World Cup Qualification 1994
Three months after the sheer depression of Euro ’92, England travelled to Spain for a friendly. If you thought England had problems, Spain finished third in their qualifying group for that competition losing more than they won, including defeat to Iceland. Taylor handed debuts to Paul Ince (Manchester United) and David White (Manchester City) and put Nigel Clough up front with Alan Shearer. England lost 0-1.
England had been drawn into a six-nation group, again coming up against Poland. They were also up against the Netherlands, Turkey and San Marino. Then as if Taylor hadn’t had enough of Scandinavian opponents in the summer, Norway were also to be overcome.
The qualifiers for USA ’94 began in October and at last Paul Gascoigne, now playing in Italy for Lazio, was fit and straight back into midfield. Tony Adams was back in defence alongside Des Walker. Ian Wright partnered Shearer up front and suddenly this had the look of a strong side.
Norway were England’s first opponents and with the international fixture calendar still a distant dream, they had already played three group matches, beating San Marino (10-0 & 2-0) and Netherlands (2-1). David Platt put England in front, meaning he had now scored every one of England’s last five goals spread over eight games. Twenty minutes later Rekdal scored a great goal as he had so much space to chest the ball down and then volley it in from about twenty five yards out.
Taylor walked off to boos and derision from the crowd. The voiceover on the documentary was his own as he explained how unrealistic the expectations were of ‘people’ who would be critics. This gradually became his focus for the remainder of his England career. But I guess the fact there were fewer and fewer people willing to defend him, meant all he heard was criticism.
At the end of the game Taylor and his assistant, Lawrie McMenemy were walking towards the tunnel at Wembley and boos can be heard all around. Yet Taylor couldn’t resist trying to engage some of his detractors there and then. Looking back now it is easy to see how the whole thing just became a battle between him and those who wanted him out. He appeared obsessed with determination to prove those people wrong. But we are England. It was twenty six years since we were World Champions, two years since we were the fourth best team in the World. We had every right to expect to beat a side like Norway, Sweden or Denmark, no matter how well they were playing, and if he didn’t think our level of expectation was realistic then the best way to silence the country was on the pitch, not engaging people in the crowd.
On the same night as England were held by the Norwegians, the Dutch battled to come back from two-goals down to scrape a draw at home to Poland. This was going to be a tough group for all concerned.
When Turkey came to Wembley in November, England were treated to a masterclass from Gascoigne. Unfortunately for Taylor it was the last time he would be able to say that but for ninety minutes he ran the show. He scored the first goal through sheer persistency as he rode three challenges to make it to the edge of the area. He looked to have lost the ball but Paul Ince put in an important challenge and the ball came back to Gazza. Some intricate footwork created space for him to shoot past the keeper. Gascoigne was then involved in goal number two as he laid the ball off for Wright to run into space down the left. The Arsenal striker crossed for Shearer to head England into a two-goal lead at the break.
On the hour England had a free-kick just outside the area. Gascoigne ran over the ball and Pearce fired it in. It took a deflection off the wall and past the keeper for the third goal. Ninety seconds later Des Walker, in his fiftieth game for his country, picked the ball up at the back and ran forward. He passed to Wright on the left touchline and continued his run. Wright found him and he was now into the area where he passed to his right, Shearer laid it off and there was Gazza to dummy the keeper and walk the ball into the net. It was scintillating stuff and albeit the Turks were poor, but it was exactly what the team and the public needed.
A Black Day
Fast forward three months for the next game and this became infamous in the Taylor era. San Marino visited Wembley for the first time. They were in their first Euro qualifying campaign and were yet to win a game. Norway had put ten past them in the previous September and so England were expected to win by plenty.
In the documentary, we get our first glimpse of the relationship on the bench between Taylor and his management team of McMenemy and Phil Neal. The focus is on the crowd’s treatment of John Barnes and how the public demand a big win. Barnes was getting booed by the crowd as if he was solely responsible for a poor performance. There were others guilty of failure, Gascoigne in particular, but Taylor believed articles written by the Daily Mail and The Sun were responsible for whipping up the crowd to get on Barnes’ back. At one point we see Taylor turn round and remonstrate with an out of shot ‘supporter’ who has uttered a racist insult
“Hey, you’re talking about another human being. So watch your language, alright?”
Of course Barnes was discovered by Taylor when he brought him from non-league to Watford in the early eighties. Few players received as much racist abuse as John Barnes. For a few years at the end of the eighties he was probably the best player in Europe as he won titles and cups with Liverpool, but there were always those who said he never did it for his country. Why they picked on him on this night seems unclear, although Taylor puts the blame firmly at the tabloids door.
Barnes was involved in the first goal as he headed on a Gascoigne corner at the near post and Platt, captain for the night, headed in from the far post. Ten minutes later Platt scored his second when heading in at the far post from a Batty cross. A two-goal lead at the break was never going to be enough for the home crowd who were beginning to get restless. They had to wait a further three quarters of an hour for any improvement on the scoreline. Both Les Ferdinand, making his debut and Platt could easily have scored before Platt finally completed his hat-trick midway through the half. Carlton Palmer then scored his first international goal when he headed in Ferdinand’s cross.
