Less than a month after beating Brazil at Wembley, England rolled on to their latest friendly match in preparation for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker and Bryan Robson all started against Czechoslovakia in an experienced England side. Sir Bobby Robson tried someone new at right-back that day – Arsenal’s Lee Dixon.
Speaking about the momentous day, Dixon is modest about the reasons behind his debut. “It was a surprise I got picked. Gary [Michael] Stevens was injured, so Bobby Robson gave me my first cap.”
It was a great day, but Dixon knew there was little chance of making his way into the squad for Italia ’90. “When he told me, he made it obvious he already had his squad.” The former Arsenal fullback says Robson had “said congratulations on my call, but [that] I’m not going to the World Cup.” This only served as fuel for a defender who would almost certainly walk into Mikel Arteta’s side today, had he been playing now.
Fast forward 11 months and Lee Dixon was England’s first-choice right-back and, against the Republic of Ireland in a crucial Euro ’92 qualifier, a goalscorer. “It’s special for me to score any goal, but for England at Wembley was just amazing.” Stuart Pearce’s deep cross was duly thundered towards the left-hand post by Dixon, but a cruel deflection carried the spinning ball past a hapless Patrick Bonner and into the net. England would draw the match and qualify for the finals, at the expense of unbeaten Ireland.
“It’s special for me to score any goal, but for England at Wembley was just amazing.“Lee Dixon, on scoring against the Republic of Ireland
Despite these promising moments in his early international career, Lee Dixon would never get the chance to compete for his country at a major tournament. Injured ahead of the tournament despite playing all of the Euro ’92 qualifiers, he and England would go on to fail in their attempts to reach the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
“I think we were a bit unlucky to be honest. The Holland game was a joke.” England lost 2-0 in the Netherlands in their penultimate fixture, thanks to goals by Dennis Bergkamp (who would soon join Dixon at Arsenal) and Ronald Koeman (who has since managed both Southampton and Everton).
“We should have had a penalty, and Koeman should have been [sent] off. That game changed everything. It was a huge disappointment.” Two years prior, Dixon had also suffered bad luck. “The injury I suffered before Euro ’92 was a disaster”, he says.
“We were a bit unlucky.”Lee Dixon, on England’s failure to reach World Cup ’94
Failure to qualify for World Cup ’94 was decided one game on from that infamous Holland defeat, in an equally memorable game against San Marino in 1993. Again, it wasn’t memorable for the right reasons. “As we all know,” Dixon starts, “we were in a situation that was out of our hands. Poland v Holland was the game. The Dutch had it in their hands. All we had to do was hope they slipped up and then we had to beat San Marino by eight goals.”
Working nowadays as a pundit for ITV Sport amongst others, Dixon describes the required eight-goal win over the minnows as “a feat that was well [within] our grasp.”
He recalls the opening seconds of the match like they’re only a day old. “They [San Marino] kick off and try and advance down our left. It’s okay ‘cause Stuart Pearce has it and all is safe.” There’s a wryness about his words now. “Whoops, he miskicks to David Seaman, and the candlestick maker scores after about three seconds!” Of course, David Gualtieri, the Sammarinese amateur that scored against England after 8.3 seconds wasn’t actually a candlestick maker. He’s a computer salesman.
“I walked back to the halfway line actually laughing to myself at the absurdity of it.” But, despite going on to win 7-1, England would fail to reach the World Cup. So would San Marino.
Lee Dixon continued at Arsenal for many more years, still their go-to right-back. In 1999, five years after his last call-up, interim manager Howard Wilkinson picked him for England in a friendly match against France. “It was a big surprise,” the 55-year-old admits. “So much so that when he called to say I was in the squad, I thought it was my mate doing a Howard Wilkinson impression.”
Wilkinson would only last for that one match… but he’d be back for a second a year later, covering once more after the departure of the next permanent manager – Kevin Keegan. “Howard was an old school safe bet for The FA, whilst they found a permanent replacement. I got on really well with him and liked him.”
The final appearance in an England shirt for Dixon came in that friendly match with France. He international career yielded 22 caps, and that solitary strike against the Republic of Ireland proved his only goal. A Burnley academy graduate, the Mancunian would retire at Arsenal as a Gunners legend, aged 38.
In the years since, barring the Invincibles season, Arsenal have found themselves on a somewhat downward spiral. England however, have improved massively in the last few years – thanks in no small part to the careful thinking and philosophising of their diplomatic yet decisive manager, Gareth Southgate. Along with many prominent speakers in the game, Dixon is suitably impressed. “What Gareth has done with the squad is fantastic.
“He has created a pathway for the younger, hungry players to play in the first team.” In the past, England managers have been reluctant to call up youth players. Now, under Southgate and all training in one central hub, St George’s Park, there finally seems to be a clearly signposted road to senior international football.
“For many years, we have had success at youth level. He has enabled them to find a place in the squad by picking them.” Thanks to many of his younger players, Southgate’s England shone at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, reaching the semifinals and equalling their best ever World Cup campaign on foreign soil.
“The draw in the World Cup worked beautifully for England, and they took full advantage. I think with a little more guile in the semi, [they] could have beaten Croatia, but they just fell short.”
“We have a really good chance in both.”Lee Dixon, on England at Euro 2020 and Women’s Euro 2021
“We have a really good chance in both,” Dixon says confidently. But there is one thing playing on his mind. “Injuries to the men’s first strikers are very worrying. That needs to drastically improve before the summer, or we may struggle.
“As for the Lionesses, the USA team at the world level are streets ahead of the England team. However, the competition is a lot closer in Europe, so we stand a firmer chance.”