Action Replay: Wednesday 11 November 1987: Imperial days for England in the Balkans

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The Independent Online
England travel to Poland this week, where only a victory will guarantee second place in Group Five and the chance to qualify for Euro 2000. Twelve years ago, under Bobby Robson, England arrived in Yugoslavia needing to record their first win in that country to qualify for the 1988 European Championship. Patrick Barclay was in Belgrade on 11 November 1987 and filed this report for The Independent

THE SWEET sound of appreciation rolled round the hazy slopes of the Marathon Stadium yesterday evening as England not only made sure of a place in the European Championship next summer, but showed they have the style and substance to be among the tournament's leading lights.

A performance as imperious as the Yugoslav's was panic-stricken left Bobby Robson's side unbeaten in their group with 19 goals scored and one, just 10 minutes from the end of the campaign, conceded. They could hardly have qualified more convincingly, nor more comprehensively answered the doubts raised in September by a friendly defeat at the hands of West Germany, the European Championship hosts.

England achieved their first victory in Yugoslavia at the sixth attempt, but with an ease that was almost embarrassing. They took the lead in the second minute, and, by the 24th, when Tony Adams rose to head the fourth goal, the crowd had accepted that their favourites hopes had been left in the fog that had, for some hours, threatened a postponement.

Ivica Osim, the home manager, had predicted that the losers would be those who first burned themselves out mentally. It soon became apparent that Yugoslavia had completed the process on the training pitch. Peter Shilton completed his first save with 20 minutes left, and his defence could afford the momentary lapse of concentration that allowed Srecko Katanec to score.

This time England had no need of goals from Gary Lineker. It was a momentous all-round display, led, predictably enough, by Bryan Robson until an ugly tackle by Dragan Stojkovic forced his departure. Alongside the captain, Neil Webb belied his lack of European experience, as did Tony Adams in defence. But, even in distinguished company, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes succeeded in catching the eye of a ruefully admiring audience, Beardsley with his puckishly penetrative touches and Barnes with the pace and arrogant command of the ball that left Yugoslavia as bemused as the First Division has been all season. The Liverpool pair also delivered the first two stunning blows.

Yugoslavia began suicidally, yet somehow contrived to deteriorate. Shilton sent a clearance soaring towards the edge of their penalty area, where Faruk Hadzibegic took a perplexing decision to back-head the ball. Beardsley reacted more quickly than the sweeper, Marko Elsner, and beat Mauro Ravnic to the loose ball.

If further evidence were needed that this was England's day, it came in the 16th minute. The tragi-comedy persisted as Ravnic rolled the ball to Elsner who, with Beardsley in attendance, had no option but to play it inside the penalty area, conceding an indirect free-kick. England had spent 25 minutes in their final training session preparing for such an eventuality; Yugoslavia probably wished they had too, as Bryan Robson tapped the ball to Barnes, who drove it through the wall and wide of the diving Ravnic.

Three minutes later the Yugoslavs cleared a corner, dithered as Webb headed the ball back among them, and stood gaping while Robson wheeled and smashed a shot beyond a static Ravnic. The keeper made an excellent save soon afterwards, denying Lineker at close range from Webb's clever pass, but the ensuing corner proved just another rod for his back; when Barnes swirled it over, no one challenged Adams, and the ball was back in the net.

So much for Yugoslavia's sweeper system; they took Elsner off and brought Milan Jankovic into midfield, which effected a slight improvement. England continued to slice their way through periodically, but Vladan Radaca, who had replaced Ravnic at half time, was unable to deal with efforts from Webb and Barnes. The latter should have scored, so threadbare had the defence been rendered by the splendid Robson and Beardsley, but only a churl would complain.

Afterwards the FA secretary, Ted Croker, disclosed that England's qualifying record meant they would be seeded second only to West Germany conferring the advantage that all their matches will be in Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Stuttgart, for which preparations can be made. Bobby Robson said: "Yugoslavia were shaken, shell-shocked and bamboozled. We had been told about their technical qualities, but I thought we beat them for skill as well as work rate. I feel we can now compete with the best in the world."

YUGOSLAVIA: Ravnic (Rijeka); Zoran Vujovik (Bordeaux), Baljic (Zelieznicar), Katanec (Partizan), Elsner (Nice), Hadzibegic (Sochaux), Stojkovic (Red Star), Milnaric (Dinamo), Vokri (Partizan), Bazdarevic (Sochaux), Zlatko Vujovik (Bordeaux), Substitutes: Jankovic (Real Madrid for Elsner, 26); Radaca (Rad Belgrade, for Ravnic, h-t).

ENGLAND: Shilton (Derby); Stevens (Everton), Sansom (Arsenal), Steven (Everton), Adams (Arsenal), Butcher (Rangers), Robson (Manchester United), Webb (Nottingham Forest), Beardsley (Liverpool), Lineker (Barcelona), Barnes (Liverpool). Substitutes: Reid (Everton for Robson, 76); Hoddle (Monaco, for Webb, 80).

Referee: M Vautrot (France).

FOOTNOTE: Barclay's faith proved unfounded, and England went out in the first round of the finals, losing to the Dutch, the Soviet Union and, embarrassingly, 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland.The tabloids demanded Bobby Robson's head, but he remained in charge and led England to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup.

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