How England warmed up for Euro 88 in match organised by Fleet Street sports journalist

The last time England were preparing to head for Germany to compete in the UEFA European Championship, they warmed up with a match in June 1988 against Aylesbury United – who remain the only non-league side to ever face the Three Lions. Here’s how the unusual friendly fixture came about…

By Philip Barker

The Bucks Herald reports on the build-up to the match in June 1988

Many will expect great things when England head off to the European Championship after their final warm-up matches against Bosnia Herzegovina and Iceland this week.

The last time the Euros were held in Germany, an equally optimistic England side played a final warm-up match organised by a journalist.

The year was 1988 and England, then managed by Bobby Robson, had qualified without losing a match.

A few days before they flew out, England’s destination was Buckingham Road, home of Aylesbury United, nicknamed “The Ducks”.

The Bucks Herald Newspaper, published in Aylesbury, revealed that the match came about thanks to an “unlikely scenario of a top Fleet Street journalist, the England manager and the Aylesbury United chairman.”

The journalist in question was Frank McGhee, former star writer for the Daily Mirror and later for The Observer. He lived at nearby Weston Turville and revealed how the match had come about.

“Charlie Doherty, the Aylesbury United chairman, asked whether I knew Bobby Robson.

“He wanted to know what chances did I think there were of getting Bobby Robson to bring an England team to Aylesbury? The initial temptation was to retort, ‘what chances? Two chances – a dog’s chance and no chance’.”

Yet McGhee proposed the idea to Robson as England flew home from Turkey in the spring of 1987 after a 0–0 draw.

The decision to go ahead was taken after England sealed qualification against Yugoslavia in Belgrade. England scored four times in the first 25 minutes and eventually won 4-1.

The Bucks Herald report on how the match came about

Robson had been greatly influenced by the magical Hungarian side of the 1950s which had thrashed England twice.

Before tournaments, the Hungarians warmed up by playing local teams and once beat a factory side 26-0.

“Many supporters will remember talk of this game amid much scoffing that such a fixture would never take place, but here we are after a lot of hard work behind the scenes,” club officials said triumphantly.

In 1988, Aylesbury were Beazer Homes Southern League Champions and promoted to the Conference, now known as the National League.

For manager Trevor Gould, it was a trophy to compare with brother Bobby, who masterminded Wimbledon’s shock FA Cup Final victory against Liverpool a few days earlier.

“We will make it as competitive as we can without being too physical,” promised Gould.

The Bucks Examiner, another local paper, described it as “arguably the most important game in their history”. Aylesbury’s that is, not England’s.

Perrys, a local car dealer, gave away match tickets and offered their “match-winning special” – a Ford Fiesta for £4,980.

The Aylesbury United match programme

Television crews descended on Aylesbury and the match caught the imagination of Fleet Street.

In the Daily Mirror, Jack Steggles interviewed Aylesbury keeper Tim Garner who had played schoolboy cricket alongside Gary Lineker.

“I’m trying not to think about it. If you dwell on facing the likes of Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley, it could frighten you to death,” said Garner.

Much interest centred on Aylesbury’s 32-goal top scorer Cliff Hercules, who had broken off a holiday in Ibiza to play.

“Cliff will give as good as he gets,” Gould predicted.

“We are an organised side and have only lost six games all season. Our two main strikers will prove a handful for the England defenders. If they score six or seven against England, I may decide to bring them off,” Gould joked.

In fact, England scored seven – three from Beardsley before half-time, and another in the second half. Lineker was also on the scoresheet, along with Dave Watson and Trevor Steven.

Watch Aylesbury United almost catch out the England defenders with a pre-arranged free-kick routine

“The high-flying Aylesbury Ducks got their expected roasting,” wrote Ken Montgomery in the Mirror.

Even so, the Bucks Herald headline proclaimed it to be “The Greatest Day”.

However, Bobby Robson was already at loggerheads with some journalists.

“Robson had difficulty hiding his hatred of the press and when asked perfectly acceptable questions, barked back his answers,” reported Nick Jones of the Bucks Herald.

“Certainly he had many reasons to be wary of the national press but he displayed the same attitude towards the local lads.”

How the Bucks Herald reported the match

The media hostility continued as England’s campaign unravelled rapidly at the Euros.

They lost all three matches and were actually out before the group stages were completed.

Frank McGhee died in 2000 but another Fleet Street veteran, Mike Langley, wrote a whimsical tribute for The Guardian, which recalled the day England met Aylesbury.

“England manager Bobby Robson flew the same squad to Germany for the European Championship – from which they returned, beaten in their three matches by Ireland, Holland and Russia.

“McGhee never said a word. Aylesbury had taken it out of our lads!”

Photos from Ken Turnbull, now Aylesbury United vice-chairman and then a volunteer with the club

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