90: New-look England embrace the future

If Gary Lineker wasn’t so greedy, England might never have entranced us at Italia 90. Stuart Pearce was England’s official penalty taker but a few weeks before the 1990 World Cup Lineker asked England manager Bobby Robson: “Would you mind if I took the penalties?”

Talking to a BBC documentary crew in 2005, Robson recalled: “I quite liked the fact that Gary wanted to take the responsibility.” Lineker, the Golden Boot winner in 1986, told Robson: “Well, I could win the Golden Boot. I might score a few goals in general play and if I get one or two penalties, it just might boost my earnings.”

Amused and impressed, Robson asked Pearce to step aside. If Lineker hadn’t scored from the spot twice late on against Cameroon, Paul Gascoigne might never have wept in Turin.

Q&A: Lineker – "I thought 'B*ll*cks, I can't bottle it now'"

The absence of those extraordinarily influential tears could have had all kinds of repercussions, aborting the Premier League, isolating English football tactically and allowing the Conservative government to keep English clubs out of Europe for a while longer.

English football in general – and Gazza in particular – have, as the player himself once quipped, “made more money from tears than Ken Dodd.”

With players as good as Lineker, Gascoigne, John Barnes, Chris Waddle, Terry Butcher and Peter Shilton in the squad, England had more genuinely world-class players than at any time since 1966. Even so, as England flew to Cagliari, expectations were low. Among the favourites were hosts Italy, European champions Holland and near-permanent finalists West Germany.

England’s precarious prospects had persuaded the FA to warn Robson his contract would not be renewed after the World Cup. Robson set up his next job – coaching PSV – but was vilified as an adulterer, a traitor and a tactical ignoramus in what football writer Dave Hill called “the most sustained campaign of press humiliation the national game has ever seen”.

Luckily, says Lineker, Robson was impervious to pressure: “The press would try to get pictures of him looking at the floor, make it seem like he was despairing. But he honestly never was. He was very thick-skinned and always optimistic.”

Know your enemy: Robson meets the press

There weren’t many surprises in Robson’s 22. Tony Adams mysteriously made way for Mark Wright, even though the Derby defender carried a thigh injury. Attacking midfielder David Rocastle, whose skill, speed and smoothness had shone in five qualifiers, lost out to Trevor Steven, an excellent player with more prosaic skills.

Stevens’ inclusion would create a great pub quiz question: which club supplied the most players to England’s 1990 World Cup squad? The answer is Glasgow Rangers, whose quartet of England stars consisted of Steven, Terry Butcher, Gary Stevens and Chris Woods.

Robson had privately decided to select Paul Gascoigne after watching him demolish Swindon Town in the fifth round of the 1988 FA Cup. The tabloids had demanded Gazza’s inclusion but, even in April 1990 when England faced Czechoslovakia in a friendly, Robson harboured doubts about a 23-year-old midfielder who could be “daft as a f*cking brush”. After 10 minutes of manically stupid football, Gazza had a hand in three goals and, with Robson about to substitute him, scored with a Maradonaesque solo as England won 4-2.

“Everyone thought Gazza was good for the squad,” Gary Lineker told FourFourTwo. “He had to play and he was such a character – hyperactive and very funny – he played an enormous part in the team spirit.”

In the weeks ahead, Gazza would dive into a swimming pool while covered in toilet paper, invent bizarre table tennis strokes (he was especially proud of the double backhand) and give his long suffering roommate Chris Waddle a cappuccino made out of bath foam. No wonder Robson was always asking: “Where’s Gazza?”

Vice-captain Terry Butcher, who once wore a blazer and jockstrap to dinner, even outdid Gazza. The vital role of the squad bookies was taken by ‘Honest Links and Shilts’ while the song players usually warbled was not the slick World Cup theme World In Motion but the catchy, primitive: “Let’s all have a disco, la la la la.”

THE GROUP OF DEATHLY BOREDOMHaving humiliated England at Euro 88, Holland and the Republic of Ireland again stood in England’s way in a Group F also containing Egypt. That humiliation continued on June 11 1990 in Cagliari’s rain-swept Stadio Sant’Elia when England drew 1-1 with Ireland in a match so dire Gazzetta Dello Sport headlined their report: “No football please, we’re British.o” Even some England players were appalled. As Waddle told Pete Davies (author of All Played Out, the best book on Italia 90): “I never dreamt I’d end up on my own 18-yard line, chesting it down and hoofing it upfield.”

