International Friendlies and Mini Tournaments
This week in 1984 saw Wembley stage a match in the Home Internationals for the final time. Today we recall the demise and final series of the annual competition between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as the curtain was pulled down on the tournament after a century.
August 19, 1983 marked the day when 100 years of history was effectively brought to a close. The Football Association’s international committee voted in favour of England withdrawing from the British Home Championship – also regularly referred to as the Home International Championship – after the 1983-84 season. It was not totally surprising news, but that did not soften the blow for Northern Ireland and Wales who both understandably felt snubbed and were concerned at losing out on the revenue from hosting matches in the competition. England’s annual match with old rivals Scotland – the blue riband event of the Home Internationals – would be continuing, with this adding to the woes of the jilted duo.
England’s decision to withdraw and effectively end the competition’s existence was not universally supported, although – outside Northern Ireland and Wales at least – there was not the same outcry there would be if, say, the FA Cup was scrapped. The tournament carried plenty of tradition but did not boast the reverence of its near-equivalent in rugby union of the Five Nations (as was). Over time the competition had gone from being a major event to a distant third behind the World Cup and European Championship in terms of priorities.
And it appears in the eyes of certain individuals in the FA hierarchy that the matches carried less weight than glamour friendlies against the sort of sides they would be facing in major tournaments – not least the fact that some of the more attractive continental sides would usually draw a bigger crowd to Wembley than Northern Ireland or Wales, with the latter’s visit in February 1983 attracting just 24,000. When Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Wrexham in May 1982, a staggeringly low 2,315 attended. Although this was undoubtedly affected by clashing with the FA Cup final replay, it gave a strong indication of the competition’s low standing by the 1980s.
There were just 24,000 in attendance when England hosted Wales in 1983.
This fall in attendances in recent times was cited as one of the reasons behind the demise of the competition. The sad irony though was that Northern Ireland and Wales both had far stronger sides at this point than at other times in the past and future and matches against them would offer a reasonable test for England and Scotland. Both also came perilously close to qualifying for Euro ’84, but like England they missed out in the final round of matches. With no UK side at the finals, their only hope of silverware at senior level in 1984 would be by winning the last Home International Championship.
Ted Croker said the matches were “no longer the major attractions and crowd-pullers they once were”.
It was argued that the Home Internationals used up dates that could have been better utilised by playing friendlies. This seems to have mattered more to the decision-makers than playing matches in a competitive and tournament environment, which the championship offered. FA secretary Ted Croker said at the time: “The reality in this instance is we do just not have enough gaps in the fixture list to play the top teams in the world, such as West Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy or the South Americans and continue the Home Internationals. The matches against Northern Ireland and Wales are no longer the major attractions and crowd-pullers they once were, even when played in Belfast or Wales, and so it was felt a halt had to be called.”
Hooliganism often seems to be quoted as a key factor in why the competition folded but this was not said at the time by the FA – and the fact the Scotland match was continuing also suggests it was not a primary reason. It could also be argued that the tournament’s future had not been helped by events in 1981, a year when it was declared void after England and Wales withdrew from matches in Belfast amid The Troubles with the competition’s remaining four games taking place only as friendlies.
Bobby Robson would later say England had “outgrown” the competition.
England manager Bobby Robson was reported at the time to have been in favour of a compromise where the competition would only be played in odd-numbered years when there would be no World Cup or European Championship tournaments. But in his World Cup Diary published in 1986 he offered a more damning view of the competition and seemed to feel little sadness over its demise. He wrote: “Naturally, the Welsh and Irish were bitter about it for the revenue from the competition was important to their day-to-day running but, in truth, these games provided little unless they were part of the European Championship or World Cup. We had outgrown them and I felt that foreign opposition would be more beneficial to us and to the Welsh and Irish as well, because both have the talent to attract top teams to play in their countries and bring in the crowds.”
Although England took most of the blame for the competition’s demise, Scotland did not escape criticism either for following their lead and withdrawing. The confusingly-named Wales manager Mike England had a pop at the Scots, accusing them of performing a “double turn”. He said in December 1983: “Everyone believes it was England alone who dropped Wales and Northern Ireland, but Scotland have done the dirty on us as well.”
With Irish FA president Henry Cavan writing in programme notes for the opening match of the tournament that “we are gravely disappointed and sad that 100 years of genuine friendship, sporting traditions and close co-operation seems to have been sacrificed for financial expediency”, there was certainly tension in the air ahead of the last British Championship.
Windsor Park’s farewell to the Home Internationals brought a 2-0 win for Northern Ireland over Scotland.
