Lalas land: England’s US Cup Nightmare, 1993

Posted: June 6, 2013 in 1990s, English Football, International Football
Tags: , , , , , ,

It’s 20 years since the headline ‘YANKS 2 PLANKS 0’ belched from the mind of one of The Sun’s ever-culturally sensitive subeditors, summing up depressingly neatly the events of the previous evening in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where England had been beaten by the USA for the first time since Belo Horizonte.

The second annual US Cup, a four-team, round robin friendly tournament, was significant in serving as a dress-rehearsal of sorts for the following summer’s world cup finals, which would also be held on American soil. It was a big chance for the hosts to try and entice a resistant nation to embrace the delights of ‘soccer’, with their boys competing against three of the game’s most famous exponents – Brazil, Germany and England. Yet the Three Lions were very much the odd team out. The US and Germany had already qualified for USA ’94, as hosts and holders respectively, and while the CONMEBOL qualifiers were yet to kick off, nobody was anticipating that Brazil – already favourites to win the whole thing – would be in any danger. England’s hopes however, were already in dire straits following a dreadful 2-0 defeat in Oslo seven days prior. There was, therefore, considerable pressure on the team and manager to restore some confidence in what would otherwise have been a fairly meaningless goodwill mission. The increasingly beleaguered Taylor himself made a rod for his own back by declaring the game against the US to be must-win, claiming:

For some reason, people had stopped taking Taylor seriously

“We would have been looking for a win here anyhow, but if we’d won last week it wouldn’t have been considered essential. Now it is. Whether we like it or not, people expect us to beat America, and there is definitely more intensity about this game because of our performance in the last one.”Yet the game was also a chance for Taylor to tinker, something he loved to do (he capped 59 Players during his three-year reign). He gave a number of fringe players chances to impress:  Nigel Clough, enduring a difficult start to life at Liverpool, was brought in to play just behind the strikers in the ‘Gascoigne’ role, the fragile maestro himself having been withdrawn by Lazio. A decidedly makeshift back four had Lee Dixon and Tony Dorigo as full backs and an incongruous centre half pairing of Gary Pallister and midfielder Carlton Palmer. Lee Sharpe, Les Ferdinand and David Batty also got opportunities, while Taylor persevered with John Barnes (in a striking role alongside Ferdinand, oddly) despite a rotten run of form for his country that had seen him booed by large sections of Wembley just four months previously.

But the occasion was particularly momentous for Paul Ince. Having only made his international debut the year before, the self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ was made captain for the tournament, becoming the first black player to wear the armband for England.

Even in the wake of the Norway debacle, it was nevertheless expected that England would defeat the USA, who despite being given the world cup had yet to definitively shed its reputation as a footballing backwater. This game, against a side that had won one of their last 16 and not scored for 346 minutes, was (certainly in the media’s eyes) mere window dressing before the real tests against Germany and Brazil.

Instead, it proved to be a complete disaster. England started slowly, allegedly unhappy with the condition of the pitch (the grass was long) and the hosts, buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd of over 37,000 in Massachusetts, seized the initiative. Driven by their European stars, such as Saarbrucken’s Eric Wynalda (who’d just been crowned Bundesliga Newcomer of the Year) and Real Betis’ Tab Ramos (the standout player in an otherwise lousy Italia ’90 campaign for the stars and stripes), they began to create chances. The mulleted Jeff Agoos found himself clean through but shot straight at Chris Woods. Coventry’s Roy Wegerle frequently bamboozled England’s one-paced midfield. England’s best chance of the half fell to Clough, who badly sliced wide from six yards out with the goal in front of him. Taylor’s side were distinctly second best, and when the US took the lead three minutes before half time it was fully deserved. Ramos collected an overhit cross on the right and smartly pulled back from the byline, where another European-based star, German-born Thomas Dooley of Kaiserslautern, was lurking to guide in a terrific diving header.

The visitors woke up a bit after the break and did start to look half-threatening, with substitute Ian Wright adding impetus to the attack. Yet US ‘keeper Tony Meola was equal to everything. Twice he made superlative stops to deny Clough, with a fine one-handed save from a free kick particularly catching the eye.

If Thor and Sarah Ferguson had a baby…

Then, with 18 minutes remaining, Ramos took a corner and ginger-goateed catweasle look-alike Alexi Lalas (who’d replaced Dooley, crocked by a pumped-up Ince) leapt to glance a header into the far corner before setting off in incredulous, marauding, screw-loose celebration. It was the first step of a journey that would see the distinctive centre half become the poster boy for US soccer for a short time in the mid-90s.

Now England looked broken. Chris Woods had been a relatively safe pair of hands since inheriting the gloves almost by default after Peter Shilton’s retirement, but had been totally at sea for the Lalas goal. Taylor dropped him for the next game. He never played for England again.

There was still time for Meola to make two brilliant one-on-one saves from Wright in injury time (much to the Arsenal striker’s chagrin), but then, it was over, and England had been humiliated. US coach and serial minor-miracle worker Bora Milutinovic had declared in the build-up that he’d have been happy with a draw. Instead his team took all the points, and were good value for them.

As friendly defeats go, this was perhaps England’s most damaging since they were shellacked by the Mighty Magyars at Wembley 40 years earlier. It was certainly a significant nail in Taylor’s coffin. He claimed, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that on another day England would have won the game. His words smacked of desperation. The Yanks/Planks headline signalled the intensification of press ridicule and the media’s portrayal of the England manager as an incompetent buffoon. There were also signs that his paymasters’ patience was running out, Brian Glanville recalling: ‘Hope of change rose when, at one of Taylor’s Boston press conferences, Bert “The Inert” Millichip, the FA Chairman, appeared at the back of the room, fixed Taylor with what looked a minatory stare, and marched out as soon as the rambling discourse was over.’

It was perhaps unfair that the upset was all anyone took away from the competition, as England actually acquitted themselves fairly well in the remaining games. Taylor made 5 changes for the 1-1 draw with Brazil and saw his side play positively. Substitute David Platt (who’d missed the previous game entirely through injury) headed one right through Taffarel’s hands to give England the lead, before they were pegged back by Marcio Santos. Debutant Tim Flowers, in for Woods, made several heroic saves, while Pallister, now partnered by Des Walker rather than Palmer, was similarly strong. England were also bright in defeat against Germany, with Ince (England’s one consistent ray of light throughout the tournament) driving them forward, Andy Sinton looking lively out wide (!) and Platt cancelling out Stefan Effenberg’s opener. A dreadful stray pass by Barnes led to Jurgen Klinsmann’s winner, and the Liverpool man too was never picked again by Taylor, so long his staunchest champion.

Elsewhere in the competition, the USA lost to both Brazil and Germany, but their victory over England gave them confidence and helped kick-start a mini golden-age for the sport, being followed by a respectable showing at the world cup and the birth of MLS. The two heavyweights meanwhile, played out a thrilling 3-3 draw, with Brazil racing into a 3-0 lead only for the world champions to fight back and spoil the ‘passing of the torch’ narrative that had all but written itself.

Taylor’s Waterloo was not far away – four months later England would lose to the Dutch in Rotterdam, all but confirming their absence from the world cup, before Davide Gualtieri put the icing on the cake in Bologna the next month by somehow making a 7-1 win feel like a defeat.

The big winner on 9th June 1993, however, was the man with the goatee. I’ll leave you with him recreating that golden moment…

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