Despite the legacy that came with reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 1990, the truth is Bobby Robson was neither a particularly good nor successful England manager.
In the eight years he was in charge, England competed in two World cups and two European Championships. While England came out of each World cup campaign with their dignity more or less intact courtesy of a quarter-final exit in Mexico ’86 and reaching the last four in Italia ’90, it was a close run thing on both occasions and a very thin line between relative success and humiliation.
1986 saw England pick up one point from their first two group games and were facing elimination at the first time of asking until Robson stumbled on a winning formula with Bryan Robson injured, Ray Wilkins suspended and Mark Hately dropped. The quarter-final defeat to Argentina has been covered continuously over the past 33 years, and the nature of England’s 2-1 loss allowed the side and Robson to escape with their reputation intact when the opposite had looked increasingly likely just two weeks earlier.
Likewise, the 1990 World Cup is held up as a relative success due to England’s ‘heroic’ penalty shoot-out failure against West Germany. However, the reality is somewhat different. England weren’t really very good in this tournament, winning just one game from seven matches within the 90 minutes, and that being a 1-0 victory over Egypt.
England only played well in the games against Holland and W. Germany and again Robson got lucky in the fact that injuries forced him to make changes in the early stages and then a player-delegation led to tactics, line-ups and formations being changed.
Largely outplayed by Belgium in the last sixteen and then decidedly fortunate against Cameroon in the quarter-finals, England were always one poor decision or one piece of bad luck away from elimination, and yet somehow bumbled their way through to the semi-finals.
If England in the World Cup under Bobby Robson were fortunate but unconvincing, their luck, as well as their form, was certainly out when it came to the two European Championships campaigns held under his charge.
Appointed as England manager in 1982 in succession to Ron Greenwood following that year’s World Cup in Spain, Robson was first charged with ensuring qualification for the 1984 European Championships to be held in France. Drawn in a group with Denmark, Greece, Hungary, and Luxembourg with just one side qualifying, England were not expected to be provided with too many problems,
Hungary had appeared in the 1982 World Cup but had been eliminated at the group stage despite a 10-1 victory over Honduras, while Denmark and Greece had failed to qualify for the tournament. Luxembourg were seen as the group’s whipping boys and just there to make up the numbers.
England opened their qualifying campaign with an away game in Denmark. A lively match saw England come away with a 2-2 draw courtesy of two Trevor Francis goals. A decent result could have been so much better had Jesper Olsen, who would go onto play in England for Manchester United not converted an 89th-minute equalizer. This last-gasp goal was to ultimately prove vital in the final reckonings.
England then went on to secure victories at home and away against Hungary and Luxembourg, and away to Greece. A home draw against Greece, while a poor result was not in itself a fateful one, as the group came down to England’s home clash against Denmark.
Needing only a draw to stay in control of the group, England turned in one of their worst performances under Bobby Robson and lost to a single Allan Simonsen penalty in front of more than 80,000 spectators.
Despite winning their last two games in the group, England finished second behind the Danes by a solitary point and so stayed at home the following summer.
Having been trusted with a four-year contract, Bobby Robson’s job was safe despite this failure at the first time of asking. 24 years later Steve McClaren would be offered no such luxury as he found to his cost that failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championships resulted in him being shown the door the first time of asking.
Following Mexico ’86, England and Bobby Robson lined up for a second shot at the European Championships. This time the country found itself in a qualifying group alongside Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Northern Ireland with, again, one team qualifying for the finals to be held in West Germany in the summer of 1988.
In not exactly the most exacting of groups, England made no mistake in qualifying this time, winning five out of the six matches involved. The only dropped points came courtesy of a goalless draw away to Turkey in April 1987, and with two points for a win still being in operation, England qualified with 11, three ahead of Yugoslavia.
As Euro ’88 approached, England were in fine form and hopes were high of a good performance in the finals. England came into the tournament with a record of only two defeats in all matches since the Maradona-inspired defeat in Mexico two years earlier. These two defeats were friendly matches against Sweden in September 1986, and away to West Germany a year later.
