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Can We Not Knock Him? Part Three: Euro ’92

European Championship 1992

Sweden was the venue for the ninth European Championships, which was still an eight team tournament. England was drawn in the same group as the hosts, along with France and Denmark. Denmark were a late inclusion after Yugoslavia were kicked out due to the Balkan War. Taylor named a twenty man squad with ten players who were still in single figures for caps. Whether you view Taylor’s reign as unlucky, careless or just a catalogue of errors, critics could point to the farce that was the build-up to the tournament as an example of how the England team just wasn’t in safe hands whilst he was in charge.

One look at the squad would discover he hadn’t chosen a recognised right-back, although he must’ve felt cursed every time he picked one. Liverpool’s exciting talent, Rob Jones was injured towards the end of the season. Lee Dixon picked up a knee injury and Gary Stevens, veteran of the last three major tournaments, succumbed to a foot injury in the final warm-up game. That warm-up game against Finland had been a disaster as John Barnes, only just returning from a lengthy injury spell, was injured in the first half. By then Taylor had submitted his squad list and so they made a desperate appeal to UEFA for replacements to both Stevens and Barnes. After the Finland game it emerged Mark Wright was also injured and now England were looking for three replacements. UEFA sanctioned replacements for Barnes and Stevens but not Wright. So England travelled to Sweden a man down already.

The mood at home was not improved when the new players were unveiled. Manchester City’s Keith Curle was the choice for right-back, and Andy Sinton of QPR was slotted into the midfield. Curle, a decent defender but mainly played as a centre-back, was a strange gamble. Sinton, again a player who ‘would run around a bit’, but certainly not having anywhere near the talent and creativity of Barnes. The lack of a replacement for Wright was particularly concerning. England now had just five defenders of which only Tony Dorigo had any experience of playing as a full-back.

Despite the injuries four glaring omissions were Ian Wright, top scorer in the first season of the Premier League, Gary Pallister, PFA Player of the Year, Peter Beardsley, now at Everton and still scoring goals, and Chris Waddle, who was ‘ripping up trees’ in Marseille. Given one of England’s opponents was going to be France, one can only imagine the relief in Paris as they too contemplated a tournament without former stars such as Platini (now national coach), Giresse, Tigana, Rocheteau and Six.

The eight-team format meant the top two in the group would progress to further matches and with France in more of a transition than England, and Denmark, who’d been rounded up off a beach to make a late entrance in place of Yugoslavia, two of their opponents the final group game against Sweden was seen as the one which would decide the group winners.

The tournament kicked off in Solna as the hosts took a first half lead against the French, but the prolific Jean-Pierre Papin equalised and the points were shared. Twenty-four hours later England took their bow against Denmark in Malmo. If England were expecting their opponents to be a soft touch they should’ve looked to the qualifying campaign and seen they won six of their eight matches. But the game was a turgid affair with few scoring chances. England had Curle and Keown booked in the opening ten minutes and that made them even more cautious. Going into a tournament with only five defenders, they could ill afford one, let alone two, suspensions. Curle lasted an hour before Taylor brought on Tony Daley, a winger, to replace him.

If Euro ’92 is to be remembered by anyone it was probably for being a tournament in the wilderness. What I mean by that is the heroes of the eighties had all but retired or injured, and the heroes of the nineties were yet to emerge. This was in stark evidence when England met France in Malmo.

For the French this was their first appearance at a major tournament since they finished third in Mexico ’86. Pre-tournament both teams were favourites in the group but this was largely due to reputation and possibly their performances in ’82 and ’86 rather than anything else. Just like England’s opening match, this was equally forgettable but for two moments. Taylor reverted to a back three, which was ambitious given he’d rarely tried it at this level before. Shearer also came in for Alan Smith and David Batty came into midfield to add some steel. This was also the one and only appearance at a major tournament for Eric Cantona.

The two moments many remember of this game both involved Stuart Pearce. Known as ‘psycho’, Pearce was a hard, no nonsense defender with Nottingham Forest. He was known for a ferocious free-kick. During the second half when defending a set-piece, Pearce was suddenly head-butted by Basil Boli off the ball. The ref didn’t see it and the television cameras barely picked it up. But the evidence was clear as blood poured from his face. Pearce just waved the thing away and years later was still completely unconcerned about the incident. Minutes later England had a free-kick in a central position about thirty yards out. Pearce ran up and thundered the ball against the bar. It bounced down but not over the line and that was about as good as it got for England. The second game to end goalless.

