Sir Bobby Robson
Thirty years ago Gary Lineker continued his rich goalscoring streak for England and proved he could score more than just tap-ins when he produced a marvellous second goal in a 3-0 win against Northern Ireland at Wembley…
Last weekend, almost 82,000 were at Wembley to see England host Malta in a World Cup qualifier – their first home match after flopping at Euro 2016. In the same week 30 years ago, England were playing their first home game after reaching the quarter-finals at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. It carried the added ingredient of being a European Championship qualifier against fellow UK opposition in Northern Ireland, who had also been present at the World Cup finals. And yet the turnout was a mere 35,304, even though it was not being screened live on television. Such was the way of life in the mid-1980s, as football lacked the pulling power of both before and since. But those who did pass through the Wembley turnstiles were rewarded as they saw a moment of magic from Gary Lineker.
A year to remember
1986 had certainly been a year to remember for Lineker. Despite Everton narrowly missing out on major honours in the 1985-86 season, Lineker won a series of personal accolades including being the PFA and Football Writers’ Association player of the year and First Division top scorer. He followed it up by winning the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup, memorably scoring six times for England in the tournament. And then he made a big-money move to Barcelona, his status as a star name in European football continually growing. On October 15 he was back in England, turning out at Wembley for the first time since he had scored for Everton in their FA Cup final defeat by Liverpool in May.
The trophies were piling up for Gary Lineker in 1986.
When Northern Ireland had last visited Wembley 11 months earlier, they ground out the 0-0 draw they needed to join England at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. But their hero from that night was no longer on the scene, veteran goalkeeper Pat Jennings having retired after the finals. He was proving pretty irreplaceable, manager Billy Bingham – who in a curious move got married on the day of this qualifier – having to select uncapped Phil Hughes of Third Division Bury between the sticks. Bingham was facing a rebuilding exercise, with some of the old favourites no longer involved and veteran Sammy McIlroy dropped to the bench.
Every member of the England starting XI had been to the World Cup except Dave Watson, although Viv Anderson had not played any matches and captain Bryan Robson’s tournament was blighted by injury. Headlines were being made by Ray Wilkins being axed from the side, not even making it onto the substitute’s bench. Just one more cap would follow for the midfielder, his international career never really recovering from his dismissal against Morocco at the 1986 World Cup.
Gary Lineker chips home England’s third against Northern Ireland.
With 33 minutes gone, England made the vital breakthrough. Lineker showed his trademark potency from close range as he was on hand to score from the edge of the six-yard box following a corner. But England were unable to build on their lead until 15 minutes from the end, Chris Waddle converting after Peter Beardsley’s effort was deflected into his path. England could now relax and five minutes later came the match’s defining moment.
Lineker’s moment of magic
It began with Glenn Hoddle putting his foot in to win the ball at the expense of two opponents and feeding Beardsley, who played a neat ball through to striking partner Lineker. He held off John McClelland’s challenge and, on the turn, produced a delightful chip with his left foot to beat Hughes. The ball went in off the inside of the post, Lineker wheeling away in delight. “That’s a lovely effort and a fine goal,” purred John Motson, commentating for BBC highlights. “Beautifully taken and the Beardsley-Lineker combination works again.”
As was often the case during his England career, Lineker found Beardsley to be the ideal partner up front. It had been a goal that went against the stereotypes, with Hoddle doing the dirty work to break up the play and Lineker scoring in style from distance rather than close range. It also wrapped up a decent victory for England.
The 3-0 win represented a good start to Euro ’88 qualifying for Bobby Robson’s men. But Lineker was dominating the headlines, particularly as Robson was absolutely brimming with delight about what the player was producing. “He’s possibly just about the greatest striker in the world today. [Diego] Maradona is a wonderfully gifted player with dribbling ability, but would he score more goals?” he asked rhetorically. Robson was also full of praise about Lineker’s superb goal. “I said to Gary ‘what a great goal to score at Wembley, son. I envy you’,” he excitedly told the media.
Lineker, who now had 14 goals from just 19 internationals, was somewhat surprised by his wondergoal. “I really don’t know how I scored my second goal,” he said. “It was as big a shock to me as everyone else.” The previous year Lineker had scored a tremendous volley away to the USA, but he was adamant this one was the best. “It is certainly the most spectacular goal I have ever scored for England,” he proclaimed. “It’s the sort of goal that happens very occasionally as far as I’m concerned.”
Bingham, whose wedding night had not exactly gone to plan, was graciously full of praise for the England striker when quizzed afterwards. “I think Lineker is superb. He has ability and if he gets the service he is lethal. He has that killer instinct,” said Bingham, who no doubt wished the player was Northern Irish.
