Six of the Worst – England European Championship Qualifiers

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Last month we recalled six of England’s best European Championship qualifying matches. Now as they gear up for the next round of qualifiers for Euro 2014, we look at the opposite end of the scale when six matches in the qualifying stages did not go to plan for England. It wouldn’t seem the English way to just reflect on the positives, would it?

February 1963, France (a) 2-5
Paris
Alf Ramsey’s first match as England manager certainly didn’t inspire the public to share his optimism they could win the World Cup three years later. After drawing 1-1 at Hillsborough in the first-leg before Ramsey replaced Walter Winterbottom, England were torn apart in Paris and trailed 3-0 by the break in this preliminary round tie. Although they gave themselves hope in the second half, the match ended with Ron Springett having conceded five goals. He would make way for Gordon Banks in the next match as Ramsey began rebuilding his side. Only Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton played in the World Cup final after featuring in the Paris debacle.

April 1967, Scotland (h) 2-3
London
A day still fondly remembered by football fans north of the border, as Scotland triumphed 3-2 against England at Wembley to declare themselves unofficial ‘world champions’ and Jim Baxter taunted the English. Alf Ramsey’s men were unbeaten since November 1965 and only Jimmy Greaves was involved who had not played in the World Cup final victory nine months earlier. The 1966-67 and 1967-68 Home Internationals were doubling up as the qualifying process for the European Championships and there was now a danger England could miss out so soon after lifting the World Cup as they lost 3-2. But they would top the group after drawing the return with Scotland in front of more than 134,000 at Hampden Park the following year, going on to finish third in the 1968 European Championship.

October 1975, Czechoslovakia (a) 1-2
Bratislava
Don Revie had begun his England reign a year earlier by beating the Czechs 3-0 at Wembley, as they appeared to be banishing the bad memories of missing out on a place in the 1974 World Cup. But a costly draw at home to Portugal had led to doubts resurfacing and it was vital they picked up a good result in the return match with the Czechs. Fog led to the match being abandoned after 17 minutes, leading to a hasty rearrangement for the following afternoon. Mick Channon gave them a first-half lead and put them on the brink of qualification, but goals shortly before and after half-time for the hosts turned the match on its head. England never equalised and Revie fumed about the Czechs: “I saw the worst provocation in this game that I have seen in an international match.” A 1-1 draw in their final match away to Portugal effectively ended English hopes, as the Czechs won the group and surprisingly went on to win the tournament.

September 1983, Denmark (h) 0-1
London
The Danes had quickly emerged from obscurity to be a major threat to England’s place in the Euro ’84 finals. England had been fortunate to gain a 2-2 draw away to Denmark in their opening qualifier. By the time the Danes visited Wembley in September 1983 it was clear whoever won would be favourites to go to France for the Euros, with England having to win for it to be in their hands. Bobby Robson knew just how big a danger the visitors posed and it seemed England were almost intimidated by the dazzling Danes, who could have scored in the opening moments through Michael Laudrup. A penalty from Allan Simonsen gave them a deserved half-time lead, which was only seriously threatened by Luther Blissett in the dying seconds. His shot was saved and England were left praying for a miracle from the remaining games. Their lingering hopes ended shortly before they took the field for their final qualifier away to Luxembourg, after Denmark beat Greece.

October 1998, Bulgaria (h) 0-0
London
England qualified as unbeaten group winners for the 1988 and 1992 finals and automatically as hosts in 1996, but the road to Euro 2000 was to be extremely rocky. They were in trouble after losing their opening qualifier away to Sweden and things got worse a month later when Bulgaria arrived at Wembley. England started brightly, but after failing to take chances the match totally fizzled out and Glenn Hoddle’s men ran out of ideas. They were booed off and it summed up a poor qualifying campaign for England in which they won just three matches out of eight (two of them against Luxembourg) to somehow claim second spot and then scrape past rivals Scotland in the play-offs.

November 2007, Croatia (h) 2-3
London
England made the 2004 and 2012 finals without losing any matches, but the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign under Steve McClaren was anything but a smooth ride. Needing to just finish second in their group to qualify, the warning signs were there by October 2006 when they drew with Macedonia and lost to Croatia. A year later came defeat in Russia but – aided by other results – it was back in England’s hands when they entered their final qualifying match needing to draw at home to Croatia. The wet night has passed into infamy, with England appearing to have done the hard work in clawing back from 2-0 down at the break to level before Mladen Petric scored the winner to hand Russia a place in the finals at England’s expense. The ‘wally with the brolly’ tag would stick for a long time for McClaren, who would inevitably leave his job after the loss.

England Qualifying Campaigns: Euro 92 – Before Taylor was a ‘Turnip’

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This month marked Graham Taylor’s 70th birthday and also the anniversary of his first England match in September 1990. In the third in our series recalling past England qualifying campaigns we recall the road to Euro ’92 in Sweden as Taylor took charge shortly after England’s dramatic run to the World Cup semi-finals in Italy with football’s popularity soaring again.

As the 1990-91 season got under way, ‘Gazzamania’ had taken hold the return of English clubs to European competition added to the feel good factor. Bobby Robson had bowed out as a hero after Italia ’90 and now Taylor was entrusted with the role. He inherited a strong set of players with age mostly on their side, although veterans Peter Shilton and Terry Butcher had retired from international football after the World Cup with more than 200 caps between them. Bryan Robson was to play on for his country but injury would keep him out of action for several months, with Gary Lineker taking on the captaincy.

It had been the worst-kept secret Taylor was to be England’s new manager, spending the World Cup working for ITV without it being announced he would replace Bobby Robson. His appointment attracted mixed views. Taylor had held three managerial roles since his late 20s and done a tremendous job at Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa. Although he had never won a major honour, he had achieved five promotions as well as two First Division runners-up spots (beaten only by a dominant Liverpool) and an FA Cup final appearance. He had also played a big role in the development of John Barnes and David Platt at club level, both going on to be regulars for England.

But there were concerns too. Unlike most of his predecessors he had no direct experience of international football as a player or manager and his involvement in European club competition was limited to three rounds in the UEFA Cup. His direct style of play had not always been well received, Taylor seeming to be often at pains to defend it in interviews. But he was certainly not given the savage ‘Turnip’ press treatment upon his appointment that would follow in the coming years as English football began to look forward with excitement.

The draw for the qualifying stages of the 1992 European Championship provided little in the way of originality for England followers. The Three Lions were placed in a four team group with Republic of Ireland, Poland and Turkey, having met all of them in competitive matches in recent years. It wouldn’t be easy either. Only one side would definitely go through and Ireland had already got under England’s skin by beating them at Euro ’88. Poland were not regarded as the same force as a few years earlier but could not be discounted either. Turkey would find the group too hard to compete but would prove more difficult opposition than previously.

