Peter Shilton

Six of the Best – Dramatic England World Cup qualifying climaxes

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In the coming days England will be expected to wrap up World Cup qualification without too much anxiety. But plenty of England World Cup qualifying campaigns have gone right to the wire and we today recall six such instances…

Republic of Ireland 1-1 England, May 1957

England qualified unbeaten for each World Cup from 1950 to 1962 (and then automatically for the two after that), with their one real moment of worry coming in their last qualifier for the 1958 World Cup. Just 11 days after England had won 5-1 at home to the Republic of Ireland and more than a year before the finals, the sides met again in Dublin with Walter Winterbottom’s team needing a point to clinch qualification. If England lost, then they would have to face their opponents again in a play-off provided the Irish beat Denmark (considered a weak side at the time).

John Atyeo’s late goal took England through to the 1958 World Cup, but he would never appear for them again.

Alf Ringstead put Ireland in front after three minutes and that looked like it would settle the contest. But in the last minute Bristol City’s John Atyeo levelled matters to break Irish hearts and send England through to Sweden. Atyeo was rewarded by never being capped again. This contest may not be as well-known as the others we are recalling today, but it was no less dramatic as England rode their luck to qualify. “Never will they have a narrower squeak,” reported The Times. “Indeed every Irishman this evening will be darkly muttering the word ‘robbery’.”

England 1-1 Poland, October 1973

A match that will never be forgotten and still crops up in discussion more than 40 years later. When England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1978 and 1994 they went into the last match still in with a shout but with matters out of their hands, with fortune not on their side as they missed out despite beating Italy and San Marino respectively. But at the climax of qualifying for the 1974 tournament, matters were more straightforward. “Win or bust,” said BBC commentator Barry Davies as England welcomed Poland to Wembley in October 1973. The 1966 World Cup winners had to win this match to make the 1974 finals, or the Poles would be the side to make it to West Germany. First was first, second really would be nowhere with no play-offs to offer another shot at getting through. Poland had inflicted England’s first World Cup qualifying defeat four months earlier and were not to be underestimated.

An image that sums up the infamous night: England attacking, but not scoring.

As has been well-documented, England peppered the Polish goal but a combination of bad luck, Jan Tomaszewski’s heroics – despite being labelled a “clown” by Brian Clough – and Sir Alf Ramsey’s men failing to take chances kept the game goalless. Then the sucker punch was dealt after the break, Norman Hunter and Peter Shilton both taking the blame for Jan Domarski’s breakaway goal to give the Poles the lead. Although Allan Clarke’s penalty restored parity, the winner would not come for England despite creating further chances – with substitute Kevin Hector almost the hero at the death. As the final whistle sounded there was disbelief at Wembley. “One of the blackest days they’ve ever had,” said ITV commentator Hugh Johns as reality bit about England’s failure. They should have won this one, but the Poles would prove they had merited qualification when they excelled to take third spot in the tournament. By then, Ramsey was out of a job.

England 1-0 Hungary, November 1981

When England took “a hell of a beating” away to Norway in September 1981, it looked like the game was up and they would fail to qualify for a third successive World Cup and potentially be out even before they played their last game at home to Hungary. But then the footballing gods answered ‘Reverend Ron’ Greenwood’s prayers. An unexpected combination of results – most notably main challengers Romania taking one point from two games against Switzerland – meant England now only needed a point at home to the Hungarians, who had already qualified as group winners. But so fraught had England’s qualifying campaign been that nobody was celebrating yet. The game’s importance was such that Wembley was full to its 92,000 night-time capacity and it was being televised live on the BBC – a rarity for home games at the time.

Paul Mariner’s goal takes England through to the 1982 World Cup.

The nation prepared for a tense night but an early goal by Paul Mariner calmed nerves and the Hungarians rarely looked like they might bail out their Eastern European rivals Romania. England successfully saw the game out and at last they could plan for a summer in Spain. The game itself was perhaps less dramatic and nerve-jangling in the closing stages than most of the others we are recalling today, but it would not be surpassed for sheer relief over qualification being achieved as the crowd at Wembley sang themselves hoarse in the rain. “England are back,” they roared, as England followers felt delight that the Three Lions would finally be present in a World Cup finals.