"This isn't what I signed up for..."

Lineker put England ahead with opportunistic efficiency. Unfortunately, Steve McMahon gave the ball away to Kevin Sheedy. The Everton player may have had, as Roddy Doyle put it, a “mammy’s boy haircut”, but still slammed the ball past Peter Shilton to score Ireland’s first goal at the World Cup finals. The most entertaining moment was Gazza nearly punching Irish right-back Chris Morris before deciding to hug him.

Group F was shaping up as the Group of Terminal Boredom. Holland had been so shiftless in their 1-1 with Egypt that coach Leo Beenhakker, retreating to a locker room with the Dutch squad to avoid a lightning storm, berated his players, telling them to forget Euro 88 and focus on the task in hand. That task was England. But before the teams met, Robson would authorise a tactical revolution that signalled the end of English football’s isolationism.

The spark for England’s revolution was Robson’s determination to thwart the Dutch strikers. “I’d got it wrong against the Dutch in 1988 when we lost 3-1,” he told FFT, “when I had two against two against Van Basten and Gullit. Then I decided I’d play with a sweeper to cover myself against the Dutch and the Germans.” Even before the tournament started, Butcher feared for his place: “I didn’t think I’d fit into the sweeper system Robson had in mind.”

“You might say Robson’s insecurity won out over his conservatism,” says Pete Davies, "and made him play the extra safety card against his own professed beliefs.” The players wanted to discard 4-4-2 for 3-5-2 too, using Mark Wright as a sweeper. Waddle and John Barnes believed Robson’s 4-4-2 was conservative and constricting. They rehearsed their arguments in Waddle’s room, while Gazza, fingers in his ears, chanted “La la la” in protest at all this tactical talk.

Despite strong rumours to the contrary, there was no great players’ revolt. Using a sweeper was mooted, discussed and debated until Robson, after mulling it over with assistant Don Howe, reversed his previous opposition to the idea. It was a hell of a gamble during a World Cup and Robson would later revert to 4-4-2 when necessary.

"Right then, let's try something different..."

With Wright as sweeper, England played with adventure and flair and should have beaten Holland. England were so comfortable that Gazza even ran up to Ruud Gullit to ask him how much he earned at Milan and were only denied a late victory when Pearce’s indirect free-kick flew straight in, despite Hans van Breukelen attempting to save it.

Yet Robson came to believe that the promising 0-0 was the match that fatally compromised England’s World Cup hopes. At half-time, skipper Bryan Robson’s injured Achilles tendon was agonising. After 65 minutes, he came off and David Platt rushed on to mark Gullit, thinking: “F*cking hell, I ain’t leaving him for a second.”

The skipper’s faith healer, Olga Stringfellow, flew out but the tendon proved immune to miracle cures. England’s captain was out, for the second World Cup in a row. His manager was still bitter 15 years later: “We had to send our best player home injured. Argentina and West Germany played with their best player, we didn’t. Would Argentina have won in 1986 without Maradona? Certainly not.

"Robson would have made a difference, even though Platt played superbly. The way Gascoigne was at that time – a precocious, highly-talented, inflammable kid with great ability – would have worked well with Robson's steadiness and captaincy.”

Over and out: Robbo makes his final World Cup bow

Before the last round of games, all four teams in Group F had the same record – Played 2 Won 0 Drawn 2 Lost 0 For 1 Against 1 – raising the distinct possibility that England’s fate might have to be decided in FIFA’s glass bowls.

But Egypt manager El-Gohary played for a draw, hoping the Dutch would beat the Irish and his side would qualify in third place. Two Egyptians were booked for time-wasting but Mark Wright headed home a Gazza free-kick to score his only goal for England. When he finally realised his side were out, Egyptian keeper Ahmed Shobair became so hysterical that he needed medical attention.

IT'S A KNOCK-OUT: HERE COME THE BELGIANSNext up were Belgium in Bologna. The favourites were still West West Germany, Holland (the suspicion being that such a gifted side couldn’t be that rubbish forever) and Italy – but as England left Sardinia, Gazza whispered to Waddle: “You know Waddler, we could win this.”

England were fluent enough to look like potential world champions against Belgium – and so were the opposition. The sweeper system looked unduly cautious against a side that played most of the match with one striker, but the shape suited England. Barnes had a goal dubiously disallowed for offside, while Belgian’s great attacking midfielder Enzo Scifo, the game’s most creative influence, hit the post. Gascoigne was booked, for a late tackle on Scifo. Nobody thought much of it at the time.