Lineker failed to score when England beat Yugoslavia the following month, but in February 1987 he famously netted four times as England beat Spain 4-2 in Madrid. The player’s reputation was growing all the time and a hat-trick against Turkey in October 1987 moved England to the brink of Euro ’88 qualification. The 3-0 home victory over Northern Ireland would rarely be recalled except for one moment – Lineker’s delightful finish, one that was so different to his stereotypical close range finishing. As Lineker himself reflected afterwards: “Most of mine come from inside the six-yard box so naturally I’m delighted.” Most of the small crowd at Wembley that night 30 years ago shared the delight too.
On Saturday England play their first match of Euro 2016 when they face Russia. Whatever the outcome, there is unlikely to be quite the same feeling of despondency as when England met the Soviet Union in their last match at Euro ’88. Already eliminated from the tournament and with the match not even being shown live on British television (the Republic of Ireland’s decisive game against the Netherlands was screened by the BBC instead), Bobby Robson’s side gave a tame performance to lose 3-1 and exit the finals without a point to their name. For a number of individuals, it wasn’t a time to fondly recall…
The one thing to take the headlines away from England’s failings on the field at Euro ’88 was the conduct of their hooligans off it, with violence on the streets of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf having marred their matches against the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands respectively. There had been plenty of unfortunate instances of hooliganism involving a section of England’s followers before, but now the problem was threatening the future of the national side.
On the eve of the match against USSR, Football Association chairman Bert Millichip was asked during an interview by ITV if this was the worst crisis he had known for English football. He responded that it was and speculation was now growing that England would be excluded from the 1990 World Cup qualifying programme, amid reports of the Government no longer wanting them to travel abroad. English club sides remained banned from Europe, the trouble in West Germany putting paid to any hopes of a return for 1988-89. As The Times commented at the time: “Britain is being viewed worldwide as little more than a zoo of dangerous animals which are released upon innocent foreign cities with a government unwilling to tackle the crisis head on.”
England’s exclusion from the World Cup didn’t happen in the end. Had it been imposed there would have been no momentous run to the semi-finals at Italia ’90, no World in Motion, no Gazza’s tears and no redemption for manager Bobby Robson either after he was hounded during the summer of 1988…
A 2-0 home defeat against the USSR in a friendly in June 1984 had represented the previous low point for Bobby Robson during his England reign. England had a few months earlier failed to qualify for Euro ’84 and this latest loss ended with him being barracked by a vocal section of the Wembley crowd. Over the next four years he enjoyed a turnaround in fortune, qualifying unbeaten for both Mexico ’86 and Euro ’88. But now England were back in crisis. Robson could point to a combination of bad luck and key chances being missed during their opening two matches in West Germany, but against the USSR he had no such excuses to offer. He would lament it as “without doubt the worst performance” during his time in charge and the vultures were circling, as he remained caught in the tabloid war between The Sun and the Daily Mirror. Robson did offer to step down, but Millichip gave him his backing to carry on.
Bobby Robson and Don Howe.
It was clear the manager was feeling the strain. The late Joe Melling, of The Mail on Sunday, would later recall writing an article calling for Robson to move on as “it’s a heart attack waiting to happen”. Thankfully no such thing happened to Robson, but just days after the Euros his assistant manager Don Howe was in intensive care after suffering a suspected heart attack. The connection between his ill health and the stress of the England role wasn’t confirmed, but plenty were putting two and two together. And Howe wasn’t the only member of England’s party spending time in hospital shortly after coming home from West Germany…
Two years after finishing top scorer in the 1986 World Cup, Gary Lineker endured a barren time in West Germany and felt strangely lethargic. He was puzzled as to what was making him feel this way, but he felt totally bereft of energy going into the USSR match. “In training the day before I could barely lift my legs,” he recalled last year in the magazine FourFourTwo. “We were already out of the tournament and I know Don Howe and Bobby Robson thought I was trying to get out of the game – they all but said as much. I played against the Soviet Union and came off after about an hour. I’d never played in a game where I was so certain I shouldn’t be on the pitch. I was in a dreadful state.”
Lineker took exception to comments from Bobby Robson in which he criticised players for “not wanting to play”. England flew home and soon Lineker was in hospital, with it coming to light he was suffering from hepatitis which helped explain his lack of energy. Lineker recalled Robson coming to visit him in hospital and apologising, with the forward to retain a regular place in the England side the following season despite struggling for goals as he worked his way back to full fitness. But it became evident that Robson had not just been referring to Lineker with the “not wanting to play” comment, as another member of the side was to pay for complaining of an injury ahead of the Soviet Union match…
England desperately missed the injured Terry Butcher during Euro ’88, with the pairing of Tony Adams and Mark Wright – both playing in their first major tournament – unable to prevent four goals being conceded in the opening two matches. In the match against the USSR, Adams – the more criticised of the two – scored but Wright wasn’t involved after complaining of an injury. It proved a costly move, Bobby Robson not selecting him again until April 1990. Wright went on to shine during Italia ’90, but his absence from the USSR match was soon brought back into the spotlight later that year when Robson published his autobiography Against the Odds.