Poland 0-0 England, October 1989

When England visited Poland for their final Italia ’90 qualifier, it seemed more than likely they would make the finals after Terry Butcher’s full-blooded display in Sweden the previous month. To simplify a rather complicated situation they would definitely go through if they avoided defeat in Chorzow. If they lost they would then endure a tense few weeks hoping other results went in their favour to qualify. They had yet to concede a goal in five matches, although Bobby Robson and his side had not totally shaken off the criticism that came their way after flopping during Euro ’88. Failure to qualify would almost certainly spell the end for Robson.

England were far from fluent in this game and were reliant on the veteran Shilton, who made amends for his error against the same opponents 16 years earlier with a series of impressive stops. As the clock reached 90 minutes England appeared to have wrapped up the draw they needed to make it to Italy. Then, after 540 minutes of keeping opponents out during the group, they suddenly looked like they were going to concede in stoppage time of the last game as Ryszard Tarasiewicz let fly from outside the area. His strike beat Shilton but cannoned back off the crossbar and away to safety. England’s sigh of relief over that was nothing compared to that breathed once the enormity of the point earned became clear in the weeks that followed. Wins for Sweden (v Poland), Romania (v Denmark) and West Germany (v Wales) would have all conspired to keep England at home as the weakest runner-up from the groups containing four teams had they lost. Considering how fondly remembered Italia ’90 is by England fans, it’s amazing to think just how close they came to not even qualifying for it.

Italy 0-0 England, October 1997

Eight years to the night of England getting the draw required in Poland, they again needed to stand firm to make the finals as they faced a showdown with Italy in Rome. Although the Italians had won at Wembley in February, England had shown greater consistency during the qualifying campaign to hold top spot ahead of the decisive final qualifier. If England avoided defeat they were through, if they lost they would be in the play-offs. It was Glenn Hoddle’s biggest test since taking over as boss the previous year, taking on proven opposition in a frenzied atmosphere. 

David Beckham, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne celebrate in Rome.

England gave a disciplined display that is still fondly remembered 20 years later, withstanding the Italian threat and at times looking like they could win it themselves. Never more so than in stoppage time, as Ian Wright struck the post after chasing down the Italian defence. It would have capped the night but suddenly Italy – down to 10 men after Angelo de Livio received a second yellow card – broke forward and for once managed to carve out a clear opening. Time stood still as the ball was crossed for Christian Vieri, who headed across goal and inches wide. It was the last chance and seconds later Hoddle could celebrate his crowning glory. Wright sank to his knees in joy, but fate would lead to him missing out on yet another major tournament. The night also really marked the last international hurrah for Paul Gascoigne, back in the city he graced with Lazio, while midfield colleague Paul Ince led by example as he played on with his head bandaged up. It really was a night to remember.

England 2-2 Greece, October 2001

Following Sven-Goran Eriksson’s arrival, England had been unstoppable and recovered from a poor start in the group to lead it with a game to play. Now they simply had to win at home to a Greece side who were already out of the running, or match whatever Germany’s result was at home to Finland. But England, fielding Nigel Martyn in goal in David Seaman’s absence, endured an afternoon of struggle on a day when the Greeks gave an early inkling of what they would go on to astonishingly achieve during Euro 2004. Greece twice took the lead, with substitute Teddy Sheringham’s goal seconds after coming on only briefly levelling matters.

David Beckham’s free-kick clinches England’s World Cup finals place in the dying seconds.

England seemed destined to have to settle for a play-off spot, but there was one glimmer of hope. Germany were being held by Finland, meaning that a draw would be sufficient for England to claim top spot. The ending would be unforgettable, David Beckham’s free-kick levelling matters and sending Eriksson’s side through. It had hardly been a performance or result to savour, but the manner in which qualification was clinched brought wild celebrations at Old Trafford. “It’s a fantastic ending to a very poor performance,” proclaimed BBC commentator John Motson.

Since then England have made lighter work of qualifying for World Cups, wrapping up their place before the final game for the 2006 and 2010 tournaments and getting the win they needed at home to Poland to top the qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup.

The Dave Beasant Myth at Italia ’90

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On the 25th anniversary of the unforgettable World Cup semi-final between England and West Germany, we put to bed one story that has grown over the years – that Bobby Robson was considering bringing on reserve goalkeeper and penalty specialist Dave Beasant for the shoot-out.

As penalties loomed between Costa Rica and the Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-finals last year, Louis van Gaal brought on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen. BBC co-commentator Danny Murphy made reference to how Bobby Robson had toyed with doing that during the Italia ’90 semi-final by considering bringing Dave Beasant on for Peter Shilton. Suddenly, Twitter was awash with people claiming they had urged Robson to make that change 24 years earlier and effectively blaming the now deceased former manager for not going ahead with it.

