We're all used to the English media and public getting their hopes up a little too much before a major championship, indeed I'll be honest enough to admit that I have jumped upon that particular bandwagon on too many occasions in the past to recall. But even in retrospect, it is not hard to see why England were so fancied to 'go all the way' in Germany (I promise I'll stop referring to that song soon...maybe).
In qualifying for the eight team finals event, England had topped Group Four, only dropped one point (in Turkey), and had knocked out an emerging Yugoslavian side that within a couple of years would reach the World Cup quarter finals (and even then their exit at Italia 90 was down to one of those dreaded penalty shoot outs against Argentina). England proved they could handle pressure too, as they went into their final group match in Belgrade knowing that defeat would most probably spell the end of their qualification hopes.
What followed was probably one of the greatest England performances under Bobby Robson. Within 25 minutes of the match, England found themselves 4-0 up through goals by Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson, and Tony Adams. Srecko Katanec 80th minute consolation strike was in fact the first goal England had conceded in Group Four, a fact not lost on the Daily Express with the headline "19-1 Bobby's heroes march on Europe!".
The press and players went into overdrive following England's fine victory, Gary Lineker stating "We proved we are a team to be feared and we can win the European championship." Harry Harris, writing in the Daily Mirror, commented that "England are on the march with Bobby Robson all the way to the European Championship finals in West Germany, where they can overwhelm the cream of Europe." In the aftermath of such a great win it would be churlish to mock such wild predictions, although it is hard not to feel a little bit uneasy knowing what we do about Euro 88.
Ireland on the other hand had sneaked into their first ever major finals, due to an 86th minute Gary Mackay winner for Scotland away in Bulgaria. Managed by England 66 legend Jack Charlton, Ireland had come through an extremely difficult qualifying group, their recent improvement undoubtedly aided by Charlton taking advantage of UEFA's ancestry law, where anyone with any Irish parents or grandparents could qualify for the team, along with Charlton's excellent management of his players. However, most felt the Irish would be in Germany to make up the numbers, but with an estimated 10,000 plus fans expected to make the trip to Germany, they certainly wouldn't be without backing in the finals.
When England and Ireland were paired together in the draw, along with the Netherlands and Russia, many in England were pleased with this outcome, and England were soon installed as second favourites behind hosts Germany (5/1 with William Hill as opposed to Ireland's 33/1). The two teams would meet in the group opener on Sunday June 12 and such was the supposed gap in class between the two teams that England were 4/6 to beat the Irish, whereas Ireland were 7/2 to win the Stuttgart clash.
England's preparation post-Yugoslavia was hardly ideal. Most crucially of all, Terry Butcher broke his leg in November 1987, and would miss the finals, meaning Bobby Robson would be severely lacking in experience in the heart of his defence. England then started to hit a wall in front of goal, only managing five goals in their six internationals leading up to the finals. This prompted Robson to arrange confidence boosting friendlies against the mighty Aylesbury and German side VfR Heilbronn, in order to get his strikers into something resembling form. It almost backfired though as Lineker was given some industrial treatment by the Germans and picked up a knee strain, and Trevor Steven and Dave Watson also gained injuries in the Aylesbury match.
Ireland on the other hand had the almost ideal preparation for Germany, winning eight internationals on the bounce before drawing in Oslo just prior to the finals. Their only headache revolved around the injury that robbed them of Mark Lawrenson, and the exclusion of Liam Brady, sent-off in Ireland's final qualifying match against Bulgaria, and thus ineligible for the first two games of the finals (a 1988 version of Wayne Rooney). His cruciate ligament injury definitely put an end to any hopes Brady had of playing in a major championship, though whether Charlton would have taken his star midfielder due to his suspension is debatable anyway.
