Bryan Robson

Six of the Best – England quickfire tournament-opening goals

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England will this weekend begin their Euro 2016 campaign against Russia. Although the Three Lions have not always enjoyed a win to start a major tournament, they have often been quick out of the blocks and struck first. Today we recall six instances when they grabbed an early lead in their opening match, heightening expectations back home…

Bryan Robson v France, 1982 World Cup – 27 seconds

England fans had endured a 12-year wait to see England appear at the World Cup finals. Those who had loyally followed them during the lean years deserved something to get excited about and they got it 27 seconds into the first match against a highly-rated French team in Bilbao. A long throw was headed on by Terry Butcher and an unmarked Bryan Robson was on hand to score. It was a training ground move worked to perfection, England catching the French cold with one of the fastest goals in World Cup history.

Robson was rewarded with a solid gold watch for his timely strike and he added another goal later in a 3-1 win, as England gave a performance they struggled to replicate before being eliminated in the second phase. But for Robson it was a special moment, coming just a day before his wife gave birth to their second daughter, Charlotte. He really had scored the daddy of all early England tournament goals.

Paul Scholes v Portugal, Euro 2000 – 3 minutes

In a situation not too dissimilar to today, England went into Euro 2000 with their attack looking stronger than their defence. This would duly prove the case. England’s opening match against Portugal in Eindhoven was only in the third minute when David Beckham swung over an excellent cross and his Manchester United colleague Paul Scholes was on hand to head in. Steve McManaman soon put Kevin Keegan’s side 2-0 up and the nation began dreaming of the team finally winning major silverware. But not for long. The Portuguese fought back to win 3-2 and England failed to get out of the group stage.

Own goal v Paraguay, 2006 World Cup – 3 minutes

There was an extraordinary level of hype surrounding England going into the World Cup 10 years ago, with thousands of fans travelling to Germany and a widespread belief they could finally deliver. In the third minute of England’s opening match in the heat of Frankfurt that expectation grew even more. David Beckham’s free-kick went in via Paraguayan defender Carlos Gamarra.

It seemed the springboard to a comfortable win to let the rest of the world realise what a threat England posed. But it never came, the side looking increasingly less assured as the game progressed and stuttering to a 1-0 win. And that set the trend for a World Cup in which England seldom sparkled, before losing on penalties to Portugal in the quarter-finals.

Steven Gerrard v USA, 2010 World Cup – 4 minutes

Four years on and a similar story. There wasn’t quite the same hype or expectation as in 2006, but there remained a belief Fabio Capello’s side could do well in South Africa. ‘EASY’ The Sun had proclaimed when the draw placed England in a group with Algeria, Slovenia and the USA. Four minutes into the opening match against the Americans and it seemed they might be right, Emile Heskey feeding Steven Gerrard to score. 1-0 to England and also to anyone who hadn’t bothered forking out for a HD television, as ITV HD viewers missed the goal due to an advert inexplicably being broadcast at the time it was scored.

That might not have seemed quite so bad had England go on to win comfortably, but it was the only highlight of the night as they drew 1-1 and never got going in the tournament – eventually being crushed by Germany in the second round. Gerrard’s goal was one of just three they managed in four matches.

Gary Lineker v Republic of Ireland, 1990 World Cup – 8 minutes

During Euro ’88, England had been beaten in their opening match by the Republic of Ireland courtesy of an early goal by Ray Houghton. Now they were meeting again in the corresponding game of Italia ’90 and it was England who made the breakthrough. Despite feeling unwell, Gary Lineker managed to bundle the ball home and England were ahead after eight minutes. It was a scrappy goal in keeping with a poor game, but neither Lineker nor the English nation were complaining.

But unfortunately the match would follow a familiar pattern after England strike early, with Kevin Sheedy drawing the Irish level. For Lineker, his night would be remembered more for an incident in the second half which has provided Twitter trolls with endless fun. There was plenty of criticism of Bobby Robson’s side afterwards, having shown little evidence they could go on to look a potential winner – but they would of course get to the semi-finals, only losing on penalties to West Germany.

