13th November 1991
1992 European Championship Qualifying Group 7
Poland 1-1 England
For whatever reason, the mystic footballing illuminati seem to enjoy lumping England and Poland together in qualifying groups for international tournaments. Since Jan Tomaszewski’s finest hour in 1973, the Poles have presented a roadblock in England’s path to major tournament finals on a further six occasions. Graham Taylor in particular must have been sick of the sight of Poland, facing them in four crunch qualifiers in his doom-laden three-year spell at Lancaster Gate. England needed just a point in Poznan in November 1991 to seal their passage to the European Championships in Sweden the following year, despite a fairly unimpressive campaign that had seen them win just three games – the least of any of the qualifying nations. Lineker’s goal was only England’s seventh in their group – Yugoslavia’s Darko Pancev managed 10 by himself.
Looking back, it was a decidedly odd England team that travelled to Poland on that wintery November evening. Gary Mabbutt won only his second cap since 1987. David Rocastle was recalled out of the blue for the first time in 18 months. Geoff Thomas made a rare start. And Taylor saw fit, in such a high stakes game, to hand debuts to QPR’s Andy Sinton and one Andy Gray – Thomas’ team mate at Crystal Palace, who never played for England again.
England fell behind, against the run of play, just after the half hour mark, Roman Szewczyk belting a free kick from miles out that struck the unfortunate Mabbutt – no stranger to a cruel deflection – and deceived Chris Woods in goal. Suddenly in danger of having their place in Sweden usurped by the home side, England lay siege to the Polish goal. Thomas’ bouncing header went just wide, while Mabbutt looped another header onto the roof of the net with the goalkeeper stranded. Things nearly got worse when Woods spilled a shot and then seemed to upend Piotr Czachowski as he followed up the rebound. The referee failed to award a penalty however, and England proceeded to do what they usually did around that time – wait for Gary Lineker to bail them out.
Sure enough, with 13 minutes remaining, Mabbutt headed a Rocastle corner towards the far post, and there was Lineker, characteristically hovering in the six yard box to unleash a decidedly uncharacteristic acrobatic volley into the roof of the net. The point was saved, and – thanks to their captain – the three lions would be on show in Scandanavia. However, he wouldn’t be the team’s crutch for much longer. That very month, the 31-year-old announced that he would be retiring from international football after the tournament, with his future at club level very much uncertain too amid rumours of interest from the embryonic Japanese J-League.
Nevertheless, the stage was set for him to go out in a blaze of glory. The emphatic volley in Poznan was his 46th international goal. He now had six friendlies and at least three games in Sweden to break Bobby Charlton’s record of 49.
However, all was not well. There were rumours that his relationship with Taylor had grown fractious. Even at his best as a pure predator, some had suggested that he was not the hardest working of forwards (no less an authority than Alex Ferguson once bemoaned the fact that Lineker wouldn’t have a kick for 90 minutes and somehow end up with two goals by the end), and industry was perhaps the quality that Taylor prized above all (Exhibit A: Carlton Palmer’s 18 caps). After Lineker publicly started the countdown on his international career, Taylor – who had already binned the likes of Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle – began to look at other options in attack. Lineker had to come off the bench to score his 47th international goal against France in a February friendly at Wembley as Alan Shearer and David Hirst started the game. Nigel Clough and Mark Hateley were the chosen strike pairing in the following month’s encounter with the Czech Republic.
Lineker had been reinstated to the starting line up by the time England travelled to Moscow for another friendly against the CIS. However, though he scored goal number 48 in that game, he failed to hit the target in any of the three friendlies that followed. Worse, against Brazil in a 1-1 draw at Wembley, he missed the chance to draw level with Charlton when he embarrassingly fluffed a Panenka-style penalty. His form was deserting him as the tournament loomed, and Taylor was reportedly distinctly unimpressed after the Brazil game, huffing: “When somebody’s almost a national institution, it’s almost as if you can’t
touch them…You could argue that we played with 10 men, but you’re not allowed to.”
When Euro ’92 got underway, England played out two drab goalless draws with Denmark and France, with their captain utterly anonymous. However, he had pulled them out of many a hole in the past, and the final group game, against the hosts in Solna, provided another opportunity to do so. A win would see England through to the semi-finals, and David Platt’s early bobbler was the perfect start. However, Lineker was rarely in the game, apart from missing the chance to make it 2-0, and as Sweden’s influence grew with half an hour remaining, Taylor made a momentous decision. Up went Lineker’s number.
The England manager had felt that Lineker was too isolated and that his team were getting overrun in midfield. Alan Smith was more of a target man who could hold the ball up better. Lineker however, was furious – storming off and refusing to acknowledge the bench. While you could see Taylor’s thinking, Lineker had shown – even as recently as the previous November, in Poznan – that he was a man for the big occasion, who only needed half a chance to score a vital goal. When Taylor’s gamble failed to pay off – a 2-1 defeat to the Swedes saw England eliminated – it was the beginning of the end for him. By the following morning, the press had turned him into a turnip.
Still, in November 1991, that all lay ahead, and there was scant sign that the international career of England’s top marksman would end in such disappointing, bitter fashion. It might have been from typically close range, but the athleticism, power, and technique involved – married to that trademark opportunism – made Gary Lineker’s last competitive international goal one of his best.