We continue our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by looking back at November and December 1991. Graham Taylor’s side faced a decisive European Championship qualifier away to Poland, before discovering who they would face during qualifying for the 1994 World Cup…
At the start of November 1991, the World Cup was dominating the sporting agenda in England. Where the year before it had been World in Motion and Nessun Dorma making an impact in the charts, now it was the turn of Swing Low and World in Union to enjoy regular airtime. The comparisons were certainly there with a quarter of a century earlier. England were in the World Cup final, being played on home soil on a Saturday afternoon against one of their main sporting rivals. But there was to be no repeat outcome. Will Carling did not get to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Moore and lift the World Cup. England had been football world champions in 1966, but they would have to wait to emulate the feat in rugby union.
A decent proportion of sport fans in England didn’t watch the final. Apart from the occasional match such as Coventry City against Chelsea being moved to an early kick-off, English football continued largely unabated that Saturday afternoon. Thousands flocked to Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury and everywhere else as they would on any weekend throughout the season. There may have been a new-found interest in rugby over the previous month, but football’s pre-eminence would continue. As England’s rugby players trooped off the Twickenham turf having been beaten by Australia, thoughts were already turning to what the nation’s football team would do 11 days later in Poland.
Aided by the Republic of Ireland surprisingly twice being held by Poland, England only needed to draw in Poznań to qualify for the European Championship. But a defeat would end their hopes, with both the Irish and the Poles looking to leapfrog them. A laborious 1-0 win against Turkey the previous month meant England had failed to build their goal difference, while it had also raised concerns about how good they really amid a period of transition personnel-wise. That game had marked the end of the international road for old favourites Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle.
Graham Taylor was already attracting critics despite having lost just one game since taking charge more than a year earlier, but he was 90 minutes away from steering England to a major tournament that would contain just eight teams. “I’d be foolish to even think about not qualifying,” he insisted in the build-up to the Poland game. Taylor had confidence in his team, including in two uncapped players he was going to put in the starting line-up for this do-or-die clash…
Taylor’s Andy approach
Just over two years had passed since England’s last trip to Poland, when they had again needed a point to ensure qualification for a finals. But the team was starting to become unrecognisable from the line-up that night when they had just made it through to Italia ‘90, with Taylor’s England team increasingly deviating from what Bobby Robson had preferred. A combination of international retirements, injuries and players being out of favour meant a mere four men who had appeared in the corresponding fixture in 1989 for England would do so again now. The quartet would include David Rocastle, who had not played a competitive game for England in the interim after losing his place in the side and suffering injury problems.
A sublime goal for Arsenal at Manchester United in October offered genuine hope that Rocky was back to his best and Taylor put him in the team for the game in Poland. He would be joined by two debutants, who Taylor believed could do a sound job as the team continued to contend with the loss of John Barnes and Paul Gascoigne through injury. Taylor evidently liked what he saw among the strong English cohort at Crystal Palace in this era, regularly offering players from there the chance to graduate to the full England side. Midfielder Andy Gray, who had played under Taylor at Aston Villa, would accompany his Palace team-mate Geoff Thomas and former Villa colleague David Platt in midfield.
Taylor had seen enough in Gray to believe he could perform the required role in Poznań and even started to compare him with Gazza. “You don’t always know what is going to happen with Gascogne,” said Taylor. “When Gray is on his game, doing things that suddenly are different, then he is in that category.” Not everybody was in agreement. The Guardian’s David Lacey, a masterful football writer who has sadly died this week, would not conceal his misgivings over Taylor suggesting Gascoigne and Gray were kindred spirits on the football field. “It is tempting to observe that the only category Gray shares with Gascoigne at the moment is an alliterative one,” he wrote.
Also coming into the side was another Andy, namely Sinton from QPR, as Taylor tried to accommodate for the absence of Barnes on the left flank with Waddle now removed from his thinking following a tactical disagreement. Sinton was to enjoy a longer England career than Gray, but he would never be capped by any manager other than Taylor. There was another wing option on the bench in Tony Daley, who had been on the fringes of the England side for some time without getting on the field. England kept Chris Woods in goal, with Gary Mabbutt retaining his place in defence alongside Lee Dixon, Des Walker and Stuart Pearce. Gary Lineker was the only natural striker on the field for England, as Taylor handed Rocastle the number nine shirt and sought for him to dovetail with Gray, Platt, Thomas and Sinton effectively to help create opportunities for the captain.
