REVIEWED BY DEREK BELL – @derek2bell
My battered old 1991 paperback edition of this is subtitled ‘The full story of Italia ‘90’ with the blurb on the back headlined ‘The Story of England In The 1990 World Cup’. The cover features the iconic blurred picture of Gascoigne lifting his shirt to his face. Later editions have seen the title changed to One Night In Turin with a now unblurred picture of Gascoigne and the lengthier subtitle of ‘The Inside Story Of A World Cup That Changed Our Footballing Nation Forever’. That in itself is a sign of how things changed in the intervening 20 plus years.
Needless to say the original cover and title seem more fitting to the mood of the time and what Davies describes – blurred vision and all played out. Davies’ book seemed as though it had beamed in from another time – walk into any bookshop in the late 80s, head to the football section and you would most likely face a line of official histories and ghost written biographies, nothing that spoke about the game we loved. Football was the national pariah, you didn’t discuss it in polite company and if you attended games you were viewed with disdain. The fanzine movement was becoming football’s punk and gradually starting to impact elsewhere – in 1989 Dave Hill’s ‘Out Of His Skin’ appeared like a footballing equivalent of Never Mind The Bollocks and Davies was to follow in 1990 with this (a full two years before Nick Hornby discovered he could mine his childhood memories for the vastly overrated ‘Fever Pitch’). Even the publishers seemed unsure how to sell it – was it the story of Italia ’90 or was it the story of England in the ’90 World Cup?
The answer is it is both of those and yet something more. This isn’t a blow-by-blow diary of every game played; it isn’t even a blow by blow diary of every England game. It’s almost 140 pages in before you get to the opening game. If you want to know who scored every goal, how every game panned out, who the stars across the tournament were this isn’t the book for you. Re-reading today it strikes me even more than at the time that this is as close to a state of the nation, state of the national game social history played out on the streets of Sardinia and later mainland Italy as it is about Italia ‘90. It’s not even only that it’s about Italy, about the preparation for the tournament, about the global game and the real arrival of Africa as a continent in the highest stages. Davies may have got lucky reporting at a time the game appeared to be on its knees at a tournament that captured the imagination despite, rather than because, of the quality. A game on the cusp. And then there was Gazza, Nessun Dorma and the Germans winning on penalties.
It’s hard to imagine a book like ‘All Played Out’ appearing again, Davies seems to have unlimited access to virtually anyone and everyone he speaks to and does so without hiding behind PR management and sponsors statements. Through the latter stages of the qualification process and the pre-tournament friendlies, the access Davies has to the players and manager are hard to believe in modern terms. He gets taxis out to the complex in Sardinia and just hangs around talking to players – imagine Capello allowing that in Rustenberg. Even more surprising is that the majority of players seem more than happy to talk to him about anything – Terry Butcher and Chris Waddle give him plenty of time, and many of the others talk to him usually with Gascoigne the hyperactive kid in the background interrupting, annoying but very clearly being loved by everyone. There are some who maintain a mistrust of journalists and the press, usually because Brian Clough has told them to.
The openness of the conversations immediately make the players more likeable – they are happy to discuss tactics, team selections, the tedium of being away from home for weeks on end. They also understand the hypocrisy of some of their deep hatred of the press whilst being happy to take the shilling for the ghost written piece. I suspect those he spoke to said one thing more interesting in one sentence to Davies than all those columns would if they were laid end to end. Extraordinarily, none of this leaks to the mainstream press. Not only the players though, Bobby Robson is happy to discuss anything with Davies and you see the side of him not so normally presented. This isn’t always affable, bumbling Uncle Bobby – he curses, he rants, he complains about the press and he is passionate.
More than this though Davies travels with fans, lives with fans and talks to fans. No high class press junket and top hotel for him. The much maligned football fan and in particular the much maligned England fan – with some justification it has to be said at that time. This was before brass bands and three lions on the chest, this is the time when they were viewed as a travelling invading colonial army. For this reason England were dropped on Sardinia and Cagliari, effectively prisoners on an island with a heavy police presence and nothing to do – no fan zones and buses here, just closed bars, hostile police, a press gang egging them on and for some a railway station floor to sleep on. Davies was pretty much the first writer outside the fanzine movement to actually note that much of the provocation came from police, from the press – he acknowledges the idiots, the ones trying to whip up the mob, and has no problem naming them but shows them up for the minority they were. Some distrust him simply because he is a journalist
No book is complete without a bad guy though and Davies has three in particular. The Press, the FA and the Government in the shape of Colin Moynihan the Minister for Sport.
Much as he likes some of the members of the press footballing pack he is contemptuous of their hypocrisy, their behaviour and a lot of what they report (in much the same way they are contemptuous of the ‘rotters’ from the front pages who they fear are ruining their relationship with the players and management). The FA is well represented in Bert Millichip and Dick Wragg who it would be fair to say live up to the stereotypes and beyond. Best of all they are not represented by Chief Executive Graham Kelly (‘a cross between a blancmange and a container ship) who simply has a huge sulk with Davies. Thus confirming the view of any reasonable football fan at the time that the Chief Executive was a pompous buffoon. Moynihan simply trolls around after everyone toeing the Thatcher party line about hooligans and failing to report the other side. All Davies needs to do here is simply report.
Behind all this Davies writes with passion, wit and intelligence. Despite the problems he loves the game; he can be touched by the game – whether it’s Maradona suddenly showing his genius, Roger Milla celebrating or the joy of Gascoigne.
Reading again it is remarkable how much the game has changed, whether this is for the better is for another discussion, and yet at the same time how little of it has changed. Chris Waddle’s tactics talks are little different from his Radio 5 pieces when England get knocked out of a tournament; England have a kindly old duffer in charge who often appears to be bemused about how he got there; the Chief Executive of the FA is a buffoon; the FA is an unmanageable bureaucracy; the press are what they always were – indeed many of the names remain the same; fans are treated with contempt – only now it’s through pricing and corporate packages rather than policing. The main thing that has changed is that players are unlikely to ever be as open with a reporter again or to be as honest (unless they are Roy Keane), now they can speak direct to fans through Twitter and Social Media – although that is already becoming very clearly media managed for most (unless they are Mario Balotelli).
This is without doubt one of the finest books ever written about football and helped to change the face of football writing forever. Walk into that bookshop now and head to the football section and you will still find the official histories and the ghosted biographies but you’ll also find Jonathon Wilson, David Conn and Simon Kuper; you’ll find books on Eastern European Football, South American football and African football. If you can’t be bothered to walk to the bookshop switch on your computer and you find blogs on all aspects of the game full of wit and intelligence – just follow the links from this site.
Much of this owes its existence to Pete Davies and ironically it appears that we were far from being All Played Out.