Taylor inherited the basis of a good squad, with players of quality like Platt, Paul Gascoigne, Stuart Pearce and Des Walker having established themselves and with age on their side. Lineker was still a couple of months away from his 30th birthday and expected to go on to break Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 England goals. But we would soon see Taylor appear keen to give as many players as possible a chance, handing out a plethora of new caps and suddenly recalling discarded players from the international wilderness. It was a trend that would continue throughout his reign and with dubious rewards.

Off to a Good Start
Taylor’s first game in charge was effectively a celebration of the World Cup achievements, more than 50,000 seeing them beat Hungary in a friendly at Wembley thanks to a goal from captain Lineker. Taylor basically stuck with Bobby Robson’s team, Lee Dixon the only player to appear who had not gone to the World Cup on a night when Barnes gave an encouraging display. After years as a patient deputy and occasional caps, Chris Woods could now emerge from Shilton’s shadow as the regular goalkeeper with David Seaman his main rival for the number one spot.

In October, the first round of qualifying matches for Euro ’92 took place. Ireland thrashed Turkey 5-0 in the afternoon to lay down a marker, before England beat Poland 2-0 at Wembley. A Lineker penalty set them on their way, although it wasn’t until the closing moments they sealed the win with a brilliant curling goal by substitute Peter Beardsley. The true significance of the result would be seen 13 months later.

Dropping Gazza
Taylor’s first real test would come the following month, when they travelled to Dublin to take on the Republic of Ireland. It was a match high on importance but never likely to be one for the purists. The match kicked-off at 1.30pm on a Wednesday (which seemed an antiquated idea even then) and the new manager controversially dropped Gascoigne to the bench as Aston Villa’s Gordon Cowans returned to the international fold after almost five years away. He also recalled Arsenal’s Tony Adams two years on from his most recent cap.

In windy conditions England went ahead through David Platt during the second half, before Ireland made use of their aerial power with Tony Cascarino heading in a late equaliser as the sides inevitably drew 1-1. “A fair result in a highly predictable game. Everything we thought would happen, happened,” said ITV pundit Jimmy Greaves. The result played into the hands of Poland, who won 1-0 away to Turkey.

By the time England next took to the field in February 1991, Great Britain had a new Prime Minister in John Major and the Gulf War had broken out. In freezing conditions Cameroon were beaten in a Wembley friendly, the only real comparison with the previous summer’s dramatic World Cup meeting being Lineker scored twice. Ian Wright made his international debut, on a night when Bryan Robson returned and regained the captain’s armband.

A Familiar Pattern
March brought the crucial return clash with the Republic of Ireland at Wembley, following a very familiar pattern. Lee Dixon’s shot was deflected in off Steve Staunton to give England an early lead, but they allowed Ireland to dictate the game at times and Niall Quinn equalised before the break. If either side was going to win it thereafter it was Ireland, Jack Charlton being disappointed afterwards they hadn’t won. Lee Sharpe came off the bench for his England debut, having enjoyed a season shining for a resurgent Manchester United. It was the third time in less than a year Charlton’s side had come from behind to draw 1-1 with England.

The following month saw Poland beat Turkey 3-0 and the top three sides were all locked on four points (under the two points for a win system). May Day was to be crucial. Ireland drew 0-0 at home to Poland, while England travelled to face Turkey in Izmir. Taylor dropped Robson and midfielders Geoff Thomas and Dennis Wise were handed their debuts, while fellow starters David Seaman, Gary Pallister and Alan Smith all had less than five previous caps. England won few plaudits in scraping a 1-0 victory thanks to a strange goal by Wise in the first-half, as they were made to sweat with the Turks growing in confidence. But at least they were now a point clear at the top of the group.

No time to rest
A year after a demanding World Cup campaign, this should have been a quiet end of season for England but instead they still faced six more games before packing up for the summer. The one-off England Challenge Cup was won after a win over USSR and draw with Argentina, before they headed Down Under and – despite a struggle at times – beat Australia, New Zealand (twice) and Malaysia. New caps were being handed around rather generously, with David Batty, David Hirst, John Salako, Brian Deane, Earl Barrett, Mark Walters and Gary Charles making their debuts in the end of season matches. Taylor had already started to dismantle Bobby Robson’s squad – Steve Bull, Chris Waddle, Bryan Robson and Peter Beardsley all found themselves discarded, while Paul Gascoigne would be a long-term absentee through injury.

England completed the season unbeaten, but in September they finally lost under Taylor as Germany came to Wembley and won 1-0. England gave a decent display, with substitutes Paul Merson and Paul Stewart becoming the latest debutants. But the following month brought more important matters with round five of the qualifying matches, as Turkey arrived at Wembley. Robson and Waddle were recalled, but it was to be a low-key end to England careers after 90 and 62 caps respectively as they would never feature again. Defender Gary Mabbutt also returned to the England side after a four-year absence. In a telling indicator of Robson’s fading power, Lineker retained the captain’s armband. An Alan Smith header from a Stuart Pearce cross proved decisive, but England really did not perform and they were never going to enhance their goal difference. But the result of the other game in the group produced the best result possible as Poland and Ireland drew 3-3.

A Three-Way Fight
With one round to go, England were two points ahead of Ireland and Poland with the three sides all in with a realistic chance of claiming the one qualification spot. If England won or drew in Poland they would be through, if they lost they would be out – the Republic of Ireland going through if they won in Turkey, otherwise Poland would take top spot on goal difference. Once more England’s fate boiled down to a decider against Poland.

Taylor bravely threw two uncapped players into the starting line-up in midfielder Andy Gray and winger Andy Sinton – the latter being substituted by another new cap in Tony Daley. Of the 13 players England used on the night, only four had made appearances in the World Cup finals less than 18 months earlier. Taylor had overseen a dramatic change in the side but the same sparkle and spirit of the summer of 1990 did not seem to be there – just the ability to grind out results.

The BBC only joined live coverage at half-time and viewers discovered England were 1-0 down, a free-kick by Roman Szewczyk deflecting past Woods. The Poles briefly held the group leadership but Ireland went on to win 3-1 in Turkey to sit on the brink of qualification. With 15 minutes left Woods appeared to commit a foul in the area and a goal then would surely have killed off Taylor’s men. Nothing was given and two minutes later England were level. David Rocastle’s corner was nodded on for Lineker to volley home and put England back on top of the group, as they saw out the draw needed to qualify.

Taylor had led England to a place in Sweden. It had not been a memorable qualifying campaign and the Three Lions had done the job required rather than flourished. It was easy to point to how the Irish perhaps should have been the team to qualify, but they had squandered points and failed to beat anyone apart from Turkey. Ultimately the decisive match in the group had been England’s first against Poland, the only time a game was won in matches between the top three.

