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England’s qualifying campaigns: 1994 World Cup – did we not like that?

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December marked the 25th anniversary of the draw being made for the qualifying stages of the 1994 World Cup. The campaign would become infamous as England, semi-finalists at Italia ’90, failed to make it to the USA and Graham Taylor’s managerial reign ended in ignominious fashion.

The weekend of December 7-8, 1991, was certainly one for draws being made. On the Saturday lunchtime, Saint & Greavsie viewers saw a certain Donald Trump help make the Rumbelows Cup quarter-final draw. That night, Match of the Day broadcast the FA Cup third round draw – with title protagonists Leeds United and Manchester United paired together for the second time in a day. And the following day the 1994 World Cup qualifying groups were decided. Few could have envisaged just what a calamitous campaign lay ahead for England.

For the first time England were placed in a group of six sides, European football having welcomed an influx of new countries following the break-up of the Soviet Union. But England would not meet any of them, and apart from minnows San Marino – entering only their second major qualifying tournament – there was little in the way of originality. The Dutch, who seemed set to provide the sternest test, had met the English at both Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 (and it was a distinct possibility they could also face each other at Euro ’92). Poland were in England’s group for the third qualifying tournament in succession, while Turkey had been paired with the English in three other campaigns in the past decade. You had to go a bit further back for the last clashes with Norway, England infamously losing to them during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup.

If the draw lacked in novelty for England fans, then at least on paper it looked like the side had a strong chance of progressing. The Three Lions only had to finish second to qualify, having always finished at least that high in every previous qualifying group even when they failed to make it. The Dutch were an obvious threat, but no other side in the group had qualified for a major tournament since Poland reached the 1986 World Cup. But as with the Poles 20 years earlier and Denmark a decade before, England had landed a joker in the pack who were about to represent their undoing. Norway had beaten Italy in Euro ’92 qualifying and they would pose a serious threat to the established order.


The pressure was increasing on Graham Taylor after Euro ’92.

At the time the draw was made, Graham Taylor was enjoying a decent reign as England boss having lost just once since taking over in the summer of 1990 and qualified for Euro ’92. But then came the turning point of the European Championship in Sweden, a negative England crashing out in the group stages as the ‘Turnip’ taunt began against the boss. He had seemed tetchy when dealing with the media during the competition and now faced a tough challenge to win over the doubters, not helped by his controversial decision to sub Gary Lineker in defeat by the Swedes.

It was the forward’s last act for his country before retiring, as Taylor now sought both a new captain and star striker. Alan Shearer – fresh from a big-money move from Southampton to Blackburn Rovers – would be the ideal man to fill the latter role, while Stuart Pearce became captain. But injuries would deprive Taylor of both men for part of the campaign, midfielder David Platt taking the captain’s armband and often being the main goal threat. One man back in the picture was Paul Gascoigne, returning to action after more than a year out injured and now playing in Italy for Lazio.

Pegged back by Norway

By the time England next took to the field in September 1992, the new Premier League was under way. Paul Ince was handed his debut as he began his lengthy England career in a 1-0 defeat. But it was Taylor’s last chance to experiment for the qualifiers. The expansion of the qualifying programme meant competitive football would dominate the agenda in the coming months, starting with a home qualifier against Norway in October. In an era before the international calendar as we know it now, Norway had already played three qualifiers and won them all – laying down a marker by thrashing San Marino 10-0 and beating the Netherlands 2-1. They were not to be underestimated.

Paul Gascoigne returned for England against Norway in October 1992.

The build-up was overshadowed by Gascoigne’s ill-judged jokey response when asked by a TV interviewer to say hello to Norway. As the words “f*** off Norway” left his lips they were clearly going to create headlines, assistant boss Lawrie McMenemy trying to limit the damage as he reprimanded the player for his actions. For Taylor it was imperative England got off to a good start and they looked set to do just that when Shearer gave them a second half lead. But as England looked set to see the game out, they were undone by a long-range equaliser from Kjetil Rekdal. It ended 1-1, representing a point dropped by England (UEFA were still applying the two points for a win system) on a night when they had created more chances than the visitors. “Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve from life and this was one of those nights,” reflected Taylor, who remained confident of qualification.