On December 13, 1983 the final series of Home Internationals began with Windsor Park hosting a match in the competition for the last time as Scotland visited. It was earlier than usual in the season for such a match to be played and came in an era when Northern Ireland were enjoying a purple patch. They had won the tournament in 1980, famously beaten hosts Spain during the 1982 World Cup and done the double over West Germany in qualifying matches for Euro ’84. Norman Whiteside, who was only 18 but had already accomplished many of life’s dreams, opened the scoring before Sammy McIlroy completed a 2-0 win for Northern Ireland. The result would carry significance in the final reckoning.
Scotland beat Wales 2-1 at Hampden Park in February 1984.
In late February Scotland were again in action in the championship, Hampden Park welcoming Wales who the Scots would also face in World Cup qualifying for Mexico ’86. Watford forward Mo Johnston marked his Scotland debut by coming off the bench to score in a 2-1 win, with Davie Cooper and Robbie James – both sadly taken from us far too soon – also on target. The match report in The Glasgow Herald the following day began with Jim Reynolds writing: “Not content with telling the Welsh that they do not want to play them in any more British International Championship matches, Scotland gave them a farewell kick in the pants at Hampden last night in the 99th official meeting between the countries.”
On April 4, Wembley staged a Home Internationals match for the last time, Northern Ireland providing the opposition for England. Sadly, the poor attendance and a low-key atmosphere helped justify the decision for England to pull out of the competition. Stuart Jones wrote in The Times: “The size of the crowd, a mere 24,000, confirmed again how unattractive the domestic matches have become and the overall atmosphere was as lively and as animated as a private tea party.”
Liverpool’s Alan Kennedy was handed his England debut, on a night when Tony Woodcock headed the only goal. But England had been enduring poor fortunes lately and the match had done little to silence the critics.
The Wales side that beat England in May 1984 at Wrexham.
Wales were the only one of the four sides at the time not to play virtually all their home games at the same ground, with the stadiums of Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham each staging matches. It was Wrexham who had the honour of hosting England’s visit on May 2, the visitors still haunted by a 4-1 thrashing at the same ground four years earlier. Manchester United youngster Mark Hughes scored the only goal on his Wales debut as they deservedly defeated England, whose inexperienced side failed to shine. Kennedy, David Armstrong, John Gregory and Paul Walsh were all never capped again. Robson wrote in 1986 of the team’s display: “They were quiet in the hotel before we left, their heads were down as we walked into the ground and we never got going on the pitch. They played badly and hardly created a chance all night, with Paul Walsh and Tony Woodcock looking a lightweight pairing… We performed like a team going nowhere fast.” Not for the first or last time in his reign, Bobby Robson greatly missed his namesake Bryan.
Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Swansea for the last game both sides played in the championship.
The competition was now put on hold until three days after the FA Cup Final, when Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Swansea’s Vetch Field. A win would give either side a decent chance of the title, while Northern Ireland would still be in with a shout if they drew. Hughes again gave Wales the lead, but Gerry Armstrong headed Northern Ireland level as the match finished 1-1. Northern Ireland’s veteran goalkeeper Pat Jennings, who 20 years earlier had made his international debut in the same stadium, had to leave the action early after Ian Rush’s boot caught him in the face. “You’d better ask the other fellow if it was an accident,” he told the media afterwards.
The draw meant Northern Ireland and Wales had both finished with three points (two points for a win), with Northern Ireland’s goal difference of +1 meaning they topped the table. Whoever won between Scotland and England at Hampden Park would keep the trophy; if it was a draw then Northern Ireland would be the final winners. But history did not appear to be on their side, considering no clash between Scotland and England had finished all-square since 1970.
Tony Woodcock equalises for England against Scotland.
On Saturday, May 26, 1984, the curtain came down on a competition that had begun on January 26, 1884. England’s preparations were not helped by a shortage of key players, due to injuries and club commitments. Speaking four days before the match, Bobby Robson said: “I could scream. I’m left with just one centre-half, Terry Fenwick, who has yet to have a full game for us.” Manchester United trio Mick Duxbury, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins flew in from Hong Kong in the days leading up to the game after a club tour, while the Tottenham Hotspur contingent appeared in the UEFA Cup final just three days before the match. No Liverpool players were involved as they were preparing to play in the European Cup final against Roma.
A downward header by Mark McGhee gave Scotland the lead, but England – playing with two genuine wingers in John Barnes and Mark Chamberlain – pulled level before the break. Tony Woodcock collected the ball some distance from the goal, cut inside and unleashed a spectacular left-footed drive into the net. It would be the final goal ever scored in the British Championship and it was a tremendous effort to conclude the competition. The second half saw Peter Shilton keep England level with some important stops as the rain fell in Glasgow, while substitute Gary Lineker made his England debut.
Neither side could find a winner, with the match ending 1-1. And so the competition finished with all four teams locked on three points. Northern Ireland took the honours thanks to having a goal difference one better than England and Wales and two better than Scotland. Wales were second by virtue of having scored more goals than England, as the ‘big two’ occupied the bottom spots in the table. The trophy was Northern Ireland’s to keep, as England and Scotland continued their annual clashes in the Rous Cup. But that would only last five years before the plug was pulled.