England would play a further six matches before the finals, Taylor seeming determined to try and give every candidate a game as Rob Jones, Martin Keown, Alan Shearer, Nigel Martyn, Keith Curle and Carlton Palmer joined the list of new caps and Mark Hateley had a one-off return after nearly four years off the scene. England did not lose any of the friendlies and they went into the finals with just one defeat in 21 matches under Taylor, who was still yet to receive the ‘Turnip’ treatment. But his reign was about to take a turn for the worse and never properly recover…

Six of the Worst – Failures to Make the Euros…

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The qualifying stages for Euro 2016 began last week and the expansion to 24 teams has led to a feeling in some quarters that there is little danger of European football’s big names failing to make it (although Portugal’s defeat by Albania may suggest otherwise). But the Euro qualifying stages have not always been like this. In one of our blogs looking back at more general international football matters, we recall six sides who were noticeably absent from the finals since they grew to eight sides in 1980.

(To clarify, this is not intended as a list of which six teams I think were the best who failed to qualify in terms of what players they had at the time etc – it is based mainly on reputations from recent tournaments. I’ve limited it to a maximum of one entry per nation and per tournament).

Italy 1984
World champions in the summer of 1982, the Italians were out of the running to reach the 1984 European Championship within months. Golden memories of beating Brazil and West Germany in Spain were rapidly replaced by being held to a draw by Cyprus and losing 3-0 at home to Sweden. Italy headed a notable list of absentees from the finals including England, the Netherlands, USSR and Poland (third at the 1982 World Cup). The Italians were entering a period of transition and won just one match out of eight, finishing well behind Romania, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. World Cup winning manager Enzo Bearzot stayed at the helm and the Italians would qualify for the 1986 World Cup. The Italians would miss out again on Euro ’92, finishing behind USSR in their qualifying group.

France 1988
In 1984, Michel Platini inspired France to the European Championship crown on home soil. Four years later they weren’t even at the finals to defend the trophy and they had barely even turned up in qualifying. Unlike the World Cup at this time there was no automatic qualification for the Euro winners at the next tournament and France paid for it. Having been World Cup semi-finalists either side of their Euro ’84 triumph, France were regarded as a genuine force and entertaining with it. But the good days were coming to a close, with the great Michel Platini about to end his career and this side not matching what had gone before. Within three games it was as good as over, having drawn with Iceland and East Germany and lost to USSR. In the end they trundled home in third spot with just one win to their name, seven points behind USSR. To prove this failure was no fluke, France would miss out on the 1990 World Cup finals as they lost out to Yugoslavia and Scotland in their qualifying group.

Spain 1992
If qualifying for the European Championship today is perceived as getting too easy, it’s worth remembering less than 25 years ago it was harder than making the World Cup finals. As recently as Euro ’92, there were just seven places up for grabs with the host nation automatically taking up the other slot. One of the most significant absentees was Spain. Despite their reputation until recent domination as under-achievers, they were consistent in getting to major tournaments and this was the sole exception since the mid-1970s. They had the misfortune to be in the same group as an invincible France and a decent Czechoslovakia, finishing well behind both of them and losing to Iceland along the way. They did beat Albania 9-0, but the academic away game would never even take place. It had been a campaign to forget for the Spaniards.

Republic of Ireland 1996
The expansion to 16 teams from Euro ’96 meant fewer big names were missing out on a place in the finals. Perhaps the most obvious side to not get there were Sweden, semi-finalists at both Euro ’92 and USA ’94. But looking at things from an English perspective the failure of Jack Charlton’s the Republic of Ireland stood out, making for an anti-climatic end to his otherwise excellent reign. In his decade in charge they had become established on the international scene by reaching two World Cups and one European Championship and narrowly missing out on another with an unbeaten qualifying record. But this would be his first true failure with Ireland and reinforce the belief he should have left at the natural end of the cycle – after the 1994 World Cup. They had the double inflicted on them by Austria, were crushed 3-0 in Portugal, embarrassingly drew away to Liechtenstein and finished level on points with neighbours Northern Ireland (not considered in the same class as them at this time). They scraped second place and as the side with the worst runners-up record entered a play-off with the Netherlands at neutral Anfield. They were outplayed at times by an excellent Dutch side, who deservedly won 2-0 and Charlton inevitably departed shortly afterwards. He would not be leading his adopted country to a major tournament in his homeland 30 years on from the World Cup triumph.

Big Jack’s reign ends in disappointing fashion

Croatia 2000
Incredibly at every World Cup from 1982 to 2002 the third place team came from Europe and then would not qualify for the European finals two years later. Poland (1984), France (1988 – see above), Italy (1992), Sweden (1996), Croatia (2000) and Turkey (2004) were all quickly brought down to earth and each could have warranted a place in our top six. But Croatia had looked good in their first major tournament in Euro ’96 and then shone at the 1998 World Cup, beating Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals. Now they moved onto the Euro 2000 qualifying campaign, with fate conspiring them to be drawn in the same group as Yugoslavia and Macedonia just a few years after the break-up of the old Yugoslavia. They were in trouble after losing their opening game to the Republic of Ireland and had to win their final match at home to Yugoslavia to make it. They drew 2-2 and finished in third place to miss out (despite having a better record than England did in coming second in their group and going on to qualify).

England 2008
Surely the most high-profile failure to not qualify since the finals were expanded to 16 teams in 1996. England had been very lucky to make it to Euro 2000 but they would not be so fortunate eight years later. With the so called ‘golden generation’ at their disposal, there had been a sense of disappointment at three successive quarter-finals in major tournaments. But those achievements suddenly started to look all the more impressive as England quickly found themselves in trouble. A 0-0 home draw with Macedonia and a 2-0 away defeat to Croatia early on set alarm bells ringing, but results improved and when they led Russia away from home in October 2007 during the second half they were almost there. They proceeded to lose 2-1 and looked all but out, but were then thrown the ultimate lifeline as the Russians lost in Israel. England now needed merely a draw at home to Croatia to qualify automatically in second place. But it was to be an infamous night in the rain at Wembley, as Steve McClaren earned the ‘Wally with Brolly’ tag and England sank to a 3-2 defeat – the younger generation’s equivalent of Poland in 1973 but without the same feeling of bad luck, just cursing where it had all gone wrong.

A night to forget for England

Six of the Best – England European Championship qualifying matches

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As England prepare to get their campaign to reach Euro 2016 underway in Switzerland, let’s recall six of their most memorable qualifying matches from past European Championships (limited to no more than one per qualification campaign).

Czechoslovakia (h) 3-0, October 1974
Wembley
A game significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was a victory during Don Revie’s first game at the helm as a new era was ushered in at Wembley. And secondly, this result would go on to look particularly impressive two years later as the Czechs went on to win the European Championship. A year to the month of their World Cup failure against Poland, England appeared to start turning the corner as goals in the closing stages from Mike Channon and Colin Bell (2) gave them a 3-0 success. Another highlight would come the following April when Malcolm MacDonald scored all five goals as Cyprus were thrashed at Wembley. But England let qualification slip through their grasp, the Czechs getting their revenge with a 2-1 win in Bratislava the following October.

