Clive Allen Interview: ‘No One Remembers My Debut’

Juha Tamminen

by Dom Smith

“It was the first time England had won in Brazil,” announces Clive Allen proudly. The former striker was just a few weeks away from a move across London from Queens Park Rangers to Tottenham, where he became a club legend. Allen’s England debut came in the famous victory over Brazil at the Maracanã in the summer of 1984. But it had taken years of hard yards to get to this point.

“I’d played at each level from schoolboy right the way through,” says the 60-year-old. “I played England youth, then got the callup to the U21s. With any callup to a national squad, it’s the ultimate that you can achieve. There were a lot of very, very good players — some a bit older than me. Just to get that opportunity to make that step to the next level was fantastic.”

“In my day, from leaving school at 15 or 16, the next step was to play at 18. When you come in as a youth player, you can be quite a lot younger than those around you. Now there’s a natural progression, whereas because it was quite a few years between schoolboy to youth and then youth to U21, you could easily lose your way. It takes you a year or two to establish yourself at the next age group. I had a great time at England youth, but there was no guarantee that I could make that leap to the U21s.”

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Allen would go on to enjoy a storied career which lasted 17 years. As well as turning out for QPR and Spurs, he played for Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Bordeux, Manchester City, Chelsea and West Ham. He finished his career with cameo spells at Millwall and finally Carlisle United. But in 1980, while still at second-tier QPR, being called up for the England U21s was a huge deal for the now-recognisable co-commentator.

“At the U21s, Glenn Hoddle was in that squad. There were some fantastic players who went on to have fantastic careers with the England seniors.”

Once too old for the England U21s, Allen spent short spells at Arsenal and Palace, before returning to Division 2 QPR. After three years there, déjà vu hit. Just as he’d been shocked that the England U21s were willing to call up a second-tier striker in 1980, he was surprised — perhaps more so — that the seniors were willing to do the same. In 1984, Allen became an England player.

“It was a long wait, although I never ever thought I should be in the England squad. In 1984 when I was selected, it was a surprise. I was at Queens Park Rangers. We weren’t in the top-flight. We’d had a few very good seasons under Terry Venables. But the callup was a surprise, I had no real inclination that I was going to be called up. There were a couple of senior players that pulled out of that South America trip, and then I got my first callup under Bobby Robson. It’s the ultimate to get called up and to go away with England over the summer, really excited.”

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That summer 1984 tour of South America was the same trip in which Graham Roberts was rushed into a Brazilian hospital with appendicitis. He told about the bittersweet nature of that trip from his perspective here.

Allen says his senior callup was more special because it came from Sir Bobby Robson.  “My own connection there was that I went to Ipswich as a 14-year-old schoolboy and he wanted me to sign for Ipswich — and I obviously started my career at Queens Park Rangers. So I’d had dealings with him at an early age. I hoped he’d kept a track of my career. Then he gave me that opportunity. Bobby Robson was an amazing football man, incredible football man. Everybody I know that worked with him had the utmost respect for him.

“No one remembers my debut!” he laughs. “That’s what I always say. I came on from the bench. I watched John [Barnes] score the goal.” He is of course referring to John Barnes’s exceptional solo run and finish which helped an understrength England beat Brazil 2–0 at the world-famous Maracanã, a stadium whose international legend within the game is perhaps only rivalled by England’s home, Wembley.

“We were all saying, ‘pass it, pass it, pass it.’ He just dribbled all the way through for a quite remarkable goal. I was substituted on for Tony Woodcock. The only regret I’ve ever had was I hadn’t touched the ball when Bryan Robson broke through, clean through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. I’d managed to keep up with him, was alongside him, and all he needed to do was roll the ball square to me.

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“My first touch against Brazil should have been a tap-in to make it 3–0. Unfortunately the skipper had a shot and put it in the side netting. Everybody says: ‘What did you say to him?’ I said: ‘Unlucky skip.’ You think he should have passed it, but [you don’t say it to him on your debut]. It could have been a different story because my first touch should have been a goal.”

Debut goal or not, Allen will always have fond memories of his maiden England voyage coming in such an historic match in England’s long history. The magnitude of the victory was not lost on him.

