June marks the 20th anniversary of England getting their hands on silverware when the side won Le Tournoi in France. Today we look back at that competition, as Glenn Hoddle’s side surprisingly triumphed in a four-team tournament that included strong Brazilian, French and Italian teams. Something to get excited about or merely glorified friendlies?
These days the Confederations Cup is used as the warm-up competition for the World Cup, being staged by the host nation a year before the main act. But back in 1997 the French were left to their own devices and planned their own mini-tournament called Tournoi de France – more commonly known as Le Tournoi – similar to what had happened in England in 1995 with the Umbro Cup (played 12 months before Euro ’96) and in the USA in 1993 with the US Cup. Both those mini-tournaments saw England fail to beat Brazil and they would hope to make it third time lucky in France, with both sides joined on the guest list by Italy. There was no shortage of attractive opposition facing England out in France.
Such tournaments serve several purposes. They are essentially trial runs for the following year, helping the hosts get a flavour for the real thing and offering the home nation a welcome chance to play something approaching competitive matches in a tournament environment. And for the other sides involved it helps in their preparations for the following year’s competition, both in terms of the tournament experience and making plans for 12 months down the line. England certainly did just that in France, manager Glenn Hoddle liking the The Golf Hotel in La Baule so much that he decided they would return there during the World Cup – provided they qualified.
England headed out to the tournament in good spirits after winning a vital World Cup qualifier in Poland on May 31. The main game during the end-of-season programme had been won, now they could focus on Le Tournoi. The real pressure was off, but the next task was about showing England could compete with three excellent sides and using it as proper preparation for a year later. Hoddle was keen to stress there would be no repeat of the antics that had blighted England’s trip to Hong Kong shortly before Euro ’96, with the focus for the week-long trip to France on preparing for the real deal.
Hoddle said: “It will be relaxed but professional. Any relaxing away from football will be controlled. We are there for business reasons. The players would not want it any other way, they don’t want a Fred Karno’s Army with nightclubbing and so on. This is experience for 12 months down the line. If we are to win the World Cup, we will have to make sacrifices.”
Class show against the Italians
England’s first game was in Nantes against Italy, who four months earlier had won at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier – the only blemish on Hoddle’s record so far. The return game would take place in October, so this was to be seen as the least important of the three meetings in a year. But what the game lacked it status it would make up for in English success. Hoddle rang the changes from the previous game but it was perhaps a measure of the depth of talent available at the time that such a different side could play with such confidence.
And that was because England were blessed in terms of the players at their disposal compared to some other eras. Experienced men such as Martin Keown, Ian Wright and stand-in captain Paul Ince were joined for the night by a batch of young players from Manchester United who had won successive league titles. They would further prove to Alan Hansen that you could win things with kids, with one of them particularly instrumental to this triumph.
Paul Scholes (above) was starting an international for the first time and he delivered a pinpoint pass for Wright to open the scoring after 26 minutes. Shortly before the break the favour was returned, Wright feeding Scholes to fire past Angelo Peruzzi. England weren’t just winning, they were turning it on and looking un-English in their one-touch style. David Beckham, winning only his eighth cap, beamed afterwards: “The way we played in the first half, with our one-touch football, has made people sit up.”
England saw the game out to win 2-0 and it wasn’t just young heads who were getting excited by what had taken place. David Lacey, a veteran with The Guardian, wrote: “Glenn Hoddle’s highly experimental side blended a caucus of Manchester United youth with some Premiership wrinklies to produce one of the most stylish performances seen from an England team since Ron Greenwood’s side went to Barcelona shortly before the 1980 European Championship and defeated Spain by a similar score.” This was high praise.
Was it a one-off or were England now really capable of beating everybody? Two big tests that lay ahead…
Beating the French
England fielded a more familiar-looking side against France in Montpellier, with senior players including Paul Gascoigne, David Seaman and Alan Shearer returning to the starting line-up. England’s performance lacked the sparkle of three days earlier, but it was still an encouraging evening wih captain Shearer scoring the only goal in the closing minutes as he pounced after Fabien Barthez spilt Teddy Sheringham’s cross. It was a notable result, given it ended a lengthy unbeaten run at home for the French.