Alan Shearer v Switzerland, Euro ’96 – 23 minutes

It had been a long wait for the 1996 European Championship to start on home soil, while for Alan Shearer there had been a seemingly endless struggle to end his England goal drought. But midway through the first half of the tournament opener he duly netted when it mattered, making the most of an excellent ball from Paul Ince to score. England were on their way, although the usual story would follow – failing to build on their lead and being pegged back as they drew 1-1. It was a frustrating day, but for Shearer it was a goal that would set him on the way to finishing as the tournament’s top scorer. Against Germany in the semi-final he would strike an early goal, netting in the third minute.

Some honourable mentions here for Sol Campbell v Sweden (2002 World Cup, 24 mins); Ray Wilkins v Belgium (Euro ’80, 26 mins); Stan Mortensen v Chile (1950 World Cup, 27 mins) and Joleon Lescott v France (Euro 2012, 30 mins). All put England ahead within half an hour of their first match at a major tournament. As can be seen England have a habit of striking early when they play their opening match at a championship. Will it happen again against Russia?

Bryan Robson’s pain of Mexico ’86

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In the latest of our articles on the 1986 World Cup we recall England’s captain 30 years ago, Bryan Robson, and how his tournament was ruined by a dislocated shoulder. What should have been a competition where he shone ended with him watching on from the sidelines after he went off injured against Morocco…

For much of the 1980s, the England team was about the Robsons. The manager was Bobby Robson, the captain was Bryan Robson. Bobby, like Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson, adored Bryan. His fierce will-to-win, bravery, box-to-box approach and leadership qualities all made him integral to the teams he played for. In an era between the departure of Kevin Keegan and emergence of Paul Gascoigne, Robson was a strong contender for the most famous current English footballer. Atkinson had forked out a then British record £1.5 million to get Robson to follow him from West Bromwich Albion in 1981. “Solid gold” was Big Ron’s description of the player, as he justified the transfer fee.

Although he wasn’t without his critics (as a Google search of ‘Bryan Robson over-rated’ will confirm), there were plenty who idolised Robson and shared the view of his managers about how important he was. Naysayers would have found it hilarious that Bobby Robson considered his namesake to belong in the same category as such greats as Diego Maradona and Michel Platini; others would have seen nothing wrong with that view.

Bobby Robson was a big fan of his namesake and England captain Bryan.

But one persistent problem throughout Bryan Robson’s career was injuries, something the player’s critics were happy to point out. His courage and desire to scrap for every ball probably did not help, as he would all too frequently have to spend time on the sidelines after sustaining an injury in the heat of battle. He had to sit out a number of crucial games for both club and country during his career, with perhaps his most high-profile injury woes prematurely ending his participation in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Robson was arguably at his peak at 29, well-established as England captain and considered central to the team’s prospects. But shoulder injuries sadly do not magically heal just because it’s the World Cup. As with Kevin Keegan in 1982, David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006, the nation became obsessed with a key player’s injury concerns going into the World Cup. For Robson it all happened in Monterrey, a long time ago.

Bryan Robson is helped by physio Fred Street after his injury against Morocco.

Catalogue of injuries

The first warning sign of what lay ahead came in January 1985, when Robson sustained a dislocated shoulder during a defeat for United by Coventry City. Typifying the way Robson’s luck would seem to be out over the next 18 months, he landed on the transformer box of Old Trafford’s undersoil heating. He wrote in his autobigraphy: “The shoulder was put back in place and the medical advice was that, because it was the first dislocation, we should allow it to heal naturally… If I had known that there was such a good chance of the shoulder coming out again, I would have told the surgeons to sew it up then and there. It would have been far better to get the problem sorted for good.”

Despite not undergoing surgery, Robson still spent several weeks on the sidelines but the campaign ended with him lifting the FA Cup. The 1985-86 season began well for Robson and United, with the team famously winning their opening 10 league matches. Robson could dream of captaining his club to the First Division title and then his country to World Cup glory. On October 16 England booked their place in the World Cup finals and recorded a 5-0 win over Turkey, but Robson went off with a hamstring injury.

It was the start of a catalogue of problems that blighted his campaign. United were looking increasingly less assured at the top of the table and they would end up trundling home in fourth spot. In the FA Cup fourth round Robson was sent off at Sunderland and then he sustained an ankle injury in a league match at West Ham United a week later. But it was in a delayed fifth round FA Cup tie at the same ground on March 5 that his World Cup dream took its first serious dent.