Five weeks later, Taylor expressed his wish for England to give him an early Christmas present by delivering at home to the Turks. Although Turkey had been thrashed by England three times during the 1980s, they had looked much-improved in two narrow defeats during Euro ’92 qualifying. The old order was to be re-established here, the impressive Gascoigne scoring twice in a 4-0 win as England ended a difficult year in better spirits. The resurgence of Gazza was a pleasing sight, but Taylor issued some words of caution: “Gascoigne is not fully fit yet. He knows that himself and the difference could be as much as another two goals out of him.” Rarely did Gascoigne seem as happy or loved under Taylor as he did during the reigns of Bobby Robson or Terry Venables.

John Barnes was abused by a section of the Wembley crowd during England’s win over San Marino.

A joyless 6-0 win

In February England hosted the whipping boys of San Marino, amid the sad news about the legendary Bobby Moore being seriously ill with cancer. He was at Wembley to co-commentate for radio, just a week before he would lose his fight for life. It was not a glorious match for Moore to say farewell to the Twin Towers, England only holding a 2-0 lead until midway through the second half. The floodgates then finally opened, England eventually winning 6-0 with Platt scoring four of them. There would also be a solitary international goal for Carlton Palmer (memorably met with Taylor asking “what was he doing in the f***ing box?”) and a debut strike for Les Ferdinand.

Platt could have equalled Malcolm Macdonald’s achievement of scoring five times in one match for England, only to have his late penalty saved. But the night had already been soured by the jeering of England’s John Barnes. England had won comfortably, but there was little to feel buoyed about. Gascoigne’s display had concerned Taylor, who said: “There is something there with the player that isn’t right and it is affecting his fitness.”

Paul Gascoigne scores for England in their win in Turkey.

Next up was England’s trip to Turkey the following month, goals from Platt and Gascoigne providing a 2-0 win in a hostile atmosphere in which the players were struck by coins. Taylor’s side had seven points from eight and all looked positive going into the huge game at home to the Netherlands in late April.

A crushing blow

Barnes enjoyed a far more positive response from the Wembley crowd than a few weeks earlier and within two minutes had scored a delightful free-kick to break the deadlock. When Platt doubled the lead midway through the half all seemed good in the world, England giving one of their best displays under Taylor. But a touch of class by Dennis Bergkamp reduced the deficit and England would lose the injured Gascoigne thanks to Jan Wouters’ elbow. Taylor later fumed: “It was a premeditated assault, utterly disgraceful. And he didn’t even get a caution.” It wasn’t the last time Taylor would rue refereeing decisions during the qualifying process. But it looked like England would see the game out until five minutes from time. Des Walker had been immense for England at Italia ’90 but was now suffering a dramatic loss of form.


England were frustrated when the Dutch visited Wembley.

Walker panicked into pulling back Marc Overmars, the referee pointing to the spot with Peter van Vossen levelling as the game finished 2-2. The smart money would have been on a draw beforehand and England still stood a good chance of making it, but it was a crushing blow to have squandered victory. They had now been pegged back in home games against their main two rivals. “We played very well in both of those games and if we had won just one, which we deserved to, we would have been ok,” reflected Taylor 20 years later. Mathematically his statement wasn’t quite correct, but things may well have panned out differently had England seen out either of those games.

The nightmare in Oslo

The first serious doubts that England would make it came at the end of the season. During fixture negotiations England had been handed away trips to Poland and Norway within five days, in an era when double headers were rare. If England could take three points or more they would look favourites to make it to the USA, but a defeat in either clash would be worrying. The first match was a Saturday night trip to Poland, England showing their limitations as they trailed at half-time and almost fell further behind. They got out of jail with a first England goal for substitute Ian Wright to salvage a 1-1 draw

Ian Wright rescues England in Poland.

If that had been disappointing, then what followed over the next fortnight would go a long way to sealing Taylor’s fate. England went into the away game against Norway having not lost a World Cup qualifier since their previous visit in 1981, but they produced a performance that sadly merited that run coming to an end. A decision to switch to three centre backs failed to help matters and England missed the combative presence of the suspended Ince, as the side slumped to a costly and deserved 2-0 defeat. For the first time England were in real trouble, while Norway moved closer to qualifying. They would duly top the group.

England or the Netherlands would miss out, with most predicting the former. Taylor was taking a hell of a beating from the press, ‘Norse Manure’ being one standout headline. In The Independent Joe Lovejoy wrote: “For England to qualify they will probably need maximum points from their last three games, which means beating the Dutch away – a task which looks light years beyond them. They were second-best throughout against the group leaders, who might easily have had more than the two goals they scored either side of half-time, through Oyvind Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen.”