In the ensuing years there would be occasional calls for the Home Internationals to return, most seriously after all four sides failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Three years later there was again talk of the competition being revived to mark the FA’s 150th birthday in 2013. This came to nothing, although England did meet Scotland in a friendly. A similar competition, the Nations Cup, was played in the Republic of Ireland in 2011 featuring the four British Isles nations except England. But this would prove short-lived amid low attendances, with the competition’s failings perhaps confirming that there would be no comeback for the Home Internationals either.
Thirty years ago today England met Israel for the first time in a friendly in Tel Aviv. England’s performance won few plaudits, but their 2-1 victory included the winner of the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition for 1985-86 – a volley by captain Bryan Robson. It provided a rare moment of joy for the player during a difficult few months…
England were having a busy few months preparing for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, playing at least one match in every calendar month from January to May. But the selection of the first two friendlies drew criticism and raised questions about their merit. In January England beat Egypt 4-0 in Cairo and the following month they travelled to Tel Aviv to take on Israel.
One of manager Bobby Robson’s arch-critics, Emlyn Hughes, slammed the decision to play Egypt and was also scathing about the Israel match. “There’s another joke trip lined up next month when England go to Israel. We won’t learn anything from that match either and by the time Mexico comes round everyone will be burned out,” he argued.
Israel welcome England in February 1986.
But for the England manager the match carried value. Writing in his 1986 World Cup Diary, Robson explained why Israel were chosen as opponents: “The reasons why we had picked Israel were that we were sure the weather in Tel Aviv would not hinder our preparations, that our fans would not be so stupid as to cause trouble over there and that we were reasonably confident that we would win. It was the sort of game a club manager likes to undertake pre-season against teams whom he knows will provide a test but are the sort of opposition where the club can play and enjoy their football.”
The first reason Robson gave for the choice of match would prove good thinking, given Britain endured bad weather in February 1986. The second was a sad indictment of how serious the hooligan problem had become for England. And the third reason given would quickly be put to the test, as England found their hosts looking to pull off a surprise victory.
The two Robsons
Bryan Robson (left) and Bobby Robson.
Much of the 1980s was all about the Robsons so far as England were concerned, with Bobby managing the team and namesake Bryan being his captain and inspiration in the heart of the midfield. The 1985-86 season was proving bitter-sweet for the player. He had helped Manchester United win their opening 10 league games and secured early qualification for the World Cup with England. But he had gone off injured during England’s win against Turkey in October, been sent-off playing for United in the FA Cup at Sunderland, seen his team’s title dream start to fade and then he sustained another injury against West Ham United in a league game in early February. Thankfully he was fit in time to play for England against Israel, but he went into the match with limited recent gametime under his belt.
Manager Robson fielded a strong side but England did not produce a good display in the first half, going in 1-0 down at half-time after an early breakaway goal by Eli Ohana that raised concerns about English defending. A dog running on the field was to be the most memorable sight for English viewers during the first half!
Six minutes after the break came the game’s turning point. Glenn Hoddle floated a lovely ball across to captain Robson, who scored with a delightful volley from the edge of the box. “It was a goal that would have graced the World Cup Final itself,” proclaimed England’s manager.
Bryan Robson volleys England level.
Barry Davies, commentating for live BBC coverage, was for once not in wordsmith mode. “Robson…yes….” was the rather low-key commentary of the goal, perhaps reflecting the fact it was only a friendly and Davies was unimpressed with England’s display. The celebrations were also muted, Robson settling for 1950s style handshakes with team-mates before making his way back to the centre circle.
But it proved sufficient to win the BBC Goal of the Season award, the only time an England goal has clinched the accolade (goals scored in major tournaments automatically miss out due to taking place after the voting finishes). Robson’s cause in winning the award was helped by the Football League TV blackout in the first half of the 1985-86 season, limiting the number of goals to choose from. It was perhaps not as well remembered as some other goals he scored for his country, but it was an excellent finish to win him an honour he missed out on the previous season for his volleyed goal against East Germany.
Coping without the captain
Bryan Robson’s World Cup ends prematurely.
As with Kevin Keegan in 1982, David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006, the back pages became dominated by a key England player’s bid to be fit for the World Cup. Robson won his battle to be fit enough to be in the squad for the finals, but concerns still lingered about the shoulder. Sure enough, in the second game against Morocco he went off with his arm in a sling.
It was a sad sight, as England were left to try and stay in the tournament without their captain and star man. But ultimately they would prove they could survive without Robson, going on to reach the quarter-finals. At the age of 28, the World Cup in Mexico should have been the ideal time for Robson to shine on the world stage and repeat moments such as the goal against Israel. But his injury curse had struck again at the worst possible time for him.