A week earlier headlines appeared of ‘were would we be without him?” after Robson scored twice, including the BBC goal of the season, as England won in Israel. Now it looked like we might have to find out in the World Cup, as Robson began clutching his shoulder on the Upton Park turf. He had once more dislocated it, less than three months before the World Cup began. In the Daily Express two days later, John Bean wrote: “The Manchester United and England captain’s second shoulder dislocation in 14 months will leave him with just enough time to get fit to board the plane to Mexico and the World Cup in May. But the big fear is that after two dislocations of the same joint Robson could easily suffer the problem a third time.” His words would sadly prove prophetic.

Club vs country

United boss Atkinson was ruling out an operation, with a club versus country row brewing. There was no easy answer, as the operation would have left Robson desperately short of match practice going into the World Cup. But for his England manager it would be the better option. According to his World Cup Diary, Bobby Robson rang Atkinson and approached him about letting their mutual captain have the op. Bobby wrote: “I asked for the ultimate sacrifice a club manager can make because an operation would have ruled Robson out for the rest of the championship, but have guaranteed his fitness for Mexico.”

Atkinson’s reply made clear there would be no change of mind. It was an understandable situation, given that United were still in with a shout of the title and Big Ron was starting to come under pressure over their recent form. He knew Robson could be the difference between success and failure, being willing to gamble on him even when not fully fit.

Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson was not willing to sacrifice his captain to help England’s cause.

Captain Robson soon returned for United, but he would suffer more injury problems and sat out the season’s climax. But at least he joined the England squad as they headed out to the United States en route to the finals. During a practice match against South Korea, Robson volleyed in a goal and showed what he could be capable of. But Bobby Robson wrote: “Bryan’s shoulder was still causing me concern. I kept thinking back to the medical advice and wondering if it was going to go again. I closed my eyes every time he went rushing in for one of those crosses and willed to see him on his feet when I reopened them.”

Three days later those fears were realised when England played Mexico in Los Angeles. The captain was in a typically competitive mode and he made a sliding tackle that ended with him clutching his shoulder, which had popped out. Although it was placed back in quickly by the England team medics, it was now clear to the management just how serious the problem was and how loose the shoulder had become – even though they tried to hide the injury from the media when questioned.

Manager Robson was now beginning to contemplate life without his captain. The player was typically back in training just two days later, only to then sustain yet another hamstring injury. It seemed a never-ending tale of injury woe. But he was adamant he was okay. He wrote: “If I’d had any doubts about my fitness for our first match,  against Portugal, in Monterrey, or the rest of the World Cup, I would have pulled out. I believed I could play my part in helping England go all the way.” Robson missed England’s friendly win over Canada, in which Gary Lineker sustained a wrist injury that briefly threatened his World Cup prospects. With Mark Wright having already been ruled out of the finals with a broken leg, injury problems seemed to be mounting for the team.

The nation hopes and prays

When England took on Portugal in their opening World Cup match against Portugal on June 3, Robson was in the starting line-up. The waiting was over, now the nation had to hope and pray the captain came through unscathed. When Robson challenged to win a header in the box, there was brief panic as he feel to the floor. “That was a worrying moment for me and I’m sure everyone,” said BBC co-commentator Jimmy Hill, relieved to see the captain get up as if nothing had happened. The game ended in a disappointing 1-0 defeat and Robson came off a few minutes before the end, but he had not seemed inhibited by his injury concern.

Three days later, England played Morocco. It was in the closing minutes of the half that Robson’s World Cup came to a shuddering halt as he played the ball past Mustapha El-Biyaz in the penalty area. He wrote in his autobigtaphy: “As I went past him he grabbed me by the right shoulder and pulled me back. I fell in agony. The shoulder had come out again. Everybody thought it was the fall that did the damage but it wasn’t, it was their player pulling my shoulder… I was led away, clutching my shoulder, and the tears were of frustration and annoyance as much as pain.”

It was a lasting image of the competition. Robson would maintain England should have had a penalty over the incident, but nothing was given and he had barely left the pitch when vice-captain Ray Wilkins was red carded after throwing the ball back towards the referee.

The moment Bryan Robson’s World Cup dream was shattered.

Four years earlier, Robson had gone off with a knock in the second match of the World Cup against Czechoslovakia but he recovered to play in the second phase matches. This time his World Cup dream appeared to lie in tatters and there was a serious chance England wouldn’t remain in the competition beyond their final group game. Both the manager and captain were quoted afterwards as accepting he was definitely out of the competition,  but as England prepared for their do-or-die match against Poland on June 11 there was growing speculation Robson could pick Robson again. It wasn’t well received.

Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “England’s World Cup crisis can be measured not by the fact that they have just 90 minutes to salvage some pride and a place in the second round… but that Bobby Robson is still thinking of picking Bryan Robson. The manager’s fixation with his skipper is not just ill-advised. It is Mexican madness.”

But the manager did not let his heart rule his head, leaving the captain out of the Poland game as England got their act together with a 3-0 win. A change of personnel seemed to help England flourish as a team. They followed it up by beating Paraguay by the same score. England had proved they could thrive without Captain Marvel, with critics happy to point this out when the extent of Robson’s abilities are discussed. Now they faced a quarter-final showdown with Argentina, starring Diego Maradona.

Robson had stayed in Mexico rather than fly home for treatment – to the annoyance of Atkinson – and now he was suddenly handed a glimmer of hope. Peter Reid was carrying a knock and Bobby Robson saw his captain as the man to sit in the hole if Reid did not recover. “It would not put his shoulder so much at risk as charging into the box and it is a job he could do to great effect,” wrote the manager in his World Cup Diary. “I was also aware of the psychological effect his appearance would have on the Argentinians.”

Ultimately Reid recovered and Captain Marvel was left to get his camera out (see above pic) as the sides lined up. We can only wonder what might have been had Robson been fully fit. One can just imagine him sliding in to stop Maradona going through to score his superb solo goal. Robson reflected in his autobiography: “I thought I just might have been able to make a difference against Maradona. I knew his game and felt I could have done a job on him.”

But the reality was Robson had been left a spectator for most of the competition, with Gary Lineker perhaps now replacing him as the national football hero. Robson would miss the start of the 1986-87 season, with his absence felt as Manchester United experienced a poor run of form that eventually cost Atkinson his job. He too may have wondered if things would have panned out differently if Robson had been allowed to have the operation prior to Mexico.

Robson went on to play for England for a further five years and in 1990 he remained captain under his namesake. At 33 there wasn’t quite as much hype and expectation surrounding him going into the World Cup finals as four years earlier, but he was still seen as a key player in the side. But Second Game Syndrome struck again as he limped out of England’s match against the Netherlands and a few days later he was flying home. For the second World Cup running England achieved success without Robson, who was left to provide analysis for the BBC during the semi-final against West Germany. Once more an injury had come at the worst possible time for him – and this time he knew any realistic hope of playing in a World Cup again had gone.

Great England Goals – Bryan Robson v Israel (1986)

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Thirty years ago today England met Israel for the first time in a friendly in Tel Aviv. England’s performance won few plaudits, but their 2-1 victory included the winner of the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition for 1985-86 – a volley by captain Bryan Robson. It provided a rare moment of joy for the player during a difficult few months…

England were having a busy few months preparing for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, playing at least one match in every calendar month from January to May. But the selection of the first two friendlies drew criticism and raised questions about their merit. In January England beat Egypt 4-0 in Cairo and the following month they travelled to Tel Aviv to take on Israel.

One of manager Bobby Robson’s arch-critics, Emlyn Hughes, slammed the decision to play Egypt and was also scathing about the Israel match. “There’s another joke trip lined up next month when England go to Israel. We won’t learn anything from that match either and by the time Mexico comes round everyone will be burned out,” he argued.


Israel welcome England in February 1986.

But for the England manager the match carried value. Writing in his 1986 World Cup Diary, Robson explained why Israel were chosen as opponents: “The reasons why we had picked Israel were that we were sure the weather in Tel Aviv would not hinder our preparations, that our fans would not be so stupid as to cause trouble over there and that we were reasonably confident that we would win. It was the sort of game a club manager likes to undertake pre-season against teams whom he knows will provide a test but are the sort of opposition where the club can play and enjoy their football.”

The first reason Robson gave for the choice of match would prove good thinking, given Britain endured bad weather in February 1986. The second was a sad indictment of how serious the hooligan problem had become for England. And the third reason given would quickly be put to the test, as England found their hosts looking to pull off a surprise victory.

The two Robsons


Bryan Robson (left) and Bobby Robson.

