ENGLAND get their World Cup campaign underway against Tunisia this evening, and Rangers legend Mark Hateley knows a thing or two about representing the ‘Three Lions’ at the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’.
Hateley was part of the squad which travelled to Mexico in 1986, and but for Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal in their quarter-final with Argentina, they could have progressed deep into the tournament.
England eventually lost that game 2-1, with Maradona later scoring a goal of the highest quality to secure passage to the semi-finals for the South Americans at England’s expense.
For Hateley, the tournament remains a source of disappointment, and, speaking to RangersTV, he still looks back on it as a missed opportunity for him and his nation.
“The players, front to back, were world-class,” he explained. “We had an excellent back four and midfield, and goalscoring strikers.
“It was just an incredible situation. There were about 98,000 people in the Azteca that day, and one guy missed it. Everybody else saw the handball in the stadium, but it is what it is.
“He was a genius of a footballer, and he took it upon himself to win at all costs, and most of those players are like that.
“I still look at Peter Shilton [England goalkeeper] on that day. When you play against these teams, you identify their best player, and Maradona was the best player in the World Cup.
“If you can negate a problem early in the game, Peter Shilton could have done that. He could have come and taken the ball and, for want of a better word, flattened Maradona.
“But he didn’t come, Maradona used his hand and the rest is history. It’s a talking point and a focal point of the ’86 World Cup which will always be remembered purely because one man cheated and a goalkeeper could have taken us a little bit further.”
Hateley had started England’s opening two group matches, a 1-0 defeat to Portugal and then a 0-0 draw with Morocco. Needing a win in their final game with Poland to progress, Hateley’s place was taken in attack by Peter Beardsley.
They won that game 3-0, with Gary Lineker grabbing a hat-trick. And, despite the obvious heartache at losing his starting place for the remainder of the tournament, Hateley still looks back on it all as a positive experience.
He continued: “It was an exciting time. The qualification was good and I think I got four of five goals, and as soon as that’s done, you’ve got the summer to look forward to and Mexico.
“That, of course meant some difficulties to cope with – with there being some games at sea level and some at altitude. It was a great experience in more ways than one, going from the euphoria of going into it to the disappointment of the first two games, which were frustrating, then being left out for the latter stages.
“It was a rollercoaster ride that summer, but a very enjoyable one. I learned a lot, gained a lot of experience from the downside of that World Cup and also a lot of experience from the build-up to it as well.
“They called it the ‘Golden Era’ with the likes of Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins Gary Lineker and Glenn Hoddle – great, great players. It was a good group and great expectations were lumped on us right from qualification.
“So it’s about dealing with all that, but that is part and parcel of being a professional footballer, and there is no bigger occasion than what we had in 1986.
“It was a group of players who had a lot of expectation on them, and if it wasn’t for a certain infamous incident, we would probably have gone on to the semis and maybe even the final.”
Despite Bobby Robson being the man to drop Hateley from the tournament, he has nothing but fond memories of a man who is a true legend of the English game.
Hateley said: “He was fabulous, both him and Don Howe who did the tactical side of it. Bobby was a great man manager, and we played the first two games which didn’t go the way we wanted.
“He came to me after that, put his arm round me and said we were going to go a different formation, with Peter Beardsley coming in and I was going to sit out.
“The disappointment was literally two minutes as he had an ability to make you feel super special. His wise words, wisdom and experience made him a perfect match with Don Howe.
“He was a very funny man too, and would always get our names wrong. He used to call me Tony, who was my dad, and he would call Bryan Robson, Bobby Robson.
“It was a good-humoured environment he ran.”
England’s current crop get their tournament off and running this evening in Volgograd, with Tunisia their opponents.
Hateley has been impressed by manager Gareth Southgate, but reckons the quarter-finals may be their absolute limit this time around.
He added: “I think they will get out of the group, but a lot depends on the first two games. They are a relatively young side, with most of the guys aged between 20 and 25, but they have experience.
“A lot of them have played Champions League football, but World Cups and being together in a group for weeks is the big test.
“There are a lot of personalities flying around, and I think it becomes more about the mentality of the players as opposed to their ability.
“I think they are worthy of getting out the group, but are they worthy of getting to the quarter-finals? It all depends on who they get afterwards and how they start.
“If they start well, are getting clean sheets and score a lot of goals, then that youth and inexperience of a tournament could come into play as a positive for the England boys.
“So I hope they get a good start with a lot of goals – Harry Kane is back in form after his injury, and I like the formation with the three at the back and two wing-backs.
“I really like everything Gareth Southgate has done, and it all depends on the key players stepping up to the plate.
“I think quarter-finals is a possibility, but I think it will be tough after that.”