Alan Shearer scores a late winner for England against France.
As Glenn Moore reflected in The Independent: “Saturday showed a different side of England’s game, the ability to eke out wins without playing particularly well. They were not poor but they must now be judged by the standards they set against Italy and by that mark they disappointed. The impressive elements were the defensive strength, the ability to recover from a poor start, and the thoroughness of the preparation.”
The friendly nature of Le Tournoi meant games were being judged as much on displays as scorelines by the media, but for those preferring to view this as a competitive tournament things were looking good for England. They had six points from two games, with France unable to catch them and Italy unlikely to do so given their goal difference. Only Brazil realistically remained a threat, as they prepared to face Italy ahead of playing England 48 hours later. If they won both then the world champions would pick up yet more silverware. But whatever happened it had been an excellent week for England.
On Sunday, June 8, two unusual things happened. England’s cricketers went ahead in an Ashes series for the first time in more than a decade by comfortably beating Australia in the opening test at Edgbaston. And a short time later the nation’s footballers enjoyed winning a tournament with a game to spare, as Italy and Brazil drew 3-3 in Lyon to leave England four points clear with a game to go. For the first time since the 1983 Home International Championship, England’s seniors would win a tournament containing at least four sides.
Winners and losers
Paradoxically, England’s last game in Paris did not matter so far as the outcome of the tournament was concerned but was also their biggest, and arguably most important, test. Brazil were the world champions and widely backed to repeat the feat in France a year later. Although they had drawn both games so far at Le Tournoi, hints of their class and goal threat lingered and Roberto Carlos had scored a jaw-dropping free-kick in the opening game against France. If England looked distinctly second best against Brazil, then a bit of the gloss would be removed from an excellent end to the season.
In some respects that turned out to be the case, as Moore wrote in The Independent of England’s 1-0 defeat: “England can be congratulated for earning the right to joust with the best but last night they discovered that they still have some way to go to match them. While the figures in the Tournoi de France table shows them to be the leading team, the tournament’s football told a different tale. That impression was confirmed on a humid Parisian night as Romario’s 61st-minute goal brought Brazil a victory which was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.”
England were given a reminder of the scale of the task facing them 12 months later, knowing that in all probability they would have to beat Brazil at some stage if they were to win the World Cup. The result was fair but it hadn’t felt quite like the Brazilian masterclass of two years earlier when they turned it on to beat England 3-1 at Wembley to win the Umbro Cup. Even so, Moore wrote that the England players “looked suitably sheepish when they had to pose and parade with their trophy as We are the Champions rang out and the Brazilians looked on”.
It was perhaps typical of England’s fortunes that, even in winning a tournament, there was an instant reality check. But even so, the sight of Shearer stepping forward to collect the unusual-looking trophy – that appeared to be designed by someone desperate to point out it was a football competition – was a pleasing moment, albeit a long way off the joy that comes with winning a ‘proper’ tournament.
Alan Shearer holds aloft the tournament trophy despite England having lost to Brazil.
We’re not going to overhype Le Tournoi and make it out to be the equivalent of England winning a major tournament, because it wasn’t. This was a one-off competition and the games could easily be dismissed as just glorified friendlies. It’s doubtful anyone in Brazil, France or Italy ever thinks about their failure to win it. But silverware has been thin on the ground for England in recent times and this contained surely the strongest set of opponents of any competition won by the team since 1966. The two victories achieved during Le Tournoi were pleasing, with the performance against Italy particularly hailed.
Perhaps the other key significance was the contrast from England’s experience four years earlier at the US Cup, when they went there off the back of a painful World Cup qualifying defeat to Norway and followed it up by finishing bottom in the four-team competition and suffering a much-criticised loss to the United States. This time around they had enjoyed a precious qualifying win immediately beforehand and then given themselves a psychological boost by triumphing in the mini-tournament.