Writing about Wright, Robson said: “He is a complicated character and had he been more straightforward I, and England, would have had two extra years out of him. I feel that sometimes he uses small injuries as an excuse for missing a match or a pre-arranged excuse if things do not go so well. Against Holland two years ago in the European Championship he vied with Bryan Robson as our best player but when it came to the ‘dead’ match against the Soviet Union he suddenly turned up with an injury saying he didn’t think he was fit enough to play but would do so if I wanted him. He did the same thing in Italy when a calf injury appeared from nowhere before the play-off game in Bari. This time I told him to play and maybe if I had done that against the Soviets he would have a lot more caps now.”
Wright was reported to be unhappy about Robson’s comments. But Wright had at least come back into the England side. For others there would be no return…
Glenn Hoddle and Kenny Sansom both played their last England match against the Soviet Union in 1988.
Nine years earlier, Glenn Hoddle has burst onto the England scene amid great excitement when he scored on his debut against Bulgaria. Now against USSR he was playing what would be his final England match, being culpable for the opening goal conceded after three minutes as he carelessly lost possession and Sergei Aleinikov scored past Chris Woods. As Rob Smyth wrote in his excellent re-assessment of England’s Euro ’88 campaign, it showed “while their bodies were on the pitch at Frankfurt, their minds were already at home”.
The mistake may not have been what made Bobby Robson’s mind up over Hoddle, but it was certainly symbolic. When England returned to action after the European Championship failings there was no place for Hoddle. Despite some calls for him to be included in the Italia ’90 squad, there would not be a recall for him. Nor would Kenny Sansom ever be capped again, paying both for the emergence of Stuart Pearce and for losing his place in the Arsenal side. Dave Watson, deputising for Mark Wright against the USSR, would never be picked again either. For others too the match would not help their future chances. Woods had enjoyed a rare run-out in place of Peter Shilton, with Robson admitting later he was toying with finding a new number one goalkeeper to replace the veteran regular. But for Woods it was an opportunity spurned, having conceded three times. Shilton would remain first choice, despite having been on the end of a punch from the captain out in West Germany…
Dave Watson was among the players never capped again after appearing against the Soviet Union.
For once England captain Bryan Robson was injury-free as they played in a major tournament, but despite his goal against the Netherlands he was unable to prevent the side bowing out without a point. In the hotel bar one night he started taking criticism from Peter Shilton, who he normally got on well with. Robson wrote in his autobiography: “It shocked me because he’d never turned on me before. He went on and on, taunting me about the ‘Captain Marvel’ stuff and saying he was the number one… He went on and on. I kept my temper for about half, three-quarters of an hour. Then he said I was a ‘bottler’ and that was when I snapped. He was sitting at the bar so I told him, ‘Get up and I’ll show you who’s a bottler’. He wouldn’t get up, but I was so angry I punched him. He just sat there and went quiet. I was fuming, but as soon as I went for him I knew I shouldn’t have.”
Th pair quickly made their peace and stayed international team-mates for another two years, but it had been an unsavoury incident involving two of the team’s most senior players that summed up England’s miserable summer. The squad headed home after three defeats, with the match against the USSR particularly deflating. When they next took to the field in September against Denmark, Bobby Robson made changes including giving debuts to Paul Gascoigne and Des Walker who both went on to shine during Italia ’90. That tournament was Bobby Robson’s swansong and it proved a much better way to go out than if it had been after the shambolic performance against the USSR in 1988.
In the latest of our articles on the 1986 World Cup we recall England’s captain 30 years ago, Bryan Robson, and how his tournament was ruined by a dislocated shoulder. What should have been a competition where he shone ended with him watching on from the sidelines after he went off injured against Morocco…
For much of the 1980s, the England team was about the Robsons. The manager was Bobby Robson, the captain was Bryan Robson. Bobby, like Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson, adored Bryan. His fierce will-to-win, bravery, box-to-box approach and leadership qualities all made him integral to the teams he played for. In an era between the departure of Kevin Keegan and emergence of Paul Gascoigne, Robson was a strong contender for the most famous current English footballer. Atkinson had forked out a then British record £1.5 million to get Robson to follow him from West Bromwich Albion in 1981. “Solid gold” was Big Ron’s description of the player, as he justified the transfer fee.