From bad, to worse…

Feeling low from the Norway defeat, England now headed off to the USA to compete in the US Cup against Brazil, Germany and the hosts. If the main aim of the trip was to help England prepare for the World Cup in America a year later then it was already looking a futile exercise. But they did get one piece of positive news while out there, with the Netherlands being held to a draw by Norway in a World Cup qualifier to keep England in with a shout. Any pleasure from that result quickly evaporated on the same evening as Taylor’s side sank to a 2-0 defeat to the USA. It provided more ammunition for Taylor’s critics, ‘Yanks 2, Planks 0’ the latest headline to scream out how badly things were going. Goalkeeper Chris Woods would be a fall-guy, never being capped again.

To their credit, England picked themselves up and produced much-improved displays in drawing 1-1 with Brazil and narrowly losing 2-1 to Germany. But the damage had already been done and the Norway and USA defeats were what the summer would be remembered for. A run of six games without a win meant Taylor urgently needed a response from his side as they prepared for the final three qualifiers. The first was at home to Poland in September, as England at least beat another of the top four sides. The win was wrapped up inside an hour as Ferdinand, Pearce and Gascoigne scored in a 3-0 success. The one downside was Gascoigne picking up a caution to rule him out of the following month’s showdown in the Netherlands, while they would also be without Pearce.

A night of controversy

It wasn’t quite going to be winner takes all in Rotterdam, but to all intents and purposes it was. The sides were level on points so whoever won would need just a point from their last game (the Dutch away to Poland, England taking on San Marino in Bologna) to be sure of going through. If it was a draw then things would get complicated, England needing to beat San Marino by a sufficient score to take them through on goal difference (assuming the Dutch beat Poland). It was a scenario that would suit Taylor’s team. The build-up saw Taylor have an infamous exchange with journalist Rob Shepherd at the press conference, captured in the fly-on-the-wall documentary about the campaign that would soon make headlines (we will save assessing that show for another day).

Given how much was at stake, if you look at it as a neutral for a minute then this was actually a bloody good game of football in which both sides went in search of the result they needed and created several decent chances. The Dutch were always a threat with wingers Marc Overmars and Bryan Roy continually a danger, while at the other end Tony Dorigo and Paul Merson both hit the post and Tony Adams had an effort cleared off the line. 

But controversy and key incidents were never far away, not all to England’s detriment given Frank Rijkaard’s goal was dubiously ruled out in the first half. During the second half the same player was somehow denied by David Seaman. Yet those moments would not live in the memory. Instead it would be the lasting sight of Ronald Koeman hauling back goalbound David Platt at 0-0. The referee initially appeared to award a penalty, eventually determining it was a free-kick on the edge of the box. But more contentious was the decision not to dismiss Koeman. “Is that not a sending off offence?” asked ITV co-commentator Ron Atkinson, rhetorically. Taylor was understandably livid on the touchline.

Graham Taylor experiences a painful night in Rotterdam.

As is well-known, Koeman duly scored a retaken free-kick with Taylor’s wounds deepened by England not having the chance to themselves retake a free-kick after being charged down in similar circumstances. Bergkamp wrapped up the 2-0 Dutch victory to effectively seal England and Taylor’s fate, as the manager told the linesman that his mate had cost him his job. “That blond man should not be on the field,” he said angrily when interviewed by ITV immediately afterwards. The man’s fury and pain was clear for the nation to see, knowing he would now face even more calls to leave.

The inevitable becomes reality

It was a low point, but – although criticism was pouring in over England’s impending absence from the World Cup – there wasn’t the same level of disappointment over England’s display as there had been in Norway. But the damage had been done. England needed the Dutch to lose in Poland and for them to beat San Marino by at least seven goals (assuming Poland only won by a one-goal margin). A big England victory was feasible, and it was possible that the Netherlands could could unstuck in Poland. But most were resigned to the inevitable, the Dutch good enough to get the result they needed against a side already out of the running.

Captain Stuart Pearce leaves the field after England fail to qualify for the World Cup.