Today we look back to February 14, 1973, when Scotland welcomed England to a snowy Hampden Park for a friendly to help celebrate the centenary of the Scottish FA. But it proved a Valentine’s Night to forget for the Scots, as England crushed their old rivals 5-0…
A decade after the Football Association had celebrated its centenary in 1963, the Scottish FA reached the same milestone. To begin the celebrations they wanted an extra helping of the oldest international fixture, with England making the trip to Hampden Park in February 1973 for a friendly. The match was to take place on Valentine’s Night, and what could stir the passions of the average Scot more than the visit of the loathed Sassenachs from south of the border? But ultimately it was to be a night to forget for the Scots and one to savour for the English.
To add to the celebratory spirit of the occasion, England captain Bobby Moore was to win his 100th cap in the days when that was a rare achievement. However, this was never going to be some testimonial-esque kickabout to celebrate that and the Scottish FA centenary. Most Scotsmen relished any chance to beat England – something they hadn’t done since 1967 – while England boss Sir Alf Ramsey was not exactly renowned as a lover of the Scots. It was to be a friendly in name only, with Scottish players keen to impress new manager Willie Ormond. He had replaced Tommy Docherty, who had been lured by First Division strugglers Manchester United.
The match would carry numerous quirks, including breaking the traditional alternating pattern of who hosted the fixture (Scotland had been the home side for the previous clash as well), providing a rare midweek meeting and meaning the sides would face each other twice in the same calendar year for the first time in official internationals. Snow had fallen and a crowd of 48,470 braved the wintry weather – a fair few no doubt risking being put in the doghouse for going there on Valentine’s Night rather than spending it with their other half – but this was well down on the usual attendances when the sides met annually in the Home International Championship.
Sir Alf calls it right
England were going into the match having scored just 13 goals in 11 matches, with the previous month bringing a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Wales in World Cup qualifying. Ramsey said: “It should be an easier game than the Welsh match at Wembley. The emphasis is on Scotland to attack at home.” The way the match panned out showed that, despite having an ever-increasing army of critics, Sir Alf could still call things spot on. It was one of their best attacking displays for a long time.
Within 16 minutes the game was effectively over. Peter Lorimer turned the ball into his own net before his Leeds United team-mate Allan Clarke scored past near-namesake Bobby Clark. Moments later a long-throw from Martin Chivers ended with Mike Channon putting England 3-0 up.
The scoring was put on hold until the second half, with England netting twice after long punts forward by goalkeeper Peter Shilton created goalscoring chances. Chivers seized on awful defending to make it 4-0, while Clarke ran through to score a neat fifth. Although England were hopeful of winning beforehand, few would have anticipated such a convincing triumph. In the Daily Mirror, Harry Miller wrote: “England won back their self-respect last night as Scotland were humiliated by a display that should silence Sir Alf Ramsey’s critics.”
It had been a birthday party to forget for Scotland, their biggest home defeat by the Auld Enemy since 1888. In Glasgow’s The Herald newspaper, a mournful Ian Archer wrote: “This was a defeat that will haunt and hurt us all for it it difficult to avoid those distressing cliches and describe the scoreline as ‘humilitating’, even ‘shameful’. Many a tartan tammy will have been thrown into the gutter of Cathcart Road late last evening.” Among the beaten Scottish players were such respected figures as captain Billy Bremner and a young Kenny Dalglish.
In September 1984, an otherwise forgettable friendly between England and East Germany at Wembley was brought to life in the closing stages. Captain Bryan Robson memorably crashed in a tremendous volley to settle the match and we’ll mark the anniversary this weekend by looking back at that moment.
Whenever there are grumblings these days about occasional ‘low’ turnouts for England matches at Wembley (of say 50.000), it’s worth recalling how history has shown they could be a hell of a lot worse. During the nadir of the mid-1980s crowds below 25,000 were recorded on several occasions, with East Germany’s visit early in the 1984-85 campaign seeing just 23,951 show up. But even that figure was disputed, with several newspaper reports the following day saying the attendance seemed lower. BBC commentator John Motson told viewers England were unable to move such games to club grounds due to being contracted to play at Wembley – an issue that persists today.
The low crowd made for a subdued atmosphere, as England played their final friendly before embarking on attempting to qualify for the 1986 World Cup. Goalscoring had been a problem in recent matches for England, with the failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championship in France still fresh in the mind. Promising defender Mark Wright was handed his debut, joining Southampton team-mates Peter Shilton and Steve Williams in the starting line-up. Shilton had made his England debut against the East Germans – or the German Democratic Republic as the match programme called them – on their previous visit in 1970 and this would be the final meeting of the sides before Germany was reunified in 1990. Watford’s John Barnes took his place in the side buoyed by his wondergoal against Brazil in the summer, although he would struggle to make a similar impact here.
