Neil Webb and his captain Stuart Pearce were the first real shining lights to emerge from the second generation of brilliant young players whom Brian Clough had moulded and bullied into a fine team in the late 1980s. Webb, a midfielder with a cool head and a clever eye for a pass, came to prominence when selected for an XI to represent the Football League in a centenary celebration curtain-raiser at Wembley against a Rest Of The World side and promptly nutmegged Diego Maradona, much to the joy of the Wembley crowd who spent all of the game hooting their derision at the Argentine captain following his exploits against England at the previous year's World Cup. Bobby Robson, aware that he was still looking for a real successor to Ray Wilkins as an unfussy ballplayer in his midfield, gave him his England debut a fortnight later against West Germany - in doing so Webb became the 1000th player to be capped by England at international level - as a sub for Glenn Hoddle, and Neil stroked the ball around confidently and calmly, despite England being overrun in a 3-1 defeat. With a home banker against Turkey imminent in the qualifiers for the 1988 European Championships, Robson decided to pitch Webb in from the start, displacing Hoddle, and Neil played a mature game alongside Bryan Robson. He even found time to get on the scoresheet, lashing home a volley after Hoddle, on as a sub, clipped a cross back from the byline.
Qualification was assured in Webb's next game - a 4-1 win in Yugoslavia - and Robson kept him in the team for four of the games scheduled as preparation matches prior to the trip to Germany (the photo above is during the 1-0 win against Scotland on 21st May). Although some called for the in-form Steve McMahon to be given a midfield role, while others were still apopleptic that Hoddle wasn't the first name on the teamsheet, Webb maintained a series of composed performances and was not only put in the squad, but expected to start the first game against the Republic of Ireland in Stuttgart. This he did, but he was tired, overawed and nervous in midfield, eventually substituted there by Hoddle, as England were outfought in a 1-0 defeat. The media and fans pleaded for Hoddle in the next game and Robson took notice, and it was Webb who was unsurprisingly removed from the side to accommodate England's great creative hope. Hoddle played a blinder but Marco van Basten's genius in attack took England apart and the Dutch won 3-1, eliminating England from the tournament with a game to spare. Robson played McMahon, Robson and Hoddle together in the last game against the Soviet Union, bringing Webb on later, but England were shocking, losing 3-1 again without an ounce of pride. Robson ditched a number of players straightaway in his anger and started a major rebuild, but Webb was still in his plans, especially as Nottingham Forest were starting to make headway in both the league and cup competitions again. (Matthew Rudd)