How the 1990s saved English football

Paul Gascoigne Italia 90

In the 1980s, football was at an all-time low – but Gazza's tears helped to usher in an era that saw the game return to its place at the heart of British popular culture. Gary Parkinson remembers the renaissance...

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The word was coined in 1668 as a medical diagnosis, combining the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (ache or pain: see also neuralgia, ‘nerve-pain’). The neologiser was scholar Johannes Hofer, describing the homesickness of far-flung Swiss soldiers pining for the Alps. 

Since then nostalgia has gone from being a treatable condition to a heritage industry, a lucrative revisiting not of place but time: “Remember when this happened?”. Sufferers are indulged but also mocked for living in the past, seen as Luddite heretics railing against the mantra of progress. Why live in the past when the future is inevitable?

One popular Golden Age theory has it that humankind is always pining for an era around 25 years ago. This neatly fits the average generation gap: as parents explain their experience to children, the new breed is permeated with a schismatic attitude which veers between hopeless romanticism and destructive iconoclasm. 

History’s rarely neat, but the great dividing point seems clearer in football than elsewhere. Old Football gave way to Modern Football in the summer of 1992, with the simultaneous inauguration of the Premier League, rebranding of the Champions League and prohibition of the backpass.

The accelerated changes since then haven’t all been for the better, however. Although only an obstreperous few would argue that the world’s finest players should not earn well during their short careers, the trickle-down economics of post-Bosman wage structures have meant that football now devours a vast amount of money from its fans, via tickets, merchandise or pay TV.

Alongside the resentment is an understandable distaste for the idea that records began in 1992, a data-driven selective memory which at the same time legitimises the questionable founding motives of the Premier League and eradicates all that went before.

These and other problems lead to the catch-all complaint known as #AgainstModernFootball, an umbrella for the usual variety of worried citizens, reactionaries and young fogeys. In several cases, they’ve got a point. But as usual, the case is overstated when oversimplified and transmuted into its natural corollary: If Now Is Bad, Then Must Have Been Better. As New York Times writer Carl Wilson puts it: “Nostalgia tends to neuter critique”. Thus we find the 1990s reductively blamed for everything wrong with the modern world, by digital natives who were not around to witness what went before.

Nobody who attended games in the 1980s could sanely wish to turn back the clock and regularly experience it all again. Yes, the changes wrought by the ’90s were commercial but they were also cultural and social, while creating big advances in communication, entertainment, quality, availability, accountability and choice. The decade accelerated our sport from a despised primitive minority concern to this planet's finest lesire pursuit.  

What follows, then, is not a denigration of what went wrong, rather a celebration, and an explanation of how and why the ’90s made the game we love so much better than it used to be. And for that, we need to go back to the late-80s to see how bad it had become.

Unacceptable in the '80s

You are scum. You are assumed to be a criminal, if not in deed then in intent. You are herded, like cattle to the slaughter, from heavily policed railway stations to crumbling, uncovered terraces or ancient stands in which you are hemmed in by lethal fences.

Socially, your hobby makes you a pariah. Most people do not recognise football as a suitable topic for conversation, knowing it mostly from the scare headlines about hooliganism, and ignorance breeds contempt. Revealing your inclination unlocks a series of assumptions about your background and personality.

It might sound exaggerated but this is how football fans were perceived. In 1985 – the year of Heysel, the Bradford disaster, the Luton-Millwall riot, of English teams being banned from European competition – The Times described the game as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums and increasingly watched by slum people”. And this wasn’t an unusual opinion; many would merely alter “slum” to “scum”.

As the economic hardships of the ’80s continued to bite, the football fan became a lightning rod for societal ills. 1985 was also the year of riots away from football stadiums – in Brixton, Toxteth, Peckham and Broadwater Farm. But somehow it was all football’s fault. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hauled various dignitaries to a No.10 crisis summit after Heysel, she asked what football was going to do about its hooligans. Football Association chief Ted Croker dared to challenge the Iron Lady: “These people are society’s problems – we don’t want your hooligans in our sport, Prime Minister.” Croker became the first FA secretary in a century not to be knighted.

The assumption that football supporters were hooligans-in-waiting became ingrained. The Thatcher government’s attempts to introduce compulsory ID cards were only shelved after the outcry following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

The resultant Taylor Report ended the medieval conditions inside the grounds but, just as importantly, British society acknowledged it had been treating a subculture as an underclass. Having had its ultimate low, it was time for football to start looking up.

Around the same time, incidences of hooliganism waned sharply – particularly at matches. Those in search of combat thrills might still meet up for a tear-up, but it tended to happen away from the ground and away from the public gaze, which was just fine by the real fans. To the amazement of amateur sociologists, it turned out a generous proportion of the ‘hooligans’ were simply bored middle-class blokes emasculated by their office jobs. Strange how they never mentioned it at cocktail parties...

