January 31, 2023



When England turned up at Aylesbury United for a pre-Euro 88 friendly | Barry Glendenning | Football

7 min read

Despite scoring, Gary Lineker has no recollection of playing in the game, but 32-year-old pre-match footage proves the tanned striker, playing for Barcelona at the time, was definitely there. A text inquiry to Stuart Pearce, not quite as prominent in the extremely cramped dressing room but present on the England squad sheet, drew a similarly bewildered blank. “Sorry, can’t help you on this, I don’t remember the game,” came his reply.

A similarly high-profile international legend was at least able to dredge up some sketchy recollection, which we will get to anon. By contrast, Cliff Hercules, the splendidly monikered star striker for the home team, admits he has pondered the events of 4 June 1988 every day since. It was on that day non-league Aylesbury United hosted England in a friendly. Approaching the anniversary his memories, while vivid, are not entirely fond.

In terms of pre-tournament preparation for England, nothing quite like it had happened before and will almost certainly never happen again. On the way home from a friendly against Turkey a year previously, the Observer sportswriter Frank McGhee, a resident of the Buckinghamshire town of Aylesbury and keen supporter of his local team, had suggested to Bobby Robson that a match between England and Aylesbury before Euro 88 might be just the warm-up needed.

For reasons best known to himself, Robson agreed. That summer’s European Championship would begin badly for England and go quickly downhill, with shock defeat by the Republic of Ireland followed by losses to the Netherlands and the Soviet Union and an unexpectedly early exit. England might as well have sent Aylesbury’s players to represent them.

When Robson took his squad to Buckingham Road for their final warm-up game there was little sign of the international humiliation that would unfold in West Germany. Having made the 23-mile trip from Bisham Abbey, Robson was uncharacteristically impatient before the match as he instructed his players to sign footballs for their hosts before taking the field for a photo op with the local mayor.

Their administrative duties and pre-match niceties seen to, England proceeded to spank seven without reply past a side who had just won promotion to the Conference from the Beazer Homes League. In front of 6,031 incredulous observers who had paid £6 or £10 admission, Peter Beardsley scored four, with Lineker, Dave Watson and Trevor Steven chipping in with one apiece.

“That was a month after the season finished,” recalls Hercules, who had interrupted a holiday in Ibiza to fly home for the game and at the age of 58 is still Aylesbury’s record scorer with 301 goals. “We had to try to stay fit after playing 50-odd games and I remember being exhausted at the end of the season because you’ve been carrying injuries, your legs are heavy and you’re tired and you just want a break. So it didn’t really work and we lost a lot of our fitness after the season finished. That’s my excuse why we didn’t put up a better fight.”

He laughs, pauses, then laughs some more. “I mean, it was ridiculous. They were on a different level completely to us. Athletes who played football. I mean, Aylesbury got into the FA Cup third round and played QPR, who were in the top flight at the time, and we never got a kick. Likewise with England, we barely got a kick because these were lads who were honed to play football from the age of eight or nine. By comparison, we were part-time. Chris Waddle was just massive and so fast. We couldn’t get near him.”

Bryan Robson in action during the friendly against Aylesbury United at Bell Close. The referee is Brian Hill.

Bryan Robson in action during the friendly against Aylesbury. The referee is Brian Hill. Photograph: Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images

A cause that always looked hopeless wasn’t helped by the fact that at half-time Robson replaced his entire team. Steven, Glenn Hoddle, Neil Webb and Peter Reid were among the replacements who came on to run rings around exhausted opponents. “I should have paid to get in because I was just a spectator most of the time,” says Hercules. Not all of the time, though, as the striker squandered a glorious chance to open the scoring with a header from a free-kick routine his side had copied from Manchester United and used to devastating effect on several occasions during their race to the title.

“Every time a free-kick was three or four yards outside the box, left- or right-hand side, I’d run over and pretend I wanted to take it, only to get whooshed away by one of my teammates who’d swear at me. It was really bad acting and I’d just turn, jog away and suddenly dart towards the penalty spot. So as soon as I made that run, the ball would come in, I’d be unmarked and on this occasion it’s Peter Shilton in goal. Peter Shilton! I can’t see him, but I’m thinking he’s going to come and absolutely cement me, so I better head it as hard as I can. As it happened, he stayed on his line and I only needed to get it on target but I ended up heading it too hard and putting it miles over the bar.”

An opportunity spurned and one that has lived long in his memory. “I was lying on the floor and I was thinking: ‘Bloody hell, this moment could have changed my life.’ I was thinking that I was going to remember this moment for ever. And you know what? I was right. I have remembered it all my life. I think about it every single day and still wonder what might have happened if I’d kept that header down and scored against England.”

John Barnes, by contrast, recalls next to nothing about the match, despite gentle probing. “I can’t remember the score, I can’t remember the game … nothing at all,” he says. “I just remember it was close to where we used to stay and that we scored lots of goals. Back then, playing for Watford, or later playing for Liverpool, we would play at non-league grounds from time to time, so it wasn’t like now when you never get superstar players on a bobbly pitch or a place where the dressing rooms only have cold water. So there certainly wouldn’t have been a thought that we considered Aylesbury beneath us, because we were used to playing games like that.”

Hercules politely begs to differ. “It was beneath them, when you think about it,” he says. “All the media were present and they were only there to be shot at really, unless they won six- or seven-nil … which of course they did.”

Trevor Gould, manager of Aylesbury at the time, is unsurprised by Barnes’s lack of total recall. “It’s no shock John doesn’t remember it,” says the man whose team talk on the day was so Churchillian the pre-match cans of lager being sipped by a couple of his players went momentarily ignored. “I don’t think anyone in the town actually believed England were going to turn up but they bought tickets anyway.

“It was a lovely atmosphere and I’ve got to give immense credit to Bobby Robson and Don Howe, who I knew through my brother Bobby, because they were so friendly and accommodating. To have a crowd like that at the new stadium and for people to be asking for our lads’ autographs and mixing with the England players, it was just fantastic. I’d been an England schoolboy and youth international and in 1965 I played at Wembley for England with Peter Shilton in goal. It was lovely for me to meet him again because his career was phenomenal, whereas mine was quite average.”

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Hercules, working for a local engineering firm at the time, was content to remain a part-time player and local hero, eventually retiring as a one-club man whose son Max now lines up for Aylesbury in Division One Central of the Southern League. “At the end of the game we all swapped shirts with them and I got Glenn Hoddle’s,” he says. “It was a Mexico 86 shirt and my mate Derek Duggan got Bryan Robson’s, so we swapped because I’m a Manchester United fan. That’s my prize memento and I want to get it signed some day. That’s why I still haven’t even got it framed yet and neither of us is getting any younger.”

Robson will almost certainly be happy to oblige if asked for his scrawl, even if he too might struggle to remember the particular game in which he wore the hallowed garment or where on earth it was played.

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