On Friday England meet San Marino in a World Cup Qualifier. It will be only the third meeting between the two nations. The previous two both came during a turbulent time for England.
San Marino played their first competitive international on 14th November 1990 when they played host to Switzerland in a European Championship Qualifier. Just 931 attended a game they lost 0-4. They lost all 8 of their matches during that campaign, scoring just once. For the 1994 World Cup Qualifiers they were drawn in England’s group, along with Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Turkey.
England were managed by Graham Taylor who had taken over from Bobby Robson after the 1990 World Cup. They stuttered in qualifying for the 1992 European Championships needing a late goal from Gary Lineker in Poznan in their final game to go through. They were then very disappointing in the finals in Sweden, failing to win a game, and Taylor was already under pressure. The ’94 Qualifiers didn’t get off to the best of starts as Norway held them to a 1-1 draw at Wembley. A month later Paul Gascoigne inspired England, scoring twice in a 4-0 win at home to Turkey. February 1993 and San Marino visited Wembley. By this time San Marino had been thumped 0-10 in Norway and 1-4 in Turkey as well as losing 0-2 at home to Norway.
Goals were clearly going to be important in this group but England with Lineker now retired were short of attacking options. QPR’s Les Ferdinand was handed his first cap for the game and would operate as the main striker, with John Barnes and David Platt on either side of him. Platt was one of three England players playing their football in Italy by that time. Platt with Juventus, Des Walker at Sampdoria and Gascoigne at Lazio. Gascoigne, a revelation in Italia ’90 had only been able to add another 5 caps in the two and a half years since his tears at the Turin Semi-Final in 1990.
The game will be remembered for one thing. The first instance of an England player being booed at Wembley by his own supporters.
John Barnes had, had a distinguished domestic playing career at Watford and Liverpool. One of the most exciting players of his generation, he was instrumental in helping Liverpool win 2 League titles in 1988 and 1990. By 1993 there was a growing perception he never replicated his club form for his country. There was likely to be an undercurrent of racial prejudice but the wave of abuse seemed to spread around the stadium like a virus in the second half as Barnes seemed to be blamed for a poor performance from the home side.
Platt put England in front after 13 minutes and then doubled the lead 10 minutes later, but England struggled to create and convert their chances and were still only 2-0 up at the break. The home fans began to get restless and took out their frustrations on Jamaican-born Barnes. Every time he touched the ball the noise would reverberate around the stadium in an embarrassing cacophony which became painful to watch. England eventually scored again midway through the second half when Platt completed his hat-trick. As the game moved towards the final 10 minutes, Sheffield Wednesday’s Carlton Palmer scored his one and only goal for his country. England scored two further goals in the last 7 minutes as Platt grabbed his fourth and Ferdinand scored on his debut.
The game has always gone down in the library of infamous nights for English football, but 6-0 might not have been such a bad result especially as the Dutch only managed the same score against the same opponents a month later. But the treatment of Barnes divided the nation with many defending their right to voice their opinion as others wondered how it would ever help the player or the team.
ENGLAND: Woods (Sheffield Wednesday); Dixon (Arsenal), Adams (Arsenal), Walker (Sampdoria), Dorigo (Leeds); Palmer (Sheffield Wednesday), Batty (Leeds), Gascoigne (Lazio); Platt (Juventus), Ferdinand (QPR), Barnes (Liverpool)
Barnes was to push the abuse back in his detractors’ faces when he scored a fine free-kick two minutes into the next home game against Netherlands. Platt scored his 7th goal of the campaign in that game but England could not hold onto their lead 2-0 and the Dutch fought back to earn a point.
The rest of the campaign proved a series of frustrations and disappointments for England as they just managed a 1-1 draw in Poland when Ian Wright’s late goal saved them. It was Wright’s first goal for his country in his 9th appearance. They were them humiliated 0-2 in Norway as a series of defensive errors ruined their chances. A 3-0 win at Wembley when Poland visited was then followed by a frustrating defeat in Rotterdam. Dutch defender, Ronald Koeman cynically brought Platt down when the Juventus man was through on goal. To the dismay of Graham Taylor Koeman escaped a sending-off to then score a stunning free-kick barely a few minutes later. When Bergkamp doubled the Dutch lead soon after, Taylor knew the game was up.
