Bobby Robson

England on tour – South America 1984

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This month in 1984 England headed to South America for a three-match tour against Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. It would mark a welcome turning point for under-pressure manager Bobby Robson and be forever remembered for a wondergoal by John Barnes…

Bobby Robson’s rollercoaster England reign contained some low points amid the highs, but arguably the lowest moment for him arrived on June 2, 1984. England were playing the Soviet Union in a friendly at Wembley, with Robson desperately needing a good result to silence the critics. In recent months the side had failed to qualify for Euro ’84, looked second best in losing a friendly against France and endured a mediocre final Home International Championship campaign which included a defeat to Wales. Not helped by a high number of players being unavailable, England slumped to a disappointing 2-0 loss to the USSR and it was the final straw for some fans.

As the side left the field, loud chants of “Robson out” could be heard. It was far from every fan at Wembley shouting it, but it certainly wasn’t a tiny minority either. It would be hurtful for Robson, under pressure just two years into the job. But the patriotic Englishman wasn’t going to call it a day, revealing he had rejected an approach from Barcelona as he sought to rectify matters. Terry Venables would move to the Nou Camp instead.

But there was a fear that the pressure on him and England was about to get much worse. They were now heading to South America for an end-of-season tour, made possible by their absence from the European Championship in France. During an interview after the USSR game, the BBC’s Jimmy Hill would suggest to Robson that the tour should be cancelled amid the potential embarrassment of heavy defeats. Robson went on the defensive as his former Fulham team-mate put him on the spot, but there was little doubt the knives were out. Few were expecting England’s youthful side to avoid defeat against Brazil eight days later.

Bobby Robson was under pressure as England headed out to South America.

A combination of circumstances, England being in a period of transition and the approach Robson wanted to take meant they would be taking a largely inexperienced side to South America. “I was gambling with my future – and knew it,” wrote Robson in 1986. “I looked around the aircraft at my young wingers, John Barnes of Watford and Mark Chamberlain of Stoke, and thought how much rested on their youthful shoulders.” 

Robson was seeking for England to be more adventurous, but they were desperately short of forwards. Several were unavailable for various reasons and there were fitness doubts over Tony Woodcock, with uncapped QPR pair Clive Allen and Simon Stainrod being called up at literally the last minute as they prepared to fly out to Asia on club duty. Also off to South America was tall Portsmouth forward Mark Hateley, who had made his England debut as a substitute against the USSR. This was to be a life-changing trip for him, as he went from being known mainly as the son of Tony Hateley into a forward recognised on the continent – swapping the Second Division for Serie A.

Robson spent the flight out to Brazil weighing up whether to go for it or play it cautious for the opening game of the tour in the Maracana. He was to opt for the former and use genuine wingers. “I was going to persist with the gamble and to hell with everyone who said it was suicidal,” he recalled two years later. “I made the decision in the full knowledge that we could get a fearful roasting if it went wrong.” It was certainly a gamble, but one that helped to salvage his England reign.

Barnes scores THAT goal

It has to be conceded this was not one of the great Brazil sides. Many of the key players from the much-loved 1982 World Cup team such as Eder, Falcao, Socrates and Zico were absent for this game. But it was still Brazil, the nation millions looked up to and they were considered almost unbeatable in the Maracana. Most recent meetings between the sides had been close, but England had not beaten the Brazilians since the first meeting at Wembley in 1956.

The England side was not totally devoid of experience, with five of the starting line-up – Woodcock, Bryan Robson, Kenny Sansom, Peter Shilton and Ray Wilkins – having played in the 1982 World Cup. But nobody else had more than 10 caps to their name and neither Hateley nor defender Dave Watson had ever started a full international before. Watson would partner Terry Fenwick who made his England debut the previous month and the only substitute used, Allen, was uncapped. Mick Duxbury, who had been at fault for one of the goals conceded against the USSR, was earning his sixth cap at right-back. England’s cause had not been helped by defender Graham Roberts sustaining an injury that curtailed his involvement on the tour.

What happened that night is well-known. England’s young side coped admirably and the match would forever be remembered for one moment in the dying seconds of the first half. Barnes collected the ball on the left flank and cut inside, memorably weaving his way between opponents before joyously placing the ball into the net for an astonishing goal. Stuart Jones, reporting for The Times, correctly forecast that it was a goal that would “be remembered forever”. It was a most un-English goal and the fact it had come against Brazil in the Maracana added to the magic of it.

