This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Playing full-back for Grimsby Town in the Third Division is a long way from managing England in the European Championship, but that was exactly the path beaten by Graham Taylor. He worked miracles as manager of Watford and guided Aston Villa to second place in the old First Division.
In 1990, Taylor took on the very definition of a poisoned chalice; a job with one million critics all of whom think they know better. The Italia 90 squad was plundered as Taylor retained Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and David Platt as the spine.
The European Championship would be Gary Lineker’s international swansong, with it widely assumed the England goalscoring record would be settled pre-tournament. Lineker scored his 48th international goal against CIS in April. There were three more friendlies en route to the finals in Sweden, and Lineker’s nerves seem to show as he missed a penalty against Brazil.
It would have brought him level with Bobby Charlton’s record but he remained on 48 as the finals began. Two goalless draws had left England needing a win against Sweden to get out of the group.
Taylor shuffled the deck as David Batty switched to right-back, Neill Webb came in for Trevor Steven, and Alan Shearer made way for Tony Daley. A workmanlike Sweden had the benefit of home advantage but relied heavily on Tomas Brolin, a truly creative player who enjoyed dropping deep. Much would depend on his click potential with striker Martin Dahlin, who enjoyed a productive first season in the Bundesliga.
England witnessed a start in the fourth minute as Lineker turned provider. Webb knocked a sweet ball forward to Batty who flicked onto Lineker; he found Platt who swung and scuffed a shot past Tomas Ravalli.
Sweden were rattled but England failed to press home their advantage. Tony Daley could have put the game to bed but missed two golden opportunities late in the first half.
At half time, Sweden substituted Anders Limpar for bustling centre-forward Johnny Ekstrom. A seemingly innocuous change would fatally distract the England defence. A big man chasing long balls through the middle should not have been an issue; if anyone knew how to handle route one football it was Graham Taylor. But it gave Brolin and Dahlin time and space to move. The inevitable equaliser came in the 51st minute as Jan Eriksson headed in from a Stefan Schwartz corner.
Whilst a change was due, many were surprised when Taylor substituted Lineker in favour of Alan Smith. Not only would his international career be over if England failed to progress, but Taylor removed the one player most likely to nick a goal.
Substitutions can be a masterstroke or moment of madness, but nothing could disguise how much England were struggling. Paul Merson was thrown on in the 76th minute but would have little effect. By the 81st minute, Brolin exchanged passes with Ekstrom and Dahlin before firing a terrific shot past Chris Woods. England had nothing left in the tank. It was a disappointing end to a competition that promised much.
Sweden would progress to an eventful semi-final against Germany. For England, one goal in three games suggested a lack of penetration; they were defensively naive, particularly at set-pieces, and too easily undone by pace. Taylor showed fatal indecision in team selection and never seemed entirely sure of his best side.
Lineker would stay tantalisingly on 48 goals, one behind Charlton. The goal-scoring record was perhaps a millstone as Lineker endured a six-game goalless run, the longest of his England career. He would finish his playing career in Japan and later retreat to a comfortable sofa on Match of the Day. For Taylor, it was just the beginning of his problems. Did we not like that?
By Brian Penn