Other than these two slight blemishes, England were looking sharp and were seen as one of the favourites for the competition.
The 1987-88 season had been a glorious one for the Liverpool team of that time, with what many a wise sage considered their best ever team romping home to the league title. Instrumental in this Liverpool team were Peter Beardsley and John Barnes and much was expected of the duo for England that summer.
Also expected to shine were Barcelona’s Gary Lineker, Manchester United’s Bryan Robson and other seasoned veterans of the international scene such as Peter Shilton, Gary Stevens and Kenny Sanson in defence, and Peter Reid, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle in midfield.
The tournament itself was a lean affair with only eight countries split into two groups of four participating. England were drawn in a group alongside the favoured Holland, a skilfull Soviet Union, and dark horses the Republic of Ireland, making their bow in the finals of a major competition under the astute leadership of England World Cup winner, Jack Charlton.
In the other group, and potential semi-final and final opponents were hosts West Germany, Spain, Denmark and Italy.
Sides played each other once in the group stage with the top two from each qualifying for the semi-finals.
First up for England was a ‘local derby’ against the Republic of Ireland. Backed by hordes of tri-colour-clad supporters, nothing much was expected of Ireland beyond the stereotype of ‘enjoying the craic’ and experiencing the joys of the finals of being in a major competition.
Underestimated by almost all and sundry, Jack Charlton insisted that this suited him and his players just fine. On a sunny day on June 12, 1988, England fell to one of the most shocking defeats in their history. Despite having the majority of the play, England just could not find a way past Packie Bonner in the Ireland goal and so Ray Houghton’s sixth-minute goal proved to be the only one of the game.
Ireland’s Liverpool contingent of Houghton, Ronnie Whelan, and John Aldridge all performed better on the day than England’s Anfield men, Barnes and Beardsley, and with Lineker also totally out of sorts, it was a dark day for the Three Lions.
Still, all was not lost and with the Soviet Union pulling off an almost equally surprising victory over Holland, there was still all to play for. Two victories would almost certainly still be enough to see England through to the knock out stages and the general consensus seemed to be that England had simply suffered from extreme bad luck and not much more in Stuttgart against the Irish.
The clash against Holland in Dusseldorf three days later was imperative for both sides to win, and to be fair, it turned out to be a classic that either side could have prevailed in.
England made one change to the side that lost to Ireland with Trevor Steven of Everton replacing Neil Webb.
The two sides went toe-to-toe in an exhilarating first half. Chances were spurned at either end and England were more than holding their own having hit the post twice as half-time approached.
Then with the clock showing 44 minutes played, Dutch forward Marco van Basten was given half a yard space by Tony Adams who he promptly turned inside out and fired past Peter Shilton, earning his 100th cap for England, to give Holland a 1-0 half-time lead.
England came out all guns blazing in the second half, and Bryan Robson was responsible for grabbing a lifeline for England in the 54th minute. A charging run into the Holland penalty area resulted in Captain Marvel forcing the ball home.
Hopes that England could then go on to pick up both points lasted just eighteen minutes as Van Basten scored twice more thus completing his hat-trick as Holland ran out rather flattering 3-1 winners and England crashed out at the first hurdle.
It was seen as a disaster for England and Bobby Robson in particular, and if he thought any solace could be gained from the final, and academic, group game against the Soviet Union, he was in for a rude awakening.
Bringing in Dave Watson, Chris Woods and Steve McMahon for their first tastes of the action, an unbalanced and unmotivated England side succumbed by another 3-1 scoreline and so England returned home bottom of their group and pointless.
It was this rather abject return that convinced the powers that be at the FA that Bobby Robson was not the man to take England much further in the long term. Although he was permitted to see out his contract in the next qualifying circle, that of the 1990 World Cup, it was a common-known fact that it would be his last.
As for the players involved in Euro ’88, Glenn Hoddle, Viv Anderson, Peter Reid and Kenny Sansom never again appeared for England after what had been probably the most dismal showing in the finals of a major tournament by any England team up to that point.