"No more of that, young man, or there'll be tears!"

With 118 minutes gone, Eric Gerets brought Gazza down. On the touchline, Robson was shouting himself hoarse: “I knew time was edging out and I remember getting to the touchline and shouting to make sure my voice would get to Gascoigne about 40 yards away. I shouted ‘Ball, Gazza!e’ and he kinda looked and I said, ‘Put the ball into the box’.

“He was just going to nudge it to the side. With a minute to go the only way we could score was not to play that square pass. Gazza floated it and Belgium couldn’t defend, the ball was too good and Platt’s volley too superb. He swivelled and it came over his shoulder, a difficult skill, but Platty did it – wonderful timing, kept his eye on the ball, let it come over his shoulder, swivelled and hit it at the right height. Six inches higher and it goes over the bar.”

Platt had also screamed at Gazza to put the ball in the box, before drifting into space on the defender’s goalside. “All I could think about was making decent contact and directing it goalwards," he told FFT. "I didn’t pick a spot, I just wanted to get it on target. The ball caught the keeper more by surprise than anything.”

...cue pandemonium

England were in the last eight against Cameroon. The Three Lions or the Indomitable Lions would face West Germany, who had beaten the Dutch and the Czechs. Coach Franz Beckenbauer now felt that only Italy posed a serious threat to his country’s third World Cup.

As England’s quarter-final kicked off in Naples, the German squad sat down to watch in their hotel in Erba, north of Milan. Beckenbauer was angry, incensed by the Germans’ mistakes against the Czechs. His mood worsened as his players cheered on Cameroon.

“Do you really prefer to play Cameroon in the semis?," shouted Beckenbaeur. "What if we have a bad day and go out? We’ll be the world’s laughing stock! Those Africans are unpredictable, with England you know what youe’re going to get. And if we lose to them, well, that won’t be the end of the world.”

England were fazed by Cameroon’s unpredictability. Things had started to go awry in the tunnel. “It was a long way from the dressing room to the tunnel in Naples,” Butcher recalled. “And all we could hear was singing. It was the Cameroon team waiting for us, singing reggae songs. Bobby thought it was a psychological ploy and said, ‘Right, come on lads, sing your World Cup song’, but somehow we didn’t get it together.”

During the national anthems, Platt noticed that Cameroon “seemed built for boxing rather than football”. Yet England had been assured this tie was effectively a bye to the semis. As Lineker told FFT: “Howard Wilkinson, who scouted them for us, said: ‘I shouldn’t be telling you this, but they’ve got four good players out and you’ll beat them easily.’” The England No.10’s bruised toe had prevented him training fully but before the game Robson shouted: “Forget about your bloody toe, just go out and score.”

Wilkinson’s prediction seemed accurate when Platt headed home Pearce’s perfect cross. But Cameroon were, Lineker said, “awesome going forward”. England’s confusion was exemplified by Gascoigne who, Robson said, was “chasing after the ball like a cat chasing a ball around the back garden”. At half-time, Robson told Gazza: “You can’t play like that in international football unless you want to be destroyed.”

Gazza gets (over-)involved

The manager considered substituting Gazza but kept him on. He must have regretted it when Gascoigne felled Roger Milla in the box and Cameroon equalised from the spot. Four minutes later, with England in shock, the Lions went 2-1 up when Eugene Ekeke lifted the ball over Shilton after a crafty give and get with Milla.

Robson discarded the sweeper, withdrawing Terry Butcher and bringing on Trevor Steven to attack down the right, subtly changing the balance of play. Even so, Platt admitted: “With eight minutes left I honestly thought we were going out.” Then Lineker ran onto a ball from Wright and was clattered, winning England’s first penalty since February 1986.

Platt, the penalty taker at Aston Villa, offered to take it but quickly stood down: “I could see the focus in Gary’s face and wasn’t surprised when he said no.” Lineker made no mistake. He was, as Robson quaintly put it, “a competent boy”.

Though England were reeling in extra time – Wright literally so, blood pouring from his head after a clash with Milla – Lineker underlined his cool competence in the 105th minute. Gazza redeemed himself with a precisely engineered pass that put his Spurs team-mate through on goal. Brought down by keeper Thomas N’Kono, the England No.10 blasted the second spot-kick straight down the middle and into the net.