John Barnes celebrates a goal still fondly recalled today.

Barnes would see it almost as out-of-body experience, admitting later he could recall little of it apart from collecting the ball and the finish. But it was a wonderful moment for the nation to enjoy, or it should have been anyway. ITV would only start broadcasting live at half-time, moments after the goal went in. Viewers instead had to endure Surprise, Surprise before the broadcast began, with technical problems then meaning they had to be told about the goal before they saw it. Coupled with just two matches out of 15 at the European Championship being shown live that summer in Britain, it’s a reminder of where football stood at the time compared to today.

But over in the Maracana the only concern was England stayed in front. Hateley had helped set-up Barnes and the favour would be returned on 65 minutes. Barnes put over an excellent cross and Hateley headed in to double England’s lead, one which they protected throughout the remainder of the game. A trophy was presented at the end, with young players such as Duxbury, Fenwick, Hateley and Watson forever able to say they had done something such greats as Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Kevin Keegan never did – play for England in a win over Brazil.


The England side that beat Brazil.

Little more than a week after England and Robson were taking a real slagging off, they were now being heavily applauded. “England came here as boys to play in the biggest stadium in the world,” wrote Jones. “They left as men, bulging with pride and holding a prize that was beyond anyone’s imagination. Since the arena was built 34 years ago, Brazil have only lost three times and all of those defeats, by Uruguay, Czechoslovakia and Argentina, were achieved in the 1950s. The last was 27 years ago.”

In the Daily Express, Steve Curry wrote: “John Barnes gave Bobby Robson glorious vindication last night for his belief that England’s future lies in bold, attacking football.” He added: “I hope that those fans who booed England boss Robson off at Wembley nine days ago will now applaud him for holding his nerve in a situation that would have had other managers crumbling.”

Captain Bryan Robson also spoke passionately about the manager, saying: “That result was for him. He has taken so much criticism and, though there are times when he could have blamed us, he has always protected us. It’s a pity that we can’t all pack up and go home after that performance.” If Robson feared the rest of the tour could be a bit of an anti-climax, then he would to some extent be right. And one deplorable incident would follow to take some of the shine off beating Brazil…

A sour taste in the mouth

England’s most two recent foreign visits to Luxembourg and France had been blighted by yobs running riot, further tarnishing the reputation of English fans. But it was to be hoped that travelling as far away as South America would deter the hooligans. While that was largely true, there would be another reminder of the problems England faced off the field as racist behaviour was on show from people supposedly supporting the side.

As England prepared to board a flight during the remainder of the tour – Bobby Robson recalled it being from Brazil to Uruguay, this article says it was from Uruguay to Chile – individuals believed to be National Front members were heard shouting abuse at Barnes and proclaiming England had only won 1-0 against Brazil as a goal scored by a man of his skin colour shouldn’t count. Robson would certainly never forget the incident. “How sick can you be?” he said of those responsible during the excellent BBC documentary Three Lions 16 years later.

The racism in itself was disgraceful and the fact that any individual would chose to effectively discount such a marvellous goal because of a player’s colour was sickening. There was also hypocrisy on show as those responsible seemed to be overlooking that Barnes made the other goal for Hateley. But sadly it was indicative of the racism rife on the terraces in that era, with monkey noises still unfortunately heard. If the great goal by Barnes and presence of Chamberlain on the opposite flank had helped strengthen the reputation of black England players, then incidents such as this immediately acted as an unfortunate reminder of the work still do to be done to silence the racists. It would certainly leave a sour taste in the mouth. 

John Barnes in action against Uruguay.

The second game of the tour against Uruguay promised to be tough. Although the Uruguayans had been absent from the 1982 World Cup, they were South American champions and in 1980-81 had won the Mundalito competition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first World Cup. Manager Robson knew this was going to be a difficult game, warning that “we cannot get carried away” after the Brazil success. This time viewers back home could watch the whole match live on the BBC, although they would have to stay up until nearly 1am to witness its conclusion.

Allen came into the starting line-up and squandered a glorious opportunity to score early on, which was soon punished as a penalty was controversially awarded against Hateley and scored by Luis Acosta. England continued to create chances without taking them – with Allen out of luck – and the contest was settled when Wilmar Cabrera scored the second on 69 minutes. It was a result that would have increased the pressure on Robson had England lost to Brazil, but instead there was recognition that the side was making progress. Curry wrote: “This was defeat with a degree of honour, for England did not play so badly against the South American champions.”

