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Graham Taylor’s England: Part 9 – September/October 1991

We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by looking back to September and October 1991. Graham Taylor had completed his first season in charge unbeaten, but now came the challenges of a home friendly against Germany and a vital European Championship qualifying meeting with Turkey…

On the night of October 16, 1985, Chris Waddle and captain Bryan Robson joined hat-trick hero Gary Lineker on the scoresheet as England thrashed Turkey 5-0 at Wembley and celebrated qualifying for the World Cup. Now, six years later, they all took to the field together once more. Same setting, same opposition and same date. England were again on course to qualify for a major tournament, this time the 1992 European Championship.

But comparisons would largely end there. It was Lineker now holding the captain’s armband, with Robson downgraded to a rank-and-file member of the side for the first time in nine years. The team was now managed by Graham Taylor rather than Bobby Robson and some of the senior players he inherited – not helped by age being against them – were not central to his plans. Those with an uncertain future included Waddle and Bryan Robson; who had each been left out of the squad for the trip to Turkey earlier in the year and had not featured since then.

They were recalled for the return fixture against the Turks, but it was to be the last act in the international careers of both men after earning more than 150 caps between them. The pair were each growing frustrated about how they were used by England – both tactically and in terms of making it onto the field – and it was clear before the year was out that neither player would be representing their country again under Taylor. But before we get to that; we will recall the first game of 1991-92 – an appetising home friendly against Germany in September…

Unlucky 13 for Taylor

The clash with the newly-unified Germany marked a year since Taylor’s first game in charge and he had still yet to lose after a dozen matches. The first season at the helm had not been without press criticism, but England were favourites to qualify for the European Championship. They were arguably in a better position than the Germans, who had lost to Wales in June and had little margin for error if they were to make it out of their group.

Talk was inevitably of the past. The summer had marked the 25th anniversary of England’s World Cup glory, while memories were still fresh of the Italia ‘90 semi-final between England and West Germany. If a week was a long time in football, then 14 months was a lifetime. Players central to that night’s events such as Waddle, Peter Shilton and Paul Gascoigne would not be involved, while managers Bobby Robson and Franz Beckenbauer had made way after the tournament for Taylor and Berti Vogts. The successes of that summer only added pressure on the new incumbents to follow it up. Vogts was effectively now managing a new nation, although West Germany’s glorious side still made up much of the unified Germany’s team.

In an unfortunate precursor for how the season would end, Taylor would have to cope without the injured John Barnes as well as Gascoigne. Coming in on the wing was John Salako, who had been one of the main positives on the side’s tour to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia but sadly was about to earn his final cap as he too endured an injury nightmare. The trip Down Under had enabled Chris Woods to cement his position as England’s number one in the absence of David Seaman and he was picked against the Germans. With Mark Wright, Stuart Pearce and Des Walker all absent, England’s back four had an unfamiliar look in Lee Dixon, Gary Pallister, Paul Parker and Tony Dorigo.

England and Germany meet again in September 1991.

Trevor Steven was picked for only the second time under Taylor, joining David Batty and David Platt in midfield. Lineker was now established as captain and he rekindled his old Leicester City pairing with Alan Smith in attack. Among the players on the bench were the two Pauls – Merson and Stewart – who each hoped to make their England debuts and duly came on in the second half. They had watched on as, during the early stages, England took the game to a strong German side, Lineker, Smith, Dorigo and Platt all could have scored as England continually attacked down the right, with goalkeeper Bodo Illgner and the woodwork denying them.

Germany emerged unscathed and would make England pay moments before the break. Impressive build-up play ended with Thomas Doll crossing for Karl-Heinz Riedle, who exploited slack English marking to find space and head past Woods. It was only the second time England had fallen behind under Taylor and they seldom looked like recovering, although Dixon and Platt again called Illgner into action. At the other end, Woods denied Riedle from point-blank range and kept out a speculative Lothar Matthaus effort as Germany began to dictate proceedings more. The night was never going to match the drama and emotion of the previous year, but it had certainly not been some bore-fest either. England’s desire could not be faulted and, with a little bit more luck and judgement, they could have had the game won before they conceded the only goal.

As it was they had once more lost to their nemesis. Taylor, like Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson before him, had suffered his first defeat in a friendly against the Germans: But the mood was generally philosophical rather than hysterical. “Last night’s result can be regarded as more of a hiccup than a setback,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian. Lineker was among those to reflect that it was far preferable to lose a friendly than when it mattered in the two remaining European Championship qualifiers. The first of them at home to Turkey would take place the following month.