But those believing Beasant should have been brought on were overlooking one crucial thing – he was not even on the bench. And here’s the proof:

Italia ’90 was the last World Cup at which just five substitutes could be named and Beasant was not one of them, with regular substitute goalkeeper Chris Woods claiming the place on the bench. Beasant was not even named in the original squad, being drafted in for the injured David Seaman after the tournament began. He was never realistically going to feature for England during the finals. England’s previous two matches came close to needing penalties and Beasant wasn’t in the fray for those either.

Besides the fact it was impossible for Beasant to come on that night, there are other reasons why such a change was never really on. With hindsight it may seem that the change should have been made, but one can understand why Robson wouldn’t have done so at the time. The first reason is 40-year-old Shilton was the undisputed number one, whose place in the England side was pretty much unchallenged under Robson. Despite his advancing years, Shilton had been praised by pundits for his display against Cameroon in the quarter-finals. Hauling him off in such a big match was – in that era at least – inconceivable. Although much is made of the fact Shilton had a poor record when it came to saving penalties, it should be considered that only three of the last five spot-kicks he faced when playing for England had been scored (one was saved, another missed). That sort of record in the shoot-out would give England a strong chance of a win.

The second reason is there was a clear hierarchy in place when it came to England goalkeepers. While Shilton was the unchallenged number one, Chris Woods was unquestionably second choice with anyone else a fairly distant third. Shoving Woods aside and then substituting Shilton so Beasant could come on in such a big match could have left Robson with two unhappy goalkeepers in the build-up to the final if they won. While it’s easy to say there is no room for sentiment in football, Robson was generally loyal to his core group of players. It is rarely suggested Woods should have been brought on for Shilton, probably because he was smaller than Beasant and less renowned for saving penalties.

The third reason why such a change was unlikely is that England had never been involved in a shoot-out before and there was little to suggest things would probably go wrong. As mentioned above, Shilton was not renowned for saving penalties but nobody could be sure how things would pan out against tired players who had run around for two gruelling hours. Penalty-shoot-outs were still a relative novelty and the psychology of them was not analysed to the same extent as today. Had it been more common for goalkeepers to be substituted ahead of shoot-outs, then one suspects it would have been far more an option for Robson.


Peter Shilton was continually unable to reach the penalties taken by West Germany.

Robson fuelled the myth in this interview with FourFourTwo magazine in 2003, in which he said “bringing on Beasant crossed my mind”. Regardless of the fact it couldn’t have happened anyway, Robson makes a key point that helps explain why it wasn’t really an option. “The thing is if you do it and succeed you’re a genius, if you do it and you lose the first thing people will say is ‘why did you take off your number one keeper and bring on your third choice?’. We stuck with Shilton and as it turned out every penalty the Germans took was a cracker that no one would have saved.”

While there’s no argument about the quality of the German penalties, the claim nobody would have saved them has been questioned. Shilton was probably guilty of waiting too long to see which way the Germans would go before diving for them, in a World Cup where there was a growing trend for spot-kicks to be aimed straight down the middle after goalkeepers had moved. He continually went the right way, but too late. Beasant’s penalty saving reputation has really emerged by denying John Aldridge in Wimbledon’s famous FA Cup Final win over Liverpool in 1988. Would he have denied the Germans in a World Cup semi-final-final? We will never know.

In today’s football climate, one suspects the change would have been made. It happens more frequently than 25 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been seen as such an insult to Shilton and both reserve goalkeepers would be on the bench. There have been a few instances in both domestic and international football of teams bringing on another goalkeeper in time for the penalties – often followed by triumphing. It can give a psychological boost as much as anything.


Dave Beasant.

Beasant made just two England appearances – both as a substitute – and would not feature again after Graham Taylor replaced Robson after the World Cup. Incredibly at the age of 56 he was on the bench for Stevenage last season during the League Two play-offs. A record breaker who could have made history for England that night in Turin. Except it was impossible for it to happen…

England Qualifying Campaigns: 1990 World Cup – Robson’s slow road to redemption

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Ahead of England returning to qualifying action next month for Euro 2016 after a poor record at the World Cup finals in Brazil, we recall when they came home from the horror show of Euro ’88 and began the process of attempting to make it to Italia ’90. Bobby Robson was a man under pressure and faced a tough job rebuilding pride and his reputation. It was a rocky path at times, but he would get them there although he would have to wait for the finals for the tide to properly turn in his favour…

England’s route to Italia ’90 really began in December 1987 when the qualifying draw was made. At that point Robson’s side were still celebrating qualifying with an unbeaten record for the European Championships and being one of the favourites to win it. They had no reason to fear other sides in the World Cup qualifying draw and were one of the seeded teams. The draw, not unlike the eventual qualifying process as a whole for England, would prove to be a case of ‘could have been better, could have been worse’.

