When Graham Taylor took over the top job in English Football from the late great Bobby Robson (you might argue about the validity of that statement these days, but 20 years ago this was the top job) many complained that he was doing so without ever having won a major trophy – even though he had taken teams to second place in the league twice and an FA Cup final once. It was also pointed out Taylor had never played in ‘top flight’ football let alone international level and that winning the respect of the players would be difficult. His critics also noted although he had ditched the long-ball game at Aston Villa there were still tactical worries about his intentions when English clubs were looking to evolve from the archaic route one football in favour of a more picturesque route to goal. These naysayers were later to be vindicated to a large extent.
Despite the widespread apprehension at his appointment, England contrived to lose just once in Taylor’s first 23 matches (a 0-1 defeat to Germany at Wembley Stadium in September, 1991). However, England struggled to qualify for Euro ’92. In a group containing Turkey, Ireland, and Poland England were held to 1-1 twice by the Irish and managed just 1-0 wins home and away against a Turkey team nowhere near as good as their modern counterparts. It was only thanks to an eleventh hour goal from Gary Lineker against Poland that saw England narrowly qualify at the expense of the Irish. Lamentably, the team’s qualification for the Euro 92 finals proved to be the high point of Taylor’s tenure.
England were drawn to face France, last minute Yugoslavia replacements Denmark and tournament hosts Sweden. The first two games against the French and Danes both ended in lacklustre 0-0 draws which resulted in England needing a final group game victory over Sweden to advance to the Semi-Finals. At this juncture, it was also becoming obvious that Taylor’s relationship with England’s star striker and Captain, Gary Lineker, was sapping team morale. In what turned out to be England’s last game of the tournament, a 2-1 defeat to the hosts, Taylor mercilessly substituted Gary Lineker in his final game for England, thus preventing Lineker from the chance of equalling, possibly even breaking, Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals for England. Many were troubled to see Taylor substitute England’s top striker and talisman when his side needed a goal. This, as much as the results themselves, led to intense media criticism of Taylor, including the infamous ‘turnip’ campaign by The Sun newspaper, which began the morning after the game under the headline: ‘Swedes 2 Turnips 1’. During that campaign the newspaper’s back page featured a never forgotten image of Taylor’s face superimposed onto a turnip.
Act Two: Qualification for the 1994 World Cup
Taylor’s relationship with the press was partially restored when, hand on heart, he admitted his mistakes a few weeks after the finals. However, this new period of media goodwill didn’t last long. England’s first game after Euro 92 ended in a 1-0 defeat to Spain in a friendly, The Sun now depicting Taylor as a Spanish onion.
England were drawn in not particularly challenging Qualification Group 2 for the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States. The group contained Norway, The Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and San Marino. With the top two teams guaranteed to go through (no play offs in those days) England were expected to qualify along with the Dutch. England began with a disappointing but not disastrous 1-1 home draw with Norway. The campaign seemed to get back on track, nevertheless, with two wins against Turkey and a 6-0 victory over San Marino. All was on course for England.
Then came the Dutch. In April, 1993 England faced The Netherlands at Wembley Stadium. England were 2-0 up inside 24 minutes through David Platt and John Barnes. However Taylor’s luck had started to take a turn for the worse when cornerstone of the team Paul Gascoigne got injured. Although a young Dennis Bergkamp scored a goal for the Netherlands towards the end of the first half, England continued to control the game, and looked to be heading for a win which would have put a serious dent into Dutch hopes of qualification (following the side’s defeat in Norway, and a draw at home to the Poles). Four minutes from full-time, England’s campaign took a blow from which it would not recover when Marc Overmars outpaced Des Walker, forcing Walker to foul him inside the penalty area. The penalty was converted by Peter Van Vossen and the game ended 2-2. Suddenly England’s World Cup looked in serious danger.
England’s first chance to revive their waning fortunes came in May, needing at least a win and draw in two consecutive away fixtures against Poland and Norway which were to be played just three days apart. England were extremely poor against Poland and were largely outplayed, with Dariusz Adamczuk of Poland scoring in the 36th minute. With the home team missing several chances to extend their lead, Ian Wright salvaged a vital point with an equaliser in the 85th minute, the final score 1-1. Taylor was again vilified for his team’s poor performance. England’s next opponents were Norway.
The mightily impressive Norwegians had arrived from almost total obscurity and had taken the group by storm with a series of early victories which had left England, Poland, and The Netherlands scrapping for second place. Taylor made wholesale changes of personnel and tactics, which again drew criticism, his actions considered risky in what was now a crucial game. England lost 2-0, with few attempts on goal. Subsequently Taylor admitted that the tactical changes were naïve to say the least, declaring, ‘We made a complete mess of it. I’m here to be shot at and take the rap. I have no defence for our performance’. Nevertheless, his honesty didn’t save him from a roasting from the press, who were now calling for his resignation. The press came up with memorable headlines such as ‘Norse Manure” and “Oslo Rans’.
