Considering I was barely a year old at the time, I may not be in the most privileged position to make comment on England’s 1990 World Cup side.*
*Thought I’d get that out the way early.
Yet, something has always struck me about England’s run to the semi-finals 25 years ago.
“Was it really that good?” I ponder. Is the achievement over-estimated?
Or, more to the point, did it really merit an open-top bus parade following the team’s arrival back in England?
It’s easy to gloss over that England won one match during 90 minutes at this World Cup; a 1-0 group game victory over Egypt.
You could argue that’s how knock-out football works. A more contemporary example is Paraguay who reached the Copa America final in 2011 without winning a single match in 120 minutes.
Italia ’90, though, remains England’s finest performance at a World Cup on foreign soil. And, perhaps, that is why it is cherished so fondly. Although, admittedly, there was a little more to it than that.
From John Barnes’ rap to David Platt’s volley to Gazza’s tears, England’s journey was packed full of iconic imagery. While I wasn’t watching at the time (not that I’m aware of, at least), those moments have triggered enough replay value in the years since that I can easily recall and recite several of the events that illuminated England’s tournament.
Of course, it is important to remember then that England’s run to the semi-finals was, generally, unexpected. The national team had become somewhat of a laughing stock (no more so than they are now, granted) in the lead up to Italia ’90.
Two years previous, at the European Championships, England had lost all three group games at the hands of Holland (the eventual winners), the Soviet Union and, most embarrassingly of all, to Jack Charlton’s Ireland.
Manager Bobby Robson found himself under increasing pressure post-Euro 1988 and was not helped by a floundering World Cup qualifying campaign that culminated in a 0-0 draw with Poland to secure qualification; leading the press to question whether it was really worth turning up in Italy, branding the team “donkeys”.
It must be said, however, this was not a team that lacked ability. There was the prolific Gary Lineker to spearhead the attack, the creative guile of Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle, the wizardy of John Barnes, the leadership qualities of Bryan Robson (who left the World Cup early through injury) and, of course, the maverick talents of Paul Gascoigne.
Regardless, England were expected to flop in Italy under Robson’s stewardship; just like they had two years earlier in West Germany.
It didn’t take long for the critics to be proved right, either. An uninspiring 1-1 draw with Ireland in England’s opening game had done little to silence the doubters.
A more promising performance was to follow, however. A point against European Champions Holland was considered far more respectable and a switch to three at the back – with Robson drafting in Derby defender Mark Wright as a sweeper – allowed England to free-up the creative talents of Waddle, Barnes and Gascoigne.
Despite the improved performance, a win was still required against Egypt in the final group game. It was duly delivered in slender fashion thanks to Wright’s header from a Gascoigne free-kick.
The last 16 paired England against Belgium. In a closely-fought encounter, the Belgians would have cursed their luck; having two spectacular strikes crashing against the post of Peter Shilton’s goal either side of half-time. England, though, would have had their own grievances with Barnes’ close-range finish wrongly ruled out for offside in the first half.
With the game destined for the lottery of the penalty shootout, substitute Platt scored one of the more memorable goals of the tournament; volleying in from another Gascoigne delivery (a goal you’ve probably all seen a few times over).
England, it seemed, had momentum and a quarter-final clash with Cameroon looked like a formality.
Never had an African side made it this far in a World Cup before and many neutrals had taken the Indomitable Lions to their hearts following a shock 1-0 opening victory against Diego Maradona’s Argentina.
England were to make hard work of this too, mind.
Lineker’s penalty seven minutes from time – leveling the game at 2-2 – saved their blushes as Robson’s side began to look more and more desperate.
It took a second Lineker penalty in extra time to get England over the line.
By this time, World Cup fever had gripped a nation whose spirits had been lifted substantially by the progress of the national team.
The tournament had been played against a back drop of increasing disdain against football in the UK. The 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster had meant that British clubs were still banned from European competition and the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy had been reported with such contempt that hooliganism was believed to be at the centre of a thuggish and rebellious culture amongst football supporters.
This perceived culture had led to Italian police reinforcing their presence wherever England supporters where located; taking a heavy-handed approach to dealing with so-called “troublemakers”.
Many England fans were sent back early from the tournament after being arrested by the Italian authorities; despite many protesting their innocence in what was seen as prejudicial attacks on supporters.
The actions of the Italians were backed by a Tory-led government who had done nothing to endear themselves to an already alienated middle and lower-class society.
It was only Germany, then, that stood between England and a first appearance in a World Cup final since lifting the trophy in 1966.
The Germans were favourites, though, and led by former World Cup winner Franz Beckenbauer, were expected to lift the trophy.
However, England had other ideas and re-invigorated by their run to the latter stages, were ready to give as good as they got.
Robson’s team largely dominated the first period; looking every inch a match for the Germans. Led by the slaloming runs of Gascoigne – who had become one of the players of the tournament – this was a match that looked finely balanced until a cruel blow on the hour mark.
Andreas Brehme’s deflected free-kick looped over Shilton and put Germany in a commanding position.
England’s impeccable sense of timing was to strike again, though, and the predatory instincts of Lineker once more proved invaluable as he struck a left-foot shot into the bottom corner just 10 minutes from time.
Unsurprisingly the Germans looked the stronger in extra time (given England had required 30 minutes longer in each of their previous knock-out matches) and Shilton denied Klinsmann among others with some agile goalkeeping.
Gascoigne, desperate to make a favourable impression in the match, lost control of the ball in the midst of another trademark run and lunged in for a tackle.
In one of the tournament’s endearing images, the England number 19 welled-up and appeared inconsolable as he received a yellow card – his second of the competition – meaning he would miss the final if England were to make it.
And they almost did.
Just minutes from the end of extra time, the ball fell into the path of Waddle whose left-foot shot from the edge of the box looked like it had been struck to perfection.
The ball rocketed against the base of the post and came out.
It was to be penalties.
The Germans held their nerve, converting all four of their kicks.
First Pearce, then Waddle – who could of easily been England’s hero – missed.
England were out.
The emotion was too much for Gascoigne who wept uncontrollably as he applauded the travelling England support before exiting the pitch; this is what it had meant.
England were to lose their third-place match without Gascoigne against the hosts Italy, 2-1, in a match that nobody ever mentions.
Probably because it distorts from the narrative.
The narrative that this brave, dogged, determined and unfancied England team had become perilously close to a second World Cup final appearance.
At a time when national spirits were low, football fans were brandished as thugs and the national team were portrayed by the press as a joke, the emotional roller-coaster journey to the semi-final had restored pride, belief and a sense of well-being for the English public.
England might have only won one game in 90 minutes during Italia ’90 but it was how they made it to the semi-finals and the circumstances that surrounded their participation that makes it so memorable.
Following the conclusion of this blog post I have since discovered a couple of related articles that could also be worth your time.
Which, I’m guessing you have if you made it this far down the page.