Recalling England’s ultimate flop tournament (until now)…

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As England get ready to play their last World Cup match against Costa Rica already having suffered the humiliation of elimination after just two games, it is appropriate to look back at the last time England were in a similarly helpless position after two matches in the finals of a major tournament – the horror show that was Euro ’88.

Unlike this World Cup, England headed out to West Germany in June 1988 genuinely considered to be one of the favourites to lift the trophy. After a reasonable showing at the 1986 World Cup in reaching the quarter-finals and falling victim to the Hand of God, Bobby Robson’s side enjoyed one of their best qualifying showings to reach the European Championship finals. They won five matches out of six and drew the other, with results including an 8-0 demolition of Turkey and a 4-1 away win at Yugoslavia in the decisive final match to reach the finals. John Barnes and Peter Beardsley had shone in their first season at Liverpool, while Gary Lineker had finished World Cup top scorer, Chris Waddle could complement Barnes on the opposite flank and courageous captain Bryan Robson was a tremendous asset going forward.

The draw seemed fairly kind to England in the eight team tournament. Whereas Group 1 contained hosts and 1986 World Cup runners-up West Germany, and strong Italy, Spain and Denmark sides, England were up against USSR, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. Only the Soviets of the other three teams in Group 2 had qualified for the 1986 World Cup, with the Republic of Ireland having never reached a major finals before. A place in the last four was seen as a minimal target for England. The team’s confidence was reflected in their official song of Going All the Way (one wonders if the song would be seen as less cringeworthy had England actually done so and lifted the cup).

Odd to think this was just two years before World in Motion…

But in the seven months between the Yugoslavia triumph and the start of the finals, the optimism started to subside slightly. England’s friendly results did little to inspire and their goalscoring touch seemed to desert them as they played out forgettable results such as 0-0 draws away to Israel and Hungary. More worryingly, England would have to contend without injured central defensive leader Terry Butcher as they reshuffled their pack. The relatively young central defensive pairing of Tony Adams and Mark Wright was Bobby Robson’s preferred choice. Also dominating the headlines in the build-up was the threat of hooliganism, not helped by violent scenes at the Rous Cup clash with Scotland at Wembley. There were genuine concerns the team could pay the price for any serious disorder and it would also prolong the ban placed on English teams from European competitions.

An interesting subplot to the tournament was England were starting against the Republic of Ireland, managed by 1966 hero Jack Charlton. Ireland had reached their first major finals and seemed revitalised under Charlton, their use of a direct system proving controversial but effective. Charlton also seemed keen to get one over on the FA after they’d totally overlooked him for the England manager’s job in 1977.


England get ready for two weeks of international glory. Surely nothing can go wrong…

“I don’t think they’ll cause the English lads too many problems,” was the verdict of ITV pundit Brian Clough about Ireland a few days before the contest. Shortly before the match kicked-off, he wrote off Irish defender Mick McCarthy (but he did at least stop short of calling him a “clown” after his experience with Poland 15 years earlier). The last laugh would be with Jack Charlton’s side, famously winning 1-0 with an early header from Ray Houghton as England squandered a succession of chances.


Brian Clough calls it wrong, no doubt to the amusement of Scotsman Ian St John…

England now had three days before they played the Netherlands, who had lost to USSR in their opening match. The build-up was dominated by disturbances involving English followers, that helped ensure the European ban would continue. On the field there was to be further disappointment for England against a Dutch side enjoying a renaissance after being absent from every major tournament since Euro ’80. Players like Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten were ready to shine and duly did so. An enthralling contest score the Dutch triumph 3-1, with Marco van Basten scoring a hat-trick on an afternoon when Bobby Robson’s men twice hit the woodwork at 0-0.

Like this year, England’s only hope of remaining in the tournament was for another team to win both its remaining games. They were given a brief glimmer of a lifeline later that evening when Ronnie Whelan scored a stunner for Ireland against Soviet Union, but the Russians came back into the game to draw 1-1. England were out and would almost certainly finish bottom of the group.

From bad to worse…

One blessing in the circumstances was there were just three days for England to wait before they could play their final match and come home. Bobby Robson was desperate for some pride to be restored against a side not yet certain of their place in the last four. In an unprecedented move, the BBC opted not to show the match live and selected the Republic of Ireland’s decider against the Dutch instead which was played at the same time on the Saturday afternoon (I believe this is the only time in the last 50 years an England match in a major tournament has not been shown live on English television). It was hard to argue with the choice and viewers would see Ireland stage a brave performance in defeat that put England to shame.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse for England, they did and left Robson a broken man. If the first two games had given the sense England were unlucky, this was the opposite and it seemed they couldn’t wait for the match to finish. Robson gave starts to Chris Woods, Dave Watson and Steve McMahon and the match would prove to be the end of the international line for Kenny Sansom and Glenn Hoddle. If Hoddle’s England days had began gloriously with a lovely goal against Bulgaria in 1979, they would end depressingly as he lost possession just three minutes in for the USSR to score. Although Tony Adams equalised, it came as little surprise when the Soviet Union added two more goals to leave England with a record of played three, lost three, with a goal difference of -5. Lineker left the action early after a bitterly disappointing tournament – it would transpire he had hepatitis.

The knives were out for Bobby Robson but he kept his job, receiving the support of the FA when he needed it most. He would turn things around and leave a hero after the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990. How different the course of history may have been had he been given the chop after the shambles in West Germany…