Losing the jokers in the pack

Taylor would have been disappointed to see his unbeaten record end, but two incidents in the autumn of 1991 would be more concerning for him going forward and left him without his two clown princes. His trusted coach Steve Harrison, a man praised by Paul Gascoigne in his autobiography for his love of practical humour rather than for any innovative coaching methods, fell on his sword after going a joke too far with a defecating stunt in a hotel room while on club duty with Millwall. “Too revolting for words,” was how Lions’ chairman Reg Burr described the incident and Harrison would duly step away from the national team shortly after the Turkey game.

If Gascoigne was sorry to lose a fellow joker from the England party, then of far greater worry for him was his own future. He was already anticipating a lengthy lay-off after being carried off during the 1991 FA Cup final and headed home to Newcastle in late September for a a chance to catch up with family and friends during his ongoing recuperation. ‘Gazzamania’ had dimmed a bit from a year earlier, but his popularity remained strong. Yet he was about to get an unfortunate reminder that there were some individuals who weren’t in the Gazza fan club. He would be left in agony after reportedly being attacked by a stranger in a nightclub, feeling his kneecap give way as he fell and significantly setting him back in his recovery. “There seemed to be no way my career would recover this time,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Taylor would be without Gascoigne for the foreseeable future and he would turn to an old hand to fill the midfield void. In mid-October Manchester United were unbeaten and looking a good bet to finally win the First Division title. Playing a key role in their good start was Bryan Robson. Free from dreaded injury, the captain was showing that within his 34-year-old body there still lurked the player Ron Atkinson had described as “solid gold” when smashing the British transfer record to sign him a decade earlier. A sublime volley against Notts County and a terrific header at Tottenham Hotspur underlined that the old hallmarks of Robson’s game were still there.

An England squad photo for this match. For some individuals it would be their last involvement for England under Graham Taylor.

Taylor had dropped Robson from the England squad for the trip to Turkey in May, but had not closed the door completely on the man his predecessor had rated so highly. Robson, who had played just twice for England since the Italia ‘90 group stage due to a combination of injuries and Taylor looking elsewhere, was doing enough at club level to convince the manager of his worth. That too applied for Chris Waddle, who had not played for England for a year despite having helped Marseille reach the European Cup final. He had been earmarked to play both qualifiers against the Republic of Ireland but withdrew through injury, with Taylor then omitting him from the squad for the trip to Turkey.

But Waddle was now back in the picture and so too was a man he played alongside for several years at Tottenham in Gary Mabbutt. Four years had passed since his most recent England cap, but the Spurs captain would be picked in the heart of the defence in the absence of Mark Wright. There would also be recalls to the squad for Peter Beardsley and Steve McMahon, but neither would play. Woods kept his place in goal, while Pearce and Walker returned in defence to accompany Dixon. Robson would be part of a three-man midfield with Batty and Platt, with the side completed by Waddle and forwards Smith and Lineker – the captain having just become a father for the first time after the birth of son George.

Gary Lineker captained England against Turkey rather than Bryan Robson.

Robson was back, but his alter-ego of Captain Marvel wasn’t. For the first time since 1982 Robson would follow another player out down the Wembley tunnel, with Lineker now permanently holding the captain’s armband. It was a reminder to Robson that he was now on the fringes of the England set-up rather than the main act, but it would not be his main grievance. He claimed in his autobiography that he had told Taylor his good form at club level stemmed from operating in a deeper role than before, only to then be deployed in a left-midfield slot against Turkey. It was a role he found both unfamiliar and unsuitable given his age, recalling that he was expected to attack down the left.

But with Batty establishing himself in the holding role, Robson was unlikely to have been selected in that position. Yet the way he was utilised against Turkey would not be forgiven or forgotten, as he struggled to make an impact in the game. England received an unexpected boost with the news that the Republic of Ireland had thrown away a 3-1 lead to draw in Poland, meaning a win and a draw from the last two games would definitely take Taylor’s men through. The one downside to the result was that it kept the Poles in the race and fully motivated ahead of England’s visit there the following month, although the Irish would be more likely to claim the qualifying spot if the English slipped up given their superior goal difference.

Turkey had yet to score a goal or point during qualifying, but they had shown during the meeting in Izmir in May that they were clearly a better side than when they had been thrashed three times by England during the 1980s. They twice came close to scoring early on, but fell behind after 21 minutes when Pearce’s incisive run and cross was headed home by Smith. England were now torn between protecting what they had to know that a draw in Poland would secure qualification, or going in search of more goals to give them a comfort blanket in terms of the goal difference if they lost their final qualifier.

Alan Smith heads in the only goal against Turkey.