“It was the first time England had won in Brazil. The Maracanã was falling apart. It was quite a decrepit stadium. But 70,000 were in there. They were like dungeons, the dressing rooms down underneath. I remember Bobby Robson speaking to us after that game, saying what an unbelievable result it was and how we would have lifted everybody’s spirits at home [as] an England team that had come to Brazil and won. And obviously my first cap, so I vividly remember that.

“We then moved on to Uruguay. We were still celebrating by the time we got to Uruguay because it wasn’t expected. A few seniors had pulled out of the squad. It was felt that we were going to be a group of players that were going to go to South America and get pretty well hammered, really. We lost 2–0 to Uruguay in that second game.” In their third and final match of the trip, England drew 0–0 with Chile.

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The rarity of a result against Brazil helped Allen’s first of five caps go down as a hugely momentous day in the Three Lions’ history. But fortunes have picked up for England in recent years. They are now unbeaten in three matches against the Seleção and haven’t lost to them since a 2009 friendly under the stewardship of Fabio Capello. England have also posted fourth- and second-place finishes in their two major tournaments under Gareth Southgate. And in their two Nations League campaigns so far, they’ve finished as Europe’s third- and ninth-best sides.

“I think Gareth’s done a fantastic job,” says Allen. “It was a difficult situation that he came into. He’s been very brave in his selection of a number of younger players. He’s taken it upon himself to make big decisions and I think they’ve done very well. It’s an England team that are very competitive — we’re going to see that at the World Cup. We went close in the last few competitions. I thought we were in a fantastic position to actually win the Euros against Italy, and I think that bodes well for the World Cup at the end of the year.”

Allen has noticed the gradual improvement of the national team’s squad depth, and he has a theory for why that is.

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“I believe that’s because of the strength of the Premier League. A lot of these players are plying their trade in the Premier League, and some of them have obviously moved abroad to try to get regular football. The competition is so fierce in the Premier League that the level of consistency that’s required has improved the English players playing in the Premier League. For [Phil] Foden to be in the Manchester City side, he has to be at his very, very best. He’s playing at the highest level — Champions League football — so coming into the England team, they’re more than capable, these young players.”

He feels pressure has held England teams back in the past. “Even [back] then, you knew you were going to be scrutinised. It was the whole experience — you were in a goldfish bowl because you’re playing for your country and how important it was. Whether it was a friendly or a competitive game, every time you pulled on that England shirt there came that pressure. That’s still the same today, perhaps even more heightened today, because of the scrutiny from all angles, whether it be written press or TV or [social] media.

“It just comes with pulling on an England shirt. You’re expected to win; you’re expected to win every competition. That’s been the same since 1966. Winning the World Cup in ’66 was the ultimate. Every England team since is having to live up to that. That has to be the goal. That will always be part and parcel of being an England player until it’s done again. Future generations will have to live up to that and achieve that. That’s where the bar’s set. We won the World Cup in ’66 and England haven’t done that since, so that’s the level that everyone thinks we should have been achieving.”

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Allen speaks proudly of his five England caps. For him, it is the pinnacle a footballer can achieve in the game. “Obviously I didn’t score for England, so that is a massive regret. I was absolutely thrilled to be given and win the five caps that I did. At that time, the competition was fierce, particularly [Gary] Lineker, Peter Beardsley and Barnes, who were all world-class footballers. I managed to get to international level, and I’ll never underestimate what an achievement that was. As a professional, you always desire to have done better. I would have loved to have played more times for England, but if it had only just been one cap, I’d have been very proud. It’s really the ultimate prize that you can achieve.”

And does international football still matter, in an era of club record transfer fees, Champions League prestige, and the threat of the European Super League?

“Absolutely. I think you’ve only got to look at the Euros in the summer. The way the country comes together — the passion, the desire of everybody to see England do well, and they want their country to do well. I think there should always be a place for international football, and the competitions that are played. I don’t think that desire from supporters will ever drop. The closer we get to winning a competition, it just seems that everybody comes together — and that is absolutely fantastic to see.”

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