England went some way to restoring the tarnished reputation of British football with their ultimately successful, if gruelling, tour of Mexico and North America. Starting the three-week tour within hours of the carnage of Brussels and against a backcloth of grief and emotion, the players revealed a profoundly genuine team spirit that was to support them right through the tour to its ritzy finish on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles.
Ignoring the effects of the high altitude, the baking heat, the ceaseless attention of the world media seeking to detect the slightest indication of any hooligan-style behaviour in the wake of the European Cup final tragedy and facing the prospect of an emotive match against Italy in the Aztec Stadium, England found it difficult to get on with their main task at first - playing football.
But, after surviving the rigours of a hellish week of introspection and shame, England emerged as first-class ambassadors for British football and a more than outside threat to the South American nations seeking to continue their monopoly of the World Cup finals played on their own soil. Indeed, in such strange and testing circumstances - both physical and psychological - England reacted with some constructive football that augured well for the expected return trip for the finals in twelve months time.
At the rarefied atmosphere of Mexico's 8,000 feet altitude, the England players produced an application and team pattern which bore more than a passing resemblance to that of Alf Ramsey's squad in 1970; they played with intelligence, patience and strength, only lacking in their finishing. No wonder Bobby Robson left Mexico pleased with the preparations and acclimatisation practice the squad had endured. A tour planned as a dress rehearsal for the 1986 finals proved to be just as testing as the event itself is likely to be - and the England squad passed out with satisfactory results.
Manager Robson was certainly in no doubt about the value of the tour at the end of a long English season. He said it had been "absolutely priceless in terms of preparation for success in the World Cup next year," but also admitted that it had begun with the "worst six days of my entire 35 years in football." Robson said: "I wouldn't like to go through that again. I have never been subjected to such constant attention about matters that are nothing to do with the team. “But in the end it has all worked out well. I can have a relaxing summer because the matches in the intense heat and altitude against the best opposition have made me more confident than ever that we can do well in the World Cup finals.”
While it would be churlish to deny that the tour brought success on both the public relations and playing fronts, it cannot be ignored that England's most impressive result - 3-0 over West Germany - was achieved against a team which had had less than 48 hours acclimatisation. Further, it must be said that the long awaited emergence of the undoubted midfield talents of Glenn Hoddle on the international stage cannot be matched in impact by the strikers whose performances are best classified as promising.
Kerry Dixon, who scored four goals in two tour matches, has a domestic goal scoring record which speaks for itself, but a first touch and general skill level which does not yet deserve the acclaim generally heaped on him by the English Press. Gary Lineker, who struck a splendidly volleyed goal from a peach of a pass by Hoddle against the United States, is another, like Dixon, who has yet to prove he has the technique required for the highest levels of the international game. Certainly, their performances on tour proved their aptitude for the conditions and their willingness to fill the parts that may be on offer, but beyond that there still remains a doubt about the English attack's ability to score goals when Mark Hateley is unavailable or out of touch. Apart from Hateley, whose record is beginning to look more impressive than some of his jaded performances, and the novice promise of Dixon, England have no players with the priceless ability to score goals regularly. Trevor Francis, the most naturally-gifted and technically accomplished striker, has managed just 12 goals in his 51 appearances and none in his last 10 international. All his experience will be in valuable in Mexico and his skill and pace will pose problems - but he cannot be relied on for goals.
However, England overcame the Mexican conditions which were to debilitate West Germany to such effect that they ended the tour with much more gained than lost in terms of team and squad preparations and the testing of individual players. Perhaps even more vitally they won sympathy from the Mexican crowds with their good demeanour in the public eye - a point ignored at his peril by Ramsey in 1969. Defeat on the tour by West Germany in the third match played at the fabulous Aztec Stadium would have had disastrous consequences for Robson and his players - and possibly for the interest in and attendances at English league football next season .It would have been England’s fourth defeat in a row (a record sequence in international matches) and would have further extended a run that was al ready known to be the team's worst set of results for 26 years. As it was, the flattering 3-0 win in which Dixon proved his knack of scoring goals at every level was England's biggest victory over West Germany since 1935.
The win took the pressure off the players at a time when they were feeling it most severely. And it also proved that the team could play and perform well without the much-praised "Italian connection" of Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley, who had left to rejoin Milan for the Italian Cup quarterfinals after the defeat by Mexico. The Mexico match was England's poorest performance of the tour and only Francis appeared to have the ability to run through the thin air with any appetite for the game. Hoddle played well, but the "reserve" defence creaked alarmingly. In retrospect, it may have been a reaction to the strain of the build-up to the opening match against Italy. It was the first meeting on a football pitch between the two countries - or any representative teams - since the Liverpool-Juventus European final which had ended with 38 fans dead in Brussels.
Robson had been acutely aware or being in the spotlight. He said: “Brussels could not have come at a worse time because when something like that happens we are all tarred with the same brush. That had been Liverpool against Juventus. We were England against Italy. Everyone was looking at us. I had to be more than a football manager. I had to take the responsibility and answer for everyone.
“I called all the players together and told them anything we could do this year would work to our advantage in the World Cup. Courtesy costs nothing! They should kiss babies, sign autographs, pose for photographs and give interviews. I told them it might be wearing, but they stuck at it." My Job is to protect the England team and the only way we can get people believing in us again is through some kind of success."
Had England not been beaten by a late and dubious penalty, they would have started the tour on a more successful note against Italy when their constructive performance merited at least a draw with the current World Cup holders. Everton’s Gary Stevens, making his England debut at right-back, showed outstanding form and demonstrated how effective the introduction of a unit from the English League champions could be in the engine room of the England team. Bobby Robson called him the ''big plus" of the tour, but the work of Peter Reid in knitting the midfield together against West Germany and the United States, when he substituted for captain Bryan Robson, was equally impressive in a more subdued manner.
Perhaps the biggest complement paid to England's football on the tour came from former West German international Paul Breitner - who has frequently derided English play as all up-and-under in the past. He said, after seeing England beat West Germany: "This was real football today. I had never seen Hoddle play with such strength and influence before."
Comfortable With that sort of praise ringing in their ears, England were able to enjoy the final jaunt of the tour against the United States when they emphasised the progress the team had made in the last 12 months with a more than comfortable win against an assorted collection of college players and indoor stars. Hoddle, at 28, had become an international player of stature, the defence, with Stevens replacing Anderson, had looked sound under the severest pressures, Reid had emerged to challenge Wilkins in midfield and Dixon and Lineker had scored goals and played promisingly in attack. As England's final bastion of contact with the outside world, the touring international party had proved worthy laboratory specimens at altitude, found a powerful collective spirit, played commendably well and, most important of all, re-established something of the English footballing reputation abroad.
This article originally appeared in the July 1985 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.