England duly scored seven in front of a sparse crowd in Bologna (four netted by Ian Wright), but all their game against San Marino would really be remembered for was for embarrassingly going 1-0 down within seconds to one of the world’s football minnows. It was the final humiliation, symbolic of a campaign of failure. And before the end the BBC sacrificed live coverage to switch to Wales against Romania, as they clung to the hope of seeing a British side reach the USA. By then England’s chances were long gone, the Dutch winning 3-1 in Poland. Only at the moment when the Poles had levelled it at 1-1 had there ever been a glimmer of hope. Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express: “There was no act of God to provide the miracle for England – just a parable of painful failure as the dream died in the bitter cold of Bologna.”


Taylor’s departure was inevitable, but it would not be confirmed for almost a week. ‘That’s Yer Allotment’ proclaimed The Sun’s front page, again accompanied by a picture of his head as a turnip. The man had failed to take England to the finals, but the joke had gone too far. It was now getting extremely personal and generating an unnecessary level of hatred against a decent man. Taylor’s record in itself was not bad, but in three matches that had really mattered – against Sweden at Euro ’92 and then the World Cup qualifiers in Norway and the Netherlands – England had been beaten and that was sadly what many would remember his reign for. 

England would not be at the finals and for Taylor – so successful with Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa – it constituted his first real failure in football management. He had taken stick for his style of football before but now it was for his inability to get results. The flack he had taken – along with predecessor Bobby Robson – created the impression managing England was no longer seen as quite the dream job it once was, as the FA began looking for a successor.

On the night of the qualifying failure, Terry Venables was a pundit on the BBC’s Sportsnight. He remained non-committal when questioned by Des Lynam if he wanted the job, but within weeks he would be in the role as England looked towards Euro ’96 on home soil after a painful World Cup qualifying campaign. The failure under Taylor was a distant memory by the time of Euro ’96, but it would never be totally forgotten…

England’s Euro ’96 demolition of the Dutch

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On Tuesday England welcome the Netherlands to Wembley for a friendly. In June it will be 20 years since one of England’s greatest nights in recent decades, when they beat the Dutch 4-1 during Euro ’96. We look back at that game today…

In December 1995, the Netherlands booked the 16th and final spot at Euro ’96 by beating the Republic of Ireland 2-0 in a play-off at Anfield. The match was shown live on the BBC and the football the Dutch played was met with great acclaim. Many now believed their side – containing young blood such as Patrick Kluivert and a strong presence from the Ajax team that won the Champions League in 1995 – was capable of winning Euro ’96 and becoming revered like the great mid-1970s side starring Johan Cruyff (RIP) and the Euro ’88 winning team.

  

Guus Hiddink was manager of the Netherlands during Euro ’96.

But manager Guus Hiddink was playing down their chances, pointing out they had lost to Belarus during qualifying (they only scraped into the play-offs by beating Norway in their last qualifying group match). Yet when England were paired with the Dutch in their group at Euro ’96 it looked a daunting prospect for the hosts. Two years of friendlies under Terry Venables had offered few real clues as to just how good England were. A competitive clash with the highly-rated Netherlands would provide a much better indicator.

The match at Wembley fell in the final round of group stage matches, with both sides on the brink of going through to the last eight. England had drawn 1-1 with Switzerland before beating Scotland 2-0, while the Dutch had been held 0-0 by the Scots before defeating the Swiss 2-0. With head-to-head records applying, England could only be eliminated if they lost and Switzerland won against Scotland at Villa Park and made up the goal difference; likewise, the Netherlands were only at risk if they were beaten and Scotland won and overturned the goal deficit. It all seemed pretty unlikely and the smart money was probably on a draw, which would take England through as group winners.

  

Memories of England’s controversial defeat to the Netherlands in 1993 were still fairly fresh as the sides met again during Euro’96.

As well as seeking to prove themselves against a highly-fancied side, England had another good incentive to want to beat the Dutch. Just three years earlier a controversial night in Rotterdam had ended with the Netherlands beating England 2-0 and effectively ending Graham Taylor’s side’s hopes of making the World Cup finals, while the Dutch – the eventual winners – had also beaten them 3-1 during a crucial match in the group stage of Euro ’88. You had to go back to 1982 for England’s last victory over the Netherlands and it would mean a lot if they could get it during the European Championship on home soil.

The Dutch squad was certainly not one happy family, as there were reports of divisions within the camp and midfielder Edgar Davids was sent home after speaking out of turn about Hiddink. Clarence Seedorf also had his say after being substituted early on against the Swiss following a booking. England, by contrast, seemed to have a good team spirit that had grown with the win over Scotland after a barrage of press criticism over matters both on and off the field. That togetherness would grow further on a never-to-be-forgotten night.

