San Marino

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…

Six of the Worst – England in November

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Earlier this month we recalled six of England’s best matches in November. Now we look at things from a less positive perspective and reflect on six games from the past 50 years when things didn’t go quite so well…

November 2, 1966 Czechoslovakia (h) 0-0 Friendly

England’s first home match after the glory of winning the World Cup proved to be an anti-climax, as Czechoslovakia came to Wembley and ground out a 0-0 draw. A crowd of 75,000 turned up hoping to continue the summer’s party, with England fielding the same side as had won the World Cup final just over three months earlier. But it was a frustrating night for Alf Ramsey’s men.

The Times painted a negative picture of the match the following morning, under the headline ‘England fall from grace at Wembley’. The report began: “After the World Cup triumph, the dust cart. That is how England must have felt last night at the end of their goalless draw with Czechoslovakia at Wembley. That too was how a 75,000 crowd must have felt long before the finish.” It was certainly after the Lord Mayor’s Show, but England got back in their stride a fortnight later when they beat Wales 5-1.

November 20, 1974 Portugal (h) 0-0 European Championship qualifier

Three weeks earlier, there was genuine optimism about what the Don Revie era would bring for England when they beat Czechoslovakia 3-0 in their opening European Championship qualifier. But it was to be a short-lived honeymoon, as his second match in charge provided a reality check. Portugal were not of the same quality of the Eusebio-inspired World Cup semi-finalists in 1966 but they stifled England and claimed a 0-0 draw. On the occasions England did threaten, visiting goalkeeper VĂ­tor Damas was in form to thwart them.

‘What a load of rubbish!’ screamed the back page headline in the following day’s Daily Mirror, in reference to what had been chanted by frustrated fans at Wembley. Revie accepted the crowd had every right to vent their frustration, saying: “We didn’t play at all. It was a bad performance. We didn’t deserve anything more than a draw.” A year later, England’s hopes of staying in the competition effectively ended with a 1-1 draw in the return fixture.

November 17, 1976 Italy (a) 0-2 World Cup qualifier

“This is no place to try new ideas,” said BBC commentator David Coleman as England took to the field in Rome for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Italy. But manager Don Revie had decided to make six changes from the previous game against Finland – when admittedly they had not played well – and it was a big gamble to take in such a tough-looking qualifying match. England started reasonably well but never realistically looked like they could get a result. They trailed at half-time as Giancarlo Antognoni’s free-kick deflected in off Kevin Keegan past Ray Clemence. The killer second seemed symbolic of the difference in quality between the sides, a neat move ending with Roberto Bettega scoring a diving header. Italy deservedly won 2-0 and were in the driving seat to qualify for the 1978 World Cup.

  

England endured a frustrating afternoon in Rome.

“I think we went out on the pitch thinking ‘let’s see if we can get a draw out of this’,” reflected Trevor Brooking years later, summing up the lack of belief in the England side on the day. Few were arguing about the outcome. Bobby Charlton, summarising for the BBC, said: “There’s no question at all the better side won.” There was still a year of qualifying remaining, but already England were in deep trouble and facing up to yet another absence from a major tournament. Although they beat Italy 2-0 in the return game the following November, it was the Italians who qualified on goal difference.

November 16, 1988 Saudi Arabia (a) 1-1 Friendly

England avoided defeat in November following the aforementioned Italy game until 1999, but this didn’t mean there were no disappointments along the way. There were a few low points during the Bobby Robson years with England, but arguably the lowest of them all came with this 1-1 draw away to Saudi Arabia in which they needed an equaliser from Tony Adams to avoid defeat. It was an experimental England side including five debutants – most notably future regular goalkeeper David Seaman – but that counted for little in the eyes of the critics. England had flopped at Euro ’88, failed to win their opening Italia ’90 qualifier at home to Sweden and now the vultures were circling after being held by Saudi Arabia. Robson correctly pointed out that the Saudis had recently achieved some decent results against other established football nations but this fell on deaf ears, as the tabloid press had a field day at his expense.

  

The chief protagonist was the Daily Mirror, which followed up its previous ‘Go! In the name of God, go!’ headline with the memorable ‘Go! In the name of Allah, go!’ screaming out from the back page. Not content with this and another damning headline of ‘Robbo should be a train driver’, the paper followed it up with more digs 24 hours later. It devoted a double page spread to ’20 facts that say Robbo must go’ complete with the spiteful subheading of ‘there’s 101… but we’ve run out of space’. Given the hero status Robson would enjoy after Italia ’90 it’s easy to forget just how much flack he took at times prior to that – and this was one of the worst examples.

November 17, 1993 San Marino (a) 7-1 World Cup qualifier

For the only time between 1987 and 2013, England scored more than six times in a full international. And yet there wasn’t a shred of happiness among English football fans or for Ian Wright, who netted four times in Bologna. The night represented the culmination of England’s failure to qualify for the World Cup finals and would forever be remembered for the calmitious opening moments. Up against arguably the weakest international side in Europe, England found themselves 1-0 down inside nine seconds as Davide Gualtieri seized upon Stuart Pearce’s underhit backpass to score for San Marino.

  

One of England’s most infamous moments.

England went into the night needing Poland to win at home to the Netherlands and for them to beat San Marino by seven goals to scrape into the finals. It was unlikely, but not impossible (San Marino were whipping boys and the Poles had almost beaten England on home soil). But going 1-0 down seemed to act as confirmation England would not be heading to the USA the following summer and Graham Taylor would soon be out of work. To their credit England did a professional job to recover and run out 7-1 winners, with Wright running back with the ball after scoring as they clung to the hope they could get more goals and somehow make it. But what they did counted for nothing, as the Dutch achieved a 3-1 win to administer the last rites on Taylor’s reign. The BBC switched off long before the end to instead show Wales against Romania, which unlike England’s match still had everything riding on it. And as far as England were concerned, the only goal most people would recall was the infamous one they conceded. 

November 21, 2007 Croatia (h) 2-3, European Championship qualifier

No question at all about this one appearing on the list, England’s darkest night in modern times. Four days earlier they had been thrown a lifeline when Russia lost to Israel, meaning they needed just a point at home to Croatia to make the finals. But on a wet and miserable night at Wembley, England quickly fell 2-0 behind as their makeshift defence and young goalkeeper Scott Carson struggled to handle the occasion. Although a Frank Lampard penalty and a Peter Crouch goal pulled England level and seemingly on their way to the finals, Mladen Petric scored from 25 yards to restore Croatia’s lead – this time for good as they triumphed 3-2.

  

Croatia denied England a place at Euro 2008.

England were left clinging to the faint hope that Andorra could equalise against Russia to salvage them, but it was never on and the criticism poured in on manager Steve McClaren – soon dubbed the ‘wally with the brolly’. Barely had the tabloids gone on sale the following morning when he was out of a job, as the nation faced up to the team’s absence from a major tournament. Less than 18 months earlier the ‘Golden Generation’ had gone into the World Cup as seemingly a genuine contender – now they weren’t even good enough to make the last 16 of the European Championship. 

Since then England have endured a mixed bag of November matches, with friendly losses to France (2010) and Chile (2013) probably standing out as their worst games. As this blog limits selections to the past 50 years, we’ve omitted possibly England’s most memorable November loss – the 6-3 home defeat to the brilliant Hungary in 1953, which is still talked about today.