As always when England meet Poland, the shadow of Jan Tomaszewski and the 1974 World Cup qualifying outcome hung over the fixture. Yet England have well and truly had their revenge in their countless subsequent clashes, having not lost again in Poland or failed to beat them on English or neutral soil since those two infamous games in 1973. The Poles could feasibly have won all three home matches against England between 1989 and 1993, yet the visitors would emerge each time with a point. But they would prove testing and uncomfortable nights.
Lineker to the rescue
England would be through with a draw; if they lost then the Republic of Ireland would qualify if they beat Turkey, who had so far lost every game in the group; and if the Poles beat the English and the Irish slipped up then they would snatch the qualifying spot (the only amendment to the above would be the unlikely combination of the Irish winning but Poland beating England by a big scoreline to finish above Ireland on goal difference). It was not going to be easy, but the odds were with England. They hadn’t lost a qualifying match since September 1983 and you had to go back to May 1985 for the last time they had even been behind in one.
But they would be trailing here when the BBC’s live coverage belatedly began at half-time for this teatime showdown. Rocastle was adjudged to have conceded a foul – which commentator John Motson believed should not have been given – and the ensuing free-kick saw Roman Szewczyk’s shot deflect off Mabbutt and deceive Woods. Taylor had voiced his concern since the start of the qualifying campaign that Poland could snatch the qualifying spot due to England and the Irish cancelling each other out and he was 45 minutes away from being right, with Ireland being held in Turkey. Gray was taken off at the break and never capped again, meaning all most people back home saw of him in an England shirt was a brief clip of him missing a chance. “If I had scored that goal my career would have been much different,” Gray reflected a few years later.
Taylor told Gray he was being replaced for tactical reasons, with Alan Smith coming on so England could revert to a more conventional 4-4-2. He would later bring Daley on for Sinton. Smith’s arrival almost immediately paid dividends, as he flicked on Dixon’s long throw but Thomas narrowly headed wide. England still struggled to find the desired fluidity, although Rocastle and Mabbutt would come close to scoring as Taylor’s side began to up the pressure. The news that the Republic of Ireland were in front in Turkey (eventually winning 3-1) effectively put Poland out of the race. A quarter of a century after playing for England on their greatest day, Jack Charlton was left desperately hoping his homeland would lose.
He almost got his wish. The night’s ‘Sliding Doors’ moment would occur as the game headed into the final 15 minutes. Poland were adamant they should have had a penalty when Jan Furtok went down over Woods, but nothing was given in a game littered with debatable decisions. It was certainly in the ‘seen them given’ category, with both Motson and pundit Jimmy Hill suggesting the referee should have pointed to the spot. Had he done so and Poland scored, then it would probably have spelt the end for England’s hopes. As it was, they were now given renewed hope that their luck might just be in.
It is unlikely Taylor would have been given the boot had England lost, given both Don Revie and Bobby Robson had been allowed to carry on and focus on trying to get to the World Cup after failing to make the European Championship finals early in their tenures (when the Euros contained fewer teams than in more recent times). But it would certainly have piled the pressure on him. His captain was about to ensure that Taylor could spend the next few months planning for Sweden rather dwelling on qualifying failure.
Rocastle played a corner into the box, which Mabbutt headed on towards Lineker. The captain instinctively volleyed home to the delight of the travelling fans and the millions watching back home. “You always hope for a chance as a striker and you have to be confident you’ll put it away,” said Lineker in his future natural habitat of the Match of the Day studio three days later, when asked by Des Lynam about the goal. It was the last time he scored for England in a competitive international and it ranked among his best and most important, as he once more haunted Poland by netting against them.
England successfully saw out the remaining minutes to claim the draw they needed. The celebrations were more exuberant at the end than they had been two years earlier and Lacey noted that Swing Low was being sung by the delighted England players in the dressing room. Players including Dixon, Mabbutt, Rocastle and unused substitute Ian Wright could all now hope to grace a major tournament the following summer, having all missed out on Italia ‘90.
