Saturday, July 4, 2009

Do I Not Like That

"Eh? Eh? Eh? Eh?"

If you’re an England supporter, and despite the best efforts of Sven and the “wally with the brolly”, some of us still are, then you will be used to disappointment. In fact, you will have a PhD in it, as England are simply masters at falling short.

My personal theatre of nightmares would feature “zee Germans” (courtesy Turkish in Snatch) three times. Twice they beat us in semi-final penalty shoot-outs: Italia 90 World Cup with Gazza’s tears and Euro 96 (“it’s coming home”) with the appalling Andreas Möller’s celebratory strut. The most painful defeat was when they came back from two goals down in the heat of Mexico 70 to take advantage of the hapless Peter Bonetti, who was no substitute for the mighty Gordon Banks.

However, at least those losses were in major tournaments against a great football nation. No, the most humiliating defeat it has been my misfortune to witness came on 2 June 1993, when we lost 2-0 to Norway en route to failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. This was the crowning moment of incompetence of Graham Taylor’s inglorious reign as England manager, not helped by the fact I watched the match in the company of two Scottish mates, who took pity on my agony by refusing to indulge in the customary England-bashing.

Under Taylor’s management, England had not exactly built on the exhilarating performances under Bobby Robson in Italia 90. They struggled to qualify for Euro 92 in Sweden, where they meekly exited the tournament after two goalless draws and a defeat against the home nation. Or, as The Sun had it, “Swedes 2 Turnips 1”, when they launched the infamous “Turnip” Taylor campaign, super-imposing a root vegetable on Taylor’s yokel-like features. Apart from good use of alliteration, maybe this was a subtle reference to Taylor’s preference for the long-ball game and Brian Clough’s quote that “if football was meant to be played in the sky, God would have put grass or at least a few turnips, in the clouds”.

"Cruel to be kind"

Nevertheless, England were still expected to easily qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Although their group included the Dutch, two teams would qualify, so we only had to ease past Poland, Norway, Turkey and San Marino. The critics had evidently over-looked Taylor’s disregard of technique and skill, e.g. jettisoning the likes of Chris Waddle, who was tearing defences apart for Marseille, and his preference for the type of player whose only “ability” was a good engine, e.g. Carlton Palmer, Geoff Thomas, Andy Sinton, etc.

Despite a couple of disappointing draws, qualification was still in England’s hands when they arrived in Oslo for the match against Norway. Little did we know that we were about to see a defeat so complete, so shambolic, so embarrassing that it still makes me cringe even today.

In this most crucial of games, Taylor suddenly morphed into Baldrick, producing a “cunning plan” and making wholesale changes to personnel and tactics. He confidently proclaimed:

We’ll be playing with three at the back, pushing people forward to attack them, with Ferdinand and Sheringham up front. I expect us to cause them a lot of problems.

The idea seemed to be to confuse the “methodical” Norwegians, but was rather more successful at confusing the England defence, who clearly had no idea what on earth they were meant to be doing.

In the build-up to the match, Taylor was very concerned with the aerial threat posed by Norway’s giant forward, Jostein Flo, so he decided to deploy three centre-halves with Gary Pallister coming in to augment the usual partnership of Des Walker and Tony Adams. Leaving aside the fact that Adams was normally at his strongest against the traditional big number nine, it was apparent from the opening minutes that the English defence was all at sea. Seeing Taylor’s formation, his Norwegian counter-part, Egil Olsen, simply switched Flo to the left, forcing England to move Pallister to right-back where he was completely lost.

"Totally out of his depth"

By the time England sorted themselves out, Norway had won the game. Forest and England fans used to chant, “You’ll never beat Des Walker”, which was fair comment during the 1990 World Cup where he was imperious. However, Taylor's nonsensical tactics palpably rattled Walker here and he was at fault for both of Norway’s goals on either side of half-time. First, a quick free-kick that he himself conceded caught him flat-footed and, as he argued with the referee, the ball passed him on its way to a scruffy first goal. The master plan was again shattered when Walker was left static by Lars Bohinen, who beat the keeper at the near post.

Norway’s second goal came just two minutes into the second half, but England never looked capable of scoring, let alone re-gaining parity, as they just punted the ball forward on every occasion. The theoretical wing-backs, Lee Dixon and Lee Sharpe, were particularly inept. In midfield, Paul Gascoigne was anonymous, except for the ridiculous Zorro mask protecting his injured cheek, and Carlton Palmer was suitably embarrassing with his usual “Bambi on Ice” impression. Up front, “Sir Les” Ferdinand and “Ready Steady Teddy” Sheringham barely got a kick.

The match was memorably chronicled in Channel 4’ documentary, “The Impossible Job”, about the doomed qualifying campaign, which took no prisoners when highlighting the tactical vacuum at the heart of England’s management team, though, to be fair, all they had to do was point the camera at the bench. The emphasis on the long ball is revealed in all its glory, as Taylor bellows out his early instructions:

Go Les! Hit Les! Hit Les! Over the top! Fucking hell! Les, demand it!

Fucking Paul, come on! Fucking hit the space in there!

As England start to fall apart, Taylor loses his marbles completely, screaming at Carlton Palmer, "CAAAARLTON! CAAAARLTON!" Turning to his assistant managers, he then poses the question that has taxed football philosophers for hundreds of years: "Can we not knock it?" With three big men at the back and Carlton Palmer in midfield, the answer had to be no.

"Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don't look back! Keep running!"

Taylor is not served well by his support team of the über-sycophant, Phil (“Yes, boss”) Neal, and the barrel-chested Geordie, Lawrie McMenemy. After Norway score their second, Taylor astutely observes:

We’re in trouble here. Now then, now then. This is a test.

The Yes Man hardly begs to differ:

Yes. This is a real test.

Perhaps the lowest point in this tactical master class was when Taylor gave substitute Nigel Clough some advice just before he entered the fray. After putting his arm around him, he proceeded to deliver possibly the most confusing set of instructions in the history of management. Although the gist of what Taylor was saying was simple enough, i.e. play in the hole, the actual words suggested that Clough should play up front on his own, just behind the front two, wide on the left, in a floating role in the middle, as an attacking left-back, etc. Unsurprisingly, this was not a successful substitution.

In marked contrast to his pre-match ebullience, Taylor was justifiably demoralised after the game:

We made a complete mess of it. I’m here to be shot at and take the rap. I have no defence for our performance.

Fair enough, given that England did indeed appear to have no defence, following Taylor’s insane decision to impose a completely new system on the team and expect his players to master it in a single training session. Taylor’s honesty did not spare him a roasting by the press, who ran headlines like “Norse Manure” and “Olso Rans”, while the traveling fans hit the nail on the head, chanting “We’re so bad, it’s unbelievable”.

So, lightning does after all strike twice in the same place, as England had suffered another awful defeat in Olso twelve years earlier, when the Norwegian commentator famously taunted a roll call of English giants, including Maggie Thatcher, Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper and Lady Diana. In the summer of 1993, once again, our “boys took a hell of a beating”.

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