February 17th 1993
1994 World Cup Qualifying Group 2
England 6-0 San Marino
As England prepare to get reacquainted with San Marino on Friday night, there has been, predictably, much coverage centred on the eventful night of November 17th 1993 in Bologna, where Davide Gualtieri scored only the third goal in the tiny republic’s history – and the fastest world cup goal ever.
Yet the previous meeting between the nations, which took place nine months earlier, also boasted an unlikely scorer. It was hardly a critical goal, with England already 3-0 up at Wembley, but it was the pick of the bunch. Les Ferdinand glided into the box on the right and whipped over a quick, low ball, and flying in like superman at the far post was Carlton Palmer with a fine diving header to notch his first and only England strike. As heard here on the video, a bemused and amused Graham Taylor seemed only to want to know what Palmer was doing popping up in the box when he’d been asked to hold the middle. Against San Marino. At home.
The match took place just a week before Bobby Moore succumbed to cancer, and Moore would make his last public appearance at the game, commentating alongside Jonathan Pearce. Captain David Platt would deliver a leader’s performance worthy of his most illustrious of predecessors, scoring four of England’s six goals (and missing a penalty to boot). Yet frustration was never far beneath the surface in the stands; perhaps because with 70 minutes played England were only 2-0 up, the atmosphere was curiously unhappy, with John Barnes being openly booed by the home crowd by the end. Debutant Les Ferdinand completed the rout.
This was a rare ray of light in what was a disastrous qualification campaign for Taylor’s England, although they were still undefeated in Group 2 at that point, with the calamities of Oslo and Rotterdam lying in wait for them. Palmer has come to be seen as the defining player of Taylor’s scattergun selection policy that saw him cap 59 players in his three year reign. The gangly midfielder has become a punchline, a certainty to be cited whenever an all-time worst England XI is discussed, a symbol of 46 years of hurt.
This is, in the view of your correspondent, a shade harsh. Carlton Palmer wasn’t Paul Gascoigne, but he wasn’t supposed to be. In what was a decidedly shallow talent pool at that time, who else was there to play as the tenacious midfield engine/spoiler? Paul Ince, obviously, was a far superior option, but who else? Palmer wasn’t especially gifted on the ball but the energy and drive he brought to the excellent Sheffield Wednesday side of the early 1990s saw them build the team around him – it was his all action displays that allowed the likes of Waddle, Hirst and Sheridan the freedom to play, and he’s still revered at Hillsborough to this day. “He might not be the greatest player in the world’” said Taylor, “but he can stop those who think they are”.
Palmer won 18 caps for England in all, and featured in all three games of his country’s poor Euro ’92 showing (he was the BBC’s man of the match in the goalless draw with France, playing as sweeper) as well as all but one of their ill-starred qualifying matches for USA ’94.
After a £2.6m move to Leeds saw him add a third cup runners up medal to his collection, the League Cup defeat to Aston Villa following losing League Cup and FA Cup efforts with Wednesday, he then became something of a journeyman, and perhaps the reasons he is not fondly remembered become clearer. He remains the only man to be sent off for five different Premier League clubs, and even the compliments paid to him by his managers seem to be of the backhanded variety: “He covers every blade of grass , but that’s just because his first touch is so crap”, said his Southampton boss, Dave Jones. “He can trap a ball further than I can kick it”, said Ron Atkinson (fondly) of the big man from the Black Country. Palmer’s last dalliance with the big time came as part of Atkinson’s doomed Nottingham Forest in 1999, memorable only for the City Ground faithful’s ditty “six foot tall, his head’s too small, walking in a Palmer wonderland”.
An unlikely move into management followed, with Palmer having big ambitions as he took the reigns at Stockport: “Who’s to say I won’t be managing the England team in 10 years?” he asked in on being appointed in 2002. There’s time yet, of course, but then again, although he had difficult circumstances to contend with at Edgeley Park (the club was all but relegated from the Championship when he took over and in massive debt, while Palmer was tasked with playing the kids as he battled a second successive relegation), his record of 50 defeats in 92 games before being sacked isn’t exactly a calling card. A second failure at another crisis club, Mansfield, in 2005 – where he’d only got involved as a favour to his friend, the grossly unpopular chairman/owner Keith Haslam – was immediately regretted, and would be his last direct involvement in football.
So was Palmer really the embodiment of England’s international failures, the defining example of a football culture that favours graft over craft? Or was he an early victim of ‘Crouch syndrome’, done a disservice because, like the Steve Buscemi character in Fargo, he’s “kinda funny lookin’”? The truth is probably a little of both. Be nice about him though. You never know where he might turn up…