They crucially avoided the Dutch from pot two, landing Poland who had reached the past four World Cups but were entering a period of decline. They could have drawn an easier side from pot three than Sweden, but they had not qualified for a major tournament for a decade. And Albania were a candidate for the weakest team in pot four, being something of an unknown quantity to the English. The Three Lions were favourites to progress, but being drawn in one of the groups with just four teams meant they would have to finish top to be sure of a World Cup spot. In an era before play-offs became the norm for second place sides, if they had the poorest of the runners-up records from the three groups with four teams in then they would miss out.

But thoughts of the World Cup were put on hold as England focused on their Euro ’88 preparations. Gradually, things began to go wrong with Terry Butcher ruled out with a broken leg and the goals drying up as the finals approached. When they began, Robson’s men would infamously lose all three games and the manager found his future under scrutiny. The use of the term ‘Plonker’ by Del Boy to Rodney in Only Fools and Horses may have been good natured, but it certainly wasn’t when tabloid newspapers screamed out the term about Robson after a bad result. Crucially though, the FA stood by him after Robson appeared set for the axe as the side flopped in West Germany.

Those who demanded my resignation – and I am thinking in particular about specific newspapers – will be disappointed to hear me reinforce my decision not to quit. It might have crossed my mind, fleetingly, when I wondered if my family could cope with almost intolerable strain, that I should step down. But I am not a quitter and will not back down,”  Bobby Robson in his first programme notes after the European Championship.

Robson wields the axe
As the dust settled on Euro ’88, Robson knew he had to act and make tough decisions to regain the winning formula by dispensing with members of his core squad of players. Kenny Sansom, Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley and Dave Watson played for Robson for the last time in the finals, while Viv Anderson and Peter Reid were never recalled after winning their final caps shortly before the tournament. Tony Adams played the first three games after Euro ’88 but was never picked again by Robson and fellow central defender Mark Wright was discarded until April 1990 before coming back to prominence at Italia ’90.

In their place would emerge an abundance of new players, gradually phased in with 17 new caps awarded between September 1988 and December 1989. The key men to enter the squad were Paul Gascoigne, Paul Parker, David Platt and Des Walker, who would all start the 1990 World Cup semi-final, while players such as Steve Bull and David Rocastle would also establish themselves in the squad. For several others like Brian Marwood, Mike Phelan and Mel Sterland it would be a very short international road, but they could at least console themselves with the knowledge they had been capped at full level by England. Robson gave several players from the under-21s their chance at full level and also utilised the England ‘B’ squad as a means of assessing the talent available.

A different era
1988 was a very different era to today’s football world, with Luton Town and Wimbledon having just won the two main domestic cups. Chelsea and Manchester City would be spending 1988-89 in the Second Division (when that term still meant the second tier). International football tournaments and qualifying campaigns operated on a two points for a win basis and this was still the era of the old Czechoslovakia, USSR and Yugoslavia taking to the field. The Berlin Wall had yet to fall and the 1990 World Cup would be the final tournament East Germany and West Germany both competed in. Hopes of the ban on English clubs competing in Europe had been ended by further hooliganism in recent months, including at the European Championship. It was genuinely feared the national team could be next to pay the price for the ‘English disease’ and be given a ban from major tournaments if there was further serious disorder.

But domestically there were also moves into the modern footballing world. The summer saw some big money transfers, including Gascoigne’s £2.2 million switch from Newcastle United to Tottenham Hotspur. ITV splashed out to secure exclusive coverage of the Football League. Their deal would have particular emphasis on the ‘Big Five’ (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs) and the First Division title race. The BBC countered, striking a deal for exclusive terrestrial rights of the FA Cup and England matches. England fans would be hearing a lot from Jimmy Hill in the coming years.