For Venables, this was a match he had planned for over the six months since the draw was made. Although he kept the same starting XI as in the previous two matches, he adjusted England’s formation. He outlined this in his autobiography, writing: “The Dutch were expecting us to play with two up front, with [Teddy] Sheringham just behind [Alan] Shearer, and four in midfield, as we had done in the previous two games. They liked to play with three at the back, with Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger lining up quite narrowly either side of skipper Danny Blind in the centre. In this way they would have been able to stifle our front men.” 

Instead England would operate a 4-3-3 system, with Shearer in the middle and Sheringham and Steve McManaman either side of him. Venables added: “By doing this I believed the Dutch plan to stifle our attack would be in trouble, and I was sure they would be forced to play an extra defender, which would reduce their attacking threat. Until they adjusted, the Dutch defence was left with a dilemma as defences hate it if they don’t have a numerical advantage.”

  

Alan Shearer sets England on their way against the Netherlands.

The tactical tinkering by Venables would pay off. In the opening minutes Shearer saw an effort diverted away by Richard Witschge as England sent out a message that they were up for this. Midway through the first half came the breakthrough, Paul Ince being felled in the area and Shearer converting the spot-kick past Edwin van der Sar. Shearer had gone into the finals without an England goal since September 1994, but now he had netted in three successive games. The match remained delicately poised until the break, David Seaman producing an excellent save to deny his Arsenal team-mate Dennis Bergkamp an equaliser. It’s perhaps easy to forget that the Dutch looked the stronger side as half-time approached, although England crucially held the lead.

  

Teddy Sheringham doubles England’s lead.

It was in a 12-minute period in the second half that the night turned from a decent one for England into a momentous occasion. Sheringham headed in Gascoigne’s excellent corner on 50 minutes and seven minutes later a delightful third goal featuring both players sealed victory. Gascoigne, in one of his best post-Italia ’90 England displays, powered his way through and found Sheringham, who teed up Shearer to unleash a powerful drive into the net. On 62 minutes van der Sar could only parry Darren Anderton’s shot and Sheringham pounced to score. ‘Netherlands 0, England 4’ proclaimed the Wembley scoreboard (England were technically the away side for this match) and it was a ‘pinch me’ moment.

Not just for England either. The Scots were for once delighted to hear of English success, as they were handed a serious chance of progression. Ally McCoist’s goal meant they led 1-0 against Switzerland and as England were 4-0 up, Scotland were now above the Netherlands on goal difference. Would this finally be the moment when Scotland advanced from the group stage at a major tournament? Alas no. Kluivert scored what was merely a consolation in terms of the match against England but was of great importance so far as deciding who went through was concerned. England’s position was now so comfortable they had withdrawn both goalscorers and Paul Ince – who faced suspension in the next round after picking up his second booking of the competition – with David Platt and youngsters Nick Barmby and Robbie Fowler entering the action.

As the final whistle sounded at Wembley to seal England’s 4-1 victory, play was still going on at Villa Park. ITV headed straight there to show the final moments live, but the Scots could not get the second goal. They had achieved the same points, goal difference and head-to-head record as the Dutch, but crucially had scored fewer goals. As in the 1978 World Cup they had come close to unlikely progression when all had seemed lost, only for the Dutch to end the dream. Not that there was much celebrating among the orange contingent at Wembley, their side having been well beaten. They now faced a quarter-final clash with France at Anfield. England could look forward to meeting Spain at Wembley, with the nation now increasingly expectant after this triumph.

  

Teddy Sheringham puts England 4-0 up against the Dutch.

It had been a glorious night for England against the Dutch, as fans joyously sang Three Lions with its ‘Football’s Coming Home’ chorus. For once after an England match, there was high praise for the team from the media afterwards and their showing made the front pages as well as the back pages. In The Guardian, David Lacey wrote: “Nothing is impossible for England after their most famous victory at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. Beating Holland, the champions of 1988, to reach the quarter-finals of Euro 96 was not entirely unexpected, but sweeping past them amid such a cannonade of goals had surely crossed few people’s minds.”

Lacey’s colleague Richard Williams wrote: “England were, in a word, amazing. Against the best side they have so far met in this competition, they made those of us who have scorned their chances bend their knee to a performance in which they looked throughly credible candidates to win the Henri Delaunay Trophy. And even if they stumble at the next hurdle, or the one after that, at least Terry Venables and his team gave us a night we never expected, and will never forget.”

