A retweet dropped into my timeline yesterday evening, alerting the world to a website that boasted online emulations of every Sega Mega Drive game ever produced. My eyes were drawn instantly to the unmistakable title screen image of Sensible Soccer. A few button-presses later and I was about to embark on qualification for World Cup '94. For some reason, a few hours later, I'd written this.
1992. A time when we were all allowed to refer to the Netherlands national team as "Holland" without being corrected and English football was languishing in its post-Heysel doldrums, ready to be dragged back into the limelight by BSkyB. The national team had been unceremoniously dumped out of Euro '92, Keith Curle was our best attempt at a swashbuckling wing-back, and the best bits of Paul Gascoigne's knee were still embedded somewhere in the shinpads of Gary Charles.
But enough of the grim reality - let's get Sensible.
|Hurrey is unveiled as England manager in August 1992|
Graham Taylor was sacked upon the squad's return from Sweden, and relative unknown Adam Hurrey was swiftly installed in his place to lead the beleaguered England into a tricky-looking qualification campaign for the 1994 World Cup to be held in the USA.
England vs Norway - October 1992
In the opener against Norway at Wembley, a revolutionary 4-3-3 formation saw Paul Gascoigne pushed forward into a three-pronged strikeforce with Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand. The diminutive Andy Sinton provided width in midfield alongside Paul Ince and David Platt, while Arsenal's Ian Wright had to be content with a place on the bench.
A bright opening saw Shearer fire home after 27 mins, and England resisted a spirited Norwegian fightback to make the perfect start to their qualifying campaign.
England vs Turkey - November 1992
Turkey were next to visit Wembley. Sinton had failed to impress the new manager against Norway, and Wright was brought into the forward line as Gascoigne probed from a deeper midfield berth. England were left to rue missed chances by Shearer and, from point-blank range, Ferdinand as the Turks took a shock lead. England's frustration was summed up by a yellow card for Shearer for an apparent elbow on a Turkish defender on the stroke of half-time.
A stern talking to at half-time from manager Hurrey saw England emerge for the second half with real purpose. On 49 minutes, they were handed a lifeline. Shearer tumbled in the area and, to the Turks' dismay, the referee pointed to the spot. Les Ferdinand stepped up to slot home to the keeper's left, and England were back in business.
|Ferdinand converts from the spot.|
In the dying moments, a long ball into the Turkish area fell to Shearer, who crashed it into the top left-hand corner to spark relieved celebrations. A careless England had got out of jail here, but maintained their unbeaten start with another home game against whipping boys San Marino to come.
England vs San Marino - February 1993
Any early anxiety was eased and goals began to flow against a willing but poor San Marino side. Ferdinand bagged a brace, with Shearer and Sinton (who went some way to silencing his critics) also notching as England strolled to victory. Sterner tests lay ahead, including a daunting trip to Turkey next. Hurrey's switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation - ostensibly to bring Gascoigne inside from the periphery of left-wing - needed the more stringent examination that awaited in Izmir.
Turkey vs England - March 1993
A cauldron-like atmosphere was promised, but manager Hurrey refused to stray from his gung-ho attacking set-up, with striker Wright replacing Sinton in an unfamiliar left-wing role. The boldness would pay off handsomely. Alan Shearer, so frustrated at times in this qualifying campaign, span past his marker on 17 minutes and thumped a shot past Hayrettin Demirbas to give England the opening goal their confident start deserved.
|Shearer opens the scoring in Izmir.|
As is so often with first-half goal gluts, the second 45 minutes rarely threatened to hit the same heights. Chris Woods, a virtual bystander for the first hour, was finally called into action by a rasping drive from Hakan Sukur, but Shearer was to have the final say on this glorious night for English football. Prodding home from six yards after Gascoigne's initial effort had been saved, Shearer claimed the match ball and England had sent a message to the rest of Group 2.
England vs Holland - April 1993
Everything was set for a titanic Wembley clash against Holland, who were top of Group 2 by virtue of having played a game more. An England win would take them top, and in the driving seat for USA '94. Once again, Hurrey kept faith with his starting eleven, mainly because the only alternatives in his bare-bones squad were Gary Pallister and Carlton Palmer. England started confidently, building patiently from the back, partly through a reluctance to relinquish possession to the technically-gifted visitors. After 10 minutes, a flowing move ended with Ed de Goey having to hurl himself to his left to keep out a diving Shearer header. After 24 minutes, though, England found a breakthrough in spectacular fashion. Ferdinand, surging from deep, was allowed to let fly from all of 25 yards, and de Goey barely moved as the ball arrowed past him.
|Ferdinand beats de Goey to put England ahead|
On the hour mark, the dangerous Bergkamp finally produced his moment of match-defining genius. Gliding in from the right, with England's defence standing off, the Inter Milan star swerved a stunning shot with the outside of his right boot into the corner of a full-stretch Woods' net. Now England were under the cosh and, with Hurrey hesitating to use his bench (and unsure how to access the in-game menu), the Dutch now posed a real threat. The hosts resorted to the long-ball game that was currently infesting their domestic game, desperate to keep the Dutch at bay, and the game petered out to a 1-1 draw. Hurrey was left to rue the moment of defensive carelessness that the ice-cold Bergkamp duly punished, and England headed to Chorzow to face an awkward Poland side that still had strong hopes themselves of reaching the finals.