Out with the old, in with (some of) the new
England’s road to recovery would appropriately begin with a clash with fellow Euro ’88 flops Denmark in a friendly at Wembley in September, an unofficial decider for the wooden spoon winner of the tournament. Old campaigners like Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher were joined by three debutants. Gascoigne and Walker came off the bench, on a night when Rocastle also made his first appearance. Luton Town’s powerful striker Mick Harford won his second and final cap in attack as Robson tried to find an alternative big man to Hateley up front, while Stuart Pearce was now first choice left-back after previously being Sansom’s understudy. Neil Webb scored the winner in a low-key atmosphere, just 25,837 showing up.

Five weeks later came a more important test as Sweden visited Wembley in the opening World Cup qualifier. It proved to be a night of frustration as England were unable to break down their opponents, for whom defender Glenn Hysen ran the show. Gary Lineker (who was hospitalised with hepatitis shortly after the Euro finals) seemed to lack the sharpness and precision that had previously made him so deadly. The goalless draw was not a good start for Robson, who now faced a long five-month wait before the next qualifier.

Getting results but not much praise
Things would get worse before 1988 was out, a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia attracting the infamous ‘In the name of Allah, Go!’ headline. Robson wouldn’t be leaving and would justifiably point out how the Saudis had managed draws with several other established football nations, but that would not wash with many critics.  The match saw Robson experiment and recognise Arsenal’s strong start to the season with first caps for Michael Thomas, Alan Smith and Brian Marwood along with David Seaman (QPR) and Mel Sterland (Sheffield Wednesday). It was clear Robson was feeling the strain and was increasingly on the defensive with most members of the media, telling BBC commentator Barry Davies he was “impertinent” the following day over his line of questioning in his post-match interview.

The press vultures seemed to be growing in number as England began 1989 with an away friendly in Greece, but mercifully Robson’s side came from behind to win 2-1 and keep their unbeaten run going. Come March, the World Cup campaign resumed with a trip into the unknown as England travelled to Albania. It wasn’t a stirring performance and England could have fallen behind, but the watching audience back home on a Wednesday afternoon could at least enjoy a 2-0 win thanks to goals from John Barnes and Bryan Robson (who shrugged off a stomach bug to play and inspire his country to victory). Lineker’s ongoing poor form prompted concern, Jimmy Hill in the London studio calling for him to be dropped for the next match.

Football pays its respects
That match would be the return at Wembley against Albania late the following month. Initially the fixture had been overshadowed by a row over the scheduling over the crunch Liverpool against Arsenal clash for TV purposes, being due to be played just three days beforehand on the Sunday afternoon much to Bobby Robson’s annoyance. But this dispute was totally put into perspective by the horrific events at Hillsborough on April 15th, which sent football into mourning. The Liverpool against Arsenal match was understandably postponed. John Barnes withdrew from the squad, but Liverpool team-mate Peter Beardsley would play.

Wembley fell silent before kick-off 11 days on from the tragedy as English football paid its respects, with the team then turning in a committed display to win 5-0 and boost their goal difference and qualification hopes. Lineker kept his place and scored his first England goal for 10 months and the night was capped by Gascoigne coming off the bench to round off the scoring with his first international goal. Not that Robson was totally satisfied with the young talent, deciding to bring him down a peg as he told Sportsnight interviewer Tony Gubba that Gascoigne had “played in every position of the pitch except the position I told him to play in”.

A chance to experiment in attack
Before the summer break, England still had four matches to play. The Hillsborough disaster meant there was a prolonged end to the league season and limited England’s squad for the Rous Cup, with Liverpool and Arsenal players all absent. The three-cornered tournament was on its last legs, with Chile as the ‘other’ side struggling to capture the public imagination in England and Scotland. Not helped by a tube strike, a record low Wembley crowd for England of 15,628 witnessed a 0-0 draw that saw Wimbledon’s John Fashanu and Nottingham Forest’s Nigel Clough win their debuts in a new-look attack. The selection of the bustling Fashanu was not universally approved and his international career would last for just two matches.

Four days later (the night after Robson had been at Anfield to witness Arsenal dramatically clinch the league title) what turned out to be the last annual Scotland against England fixture brought a 2-0 win for Robson’s men at Hampden Park, with arguably the manager’s biggest selection gamble of his England reign paying off. The powerful Steve Bull was still technically a Third Division player with Wolves, for whom he had been scoring goals for fun for the past couple of years. That potency and confidence in front of goal was on show here as he came off the bench to seal a 2-0 win, ensuring he would stay in the fray.