But none of them would make it and nor would Gray, who was about to disappear from the England scene as quickly as he had arrived. Taylor would afford the Poland game only the briefest of mentions in his autobiography, but he was far more expressive in the immediate aftermath of England securing qualification. “This result has provided the best night of my football career,” he declared. In almost a replica of the Italia ‘90 group featuring England and the Republic of Ireland, draws had been the order of the day and the English had claimed top spot by virtue of winning one more game than their main rivals. Both they and the Irish had finished unbeaten, but England’s win over Poland at the start of qualifying had ultimately proved invaluable.
The perception would linger that the Irish were the team who should have won the group, with Jimmy Greaves on the following Saturday’s Saint & Greavsie among those who said so. They had been the better side in the meeting at Wembley but been profligate in front of goal; they were unable to break Poland down at home; and in the return meeting they surprisingly let a 3-1 lead slip. Had they won any of those then they would have been going to Sweden, having chalked up the best goal difference thanks to scoring freely against Turkey. But the stroke of fortune the Irish had enjoyed four years earlier, when Bulgaria lost to Scotland to take them through, would not be replicated despite Poland leading England for so long.
Taylor’s team had won few plaudits during the qualifying group, with the disciplined display a year earlier to draw at Lansdowne Road about as good as it had got. But the results had been ground out and they were going to the European Championship. Taylor could enjoy his Christmas in 1991, but before then his focus would be on the qualifying draw for the 1994 World Cup…
The American dream begins
Taylor was proud to be taking England to the European Championship, but his number one priority was the 1994 World Cup. Preparations were already being made for England to go the United States in the summer of 1993 in readiness for the real thing a year later. Having now qualified for four major tournaments in a row and made the semi-final stage of the World Cup the previous year, there was widespread expectation that England would make it to the 1994 tournament.
Words Taylor wrote in his book published in 1991, When England Called, make for rather uneasy reading with hindsight. “Just imagine the feeling of anti-climax if, perish the thought, England were to fail to get there. Is it any wonder, then, that when I personally look ahead to USA ‘94 there is a tightening of the stomach muscles along with that ‘warm glow of anticipation’? As England manager, the long-term job I have taken on is to ensure that England do not fail to achieve that transatlantic target.”
In December they would discover how clear the path to the finals was going to be. Eighteen months to the day since the start of Italia ‘90, now the baton was passed to the United States as the qualifying draw for 1994 took place. There was certainly a curiosity factor surrounding the US hosting the tournament and Saint & Greavsie was filmed there the day before – an episode remembered for Donald Trump helping them make the League Cup quarter-final draw.
Taylor may have kept an eye out for that and the FA Cup third round draw made on Match of the Day that evening, both pairing title protagonists Leeds United and Manchester United. But his focus would be on the following day. The map of Europe was changing significantly in this period and there were now more countries than ever entering the qualifying stages. For the first time England would find themselves in a group containing six teams.
That was to be the main originality of it. England had already played competitive games in the 1990s against the Netherlands, Poland and Turkey. You had to go back a bit further to the last meeting with Norway, who had inflicted “a hell of a beating” on Ron Greenwood’s England a decade earlier. That left San Marino, who then as now were seen as cannon fodder for everyone else – but had restricted Scotland (who had qualified for Euro ‘92) to 2-0 and 4-0 victories in recent months. The top two teams from the group would go to the World Cup.
The gala matches in the group, and arguably the whole of European qualifying, would be England’s two meetings with the Dutch. But Taylor ominously noted the danger Norway posed, having beaten Italy during European Championship qualifying. “I wouldn’t want to underestimate the Norwegians,” he said. “They have already shown they are a threat.” His words were to be unfortunately prophetic. Having already seen for himself the dangers posed by Poland and Turkey, it is fair to assume this is not the group Taylor would have chosen.
Another concern for him was the number of games in qualifying in relation to the amount of available dates for England, with the international calendar as we now know it having not yet come into force. Ten games needed to be squeezed in before qualifying concluded in November 1993 and international friendlies would have to be put on hold. But Taylor remained determined England should go to the United States in the summer of 1993. “The last thing I want to do is give up this trip,” he said.
He wouldn’t have to. But by the time it happened Taylor’s England tenure was in disarray and his hopes of returning to the United States the following year were fading. But all that lay in the future. As 1992 arrived Taylor could look forward to discovering who England would play in the European Championship group stage and prepare for an attractive friendly against France in February…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.