It was probably one of the most enduring images of Graham Taylor’s period as England manager. If you were to name the three most memorable things about his reign, undoubtedly the name ‘Gary Lineker’ would crop up.
For those who don’t know, here is the background to the moment I am talking about.
England were up against Sweden in the final group game of the 1992 European Championships. They had to win to progress to the Semi-Finals. Sweden were at home at the Rasunda Stadium, Solna and after England took an early lead, which they held to the break, Sweden came out firing on all cylinders and equalised six minutes after the re-start.
Gary Lineker was England captain for the tournament. He was one goal away from equalising Bobby Charlton’s twenty-two-year-old goalscoring record. This was the sixth game since he last scored and time was running out. Everyone knew this would be his last game for his country as he had announced he was off to play in Japan after the summer. He’s had a poor tournament.
Sixty-two minutes into a game where England must score and Graham Taylor does the unthinkable. He substitutes his captain, and arguably only World class player he has in his squad, and replaces him with Alan Smith, a man with two goals from twelve appearances to his name. The phrase “he’s pulled the trigger” comes to mind. It was gamble and in the end it backfired as with eight minutes to go Sweden scored a second and progressed to the Semis, with England on the next flight home.
Neither Lineker or Smith played for England again and Taylor never managed in a major tournament again.
Ever since then there have been rumours of a rift between the manager and his captain in the lead up to the tournament. I decided to do some research to see if I could uncover the truth.
For the full story you have to go back to a friendly against France at Wembley in February of 1992. In an interview years later Taylor disclosed “before the Wembley game with France, Gary Lineker informed me he was going to retire from the English game at the end of the European Championships that summer. He told me about his plans to play in Japan but asked me not to say anything about it, publicly. I didn’t and haven’t. I kept faith, I kept that confidence and I took a lot of hits. I suffered criticism because I took the opportunity to look at alternatives – Shearer and Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst.”
Shearer was one of four players who made their debut in the match, along with Rob Jones (Liverpool), Geoff Thomas (Crystal Palace) and Martin Keown (Everton). David Hirst was making his third appearance, having scored in one of two appearances in the previous summer’s trip down under.
Taylor went onto explain; “here was me, leaving out the captain I had appointed after he put me in the picture about his intentions – and I couldn’t explain my reasons.”
“A great deal was made of my withdrawal of Lineker in our last game of the tournament in Sweden. I took a lot of stick over that but I will maintain, until the day I die, that was a purely footballing decision.”
“When he told me about his planned retirement I’m sure he didn’t want to miss any international matches and expected to play in the game against the French.”
“I am also pretty sure that was where the public perception started the feeling that I had a difficult, problematical personal situation with Gary. The truth is I never had a problem with him, but the impression has remained all this time.”
“When he told me he was finishing England that summer, it would be an appropriate moment for me to look at the younger candidates and Shearer was one of them.”
“In fact he scored on his debut and Lineker scored the other as a second-half sub and we beat a French side who hadn’t lost for three years.”
“But I often look back and think that’s where the speculation of a Taylor-Lineker rift began. Even though, after making him substitute, I agreed he need not attend the press conference.”
“Perhaps there would have been a different reaction to my substituting him in Sweden if everyone had known. Then, again, perhaps not!”
As Taylor alludes England beat France 2-0 with Shearer scoring just before half-time and Lineker scoring midway through the second having replaced Hirst at the interval. Lineker was on the bench for the next friendly in Prague against Czechoslovakia as Taylor recalled Mark Hateley for his first England game for four years.
Lineker scored goal number forty eight for his country when England visited Moscow to the play the Combined Independent States, which was what was left of the old Soviet Union. He and Shearer started that game and Lineker scored after quarter of an hour. After he failed to find the net in a friendly in Budapest, Brazil arrived at Wembley and Lineker had a golden opportunity to equal Bobby Charlton’s record.
Ten minutes into the game and the Brazilian keeper, Carlos, brought down Lineker in the penalty area. Lineker stepped up to take the spot-kick. He had scored all of his previous four penalties, including two in the World Cup 1990 Quarter-Final against Cameroon to claw his side back from two-one down. Lineker attempted what has become known as “a Panenka” after the Czech midfield player, Antonin Panenka. During the 1976 European Championship Final against West Germany the game had gone to a shoot-out. Panenka had the opportunity to win the game for his team with his kick and he coolly stepped up and chipped the ball over German legend, Sepp Maier. It was an audacious attempt and outrageous piece of skill under pressure. Few players had tried to repeat the effort since then for fear of messing it up and making a fool of themselves.