Now the big challenge awaiting England was to ensure they were back in France for the summer of 1998 for the World Cup and then to go in search of that long-awaited major honour…
On Saturday England play their first match of Euro 2016 when they face Russia. Whatever the outcome, there is unlikely to be quite the same feeling of despondency as when England met the Soviet Union in their last match at Euro ’88. Already eliminated from the tournament and with the match not even being shown live on British television (the Republic of Ireland’s decisive game against the Netherlands was screened by the BBC instead), Bobby Robson’s side gave a tame performance to lose 3-1 and exit the finals without a point to their name. For a number of individuals, it wasn’t a time to fondly recall…
The one thing to take the headlines away from England’s failings on the field at Euro ’88 was the conduct of their hooligans off it, with violence on the streets of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf having marred their matches against the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands respectively. There had been plenty of unfortunate instances of hooliganism involving a section of England’s followers before, but now the problem was threatening the future of the national side.
On the eve of the match against USSR, Football Association chairman Bert Millichip was asked during an interview by ITV if this was the worst crisis he had known for English football. He responded that it was and speculation was now growing that England would be excluded from the 1990 World Cup qualifying programme, amid reports of the Government no longer wanting them to travel abroad. English club sides remained banned from Europe, the trouble in West Germany putting paid to any hopes of a return for 1988-89. As The Times commented at the time: “Britain is being viewed worldwide as little more than a zoo of dangerous animals which are released upon innocent foreign cities with a government unwilling to tackle the crisis head on.”
England’s exclusion from the World Cup didn’t happen in the end. Had it been imposed there would have been no momentous run to the semi-finals at Italia ’90, no World in Motion, no Gazza’s tears and no redemption for manager Bobby Robson either after he was hounded during the summer of 1988…
A 2-0 home defeat against the USSR in a friendly in June 1984 had represented the previous low point for Bobby Robson during his England reign. England had a few months earlier failed to qualify for Euro ’84 and this latest loss ended with him being barracked by a vocal section of the Wembley crowd. Over the next four years he enjoyed a turnaround in fortune, qualifying unbeaten for both Mexico ’86 and Euro ’88. But now England were back in crisis. Robson could point to a combination of bad luck and key chances being missed during their opening two matches in West Germany, but against the USSR he had no such excuses to offer. He would lament it as “without doubt the worst performance” during his time in charge and the vultures were circling, as he remained caught in the tabloid war between The Sun and the Daily Mirror. Robson did offer to step down, but Millichip gave him his backing to carry on.
Bobby Robson and Don Howe.
It was clear the manager was feeling the strain. The late Joe Melling, of The Mail on Sunday, would later recall writing an article calling for Robson to move on as “it’s a heart attack waiting to happen”. Thankfully no such thing happened to Robson, but just days after the Euros his assistant manager Don Howe was in intensive care after suffering a suspected heart attack. The connection between his ill health and the stress of the England role wasn’t confirmed, but plenty were putting two and two together. And Howe wasn’t the only member of England’s party spending time in hospital shortly after coming home from West Germany…
Two years after finishing top scorer in the 1986 World Cup, Gary Lineker endured a barren time in West Germany and felt strangely lethargic. He was puzzled as to what was making him feel this way, but he felt totally bereft of energy going into the USSR match. “In training the day before I could barely lift my legs,” he recalled last year in the magazine FourFourTwo. “We were already out of the tournament and I know Don Howe and Bobby Robson thought I was trying to get out of the game – they all but said as much. I played against the Soviet Union and came off after about an hour. I’d never played in a game where I was so certain I shouldn’t be on the pitch. I was in a dreadful state.”
