggested during a post-match interview that the public may have expected England to win more convincingly, Taylor responded with a wry smile: “They’ll never learn, will they?”
Leaving it late
Taylor wasn’t feeling too elated, but his mood would considerably darken when England arrived in New Zealand – a nation where he had previously taken Watford on tour. With England recovering from the opening game less than two days earlier, some changes were made for the game in Auckland. Barrett was handed his debut in place of Mark Wright, Walters and Wise came in for Clough and Hirst, leaving Lineker as the only natural striker in the team. That would change when Deane replaced Batty at the break, while Walters played 70 minutes on his only senior cap before making way for Salako.
Taylor’s main bone of contention was discovering that tickets were being sold for an event in which it was stated he would be giving a speech, even though he maintained knew nothing about it. “My name has been taken in vain and whoever is responsible is out of order,” he fumed. Taylor regularly went out of his way to be present at pre-arranged events (a few years later he fulfilled an invitation to attend a prizegiving at a school on the day he had been shown the door by Wolverhampton Wanderers) but this was one that he wouldn’t be gracing. It only added to his sense of unease about the tour.
The match kicked off at 3.30am (UK time) and viewers would have to wait until after 10pm to see BBC highlights. Anyone who spent the day leading a Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? scenario of avoiding the score would have been wondering why they bothered, as the game was an uninspiring spectacle. New Zealand’s All Whites seemed set to achieve an honourable goalless draw, until England mustered a final attack in the dying moments.
Lineker, curiously referred to on the scoreboard as the ‘sexiest player’, applied his experience to be in the right place to convert when the ball was played into the area and find the net. Almost a year on from England’s most recent last-gasp winner against Belgium at the World Cup, this was not a comparable moment in terms of joy or occasion. But there was tangible relief that England had emerged with a win, albeit with their performance attracting criticism.
Five days later came the rematch in Wellington. In a reversal from the first game, England would be in white and New Zealand in red. Taylor’s frustration this time concerned the pitch and conditions, the game being played on a hard and bumpy rugby surface in rather more primitive surroundings than where England usually graced. Lineker would be absent due to being in Japan, as Deane and Ian Wright were paired in attack. Charles was handed his international debut in the number two shirt, while Salako would start for the first time and Mark Wright returned in defence. Pearce would captain his country for the first time.
He marked the occasion by opening the scoring in the Wellington wind, firing home after good work by Salako. Hirst came on for Deane at the break and the Sheffield Wednesday striker found the net five minutes later, confidently finishing after being played in by Charles. England should have added a third late on, with Salako striking the post and Thomas stabbing the rebound wide from close range. But the team had at least enjoyed a more comfortable victory than in the previous two games and had yet to concede a goal on the tour.
One newcomer was certainly catching the eye on the tour. “Something happens as soon as Salako gets the ball,” enthused England assistant boss Lawrie McMenemy. “He sets the scene, he raises the tempo.” Injury would cruelly strike just as he was establishing himself in the England set-up. Fate would also not be kind to Charles, who – three weeks on from being the player Gascogne fouled in the incident that caused the midfield star’s serious injury – could feel satisfied with his display against New Zealand.” Bryon Butler, who had described enough matches to know his stuff, suggested in The Observer that Charles “might yet prove the best option at right back”. Alas, his only two England caps both came on this tour.
Feeling the heat
Charles’ final appearance would come on the last leg of the trip four days later. In another reminder of the tour’s dubious planning, England were swiftly swapping the New Zealand cold for the blistering heat of Malaysia. Although it was an evening kick-off, temperatures of 100 degrees were reported for England’s seasonal finale, as they made a rare venture into Asia. Little was known about the footballing pedigree of the hosts, except that anything less than an England victory would be considered a catastrophe for Taylor’s men.
One man who believed his England future was affected by the events of the night was Ian Wright. He dropped down to the bench and would later suggest that Taylor overhearing a comment he made to Paul Parker about not being used to sitting on it would count against him going forward. He would have to wait more than a year to start another international. His services were not called upon here, Taylor surprisingly opting to not bring on any substitutes despite the intense heat.
The side was close to the strongest available. Woods was in goal, with Charles, Pearce, Walker and Mark Wright at the back. Batty, Platt and Thomas were in midfield and winger Salako was again picked to start. Clough was handed the number nine shirt, while Lineker was back from Japan and named as captain. He would quickly get back in the groove, firing home after just 42 seconds. After half an hour he had already completed his hat-trick, with another following in the second half either side of goals for the home side by Matlan Marjan – the second stemming from a suicidal backpass by Batty.
A 4-2 victory was an appropriate way to mark England’s last game before the 25th anniversary of their World Cup triumph: Malaysia had come back into the game as England tired in the heat, but Taylor’s side had won with relative comfort and completed the season unbeaten. Things were certainly looking good for Lineker. Not only had he recently won the FA Cup and was soon going to become a father for the first time, but he had surpassed Jimmy Greaves’ England goalscoring tally and was now within another four-goal burst of equalling Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals. It looked to be a case of when, rather than if, the record would come Lineker’s way.
One record that had been set during the tour was the longest unbeaten start by an England manager. Less than two years earlier Taylor had feared he was one game away from the sack at Aston Villa. Since then he had guided Villa to second place in the First Division and made it through his first season.in charge of England without losing. They had been behind for just seven minutes during the entire campaign. They held pole position in their bid to qualify for the European Championship and 1990-91 was only their second unbeaten campaign since 1974-75. If the results of the seniors, B team and under-21s were combined for the season, then England had played 26 times and lost just once. The under-21s provided further cause for optimism by winning the Toulon Tournament in France, with Alan Shearer in prolific form.
All seemed to be going so well. And yet Taylor would concede in his autobiography that frustrations were already creeping in, including “the rising tension in my relationship with club managers”. Having to travel abroad without players from three of the biggest clubs in the country and with another star name on club duty for part of the tour had acted as an unfortunate indicator of the challenges Taylor faced. But he could breathe more easily than some of his fellow international managers. While England were on tour, the week’s European Championship qualifying games included Germany losing to Wales, Italy being beaten by Norway and the Netherlands failing to defeat Finland. It was another reminder that no game could be taken for granted.
The tour may not have been to Taylor’s liking, but it had yielded victories. Ahead of the flight home, he would suggest a better use of such summers would be to contest a mini-tournament where the next World Cup would be played. He would get his wish two years later, but by then things were going horribly wrong for him. But in the summer of 1991 he could still hold his head high, as an unbeaten England manager eyeing glory at the European Championship in Sweden a year later. The team would be back in action in September, for a glamour friendly at Wembley against the newly-unified Germany – the world champions, with the best East German players added to their side for good measure…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.