Although he wasn’t without his critics (as a Google search of ‘Bryan Robson over-rated’ will confirm), there were plenty who idolised Robson and shared the view of his managers about how important he was. Naysayers would have found it hilarious that Bobby Robson considered his namesake to belong in the same category as such greats as Diego Maradona and Michel Platini; others would have seen nothing wrong with that view.
Bobby Robson was a big fan of his namesake and England captain Bryan.
But one persistent problem throughout Bryan Robson’s career was injuries, something the player’s critics were happy to point out. His courage and desire to scrap for every ball probably did not help, as he would all too frequently have to spend time on the sidelines after sustaining an injury in the heat of battle. He had to sit out a number of crucial games for both club and country during his career, with perhaps his most high-profile injury woes prematurely ending his participation in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Robson was arguably at his peak at 29, well-established as England captain and considered central to the team’s prospects. But shoulder injuries sadly do not magically heal just because it’s the World Cup. As with Kevin Keegan in 1982, David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006, the nation became obsessed with a key player’s injury concerns going into the World Cup. For Robson it all happened in Monterrey, a long time ago.
Bryan Robson is helped by physio Fred Street after his injury against Morocco.
Catalogue of injuries
The first warning sign of what lay ahead came in January 1985, when Robson sustained a dislocated shoulder during a defeat for United by Coventry City. Typifying the way Robson’s luck would seem to be out over the next 18 months, he landed on the transformer box of Old Trafford’s undersoil heating. He wrote in his autobigraphy: “The shoulder was put back in place and the medical advice was that, because it was the first dislocation, we should allow it to heal naturally… If I had known that there was such a good chance of the shoulder coming out again, I would have told the surgeons to sew it up then and there. It would have been far better to get the problem sorted for good.”
Despite not undergoing surgery, Robson still spent several weeks on the sidelines but the campaign ended with him lifting the FA Cup. The 1985-86 season began well for Robson and United, with the team famously winning their opening 10 league matches. Robson could dream of captaining his club to the First Division title and then his country to World Cup glory. On October 16 England booked their place in the World Cup finals and recorded a 5-0 win over Turkey, but Robson went off with a hamstring injury.
It was the start of a catalogue of problems that blighted his campaign. United were looking increasingly less assured at the top of the table and they would end up trundling home in fourth spot. In the FA Cup fourth round Robson was sent off at Sunderland and then he sustained an ankle injury in a league match at West Ham United a week later. But it was in a delayed fifth round FA Cup tie at the same ground on March 5 that his World Cup dream took its first serious dent.
A week earlier headlines appeared of ‘were would we be without him?” after Robson scored twice, including the BBC goal of the season, as England won in Israel. Now it looked like we might have to find out in the World Cup, as Robson began clutching his shoulder on the Upton Park turf. He had once more dislocated it, less than three months before the World Cup began. In the Daily Express two days later, John Bean wrote: “The Manchester United and England captain’s second shoulder dislocation in 14 months will leave him with just enough time to get fit to board the plane to Mexico and the World Cup in May. But the big fear is that after two dislocations of the same joint Robson could easily suffer the problem a third time.” His words would sadly prove prophetic.
Club vs country
United boss Atkinson was ruling out an operation, with a club versus country row brewing. There was no easy answer, as the operation would have left Robson desperately short of match practice going into the World Cup. But for his England manager it would be the better option. According to his World Cup Diary, Bobby Robson rang Atkinson and approached him about letting their mutual captain have the op. Bobby wrote: “I asked for the ultimate sacrifice a club manager can make because an operation would have ruled Robson out for the rest of the championship, but have guaranteed his fitness for Mexico.”
Atkinson’s reply made clear there would be no change of mind. It was an understandable situation, given that United were still in with a shout of the title and Big Ron was starting to come under pressure over their recent form. He knew Robson could be the difference between success and failure, being willing to gamble on him even when not fully fit.
Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson was not willing to sacrifice his captain to help England’s cause.
Captain Robson soon returned for United, but he would suffer more injury problems and sat out the season’s climax. But at least he joined the England squad as they headed out to the United States en route to the finals. During a practice match against South Korea, Robson volleyed in a goal and showed what he could be capable of. But Bobby Robson wrote: “Bryan’s shoulder was still causing me concern. I kept thinking back to the medical advice and wondering if it was going to go again. I closed my eyes every time he went rushing in for one of those crosses and willed to see him on his feet when I reopened them.”
Three days later those fears were realised when England played Mexico in Los Angeles. The captain was in a typically competitive mode and he made a sliding tackle that ended with him clutching his shoulder, which had popped out. Although it was placed back in quickly by the England team medics, it was now clear to the management just how serious the problem was and how loose the shoulder had become – even though they tried to hide the injury from the media when questioned.
