England had delivered a thoroughly disappointing European Championships in ’88, losing all three of their matches, and there was a lot of pressure on manager Bobby Robson at the start of the qualifiers in Group 2 of the UEFA zone. Being first seed in a group of four possibly flattered them slightly on current form, but still they were favourites. They would first and foremost have to fend off Sweden and Poland, but also knew Albania had to be taken seriously, especially away from home, as going to Tirana is never easy for any team.
Manager Robson had succeeded Ron Greenwood after the ’82 World Cup in Spain. He had failed to take England to the European Championships in France in ’84, but guided them both to Mexico ’86 and West Germany ’88. He had suffered quarter final pain at the hand of ‘God’ in Mexico, while the English had been exposed by their group stage rivals in Germany, even losing to one of the home nations as the Republic of Ireland had won their opening group encounter from a Ray Houghton header. The pressure was on the distinguished 55 year old by the start of the qualification campaign.
England had seen a few players quit the international scene after the European Championships: Arsenal’s left back Kenny Sansom, Man United’s right back Viv Anderson, and midfield maestro Glenn Hoddle, now of Monaco in France. Ageing midfielder Peter Reid, Everton, had also announced his retirement from international football. They were all fine, capable players, but one did feel that England could well live without them. There were indeed rising stars in English football, and perhaps none more so than midfielder Paul Gascoigne from Newcastle, who was 21 as the qualification tournament was about to start. There seemed to be a lot of attacking talent available to Mr Robson: wingers John Barnes and Chris Waddle were players of excellent calibre, and in Barcelona striker Gary Lineker they had one of the finest forwards in the business. Peter Beardsley of Liverpool also had to be considered, and there was the emerging David Platt of Aston Villa, who perhaps was still not seriously seen as a candidate for a national team squad though.
England would prepare for their first qualification tie, at home to Sweden, with one single game: They would be taking on Sweden’s neighbours and arch rivals Denmark at Wembley. This would happen three months after the dismal European Championships exit, and five weeks before it all began in earnest.
14.09.1988 England 1-0 Denmark
Line-up (4-4-2): Shilton (Woods h-t) – Stevens, Adams (Walker 65), Butcher, Pearce – Rocastle, Robson (c), Webb, Hodge – Beardsley (Gascoigne 85), Harford (Cottee 70)
Neil Webb’s first half goal proved decisive, and the win will have been important for the English after the dismal showing in West Germany over the summer. Bobby Robson had given debuts to Arsenal’s fine right sided midfielder David Rocastle, Nottingham Forest’s young centre back Des Walker, and indeed Newcastle’s very talented midfielder Paul Gascoigne. Bobby Robson had called up a large squad for this friendly, which included David Seaman, Mel Sterland, Tony Dorigo, Gary Pallister, Michael Thomas, Paul Davis, John Barnes and Gary Lineker.