In the Daily Express, Steve Curry exclaimed: “Football came home all right last night in a torrent of irresistible English play. Holland, hailed as the team of the millennium, had the blueprint of their futuristic football screwed up and flung back at them by the men with three lions on their shirts.”

In The Independent, Glenn Moore wrote: “England’s performance was certainly the finest since the halcyon days of Italia ’90. It may even be the best since the days of Sir Alf Ramsey, though Bobby Robson could point to the 1986 World Cup win over Poland and a 4-1 win in Yugoslavia that earned European Championship qualification a year later. England outplayed the Dutch in every area of the game and were four goals up in barely an hour.”

There were notes of caution too, but euphoria was now gripping the nation. Four days later England looked far less potent against Spain and rode their luck as they drew 0-0 and won on penalties – still their only shoot-out triumph. The Dutch, who like England have endured their fair share of spot-kick heartache, duly went out that way to France. Destiny seemed on England’s side but those two familiar foes of Germans and penalties would end the dream in the semi-final. It was heartbreaking for the nation as the 30 years of hurt continued, but the memories of beating the Netherlands 4-1 remain special 20 years on.

When Roy Race managed England

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This month in 1978 Wembley was packed as an England side featuring Trevor Francis and Malcolm Macdonald thrashed the Netherlands 5-1. Remember it? Well unless you read the comic Roy of the Rovers then the answer would be no. In a break from our usual nostalgic recollections of how England fared in real-life, we delve into the world of fiction and look back at when the legendary Roy Race was in charge of his country for one match…

  

Between 1954 and 1993 millions of football fans enjoyed following the fortunes of star footballer Roy Race in his Roy of the Rovers storyline (originally in Tiger, later graduating to his own comic). Although the vast majority of his adventures concerned his club Melchester Rovers – and briefly Walford Rovers – there would occasionally be a chance to follow Roy in action for England. The most memorable such instance came in January 1978, Roy taking temporary charge of the national team after the manager was injured in a car crash. As at Melchester, he was to be player-manager.

The 13-man squad Roy picked would have been familiar to regular comic readers, given that eight of the players selected came from Melchester Rovers and featured regularly in Roy of the Rovers. Johnny Dexter was lead character in The Hard Man in Roy of the Rovers while Nipper Lawrence and Mike Bateson were from the Nipper storyline which appeared in sister title Tiger and Scorcher. At least Roy stopped short of calling up the eternally 12-year-old Billy Dane of Billy’s Boots fame!

And there were two other players selected who were of particular interest…

When two worlds collide

The vast majority of the time, Roy existed in a clearly fictional world which comprised of make-believe people and teams. But there were occasions when this wasn’t totally the case and in his England squad were Birmingham City forward Trevor Francis and Arsenal striker Malcolm ‘Supermac’ Macdonald – the latter having not played for England since 1976. Other real-life stars such as Kevin Keegan were nowhere to be seen. But there was a good reason why Francis and Macdonald were named in the side – they each had a column in Tiger and Scorcher. If you took their selections literally then everyone was now living in the same universe, in which Arsenal co-existed alongside Melchester Rovers and where Trevor Francis could appear with Roy Race.

  

Sir Alf Ramsey becomes caretaker manager of Melchester Rovers in 1982.

And the willingness to mix the two worlds would continue in the coming years. Sir Alf Ramsey took over as Melchester Rovers caretaker manager in 1982 after Roy was shot; Bobby Robson featured in the storyline as he considered whether to select Roy for his England squad in the mid-1980s; cricketer Geoffrey Boycott became Melchester chairman during the same period and then came the infamous decision to have Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and Steve Norman in the Melchester side along with the retired duo of Emlyn Hughes and Bob Wilson (the latter having last played professionally 11 years earlier!). It didn’t sit comfortably with loyal fans of the comic, including Frank Skinner.

Later there would be characters – albeit under different names – who couldn’t have been more obviously based on Jimmy Greaves and Paul Gascoigne. It all made a mockery of the small print that all characters appearing in the storylines were fictional and any resemblance to real people was coincidental. Meanwhile, Mr Squeaky Clean met Mr Squeaky Clean as Roy and Gary Lineker struck up a friendship that led to them releasing a single together

But going back to 1978, was the average schoolboy reader bothered about having real stars joining the storyline regulars to play for England? Probably not. They no doubt just wished that things could work the other way round and Roy could play for England in real-life!

