Fascinating reminders of how English football changed for the better at Italia 90

A nation wept with Gazza
Hugh MacDonald

Share 0 comments 12 May 2010

It is 1990.

The scene is a beach in Italy as waves of excitement from the World Cup lap across the shores of the host country. Three young men sip their beers. Two of them are to play crucial roles in how the World Cup is decided. The other will be its foremost chronicler. Yet there is no security, no crushing mass bearing down on them. They are three Englishmen having a beer.

Two of them are players for England: Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle. Their almost constant companion is Pete Davies, who would write All Played Out, one of the best football books. Waddle missed one of the penalties in the semi-final shoot-out defeat to Germany. He is now a shrewd commentator on the game. Davies published his book, now renamed One Night in Turin and the inspiration for the brilliant documentary film of the same name. Gazza cried. And no Englishman or woman has forgotten that.

“My girlfriend was 17 and living in Liverpool at the time,” says Davies. “She cried along with him because it was a seminal moment in English consciousness. When Gazza cried, he cried for everybody.” The outpouring of tears was not just a reaction to defeat. It was a response to the realisation that something marvellous had ended before its time. “I have watched the two hours of that semi-final many times. There are chunks of it in the film, of course. And it is an excellent match, vibrant and compelling. We did not know England could play like this and now they were playing with such freedom, such spirit. We believed anything was possible.”

At the heart of everything was Gascoigne, the manchild. The former Newcastle, Tottenham, Lazio and Rangers player was one of the great English talents. But at his core there was a naivety and vulnerability that has cost him dear. Gascoigne, once imperious, cheeky and gifted, is now damaged. It is difficult to watch the end of One Night in Turin without crying.

We always believe we have a golden generation then go out with a whimper. The 1990 side made it feel good to be English even in defeat. Pete Davies
“The match was a turning point for England,” says Davies. “There was an innocence to Gazza and to the tears. We moved from Gazza crying to Beckham in a skirt in the blink of an eye.”

Davies, too, is aware that the 1990 World Cup was “two-dimensional”. England had an excellent, improving side who would have been worthy winners of the tournament. Their fans, though, besmirched the event.

Of July 4, 1990, the day of semi-final, Davies writes: “In the afternoon, English drunks had fought with plainclothes police on a train coming into Turin from Genoa. Groups of Germans ambushed other English fans in the streets around the station. Minor skirmishes between English, Germans and Italians ran on and off for an hour or so.” One German was stabbed.

“We bemoan quite rightly the passing of some of the values of 1990 but we can never forget that football has made great strides from then,” says Davies, 20 years on. “The most important factor is that one can go to a match without being killed. That is especially relevant in a nation that has experienced Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough.”

There are two other major changes that Davies has experienced. For All Played Out, the original title of the book, he was given exclusive access to Bobby Robson, the England manager, and the team. Such a deal is unthinkable now. Davies could wander the hotel corridors with the players, have a beer with them on a beach or watch the hyperactive Gazza playing seemingly endless games of tennis.

“Can you imagine trying to get access to just one player nowadays? You would have to go through agents, personal staff and wardrobe assistants,” he says.

The other change is the expectation on the English squad. The English won the World Cup in 1966 (and one would think they would have told us) and reached the quarter-finals of the tournament in 1970. But a period of underachievement, marked with failure to qualify and a demise at the hand of Diego Maradona, had ensued.

“English football had to change and it did on the playing fields of Italy,” says Davies. One of the major footballing themes of the book is the side’s adoption of a more modern style, principally employing three at the back.

It seems extraordinary now to look back at Davies’s 1990 record and read just how revolutionary this concept was to some. But Robson went with three at the back and England went within a penalty shoot-out of the final. “A stolid, unimaginative side was suddenly transformed into a gifted side whose spirit was freed. It was as if Robson had suddenly come up with a magical elixir that made the team almost irresistible and wonderful to watch,” says Davies.

The finals will always be known , certainly to Englishmen, as the time of Gazza’s tears. But Davies also recalls a telling moment: Butcher’s backheel. Terry Butcher, an inspirational captain of Rangers, was widely and erroneously regarded as just a yeoman stopper. “He epitomised the change in the team, though,” says Davies. “At one point in the semi-final, he brings the ball out of defence and looks for a forward pass. When he does not see an option, he calmly backheels the ball to a team-mate for the move to progress.”

England 1990 held a promise that was never fulfilled. Will South Africa see a triumph for the Three Lions? “We seem to live in a loop in England,” says Davies. “We always believe we have a golden generation. We always believe that this could be our year. Then we go out of the tournament with a whimper. That is the crushing aspect. They always disappoint. The 1990 side made it feel good to be English even in defeat.”

* One Night in Turin by Pete Davies is published by Yellow Jersey at £8.99. The film, One Night in Turin, is written and directed by James Erskine and is on general release.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *