Part 2 of my look back at those fabled groups of death, this time in 1990.
Italy 1990- Group F: England, Holland, Ireland, Egypt
How did it go down?
In the run up to the Italia ’90 draw the Spanish FA cried foul when England were awarded the 6th and final top seeding and Spain ranked 7th were placed in pot 2. They claimed (incorrectly) England were given a favourable seeding to ensure their hooligan fans could be kept on the Island of Sardinia where all the Group F games were to be played.
After the draw the Spanish complaints subsided as Spain got a comparatively easy draw with the least fancied seed: Belgium, whilst England got the draw everyone wanted to avoid: European Champions Holland.
If that wasn’t bad enough England also drew Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland and unknown African qualifiers Egypt. The draw brought back particularly painful memories for England manager Bobby Robson whose Euro ’88 squad achieved the sort of unblemished record English cricket teams usually manage on Ashes tours: played 3, lost 3. At Euro ’88 England had suffered a shock opening day defeat to Ireland and were bundled out 4 days later by a Marco Van Basten hat trick and now 2 years on England would open their World Cup campaign against the same 2 sides.
Ireland had their own reasons for fearing the draw- after beating England and drawing with the USSR they were on course to qualify for the Euro ’88 semi finals needing only a draw with Holland. They were in control until 8 minutes from time when Wim Kieft’s fluke goal handed the Dutch a 1-0 win and a path to their only major trophy and sent the Irish back to Dublin.
The group kicked off with England playing Ireland in Cagliari and this time it was England making a fast start- Gary Lineker latched onto a loose ball and scrambled home on 9 minutes. But England struggled to consolidate their good start and Ireland bombarded their box with aerial balls. Eventually the pressure told and Kevin Sheedy smashed home after a poor touch from Steve McMahon, it finished 1-1. The result was better than 2 years earlier but Robson’s inept tactics were savaged in a critical press as England made their customary slumbering start.
The following night the little known Egyptians made their bow against Holland. The Dutch with a half fit Ruud Gullit struggled to find their rhythm and it was Kieft again coming off the bench to score what looked like the winner until a late penalty salvaged a surprise draw for Egypt; the group was all square after round 1.
Next up England vs Holland and Robson sprung a major surprise as he abandoned England’s rid 4-4-2 formation in favour of playing Mark Wright as a sweeper. The tactical switch wrong footed the Dutch and freed England’s creative players into more expressive roles with Gazza the star of the show. England twice had the ball in the Dutch net but both were chalked off and it finished 0-0, with Robson praised for his switch in formation.
The following night Egypt continued to surprise as they frustrated Ireland into a scrappy 0-0 draw- with Ireland struggling to make their mark against a side happy to play Ireland at their own game. Amazingly with only 1 game to play all 4 teams were dead locked on 2 points with 1 goal scored and 1 conceded each.
By the time of the decisive games England had lost skipper Bryan Robson to yet another injury whilst manager Bobby decided to revert back to 4-4-2 and brought in direct centre forward Steve Bull. Predictably England laboured in the first half against Egypt whilst in Palermo Gullit gave Holland an early lead against Ireland with a fine solo goal.
Early in the second half Gascoigne delivered a teasing free kick which Wright headed home 1-0 England. 13 minutes later in Palermo a long Irish ball upfield forced a mistake from Dutch keeper Hans Van Breukelen and Niall Quinn put Ireland level. England held on for the win and won the group whilst Holland & Ireland drew to both qualify for the last 16, Egypt were out.
What Happened Next?
As they finished dead level Ireland and Holland drew lots as to who finished runners-up and who placed third in the group. Irish eyes were smiling and they got a second round tie with Romania whilst the Dutch faced old foes West Germany.
Holland were the first to go home, in a game best remembered for Frank Rijkaard spitting into Rudi Voller’s mullet (an incident that saw both red carded) goals from Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme saw the Germans home 2-1.
Ireland played out a 0-0 draw with Romania and forced penalties where a fine save from Pat Bonner saw David O’Leary step up to take the decisive spot kick- he lashed home an Ireland were off to Rome to first meet The Pope and then face hosts Italy in the Stadio Olympico. The Irish provided a stiff test but were eventually overwhelmed in the quarter-final, that last 8 appearance remains Ireland’s high water mark in major tournaments.
England meanwhile continued their World Cup rollercoaster in their revised sweeper system. First they defeated Belgium with a late late David Platt goal, then came from behind to beat tournament surprise package Cameroon via 2 Lineker penalties and finally went out via Chris Waddle’s infamous spot kick in the Semi Finals. Gazza cried, Robson bowed out and English football headed home reborn.