England were boosted pre-match with the news that Wright and Lineker had passed their fitness tests, and England's plan seemed to revolve around their two wide players - Waddle and Barnes - getting in behind the Irish and feeding Lineker and Beardsley, along with Robson's surging midfield runs. Brian Moore started his commentary that day by stating that Ireland had three players from Liverpool (the English champions), three from Celtic (the Scottish champions), and two from Manchester United, which really should have stressed to us all just how good a team Ireland were on paper. Only four Irishmen would start the game, emphasising just how much Jack Charlton had exploited the 'granny-rule'. Not that us English can exactly take the moral high ground on this issue though, when you analyse the current make-up of our number one Test cricket side.
The match was to be played in sweltering summer heat in Stuttgart. England, according to Moore, had only suffered one defeat to Ireland, and that was 39 years ago, the commentator also noted that today would not be a good time for a repeat. But no sooner had Moore uttered these words, than the scary truth stared us Englishmen in the face. The only goal of the match came after just six minutes and was calamitous from an English point of view.
A long ball to the edge of the England box should have been dealt with easily enough, but Wright and Stevens went for the same ball, allowing Tony Galvin to hook the ball towards the England goal. Kenny Sansom's attempted clearance only served to cause more chaos, as it looped up aimlessly, and when John Aldridge out jumped Tony Adams, the ball dropped invitingly on to Ray Houghton's head. He steered his header past a helpless Shilton, and to the astonishment of many, Ireland had gained the lead.
It truly was a comedy goal to concede, not that any Englishmen were laughing at the time. Ireland continued to dominate the early exchanges: Chris Morris testing Shilton from range, and Ray Houghton again breaking brightly after a fine passing move involving Stapleton, Galvin, Whelan and Aldridge. Amongst this passing the Irish were still managing to launch the odd long ball to Stapleton, and Wright and Adams were constantly losing headers, adding to England's woes. A move that summed up England's first half ended with Neil Webb misplacing a simple pass to Chris Waddle, and a dangerous break was extinguished before it had even begun. You didn't want to admit it to yourself, but you started to wonder where an equaliser was going to come from.
At the end of the first half, the ITV match summariser Ron Atkinson for once put in a few words just what was hurting England: a lot of possession across the pitch without any penetration. In essence England were a very poor man's Arsenal of the modern era, and I do mean very poor. The bench offered little comfort though, as besides Hoddle you really couldn't see how Viv Anderson, Steve McMahon or Mark Hateley were going to come on and change the game. Corny as it may sound, but at half-time Irish eyes were definitely smiling.
The second half began encouragingly for England, when a long ball by Kenny Sansom found Gary Lineker one on one with Pat Bonner. Unfortunately for England, Lineker's shot was straight at the keeper, and when Peter Beardsley blazed over the rebound you started to get a 'one of those days' feelings in the pit of your stomach.
A few minutes later, this impending feeling of doom was not improved, when Robson and Beardsley combined well, only for the Liverpool striker to put his left foot effort wide after he had brilliantly created space for himself on the edge of the box. On the hour, Robson again set Lineker free, and astonishingly the golden boot winner of Mexico 86 didn't even test Bonner. As his effort sailed over the bar it was hard not to wonder who this new centre forward for England was, such was the rarity of a Lineker miss.
It wasn't all one way traffic however: after Glenn Hoddle had replaced the woeful Neil Webb, Ireland almost doubled their advantage, when a Ronnie Whelan volley was tipped on to the crossbar by Shilton (not that the referee spotted the save; he gave a goal-kick). Hoddle's introduction changed things immediately for England though, as he and Robson started to get the ball down and move it around with greater pace and purpose. From a long range free-kick, Hoddle almost embarrassed Bonner, and Liam Brady speaking on ITV, recognising a kindred spirit in Hoddle, stressed how worried he was that Hoddle would soon start picking out Lineker with balls behind the Irish defence. Whether Lineker could take advantage of any of these opportunities was another matter.
