BY MARK GODFREY
This article first appeared in The Football Pink issue 1 available from Amazon HERE
The summer of 1990 was a great time for me. Probably the best. I had just finished the first year of High School, having a great time with my mates. My hair was full, thick and lustrous; little did I know it would vanish completely before I had a chance to appreciate it fully. The weather was glorious with round-the-clock sunshine and not a rain cloud in sight for weeks on end (rose-tinted nostalgia may be kicking in here).The music during that summer was amazing whether you were a fan of rock, indie, rap or pop as MC Hammer, Happy Mondays, Seal and of course, New Order pumped from our Hi-Fi systems and cassette players. I’d just hit 57 goals for my junior team, one of the best to ever grace the area, going through the entire season unbeaten winning five trophies in the process and to top it all I’d been signed up by Sunderland’s School of Excellence. Life was good. What else could go right? Let me tell you; Italia ’90.
Firstly, at aged 14 and being in Europe, it was the first World Cup that was so extensively televised and at such appropriate times for the UK audience. And how I took advantage of the tidal wave of coverage and analysis; primitive for this technological age, but for 1990 it was revolutionary and almost inescapable. The tournament itself has since been criticised for being too negative and dull with low scoring and ill-discipline. Personally, I don’t want World Cups to be laden with goals and free-flowing football with everyone having a happy-party-time in corporate sponsored fan zones. Keep your carnival atmosphere! I want drama, controversy, red cards, tension and most of all I want iconic moments that I’ll never forget. Italia ’90 had all of those things. For example, on my first trip to the San Siro in Milan the thing I took most photographs of is the part of the pitch where Frank Rijkaard gobbed in Rudi Völler’s hair. As I said, I like iconic moments. So, in the magical (for me at least) summer of 1990, with all its memorable highs, the absolute defining event for millions took place on the evening of July 4th, a Wednesday. It was a school night, long before the days when I was old enough to head down to the pub with the lads to watch the match on the big screen, or pile into someone’s living room with a carrier bag full of cans from the local off-licence.
For those who are old enough to remember, England’s quest for World Cup immortality didn’t just come down to that fateful night in Turin, although the Stadio delle Alpi on the city’s outskirts provided the epic, tumultuous crescendo with which it ended. The story had been building for weeks, if not months. England had underperformed at Euro ’88, which is a bit of an understatement to say the least, and then made harder work than it ought to have been to reach the World Cup finals in Italy. And ever since the abject failure in West Germany at the European Championships, the knives were out for then-England-boss, Bobby Robson. It seems impossible now that a man so revered and respected throughout the football fraternity, the media and supporters of all persuasions could have been placed into such a position of vilification.
If the younger generation or anyone else thinks that Press sensationalism and vicious character assassination is a thing of the internet age, they should think again. Robson was given a prolonged slaughtering in the newspapers on a scale never seen before and rarely seen since. The true measure of the effect this treatment had on Sir Bobby and his affable nature saw him feel it necessary to put the England camp into media lockdown before and during the tournament to protect his staff and players from the poisonous barbs of the bloodthirsty English hacks.
For brevity’s sake I’ll summarise the earlier rounds; England, despite their own apprehension and cautious, often clumsy approach, allied to the negativity from the journalists scrutinising every false step, had somehow made it to the semi-finals and to the very edge of greatness. Robson’s men scraped through the group stage after a dismal stalemate against the Republic of Ireland, a more impressive draw with European champions, Holland, and a nervy win over Egypt. David Platt’s late, late, swivelled winner navigated the Three Lions past Belgium in the first knockout round. They then nearly cocked it all up when faced with snake-hipped pensioner, Roger Milla, and his plucky mates from Cameroon before Gary Lineker’s brace of penalties dug England out of a self-inflicted hole. The upshot of this rollercoaster ride was to be a semi-final against the old enemy (not Scotland, obviously), West Germany. Now, the Germans were an excellent side. They had marched arrogantly like the majestically-mulletted machines they were through the World Cup up to that point. Their squad was packed with quality from numbers 1 to 22, with skipper Lothar Matthäus the absolute standout player of the tournament. There was Klinsmann, Brehme, Riedle, Kohler, Thon and Hässler . This was one of the strongest groups of players ever seen at an international competition, drawn together in their collective prime.
Franz Beckenbauer’s boys lined up in their unfamiliar green away kit, England in their famous white shirts. I always feel that playing against them in the red shirts is a bad omen, showing an insecurity in our national team psyche that betrays the superstition that only the heroes of ’66 are really worthy of toppling them. England started with the 3-5-2 formation that had suddenly become England’s winning formula at that World Cup; tactical masterstroke or desperate last throw of the dice by Bobby Robson before he headed for his new job at PSV Eindhoven? England began well. “They don’t like it up ‘em”, must have been the pre-match rallying call from Terry Butcher. We may have been the underdogs but we were going to give them a bloody good go!
