This month marks the 25th anniversary of USA 1994 and with it England’s last failure to qualify for a World Cup. So what went so horribly wrong and what might have been?
In the summer of 1992 England manager Graham Taylor declared lofty ambitions for his team, he publicly stated his aim was to qualify for and win the 1994 World Cup. The English public were less than convinced Taylor could deliver what he was promising. England had been horrendous at Euro ’92 scoring just once in three games. Now shorn of the retired Gary Lineker, Taylor vowed to pursue a more direct style of play, the signs looked gloomy from the outset.
Still England appeared to at least get qualifying off to a positive start when David Platt gave them a deserved lead over Norway at Wembley. However a fine long range goal from Kejetil Rekdal brought Norway level and saw two points dropped, it was an early sign of trouble ahead. By March England seemed back on track with home and away wins over Turkey and a 6-0 hiding of San Marino in the bag, but the fans were far from happy with a series of middling performances.
Then came a critical blow when Holland were the visitors to Wembley. An early free kick from John Barnes and a quick follow up goal from Platt gave England a 2-0 lead. Dennis Bergkamp pulled a goal back for the Dutch, but England were on their way to an important win until Des Walker gave away a late penalty to hand Holland a 2-2 draw. Suddenly England had taken only two points from the home matches against their two main rivals, the pressure was mounting.
Things got worse away to Poland where England conceded in the first half and a dismal performance was only rescued from the brink of disaster by Ian Wright’s first goal for England, just six minutes from full-time. Then the wheels well and truly came off when Taylor made the tactical blunder of switching to 3-5-2 away to Norway. Another mistake from the out of form Walker saw England go behind to Oyvind Leonhardsen’s close range finish. A second goal followed straight after halftime and gave Norway a 2-0 win as England turned in an inept display and their World Cup bid fell into chaos.
A disastrous summer tour followed but by September Taylor appeared to be pulling England together. With Les Ferdinand finding form up front and Paul Gascoigne returning to his best, England turned in the best performance of the Taylor era to thrash Poland 3-0 at Wembley. The campaign would be decided on an infamous night in Rotterdam. England needed a draw with Holland and they’d be home and hosed but would have to do without Gascoigne and Ferdinand. The key moment came early in the second half when last defender Ronald Koeman hauled down Platt. Incredibly Koeman was not sent off and shortly afterwards scored with a trademark free kick to give the Dutch the lead. Minutes later Bergkamp made it 2-0 and England were all but out of the World Cup.
There would be one last fiasco for Taylor. In the final qualifier away to San Marino, from the opening kick off the minnows attacked and a mistake from Stuart Pearce let San Marino in for the fastest goal in qualifying history. England did go on to win 7-1 but the damage was done, the image of a crestfallen Taylor pacing the Rotterdam touch line was set in stone and England were at rock bottom.
Deconstructed by Documentary
Few England fans need to be reminded of those events, because we all saw them in the Channel Four documentary ‘An Impossible Job.’ Taylor remarkably allowed a documentary film crew to follow him around through the qualifying campaign and an infamous catchphrase was born. Director Ken McGill later admitted although he had complete respect for Taylor as a man, he was amazed Taylor never asked for the camera to be switched off, laying bare a shambolic campaign.
Taylor wasn’t the only one to look bad in front of the lens. Fairly or otherwise assistants Phil Neal and Laurie McMenemy never recovered their reputations, with both appearing to simply be yes men and stooges offering little tactical insight or alternative views to the manager. Others were also made to look foolish as the film took on Spinal Tap proportions, the FA were unsurprisingly left looking like the tie and blazer closed shop that they were. In an infamous FA boardroom scene the old men led by Bert Millichip were clueless. The FA’s then Director of Coaching Charles Hughes: the man responsible for English football’s boneheaded obsession with ‘POMO’ and long ball tactics talked about ‘coaching modules’ as eyeballs rolled from the watching public on their sofas.
The most eye opening scenes watching the documentary were the relationship with the press. In the days before Sky Sports News the public saw little of manager press conferences and the sight of the England manager swearing and arguing at and with journalists and in particular Rob Sheppard was truly staggering. But it was Taylor himself sinking under the mounting pressure that came off the worst as the phrases ‘Now this is a test!’ ‘Play it as you see it son,’ and of course ‘Do I not like that!’ entered the footballing lexicon.
What might have been
As USA ’94 followed West Germany ’74 and Argentina ’78 into England’s hall of shame the obvious questions posed are were England hard done by and what might have happened had they made it to the finals. The mantra with qualifying has never changed: you must win at home and keep it tight away. England drew at home to Holland and Norway then lost to both away winning just five of their ten games. England were unfortunate in Rotterdam and Taylor had a point in insisting Koeman should have gone, but England could and should have been qualified before that game kicked off. Simply put England were woeful and didn’t deserve to qualify.
Had they made it to the States, the team from that 3-0 win over Poland gives the best indication of what the World Cup side would have looked like. England would have presented a physical side filled with pace and power but relying almost entirely on Gascoigne for inspiration had they played in the US that summer.
Likely starting lineup: 4:4:2 David Seaman, Rob Jones, Stuart Pearce, Gary Pallister, Tony Adams, Paul Ince, David Platt, Paul Gascoigne, Lee Sharpe, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand
Likely Subs: Chris Woods, Nigel Martyn, Paul Parker, Martin Keown, Tony Dorigo, Carlton Palmer, David Batty, Andy Sinton, Paul Merson, Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham.
England would have been in the tournament at the expense of Holland so it follows they would have been in the group Holland occupied. It would have been a kind draw against Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Morocco proved hapless and lost all three games so it can assumed England would have beaten them. Belgium were resolute and would probably have held Taylor’s side to a draw. Saudi Arabia proved a wildcard and a sublime individual goal from Saeed Al-Owairan beat Belgium and won goal of the tournament. It was a banana-skin waiting to be stepped on for England and could easily have ended in embarrassment. All that being said England would probably have secured 5 points and qualified as runners up.
That would have meant a second round encounter with Sweden, the team that had knocked Taylor’s side out of Euro ’92. With Gascoigne available England would have been a better side than in 1992 but Sweden had arguably their best side ever and eventually finished third. England would likely have gone out there and then but had they progressed it would have been a quarter-final against a talented Romania and possibly a semi against Brazil. It’s hard to imagine England getting further than the last eight. The question then would have been should Taylor stay in post for Euro ’96? Having made the knockout phase my suspicion is the FA would have stood by their man. That would have meant no Terry Venables and it’s hard to see that great tournament run at Wembley happening.
England’s 1994 legacy will always be that documentary and the memory of a fine club manager simply not cut out for international football in the brave new world of ’90s football, did he not like that!