England 4 – 0 Turkey, 18 November 1992
As he walked off the Wembley pitch, Graham Taylor did something he hadn’t done for a long time. After all, his team had done something they hadn’t done for a long time. England, Taylor’s awful/embarrassing/appalling England, had played well. And the boss was smiling.
It had been a total shithouse of a year for the beleaguered manager. Just five months earlier his team had tumbled out of the European Championships when the Brolin-Dahlin-Brolin triumvirate had shamed them in Sweden.
That game had been a perfect microcosm of the mediocrity of the Taylor era. The team he fielded on that fateful day still sends shivers down every England fan’s spine; a toxic mix of players past their best, players woefully out of position, and players who should never have been there in the first place. Legend has it that if you stare into a mirror and say the words ‘David Batty at right-back’ three times, a gypsy curse befalls your entire family.
The defining moment of that game was the substitution of captain Gary Lineker when England were trailing. England’s record goalscorer had been, admittedly, as abysmal as everybody else. Though when you’re relying on Neil Webb, Andy Sinton and Carlton Palmer for service at international level, you have a decent case for mitigating circumstances.
What made Taylor’s decision even more galling was his choice of substitute. Lineker could barely hide his disbelief. England were on the brink. The manager looked at the bench for inspiration and saw Alan Shearer, the curly-haired Southampton starlet who had taken the First Division by storm. Shearer was primed for a big-money move in the summer and was universally acclaimed as England’s future. Taylor bit his bottom lip. It was time for a change. He hooked Lineker, and sent on Arsenal beanpole Alan Smith instead.
It was the death knell for a dreadful tournament. The England manager was pilloried in the press, labelled ‘Turnip Taylor’ by the raging red-tops. It was harder to know who to feel sorry for. Taylor was clearly a decent man doing his best. But then again, even the most stubborn of root vegetables knew that Alan Smith was never going to fucking score.
The results since then hadn’t been much kinder. A tame 1-0 friendly defeat in Spain brought the curious sight of Brian Deane in an England shirt. Then the first competitive fixture brought Norway to Wembley. The game marked the welcome return of Paul Gascoigne, who’d been unavailable to Taylor for most of his tenure due to his violent assault on Gary Charles’ knee cap 18 months earlier. This wasn’t quite the Gazza of Turin. Noticeably heavier, and with less of the explosive acceleration integral to his game, he flattered to deceive.
A lacklustre 1-1 draw with the Norsemen did little to boost Taylor’s credibility. Turkey became a must-win game if he wanted to enter the Christmas period in gainful employment.
In an unusual move, Taylor named a settled side for the fixture, placing faith in the same men who’d been so mediocre the last time out. Alan Shearer and Ian Wright were the forward partnership, supported by a midfield four of Ince, Platt, Gascoigne and Palmer. Considering Shearer typically feasted on crosses, the selection seemed curious at best. We hadn’t seen such an alarming lack of width since Kate Moss revealed her waist size.
The whistle blew and immediately it seemed inconsequential. Turkey were hopeless. Totally, utterly hopeless. Carlton Palmer patrolled the midfield like Zico in his prime. Lee Dixon hit a post with his first shot on goal of the nineties. The 40,000-strong Wembley crowd had something to cheer. England were playing well. It was an uneasy sensation.
But Taylor’s England always had their finger on the self-destruct button. And this night was no different. Des Walker, in what was becoming a depressingly familiar trend, was caught out of position, Sukur’s shot was parried by Woods and Orhan struck the bar with the goal gaping. Phew.
Thankfully, Turkey were equally generous at the other end. It’s hard to do justice to the ineptitude of the first goal. At first you wonder if some schoolchildren had stumbled onto the Wembley turf for an impromptu game of World Cup Doubles. After a botched Gascoigne dribble, two defenders bump into each other like drunks outside a kebab shop, Paul Ince’s slide tackle became an inadvertent through ball, and a surprised Gascoigne tucked it into the corner.
Some measure of quality was restored moments later. Wright scampered down the left flank and provided the perfect cross for a diving Shearer to head home England’s second. The Geordie forward, presumably too naive to realise the importance of energy conservation, held BOTH arms aloft in celebration. Ah, the exuberance of youth.
The second half brought a warning sign for England. Des Walker was caught out of position (see, told you) and Urhul missed a one-on-one with Woods to drag the visitors back into the game. It proved a costly miss.
England’s third goal came via the trusty left boot of Stuart Pearce Demolitions Ltd. Lining up on the right-hand side, England went through the most pointless free-kick routine of all time. Platt and Wright placed themselves as human shields two yards in front of the Turkish wall, presumably to disguise Pearce’s intentions. Remember, this is Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce we’re talking about.
Turkey’s goalkeeper Hakan Hayrettin won’t make anyone’s World XI, but credit the man with a modicum of intelligence. He knew what was coming. We all knew what was coming. There was a reason Platt and Wright were grasping their genitals and whispering the Lord’s prayer. Pearce was going to smash this.
The referee had barely placed the whistle to his lips before the human shield scarpered to safety. Pearce thundered in and the ball rocketed into the net via an unfortunate Turkish limb. England were three up and laughing.
The fourth goal symbolised the new-found confidence flowing through the side. Des Walker, whose move from Nottingham Forest to Sampdoria had shredded his self-belief, channelled his inner Franz Beckenbauer and strode forward from the back, exchanging passes with Wright, and powered into the penalty area. His cross was dummied by Shearer and Gascoigne finished a magnificent move with aplomb.
In hindsight, this was probably Taylor’s finest hour as an international manager. The shackles were off, Gazza dominated midfield and Alan Shearer looked every inch an international player. England had ended a shambolic year in style. The ghosts of Sweden hadn’t been exorcised completely, but on this form qualification for USA 94 seemed a formality.