With seven minutes to go Platt grabbed his fourth after both Adams and Dixon attempted to join in the fun. Three minutes later Ferdinand scored on his debut as Adams headed against the bar. Just before the end Dorigo was pushed over in the area but Platt missed the opportunity to equal Malcolm MacDonald’s record of five goals in a game for England as the keeper saved the spot-kick.
6-0 was a decent win but not enough for some. Taylor was quite defensive on camera suggesting the team could’ve played twenty-five percent worse, scored more goals and people would’ve been happier.
Off camera, but on documentary Taylor discussed how he felt Gascoigne wasn’t happy in Italy. McMenemy added how he felt his club was trying to get him to conform when he was a special talent. Either way Gascoigne had clearly played worse than other less popular players and this was definitely a concern.
Either side of the San Marino game, the Dutch beat Turkey twice and then also beat San Marino 6-0. Whether the Dutch public felt the same way about their teams performance against the whipping boys is uncertain but they were now level on points at the top with Norway, although they’d played a game more.
At the end of March England travelled to Izmir to take on Turkey. A four-goal victory would see them go top of the group and things began well when a Barnes free-kick from the right wing was headed in at the near post by David Platt. With half-time beckoning Palmer lumped a long ball into the area and Gascoigne got his head there first to give England a two-nil lead, which they held onto. It wasn’t enough to take them top but they were level on points with Norway and Netherlands, with the Dutch having played a game more. Next up was the Dutch at Wembley.
Taylor appealed to the crowd to get behind the players from the beginning, recognising how important a home win would be to give them the advantage in the group. England began brightly and within a minute they had a free-kick just outside the area. Up stepped John Barnes to curl it beautifully over the wall and give England the ideal start. Last time in that stadium Barnes was booed off the pitch, yet barely a minute into his next appearance he didn’t shirk from the responsibility to take the free-kick. He was one of several players right on their mettle in the first half that night. Gascoigne, Ince and Platt were all vibrant and inventive. Midway through the half Ferdinand’s shot came back off the post and Platt was first to react, for a two-goal lead. For the first half England played the Dutch off the park and all memories of the previous summer seemed to have dissipated. But with most of Taylor’s reign there was always a ‘but’. Ten minutes later the lead was back to one. Wouters chipped the ball ahead of the England defence and Bergkamp cushioned his volley over Woods into the net. It was gorgeous finish and just reminded England they shouldn’t underestimate their opponents.
Straight after the break came another for England. Paul Gascoigne went up for a header and suddenly from behind him Wouters, leading with his elbow, challenged him. Wouters broke Gascoigne’s cheekbone and the Lazio player had to go off. England were never as dominant after that and towards the end of the game Overmars ran at Walker and the Forest defender pulled his shirt. The initial contact appeared to be outside the area but the referee pointed to the spot. Van vossen converted the penalty and England were gutted not to have won.
Taylor has recently admitted this was the first moment he actually contemplated failure to qualify. It seemed a cruel way to drop a point but it was significant they were unable to hold onto the lead. It wouldn’t be the last time shirt-pulling would have an effect on Taylor’s job.
England had now dropped points in two home games and would need to match or better these results away from home. On the same night Norway beat Turkey to strengthen their lead at the top of the group. Poland struggled to beat San Marino too but a month later beat them more comfortably away from home.
England now had two away games in a five day period which would define their campaign. Poland and Norway were the destinations. Norway, England, Netherlands and Poland were separated by just two points and if they lost both games then that was probably it for their qualification hopes. The next twelve days could be pivotal in the group. Two games for England, two for Norway with Poland and Netherlands also in action.
These two matches were covered extensively on the documentary. Initially Taylor planned two changes from the Dutch match, with Dorigo coming in for Keown and a debut for Teddy Sheringham up front. Just before the game Lee Dixon pulled out through injury and Taylor brought in David Bardsley for only his second cap. Bardsley, then with QPR, had played under Taylor at Watford.
This is the part of the documentary where we get to see Taylor addressing the press for the first time and we also get significant footage of the management reactions during a match where tensions were all too evident. Game footage also showed how England were frequently getting caught on the break and struggled to deal with the pace of the Polish attacks. There was a growing concern about Des Walker. For a while he was considered one of the best centre-backs in Europe, with the Forest fans singing “you’ll never beat Des Walker”, in recognition of his pace. But lately he was getting beaten once too often. It was his mistake which resulted in the penalty the Dutch equalised from. Now he was being exposed by the Polish in a way similar to the last days of Bobby Moore in an England shirt.