Jones perceptively summed it up by writing: “Like the gambler who hits the jackpot on the first visit to the roulette table and then spends the rest of the evening waiting for the next win, England’s youths are learning about the wheel of fortune. It spun for them in Rio de Janiero and against them in Montevideo.”

And that luck would elude them in the last match of the tour…

The ball just won’t go in

Usually England would have faced Argentina when visiting South America. But the Falklands War just two years earlier made that possibility a non-starter, so the Three Lions were left to look beyond the continent’s traditional ‘big three’ to complete the tour. A match against a Chile side preparing for the Olympics was selected. Although the weakest-looking opposition on the tour, England’s manager knew Chile – who had played in the 1982 World Cup – could pose a threat and his side needed to guard against complacency. “In many ways this could be our hardest game,” said Robson. “Attitudes can soften and there can be a tiredness factor at the end of a tour. So we have got to avoid being turned over on those two issues.”

The final game of the tour looked like the ideal chance to give a game to some of the players who had travelled to South America but yet to appear, such as Stainrod, David Armstrong, Steve Hunt, Alan Kennedy, Gary Stevens (the Tottenham version) and Chris Woods. But apart from Sammy Lee who came on as substitute for his last cap, every player who featured had already played during the tour. It was clear Robson wanted to end with a victory and he was keen to build a familiarity to his side ahead of World Cup qualifiers in 1984-85. One player who was absent was Woodcock, who had flown home injured.

Mark Hateley battles for possession in Chile.

In front of a small crowd in Santiago it was another case of England failing to take their chances, with Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas in inspired form. England should have won on the balance of play but they had to be content with a goalless draw. “If we had won 6-0 no one could have complained,” said Robson, while Curry wrote: “It is a long time since an England side has had quite so much possession on foreign soil. But it is not too often that they have come across a goalkeeper quite so acrobatic and apparently impassable as Roberto Rojas, the man they nickname Peter Shilton in this South American outpost.” The real Shilton was called upon to make one impressive save in the second half, as Chile made a rare foray forward. At the other end England could not take their chances, with Allen having the misfortune to see a series of chances go towards his head rather than feet.

One man to emerge with great praise from the Chile match was captain Bryan Robson, whose namesake and manager wrote in his World Cup Diary in 1986: “The one player who deserved a goal was our skipper Bryan Robson. I do not think I have ever seen him cover so much ground, he must have tackled each and every one of the Chile team, including their three substitutes. There was not a blade of grass in that stadium that did not receive the imprint of his boot. He went round the park like a man possessed and had eight or nine attempts at goal on his own without the slightest luck… Bryan Robson really came of age on that trip.”

Captain Robson’s leadership was giving cause for optimism, as was England’s use of wingers and the young talent that was emerging. Manager Robson could arrive back in England feeling far less pressure than when he had departed for South America. With England’s cricketers spending the summer being thrashed by the West Indies, the nation’s football fortunes seemed positive by comparison. The side would go into the 1984-85 season with a new-found optimism and a succession of wins would follow in qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. There is no doubt that the trip to South America, and in particularly Brazil, had been justified. It certainly proved more worthwhile than the trip to Australia a year earlier.

But in some ways the trip to South America was a false dawn for the personnel involved. When England met Argentina in the 1986 World Cup semi-final, only Fenwick, Sansom and Shilton would start having been in the side that beat Brazil. Chamberlain and Duxbury were never capped after 1984, while Allen would have to wait until 1987 to appear again. Watson and Woodcock would stay involved over the next two years but miss out on the 1986 finals squad. Wilkins and captain Robson would of course go there as the midfield duo but see their tournaments end prematurely for different reasons, while Hateley was left watching the Argentina match from the bench. His goal against Brazil in 1984 had thrust him into the spotlight and earned him a move to AC Milan, while he became a prominent player for his country. But England’s poor start to the 1986 World Cup led to him being sacrificed for Peter Beardsley and he would never regularly start internationals again.

But for the other goalscorer against Brazil, the moment became a little bittersweet. It would remain a moment to treasure but it was hard to shake off the feeling that it would be something of a burden during the rest of his England career. Expectations went through the roof and he would struggle to replicate both the moment and his club performances when playing for England – his supporters believing he was not used correctly when appearing for his country. Despite being regularly called up to the squad, he didn’t start an international during 1985-86 and his involvement in 1986 World Cup was restricted to just 16 minutes. That would come against Argentina, as during that cameo Barnes gave one of his few England performances that the public viewed in the same light as when he shone against Brazil.