 

Bulgaria (h) 2-0, November 1979
Wembley
The 1970s had been grim for England fans. After losing in the quarter-finals of the 1970 World Cup and 1972 European Championship to West Germany, they fell at the qualifying stage of the next three major tournaments. By the time the 1980 European Championship qualifiers began, there was a sense of desperation for England to end their exile from major tournaments. They did so in emphatic fashion, enjoying big wins away to Bulgaria and Northern Ireland to wrap up qualifying. They were able to celebrate qualifying early and this match saw the nation cheer them towards the finals. Fog postponed the match by 24 hours, but when it took place Dave Watson opened the scoring early on. In the second half came the most memorable moment, as young debutant Glenn Hoddle scored a brilliant side-footed shot to wrap up the victory. The nation was now looking forward to Hoddle starring in midfield during the 1980s. It didn’t always work out quite like that, but more than 50 caps would be won by the Spurs player.

 

Luxembourg (h) 9-0, December 1982
Wembley
By the early 1980s, the cliche “no easy games in international football” was being dished out with increased frequency and England’s shock defeat to Norway the previous year was still fresh in the mind. But there was one true exception to the rule in an era before the likes of Andorra and San Marino came on the European national scene and that was Luxembourg. Played just 10 days before Christmas, England tore the minnows to shreds and Luther Blissett helped himself to a hat-trick. They led 4-0 by half-time but it will still only 6-0 with five minutes to go, as some gloss was added to the scoreline with three further efforts – the last coming from a Phil Neal cross that the visiting goalkeeper failed to deal with. But Bobby Robson would come unstuck in his first qualifying tournament, England finishing second to an excellent Denmark side, who won 1-0 at Wembley the following September to move to the brink of qualification.

 

Yugoslavia (a) 4-1, November 1987
Belgrade
England had one of their best qualifying campaigns in reaching Euro ’88 with some clinical displays in front of goal including an 8-0 win over Turkey. However, they went into their final match in the group needing to get a result in Yugoslavia to ensure their place in West Germany. Within 25 minutes all doubts had been shattered as England led 4-0 against a decent side thanks to goals from Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams. The hosts pulled a goal back late on but it was a mere consolation in a game that would stand out as one of the best matches of Bobby Robson’s reign in charge. Sadly, the tournament itself would prove a particular disappointment for England.

 

Scotland (a) 2-0, November 1999 (play-off, first leg)
Glasgow
Probably the most hyped-up European Championship qualifying matches involving England were their play-off fixtures against Scotland in November 1999.  The sides had met just once in the previous decade, as a new generation of England players prepared to make their first trip to Hampden Park. It had been a poor qualifying campaign from England in which they won just one match out of six against the other top four sides (beating Poland in Kevin Keegan’s first game in charge, the only other wins in the group being against Luxembourg) and they had been reliant on Poland losing their final match to Sweden to scrap into the play-offs. Further good fortune helped them over the qualifying line against the Scots. The first-leg at Hampden Park saw them triumph 2-0 with Paul Scholes getting both goals to leave them firmly on course for the finals. Kevin Keegan’s side should have been home and dry but proceeded to lose the return leg 1-0 at Wembley four days later, almost throwing away their Hampden Park success.

 

Turkey (h) 2-0, April 2003
Sunderland
In the qualifying campaign for Euro 2004, it was clear from the start it would be a head-to-head fight for top spot between England and Turkey. The Turks had made massive strides from their thrashings by England in the 1980s and had just finished third in the World Cup. Sadly not all the headlines from this meeting at the Stadium of Light were made by what happened on the pitch, but the match brought a priceless win for England. 17-year-old Wayne Rooney shone on his first start for England and he helped the Three Lions triumph 2-0 thanks to late goals from Darius Vassell and David Beckham (penalty), going on to win the group with a 0-0 draw in the return game in October that again attracted plenty of talking points.

England Qualifying Campaigns: 1982 World Cup – Thank You Switzerland

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With England’s new season about to begin with matches against Norway and Switzerland, it seems the right time to recall when both sides featured in England’s qualifying group for the 1982 World Cup. In the second blog in the series recalling past England qualifying campaigns for major tournaments, we look back what surely must rank as their strangest ever. More than 30 years on, it still remains something of a mystery how they got through it to reach the finals in Spain – but they did…

To say this was an unusual qualifying campaign would be an understatement. England advanced despite losing three matches out of eight; they lost to all the bottom three sides in the group but did the double over the otherwise unbeatable group winners; they went from being all but out to odds on to go through without kicking a ball in the process; and had they lost their final game then Romania would have gone through with just two wins and five goals from eight matches. Throw in one of the most iconic commentary lines ever and some odd fixture scheduling and you’ve got one crazy football cocktail all told.

It had been a long wait for England to appear in the World Cup finals. Their last appearance was in 1970 and the last time they had come through a qualifying group to get there was 1962 (they qualified automatically as hosts in 1966 and holders in 1970). But now it seemed very likely they would finally get there, from a group containing Hungary, Romania, Switzerland and Norway.

An end to the exile?
There were three reasons why England were firm favourites to end their long exile from the World Cup finals. The first was the World Cup was expanding from 16 to 24 teams, meaning they would go through if they finished second (for all their recent failings, they had never finished outside the top two in a qualifying group). Secondly, to achieve that top two spot seemed all the more likely once the qualification draw was made in October 1979. Although only Norway of the five teams in the group had not appeared at a World Cup finals since 1966, there seemed little to fear with only Hungary having a recent track record to suggest they could top the group at England’s expense. It might not look a particularly easy group by modern standards, but in an era before the likes of San Marino joined the party sides such as Norway were rated among the worst in Europe. Switzerland’s reputation was not particularly strong either.

“I would dearly love to take England to the World Cup finals. We have a good draw and must have a good chance of qualifying. But remember, there are no easy internationals these days,” England manager Ron Greenwood after the World Cup qualifying draw was made.

The third, and perhaps most important reason, was England at last seemed to have turned the corner after a miserable decade that had brought continual failures to qualify for major tournaments. Things finally went in their favour in the qualifying campaign for the 1980 European Championship, easily topping the group to end their exile from major finals. Under Ron Greenwood, a new confidence and blend of players was developing. There were experienced players like Peter Shilton (continuing to alternate with the similarly established Ray Clemence), Phil Thompson, Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan, while promising players including Glenn Hoddle and Kenny Sansom had broken into the international fray the previous year.

Greenwood’s first tournament with England was Euro ’80. Like ‘Reverend Ron’s’ reign as a whole it was a bit of a curate’s egg as England neither did particularly well or badly. They went out at the group stage (effectively the quarter-finals) with a win, draw and defeat, in a tournament overshadowed by disturbing trouble on the terraces from their followers in their opening match against Belgium. It was sadly to be an all too familiar tale when England went overseas in the 1980s.

Start as you mean to go on, but won’t do…
England got their campaign under way in a convincing style at odds with the rest of the group, beating Norway 4-0 at Wembley in September 1980. It wasn’t a vintage display, but it would be the biggest margin of victory in the whole group against the lowest rated side in it. England gave Eric Gates and Graham Rix their debuts while Bryan Robson (with just two previous caps to his name) was also in the starting line-up and properly embarked on his long international career in the heart of the midfield. He would be the only player to start all qualifying matches and moved to Manchester United from West Bromwich Albion for a record £1.5 million before the qualifying campaign ended.


