As World Cup qualifying campaigns go, England’s unsuccessful attempt to reach FIFA World Cup 1994 in the United States of America had more than its fair share of drama. Behind group winners Norway,the Netherlands proved formidable foes, becoming to England what Manchester United would soon become to the supporters of other clubs in the new Premier League: nerveless, ruthless and generally immovable.
An exciting but unsatisfactory qualifying effort culminated in the northern Italian city of Bologna, where England played the whipping boys of European football needing to pile up a gridiron score in order to have a chance to qualify. If England successfully won with a seven-goal margin, a Poland win over the Dutch would take Graham Taylor’s men to the World Cup.
In an almost cruel twist, England did score seven goals, the tally we’d all assumed would be required to capitalise on any opportunity resulting from the result in Poznan. England didn’t find the net until the 22nd minute, when Paul Ince drilled his first England goal beyond a decidedly insecure Pierluigi Benedettini.
Ian Wright was next, scoring the first of his four after Benedettini’s wayward kick had been tidied up by Stuart Ripley and the San Marino goalkeeper failed to deal with David Platt’s limp effort on goal. He was again at fault for England’s third, rolled into the empty net by Les Ferdinand in the 38th minute after Benedettini’s inexplicable inability to field a simple upfield ball.
Ferdinand turned provider with a cross for Wright’s header for the fourth, a textbook finish at the back post as England’s target finally came into view. England reached five just as the travelling supporters in Bologna wrapped up a chorus of “We want Taylor out!”, turning the ball home after Ferdinand had controlled a lofted ball forward from defender Des Walker.
Wright scored numbers six and seven, securing his hat-trick by finishing easily after Gary Pallister’s pass had been flicked into his path, and adding to it in the last minute with a classy finish past San Marino’s calamitous goalkeeper.
Unfortunately, the headline of the night was not England’s seven goals but the one they conceded after just eight seconds. Davide Gualtieri was the man who kept his run going and was able to latch onto Stuart Pearce’s infamous loose backpass and he prodded past David Seaman to leave England shellshocked. They took 20 minutes to equalise, the first and most damaging goalless period of the night. However, the 12 minutes between Wright’s third and fourth goals were agonising.
There was much to admire about a determined performance in adversity. This was not an England team of a particularly elegant vintage, nor was it a barnstorming victory with their backs against the wall. But they kept going, fighting for the all-important eight goals and very nearly reaching the total. In some ways, it was a show of character that was all too rare in Taylor’s ill-fated reign.
In any event, the result in Italy was academic. After a quick exchange of goals between Dennis Bergkamp and Marek Leśniak, the Netherlands scored twice in the second half in Poland to confirm their place on the World Cup docket. Even an eighth England goal wouldn’t have been enough.
The manner in which England failed to qualify for USA ’94, although his association with Charles Reep and Charles Hughes is arguably an even stronger cause for criticism. The damage done by the long ball game to English football remains to this day, and is arguably the single most important technical factor behind the national team’s current predicament in the pecking order of the world game.