But Lineker took this opportunity to give it a go. He failed miserably and although the keeper had moved the contact with the ball was so poor he was able to correct himself and make the save. In fact if you find the footage and zoom in, I’m sure you can see by the time the ball reaches the keeper he already has his dressing gown and slippers on and is smoking a cigar.
A few days after the game, Taylor was quite damning when he told The Observer: “It’s almost as if Gary is a national institution who cannot be touched. You could argue that we played Brazil with 10 men – but you’re not allowed to.”
There was some speculation Lineker could lose his place for the Euros but realistically this was never on the cards. Lineker had not been in prolific form before the World Cups of 1986 or 1990 yet he scored ten goals in those tournaments. Taylor was extremely unlucky with injuries going into the tournament, having to do without Paul Gascoigne or John Barnes. He was also without the Premier League’s top scorer for that season, Ian Wright, although that was the manager’s own choice.
After the Brazil setback the whole country was eager to see Lineker break the record. Taylor said “I want it out of the way as soon as possible,”, as he obviously saw it as a distraction. England’s last match before the finals was away to Finland, against the side with the weakest track record they would face while Lineker was chasing the record. But again his luck was out, striking the bar from close range in a 2-1 win, as Platt again saved England.
Lineker now had potentially three group games in Sweden to break the record. The opening game was against Denmark, a late inclusion to the tournament after UEFA booted Yugoslavia out owing to the Balkan War. Lineker had few chances to score in a game where neither side looked likely to hit the net.
Three days later there was more of the same, a goalless and sterile stalemate against France. Against Denmark Lineker had been partnered by Alan Smith, his former Leicester City strike partner, but the French game Taylor replaced Smith with Shearer. Once again they found chances at a premium in a dull draw, and England were staring down the barrel having to beat the hosts to progress.
“He contributed in exactly the way I thought he would,” said Taylor rather cryptically about Lineker after the France game, with the forward now potentially ninety minutes away from the end of his England career. Few would have anticipated it would be even less than that. These days there would be a lot more fuss made of the last appearance of one of England’s finest goalscorers since the War. But maybe the threat of elimination was foremost in people’s minds.
Lineker had been lacklustre in Euro ’88, but years later it was revealed he was suffering with Hepatitis B. Before the final match against USSR he said he could hardly lift his legs but the management felt he was simply looking to avoid playing the game.
This time maybe there was something else on the Tottenham striker’s mind. A few months earlier his baby son George had been diagnosed with leukaemia and undergone chemotherapy as the family feared for his life. Mercifully he pulled through. George’s illness had been a genuine worry for his father, not scoring goals for England by comparison was only football.
Taylor found himself continually having to defend his decision. In 2012 in an interview The Independent, he defended himself further
“It wasn’t me that took the penalty against Brazil and it wasn’t me who decided for him to retire from international football but because we’d lost and not qualified, the whole thing came down on me as manager. The criticism was over the top, a lot of it wasn’t justified, in the same way as when a newspaper has a go at the manager for a speech impediment before he has even managed the team.”
The final point made in reference to the press treatment of Roy Hodgson.
“Taking Gary off was a pure footballing decision but, because we lost, unfortunately the media turned it into a decision that was between him and me personally. We needed to hold the ball up because Sweden were just coming at us and they were a good side. That’s why I got Alan Smith on.”
Even those at the heart of the England camp could see the problems Taylor was creating for himself by hauling off Lineker, regardless of whether he thought it was the right decision. Assistant Lawrie McMenemy later wrote in his autobiography: “It was quite simply the wrong decision. I could not believe what Graham had done, how a manager of his experience would not see the danger to himself, if nothing else, from the decision.”
Taylor dispensed with two players up front for the Sweden game as David Platt was to play in an advanced role behind Lineker. With just one up front the role of the solitary striker is often to hold the ball up for the midfield players to push on, but with England losing control of the midfield and Lineker’s inability to play this role effectively, the ball was just coming straight back. A baying crowd and impending doom the manager was under increasing pressure to change something. The fact players like Tony Daley and Andy Sinton remained on the pitch probably didn’t help the manager’s cause very much.