Roy becomes the national hero

The choice of the Netherlands as England’s opponents was probably not coincidental. They had won acclaim in real-life with their run to the 1974 World Cup final and in 1977 had looked a class above in winning 2-0 at Wembley in a friendly. This would effectively be a rematch, although unlike with England the Dutch side would be totally fictional – as Roy was reunited with an old “chum” in Dutch captain Johan Seegrun.

  

Soon ‘Supermac’ would break the deadlock as England gloriously went on to win 5-1. Fans depicted watching the match at Wembley or on TV were shown looking delighted with the result, including one armchair viewer who – having earlier been castigated by his wife for criticising Roy’s decision to pick himself – was declaring the new manager had done the country proud. The night really had been ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’.

 

Malcolm Macdonald sends England on their way to a 5-1 win.

Club over country for Roy

There then followed a tug of love as Roy considered whether to become full-time manager of England or remain at Melchester. Club would ultimately win over country in the battle for Roy’s heart. He later played a couple of times for England under Bobby Robson in the mid-1980s. That proved to be the end of his full international career, although he would spend the summer of 1992 leading the England B team to success in a mini-tournament as player-manager. 

It has to be said that, given how prolific and skilled Roy was, he made a surprisingly low number of appearances in an England shirt during his 39-year playing career (during which he aged remarkably well!). There are probably three reasons for this. Firstly, the title of the storyline was Roy of the Rovers and therefore his club endeavours were always intended as the main focus. Secondly, constantly switching between what Roy did for Melchester and England would have disrupted the flow of the story. And thirdly, a fair proportion of readers were not English. Whereas everybody would get behind Roy when he donned the Rovers shirt, those from other parts of the UK or overseas may have not felt the same desire to see him firing them in for England. 

  

Roy Race teams up with Gary Lineker in 1989.

Roy’s playing career ended with a helicopter crash in 1993, the underlying reason being falling sales of his weekly comic. Revivals of the storyline – with son Rocky now playing up front for Rovers – in a new monthly Roy of the Rovers comic and the magazines Shoot! and in Match of the Day all proved fairly short-lived, with the last official new storylines appearing on the shelves as far back as 2001. But those who have missed their regular ROTR fix can enjoy regular adventures at at ‘Storky Knight’s’ website containing fresh storylines, including some set in past seasons. Looking at the site, the newest story sees Melchester managed by Johan Seegrun – the Dutch captain during that 5-1 defeat by Roy Race’s England in 1978. In a hectic era when he got married, became a father to twins, suffered the most unlikely of relegations and was almost killed after being shot, Racey’s time in charge of his country stood out as another memorable moment for Roy of the Rovers.

Six of the Worst – England in April

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Having looked back at some of England’s best April days in the last blog post, it’s now time to be gluttons for punishment and recall six matches in the month which weren’t quite so enjoyable for a variety of reasons.

April 15, 1967, Scotland (h) 2-3 European Championship qualifier/Home International Championship

A match that will forever be fondly remembered in Scotland as the day they called themselves world champions, but one better best forgotten south of the border. England were World Cup winners and unbeaten since October 1965, but they were to infamously come unstuck with Jim Baxter inspiring his side to victory. The annual fixture had extra spice as the Home International Championships of 1966-67 and 1967-68 were doubling up as qualifying for the 1968 European Championship. It ended 3-2 to Scotland, in a contest that properly sprung to life in the closing stages with a goal rush. A first-half effort by Denis Law was all that separated the sides until Bobby Lennox struck 12 minutes from time to double Scotland’s advantage.

In a hectic last seven minutes Jack Charlton (who bravely played through the pain barrier virtually all match, with no substitutions possible) and Geoff Hurst scored for England, but in between Jim McCalliog got Scotland’s third as they celebrated one of their most famous wins over the Auld Enemy. But England would have the last laugh by advancing to the last eight of the European finals with a 1-1 draw at Hampden Park the following February.

