Football: England at the World Cup: 1986 Mexico - Robson's rebels left punch-drunk

After a terrible start to the 1986 finals, some senior England players made a stand against the management. Ken Jones reports
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England 0 Portugal 1

England 0 Morocco 0

England 3 Poland 0


England 3 Paraguay 0


Argentina 2 England 1

Belgium 1 Spain 1

(aet; Belgium won 5-4 on pens)

Brazil 1 France 1

(aet; France won 4-3 on pens)

W Germany 0 Mexico 0

(aet; W Germany won 4-1 on pens)


Argentina 2 Belgium 0

W Germany 2 France 0


Argentina 3 W Germany 2

BRYAN ROBSON carried off, Ray Wilkins sent off, struggling to stay level at 0-0 against Morocco and defeated by Portugal in their opening game; no wonder that a revolt broke out in England's dressing-room. "We're always being told to think for ourselves, now somebody had better start thinking for us," one of the players said.

Peter Reid was warming up to replace the stricken skipper but England's problems ran deeper than depletion. "It was a mess," Terry Fenwick recalled. "Between them, the manager and the coach [Bobby Robson and Don Howe] had decided to play with our full-backs pushed up, leaving me and Terry [Butcher, England's other centre-back] to cover the width of the field. I wasn't comfortable with the idea, less when we tried to make it work. Trying to deal with passes knocked into the spaces behind Kenny Sansom and Gary Stevens, we were all over the place."

This and the difficulty arising from Glenn Hoddle's flawed positional sense. The most gifted English footballer of his generation, Hoddle had become a totem for the body of opinion that blamed England's comparatively poor World Cup record on a preference for industry over craftsmanship. "Brazil would make him an automatic choice," the complaint went.

In fact, the denial of that distinction in England stemmed not from a deficiency in Hoddle's labour but his instinct. The space on a football field to be found without a great deal of effort is that between two players on the same team, as long as they can see each other. Hoddle didn't have an eye for it. He didn't hide from the ball but getting it to him was consistently a problem.

This, more than any other factor, explains why Hoddle's international career didn't come up fully to expectation. Nobody in football admired technical ability more than Robson's predecessor, Ron Greenwood, but he, too, had reservations about Hoddle, using him only twice (once as a substitute) in the 1982 World Cup finals.

Although Hoddle was a fixture come the 1986 finals, England still weren't getting the full benefit from his deft touch and imaginative passing. Because Hoddle rarely showed up in his vision, Wilkins fell into his old habit of playing square which made England's movements predictable.

It is not meant as a slight to Wilkins, but his 40th-minute expulsion in Monterrey and the introduction of Reid as a replacement for Robson served to bring Hoddle more into the game. Reid moved the ball to where he could see Hoddle and forced it at him.

Fortunately, Morocco chose not to try to exploit numerical advantage and England hung on for a goalless draw that caused a disturbance among their supporters, many by then anticipating that Robson's team would soon be out of the tournament.

At a squad meeting later that day, Fenwick called upon Robson to think again about England's strategy. "I was so annoyed about things that I just stood up and spoke my mind," he recalled. "I told the manager that unless we got back to a system we were used to he might as well book a flight home. Thinking about it now, I was probably out of order but somebody had to say something. The room went very quiet. Players don't want to rock the boat but when I looked around Peter [Reid] and Alvin [Martin] were on their feet agreeing with me."

Reverting to a flat back-four, abandoning the idea of a winger (Chris Waddle) and a tall target man (Mark Hateley), Robson brought in Trevor Steven and Steve Hodge to play wide in midfield and Peter Beardsley to provide close support for Gary Lineker.

England, the other results in their favour, would have been safe with a draw against Poland; instead they woke up and swaggered into the next round, Lineker scoring a hat-trick, his firm ankles in front of goal a priceless asset when attacking low crosses. For the first time in 32 attempts, England had won by more than two goals. "It was different again," Fenwick said. "A lot more purpose and understanding."

An administrative cock-up left England with inadequate accommodation, not for the first time, but they were on song again when defeating Paraguay 3-0 in Mexico City. Two more for Lineker and Hoddle looking the part.

England now expected to win matches even against Argentina, their opponents in the quarter-finals, Diego Maradona and all. "Of course, we spoke a lot about how best to try and keep Maradona away from our goal," Fenwick said. "We didn't think that man-marking him [West Germany gave the job to Lothar Matthaus in the final] because nobody in the squad was used to it and he was so powerfully elusive with that strength in his pelvis and legs. It had to be collective responsibility, trying to make sure that someone was close whenever he got the ball."

The closest player when Hodge sliced a clearance back towards his own goal was the England goalkeeper and captain, Peter Shilton. Shilton, over six feet tall, Maradona barely five feet five inches. No contest in the air but Shilton was slow coming out and took his eye off the ball. Maradona got a fist to it. "We couldn't believe the referee when he gave a goal," Fenwick said. "The linesman must have seen what happened, but he bottled it. I followed the referee, so did Shilts, but the team as a whole should have caused a lot more commotion [shades of Walter Winterbottom's remark when England stood unprotesting as Brazil conned them with a free-kick in the 1962 finals]."

England were still fuming when Maradona scored one of the great World Cup goals just four minutes after the "Hand of God" incident. Gaining possession near the half-way line - "some of our players were still so upset that they weren't concentrating enough," Fenwick said - Maradona launched into a long dribble that took him past three tackles, Fenwick's included, before dummying Shilton.

The introduction of John Barnes almost changed things. Going past two men, he laid on a goal for Lineker and almost another when a header from his cross was kept out on the goalline.

Looking back, Fenwick is glad that a marvellous goal stood between the two teams. "It would be rotten to think that the little bastard cheated us out of it," he said.