Chrissie Waddle, shorn of his blonde, highlighted locks, probed and tormented the German back line of Augenthaler, Buchwald and Kohler. Lineker buzzed about like a highly annoying wasp. Gazza, well he was just Gazza, the over-exuberant but insanely gifted match winner, elevated to talismanic status in mere weeks . By half time, the unlikely was becoming a possibility, in this game that really should have been the final. England were capable, maybe even destined to meet Argentina in the final and gain revenge on that cheating, little, barrel-shaped, ex-powder-fiend, Diego Maradona, their nemesis from the quarter-final in Mexico four years earlier.
The second half began with the Germans on top and all the confidence built up in the encouraging first half display started to ebb from English legs. Then, in the 59th minute, the-ever-threatening apparition of disaster appeared as thunder-thighs, Stuart Pearce, tripped the diminutive playmaker, Thomas Hässler, on the right edge of his own penalty area and handed the opportunity of a shot at goal for any one of Germany’s dead-ball specialists to test Peter Shilton’s legendary abilities. Andreas Brehme, probably the best and most consistent left back of the 1980’s came forward, with the wall meticulously positioned by Shilton, standing between him and a German lead. Peter Beardsley on the end of the wall screamed at Paul Parker to get closer to him and reduce Brehme’s field of vision, but the QPR right back ignored his teammate, opting instead to try and charge down the kick. As he flung himself into the path of the incoming howitzer from Brehme, the ball took a wicked deflection, sending the ball on a looping trajectory towards England’s veteran keeper. “It’s not going in, he’s got it, don’t worry”. Well those are the words that spiralled through my mind as the Adidas Etrusco ball took flight towards Shilton. But what’s this? Shilton is taking forever to move, stumbling backwards like a geriatric trying to moonwalk on roller-skates. My heart sank into my socks. TOR! As they say in Deutschland. How could we possibly be behind? We’d dominated them. There’s no way we could win now from this position against this German side.
For the next 15 minutes I watched the game in a daze, not able to accept that this perfect summer, this perfect tournament was going to end this way, with Lady Luck turning her back on us as she walked out the door arm-in-arm with another suitor. But, after just a few moments of stunned inertia, Robson and his players rolled up their sleeves for the big push. They were not finished, and they set about hauling themselves and 50 million English people with them on their epic journey. The clock was against them yet with only nine minutes remaining of regulation time, Parker received the ball on the right wing. With few options in close support he looked up. If in doubt, look for Lineker! He launched his cross into the German box, looking for the former Golden Boot Winner who was surrounded by a wall of green-shirted defenders. The ball took a favourable bounce off German hard man, Jürgen Kohler and fell into the path of the expert marksman. “Augenthaler couldn’t do it, Lineker probably could…”, blurted John Motson in his excited commentary for the BBC. 1-1!! We were back in it, and deservedly so. All I could think was, “We can beat these! We can win the whole thing.” But, if we were going to do it, it was going to have to be in extra time, again. But I was sure. Nervous, but sure.
The extra 30 minutes gave us another of those iconic moments I mentioned earlier in the piece; maybe even the most iconic football moment for people of my generation. That moment was of course provided by Paul Gascoigne. Tottenham’s eccentric beer-loving genius had wormed his way into the hearts of the nation even before events unfolded in Turin, but as soon as he sliced through the legs of Thomas Berthold, desperately trying to retrieve the ball he’d lost on one of his trademark, mazy dribbles, a legend was born. Instantly aware of his potential fate as Berthold writhed around the turf in mock agony, Gazza pleaded unsuccessfully for leniency from referee Jose Roberto Ramiz Wright.
The Brazilian with the English surname produced Gascoigne’s second yellow card of the tournament from his pocket, condemning the boyish, blossoming superstar to enforced absence from the greatest moment if his young life; the World Cup final. Alert to the heartbreak unfolding for his club and national team colleague, Lineker stepped in appealing for help from the bench as tears began to fall from Gazza’s eyes. The 23-year-old from Gateshead still had his part to play and Lineker knew he had to pull the midfielder back from the brink of a meltdown, at least until the end of extra time.
This story, as all England fans are all-too-acutely aware, doesn’t end well. Pearce and Waddle both failed in the nerve-shredding pantheon of the penalty shoot-out. Waddle’s spot-kick may even still be airborne to this date, given the force with which he blasted his spot-kick into the Italian night sky. Their German counterparts Brehme, Matthäus, Riedle and Thon all succeeded. Shilton’s ageing frame was no longer able to effectively hurl itself across the ground to prevent the ball from whistling past him into the net. They were German, they knew how penalties are done.
The England team returned home as heroes despite falling at the second last fence, to use horse racing parlance. They had gone to the brink of something amazing when all around them doubted they could. They put the smile back onto the face of English football fans, the much-maligned group who had been ravaged by the spectres of hooliganism, disaster and Thatcher. Manager Robson left the FA with his reputation restored. A phenomenon was born. In my lifetime, Gazza’s emotional outburst after the crushing semi-final defeat was the first I’d seen in a sporting arena. Nowadays we see the players distraught and in floods of tears if they lose an ear ring.
For me, looking back as I love to do, defeat only crystallised this moment as one of glory. And despite the crushing disappointment of not reaching the World Cup final and the chance to make Maradona weep like a girl as the Germans went on to do, that summer’s night in Turin will forever remain the highlight of the glorious summer of 1990.