England appear to lay down a marker in their opening World Cup qualifying match against Norway.

A month later came the first ringing of alarm bells, as England went down 2-1 in Romania. But the qualifying games were coming thick and fast and they saw 1980 out with a 2-1 home win over Switzerland in November, Greenwood’s side making much harder work of the win than they should have after being 2-0 up. It was not considered an impressive win, with the Swiss having already lost at home to Norway. England now had a four month break until their next game, as domestic club commitments led to them not taking part in the Gold Cup tournament in Uruguay at Christmas to mark the 50th anniversary of the World Cup. They were the only past winner to miss the competition.

From bad, to worse, to despair
1981 was about as grim a year as England have ever had. They played nine matches (six of them at Wembley) and won just twice. They failed to score in four successive matches and went six games without a win, while they would also suffer one of their most embarrassing defeats that appeared to have left their World Cup qualification hopes in tatters. With the conduct of England followers attracting even more negative headlines, it really wasn’t a proud year. And yet it would all end in happiness, somehow.

A 2-1 friendly home defeat to Spain in March set the trend, being memorable only for a cracking Glenn Hoddle goal. That would be the last goal England fans could enjoy for a while. A month later Romania came to Wembley in the next qualifier and ground out a 0-0 draw, as the sense of uncertainty over England’s World Cup finals spot grew. In May Brazil triumphed 1-0 in a Wembley friendly, on a night when Alvin Martin and Peter Withe won their first caps. The Home International Championship was effectively null and void due to the political situation in Northern Ireland leading to England’s trip there being called off, but they played their remaining two games. Wales drew 0-0 at Wembley, three days before Scotland claimed a 1-0 win there. The pressure was mounting on Greenwood, who had presided over England’s worst run for more than 100 years.

It was about to get worse. The month ended with England heading to Switzerland, a night that dragged the nation’s football reputation further into the gutter. More trouble on the terraces was sickening to see and made front page headlines, while the back pages were full of England’s 2-1 loss in Basel. A Terry McDermott goal to end the goal drought was scant consolation. England had played five games in the group, won two and lost two. It was looking ominous and Greenwood had seen enough, privately deciding the time was right to leave.

Restoring hope and changing Ron’s mind
His planned departure would be on hold for a week, by which time things could be even worse. During fixture negotiations England had either been bullied into playing two away qualifiers on successive Saturdays at the end of a long, domestic season (in which Ipswich Town and Liverpool had gone all the way to European glory and Aston Villa barely changed their team all campaign in winning the First Division) or someone believed it was a good option in place of the unusual end of season tour. They now faced the most daunting game of the qualifying series, away to qualification favourites Hungary. Almost 70,000 were present in Budapest to see one of England’s best performances under Greenwood as they achieved a memorable 3-1 victory, with Trevor Brooking scoring twice and Kevin Keegan netting the other from the penalty spot. Greenwood announced his resignation to the players on the flight home, but was talked out of it. He would be sticking around until the conclusion of a World Cup qualifying programme that would go to the wire.


A priceless win for England in Hungary.

One problem with this qualifying process compared to today was the total lack of an international calendar, meaning matches were played in isolation on all sorts of odd dates. Nations were also pretty much free to decide if they wanted to play several matches close together, creating a situation in this group where Hungary were continually left with numerous matches in hand as they had an intensive spell of games near the end of the group. As a result it made it hard to call exactly how the group was panning out. But England had just seven points from six games, while the Romanians had six from five and Hungary had five from four. A 1-1 draw between Norway and Switzerland later in the month meant the Scandinavians had three points from five games and were all but out, while the Swiss had four from five.

Taking a hell of a beating
September 9th, 1981. A date that resonates as a true low point for English football. After the high of Hungary came the utter low of the away game in Norway. A win for England was expected and would put them on course for a place in the finals. They had dished out thrashings to Norway in the past and Scandinavian sides were not really taken seriously (apart from Sweden), a view that would change considerably in the early 1980s. Bryan Robson scored his first England goal to give them the lead, but by half-time they trailed 2-1. If there was a game that made Greenwood’s mind up about who should be his first choice goalkeeper for the following summer’s World Cup, it was probably this as Clemence could take a fair chunk of the blame for Norway’s goals (along with Terry McDermott who helped gift Norway their winner). England never recovered, running out of ideas as Norway held out for a famous win.


John Bond tries to keep morale up as the nation plunges into despair after losing to Norway.

The contrast in moods between the two nations was stark. Brian Moore conveyed the sense of desolation on ITV, while Norwegian television would enjoy post-match lines from Bjørge Lillelien that have gone down in folklore. England had indeed taken a ‘hell of a beating’, although whether Margaret Thatcher could hear him was another matter! But it really looked all over for England. They had to hope for results to somehow go their way. In the ITV studio, Manchester City manager John Bond seemed to briefly switch from critical pundit to England cheerleader as he tried to convince presenter Jim Rosenthal that they still had a chance of making the finals. It seemed a forlorn hope, rational thinking going out of the window. There would be 10 weeks until they concluded their qualifying programme against Hungary, in which time five other matches would be played. By then their hopes could already be over.

England were now left to just watch and hope. On September 23th, it got worse as Romania and Hungary drew 0-0. A win for either would have been bearable but this was the worst scenario. Romania were level on points with England with a game in hand, while Hungary were one point behind with two games to spare. To stand a chance Greenwood’s men needed either Romania to slip up in their double-header against Switzerland, or Hungary to drop points in home games against Switzerland and Norway.

Thank you Switzerland
The most joyous day for England was really October 10th, the day the door to the finals opened for them again. Switzerland went to Romania and fell behind in the second half. Incredibly they turned it round to win 2-1 and keep alive their own slim hopes, but more importantly from an English perspective they had thrown the Three Lions a lifeline. There was still work to do, but a collective sigh of relief was blown. Whatever now happened, they would be through by beating Hungary.

The Hungarians then proceeded to comfortably beat Switzerland and Norway, wrapping up their qualification before the final match at Wembley. On November 11, Switzerland and Romania drew 0-0. It was a result that suited England fine. Romania were only one point ahead of them and with an inferior goal difference. Incredibly, despite having lost three times England would only need a point from their final match a week later against Hungary. But as would be seen 26 years later when England met Croatia in almost identical circumstances to determine if they would qualify for the European Championship, there would be no guarantee of things working out.