In 2012 when looking back on his experience Alan Smith recalled;
“Graham had been frustrated with Gary’s inability to hold the ball up. That was where I came in. When he told me to get stripped off, I assumed that I’d be supplementing Gary. Then I saw his number come up on the board. I had a few touches, but made little difference. The momentum was all with them and Tomas Brolin scored a great goal to win it.
What I remember most is congratulating Gary afterwards on his career. It didn’t seem like the right time, but it was something you had to do. Everyone says he underperformed but we didn’t give him any chances.”
Everyone knew it was to be Lineker’s last game, but for Smith he suffered the same fate despite not announcing his retirement.
During the same review, Lineker added;
‘If ’88 was our best squad, then ’92 was the worst. We lost Gazza and Barnes to injury and Waddle and Beardsley had been “eased out”. That meant that we had no creative playmakers.
‘People say I’m always talking about that substitution but that’s only because I’m always asked about it. Graham had to do what he thought was right at the time. Ultimately, it rebounded on him while I ended up as a martyr. I probably wouldn’t have scored if I had stayed on. It could have been me being pilloried by the media. I still see Graham around and we’re both over it. It was just hugely disappointing for both of us.’
It’s easy to try and make something out of a riff, and when both men have denied it, it does seem a little churlish. But there are several things which don’t sit well with me.
That last comment from Lineker was made in 2012 when he was much more aware of his media, much more adept at handling his image. Plus he’d finished playing and had nothing to gain from sticking the knife in. Of course time can be a great healer and Taylor is essentially an honourable man. Could Lineker really hold that grudge for so long when the evidence points to the fact he just wasn’t playing very well.
There is BBC footage of Graham Taylor in 1990, not long after he got the England job, and he’s visiting Tottenham Hotspur to check on Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker. Gascoigne is in the treatment room but Lineker is at an athletics track being put through his paces in some sprints. Once he has finished one Taylor goes over to him, and there is a rather awkward moment on camera as Taylor tries to engage Lineker in conversation. At the time it just looks as if Lineker is trying to catch his breath and maybe isn’t as comfortable on camera then as he is now. But looking back what jumped out at me is how Lineker never looks at his new manager when they’re talking. Is it the camera he’s uncomfortable with or his new national boss? Fast forward several years to a documentary Lineker does with Bobby Robson, when Robson is the Newcastle manager and there is an obvious respect and admiration Lineker has for a man who gave him his first opportunity at international level.
A few years ago when Lineker is explaining how Hepatitis B hampered his performance in 1988, he maintains his belief the management felt he was just trying to get out of playing the last game with England already eliminated. After another defeat, in the press Robson questions the desire of some of the experienced players in the team. Lineker says when he read that he threw the paper at his boss. Weeks later when Lineker has been in hospital getting treatment for his illness, Robson comes to visit him and apologies. Lineker’s final comment about this is telling:
“That was the mark of the man”
See what I mean? He held the man in such high regard. Robson may have been an easier man for Lineker to respect simply because he gave him his first England cap when the Leicester striker was twenty-three. By the time Taylor came along Lineker had turned thirty, had won the Golden Boot at a World Cup had played at Everton, Barcelona and Tottenham and was considered one of the best strikers in the world. Maybe he didn’t approve of Taylor’s tactics, his selections or perhaps his team talks. But that has all been left where it belongs, behind closed doors. Whether there was a rift we will never know. Looking back Lineker was beginning to come to the end of his powers as an international striker but it can’t have been easy with constant changes in personnel and tactics.
In a question and answer session with FourFourTwo magazine in November 2015 he responded to a question of how long it took him to forgive Taylor;
“I never really held it against him. He probably did me a favour by making me a martyr. We were a pretty crappy team, probably England’s worst of recent times. We were poor in that game and weren’t creating chances; if he’d left me on I’d have been pilloried with the rest of them after the tournament. Instead, because he took me off, it was turned against him instead”
When Taylor passed away in January 2017 Lineker paid tribute:
“An outstanding manager, lover of football and thoroughly decent man”.
Maybe we’re looking for something which never really existed. Managers should fall out with players as they have to make difficult decisions. Surely you don’t really want a player who is happy to be substituted or dropped? Taylor never shirked from the limelight after the stick he took for reaching the pinnacle of his career. For that it is probable even if there was some tension between the player and the manager, Taylor’s determination to tough it out meant he claimed the moral high ground.