Graham Taylor: 'Do I not like that' - it's Euro 92 all over again
A tough game with France before crashing out against the hosts. There are some spooky parallels with the former England manager's ill-fated campaign. He talks to Simon Hart
If Roy Hodgson is tempted to bemoan his bad luck with injuries and suspension entering the European Championship, the lesson from one of his predecessors in the England job is that things could have been – indeed, have been – worse.
After all, the England manager will at least fly out to Poland today with a full squad of players – a luxury Graham Taylor did not enjoy 20 years ago when embarking on an ill-fated campaign in Sweden that provides several parallels with the one about to unfold.
From an English perspective, Euro 92 is remembered largely for The Sun turning Taylor's head into a turnip after England's defeat by Sweden brought an early exit and subsequent vilification for the manager who had substituted Gary Lineker on his final international appearance.
Yet, behind that broad-brush stroke, is a chapter of England's history which resonates today. Little wonder that, as Hodgson's options have grown alarmingly thin, Taylor has allowed himself a wry smile. "When I saw the headline 'What more can go wrong?' I thought to myself, 'Do they know what happened to me in terms of injuries?'
"Mark Wright dropped out at the very last minute, so late that we were not allowed to replace him," he explains. "Uefa wouldn't allow it and at that time the squad you could take was 20 – two goalkeepers and 18 outfield players. Because we couldn't replace him we went with 19 players. We also went without a recognised right-back because Gary Stevens, Lee Dixon and Rob Jones were injured. At the very last minute I took Keith Curle, with [two caps], and ended up having to play David Batty at right-back [against Sweden]."
Taylor was hamstrung higher up the pitch too. "I'd lost [John] Barnes and [Paul] Gascoigne, who were the two most talented players in the country," he said. Barnes had ruptured his Achilles in the final warm-up match against Finland, eight days before England's opening game. "You've got half your first team out through injury," adds Taylor. "When it comes up with Roy now, I think, 'It has happened before'."
Nor do the similarities end there. England's Group D fixture list of France, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine carries echoes of Euro 92 when they took on Michel Platini's France and their Swedish hosts following an opening stalemate with Denmark.
Martin Keown, who played in all three matches, recalls the negative response to that draw with the Danish outsiders who were only participating because of UN sanctions against Yugoslavia. "There was this huge pressure being created by the media because we did not beat them but of course they went on to win the thing," says Keown, who, like Taylor, will be contributing to the BBC's Euro 2012 coverage.
After a second sterile goalless draw with France – featuring Carlton Palmer in a back three – English hopes rose when David Platt scored early in the decisive game against Sweden.
It was a different story in the second half, the Swedes striking back through Jan Eriksson and Tomas Brolin, and, looking back, Taylor suggests the signs were there even during the interval. "I remember at half-time going in and saying to the players, 'Have any of you got anything to say at all?' and they looked shattered. The only player who said anything was Nigel Clough, who was a substitute. It really hit me at the time that we do take tired players. Other countries play a lot of football but there's no country in the world that plays its football with the intensity that our Premier League does."
Looking back at this newspaper's reporting of the campaign, the criticism of Taylor – even Steve Coppell, The Independent's columnist in Sweden, described England as "the football illiterates of Europe" – is mixed with sympathy. "For England it always seemed likely to end in tears when so many good players withdrew, hors de combat, after another debilitating domestic season," wrote our then football correspondent Joe Lovejoy – an argument that may well be recycled in about a fortnight's time.
Remembering that night in Solna in 1992, Keown says: "We went ahead but we couldn't really control midfield; that was my abiding memory." When you consider that midfield comprised Andy Sinton, Neil Webb and Palmer, it becomes less surprising. "It was difficult playing against the host nation," Keown adds. "Brolin scored an exceptional goal and that was it, we were out."
Except for Taylor, that was not it. Of the polemic that followed his decision to substitute Lineker for Alan Smith, he says: "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."
David Platt, who succeeded Lineker as captain, was moved to defend Taylor in his autobiography – "I can state categorically that the substitution was tactical and not vindictive"– yet, with Lineker stranded a goal shy of Bobby Charlton's England record of 49 strikes, Taylor became known as football's answer to the man who shot Bambi's mother – the man who "stopped him [Lineker] equalling or beating Bobby Charlton", as he acknowledges.
Pointing to Lineker's saved penalty against Brazil in the home friendly before Sweden, Taylor argues: "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."
In Taylor's mind, "the turnip situation" – as he puts it – "diminished my authority" for the remainder of his England reign. Hindsight tells him the job came too soon – "I wish it had come at Roy's age" – yet he sees one plus for Hodgson, at least. However bad England's campaign turns out to be, the new manager will not get the blame.
Indeed, as with Denmark's Euro 92 winners – another potential parallel – Taylor suggests the lack of planning time and absence of expectation might prove a blessing. "Nobody expected them to do anything and they played with a refreshing lack of pressure on them. In many respects it is a little similar to England – with this group of players now, if they don't do well, their excuse is already made. It is the [fault of the] FA for making such a late decision; Roy will get a little bit of the criticism but the FA will get most of it. But I have a sneaky little feeling we might do better than a lot of people are thinking."
Twists and turnips
Bobby Robson had a good side (on paper, not grass) and hopes were high going in but everything unravelled alarmingly quickly. Despite dominating the opener against Ireland, Jack Charlton's men clung on to earn a famous victory via Ray Houghton's header. Then, against the Dutch, Marco van Basten was unplayable, giving Tony Adams twisted blood as he notched a superb hat-trick. Despite Bryan Robson's excellent goal, England were out. A final-game hammering by the Russians only heightened the gloom.
Turnip rating: 5/5
England almost reached the World Cup final under Robson two years earlier but Graham Taylor's men hardly set the world alight in qualifying. A dull opening draw against Denmark was followed by another drab point against France, in a game best remembered for Basile Boli's off-the-ball headbutt on Stuart Pearce, who hammered the crossbar with a free-kick. In a winner-takes-all clash with hosts Sweden, England started well when David Platt turned in Tony Daley's cross but fell apart in the second half. Jan Eriksson equalised before Tomas Brolin sealed their early flight home.
Turnip rating: 4/5
After Glenn Hoddle had talked himself out of the job, Kevin Keegan took charge. Off the pitch, the fans rioted. On it, England were a shambles. They started brilliantly against Portugal, Paul Scholes and Steve McManaman putting them 2-0 up, before some awful defending and dodgy keeping allowed Nuno Gomes to cement a remarkable turnaround. Hope was restored when Alan Shearer's header earned a 1-0 win over Germany in a battle of two distinctly ordinary sides but their deserved exit was confirmed after more cock-ups against Romania. Shearer and Michael Owen put England 2-1 up but Nigel Martyn (in for David Seaman who was injured in the warm-up) was at fault for the equaliser and Phil Neville's clumsy late trip gifted Romania a penalty and a place in the last eight.
Turnip rating: 4/5
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