Manager Robson was now beginning to contemplate life without his captain. The player was typically back in training just two days later, only to then sustain yet another hamstring injury. It seemed a never-ending tale of injury woe. But he was adamant he was okay. He wrote: “If I’d had any doubts about my fitness for our first match, against Portugal, in Monterrey, or the rest of the World Cup, I would have pulled out. I believed I could play my part in helping England go all the way.” Robson missed England’s friendly win over Canada, in which Gary Lineker sustained a wrist injury that briefly threatened his World Cup prospects. With Mark Wright having already been ruled out of the finals with a broken leg, injury problems seemed to be mounting for the team.
The nation hopes and prays
When England took on Portugal in their opening World Cup match against Portugal on June 3, Robson was in the starting line-up. The waiting was over, now the nation had to hope and pray the captain came through unscathed. When Robson challenged to win a header in the box, there was brief panic as he feel to the floor. “That was a worrying moment for me and I’m sure everyone,” said BBC co-commentator Jimmy Hill, relieved to see the captain get up as if nothing had happened. The game ended in a disappointing 1-0 defeat and Robson came off a few minutes before the end, but he had not seemed inhibited by his injury concern.
Three days later, England played Morocco. It was in the closing minutes of the half that Robson’s World Cup came to a shuddering halt as he played the ball past Mustapha El-Biyaz in the penalty area. He wrote in his autobigtaphy: “As I went past him he grabbed me by the right shoulder and pulled me back. I fell in agony. The shoulder had come out again. Everybody thought it was the fall that did the damage but it wasn’t, it was their player pulling my shoulder… I was led away, clutching my shoulder, and the tears were of frustration and annoyance as much as pain.”
It was a lasting image of the competition. Robson would maintain England should have had a penalty over the incident, but nothing was given and he had barely left the pitch when vice-captain Ray Wilkins was red carded after throwing the ball back towards the referee.
The moment Bryan Robson’s World Cup dream was shattered.
Four years earlier, Robson had gone off with a knock in the second match of the World Cup against Czechoslovakia but he recovered to play in the second phase matches. This time his World Cup dream appeared to lie in tatters and there was a serious chance England wouldn’t remain in the competition beyond their final group game. Both the manager and captain were quoted afterwards as accepting he was definitely out of the competition, but as England prepared for their do-or-die match against Poland on June 11 there was growing speculation Robson could pick Robson again. It wasn’t well received.
Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “England’s World Cup crisis can be measured not by the fact that they have just 90 minutes to salvage some pride and a place in the second round… but that Bobby Robson is still thinking of picking Bryan Robson. The manager’s fixation with his skipper is not just ill-advised. It is Mexican madness.”
But the manager did not let his heart rule his head, leaving the captain out of the Poland game as England got their act together with a 3-0 win. A change of personnel seemed to help England flourish as a team. They followed it up by beating Paraguay by the same score. England had proved they could thrive without Captain Marvel, with critics happy to point this out when the extent of Robson’s abilities are discussed. Now they faced a quarter-final showdown with Argentina, starring Diego Maradona.
Robson had stayed in Mexico rather than fly home for treatment – to the annoyance of Atkinson – and now he was suddenly handed a glimmer of hope. Peter Reid was carrying a knock and Bobby Robson saw his captain as the man to sit in the hole if Reid did not recover. “It would not put his shoulder so much at risk as charging into the box and it is a job he could do to great effect,” wrote the manager in his World Cup Diary. “I was also aware of the psychological effect his appearance would have on the Argentinians.”
Ultimately Reid recovered and Captain Marvel was left to get his camera out (see above pic) as the sides lined up. We can only wonder what might have been had Robson been fully fit. One can just imagine him sliding in to stop Maradona going through to score his superb solo goal. Robson reflected in his autobiography: “I thought I just might have been able to make a difference against Maradona. I knew his game and felt I could have done a job on him.”
But the reality was Robson had been left a spectator for most of the competition, with Gary Lineker perhaps now replacing him as the national football hero. Robson would miss the start of the 1986-87 season, with his absence felt as Manchester United experienced a poor run of form that eventually cost Atkinson his job. He too may have wondered if things would have panned out differently if Robson had been allowed to have the operation prior to Mexico.
Robson went on to play for England for a further five years and in 1990 he remained captain under his namesake. At 33 there wasn’t quite as much hype and expectation surrounding him going into the World Cup finals as four years earlier, but he was still seen as a key player in the side. But Second Game Syndrome struck again as he limped out of England’s match against the Netherlands and a few days later he was flying home. For the second World Cup running England achieved success without Robson, who was left to provide analysis for the BBC during the semi-final against West Germany. Once more an injury had come at the worst possible time for him – and this time he knew any realistic hope of playing in a World Cup again had gone.
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.