Williams came close to opening the scoring early on as he was denied at the end of an impressive England move, while at the opposite end Joachim Streich marked his 100th cap – in the days when that was still a rare achievement – by striking the woodwork. And bar the odd half chance and East German free-kick that was pretty much all of note in the opening 80 minutes, as the game seemingly meandered towards an inevitable goalless draw.
With 10 minutes left, Bobby Robson finally made use of his substitutes as he brought off Arsenal forwards Paul Mariner and Tony Woodcock and replaced them with Trevor Francis and Mark Hateley. The change seemed to galvanise England and within two minutes came the one moment the match would be remembered for. Kenny Sansom floated the ball into the penalty box, with Ray Wilkins moving backwards to head the ball towards Bryan Robson. The Manchester United captain instinctively swivelled his body and beat his marker to catch the ball perfectly in mid-air, scoring with a beautiful right-footed volley that was totally out of the reach of René Müller. “What a goal,” exclaimed Motson, before inevitably pulling out a statistic. “Bryan Robson’s 10th goal for his country and what a way to go into double figures.”
The goal would soon be featuring in the opening titles for Match of the Day and later be included in the BBC’s 101 Great Goals video. The FA website says it was probably Robson’s best goal for England. Although it may not be recalled as frequently as his first minute goal against France in the 1982 World Cup or win him the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition (he did so the following season with his equaliser for England against Israel), it was certainly spectacular. On many occasions during the 1980s both England and Manchester United turned to their captain to pull them through and this was one such occasion. Robson had come up with the goods at the right moment.
It was the only goal and meant the captain’s namesake and manager received a better reception at the end than after the previous home match against USSR in June, when he had faced calls for his departure. Not that everyone in the media was entirely happy. Stuart Jones in The Times appeared to have written most of his report before the goal, barely making anything of Robson’s strike and instead singling out Wilkins for praise. Jones reflected grimly on a match which he felt was “devoid of atmosphere, of excitement and even of significance”.
More positive was the response of David Lacey in The Guardian, who described Robson’s effort as a “marvellous shot”. In the Daily Express, Steve Curry wrote: “Skipper Robson deserved his reward for his involvement alone – the lion on his shirt snarling and sniping throughout the night against a disciplined German defence that was not in a mood for easy surrender.”
It was only a friendly, but Bryan Robson’s winner had provided a chink of light on a night that was otherwise better best forgotten. As Bobby Robson reflected in his World Cup Diary covering his first four years in charge on the East Germany victory: “I was delighted for, apart from starting the new season with a victory, it was important that we should win at Wembley after two defeats in our previous three fixtures there. I had been worried that he squad might develop a phobia about playing on their own ground and that would have been a disastrous disadvantage to take into the World Cup [qualifiers].” England duly qualified comfortably and they did not suffer another home defeat until 1990.
Exactly 20 years ago Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita produced possibly the most famous save ever seen during an England match. His spectacular ‘scorpion kick’ clearance meant an early season goalless friendly in front of a sparse crowd at Wembley would forever be remembered.
They say all goalkeepers are crazy but South Americans tend to take the old adage a step further. The likes of Ramón Quiroga (Peru) and José Luis Chilavert (Paraguay) attracted plenty of global attention with their antics, but ‘sweeper keeper’ René Higuita of Colombia was on another level altogether. During Italia ’90 he infamously lost possession when attempting to dribble the ball out and was punished by Cameroon’s Roger Milla. He chipped in with a few goals at the other end during his career and led a rather colourful personal life, spending time in prison for his part in a kidnapping case. And the save he made against England capped it all, illustrating both his unpredictability and the extent of talent.
Stayaways miss a special moment
By September 1995, England fans were starting to get a little tired of the never-ending stream of Wembley friendlies as they endured a long wait for Euro ’96. This was reflected in the meagre attendance of 20,000 for Colombia’s visit, with even that figure viewed as generous by some. In The Guardian, reporter Richard Williams wrote: “If there were in reality even half the officially reported number of 20,000 spectators in the stadium it would be a surprise.”
There had also been a lot of stayaways too when Colombia previously visited Wembley in 1988 in the Rous Cup. But those that turned up had witnessed a treat, getting a first glimpse of players such as Higuita and the similarly distinctive Carlos Valderrama and witnessing some delightful stuff from the visitors. Their scorer in the 1-1 draw that night had been Andrés Escobar, but he was tragically no longer alive when Colombia returned to Wembley – being shot dead shortly after returning home from scoring an own goal during the 1994 World Cup against hosts USA, a tournament which saw the Colombians fall a long way short of meeting their pre-tournament billing. Higuita had missed the tournament after his stint in prison. By September 1995 he was back playing for his country, although his arrival in England was delayed by issues over his passport. There was rarely a dull moment with him.