Poland vs England - May 1993
Despite Ian Wright's good form on the domestic front and a clamouring for his inclusion up front, Hurrey continued with his Shearer-Ferdinand partnership and Tony Adams retained his place in the heart of the defence ahead of the pacier Pallister.
A cagey first half on an uneven Chorzow playing surface did little to settle the nerves of Hurrey and his side. Once again, though, England found a way through. Les Ferdinand latched on to a lofted pass from Paul Ince (who once again had grabbed a qualifier by the scruff of the neck) and hammered a volley past Jaroslaw Bako. With a quarter of an hour to go, England refused to sit back and were rewarded with another Ferdinand stunner, as the QPR striker powered home from 18 yards to seal victory and increase the pressure on the Dutch.
Norway vs England - June 1993
England were in a strong position in Group 2, and Hurrey's press conferences began to show less strain. There was an upbeat mood in the camp ahead of the trip to Oslo to take on the Norwegians, whose stuttering campaign had left them off the qualification pace. A win here would surely secure England's passage to the finals ahead of Norway and Turkey. Pallister this time got the nod over Adams at centre-half, but Hurrey's attacking line-up remained justifiably intact. What followed was arguably England's most cohesive performance of the campaign so far. Pallister slotted in assuredly to the defence, and Norway's resistance lasted a mere thirteen minutes before Shearer slammed England into the lead. Within 90 seconds, he was given the freedom of the Norwegian penalty area to make it 2-0. England were cruising. Then, to complete a disastrous five-minute spell for Norway, Ferdinand broke free down the right and, spotting the onrushing Gascoigne, pulled it back for the Lazio man to hit a thunderbolt past Erik Thorstvedt.
|Gascoigne races on to a Ferdinand pull-back for 3-0.|
England vs Poland - September 1993
Poland were next to travel to London, with England keen to maintain momentum in the hunt to top the group. With Shearer's yellow card against Turkey hanging over him - and the trip to Rotterdam on the horizon - Wright finally got his chance to partner Ferdinand, while Stuart Pearce was moved into an advanced wing-back role.
With World Cup qualification almost assured, carelessness began to take hold at Wembley. Wright and Ferdinand struggled to gel, Ince was being outnumbered in midfield, and passes went astray. As the crowd's anxiety transmitted itself to the players, it was Wright - the man who had most to prove in the absence of Shearer - who came alive. Racing through the Polish rearguard, he rifled past Bako with only six minutes remaining. Dutch hearts must have sunk even further just three minutes later, when Ferdinand's run and finish sealed crucial points for Hurrey's men. With Shearer set to lead the line against Holland a month later, however, Wright's heroics would mean little on an individual level.
Before the showdown in Rotterdam, the Dutch faced the formality of a trip to San Marino. Manager Dick Advocaat was already fielding questions about England's goalscoring threat before the game, and Dutch complacency proved to be their undoing. An 88th-minute equaliser from Nicola Bacciocchi stunned Advocaat's men in Bologna. England now only needed a draw to stay ahead of the Dutch going into the final round of fixtures.
Holland vs England - October 1993
A freak goal from Pearce after ten minutes gave England the best possible start - deep in his own half, Pearce's hopeful ball forward asked too much of Ferdinand, but took a wicked bounce of the turf and over de Goey. Five minutes later, Ferdinand pounced on a casual Dutch backpass and fired a left-foot shot past de Goey to double England's lead in scarcely believable scenes.
The Dutch needed a stroke of good fortune and it came in the form of a howler from Woods, who fumbled a speculative Bergkamp effort into the net. Would England's stunning start now unravel? Three minutes later, the Dutch found an unlikely equaliser. Marco van Basten outmuscled Ince and curled a beauty past Woods, who this time was blameless in the face of an exquisite piece of skill. Ferdinand saw yellow for a crude challenge from behind on Wim Jonk as England began to rock. Bergkamp found space between England's defence and midfield and, just before half-time, curled another trademark shot past the despairing hands of Woods. A fortunate 2-0 lead had turned into a shambolic 3-2 deficit before half-time, and top spot in Group 2 now hung by a thread. Van Basten put the Dutch out of sight in the second half with yet another pearler, and England slipped to second in the group.
San Marino vs England - November 1993
Against San Marino in Bologna, England negotiated the all-important opening nine seconds, before wasting a number of good chances by almost literally trying to walk the ball in. Stuart Pearce broke the deadlock but all eyes were on events in Poznan, where England were hoping the Poles could do them a favour against Holland to keep alive hopes of topping the group. As news filtered through of Marek Lesniak giving Poland the lead, England fans took more notice of their wireless radios than the procession in front of them. Amid the distraction, Pesolini wrote his name into Sammarinese football history with a screamer past Woods to halve the deficit. Despite the Dutch developments, Hurrey scowled on the touchline as the San Marino players celebrated as if they themselves had secured qualification.
For the record, England ran out 3-1 winners - Luca Gobbi putting through his own net to restore their lead before Shearer fired home the third - but Lesniak's goal in Poznan had given England their biggest cheer of the night, sending them to the World Cup as group winners and surely, on the evidence of this campaign, as one of the favourites to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.
Please hurry up, new football season - I've gone utterly Sensible.