Much of the 1980s was all about the Robsons so far as England were concerned, with Bobby managing the team and namesake Bryan being his captain and inspiration in the heart of the midfield. The 1985-86 season was proving bitter-sweet for the player. He had helped Manchester United win their opening 10 league games and secured early qualification for the World Cup with England. But he had gone off injured during England’s win against Turkey in October, been sent-off playing for United in the FA Cup at Sunderland, seen his team’s title dream start to fade and then he sustained another injury against West Ham United in a league game in early February. Thankfully he was fit in time to play for England against Israel, but he went into the match with limited recent gametime under his belt.

Manager Robson fielded a strong side but England did not produce a good display in the first half, going in 1-0 down at half-time after an early breakaway goal by Eli Ohana that raised concerns about English defending. A dog running on the field was to be the most memorable sight for English viewers during the first half!

Six minutes after the break came the game’s turning point. Glenn Hoddle floated a lovely ball across to captain Robson, who scored with a delightful volley from the edge of the box. “It was a goal that would have graced the World Cup Final itself,” proclaimed England’s manager.

Bryan Robson volleys England level.

Barry Davies, commentating for live BBC coverage, was for once not in wordsmith mode. “Robson…yes….” was the rather low-key commentary of the goal, perhaps reflecting the fact it was only a friendly and Davies was unimpressed with England’s display. The celebrations were also muted, Robson settling for 1950s style handshakes with team-mates before making his way back to the centre circle.

But it proved sufficient to win the BBC Goal of the Season award, the only time an England goal has clinched the accolade (goals scored in major tournaments automatically miss out due to taking place after the voting finishes). Robson’s cause in winning the award was helped by the Football League TV blackout in the first half of the 1985-86 season, limiting the number of goals to choose from. It was perhaps not as well remembered as some other goals he scored for his country, but it was an excellent finish to win him an honour he missed out on the previous season for his volleyed goal against East Germany.

Coping without the captain

Robson later scored the winner from the penalty spot to give England an unconvicing 2-1 victory. There was criticism of the the team but not the captain. ‘What would we do without him?’ asked the back page headline in the following day’s Daily Express. Sadly, the question would soon be raised for real after Robson dislocated his shoulder playing in an FA Cup tie at West Ham the following week. He would have to watch on as United fell out of the title race and there were serious concerns about whether he would be fit to play in the World Cup.

Bryan Robson’s World Cup ends prematurely.

As with Kevin Keegan in 1982, David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006, the back pages became dominated by a key England player’s bid to be fit for the World Cup. Robson won his battle to be fit enough to be in the squad for the finals, but concerns still lingered about the shoulder. Sure enough, in the second game against Morocco he went off with his arm in a sling.

It was a sad sight, as England were left to try and stay in the tournament without their captain and star man. But ultimately they would prove they could survive without Robson, going on to reach the quarter-finals. At the age of 28, the World Cup in Mexico should have been the ideal time for Robson to shine on the world stage and repeat moments such as the goal against Israel. But his injury curse had struck again at the worst possible time for him.

Great England Goals – Bryan Robson v East Germany (1984)

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In September 1984, an otherwise forgettable friendly between England and East Germany at Wembley was brought to life in the closing stages. Captain Bryan Robson memorably crashed in a tremendous volley to settle the match and we’ll mark the anniversary this weekend by looking back at that moment.

Whenever there are grumblings these days about occasional ‘low’ turnouts for England matches at Wembley (of say 50.000), it’s worth recalling how history has shown they could be a hell of a lot worse. During the nadir of the mid-1980s crowds below 25,000 were recorded on several occasions, with East Germany’s visit early in the 1984-85 campaign seeing just 23,951 show up. But even that figure was disputed, with several newspaper reports the following day saying the attendance seemed lower. BBC commentator John Motson told viewers England were unable to move such games to club grounds due to being contracted to play at Wembley – an issue that persists today.

The low crowd made for a subdued atmosphere, as England played their final friendly before embarking on attempting to qualify for the 1986 World Cup. Goalscoring had been a problem in recent matches for England, with the failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championship in France still fresh in the mind. Promising defender Mark Wright was handed his debut, joining Southampton team-mates Peter Shilton and Steve Williams in the starting line-up. Shilton had made his England debut against the East Germans – or the German Democratic Republic as the match programme called them – on their previous visit in 1970 and this would be the final meeting of the sides before Germany was reunified in 1990. Watford’s John Barnes took his place in the side buoyed by his wondergoal against Brazil in the summer, although he would struggle to make a similar impact here.