With England back in with a chance, ticket sales went from slow to a 92,000 midweek sell-out and the match was also shown live on the BBC (a relative rarity for home matches). A highly charged atmosphere, a true desire from the players to get through and a fairly uninspired performance from the visitors all added up to make it a night when England did what was required. Indeed, the tension was arguably less than it should have been given the nature of the group as England took an early lead through a slightly clumsy Paul Mariner goal, typifying the stumbling nature of the qualification process. Hungary rarely threatened to equalise and did not offer much help to Eastern European neighbours Romania, on a night when Tony Morley came on for his international debut (capping a memorable year when he had won the BBC’s Goal of the Season, his house had burnt down and he won the First Division with Aston Villa).


England make it – just feel the relief around Wembley.

When the final whistle blew the sense of joy around Wembley was tangible, it had been a long wait but England were at last in a World Cup finals. It was their first win at Wembley for almost exactly a year. They had finished with worse records than Wales and the Republic of Ireland, who both missed out. But this whole group had been a bit of a abnormality, with no whipping boy unlike most other sections. It was far from the Group of Death in terms of being full of excellent sides, but it was so far as no weak ones were concerned. Norway were certainly a stronger team than the likes of Luxembourg, Cyprus and Malta.

Somehow England would find themselves seeded for the World Cup finals, seemingly based on nothing other than their 1966 glory. It wasn’t quite the end of the drama, as the Falklands War threatened to put England’s place in the finals in jeopardy again. But they went to Spain and in contrast to their losing record in the qualifiers, they were unbeaten in five games but their goals dried up. It was disappointing not to go further, but after all the qualifying commotion it was just a relief for England to at last be back in the World Cup finals.

England Qualifying Campaigns: 1990 World Cup – Robson’s slow road to redemption

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Ahead of England returning to qualifying action next month for Euro 2016 after a poor record at the World Cup finals in Brazil, we recall when they came home from the horror show of Euro ’88 and began the process of attempting to make it to Italia ’90. Bobby Robson was a man under pressure and faced a tough job rebuilding pride and his reputation. It was a rocky path at times, but he would get them there although he would have to wait for the finals for the tide to properly turn in his favour…

England’s route to Italia ’90 really began in December 1987 when the qualifying draw was made. At that point Robson’s side were still celebrating qualifying with an unbeaten record for the European Championships and being one of the favourites to win it. They had no reason to fear other sides in the World Cup qualifying draw and were one of the seeded teams. The draw, not unlike the eventual qualifying process as a whole for England, would prove to be a case of ‘could have been better, could have been worse’.

They crucially avoided the Dutch from pot two, landing Poland who had reached the past four World Cups but were entering a period of decline. They could have drawn an easier side from pot three than Sweden, but they had not qualified for a major tournament for a decade. And Albania were a candidate for the weakest team in pot four, being something of an unknown quantity to the English. The Three Lions were favourites to progress, but being drawn in one of the groups with just four teams meant they would have to finish top to be sure of a World Cup spot. In an era before play-offs became the norm for second place sides, if they had the poorest of the runners-up records from the three groups with four teams in then they would miss out.

But thoughts of the World Cup were put on hold as England focused on their Euro ’88 preparations. Gradually, things began to go wrong with Terry Butcher ruled out with a broken leg and the goals drying up as the finals approached. When they began, Robson’s men would infamously lose all three games and the manager found his future under scrutiny. The use of the term ‘Plonker’ by Del Boy to Rodney in Only Fools and Horses may have been good natured, but it certainly wasn’t when tabloid newspapers screamed out the term about Robson after a bad result. Crucially though, the FA stood by him after Robson appeared set for the axe as the side flopped in West Germany.

Those who demanded my resignation – and I am thinking in particular about specific newspapers – will be disappointed to hear me reinforce my decision not to quit. It might have crossed my mind, fleetingly, when I wondered if my family could cope with almost intolerable strain, that I should step down. But I am not a quitter and will not back down,”  Bobby Robson in his first programme notes after the European Championship.

Robson wields the axe
As the dust settled on Euro ’88, Robson knew he had to act and make tough decisions to regain the winning formula by dispensing with members of his core squad of players. Kenny Sansom, Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley and Dave Watson played for Robson for the last time in the finals, while Viv Anderson and Peter Reid were never recalled after winning their final caps shortly before the tournament. Tony Adams played the first three games after Euro ’88 but was never picked again by Robson and fellow central defender Mark Wright was discarded until April 1990 before coming back to prominence at Italia ’90.

In their place would emerge an abundance of new players, gradually phased in with 17 new caps awarded between September 1988 and December 1989. The key men to enter the squad were Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker, David Platt and Des Walker, who would all start the 1990 World Cup semi-final, while players such as Steve Bull and David Rocastle would also establish themselves in the squad. For several others like Brian Marwood, Mike Phelan and Mel Sterland it would be a very short international road, but they could at least console themselves with the knowledge they had been capped at full level by England. Robson gave several players from the under-21s their chance at full level and also utilised the England ‘B’ squad as a means of assessing the talent available.

A different era
1988 was a very different era to today’s football world, with Luton Town and Wimbledon having just won the two main domestic cups. Chelsea and Manchester City would be spending 1988-89 in the Second Division (when that term still meant the second tier). International football tournaments and qualifying campaigns operated on a two points for a win basis and this was still the era of the old Czechoslovakia, USSR and Yugoslavia taking to the field. The Berlin Wall had yet to fall and the 1990 World Cup would be the final tournament East Germany and West Germany both competed in. Hopes of the ban on English clubs competing in Europe had been ended by further hooliganism in recent months, including at the European Championship. It was genuinely feared the national team could be next to pay the price for the ‘English disease’ and be given a ban from major tournaments if there was further serious disorder.

But domestically there were also moves into the modern footballing world. The summer saw some big money transfers, including Gascoigne’s £2.2 million switch from Newcastle United to Tottenham Hotspur. ITV splashed out to secure exclusive coverage of the Football League. Their deal would have particular emphasis on the ‘Big Five’ (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs) and the First Division title race. The BBC countered, striking a deal for exclusive terrestrial rights of the FA Cup and England matches. England fans would be hearing a lot from Jimmy Hill in the coming years.

Out with the old, in with (some of) the new
England’s road to recovery would appropriately begin with a clash with fellow Euro ’88 flops Denmark in a friendly at Wembley in September, an unofficial decider for the wooden spoon winner of the tournament. Old campaigners like Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher were joined by three debutants. Gascoigne and Walker came off the bench, on a night when Rocastle also made his first appearance. Luton Town’s powerful striker Mick Harford won his second and final cap in attack as Robson tried to find an alternative big man to Hateley up front, while Stuart Pearce was now first choice left-back after previously being Sansom’s understudy. Neil Webb scored the winner in a low-key atmosphere, just 25,837 showing up.

Five weeks later came a more important test as Sweden visited Wembley in the opening World Cup qualifier. It proved to be a night of frustration as England were unable to break down their opponents, for whom defender Glenn Hysen ran the show. Gary Lineker (who was hospitalised with hepatitis shortly after the Euro finals) seemed to lack the sharpness and precision that had previously made him so deadly. The goalless draw was not a good start for Robson, who now faced a long five-month wait before the next qualifier.