England played out several goalless friendlies under Terry Venables and this one would easily stand out as the best and most memorable. Although Colombia’s style of play would bear little relation to what England would face in the Euro finals or World Cup qualifiers after that, this match still proved a fully worthwhile exercise and a good learning curve. Jamie Redknapp made his debut, while Steve McManaman and Nick Barmby were handed their first starts on a night that saw John Barnes end his long England career on 79 caps. Despite the lack of goals on the night, it was a fairly encouraging attacking display and entertaining stuff as England hit the woodwork three times. At the other end, Faustino Asprilla went close just a few months before he joined Newcastle United. But really the only true talking point afterwards was Higuita and THAT save.
As Higuita was shown in a close up shot during the first half, BBC commentator Barry Davies described the goalkeeper as “a character in every sense”, adding that “it’s amazing they managed to keep him in jail for four months where he was”. It proved good timing, as just moments later Redknapp floated the ball goalwards. Higuita seized his moment. To the astonishment of the crowd and television audience, the goalkeeper rejected the chance to make a simple catch. Instead he allowed the ball to go over his head as he dived head first, spectacularly clearing it from behind him using both his feet.
It seemed the instinctive reaction of everyone was to laugh. Higuita did; commentator Davies did; England assistant manager Bryan Robson was filmed chortling on the bench; many in the crowd and those watching on television did; and one assumes the other clown prince on the field, Paul Gascoigne (who gave one of his best England performances post-Italia ’90), also saw the funny side. The move had taken everyone by surprise and quickly became a ‘did you see that?’ moment. We’ve seen it replayed so often since that perhaps it doesn’t seem that incredible now, but at the time it definitely was.
“Usually to refer to a donkey on a football field is not being very pleasant but how else do you describe that?” asked a giggling Davies, no doubt recalling a famous free-kick he saw Coventry City score in 1970. But there was to be another term altogether that would quickly enter the English football vocabulary. This was the ‘scorpion kick’ and it would be synonymous with Higuita. It was to be his version of the Cruyff turn. He wasn’t particularly modest when he told the press that night: “It’s the sort of thing only one person can do. I have a massive repertoire but I don’t plan them ahead.”
But to a certain extent the move had been pre-planned, although Higuita had no idea when he would execute it. In an interview in 2012 he reflected: “Children have always been my inspiration. I always saw them in the street or park trying out bicycle kicks and I told them it would be good to do it in reverse. And that day in England, I was given the ball that I had been waiting for for five years.”
Offside or not?
It has often correctly been pointed out that the linesman’s flag went up as the ball made its way towards Higuita and he may therefore have seen it as a good time to show off his party piece. But the crucial thing here is that the whistle did not sound and play continued after his unprecedented clearance was made. As Scott Murray and Rowan Walker point out in the book Day of the Match: A History of Football in 365 days: “Some naysayers point out that the linesman had put his flag up for offside – but the referee never blew his whistle and the game continued without stoppage. Had the ball gone in, the goal would have stood.”
And this is perhaps what makes Higuita’s actions all the more audacious. He took a risk knowing there was a good chance he would concede a goal if it went wrong. Had he completely mistimed it then it would have looked almost as though he let the goal in on purpose, so simple was the effort he had to deal with. It’s impossible to imagine his opposite number that night, David Seaman, contemplating trying such a trick – nor really anyone else who has ever played in goal for England, including the more eccentric types such as David James. English goalkeepers tend to hate the remotest prospect of conceding a goal and wouldn’t dare try out anything like that – friendly match or not.
“A character in every sense,” said commentator Barry Davies on the night.
Taking the risk is perhaps what marked Higuita out as being on a different level to other goalkeepers. He had a trick he wanted to share and was willing to potentially concede a goal to try and show it off. He got it right and the reaction that greeted it – coupled with many trying to recreate it in schools and parks in the coming weeks and months – meant it had been most certainly worthwhile. As if to prove it was no fluke, he repeated the move in an exhibition match in 2012.
Being a free spirit, one assumes Higuita was not the easiest player in the world to manage. He was the polar opposite of, say, Pat Jennings – a great international goalkeeper with Northern Ireland who just quietly went about his business in keeping out the opposition. As pundit Alan Hansen joked when assessing Higuita’s scorpion kick that night, “he makes [Bruce] Grobbelaar look like a bore”. Higuita’s mistake during Italia ’90 had clearly not deterred him from taking avoidable risks. But football is always more fun when it has born entertainers on the field who can pull off the spectacular every so often – Higuita certainly did that and on a September night 20 years ago he produced an audacious move that would never be forgotten.
In the coming days, Wayne Rooney could become England’s record goalscorer. He needs just one goal to equal Bobby Charlton’s tally of 49 and two to claim the outright record. We today recall the previous time a player knew just a solitary goal would bring him level with Charlton – but it just wouldn’t happen for the previously prolific Gary Lineker.
