England were drawn in Group Three with Romania, Northern Ireland, Finland and Turkey, not the most daunting of tasks, but certainly no gimme. This didn't stop the press basically giving England a bye to the finals: "England lucky dip joy" declared the Daily Express; "EASY PICKINGS, ENGLAND" trumpeted the Daily Mirror. Obviously no lessons had been learnt on the complacency front from the cocky reaction to the Euro 84 draw.
Turkey were big underdogs in the group, although they had crucially beaten Northern Ireland during the Euro 84 qualifying stages; Northern Ireland had enjoyed a successful 1982 World Cup finals tournament and had defeated West Germany home and away in their narrow failure to qualify for Euro 84; Romania, seen as dark horses by Robson, had actually qualified for France; Finland, who would be England's first opponents at Wembley, did not look particularly strong, having only gained one point in their admittedly tough Euro 84 qualifying group (Portugal, Soviet Union and Poland - ouch). Realistically, England's draw was kind, but after Euro 84, caution needed to be exercised.
Robson named his squad on Monday October 8. The main talking point seemed to revolve around his inclusion of the Tottenham utility man Gary Stevens, a player Robson had in fact released from Ipswich in his time as manager of the club. The "odd job man" was the label promptly bestowed upon Stevens, and along with Mel Sterland and Remi Moses, he was one of three uncapped players in Robson's relatively young squad (twelve of the twenty-two were 25 or below).
Arsenal's table-topping start to the season had been recognised, as Sansom, Rix, Mariner and Woodcock were all selected, and Southampton's trio of Shilton, Wright and Williams emphasised just how strong a side Lawrie McMenemy had assembled on the south coast. The foreign contingent comprised of AC Milan's Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley, along with Sampdoria's Trevor Francis.
Francis and inevitably skipper Bryan Robson, would provide Robson with his major injury concerns ahead of the October 17 date (although injury had already deprived the manager of the services of Hoddle and Cowans). Francis had only just resumed light training after a knee injury, whereas Robson had doubts over his hamstring.
It has often been stated in the modern era that the international game is seen as a major inconvenience to club managers throughout the world. Any Arsenal fan texted with news on the night that Robin van Persie had been injured whilst playing for his country against Italy in a friendly in 2009, most probably included a resigned FFS in their reply (although I'm sure a few LOLs would appear if somehow Sir Alex allowed this to happen now). Even so, the current setup does at least provide national managers with the relative luxury of a few days preparation with their players, because in the 1980s things were not that easy.
With a 42-game first division season to cater for, the chances of a free weekend before an international fixture were non-existent. On the Friday and Saturday before the Finland game, Robson had to sit through a full programme of fixtures and pray that his main men would remain injury free. And then he'd have to do it all over again for his Italian based players on the Sunday. Only then could he relax, and actually start to make plans for the small matter of a World Cup qualifying match.
Naturally injuries occurred: Gary Bailey would come in for Chris Woods, and Peter Withe would receive an SOS whilst in Blackpool with his family, apparently informed by Daily Mirror journalist Dave Horridge that he was needed to replace the injured Paul Mariner. Trevor Francis also lost his fitness race, meaning a call-up to the squad for a young Gary Lineker.
In the lead-up to the game, the English press were going gaga over "the new golden boy of Italian soccer", Mark Hateley. Mariner's injury, coupled with Hateley's superb start in Italy (five goals in five games), meant the various hacks up and down the country were pushing heavily for Hateley's inclusion. Harry Miller in the Mirror: "Bobby Robson could add 5000 to the Wembley gate for tomorrow's qualifier against Finland when he names Mark Hateley in his England World Cup line-up", indicating that quite a few of these extra fans may well come from the Italian restaurant workers in England. High praise for a player that a year ago had been plying his trade with Portsmouth in the second division. On the morning of the match, Hateley appeared on the back pages, waving a Union flag. A lot was expected of the 22-year-old.