Getting results but not much praise
Things would get worse before 1988 was out, a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia attracting the infamous ‘In the name of Allah, Go!’ headline. Robson wouldn’t be leaving and would justifiably point out how the Saudis had managed draws with several other established football nations, but that would not wash with many critics.  The match saw Robson experiment and recognise Arsenal’s strong start to the season with first caps for Michael Thomas, Alan Smith and Brian Marwood along with David Seaman (QPR) and Mel Sterland (Sheffield Wednesday). It was clear Robson was feeling the strain and was increasingly on the defensive with most members of the media, telling BBC commentator Barry Davies he was “impertinent” the following day over his line of questioning in his post-match interview.

The press vultures seemed to be growing in number as England began 1989 with an away friendly in Greece, but mercifully Robson’s side came from behind to win 2-1 and keep their unbeaten run going. Come March, the World Cup campaign resumed with a trip into the unknown as England travelled to Albania. It wasn’t a stirring performance and England could have fallen behind, but the watching audience back home on a Wednesday afternoon could at least enjoy a 2-0 win thanks to goals from John Barnes and Bryan Robson (who shrugged off a stomach bug to play and inspire his country to victory). Lineker’s ongoing poor form prompted concern, Jimmy Hill in the London studio calling for him to be dropped for the next match.

Football pays its respects
That match would be the return at Wembley against Albania late the following month. Initially the fixture had been overshadowed by a row over the scheduling over the crunch Liverpool against Arsenal clash for TV purposes, being due to be played just three days beforehand on the Sunday afternoon much to Bobby Robson’s annoyance. But this dispute was totally put into perspective by the horrific events at Hillsborough on April 15th, which sent football into mourning. The Liverpool against Arsenal match was understandably postponed. John Barnes withdrew from the squad, but Liverpool team-mate Peter Beardsley would play.

Wembley fell silent before kick-off 11 days on from the tragedy as English football paid its respects, with the team then turning in a committed display to win 5-0 and boost their goal difference and qualification hopes. Lineker kept his place and scored his first England goal for 10 months and the night was capped by Gascoigne coming off the bench to round off the scoring with his first international goal. Not that Robson was totally satisfied with the young talent, deciding to bring him down a peg as he told Sportsnight interviewer Tony Gubba that Gascoigne had “played in every position of the pitch except the position I told him to play in”.

A chance to experiment in attack
Before the summer break, England still had four matches to play. The Hillsborough disaster meant there was a prolonged end to the league season and limited England’s squad for the Rous Cup, with Liverpool and Arsenal players all absent. The three-cornered tournament was on its last legs, with Chile as the ‘other’ side struggling to capture the public imagination in England and Scotland. Not helped by a tube strike, a record low Wembley crowd for England of 15,628 witnessed a 0-0 draw that saw Wimbledon’s John Fashanu and Nottingham Forest’s Nigel Clough win their debuts in a new-look attack. The selection of the bustling Fashanu was not universally approved and his international career would last for just two matches.

Four days later (the night after Robson had been at Anfield to witness Arsenal dramatically clinch the league title) what turned out to be the last annual Scotland against England fixture brought a 2-0 win for Robson’s men at Hampden Park, with arguably the manager’s biggest selection gamble of his England reign paying off. The powerful Steve Bull was still technically a Third Division player with Wolves, for whom he had been scoring goals for fun for the past couple of years. That potency and confidence in front of goal was on show here as he came off the bench to seal a 2-0 win, ensuring he would stay in the fray.

On June 3rd, England took a big step towards the World Cup finals by beating Poland 3-0 at Wembley. For all the talk in the build-up of the Poles’ infamous last visit in 1973 when they qualified at England’s expense, this was a comfortable win for Robson’s men as Lineker found the net before Barnes and Webb wrapped things up. After four games England led the table by two points from Sweden, who had played a game less, with Poland being cut adrift. There was still work to be done to qualify, but Robson and his players could for once walk off Wembley to genuine cheers. The season ended with a 1-1 draw away to Denmark, Lineker again scoring on a night when Peter Shilton became England’s most capped player. Although it had not been a season when England met world class opposition, the statistics would show it was their first unbeaten campaign since 1974-75.

Sweating blood for the England cause
England’s World Cup qualifying programme resumed in early September 1989. For many years the Three Lions had been hit by ‘Septemberitis’, often suffering bad results in their first international of the season. It was not an ideal time to be facing a crucial qualifier away to Sweden. A draw would edge England towards the finals, although they would not be certain of wrapping up their place there. Reports of trouble involving English followers did not lift the mood as the side prepared for a vital clash. It was a night mainly remembered for injuries: captain Bryan Robson sat it out and watched from the BBC studio with Des Lynam, Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables; Neil Webb was carried off just weeks after joining Manchester United; and most famously of all, Terry Butcher refused to let the fact he split his head open and was covered in blood put him off, as he played on as his white England shirt became increasingly red. It was another 0-0 draw, with England not sparkling but not letting themselves down either. Lineker (now back playing in England with Spurs) again spurned chances and Waddle fired wide after appearing to have done the hard work with a jinking run towards goal.

“I felt we were the better side and it was a disappointment, in the circumstances, that we did not do better,” – Bobby Robson after the 0-0 draw in Sweden.

The draw meant England still had to get something in Poland a month later to be sure of going through. A win would ensure they topped the group, a draw would take them through as one of the best second place sides. It was a big game, with an international break the weekend before the match seeing Saint & Greavsie come live from the England team hotel. Poland’s hopes of making the finals were slim. They would have to win all three remaining games and overturn a fairly substantial goal difference to finish ahead of England.

By the width of the crossbar…
It was a far from vintage display from Robson’s men and they were pretty fortunate to get the draw they needed to make it through to Italy. Shilton gave a vintage display to keep the Poles out and lay the ghost of 16 years earlier to rest, but England rarely threatened and seemed ultra-cautious at times in the hostile Katowice atmosphere. Two years earlier in Yugoslavia they had gone at their hosts early in similar circumstances to wrap up qualification when a draw would have done it; this time around they seemed to let the need for a point dominate their thoughts. Perhaps the failings of Euro ’88 still preyed on their mind. In the dying seconds Shilton was finally beaten from 30 yards out by Ryszard Tarasiewicz, the relief being palpable as the ball struck the bar and bounced away to safety. Moments later the final whistle sounded and England were there, relief rather than joy being the main emotion. But they had qualified without conceding a goal and had not lost a qualifying match for a major tournament since September 1983.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear just how close England came to not making the finals. Had they conceded that last-gasp goal to Poland, they would have been reliant on any of three results going in their favour and none did. They saw Sweden leapfrog them to top spot in their group by winning in Poland, while Denmark’s defeat to Romania and West Germany’s win over Wales would have seen England finish as the poorest of the second-place teams by virtue of having scored less goals than Denmark. As it was, they finished a point ahead of them and the Danes – so stylish at the 1986 finals – had missed out.