Williams came close to opening the scoring early on as he was denied at the end of an impressive England move, while at the opposite end Joachim Streich marked his 100th cap – in the days when that was still a rare achievement – by striking the woodwork. And bar the odd half chance and East German free-kick that was pretty much all of note in the opening 80 minutes, as the game seemingly meandered towards an inevitable goalless draw.

With 10 minutes left, Bobby Robson finally made use of his substitutes as he brought off Arsenal forwards Paul Mariner and Tony Woodcock and replaced them with Trevor Francis and Mark Hateley. The change seemed to galvanise England and within two minutes came the one moment the match would be remembered for. Kenny Sansom floated the ball into the penalty box, with Ray Wilkins moving backwards to head the ball towards Bryan Robson. The Manchester United captain instinctively swivelled his body and beat his marker to catch the ball perfectly in mid-air, scoring with a beautiful right-footed volley that was totally out of the reach of René Müller. “What a goal,” exclaimed Motson, before inevitably pulling out a statistic. “Bryan Robson’s 10th goal for his country and what a way to go into double figures.”

The goal would soon be featuring in the opening titles for Match of the Day and later be included in the BBC’s 101 Great Goals videoThe FA website says it was probably Robson’s best goal for England. Although it may not be recalled as frequently as his first minute goal against France in the 1982 World Cup or win him the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition (he did so the following season with his equaliser for England against Israel), it was certainly spectacular. On many occasions during the 1980s both England and Manchester United turned to their captain to pull them through and this was one such occasion. Robson had come up with the goods at the right moment.

It was the only goal and meant the captain’s namesake and manager received a better reception at the end than after the previous home match against USSR in June, when he had faced calls for his departure. Not that everyone in the media was entirely happy. Stuart Jones in The Times appeared to have written most of his report before the goal, barely making anything of Robson’s strike and instead singling out Wilkins for praise. Jones reflected grimly on a match which he felt was “devoid of atmosphere, of excitement and even of significance”.

More positive was the response of David Lacey in The Guardian, who described Robson’s effort as a “marvellous shot”. In the Daily Express, Steve Curry wrote: “Skipper Robson deserved his reward for his involvement alone – the lion on his shirt snarling and sniping throughout the night against a disciplined German defence that was not in a mood for easy surrender.”

It was only a friendly, but Bryan Robson’s winner had provided a chink of light on a night that was otherwise better best forgotten. As Bobby Robson reflected in his World Cup Diary covering his first four years in charge on the East Germany victory: “I was delighted for, apart from starting the new season with a victory, it was important that we should win at Wembley after two defeats in our previous three fixtures there. I had been worried that he squad might develop a phobia about playing on their own ground and that would have been a disastrous disadvantage to take into the World Cup [qualifiers].” England duly qualified comfortably and they did not suffer another home defeat until 1990.

When the Football League took on the world…

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On this weekend in 1987 Bobby Robson was in charge of the home team at Wembley with Bryan Robson captaining it. For once though they weren’t leading England but a Football League XI. To mark the start of the League’s centenary season, the team faced the Rest of the World in a celebration match. As a slight diversion from our usual looks back at past England fortunes, we today recall the start of the seemingly never-ending centenary celebrations.


A couple of months after It’s a Royal Knockout was screened, the Football League seemed to be trying its best to go one better with this multi-cast farce known as the Mercantile Credit Centenary Classic on August 8, 1987. It was played the week before the start of the league season, meaning the Charity Shield had to be moved and played on the unusually early date of August 1; there was a great hoo-ha over whether Diego Maradona would turn up and play, eventually doing so for a reported £100,000 (an extortionate fee at the time); Wembley was far from full with a crowd of 61,000, many stayaways not willing to pay the hefty ticket prices for a match being shown live on ITV; there was a never-ending series of 13 substitutions, rendering the match almost meaningless as a serious contest; and the Football League celebrations just seemed to go on and on after this.

‘The 100 years bore’ was one headline about the laborious centenary celebrations. It wasn’t until 14 months later when Arsenal beat Manchester United at Villa Park to win the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy that the Football League’s party finally ended, having attracted a fair bit of criticism along the way (most notably for the centenary festival tournament at Wembley in April 1988). And in many ways it was the beginning of a long goodbye for the 92-club Football League as we knew it then, given the Premier League breakaway would follow as soon as 1992. 