A fly-on-the-wall documentary captured Taylor sarcastically saying to the linesman to “thank your colleague for me, won’t you?. He’s probably got me the sack with that decision”.
England’s slim hopes of qualifying rested on their trip to play San Marino in November 1993. On the same night Poland entertained the Dutch in Poznan in a game England needed the Poles to win. Even if the Poles could win, England needed a 7-goal margin of victory to be certain of qualification.
If the first game against San Marino was infamous, so was the return fixture.
The game was played in Bologna in the same venue they’d met the Dutch as both nations were expected to bring too many supporters for any ground in a San Marino, a country of just over 32,000 people. Taylor decided to give a first cap to Blackburn’s winger, Stuart Ripley but any impression he could make on the game would prove futile.
If the Wembley meeting was to be remembered for John Barnes, then this game will be remembered for Stuart Pearce. San Marino kicked off and a couple of swift forward passes saw the ball played through for striker, Gualtieri to run onto but Pearce got to the ball first just on the edge of the England penalty area. As he faced his keeper, David Seaman, Pearce looked to pass the ball back but made a pathetic attempt and this allowed Gualtieri to nip in and poke the ball into the net. Barely 8 seconds had gone in the game and a country who had scored only a couple of goals ever in their history, were now 1-0 up against England, a country who 3 years earlier were a penalty kick away from a World Cup Final.
BBC’s John Motson’s commentary paints the picture of what viewers were watching
“The stage is set for England's last and decisive match in this World Cup qualifying group. England in red, San Marino in blue, England needing to win by a seven-goal margin and hope that Poland can do them a favour in Poznan against Holland. [Whistle sounds to start game.] I'm sure you're aware now what's at stake. And Nicola Bacciocchi the number nine picks the ball up straight away and San Marino launch the first attack, oh and a mistake by Stuart Pearce and San Marino have scored. I don't believe this."
In Poznan things just got worse for England as Bergkamp put Netherlands in front, although Lesniak equalised just 4 minutes later. It took 22 minutes for England to equalise when Paul Ince scored. Ian Wright then put them in front 10 minutes before the break, with Les Ferdinand scoring England’s third 4 minutes later. At half-time England were 3-1 up and Poland v Netherlands was still 1-1. If Poland could score a 2nd then England just might be in with a chance.
Ian Wright scored his 2nd of the game right after the re-start but then Bergkamp scored his 2nd for the Dutch and England’s feint hopes were now fading into off into a murky distance. Wright ended up with 4 goals as England won 7-1 but Ronald de Boer rounded off the scoring for the Dutch and they were through with Norway.
ENGLAND : Seaman (Arsenal); Dixon (Arsenal), Walker (Sheffield Wednesday), Pallister (Man Utd), Pearce (Notts Forest); Ripley (Blackburn), Platt (Sampdoria), Sinton (Sheffield Wednesday), Ince (Man Utd); Wright (Arsenal), Ferdinand (QPR)
It would be the last time England failed to qualify for a major tournament until Steve McLaren came along for Euro 2008.
The game was a watershed for a few players as Andy Sinton and Des Walker were never seen again in an England shirt and Lee Dixon would only win one further cap. But the highest profile casualty was manager, Graham Taylor, who quit the next day. So ended a rather inauspicious period for the England national team. Terry Venables was the replacement and almost three years later he too brought England within a penalty kick from a major international Final in Euro ’96.
One interesting aspect around this time is on the same night England were failing to qualify, Switzerland eased past Estonia, 4-0, to join Italy in qualifying from Group One. The Swiss manager at the time? Roy Hodgson.
England will be hoping Hodgson can do the same for them for Brazil 2014.