But more than 30 years later, that goal against Brazil remains fondly remembered across England. What a shame it couldn’t be enjoyed live on TV.

England’s European Championship low point – vs USSR (1988)

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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…


Bert Millichip

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.”

Bert Millichip.

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…

Bobby Robson

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…

Gary Lineker

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…

Mark Wright

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


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.

Bryan Robson

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.

England’s Qualifying Campaigns – Euro ’84: Dazzled by the Danes

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This summer England will make the short trip to France to compete in Euro 2016. But when the French last hosted the European Championship in 1984, England failed to make it. Today we look back at what went wrong, as Bobby Robson’s reign began in difficult fashion.

Bobby Robson’s appointment as England manager was confirmed shortly after Ron Greenwood’s men were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. His reign at Ipswich Town had earned many plaudits and yielded two major trophies, with the proud Englishman now tasked with leading his country. He would have little time to dwell on the task in front of him, as his first match in September 1982 was the opening European Championship qualifier away to Denmark.


Bobby Robson took over as England manager a year after leading Ipswich Town to UEFA Cup glory.

On paper, England had been handed a reasonable qualifying draw, with their opponents being Hungary, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg. Hungary had finished above England in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup but England had done the double over them and progressed further at the finals; Greece had qualified for the 1980 European Championship but had little other pedigree; and Luxembourg were the whipping boys of Europe. The joker in the pack came from pot four. Denmark had enjoyed limited past success but something was stirring in Scandinavia. Manager Sepp Piontek was building a side that would soon be talked about across Europe, but – despite beating Italy in World Cup qualifying in 1981 – had yet to come into the spotlight. Robson though knew just how talented they were and he probably cursed whoever had agreed for England to start with a trip to Copenhagen – particularly as the average man in the street would assume England were going to win there.

Out with the old guard

Robson had difficult decisions to make prior to the Denmark game, having inherited an ageing side. Robson was primarily setting his sights on success at the 1986 World Cup and he knew time would have to be called on the international careers of several players. As we’ve previously recalled, Robson controversially dropped Kevin Keegan and came under fire before he’d even led his team into battle for the first time as the former captain took exception to not being told the news directly. A decision that probably was harder for Robson to make on a personal level was to leave out his former Ipswich captain Mick Mills, while other old heads including Trevor Brooking, Joe Corrigan, Terry McDermott and Dave Watson would never win another cap. Ray Clemence would be selected just twice more as Peter Shilton became fully established as number one goalkeeper.

Robson’s first year or so in charge would see a high number of debutants given their chance. Players such as Luther Blissett, Mark Chamberlain, Gordon Cowans and Sammy Lee would briefly shine before fading from the international scene. Only John Barnes would break into the set-up during the period and remain involved throughout Robson’s reign. Robson’s cause was not helped by injury woes for key men he inherited, with his favoured midfielders of Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins all spending time on the sidelines during the qualifying campaign. To compound matters, winger Steve Coppell would sadly soon have to retire due to his injury troubles.

England’s Bryan Robson in action against his future Manchester United team-mate in England’s opening Euro ’84 qualifier against Denmark.

If Bobby Robson was under any illusions about the size of the task facing him, then the first match in Denmark would have shattered them. Firstly, the fallout with Keegan meant he had attracted negative publicity in his opening weeks in the job. Secondly, England were shaken by the Danes who duly looked the real threat Robson had feared. And thirdly, there was widespread fighting on the terraces. It was the third year in a row that an England match overseas had been blighted by serious crowd trouble and Robson was left knowing that his time in charge would see him regularly being asked about a section of England’s followers and not matters on the field.

England came within moments of snatching a 2-1 win thanks to two Trevor Francis goals in Copenhagen before Jesper Olsen waltzed through to equalise, but it was felt afterwards that England were the team who had been let off the hook during the 2-2 draw. The Danes were certainly no longer the low-achieving amateurs of a few years before. ‘England are lucky to escape defeat’ screamed the headline in The Times, with the new manager admitting it would have been a “travesty of justice” had they won.

Blissett’s debut hat-trick

England players had nine goals to celebrate against Luxembourg in December 1982, including a hat-trick for Luther Blissett.

