wsc302Mike Bayly on why England's warm-up match against non-League opponents might not have been the best way to prepare for Euro 88

One of the more curious international friendlies of recent times took place in June 1988. England had just qualified for the European Championships in Germany. A year earlier, on the return journey from a qualifying match in Turkey, the journalist Frank McGhee had approached Bobby Robson, suggesting England play a non-League team in their build-up to the tournament.

McGhee drew on the experience of the legendary Hungarian side of the 1950s, who would regularly play local teams and factory sides in advance of major matches. The theory ran that if England could go into the championship on a high – by virtue of running rings round a bunch of part-time players – it would boost the team's confidence. Robson agreed. The England squad had used a similar approach in Mexico prior to the 1986 World Cup, playing a series of matches against town and university teams.

McGhee already had a club in mind for this unlikely fixture. As a close friend of Aylesbury United chairman, Charlie Doherty, the idea of a match against England had been previously mooted as part of the Southern League side's ground-opening celebrations. In truth, Doherty probably asked more in hope than in expectation.

The idea was met with scepticism when first floated a couple of weeks after the initial conversation between McGhee and Robson. It was not until after England qualified for Euro 88 that Robson was able to confirm the match would go ahead. McGhee's own paper, the Observer, was the first to break the story. It was not long before the rest of Fleet Street followed suit. Not only would Aylesbury United be playing England, but Robson promised to send a full squad.

It was a fitting postscript to United's season. In winning the 1987-88 Southern League Premier Division, the Ducks were promoted to the GM Vauxhall Conference, the highest level they had achieved since their formation in 1897. In the wonderfully-named Cliff Hercules, they possessed one of the semi-professional game's most prolific strikers. Hercules went on to score over 300 goals for the Buckinghamshire side in a career that covered 18 years and nearly 700 games. Hercules, like Paul Davies at Kidderminster Harriers (307 goals in 656 games), represented a bygone era of single club players in the non-League game, where a full-time job and part-time club wage represented a better deal than turning out for a lower Football League side.

Despite the euphoria surrounding the day, there were a number of concerns. United's gates averaged around 600 at the time, a fraction compared to the anticipated gate of 6,000. Few at the club were used to dealing with such volumes of people. Buckingham Road held firm, though. Just. In an exercise that would make modern day health and safety executives blench, 6,031 spectators crammed into the stadium, resulting in heavily congested terracing and fans perched on fences.

The match was over as a contest before it really started. England ran out as 7-0 winners, with Peter Beardsley grabbing four. United's only real chance came courtesy of a Hercules header from a set piece, which was borrowed from one of their illustrious counterparts. "We saw Bryan Robson use the free-kick for Manchester United on television and thought it was such a good move that we copied it," explained United's Cliff Campbell. Thanks to modern technology and some slightly shaky footage, the clip can still be seen on YouTube.

After the match, the usually avuncular Robson took a rather frosty tone: "I hope they didn't actually expect to get a result against us?" he asked the gathered press. To their credit, the England players enjoyed the occasion. Peter Beardsley stayed on the pitch after the game for a full 20 minutes signing autographs, while Gary Lineker said "it all goes with the job," as he was all but submerged by a swarm of programme-waving fans. Others took away more esoteric memories from the day, including one fan who "remembered Chris Waddle shanking a corner after someone blew a duck whistle in his ear."

Inevitably, the event had its shortcomings. Some fans cited the one-sidedness of the match, the lack of programmes and the impossibly long queues for the tea bar. There was also the question of how useful the game could ever be for England. "It turns out when we got to Euro 88, we had to play big international teams – countries like Russia and Holland. No one from the Beazer Homes league," recalled Peter Beardsley, in a send up of the Aylesbury game on Fantasy Football League.

The legacy of the day was dubious at best. England would go on to lose all three of their matches in Germany. Aylesbury United lasted one season in the GM Vauxhall Conference, before departing to the Isthmian League Premier Division, where they stayed for 11 seasons. Further relegations saw them demoted to the Spartan South Midlands League. They remain there today, in the fifth tier of non-League football, playing to average gates of less than 150.

It is a sad indication of how the modern game has skewed its priorities that the only England team likely to turn out for such a fixture now would be a celebrity side sprinkled with wheezing ex-pros and reality-TV stars. Meanwhile, the senior side have embarrassed themselves against part-time opponents from time to time – notably when the current England caretaker manager gifted San Marino a goal inside ten seconds five years after the match at Aylesbury.

From WSC 302 April 2012

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