April 29, 1972, West Germany (h) 1-3 European Championship quarter final, first leg

 

No doubt about this one going on the list, the night England could feel themselves slipping from the elite and entering their years in the international wilderness. If their defeat to West Germany at the same stage of the World Cup two years earlier could be dismissed as a bit of bad fortune, there was no sense of injustice here as they were deservedly beaten 3-1. Bobby Moore uncharacteristically lost possession in the build-up to the opening West German goal by Uli Hoeness and it was to be a sobering Saturday night for Englishmen. Although Sir Alf Ramsey’s side pulled themselves back into it thanks to a Francis Lee goal, they were punished twice more in the closing minutes by the superb Gunter Netzer (pen) and Gerd Muller and left with a mountain to climb after their 3-1 defeat. Sir Alf fully accepted the Germans deserved their first Wembley win, but added: “We didn’t get hold of it until the second half. By then West Germany had all the confidence in the world because of the freedom we let them have in the first half.”

Unsurprisingly there was no turnaround in Berlin two weeks later, as the teams drew 0-0 and West Germany went on to win the competition.

April 3, 1974, Portugal (a) 0-0 Friendly

Nothing particularly awful about this result or England’s display, but the match marked an anti-climatic end to Sir Alf Ramsey’s reign in charge of England. He had avoided being axed immediately after they failed to qualify for the World Cup finals the previous October and set about a rebuilding exercise by fielding one of the least experienced England teams in history (there were six debutants and the third most capped player in the starting line-up was Malcolm Macdonald, who was making only his fifth appearance). This was at least partly due to an FA Cup semi-final replay and First Division matches on the same night depriving him of players such as Kevin Keegan, with that match also taking precedence over England’s trip to Portugal in terms of media coverage – the BBC show Sportsnight showed highlights of Liverpool’s win rather than the late-night match in Lisbon.

Several new caps acquitted themselves well including Trevor Brooking and Dave Watson, but giving them a taste of full international life would be Sir Alf’s last act. The man who led England to 1966 World Cup glory was dismissed little more than two weeks later, as he paid a belated price for not reaching the finals this time. One match with Portgual eight years earlier had been a true highlight of his career, but this one would be remembered only for sad reasons as he said farewell.

April 29, 1981, Romania (h) 0-0 World Cup qualifier
It still remains baffling how England managed to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, enduring several poor results along the way like this one. They were jeered off the field by a frustrated Wembley crowd and it could have been even worse after Ilie Balaci almost deceived Peter Shilton with a long-range header in the goalless draw. The display inevitably attracted criticism, including from Daily Express reporter Steve Curry who wrote: “It looks as if English players travelling to Spain next year will be doing so to spend time on the beaches rather than football fields.”

A few months later everyone thought he would be right after things got even worse with defeats for Ron Greenwood’s men in Switzerland and Norway, but they would make it – somehow!

April 29, 1987, Turkey (a) 0-0 European Championship qualifier
More woe on April 29th! Having won 8-0 on their previous visit to Turkey in 1984, there was expectation for England to enjoy another comfortable win as they took a 100% record in Euro ’88 qualifying to Izmir. But it was to be a frustrating afternoon, as Bobby Robson’s side struggled to make the breakthrough against an improved but limited Turkish side and were held to a 0-0 draw.

To make matters worse, there were problems with the transmission of the match as viewers back home were effectively left watching in black and white in the opening few minutes! “Well you’ve seen the apologies for the quality of the pictures this afternoon and may I apologise for the quality of the football you’ve been witnessing,” quipped BBC presenter Jimmy Hill at half-time. It didn’t get much better after the break, as Clive Allen was unable to carry his prolific club form into the international arena. It proved to be the one blemish for England in an excellent qualifying campaign.

April 28, 1993, Netherlands (h) 2-2 World Cup qualifier

 

This was just minutes away from surely making it into the Six of the Best list, but instead Graham Taylor was left reflecting afterwards on “the biggest disappointment of my career”. Norway’s blistering start to the group had put pressure on both England and the Dutch, meaning their head to head meetings could be decisive in who went to the finals in the USA. Taylor’s side started superbly, with John Barnes scoring a free-kick and David Platt doubling the lead. Although a well executed goal from Dennis Bergkamp pulled the Netherlands back into the match before the break and Paul Gascoigne sustained a facial injury thanks to Jan Wouters’ elbow, it looked like England would hold out for a win until the closing stages. Des Walker was uncharacteristically caught for pace and adjudged to have pulled Marc Overmars back in the area (he had first grabbed his shirt outside the box), with Peter van Vossen scoring from the spot.

“We were lucky – England were the better team,” said a relieved Dutch manager Dick Advocaat after the 2-2 draw. As we all know, Taylor would have more reason to curse the Dutch before the qualifying campaign was over.

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…