Robson’s first home match in charge produced a 2-1 friendly defeat to West Germany, but a month later came the second European Championship qualifier away to Greece. Bryan Robson captained England for the first time and he would never relinquish it whenever he played under his namesake. Tony Woodcock scored twice and debutant Lee got the other in an excellent 3-0 win. Just 10 days before Christmas England welcomed Luxembourg to Wembley and Watford forward Blissett marked his first cap with a hat-trick in an emphatic 9-0 victory – he never scored again for his country – that meant they boasted a goal difference of +12 after only three qualifying matches.

England began 1983 with a 2-1 win over Wales in the Home International Championship, before welcoming Greece to Wembley in March for their next qualifying match. It proved an extremely frustrating night for England as the Greeks did not come bearing gifts and defended deeply. England were unable to break the visitors down and were booed off after a 0-0 draw. “I counted seven of Greece’s players who never even crossed the halfway line,” said Robson as he reflected on a frustrating night. The night had marked the first real low point of Robson’s reign but all looked good again when England won 2-0 at home to Hungary the following month, Francis and Peter Withe scoring. After five matches in the group England had three wins and two draws and were still firmly in the qualifying picture. “Within a month the tune has changed dramatically for Bobby Robson,” wrote Stuart Jones in The Times.

The Home International Championship was won after drawing 0-0 away to Northern Ireland and winning 2-0 against Scotland. The latter match took place on the same day as a vital qualifying clash between Denmark and Hungary. The Danes won 3-1 and it was now clear they would provide the most serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. England ended the 1982-83 season with a three-match tour of Australia, which brought a plethora of new caps and an unbeaten record but precious little else to shout about. Robson and his under-strength side returned home with a three-month break in store before their next match – a huge qualifier at home to Denmark in September 1983.

Despair against the Danes

The Danes arrived at Wembley with the backing of a tremendous away support. With only one side going through to the finals, this match was likely to be decisive. England led the group by a point but Denmark had a game in hand. Whoever won would be clear favourites to progress. If the match was a draw then matters would be in Denmark’s hands but with little margin for error. England were without the injured Bryan Robson and, controversially, Hoddle, with Bobby Robson opting instead to field John Gregory. “I wanted someone a bit spikey,” said the manager as he tried to justify his selection. But it proved a bad call, England’s midfield operating deep and creating little for the forwards to feed off.

From the moment teenager Michael Laudrup almost gave Denmark an early lead, it was clear that this was going to be a long and torturous night for England. Bobby Robson seemed to have become too concerned about the threat of the Danes for his own side’s good, as England played with fear rather than belief. Phil Neal’s handball in the area on his 50th and final cap allowed Allan Simonsen to put the Danes in front in the first half and they continued to boss the game, albeit without creating many clear-cut chances. “We are red, we are white, we are Danish dynamite” was the song ringing out at Wembley.

Allan Simonsen scores the winner for Denmark against England from the penalty spot.

They deservedly protected their 1-0 advantage, with England posing little threat until injury time. Suddenly a chance was made by Blissett, but he was denied by Ole Kjær from point blank range just seconds before the final whistle sounded. Prior to the emergence of Peter Schmeichel it was generally felt that goalkeeper was the weak position for the Danes, but Kjær had proved his worth with such a priceless save. It was the first time the Danes had ever beaten England and the win left them firm favourites to reach France.

For Bobby Robson, the defeat was painful. He later revealed he offered to resign after the loss, but he was given the green light to carry on. He wrote in 1986: “Whatever I may or may not achieve in my football career, the blackest day will remain as September 21, 1983. It was the worst moment I had experienced at any level of football, no question about it… The 1-0 defeat was only part of it. The way the team played; the walk back to the dressing room afterwards; the abuse of the crowd; the feeling of total confusion all contributed to the desolate feelings.”

The defeat was bad enough, but for England to play so tepidly when the stakes were so high meant criticism poured in on the England manager. In the magazine Football Monthly, it was stated that “this was without doubt England’s worst-ever performance at Wembley”. Piontek certainly believed his opposite number’s approach had helped the Danes, with Robson having made several visits to see them in action. “England were afraid to attack us,” he said. “I think it was good for us that Mr Robson watched us so many times in Denmark. Sometimes it is not always good to see opponents too much.”

Three days later Robson was booed when he went to watch Aston Villa against Southampton, while Hoddle scored a superb goal for Tottenham Hotspur at Watford. The decision to leave him out of the Denmark game looked to have been the wrong one.