1992 seemed to be a year where so many saw their dreams suddenly slip away with the end in sight: Labour in the General Election; England in the Cricket World Cup; Manchester United in the First Division title race; Portsmouth in the FA Cup semi-final; Jimmy White at the Crucible; Colin Jackson in the Olympics. And so on. But perhaps topping the bill was Gary Lineker, England’s captain and eternal goalscorer. From looking a certainty to become the first man to make it to 50 England goals, he cut a frustrated figure as the record slipped away from him. He would no doubt join Her Majesty in viewing 1992 as an annus horribilis.
On November 13, 1991, Lineker scored a priceless late equaliser away to Poland to take England through to the Euro ’92 finals. It was his 46th England goal, leaving him just three strikes behind Charlton. Over the winter, Lineker made the surprising announcement that from the 1992-93 season he would be playing for Japanese club Grampus Eight and his international career would end after the European Championship. The hope was he would end with a flourish, inspiring England to Euro glory having become the nation’s record goalscorer. The former hope was possible rather than probable but the latter looked odds on.
The first hint that Lineker’s final England year may not go entirely to plan came when they played their opening friendly of 1992 in February against France. Manager Graham Taylor made the rather surprising decision to drop captain Lineker to the bench, as Alan Shearer made his debut in attack. But Lineker came off the bench to seal a 2-0 win against a side who they were due to face in the Euro finals.
Gary Lineker scores his 47th England goal against France in February 1992.
Lineker was again on the bench the following month as England struggled to sparkle in a 2-2 draw with Czechoslovakia, this time not getting on the scoresheet after coming on. But in April he was back in the starting line-up away to the CIS (previously USSR) and headed in an excellent cross from Tony Daley to give England an early lead in another 2-2 draw. Towards end of the contest, Lineker saw a shot saved by Dmitri Kharine as he bore down on goal and then was unable to hook the rebound in. That meant he would have to wait to equal the record, but it was seemingly just a matter of time.
Before England’s next game in Hungary on May 12, Lineker had signed off from English club football by scoring for Tottenham Hotspur in a defeat to Manchester United. The predatory instincts still seemed to remain, but then deserted him in Budapest. Set free by Paul Merson in the first half, he was presented with an opportunity just inside the box but fired wide. As with the miss against the CIS, it wasn’t like squandering an open goal but a forward of Lineker’s calibre was expected to make more of such chances. It was his one real opportunity all night in a forgettable game, but he did cross for Neil Webb to score the only goal in England’s 1-0 win.
Paying the penalty
Five days after the match in Hungary there was a golden opportunity squandered in Lineker’s bid to break the record. Brazil’s visit was attractive enough, but for Lineker the match was particularly special as it would be his final appearance at Wembley. He had scored in his first game there against the Republic of Ireland in 1985 and it would seem fitting if he equalled – or even broke – the record in his farewell to the stadium. The omens seemed good, given Lineker had scored in each of his two previous games against Brazil.
With the game just 10 minutes old, he was handed the perfect chance when he was fouled in the area. What followed next has passed into infamy. He went to chip goalkeeper Carlos but with embarrassing consequences, the ball getting no weight behind it and landing apologetically in front of a grateful Brazilian keeper (who was so surprised that he almost inadvertently turned it into the net). The best opportunity to equal the record had passed and Lineker never got another sniff during the afternoon, as England drew 1-1. It was their only other regular source of goals, David Platt, who salvaged a draw. Lineker dismissed Taylor’s suggestion the record played on his mind as he stepped up for the penalty, saying: “I saw the goalkeeper commit himself early and tried to lift the ball over him… but I scuffed up some grass as I shot and couldn’t get any height.”
“You could argue that we played Brazil with 10 men,” said Graham Taylor rather controversially after Gary Lineker’s performance against Brazil.
It was here the relationship between Taylor and Lineker began to unravel. A few days after the game, Taylor was quite damning when he told The Observer: “It’s almost as if Gary is a national institution who cannot be touched. You could argue that we played Brazil with 10 men – but you’re not allowed to.” Although there was some speculation that Lineker could lose his place for the finals, realistically he would keep it. He had not been in prolific form for England going into either the 1986 or 1990 World Cup, but he managed a total of 10 goals in those two tournaments (finishing tournament top scorer in 1986).
Despite the Brazil setback, the record still seemed to remain a case of when and not if. “I want it out of the way as soon as possible,” said Taylor, as a good opportunity appeared on the horizon. England’s last match before the finals was away to Finland, against the side with the weakest track record they would face while Lineker was chasing the record. But again his luck was out, striking the bar from close range in a 2-1 win with Platt again the saviour.