Ahead of BBC Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday, we recall six occasions when English football figures featured prominently in the event – from the four who won the overall award, to the occasion when a potential winner failed to even make the top three and the night an emotional presentation was made to Sir Bobby Robson….
1966 – Moore lifts another trophy
Although the BBC Sportview Personality award was created in 1954, football did not produce a winner of the coveted prize until 1966. If ever there was a year that was nailed on for football to triumph this was it, given England’s glory in the summer. It was captain Bobby Moore who took the award thanks to votes from the viewers, but hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst had to contend with third place as New Zealand-born speedway rider Barry Briggs finished above him in what looks a quirky result nearly 50 years on. But Hurst would say years later it never crossed his mind that he might win the award.
Bobby Moore and Eusebio compare trophies.
Hurst and Moore were also part of the England team which won the team of the year accolade, while the World Cup’s influence was reflected in Portugese star Eusebio jointly winning the overseas personality award with cricket star Garfield Sobers. In an era of just three awards, it was as close as football was realistically going to come to a monopoly.
1986 – Lineker loses out
1986 had been Gary Lineker’s year. He had finished as World Cup golden boot winner, First Division top scorer in 1985-86 with Everton as well as PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year and he earned a big-money move to Barcelona. In a year of limited sporting glory for Britain, the stage seemed set for him to be the first footballing winner of Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) since Moore 20 years earlier.
At the awards ceremony, Lineker saw Liverpool’s double winning player-manager Kenny Dalglish take third place and athlete Fatima Whitbread scoop second spot. Was Lineker about to be announced as the winner? No. Instead, Formula One world championship runner-up Nigel Mansell took the gong after a year when the title was snatched away from him at the death thanks to his rear tyre exploding in Adelaide. “It has come a complete surprise,” said Mansell after Henry Cooper announced him as winner. Lineker may have thought likewise.
“I hadn’t actually written my acceptance speech but I did think I had a decent chance,” Lineker told The Telegraph in an interview in 2007. He reflected on whether he paid for now earning his living abroad, in an era when British viewers saw far less of Barcelona in action than they do now. “I’d sort of disappeared, hadn’t I?” he said when reflecting on missing out, while also believing football’s reduced popularity at the time did not help his cause. He would eventually clinch third place in 1991 and Lineker has gone on to enjoy a long presenting stint on the show – some consolation we guess for not winning the main honour.
1990 – Gascoigne’s glory
There are a lot of misconceptions about the award being about someone’s ‘personality’, meaning cyber warriors will bemoan winners for apparently lacking one and believing being able to stand up and crack gags should be a prerequisite for winning it. But 1990 was an instance when someone’s charisma helped play a part in them taking the award, coupled with their on-field contributions during the year.
There was no question Paul Gascoigne had enjoyed a successful tournament at Italia ’90, but as we saw with Lineker four years earlier having a good World Cup was no guarantee of a player being in serious contention for the SPOTY award. But Gazza’s tears in Turin, England coming so close to winning the competition and the subsequent rise of ‘Gazzamania’ had made him a star name and he was duly presented with the award by Bobby Charlton. 1990 had been Gascoigne’s year, although even then there were concerns raised about how well he’d be able to handle his new-found fame. “They say it’ll ruin your football,” said presenter Des Lynam as he interviewed Gascoigne – wearing a bow tie – on the night.
Paul Gascoigne triumphs in 1990.
1990 represented a year of change for Sports Review of the Year and not totally for the better. It began with Lynam and co-host Steve Rider having to pretend to be running late for the show, something Lynam hinted in his autobiography he was unimpressed with. There was also an attempt to review the year month-by-month rather than the familiar format of by each sport – this would thankfully last just for one year. Football didn’t have things all its own way, with England’s efforts at Italia ’90 failing to win them the team award – Scotland’s rugby union team took it after a Five Nations grand slam – and the overseas personality accolade went to Australian rugby league player Mal Meninga rather than any World Cup star such as Roger Milla. But as the decade progressed, football’s resurgence would continue.
1998 – Owen’s instant impact
In 1996, Alan Shearer finished as Euro ’96 top scorer but he failed to finish in the top three of SPOTY, which perhaps provided comfort to his future Match of the Day buddy Lineker. But then two years later football claimed its third winner and one of the youngest in the history of the award, as Michael Owen collected the accolade on the eve of his 19th birthday. His wondergoal against Argentina in the World Cup proved decisive in winning the public vote, even though the match ended in heartbreak for England.
Owen gave a short speech after Lynam announced him as the winner, in which his nerves were clearly – but understandably – on show. “It’s been a great early birthday present,” he said, as he proudly held the trophy. Owen’s award was to be the last act in Lynam’s years as a host – the party games element that he became associated with went with him (a table football contest was staged one year, Frank Bruno inevitably being one of the participants). And soon the longstanding Sports Review of the Year title for the show was no more, with now both the programme and main award known as Sports Personality of the Year as the emphasis increasingly became on the awards.