The strong English presence

Until the early 2000s August was a dead month for international football so far as England were concerned, so this was about as close as they came with Robson and Robson leading the charge. There were seven Englishmen in the Football League starting line-up, with Neil Webb the only uncapped player. Players to come off the bench included further uncapped Englishmen in Arsenal’s Alan Smith and Coventry City goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic, the latter never going on to appear at full level for his country. The Football League had just one player hailing from outside the British Isles in the side, namely Argentina’s Ossie Ardiles who replaced Webb in the closing stages. How different things would be if a Premier League team played in such a fixture now!

Terry Venables was in charge of the Rest of the World team, but he did come across some problems trying to get clubs to release players. AC Milan’s newly-signed Dutch duo of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit were absent, along with Rangers defender Terry Butcher – who was not given permission to play despite being suspended for his club’s opening match of the season on the same day. The match would carry some obvious similarities with how the FA had marked its centenary 24 years earlier, when England beat the Rest of the World 2-1.

One player Venables was not going to struggle to get to play was his Barcelona forward Gary Lineker, who took his place as the sole Englishman in the visiting line-up. While most of the focus was on Maradona’s presence, there was also a welcome appearance for French star Michel Platini at the very end of his playing career. He had never played at Wembley and neither had the guest of honour at the event – Brazilian legend Pele. His compatriot Josimar, who had shone at the previous year’s World Cup but would soon slide into obscurity, took his place in the starting line-up. The lengthy cast of other players to feature for the visitors included Sweden’s future Liverpool defender Glenn Hysen, Portugal’s Paulo Futre, USSR goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev and his international team-mate and the reigning European Footballer of the Year, Igor Belanov.


Caption competition time over what Pele is saying about Diego Maradona!

With the plethora of substitutions, the ‘exhibition’ nature of the match and the fact some overseas players were some way off starting their new season, it was difficult to view this as a serious clash. In The Observer match report the following day, reporter Frank McGhee criticised the multi substitutions and the impact they had on the occasion. “The organisers seemed so intent on massaging the egos of every player chosen for the squads that they entirely lost sight of the original purpose of the game – to entertain the crowd and the alleged one billion television viewers around the world,” he wrote.

Perhaps the main talking point was the constant booing of Maradona, 14 months after the Hand of God. Venables had urged fans to clap Maradona rather than boo him, but the reality was unsurprisingly different. Some saw it merely as the jeering of a pantomime villain, but others found it more sinister and felt it painted a poor image of the English nation. The following Monday’s opinion column in the Daily Express condemned the “yobbish behaviour of fans” and feared it could prolong the ban on English clubs from European competition. “Their behaviour was televised worldwide, which will confirm the impression that our stadiums are disgraced by morons hardly able to remember all the words of Here We Go,” they added. Football writer Steve Curry made reference to Maradona being “tediously jeered each time he touched the ball”, expressing his belief a better spectacle may have been enjoyed had the match been played in late September when players were back to full fitness.

Robson delights Robson

It was a good day for Manchester United players. Defender Paul McGrath had a decent game, while his mate Norman Whiteside came off the bench to put the Football League 2-0 up in the second half. That goal came either side of two strikes from their club captain Bryan Robson, who showed his trademark goal scoring instincts from midfield in the 3-0 success. Arsenal and England left-back Kenny Sansom added creativity and was involved in the first two goals, while Northern Irishman John McClelland, of Watford, was an unlikely star with some vital clearances. If taken literally at face value (which few were doing), then the Football League had proved itself to be three goals better than the rest of the world combined. “We should all be delighted with the way the afternoon has gone for English football,” said Bobby Robson afterwards. The performance of Webb did not go unnoticed and he would make his England debut the following month, as Robson returned to the day job of leading England to the Euro ’88 finals.

But not before he had expressed consternation about the continued questioning after the centenary mach about Maradona and his big payday, rather than the Football League winning the game. “I don’t believe it. If we had been beaten 3-0 the knives would have been out. Because we have won no one seems the slightest bit interested,” he moaned, as he once more had cause to resent the press. 

It wasn’t the last time words to the effect that “no one seems the slightest bit interested” would be heard regarding the Football League centenary celebrations. 


If every picture tells a story, then this one shows just how many players were given the chance to get a game.

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…

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…