After the game, Robson asked Lineker what he’d been thinking before that decisive penalty. “My brother flashed through my brain as I put the ball on the spot,” Lineker replied. “I thought if I score this one my brother will come and see the semi-final. The FA had said 'If you get to the semi-final, we’ll bring the families out'.”

"Dear bruv, wish you were here, love Gary"

The ordeal had exhausted England. Lineker had lost half a stone in the Neapolitan heat. As the players trooped off, Waddle said to Robson: “Some f*cking bye”.

"WE BLOODY BEAT THEM"West Germany beckoned in Turin’s Stadio dello Alpi on July 4. Beckenbauer felt England would be fast, strong and honest but technically imperfect and predictable. But he respected their resilience and was troubled by Gazza, whom he described as “smart, defiant and bold, like the leader of a children’s gang. Behind his angular forehead, he could cook up ideas you didn’t expect.”

The pressure was on West Germany. Platt felt this did England no favours: “It was the first game we were clear underdogs, which some say helped us play with freedom, but if I could turn back the clock I’d put the pressure right back on us.” England, Platt said, “thought we could win; the Germans thought they would win”.

The camp was euphoric as the semi-final approached. Butcher was wearing clothes back to front and eating meals in reverse order. Before Robson’s team talk, Lineker wrote a phrase on a flip-pad. The squad listened intently to catch the moment when Robson uttered the immortal words. After two minutes of extolling West Germany’s strengths, Robson, as Lineker had predicted, said “We beat them in the bloody war though,” and the players burst into laughter.

Robson had instilled in Gazza the importance of neutralising German playmaker Lothar Matthaus. Having said “No problem boss, just leave it to me,” Gascoigne nutmegged Matthaus just to show him who was boss.

Enter the gladiators...

Robson had ordered England to – as Bryan Robson would say – “welly into this lot” and not let the Germans settle. For 45 minutes, they did just that and more, playing brilliantly, but not scoring. At half-time, Beckenbauer told West Germany to run the ball at England’s defence. The tactic paid off after an hour when Andreas Brehme’s free-kick deflected off Paul Parker’s backside and looped over Shilton.

“It was just unlucky,” said Robson, “the ball had a vicious swirl on it. There was only an 18-inch gap between Shilton’s hand and the bar – and that’s where the ball spun in”. But England were resilient. In the 80th minute, when Parker’s cross confused Jurgen Kohler, Lineker juggled the ball to the left with his thigh and shot low into the left corner: a sublime, efficient, opportunist strike worthy of Gerd Muller.

In extra time, Waddle and Guido Buchwald hit the post. After three rolls by Brehme and orchestrated indignation from the German bench, Gazza was booked and would miss the final. The iconic tears in Turin flowed. Lineker pointed at his temple to tell Robson Gazza had lost it. Robson shouted back: “You talk to him, make sure he doesn’t do anything daft.” Gascoigne gradually regained his composure. But at 1-1 after 120 minutes, penalties loomed.

Robson put Gazza down as penalty taker No.6. “I doubt if he could have taken one,” he said. “He was distraught. He broke down on the pitch while they were being taken.”

"Gazza – watch Pearcey and learn"

Gazza was spared. West Germany scored four penalties, but Pearce and Waddle failed. Pearce’s was on target, saved by Bodo Illgner. Waddle remembered feeling as if he “were stepping off the edge of the world into silence” before his penalty soared over the bar.

Robson felt bereaved afterwards: “It was very difficult just to walk around and be yourself.” Waddle was physically, spiritually and emotionally flattened. Gascoigne and Lineker still looked in tears as they slipped onto the bus. Somebody – possibly Steve McMahon or Gazza – started a song. Lineker looked away at first but before long they all joined in, even doing a routine with their arms as the bus drove off.

England’s melodramatic heroics in Italy had unexpected repercussions. The team’s popularity – over 200,000 turned up at Luton Airport to see Gazza don fake breasts – persuaded sports minister Colin Moynihan he couldn't really object to UEFA’s plan to lift the ban on English clubs in Europe, in place since Heysel in 1985.

By renewing the nation’s jaded passion for football, England’s success laid the foundations for the Premier League. The British middle class’s rediscovery of football became official when Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch became a bestseller in 1992.

Ironically, the one aspect of English football that wasn’t transformed after Italia 90 was the national team. Gascoigne and Platt enjoyed lucrative moves but Graham Taylor dismantled the team and the continental sophistication of the sweeper system was replaced, with stupefying rapidity, with a style of football exemplified by the question: “Can we not knock it?” 

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