Hope restored and then removed

Matters were now well and truly out of England’s hands. They would have to win away to Hungary and Luxembourg and hope Denmark took no more than three points from as many games (under two points for a win) – with it being a given they would beat Luxembourg at home in one of them. They duly did so by a 6-0 scoreline on October 12, the same day England visited Hungary. Hoddle was recalled to the side and he responded with a superb free-kick in the 3-0 win, which gave England a glimmer of hope. But so comfortably had they beaten the Hungarians that it was hard to see the Eastern Europeans doing England a favour by getting a result against Denmark two weeks later.

But that was just what they did, Denmark suffering their first defeat of the qualifying series as they went down 1-0. England had been bailed out during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup when all seemed lost and now it looked like history might repeat itself. Denmark were a point ahead of England but had an inferior goal difference. If Denmark failed to win away to Greece in their final match then England would go through by beating Luxembourg on the same night. The pressure was on the Danes.

The matches did not kick-off simultaneously, Denmark decisive contest in Athens finishing before England’s contest in Luxembourg began. According to Bobby Robson, as England’s squad arrived at the stadium “some wally of a fan shouted out to us that Greece were ahead”. Within moments they learned the crushing news that the Danes were actually winning, going on to claim a 2-0 victory to deservedly win the match and the group. “It’s rather like asking soldiers to go on firing bullets after a peace treaty had been signed,” said Robson, as he was left trying to motivate his players for a dead rubber match. He duly did that as England produced a professional performance in beating Luxembourg 4-0, leaving them with the best goal difference of any side in Euro ’84 qualifying with +20.

  

Denmark were the side celebrating at the end of qualifying for Euro ’84.

But all anyone was talking about was the fact England hadn’t made it, along with yet more trouble involving the hooligan fringe. The hosts had been concerned about England’s visit after previous trouble in 1977 and unfortunately the antics of some individuals in both the stadium and on the streets had justified those fears. “They had disgusted us all by giving those lovely people a bad time for our second successive visit,” said a despairing Robson.

It was not a time when the English nation was covering itself in glory when it came to football, with the hooligans continually causing trouble off the field and the players struggling to hit the heights on it. Whereas Euro 2016 in France will contain four sides from the British Isles, the finals of Euro ’84 went ahead without any of them. TV viewers in Britain saw just two live matches from one of the most highly-regarded tournaments of all-time, with the Danes playing with a swagger as they reached the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Spain. France won it on home soil and it was a competition that we missed far more than the rest of Europe missed us.

And yet if the same qualifying criteria had existed for 1984 as it did for 2016, then – in theory at least – we would have had plenty of British Isles representation at the finals. England, Northern Ireland and Wales would have all qualified automatically; the Republic of Ireland would have been in the play-offs; and Scotland would have failed to make it at all after finishing fourth in their qualifying group. The more things change…

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: 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…

When England had a chance of third place…

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When Brazil crashed to their astonishing 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany on Tuesday, the last thing they probably wanted was to have to stick around for another four days for the formalities of a third-fourth place play-off. Judging from Louis van Gaal’s comments that it “should never be played”, it seems the Dutch aren’t enthralled about tonight’s contest either. But has it always been like this? In one World Cup, England found themselves in the play-off when they came up against hosts Italy in 1990…

There are two main problems with the ‘consolation match’. The first is both teams are heartbroken, having just missed out on a place in the final. The last thing anybody wants to be doing when the dream has gone is to have to wait several days for another match which has no influence over the destiny of who wins the tournament. The second issue is the prize for winning this match isn’t really big enough to motivate anybody. While third place sounds a bit better than fourth, there is no glory in it and it isn’t what any team strives for. One can see the significance of the Olympic bronze medal match, but the World Cup does not work like that. The European Championship copes without such a match and so do English and European club competitions. There was an odd flirtation with it in the FA Cup for a short time in the 1970s, but that was unsurprisingly binned off.

But despite its limited reputation, the play-off match rarely fails to provide entertainment. Since 1982, every World Cup third-place match bar one has contained more goals than the following day’s final (the exception was 1998, when both matches had three goals). It has often helped players towards the Golden Boot prize and allowed others on the fringes to be rewarded for their patience with a World Cup finals appearance, as well as usually being an open contest and providing a couple of historic moments. The brilliant curling goal by Nelinho for Brazil against Italy in 1978 was one, the competition’s fastest ever goal from Hakan Sukur for Turkey against South Korea in 2002 being another (I will always regret switching my TV on about a minute into this one and missing it when it happened).