Niall Quinn (prefixed by the obligatory 'beanpole' tag by Moore) came on to replace Stapleton after 62 minutes, but England were beginning to turn the screw. Brady's fears were almost realised, when from a high volleyed pass by Hoddle, Lineker half-volleyed agonisingly wide when through on goal again. In fairness, this was by far the hardest chance of Lineker's many that day, and soon the striker was dusting himself down and turning provider for Robson, who saw his effort saved by Bonner, the keeper then getting to his feet quickly enough to thwart Beardsley. For all this pressure, Ireland went close through Quinn, his glancing header as he got in front of Arsenal team-mate Adams just going wide. With 15 minutes to go, things were looking desperate for England.
And then came the chance for Lineker, the moment when secretly you knew as an Englishman (or boy) that the jig was almost up, that we could play all day and wouldn't score, that England were about to lose their opening game of Euro 88 to a rank outsider. The ball fell conveniently to Lineker about eight yards out from the Irish goal, and with only Bonner to beat it looked odds on that England were finally going to equalise. But odds didn't matter that Sunday, and Bonner somehow managed to block Lineker's goal bound attempt with his left knee, and the reaction on Lineker's face said it all.
Kevin Sheedy replaced Tony Galvin, as the Irish tried desperately to retain possession of the ball and in turn repel the English wave that was hitting their defensive wall repeatedly. Hoddle again went close with a fantastic volley from a training ground routine corner (the sort I recall Paul Scholes once pulled off against Bradford), Moore shrieking "It just won't go in" at the top of his voice. Too right. Shortly after this, Chris Waddle headed a decent chance over the bar, which was the cue for a burst of spontaneous support from the massed Irish ranks behind the goal. Mark Hateley was brought on for Peter Beardsley (never a good sign) and time was fast running out for England.
Liam Brady, summing up his thoughts on the game, highlighted that the pressure had all been on England pre-match, and that this had showed in the fact that they had missed chances that they should have put away. Finally, in one last heartbreaking twist for the 'on-the-floor' English fans, the final chance that neatly represented all that had gone before in the previous 92 minutes: from a Glenn Hoddle free-kick, Lineker headed towards goal and it looked as if, finally, England were going to draw level.
Somehow Bonner, who was moving in completely the opposite direction to the flight of the ball, got a hand to the ball, and as it bounced towards the goal everyone held their breath, watching and waiting. As the ball apologetically glanced the post and went for a corner, Lineker again sunk to his knees, an image that we'd seen far too many times already that day. Nothing came from the corner, and referee Siegfried Kirschen blew for full-time, starting the biggest party Ireland had probably witnessed since the last one.
What a way to spend a Sunday...
History tells us that Gary Lineker was later diagnosed as suffering from hepatitis during Euro 88. Now, I am no medical expert, but whether this played any part at all in his poor finishing on that fateful Sunday I'm not totally convinced. What is for certain is that England's golden boy had an off day to end all off days, and with a misfiring Lineker, England were half the team. In an instant England's odds shot up to 10/1 after the Ireland defeat, and unfortunately we all know that the bookmakers often know what they are talking about.
Bobby Robson understandably put on a brave face after the defeat, stating that "It's not irretrievable. We found ourselves in the same position two years ago when we lost our opening World Cup match to Portugal. We recovered then." And Charlton and Bonner were big enough to admit that luck had played a part in their victory, both citing an influence from a higher power - Charlton: "Sometimes you think that somebody up there likes you", Bonner: "I think God was on my side today."
But the man who best summed up the situation, and England's position in particular, was commentator Moore. Unfortunately he hit the nail squarely on the head, concluding that "Defeat leaves England floundering and only the wildest of optimists would forecast a place in the semi-finals with the powerful Holland and Russia to come."
And so it proved. The subsequent matches against the Netherlands and Russia could well make blogs on their own one week, so I won't dwell too much on them. Suffice to say that the only debate come the end of the tournament was which match was the most embarrassing defeat of the three. Go all the way? My bottom as Jim Royle almost said.