2001 – Beckham’s redemption
Where Owen was hailed a hero after the 1998 World Cup, Beckham was hounded for his sending-off against Argentina. But he put the episode behind him to finish second in SPOTY in 1999 after helping Manchester United win the treble. Two years later his stoppage time free-kick against Greece took England to the World Cup finals and won him the award. The pain of three years earlier was now banished to the past.
Considering it wasn’t a World Cup finals year, football featured incredibly prominently in the awards – reflecting the level of popularity the sport was now enjoying. Owen was third in the main award, while Liverpool won team of the year. Sir Alex Ferguson received the lifetime achievement award and Sven-Göran Eriksson capped his first year in charge of England by winning the coach of the year accolade. Since then though, the only footballing winner of the main SPOTY award was Manchester United’s Welsh star Ryan Giggs in 2009.
For Beckham, his SPOTY successes weren’t over yet. He took second place in 2002 and then in 2010 he received the lifetime achieving award, aged just 35. He was far younger than other recipients of the award, including Sir Bobby Robson who had collected his honour in the most memorable of presentations three years earlier.
2007 – Not a dry eye in the house
Due to the format it now adopts, SPOTY is not without its critics today. But one of the enjoyable elements of the show in recent times has been the presentation of a lifetime achievement award. One of the most memorable occasions came in 2007, when former England manager Sir Bobby Robson made his way to the stage to receive the accolade. As he stood there, the entire audience stood and clapped and clapped for one of the longest standing ovations you are likely to see. Robson must have cast his mind back to occasions such as when England were held to a draw by Saudi Arabia in 1988 and he was portrayed as public enemy number one in the press. Now he was seeing just how loved he was by so many people – and not just within the world of football.
It was a lump in the throat moment for Robson and so many others. Presenter Lineker later admitted it was only the prolonged applause that enabled him to regain composure as the emotion of the moment got to him. Sir Alex Ferguson even put aside his long-running feud with the BBC to present the award. Robson spoke of his pride and told of how his father would have somersaulted his way from Durham to see him collect the honour in Birmingham had he still been alive. The following year, another English footballing Sir Bobby – Charlton – would follow him in winning the accolade and he also received a prolonged standing ovation.
Happy 80th birthday to Don Howe, a man who won 23 England caps and played in a World Cup finals but is probably best known to younger generations as the team’s former assistant manager – proving a trusted ally to Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and Terry Venables during their spells in charge. He may not have been necessarily loved by the average man in the street, but there were many within the game who would defend him to the hilt and saw just what an asset he was to his country.
Google Don Howe’s name and the thing that constantly crops up is the man’s reputation as a coach. Plenty of players who worked with him speak particularly highly of his coaching abilities, including the Neville brothers, Stuart Pearce and Dennis Wise. The managers he worked for also had plenty of praise for Howe, particularly Robson with whom he had a long-standing friendship. Howe was at his side through Robson’s rollercoaster eight-year reign, experiencing some real low points before the drama and restored national pride of Italia ’90.
But not every football lover was as enamoured with Howe. There was a tendency for some to dismiss him as a rather dull man who was defensively-minded. Yet Robson was adamant this reputation was totally unwarranted, writing in his 1986 World Cup Diary: “There are a number of people, some within the game, who have the impression that Don is a dour Midlander whose football doctrine is steeped in defensive theory. They could not be more wrong. Don is one of the funniest men in football, always looking for a laugh and is great company. Few know the game as well as he does and he is an inventive and thinking coach who retains the players’ interest even when warming them up. There is always a new routine which is punctuated by Don’s shrill whistle. Don is also an advocate of attacking football and when he and Ron Greenwood were discussing the squad for the World Cup finals in Spain , it was Don who was in favour of taking a winger like Peter Barnes or Tony Morley and Ron decided against it.”
Don Howe was a trusted ally of Bobby Robson throughout his England reign.
Robson would later recount how supportive Howe was when the manager became an increasing target for the tabloids in the late 1980s, particularly following the nadir of Euro ’88 when England lost every game. At a time when Robson most needed a friend to turn to, he had a true one in Howe – who he played with for West Bromwich Albion and England at the 1958 World Cup. But just days after England returned home from West Germany, Howe was in intensive care with severe chest pains following a suspected heart attack. If anything put England’s woes into perspective, this was it.