On June 3rd, England took a big step towards the World Cup finals by beating Poland 3-0 at Wembley. For all the talk in the build-up of the Poles’ infamous last visit in 1973 when they qualified at England’s expense, this was a comfortable win for Robson’s men as Lineker found the net before Barnes and Webb wrapped things up. After four games England led the table by two points from Sweden, who had played a game less, with Poland being cut adrift. There was still work to be done to qualify, but Robson and his players could for once walk off Wembley to genuine cheers. The season ended with a 1-1 draw away to Denmark, Lineker again scoring on a night when Peter Shilton became England’s most capped player. Although it had not been a season when England met world class opposition, the statistics would show it was their first unbeaten campaign since 1974-75.

Sweating blood for the England cause
England’s World Cup qualifying programme resumed in early September 1989. For many years the Three Lions had been hit by ‘Septemberitis’, often suffering bad results in their first international of the season. It was not an ideal time to be facing a crucial qualifier away to Sweden. A draw would edge England towards the finals, although they would not be certain of wrapping up their place there. Reports of trouble involving English followers did not lift the mood as the side prepared for a vital clash. It was a night mainly remembered for injuries: captain Bryan Robson sat it out and watched from the BBC studio with Des Lynam, Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables; Neil Webb was carried off just weeks after joining Manchester United; and most famously of all, Terry Butcher refused to let the fact he split his head open and was covered in blood put him off, as he played on as his white England shirt became increasingly red. It was another 0-0 draw, with England not sparkling but not letting themselves down either. Lineker (now back playing in England with Spurs) again spurned chances and Waddle fired wide after appearing to have done the hard work with a jinking run towards goal.

“I felt we were the better side and it was a disappointment, in the circumstances, that we did not do better,” – Bobby Robson after the 0-0 draw in Sweden.

The draw meant England still had to get something in Poland a month later to be sure of going through. A win would ensure they topped the group, a draw would take them through as one of the best second place sides. It was a big game, with an international break the weekend before the match seeing Saint & Greavsie come live from the England team hotel. Poland’s hopes of making the finals were slim. They would have to win all three remaining games and overturn a fairly substantial goal difference to finish ahead of England.

By the width of the crossbar…
It was a far from vintage display from Robson’s men and they were pretty fortunate to get the draw they needed to make it through to Italy. Shilton gave a vintage display to keep the Poles out and lay the ghost of 16 years earlier to rest, but England rarely threatened and seemed ultra-cautious at times in the hostile Katowice atmosphere. Two years earlier in Yugoslavia they had gone at their hosts early in similar circumstances to wrap up qualification when a draw would have done it; this time around they seemed to let the need for a point dominate their thoughts. Perhaps the failings of Euro ’88 still preyed on their mind. In the dying seconds Shilton was finally beaten from 30 yards out by Ryszard Tarasiewicz, the relief being palpable as the ball struck the bar and bounced away to safety. Moments later the final whistle sounded and England were there, relief rather than joy being the main emotion. But they had qualified without conceding a goal and had not lost a qualifying match for a major tournament since September 1983.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear just how close England came to not making the finals. Had they conceded that last-gasp goal to Poland, they would have been reliant on any of three results going in their favour and none did. They saw Sweden leapfrog them to top spot in their group by winning in Poland, while Denmark’s defeat to Romania and West Germany’s win over Wales would have seen England finish as the poorest of the second-place teams by virtue of having scored less goals than Denmark. As it was, they finished a point ahead of them and the Danes – so stylish at the 1986 finals – had missed out.

England could start planning for Italy and did so with a friendly against the Italians at Wembley in November. The game once more ended 0-0 but was perhaps most significant for another new face, David Platt, making his international debut en route to being a key man for England the following summer. New caps were also handed out to Dave Beasant, Nigel Winterburn and Mike Phelan. Gascoigne had still yet to fully establish himself, playing in the B international against the Italians at Brighton instead.

Before the year was out England would ominously be placed in a World Cup group with European Championship opponents Netherlands and Republic of Ireland, along with Egypt. Preparations were gathering place the finals and a rare December friendly at home to Yugoslavia brought the curtain down on the 1980s, with Tony Dorigo becoming the 17th new cap since the summer of 1988. In a decade when the Robsons symbolised the England set-up, it was perhaps appropriate it would be captain Bryan who scored twice (including a first minute effort) to give England a 2-1 victory.

England would go into the new decade off the back of a 14 match unbeaten run, having qualified for the World Cup finals and started to lay the Euro ’88 mishaps to rest. A momentous and memorable year was in store, but that’s another story…

When England had a chance of third place…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England sign off from the 1990 World Cup

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

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