It was fitting in 2016 that Claudio Ranieri invited opera tenor Andrea Bocelli to sing Nessun Dorma at Leicester City’s title party, here was English footballs ultimate feel good story and for a moment Bocelli transported us back to the scene of English footballs renaissance at Italia 1990.
Pavarotti’s version of the song had been the BBC’s soundtrack to their 1990 World Cup coverage that had started with images of Marco Tardelli’s goal celebration from 8 years previous and ended with Gazza’s tears in Turin.
English Football was in a very dark place in the spring of 1990, it was only one year on from the Hillsborough disaster. Looking back the most shocking thing about that awful day in 1989 was how unshocking it seemed as events unfolded.
In May 1985 a fire at Bradford City’s dilapidated Valley Parade ground had resulted in 56 deaths.
In the same month a decade of hooliganism had climaxed in a deadly charge in at the Heysel Stadium as a result. At Euro ’88 England fans had gone on a rampage through Düsseldorf. Whether it was through hooliganism, decrepit old grounds or incompetent policing it seemed simply attending a football match could put you in mortal danger, the later 2 of these 3 hazards had left 96 people dead that day in Sheffield.
In wider British society this was the era of Pipa Alpha, The Herald of Free Enterprise and British Airtours- large scale disasters were a part of life in late 80s Britain, usually followed by a charity record reaching number one.
But as the hours and days passed it was clear that we were living through footballs darkest hour, that The Sun’s explanation for tragedy was bullshit and this time things needed to change. Hillsborough and the subsequent Taylor Report provided the dark side of the formation of the Premier League in 1992, Italia 90 provided the light.
England didn’t expect
English Football desperately needed a huge injection of cash to rebuild its stadiums in line with the Taylor Report. The problem was doubts had crept in over whether or not Football was still an attractive product. A study in the Daily Telegraph published in May 1990 had found more English teenagers were interested in American Football than Association Football.
The NFL had become a TV hit when Channel 4 started broadcasting it in 1982, by 1989 live games were been shown on a weekly basis, the British amateur game was thriving and NFL merchandise shops had sprung up it every city centre selling everything from keychains to replica helmets. The games were played in huge atmospheric stadiums with passionate fans who rather than get into fisticuffs outside the grounds simply held tailgate parties, superstar players Marino,Montana, Elway and The Refrigerator were now stars on both sides of the Atlantic. We were light years behind and it’s not hard to see where Sky would later look for ideas (where do you think Monday Bight Football came from?)
Back home football was having to share the spotlight with other domestic sports with Athletics and Snooker becoming huge TV events- the 1985 World Snooker final attracted 18.5 million viewers, way more than any football match.
Football made a counter strike in May 1989 when the final game of the season (delayed due to Hillsborough) saw Arsenal travel to Anfield needing a 2 goal win to rest the league title from Liverpool. It was 1-0 to Arsenal in injury time when Michael Thomas latched onto Alan Smith’s through ball and snatched the title- forget Aguerrroooooo! This was the most dramatic title win ever. It seemed there was life in English Football but what of their national team?
England achieved a relative success in reaching the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup, particularly in the light of Bryan Robson’s early exit. But it served to confirm the suspicion that England were a second tier football nation, lacking players of the technique of the best in the world.
The intervening years hadn’t gone particularly well for England. They’d qualified impressively for Euro ’88 and arrived with high hopes. But things went wrong from the start- the first game was against Ireland making their first appearance in a major finals. Ireland were managed by England legend Jack Charlton who’d previously applied for the England managers job in 1977- but didn’t even receive a reply to his letter.
In the sixth minutes of the game a botched clearance in the England penalty area fell to Ray Houghton to nod home 0-1. In the second half England created a hatful of chances but failed to score going down to defeat- Big Jack had exacted his revenge on the FA.
In the second game it was do or die against Holland and England died by a stunning Marco Van Basten hat trick 1-3. England were out and were blown away 1-3 by the USSR in the final game.
It’s hard to believe any England manager since would have survived such a disaster, but the FA stuck by Robson. There were some mitigating factors- key defender Terry Butcher missed the tournament through injury whilst star striker Gary Lineker played despite suffering from hepatitis.