England could start planning for Italy and did so with a friendly against the Italians at Wembley in November. The game once more ended 0-0 but was perhaps most significant for another new face, David Platt, making his international debut en route to being a key man for England the following summer. New caps were also handed out to Dave Beasant, Nigel Winterburn and Mike Phelan. Gascoigne had still yet to fully establish himself, playing in the B international against the Italians at Brighton instead.

Before the year was out England would ominously be placed in a World Cup group with European Championship opponents Netherlands and Republic of Ireland, along with Egypt. Preparations were gathering place the finals and a rare December friendly at home to Yugoslavia brought the curtain down on the 1980s, with Tony Dorigo becoming the 17th new cap since the summer of 1988. In a decade when the Robsons symbolised the England set-up, it was perhaps appropriate it would be captain Bryan who scored twice (including a first minute effort) to give England a 2-1 victory.

England would go into the new decade off the back of a 14 match unbeaten run, having qualified for the World Cup finals and started to lay the Euro ’88 mishaps to rest. A momentous and memorable year was in store, but that’s another story…

Six of the Best – England matches under Bobby Robson

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To mark the anniversary of the death of Sir Bobby Robson in 2009, let’s look back at six of the best games of his reign as England manager. It was a spell in charge that would not always go smoothly, as he found himself in the line of fire from the tabloids at times, but would end with Robson leaving as a hero after Italia ’90 and being much-loved in the later years of his life. A true legend of English football who will never be forgotten.

  

June 10th, 1984 – Brazil (a) 2-0 (Friendly)
It may only have been a friendly, but 30 years later this remains one of the most talked about games of the Bobby Robson era. The result in itself was momentous as England had only beaten Brazil once before, but it was particularly joyful for an under-pressure Robson. A week earlier England had been booed off after a home defeat by the USSR, following on from their failure to qualify for the European Championship and a poor showing in the last Home International Championship. While Brazil looked a pale shadow of the side that had won so many admirers at the 1982 World Cup, it was still a win to treasure for England in the Maracana and will forever be remembered for the incredible John Barnes goal shortly before the break (missed by England fans back home as ITV’s coverage only began at half-time). A Mark Hateley header wrapped things up in the second half. The pressure on Robson had eased and good results would now follow.

 

November 14th 1984 – Turkey (a) 8-0 (World Cup qualifier)
Fast forward five months and England had renewed confidence, having beaten Finland 5-0 in their opening World Cup qualifier in October 1984. They were expected to get a result against Turkey in Istanbul, with the Turks not regarded as one of the stronger European nations of the time. However, few were anticipating England to be so quite dominant and subdue the fervent home crowd with such an emphatic display. England in the 1980s were inspired by the two Robsons, with Bobby being manager and namesake Bryan his captain and on-field general. The skipper netted a hat-trick, with Tony Woodcock (2), John Barnes (2) and Viv Anderson also finding their way onto the scoresheet.

In typical football manager fashion, the older Robson was not totally satisfied. “I never thought I would ever win an international match 8-0 and think we’d let them off the hook because really we could have gone into double figures,” he told ITV’s Brian Moore afterwards, reflecting on missed chances. But there was a new-found confidence from England and they qualified with an unbeaten record for the finals. Other notable thrashings dished out by England under Robson included a 9-0 win over Luxembourg (December 1982) and another 8-0 win over Turkey (October 1987), both coming in European Championship qualifiers at Wembley.

 

June 11th, 1986 – Poland (n) 3-0 (World Cup Group F)
Almost exactly two years after the Brazil game, the pressure was again on Bobby Robson as England went into their final World Cup group game in Mexico in June 1986. They were in serious danger of an immediate exit after losing to Portugal and drawing with Morocco. A defeat would ensure elimination and a draw could also see them on the next plane home, with Robson’s job at serious risk if they failed to get the required result. Without the injured Bryan Robson and suspended Ray Wilkins, the manager reshuffled his midfield pack and brought Peter Beardsley in for Mark Hateley in attack. The changes paid off as Gary Lineker famously scored a first half hat-trick and went on to win the World Cup Golden Boot. The relief was visible for the manager, as England saw out the match and repeated the scoreline in the second round against Paraguay. Another 3-0 over Poland in a World Cup qualifier in June 1989 was one of the Wembley highlights of the Robson years.

 

February 18th, 1987 – Spain (a) 4-2 (Friendly)
There was a time in the mid to late 1980s that, if they clicked, England looked as dangerous going forward as any side in the world. It didn’t always work out but if Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Chris Waddle, Bryan Robson et al were on top of their game then few defences would find it easy to live with them. This was one of those games when the forward line was on-form, making it a happy 54th birthday for Bobby Robson. Lineker had moved to Barcelona after the 1986 World Cup and his stock was to rise in Spain as he tore the home side apart in Madrid. England recovered from being 1-0 down to lead 4-1, as Lineker scored all of them past Barcelona team-mate Andoni Zubizarreta. Robson’s side could even afford to concede a second goal before the end and still win comfortably against a fellow World Cup quarter-finalist. Another friendly win worth remembering came away to Soviet Union in March 1986, the 1-0 success inflicting a rare home defeat on the USSR.

 

November 11th, 1987 – Yugoslavia (a) 4-1 (European Championship qualifier)
Another example of England looking unstoppable, with the goals flying in against decent opposition. Played in foul weather in Belgrade, England could have been forgiven for keeping it tight and settling for the draw they needed to qualify for the European Championship finals. But Bobby Robson’s side were brimming with confidence after beating Turkey 8-0 the previous month and they destroyed Yugoslavia in the opening 25 minutes. An early Peter Beardsley goal settled the nerves, with further efforts from John Barnes, Bryan Robson and Tony Adams ensuring the game was settled long before half-time. Yugoslavia could only manage one goal after the break, as England deservedly clinched their place in the Euro finals. Sadly, it’s fair to say what happened there will not rate as a highlight of the Bobby Robson England reign and he once more became a target for the tabloids.

 

July 4th, 1990 – West Germany (n) 1-1 (World Cup semi-final – lost on penalties)
It ended in heartache, but this was the night that cemented Bobby Robson’s reputation as an England hero. He’d become the first England manager to guide England into the World Cup last four on foreign soil, Robson memorably dancing a jig of delight as David Platt scored a last-gasp winner against Belgium in the second round and then breathing a huge sigh of relief as his men edged out Cameroon in an enthralling quarter-final. But now came the major test, up against the World Cup favourites in Turin and needing to perform better than in the previous rounds if they were to stand a chance of winning. England gave what was widely considered to be their best performance at a major finals for years, genuinely having a go at their highly-rated hosts and winning over many critics.

You all know what ultimately happened, as it took a penalty-shoot-out to separate the sides on a night of high emotion and tears. England returned home with their pride intact and the departing Robson could bask in a level of public affection he had not always enjoyed in the previous eight years. A knighthood would eventually come his way. With every passing World Cup disappointment since then, England’s achievements in Italy grow more impressive and may not be matched for some time yet.