Later that evening a Thomas Brolin goal gave Sweden a win over Denmark and now England were likely to need a win against the hosts in their final group game. France too were looking vulnerable knowing a draw against Denmark might not be enough for them.

Unlike his predecessor Robson, who only qualified for one of the two Euros on offer during his reign, Taylor now had the opportunity of going into the final group game with something to play for. He changed his line-up again, suggesting he really didn’t know his best team, bringing in Tony Daley and Neil Webb. Webb, then at Manchester United, had played twenty four times over five years for his country by this stage and was considered one of the more accomplished midfield players of his time. It was David Batty’s turn to sit in the chair marked ‘right-back’ which largely rendered him ineffective as far as the overall team performance was concerned. Taylor hoped Daley and Platt would provide the width to give Lineker chances up front. The captain was about to move to Japan and therefore this was likely to be his last appearance in an England shirt and he was still two goals away from being his country’s all-time top goalscorer.

Ironically, given the width argument, it was Lineker who provided the cross for Platt to miss-kick his shot into the net and England had finally scored, four minutes into the game. England then created a couple of chances to put the game beyond the hosts but Daley squandered an opportunity to play Lineker in at the right time and also headed wide when he should’ve hit the target. Sinton also missed a chance and at 0-1 down at the break the Swedes were still in it.

Sweden came out a transformed side in the second half and within six minutes they were level. A corner on England’s right and Jan Eriksson rose highest to head the ball past Woods and Sinton, who was presumably on the post to stop any shot but clearly hadn’t read the script.

Sweden were now in the ascendancy and playing their best football in years. Just on the hour as if England didn’t need any more kicking, the manager pressed the destruct button. His captain, top scorer and one world class player, Gary Lineker was considered surplus to requirements and Arsenal’s Alan Smith, with just two international goals to his name, was Taylor’s choice to grab the goals which would propel the team into the Semi-Finals.

Into the final ten minutes and with Denmark leading against the French, England just needed a goal to go through. A goal came, but it was no surprise it was the home side who scored it. Brolin was increasingly influential and as if to show how slow and cumbersome the English defence was, he tip-toed his way through playing one-twos with Ingesson and Dahlin before chipping the ball over Woods and sending the crowd into raptures.

England were well beaten and on the plane home. In the morning Taylor was attacked viciously by the tabloids who made comparisons with losing to the Swedes by calling him a turnip. It’s hard to argue in favour of him not sharing responsibility when the whole tournament from build-up to ignominious end, was largely a mess of his own creation. It also showed the world how far English football had fallen. Is it really the fault of players such as Palmer, Sinton, Curle and Daley they weren’t good enough for international football despite their managers insistence? They were the type of footballers Taylor’s career was littered with, who had overachieved at a rate not synonymous with their apparent talent. But in the end it just wasn’t enough. Just like his Watford and Villa teams, he filled them with hard-working, busy players who ran around a lot, but at this level you need some creativity.

Taylor survived the sack on account of The FA choosing not to look reactionary. The media had already decided they wanted a change and so Taylor embarked on his fruitless attempt to defend himself and showing how difficult a job it was, when all he proceeded to do was show how correct those were who believed he was unqualified for it.

Rumours began to circulate of a rift between Taylor and his captain. Lineker’s international retirement immediately after the tournament did little to dispel the myth. Taylor resented the treatment he received for years, all the way to his untimely death early in 2017. He defended his decision to take Lineker off by claiming he wanted them to hold the ball up because Sweden were just coming at England, and so he decided Smith was the man for that job.

In some ways Euro ’92 imitated the tournament from four years earlier. Mexico ’86 had given England fans hope of a bright future when they were cheated out of a Semi-Final place (despite conceding one of the greatest goals ever witnessed), yet in Germany two years later they looked to have regressed ten years. Italia ’90 was a rollercoaster of emotions but England came close to a Final. Now they were as poor as anyone can remember. In two years only Lineker, Platt, Pearce and Walker remained from the Germany Semi-Final to the Sweden game. Of course Shilton, Butcher and Robson had retired, Gascoigne, Wright and Barnes were injured, as were several right-backs and Tony Adams. But where were Beardsley and Waddle? Where were Ian Wright and Pallister?

Personally I believe Taylor to have been an honourable man. I believe he wanted the best for England and was gutted when results, and the press, went against him. I also feel he was a stubborn man who believed his way was the right way, which is something you have to have if you want people to follow you, but tactically and selection-wise I feel he was severely lacking.

Next part – England lick their wounds and prepare to qualify for USA ’94

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