With ten minutes of the first half remaining Walker played the ball out from the back to Barnes, with what is commonly known as a hospital pass as Barnes was marked. His touch was too heavy. As the ball bounced off him Adamczuk just burst past Walker and as they both reached the edge of the box he lifted it over Woods for the opening goal. You had to say it had been coming. England looked to be heading for defeat until six minutes to go when Dorigo crossed from the left to the far post and Ian Wright, who’d come on for Palmer, managed to hit his shot under the keeper for the equaliser and his first ever goal for his country.
Both teams were still unbeaten but the draw didn’t really suit either side as the top four in the group were now separated by just one point.
In the documentary this was the first time we heard the now infamous “do I not like that” as Taylor watched in horror as his star centre-back was beaten for pace for the second game running. We were also introduced to another favourite phrase of Taylor’s “can we not knock it?”, as once again a ball is played up from the back and possession is lost. Taylor is increasingly exasperated by the way he feels the players are making all the mistakes he warned them about pre-match.
In the second half there was a hair-raising moment as Dorigo plays a ball back to Woods who then makes a hash of the clearance straight to a Polish attacker, but fortunately for England Woods manages to force the shot wide.
During this sequence we also get an insight into the relationship between the management team as they discuss what changes need to be made to get them back in the game. As it emerged their substitutions were spot-on as Wright comes on for Palmer, with Platt moving back into midfield and it’s the Arsenal striker who scores the vital equaliser.
We then get to hear Taylor’s team talk in the dressing room afterwards which is a little defensive. He tells the team “if at all possible we must try and win the game, but what we mustn’t do is lose to Norway”. This seems unnecessarily negative to me rather than boost the team to have them believe they can beat their opponents.
A Norwegian Would
Norway had never qualified for a major tournament before, and they were on the cusp of a major celebration. They’d won all but one of their five matches so far (at Wembley) and if they could beat England at home then they’d be two points ahead with a game in hand, and three ahead of the Dutch. Looking through their team it is like a who’s who of players who eventually played in the Premier League. Lars Bohinen, Stig Inge Bjornebye, Oyvind Leonhardsen, Jan Age Fjortoft, Jostein Flo, Gunnar Halle, Erik Thorstvedt.
In the build-up to the game Taylor is seen on camera announcing he will be changing the team and formation for this game. His strategy is to play three at the back, which appears risky as the team hadn’t played that way before. He brought in Gary Pallister to play alongside Walker and Tony Adams. Lee Dixon and Lee Sharpe acted as wing-backs with Ferdinand and Sheringham up front. The midfield consisted of Platt, Gascoigne and Palmer. Gascoigne was coming in for criticism in the media suggesting his lifestyle was affecting his fitness. Taylor defended his decision to select him on the basis Norway would want him left out of the team.
The touchline footage of the match contains a lot of Taylor angry at Gascoigne’s reluctance to play to the tactics. These tactics seemed to consist of hitting the big men up front as often as possible. Dixon and Sharpe were expected to lump the ball forward as soon as they received it, before the Norwegians had got back into defensive shape.
This part of the documentary was what made a large part of the film ‘Mike Bassett – England Manager’ as Phil Neal just repeats everything Taylor says, with McMenemy casting a slightly aloof figure who keeps his own opinion. At times the repartee is almost comedic
Taylor : “This is a test”
Neal : “This is a real test”
Taylor : “This is a real, real test”
Just before half-time Gascoigne is shouted at for not closing a player down, as the ball is then played through down the right-wing to Fjortoft. Walker moves in to tackle and the Norwegian number nine goes down. The ref immediately blows for a free-kick and Walker protests. Whilst still protesting the home side see an opportunity and the free-kick is taken quickly to Fjortoft who is now free in the area and his ball to Leonhardsen is scrambled over the line. It was a body blow at exactly the wrong time for England and Taylor was beginning to have to accept Des Walker was becoming a liability as the last three goals they’d conceded were all as a result of his mistakes.
Just before the break England got a free-kick on the left but once again Gascoigne’s delivery is poor and Taylor is beginning to have palpitations (metaphorically, of course).
Eight minutes into the second half and England have a throw on the right wing deep in the Norway half. The ball bounces around as the home side struggles to clear it when it eventually comes out to Fjortoft facing his own goal about halfway in the Norway half. He plays the ball square to his left where Mykland is running out of defence. Mykland plays a first time diagonal pass which cuts the England defence in two and Leonhardsen is away down the left. He holds the ball up, waits for Bohinen to run round him and then plays in the future Nottingham Forest man. Bohinen is now free to run into the area, unchallenged and beats Woods at his near post. The crowd were going nuts as this basically killed off the game. England had barely looked like scoring one let alone getting back on level terms.
It was England’s first defeat of the campaign but at just the wrong time. For Norway it was a great start to a crucial week as they had to travel to Rotterdam next. A 0-0 draw was the perfect way to end the week and they’d virtually settled top spot in the group. It was a reprieve for England as they were still second, if only on goal difference but the Poles were a concern just a point behind with two games in hand. They would be England’s next opponents.
In the documentary Taylor admits to making mistakes for the Norway game. He admits he didn’t give himself enough time to work with the players, and then on the night the players didn’t perform.