The end of an era for England
For England, the third-place match in 1990 against Italy is often forgotten amid the more famous memories of their best World Cup on foreign soil. When any documentary tells the story of that English summer, it seems somewhat anti-climatic to go from recalling the drama of the match against West Germany to the limited significance of whether England were the best of the losing semi-finalists in Italy. But we shouldn’t forget that this match marked the end of an era for two men synonymous with the England set-up.

Bobby Robson went out to the World Cup knowing his eight-year reign as manager was about to end and with his reputation still having not totally recovered from the horrors of the 1988 European Championship. England rode their luck a bit along the way, but they had gone on to reach the last four and Robson’s popularity suddenly soared. They had played with passion and produced one of their best displays in years during the semi-final against West Germany. Although it had ended in a heartbreaking penalty-shoot-out loss, England’s reputation back home was the highest it had been for a long time. Robson was left filled with a mixture of pride and regret by England coming so close, I think most of us had. But he was determined to end with a good showing against Italy.

Also coming to an end would be the England career of Peter Shilton, after 125 caps. I seem to recall his international retirement wasn’t confirmed until after the game, but it was no surprise. It was the right time to go at the age of 40. While the third-place game has been known as a chance to give fringe players a runout, Robson’s loyalty to Shilton and private knowledge he was about to retire meant he was given his final cap rather than a runout for deputy Chris Woods. The tournament would also mark the end of Terry Butcher’s England career, although he would not play in the third-place match. Both Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle were absent from the starting line-up after missing penalties against the Germans and Paul Gascoigne was suspended, as Tony Dorigo, Steve McMahon, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens came into the side. Neil Webb would come off the bench, leaving Steve Hodge as the only England outfield player not to feature during the finals.

It was quite common in this era for the third-place match not to be shown live on British television, but in 1990 it was covered by both the BBC and ITV. This meant Barry Davies and Alan Parry would both enjoy commentating on a live England match at the World Cup far later than they might have expected, with John Motson and Brian Moore saving themselves for the final between Argentina and West Germany 24 hours later. There were some comparisons between Italy’s positions and that of Brazil now, as a World Cup host with strong football heritage who had fallen short of winning the World Cup relatively recently after doing so abroad. But Italy had, like England, suffered penalty-shoot-out heartache in the semi-final; this time around Brazil have been well and truly humiliated as hosts.

Outshining the World Cup Final
The match wasn’t a classic, but it was a reasonable, enjoyable contest between two sides wanting to end on a high. It certainly outdid the following night’s abysmal final in every positive way. The atmosphere may have been fairly low-key, but the Italians played with determination and tried several long-range shots in the first-half including a Roberto Baggio half-volley. Shilton dealt with them, appearing to justify Robson’s faith in him. At the other end Gary Lineker uncharacteristically fired in a shot from about 25 yards out as he sought to retain the Golden Boot he won in 1986.

All the goals came in the final 20 minutes. A harmless-looking backpass from McMahon saw Shilton caught in two minds between picking it up and clearing it. As he hesitated, Baggio dispossesed him and appeared to be fouled by the goalkeeper. The ref played on and Baggio capped a good tournament by putting Italy ahead. “Well that’s a terrible mistake by Peter Shilton,” said his former international team-mate Trevor Francis, co-commentating on ITV.

Summing up their battling tournament, England refused to throw in the towel and levelled as a tremendous Dorigo cross was met with a bullet header from David Platt. Bobby Robson was up off the bench and urging his players to go on and win it. But five minutes from time he was left disappointed as Toto Schillaci was adjudged to have been felled in the area by Paul Parker. “Oh no, oh no,” howled Davies in bemusement at the decision, as Robson waved his arms in disgust. Looking for his sixth goal of the tournament, Schillaci took the spot-kick and restored Italy’s lead.

England sign off from the 1990 World Cup

There was still time for an excellent looping header by Nicola Berti to be dubiously disallowed. But it didn’t affect the outcome, while the defeat wouldn’t impact on how England’s World Cup was remembered. At the final whistle, they joined their opponents for the presentation and performed the Mexico Wave together.

England were treated as heroes when they arrived back home the following day. As well as their first semi-final appearance in the World Cup overseas, they collected the Fair Play trophy. The European ban on English clubs was about to end. This was a good time to be an England fan. And nobody seemed bothered they’d lost the third-place match…

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…