It would have been the cue for many to decide to call it a day and seek a quiet life, but Howe recovered and returned to join Robson in seeking to get England to reach Italia ’90. While there, he sat alongside him through the various joys and traumas as his great friend bowed out a hero with the nation coming so close to reaching the final. Howe also took this as his moment to move on, choosing to concentrate on being manager of QPR rather than assisting Graham Taylor. Indeed, pathetic as it would seem today, Howe had been left to combine helping Robson with working the rest of the time at club level. Robson had seen his request for Howe to be his full-time assistant turned down by the FA, something he was far from happy about.
Forging the coaching reputation
Howe had enjoyed a decent playing career as a defender with West Brom and Arsenal, featuring 23 times for England and playing in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Although injury brought Howe’s career to a close in 1966, he made the move into coaching and struck up a particularly successful partnership with Bertie Mee that resulted in the double being won by Arsenal in 1971. As with contemporaries Malcolm Allison and Peter Taylor, Howe could not quite enjoy the same success as a manager rather than number two. But his coaching reputation remained undimmed and he would later be given a lot of credit for Wimbledon’s FA Cup Final win in 1988 against a rampant Liverpool. Manager Bobby Gould described Howe as “The Master” when discussing the shock win afterwards, having found the ways to ensure Kenny Dalglish’s side could be stopped in their tracks.
During the documentary about Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang broadcast last Christmas, it was interesting to see how Howe was regarded by the players. Where manager Bobby Gould appeared to have struggled to earn the respect of a tough set of men to manage, Howe was treated with reverence. “We absolutely adored Don Howe… we had so much respect for him,” said Vinnie Jones, a man not known for eulogising about people he worked for. Midfield colleague Wise hailed Howe as “the best coach I’ve ever worked under”. The Wimbledon triumph cemented Howe’s coaching and tactician reputation at a time when he was already long-established in the England set-up.
Defending the defensive
Howe first became England assistant manager under Greenwood, working together at the 1982 World Cup which began with Bryan Robson scoring after just 27 seconds against France. “All credit to Don for that,” the watching Trevor Brooking recalled Greenwood saying of a goal which came straight from the training ground. Sadly, the team would be eliminated in the second group stage amid criticisms of the team being too cautious.
“Don’s priority was to stop the opposition from playing,” wrote Brooking as he reflected on the team’s approach. This defensive label would forever be hard for Howe to shake off, probably not helped by his deep interest in Italian football which was not renowned for its attacking nature. “Teaching people how to defend and being defensive are two different things,” Howe would insist as he sought to distinguish between his specialist knowledge and his approach to football.
A spell as Arsenal manager in the mid-1980s did not help rid him of the defensive reputation, despite briefly taking them to the top of the First Division. But forward Tony Woodcock, who played for Howe with both Arsenal and England, believed such criticism was unwarranted. In an interview with The Independent in 1994, Woodcock, who had himself gone into coaching, said: “It never crossed my mind that Don was extra defensive. But every player has to learn how to defend. That’s something I’ve come to realise now. The thing I remember about Don was he was always looking at what other teams were doing and experimenting with new methods himself. He was always very enthusiastic.”
In January 1994, Terry Venables replaced Graham Taylor as England manager following the team’s failure to reach the World Cup finals. Although Howe had left his role as Arsenal manager in 1986 amid reports the club had approached Venables to replace him, he evidently did not hold this against the new England manager and accepted a key role in the England set-up with particular emphasis on looking after the defence. It proved a shrewd appointment, Howe working well with Venables and Bryan Robson in helping prepare England for Euro ’96 and offering his extensive knowledge of the international game.
Phil Neville, who broke into the England set-up during this period along with brother Gary, believes Venables became an even better boss thanks to Howe’s input. In 2013 he said: “I liked the way he [Venables] had coaches around him who challenged him – Don Howe and Bryan Robson. The fact that the number two and number three were not afraid to express an opinion would make the senior coach even better.”
Terry Venables and Don Howe.
The tournament took place almost four decades after Howe had first played for England, having proved a man for all seasons during his many years in the coaching role. It proved a dramatic and heartbreaking farewell for Howe from the England set-up, with a touch of déjà vu after Italia ’90 as England again lost to Germany on penalties in the semi-final. Afterwards he and Venables headed for Gareth Southgate to console him over his penalty miss (see below pic). Howe had worked closely with the defenders, with Southgate being a player who had flourished under this management team. It was a sad moment with which to bow out, but England had rebuilt their reputation during the Venables years with Howe heavily involved throughout.
Despite his advancing years, Howe has remained in demand with clubs such as Ipswich Town having requested his services in recent years. Within football there have been numerous individuals who have appreciated just what Howe could bring to help them, including the three England managers he worked for (not a bad feat considering how many like to employ their own right-hand man). There may not be widespread partying today to mark his 80th birthday, but plenty of football people will be wishing him a happy birthday and thanking him for what he did for them. As English coaches go, few have earned the level of respect that Howe carries.