The qualifiers for Italia 90 had been a drab affair, England qualified unbeaten but were only runners up in their group to Sweden and required a nervy 0-0 in Poland to make it. In the dying minutes of that game Poland had struck the England crossbar- that’s how close England came to completely missing out on Italia 90.
But they’d made it and were seeded 6th conveniently giving England matches on the island of Sardinia and keeping their troublesome fans away from the mainland. When the full draw was made England got rematches with their Euro ’88 nemesis Ireland & Holland together with surprise package Egypt- making their first post war Workd Cup.
It was also announced Robson’s contract would not be renewed after the tournament in an acrimonious split with the FA following untrue tabloid stories about his private life. His 8 years in charge of England would end after the World Cup when he would join PSV Eindhoven then a powerhouse of European football. The tabloids reacted with a customary self righteous tone and The Sun ultimately sent England on their way with the encouraging headline ‘WORLD CUP WALLIES- we’ve got no chance.,’ seriously what other nation does that! But Robson was upbeat and with good reason.
National teams as a general rule run in cycles, Robson began England’s in 1982 and quickly moved on from veterans Keegan, Trevor’s Francis & Brooking & Phil Thompson and by Mexico ’86 had established a core of players most of whom were still around in 1990.
In goal England still had Peter Shilton who the previous year had broken the England appearances record. His longstanding understudy and heir apparent was Chris Woods 1 of 4 Rangers’ players in the squad, ’88 Cup Final hero Dave Beasant was the number 3 replacing the injured David Seaman.
In defence Terry Butcher was back from injury and his aerial presence was now complemented by the pace of Notts Forest’s Des Walker. Butcher’s Rangers teammate Gary Stevens was the longstanding right back and powerful Forest left back Stuart Pearce provided an upgrade on Kenny Samson. Robson’s other options were pacey young left back Tony Dorigo, Derby centre half Mark Wright whose passing range meant he could play as a sweeper and QPR’s powerful young right back Paul Parker.
The midfield was still anchored by Bryan Robson although doubts persisted over captain marvels tendency to pick up major injuries. There was Liverpool hard man Steve McMahon who’d replaced Peter Reid and Manchester United playmaker Neil Webb.
On the right wing Chris Waddle was now dribbling past defenders at Marseille having left Spurs for £4.5 million- at the tine the third highest transfer fee ever paid. On the left was footballer of the year John Barnes who remained an enigmatic talent with England. Backing them up were Trevor Steven & Steve Hodge who’d successfully come into the starting 11 midway through Mexico 86.
Upfront ’86 golden boot winner Lineker was back in form having left Barcelona for Tottenham and regular strike partner Peter Beardsley had just won another league title with Liverpool. As an option off the bench Robson surprised many by going for Wolves’ Steve Bull. Bull was a direct forward with a phenomenal goal scoring record in the lower divisions but had never played first division football, winning his first cap from the third tier but scoring on debut and keeping his strike rate going in friendly matches.
But it was two new players who caused the most excitement. The first was Aston Villa’s David Platt. The midfielder had cone to prominence that season scoring 29 goals and picking up the PFA player of the year gong. His box to box style had lead to comparisons with a young Bryan Robson but the 23 old was a risk having only gained 5 caps and coming into the squad in November 1989.
The other was of course Paul Gascoigne. Gazza was a maverick talent, capable of drifting past players in central midfield and taking them outdo the game and less reported a footballing intelligence to see clever passes quicker than most and possessed a deft array of free kick skills. He was also capable of losing the ball in dangerous situations and on pitch self destruction but he was a rare talent. So much so that Alex Ferguson desperately tried to sign him in for Manchester United only to be beaten to the punch by Tottenham with whom he won his first England cap in 1988.
A stunning solo display a year later against Czechoslovakia confirmed him in Robson’s plans, although he initially only wanted to take one of Platt & Gascoigne. He relented and selected both at the expense of David Rocastle, it was as unfortunate for the Arsenal man who’d been a regular starter in qualifying but was left on stand by with Arsenal teammates Tony Adams & Alan Smith.
As England departed Luton Airport the team probably had the words of New Order’s latest single rather than The Sun’s verdict in their heads, they were about to ride a rollercoaster of a tournament.