Finland, who had beaten Northern Ireland 1-0 in their opening qualifying match, were talking a good game prior to the kick off. Notts County's Aki Lahtinen indicated that the Finns were aiming to frustrate their hosts, but at the same time play with freedom. In reality, the visitors would follow the blueprint of any underdog visiting the home of a superior opponent, getting bodies behind the ball, and hoping to escape with a 0-0. Some things do not change between decades.
The matchday programme. A bargain at 60p.
Even with an extensive advertising campaign to "cheer the lads on", the England-Finland clash was not enough to stir the passions within the hearts of the English fans, as a crowd of only 47,234 turned up at Wembley. At least the fans that did brave the London transport system were rewarded though. Immediately it was apparent that the Finns had only damage limitation in mind, and initially wave after wave of England attacks failed to find a breakthrough.
As the half hour mark approached, Hateley delivered. A Steve Williams free-kick was blocked, as was Terry Butcher's effort, and when John Barnes hit the bar, it looked as if England would never score. Luckily enough, Hateley was on hand to lash in the rebound. Despite an unexpected scare when Finnish midfielder Houtsonen almost equalised, England were in full control. As half-time neared, Tony Woodcock eased any English nerves, managing to bundle in a second in the 41st minute.
Gary Stevens, the odd job man, came on as a half-time substitute for the injured Mike Duxbury. It was Stevens' interception of a Lahtinen free-kick, that set Hateley up for England's third in the 50th minute. Hateley jinked past two defenders before hammering his shot into the corner of the net. According to Steve Curry in the Express, Hateley's second was taken "...in a manner we have rarely seen since the days of Geoff Hurst and Jimmy Greaves." The man could do no wrong. Just to cement his place as the new press darling, Hateley nodded back a John Barnes cross, for Bryan Robson to net England's fourth in the 70th minute. Ten minutes from time, Robson was replaced by Chamberlain, as a precautionary measure to protect the England skipper's hamstring.
There was time for one final moment of cheer for England's supporters, as Kenny Sansom scored his one and only goal for his country in the 88th minute, finishing off a Chamberlain cross. That two Arsenal players had scored in England's victory, was a great source of satisfaction to this particular blogger, and with the way our season was about to head, I had to take any glory when it came.
England's 5-0 victory had ensured that the players, press and fans left Wembley happy, and hopeful that the last qualifying campaign had merely been a blip. Bobby Robson was certainly delighted with the performance, commenting after the match: "First of all I wanted us to win and then I wanted us to win emphatically. We have done both." Importantly, Robson had bought himself some breathing space with the fans and media, and in this regard Robson must have been secretly relieved that Finland at Wembley was the first fixture in England's attempt to qualify for Mexico 86.
The press naturally went to town after the victory, and heaped plaudits upon praise for England's new star Hateley. Alas, he never did really live up to the hype surrounding the Finland game, and it is hardly surprising. Although Hateley did a lot to aid England's relatively smooth passage to Mexico, scoring the winner in Belfast, and England's goal in their 1-1 draw in Helsinki, his final strike in an England shirt came in a friendly against Canada just prior to the finals tournament.
Come Mexico, he would play in England's dire 1-0 defeat against Portugal, their even more excruciating 0-0 draw against Morocco, and did not feature in the Lineker inspired 3-0 crushing of Poland. From that day on, Hateley's England career never hit the heights of pre-Mexico, with Lineker and Beardsley the favoured options of Bobby Robson. After the World Cup, he did manage to chalk up eleven more caps over a five year period (including three in England's disastrous Euro 88 finals flop), but 1984 seemed a distant memory to anyone who could recall the hope that had surrounded his rise to fame in Italy and on the international scene.
Hateley's goals in the Finland game, and subsequent qualification fixtures, did help to take the heat of Bobby Robson though. Their international careers and reputations were to change in the intervening years, but at the time Hateley and Robson were ideal for each other, and I'm sure that Sir Bobby Robson was extremely grateful for the Milan striker's contribution to the cause, when looking back on his England reign. He may not have quite been a 1980s version of Mark Robins, he may never have peaked like 1984 ever again, but at least Mark Hateley's star shone for a while, and how many of us can say the same?