Fate seemed to be against Lineker and he would now go into the finals with potentially just three matches to get the record. Suddenly, it didn’t look so certain he would achieve it. Lineker’s cause was not being helped by a continual changing of strike partner or at times having no other recognised strikers up front with him, with Taylor continually experimenting and struggling to settle on his preferred line-up.
Yugoslavia’s late expulsion meant England were starting in the finals against Denmark, a side not expected to achieve much after being called up to participate just days beforehand. Again it was a frustrating night for Lineker and co, playing out a rather forgettable 0-0 draw in which England could easily have lost after their opponents struck the woodwork. As we recalled last week, Taylor now turned his attentions to Jimmy Hill over criticisms the BBC pundit aired afterwards. The mood in the camp was clearly not good with Taylor appearing increasingly tetchy towards the media.
Three days later there was more of the same, a goalless and sterile stalemate against France. In a taste of things to come for their future Match of the Day years, Lineker and Shearer were partnered together. But they found chances at a premium in a dull draw, which left English hopes in the balance. Euro ’92 was the last major tournament which operated a two points for a win system, with the entertainment value low in England’s matches. “He contributed in exactly the way I thought he would,” said Taylor rather cryptically about Lineker after the France game, with the forward now potentially 90 minutes away from the end of his England career. Few would have anticipated it would be even less than that…
An anti-climatic ending
Lineker is hauled off against Sweden and it proves a sad end to his England career.
To be sure of going through to the semi-finals, England had to beat hosts Sweden and at the very least they had to score and avoid defeat to stand a chance. Lineker was back to being the only recognised striker in the side but his former club manager Terry Venables, in his capacity as BBC pundit, said he was backing him to find the net. England started superbly, Lineker crossing for Platt to give them an early lead. They played well until half-time and led at the break, leaving them top of the group with 45 minutes left.
But where they were excellent in the first half, they were wretched and outplayed in the second. From the moment Jan Eriksson headed in an equaliser they were up against it and as the hour mark passed Taylor knew he had to change things. You could hear the surprise in the voice of BBC commentator Barry Davies as he said Lineker was the player coming off, as Alan Smith took his place. “If England don’t make it to the semi-finals, what an unhappy end we are witnessing to Gary Lineker’s England career,” said Davies, sensing there may be no way back for Taylor’s men. Even co-commentator Trevor Brooking got vaguely opinionated, describing it as a “brave decision” and expressing his view that it would have been better to play two in attack (Lineker and Smith had forged a good pairing at Leicester City a few years earlier).
The body blow duly came eight minutes from time, Tomas Brolin’s scoring an excellent goal to delight the hosts. With Denmark beating France 2-1, England knew an equaliser would see lots drawn to decide if they or the Danes progressed. But there was no realistic hope of them scoring again and ‘Swedes 2, Turnips 1’ would be the most memorable headline the following morning. Lineker’s dream was gone and Charlton, working in Sweden as a BBC pundit, unexpectedly retained his record. Perversely, Lineker scored 10 goals in two World Cup tournaments but none in either European Championship he played in (it later transpired he had hepatitis in 1988).
England limped out of Euro ’92 after a very unsatisfactory tournament that saw the tide turn against Taylor. A combination of international retirements, injuries and certain players not fitting into Taylor’s plans meant of the side that faced Sweden, only Lineker, Platt, Stuart Pearce and Des Walker had played in the World Cup semi-final against West Germany just two years earlier. In several cases the old guard had been replaced by inferior players who would never feature again after Taylor’s reign. There was very little in the way of creativity in the side without players such as John Barnes, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne. Where Italia ’90 had been an emotional rollercoaster that was never to be forgotten by the English public, Euro ’92 was a damp squib so far as England were concerned. Only at the point they exited the competition did it suddenly spring into life following several cagey matches, the Danes surprisingly going on to win the tournament.
The half-century curse
It is surprising that, for a few more days at least, no England player has so far reached 50 goals with several before Rooney having looked set to make it but then just failing to do so. Charlton may have the record but he would probably have loved to make it to the nice round figure of 50, failing to score during his international swansong of the 1970 World Cup. Like Lineker, he was infamously substituted in his final game and watched on as the side slipped out of the tournament. After scoring four against Norway in May 1966 to leave him on 43 goals, Jimmy Greaves would have seemed certain to go on and reach the half-century. But fortune would not be on his side and he finished with just one more. Michael Owen’s potency as a young striker left him on course for the record, but he was frozen out after Fabio Capello took over in 2008 and left with 40 goals.
And as we’ve seen, Lineker saw the target slip rough his fingers with that penalty miss against Brazil and substitution in Sweden forever recalled. It would be disappointment for Lineker, but there was plenty to put it into perspective for him. A few months earlier his baby son George had been diagnosed with leukaemia and undergone chemotherapy as the family feared for his life. Mercifully he pulled through. George’s illness had been a genuine worry for his father, not scoring goals for England by comparison was only football.