How the 1990s saved English football

Paul Gascoigne Italia 90
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“Italian football was huge back then,” Richardson has noted. “We’d just had a World Cup in Italy and it really captured the imagination. This was football in many of the same locations, a lot of the same stadiums. It was also a league which featured three members of that English team [Gascoigne, David Platt and Des Walker]. For anyone who enjoyed Italia 90 it was almost like a spin-off series.”

Indeed, Serie A’s 1992/93 season had some big names, and not just in the traditional Italian stronghold of defence. Milan had the Dutch trio of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard; Ruben Sosa banged in 20 for city rivals Inter; Juventus alone could choose between Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Baggio, Paolo Di Canio, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Pierluigi Casiraghi up front; also among the goals that season were Gabriel Batistuta, Jean-Pierre Papin, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Mancini. 

These stars were paraded in the live Football Italia match in the Sunday afternoon slot suddenly vacated by the top flight’s commercial exile to the extraterrestrial; the Skyless audience who had grown accustomed to nearly a decade’s live Sunday service simply switched to Serie A. It helped when the first live game, between Sampdoria and Lazio, ended 3-3. 

Football Italia soon had more than three million viewers, for whom Channel 4 had paid around 50p each; meanwhile, some Premier League matches on Sky – who had paid £304m for a five-year contract – struggled to attract as many as 400,000. (As broadcasters have found recently, the appetite for live football is far from insatiable. A few years into the new millennium, an ITV Digital game between Nottingham Forest and Bradford attracted just over 1,000 Thursday-night viewers.)

“The show was something of an anomaly at the time, a novelty to have a foreign league broadcast on British TV,” Richardson says. “It seemed exotic and I guess there was a real glamour compared to a lot of football people had been watching. For a lot of young and impressionable people, myself included, there was a romance to it. Everything seemed better back in the ’90s.”

Bants and Britpop

As the decade progressed and football became more popular, it found other niches in the television schedule. From 1991 to 1994, BBC Two’s ‘yoof’ producer, Janet Street-Porter, sanctioned four series of Standing Room Only – an entertaining attempt to make a TV fanzine. Touring the country’s grounds, its Supporterloo mobile studio gave fans a chance to vent opinions to camera. Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell produced a comic strip, Rory Bremner added voices, and David Baddiel and Rob Newman contributed comedy.

Chelsea supporter Baddiel then joined up with West Brom fan Frank Skinner for Fantasy Football League. Perfectly timed to surf across the mid-decade zeitgeist of Britpop, Loaded and laddism, the show oozed affectionate self-mockery – did anybody really care which manager’s fantasy team won? – while providing perfect post-pub entertainment.

In time for Euro 96, the hosts wrote and recorded vocals for a joint single with The Lightning Seeds. In contrast to every previous ‘football song’, the lyrics to Three Lions managed to strike the perfect balance between head-hung despair and misty-eyed optimism that generally characterises the fans’ experience. No wonder it went to No.1, and did so again two years later ahead of the 1998 World Cup, with updated lyrics reflecting England’s latest near-miss.

Euro 96 was peak ’90s. Soundtracked by Britpop and a sociologically neat foreshadow of the impending New Labour revolution – high hopes of happier times, and eventual ennui or anger at things ending up the same as they always do. And with Scotland drawn in the same group, it also prompted England fans to start waving the George Cross rather than the Union Jack, a faltering first step along the road to a separate English identity and, arguably, the UK’s dissolution. Tony Blair’s 1997 manifesto included pledged referendums on a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and the 1999 Good Friday Agreement created several institutions bridging the north and south of Ireland. 

Back on the pitch, though, football was coming home. Redeveloped stadiums were buffed and polished, the flags fluttered expectantly and England played a blinder by demolishing the Dutch and battling past Spain, with Stuart Pearce enjoying the personal exorcism of his penalty demons at Italia 90 before reprising the ‘heroic losers’ routine from six years earlier.

In truth it was not the greatest of tournaments – the attendances were iffy everywhere but Wembley and the goal rate was low – but Euro 96 felt like a football party with Britpop banging on the stereo. It might sound trite, but it’s rather fun to stage an international tournament – it’s probably a sign of just how much the FA is despised around the world that despite the Premier League riches helping to build arguably the finest collection of stadiums on the planet, England have only been allowed to host one major tournament in half a century.