Lineker took exception to comments from Bobby Robson in which he criticised players for “not wanting to play”. England flew home and soon Lineker was in hospital, with it coming to light he was suffering from hepatitis which helped explain his lack of energy. Lineker recalled Robson coming to visit him in hospital and apologising, with the forward to retain a regular place in the England side the following season despite struggling for goals as he worked his way back to full fitness. But it became evident that Robson had not just been referring to Lineker with the “not wanting to play” comment, as another member of the side was to pay for complaining of an injury ahead of the Soviet Union match…
England desperately missed the injured Terry Butcher during Euro ’88, with the pairing of Tony Adams and Mark Wright – both playing in their first major tournament – unable to prevent four goals being conceded in the opening two matches. In the match against the USSR, Adams – the more criticised of the two – scored but Wright wasn’t involved after complaining of an injury. It proved a costly move, Bobby Robson not selecting him again until April 1990. Wright went on to shine during Italia ’90, but his absence from the USSR match was soon brought back into the spotlight later that year when Robson published his autobiography Against the Odds.
Writing about Wright, Robson said: “He is a complicated character and had he been more straightforward I, and England, would have had two extra years out of him. I feel that sometimes he uses small injuries as an excuse for missing a match or a pre-arranged excuse if things do not go so well. Against Holland two years ago in the European Championship he vied with Bryan Robson as our best player but when it came to the ‘dead’ match against the Soviet Union he suddenly turned up with an injury saying he didn’t think he was fit enough to play but would do so if I wanted him. He did the same thing in Italy when a calf injury appeared from nowhere before the play-off game in Bari. This time I told him to play and maybe if I had done that against the Soviets he would have a lot more caps now.”
Wright was reported to be unhappy about Robson’s comments. But Wright had at least come back into the England side. For others there would be no return…
Glenn Hoddle and Kenny Sansom both played their last England match against the Soviet Union in 1988.
Nine years earlier, Glenn Hoddle has burst onto the England scene amid great excitement when he scored on his debut against Bulgaria. Now against USSR he was playing what would be his final England match, being culpable for the opening goal conceded after three minutes as he carelessly lost possession and Sergei Aleinikov scored past Chris Woods. As Rob Smyth wrote in his excellent re-assessment of England’s Euro ’88 campaign, it showed “while their bodies were on the pitch at Frankfurt, their minds were already at home”.
The mistake may not have been what made Bobby Robson’s mind up over Hoddle, but it was certainly symbolic. When England returned to action after the European Championship failings there was no place for Hoddle. Despite some calls for him to be included in the Italia ’90 squad, there would not be a recall for him. Nor would Kenny Sansom ever be capped again, paying both for the emergence of Stuart Pearce and for losing his place in the Arsenal side. Dave Watson, deputising for Mark Wright against the USSR, would never be picked again either. For others too the match would not help their future chances. Woods had enjoyed a rare run-out in place of Peter Shilton, with Robson admitting later he was toying with finding a new number one goalkeeper to replace the veteran regular. But for Woods it was an opportunity spurned, having conceded three times. Shilton would remain first choice, despite having been on the end of a punch from the captain out in West Germany…
Dave Watson was among the players never capped again after appearing against the Soviet Union.
For once England captain Bryan Robson was injury-free as they played in a major tournament, but despite his goal against the Netherlands he was unable to prevent the side bowing out without a point. In the hotel bar one night he started taking criticism from Peter Shilton, who he normally got on well with. Robson wrote in his autobiography: “It shocked me because he’d never turned on me before. He went on and on, taunting me about the ‘Captain Marvel’ stuff and saying he was the number one… He went on and on. I kept my temper for about half, three-quarters of an hour. Then he said I was a ‘bottler’ and that was when I snapped. He was sitting at the bar so I told him, ‘Get up and I’ll show you who’s a bottler’. He wouldn’t get up, but I was so angry I punched him. He just sat there and went quiet. I was fuming, but as soon as I went for him I knew I shouldn’t have.”
Th pair quickly made their peace and stayed international team-mates for another two years, but it had been an unsavoury incident involving two of the team’s most senior players that summed up England’s miserable summer. The squad headed home after three defeats, with the match against the USSR particularly deflating. When they next took to the field in September against Denmark, Bobby Robson made changes including giving debuts to Paul Gascoigne and Des Walker who both went on to shine during Italia ’90. That tournament was Bobby Robson’s swansong and it proved a much better way to go out than if it had been after the shambolic performance against the USSR in 1988.