Turkey refused to let England chalk up the desired big win and gave Taylor a nervy night in terms of pushing for an equaliser, with Woods having a busier game than might have been expected and having to push a ferocious shot by Unal onto the bar. England’s midfield struggled to carve the Turks open and they seldom looked like getting the desired breathing space. They did have the ball in the net late on, but Robson was adjudged to have fouled Turkish goalkeeper Hayrettin before Platt scored. A two-goal victory would have eased the tension, but been more than England deserved.

The final whistle was greeted with boos from a section of the frustrated crowd, who had seen England give an uninspiring performance that had only just brought victory. They now knew that they only needed to draw in Poland to seal qualification, but defeat would lead to them missing out on goal difference. Moving two points clear at the top of the table was the main benefit to emerge from the night. But it was England’s third qualifier in a row in which their performance attracted criticism and concern about the direction they were going in.

It had been a strange night. The only British Isles nation who could feel satisfied with their showing was the one who had no chance of qualifying, with Northern Ireland enjoying victory over Austria. The Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales had all seen their qualification hopes dented with the away results they had suffered. England did have the victory and one foot in the finals, but their performance had earned few plaudits. “Taylor’s players should now subject themselves to a period of serious self-examination,” reflected Lacey. Taylor had four weeks to assess his options ahead of crunch time in Poznań. Those options were not going to include a couple of the players he had recalled against Turkey.

The end of an era

Robson reflected later that he knew when walking off the pitch after the Turkey game that his 90th cap had been his last, frustrated at the limited impact he had made and how he was being utilised by Taylor. Ready to announce his intentional retirement, he held off until Taylor omitted him from the squad for the Poland game. It was a sad conclusion to an England career that would have comfortably passed the 100-cap mark but for his injury woes. But, in truth, it had really ended when he limped off against the Netherlands during the 1990 World Cup. Since then; the prospect of making 100 caps and going to another major tournament seemed to get more remote each time he pulled on an England shirt.

The working relationship between Taylor and Robson was never likely to last long. “In the Turkey game Bryan did no better and no worse than anyone else,” said Taylor after Robson announced his international retirement. “But these are not the standards by which he judges himself. He judges himself by being better than the others. He said to me that he felt in the last couple of internationals he hadn’t done himself justice.” Robson was making a diplomatic exit at the time, but he would show less restraint when he penned his memoirs.

“The position didn’t suit me and the manager didn’t suit me,” he wrote. “You have to be big enough to take media criticism, but it’s hard to take it when you’re played out of position.” He revealed he rejected the opportunity to earn a farewell cap; believing “the FA just wanted to generate some money” with such a gesture. So it was that his England career – that had begun in 1980 and generated the high of scoring after 27 seconds against France in the 1982 World Cup and the low of premature exits from subsequent tournaments – should conclude a couple of months before Robson’s 35th birthday.

Robson’s exit would be mirrored by Waddle’s, who bowed out after 62 England appearances – just three of them under Taylor. The manager would later express his view in his autobiography that he believed England could only function with one natural winger, which was not an invalid concern given there there had been criticism about how England functioned when they fielded both Barnes and Waddle under Bobby Robson. Taylor naturally preferred his former Watford protege Barnes. But this does not explain why Waddle remained out of the picture during the lengthy period Barnes was out injured in the Taylor era, staying out in the cold even when voted the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 1992-93.

The answer could be found in press reports in the aftermath of the Turkey game and omission from the next squad. Waddle, his eyes having been opened to continental methods from playing in France, expressed views about how he wanted to play that were at odds with Taylor’s approach. He was quoted as saying he “won’t play for England unless the manager changes”. That effectively ended any hope Waddle had of featuring again under Taylor, who was not going to be dictated to.

Taylor was adamant he had offered Waddle his desired freedom against Turkey. “He had the licence to go where he wanted,” the manager insisted. Some press support would actually come the manager’s way over the decision, with Lacey writing: “When Taylor did recall Waddle for the Turkey game at Wembley, accepting the player’s argument that he could only play for England as he did for his club, Waddle let him down again.” But not everyone would be in agreement with Taylor further down the line, as he kept Waddle out of the picture. To critics who still associated Taylor with the long-ball game, dispensing with a flair player provided further ammunition against him.

With Beardsley also on his way out of the picture after being an unused sub against Turkey, it really did feel like the end of an era. A fair chunk of the Italia ‘90 squad had retired from international football, were out of favour or on the treatment table. Taylor was looking to other options and he was about to take a gamble by throwing two uncapped players into the side that would start the do-or-die clash in Poland…

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

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