Meanwhile, a small but still influential number of supporters on the terraces were having their brain chemistry changed by a popular new street drug: it’s difficult to kick off a riot when you’re mellowed out by Ecstasy. Following the Second Summer of Love in 1988 and the rise of Madchester in 1989, New Order had wanted to call England’s official Italia 90 single E for England. The FA were not that naive, but World in Motion – widely lauded as the best football single ever – still contained some none-too-subtle references in “one on one”, while the words in the chorus (“Love’s got the world in motion and I know what we can do”) were hardly the stuff of Chopper Harris and Norman Hunter.

While it would be patent nonsense to claim that every football fan was suddenly necking MDMA like Smarties, the love drug’s growing popularity certainly helped chill the vibe. Herbal aromas often wafted over tightly-packed terraces. And hooliganism ebbed away.

In 1991, police predicted horror when Manchester United reached the Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam – but the tens of thousands of Mancunian followers of Bryan Robson and Shaun Ryder threw parties rather than punches.  Similarly, trouble had been expected at Italia 90, especially when England were drawn with the Dutch, Irish and Egyptians on the island of Sardinia. 

But instead of testosterone, the headline-making display of male emotion came when the team’s young star, Paul Gascoigne, cried on the pitch during the semi-final against West Germany, after an overenthusiastic challenge brought a yellow card that would rule him out of the final. It broke millions of English fans’ hearts, just as surely as the penalty shootout defeat that soon followed.

As the final credits rolled, the BBC’s theme music – Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma – suddenly seemed entirely fitting for what had immediately gone before: a properly operatic tragedy, with the hero’s demise stemming from a fatal character flaw. In such circumstances, the aria’s thrice-repeated climactic word “Vincero” – “I will win” – only heightened the emotion.

Whatever their working knowledge of Italian, the wider English public fell hard for Gazza, and by extension for football. As The Guardian’s John Mulholland put it in 1994, “Gazza cried. The nation wiped away his tears and the media floodgates opened. Since then, coverage of football has seeped into previously unchartered territory: into the upscale literary magazines Granta and The London Review of Books; The Manageress has scored on television; thousands have enjoyed their Evening with Gary Lineker [a play based on the World Cup semi-final]; and tonight Opera North unveil their new soccer opera, Playing Away. The media deluge has been awesome.”

For Lineker, it “was a seminal moment”. “Lots of different kinds of people got interested in football, all different classes of people. It had a significant effect on the growth of football.”

Suddenly, we were no longer scum.

Here comes Johnny Foreigner

The ways in which the ’90s dragged football up from its nadir are many and various, but let’s start in the middle of everything: on the pitch. Anyone who thinks English football did not improve in the final decade of the last millennium needs their bumps felt.

The idea appeared to be that foreigners weren’t to be trusted to make their way through a muddy winter: the Wet Wednesday Night in Stoke is not a new concept

Again, the comparison is with the late-80s. Banned from Europe and shunned by most compatriots, English football became insular. First Division clubs winning six consecutive European Cups around the turn of the decade hadn’t helped to dispel the notion that the denizens of Albion had nothing to learn from across the water.

As a result, overseas footballers – excluding the Irish – continued to be a rare species. Those who had been here were sporadic and exotic outliers like Newcastle’s Chilean siblings, “George” and “Ted” Robledo, broken-necked Bert Trautmann, Ossie and Ricky at White Hart Lane or erratic Villa winger Didier Six. The idea appeared to be that foreigners weren’t to be trusted to make their way through a muddy winter: the Wet Wednesday Night in Stoke is not a new concept.

There were some imports in the English game as the ’90s dawned, though they were few and far between. As an indicative example, the Arsenal 1989/90 squad contained just the one player born outside the British Isles – Icelandic bit-parter Siggi Jonsson, who’d spent five years at Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday before moving to Highbury. Few Gooners were complaining: George Graham’s well-drilled yeomen had won the 1989 title in rather exciting fashion. But fewer still pined for those times after a decade of Arsene Wenger, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. It was, safe to say, a bit better.

It wasn’t only Arsenal who benefited: just about every team decided that maybe we could learn something from Johnny Foreigner, and he was largely welcomed. Even the most zealous of xenophobes couldn’t carp when his side was immeasurably improved by a Gianfranco Zola, Georgi Kinkladze, Eric Cantona or Juninho. By the midway point of the decade, Champions League-winning strikers were joining clubs such as Middlesbrough, which is a bit like Watford bringing in Karim Benzema from Real Madrid.

Increasingly, the appreciation wasn’t merely parochial. The vast majority of the general public acknowledged that world-class players might be worth watching and incorporating. Drawing genuine admiration from around the ground, players like Ruud Gullit would be applauded off away pitches; even during the bitterest of derbies, fans at Old Trafford found themselves applauding the spectacular bicycle-kick attempted by some Leeds player called Cantona.  

And increasingly these brothers from another culture encouraged our previously close-minded coaches to adopt new tactics: split strikers, trequartistas, ball-playing centre-backs, formations outside the standard 4-4-2. The game was evolving before our very eyes, especially with the backpass abolition making the game much more free-flowing.