With their World Cup hopes dangling by a thread, Taylor’s England had still, cruelly given the way things turned out, to play a three-team tournament in the U.S (labeled the United States Cup), which was expected to be a precursor to England’s appearance in the following summer’s tournament. Taylor stated before the game against the USA: ‘In football, you’re only as good as your last game, and at the moment we’re poor. You can always lose any game, to anyone. It’s how you lose that matters. That was the thing that shocked us all in Norway. We would have been looking for a win here anyhow, but if we’d won last week it wouldn’t have been considered essential. Now it is. Whether we like it or not, people expect us to beat America, and there is definitely more intensity about this game because of our performance in the last one.’ For Taylor the US Cup began with a humiliating 2-0 defeat in Boston to the USA which was reported by the tabloid press in Britain as ‘Yanks 2 Planks 0!’. Some pride was restored with a credible 1-1 draw with Brazil and a narrow 2-1 defeat to Germany. Taylor was now living on borrowed time.
The 1993-94 season began with a greatly improved performance, with a 3-0 win over Poland, raising hopes going into what was now the crucial match against the Dutch in Rotterdam in October. With Norway having won the Group, this encounter would effectively decide the second and last qualifier of the group. The game was played at a furious pace and England were somewhat lucky to have a Frank Rijkaard goal ruled out for offside. However, later in the second half with the game locked at 0-0, the momentum of the match, and indeed the entire qualifying process, turned fatally against England when David Platt was fouled inside the Dutch penalty area by Ronald Koeman as he raced in on goal. The German referee quite simply failed to apply the rule of sending him off for a professional foul, or even to award England a penalty (this isn’t English jingoistic ranting; the referee got an easy decision massively wrong). To compound the shocking refereeing error, just minutes later the Dutchman took an identical free kick outside England’s penalty area. His first shot was blocked, but the suddenly stringent referee ordered it to be retaken because of encroachment. Koeman scored at the second attempt. Dennis Bergkamp scored just moments later to cap a 2-0 win. In the meantime Taylor was in an apoplectic mood on the touchline, berating the officials and referee as the significance of the result sank in.
England still had a chance to qualify if the Netherlands lost in Poland on the same night England were hoping they could run up a big score (needing to win by at least seven clear goals) against part-time minnows San Marino. However, it was in this final game that Taylor was to suffer the ultimate humiliation. After just 8.3 seconds of play David Gualtieri, a computer salesman, scored the fastest World Cup goal. England took another twenty minutes to find an equaliser and eventually won 7-1, but the Dutch had won in Poland and thus England failed to qualify. In retrospect, key injuries to many automatic first choice players, coupled with naivety in allowing group opponents to have their pick of when they got to play against his team (Taylor received no advice from the FA over this extremely important aspect of qualifying, leading to playing the decisive away game against the Dutch at the worst possible time) didn’t help matters, but all in all this overly maligned man wasn’t quite up to the job.
Taylor resigned on 24th November, 1993. He would go on to resurrect his reputation to a certain extent with a return to English club management, although his reign as England management is still considered as constituting one of the national side’s lowest ebbs. Intriguingly, he had unwittingly agreed to be filmed during the qualifying campaign for Cutting Edge, a Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary series, in which his portrayal further undermined his authority. During the film, Taylor was heard to use foul language, and what became his personal catchphrase: “Do I not like that”, uttered just before England conceded a goal to Poland. This remains perhaps the classic all time football documentary, as you’re about to see.
Dimitar Berbatov’s road to redemption continued as his brilliant hat-trick gave Manchester United a fully deserved win against Liverpool at Old Trafford (download – 12mb). The Bulgarian scored either side of the interval – the second with a stunning overhead kick – to put Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in complete control against a subdued Liverpool. Lowly Liverpool were thrown a lifeline by United’s frailty in defence as Steven Gerrard scored twice in six minutes midway through the second half from the penalty spot and a 20-yard free-kick, both awarded for fouls on Fernando Torres, to put the Merseysiders in sight of an unlikely point. Berbatov was determined to have the final say, however, and he scored his and United’s third with a towering header six minutes from time to seal the victory.
Young Cesc Fábregas and Carlos Vela each scored a brace as Arsenal hammered Braga (download). Arsenal have recorded the best winning margin for an opening Group Stage match in Champions League history.