During these difficult days of lockdown, one might be tempted to trawl through the myriad of footballing websites and forums available on the internet in order to wile away the hours. If so, it won’t be long before one comes across such sites dedicated to football of days gone by whereby players, events and eras of yesteryear are revisited, reviewed and dissected, often through either rose or muck tinted spectacles.

As we approach its 30th anniversary, nostalgia relating to Italia ’90 and in particular England’s process to within a penalty shoot-out of the final is very much in vogue. Posts on popular social networking sites can attract comments in the four figures as middle-aged men and women relive their youth and put the world to rights pertaining events of three decades ago.

The one seemingly constant topic for debate concerns that of the manner of England’s defeat in the afore-mentioned semi-final defeat to West Germany and in particular the culpability or otherwise of England’s goalkeeper that day, the legendary Peter Shilton.

The passing of time has not been kind with regards to Shilton’s legacy in some quarters, and to this day they are some who continue to hold him at least partly responsible for England’s failure to progress to the ultimate footballing occasion.

Now might, therefore, be an opportune time to look back not only on the events of 1990 from Shilton’s perspective but on his overall World Cup finals record comprising three tournaments in all.

Finishing his international career with 125 caps spread over almost exactly 20 years, Shilton still holds the record for number of caps despite having that accolade threatened in recent years by the likes of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole. It is an achievement that cannot be underestimated, and yet there is an argument that Shilton at times focused on building up his cap collection at the detriment of the team in general and certain fellow professionals in particular.

International Beginnings and Sharing Duties with Clemence

Making his debut in a friendly against East Germany in 1970, Shilton became the established first choice for England following Gordon Banks’ terrible car crash which forced his retirement from the game. When Don Revie took over from Sir Alf Ramsey, Ray Clemence was mainly preferred and so the years 1974-78 were bleak for Shilton in terms of caps. Ron Greenwood took over from Revie and couldn’t decide between the two ‘keepers and so simply alternated between them. This was a practice he continued until the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain.

In the build-up to the competition all three men agreed a final decision had to be made and kept to and so with the tournament approaching, Greenwood took the time to consider his options.

In the end, he was assisted in his decision-making process by the culmination of the 1981-82 domestic league season. Tottenham Hotspur had enjoyed a massive campaign in which the club had been in the running for honours in all three domestic competitions plus the European Cup Winners’ Cup and had played a total of 66 games. With the FA Cup Final against QPR going to a replay, Ray Clemence was called upon to be in Wembley action on 22nd and 27th May while Greenwood and Shilton joined up with the England pre-World Cup squad.

A prestigious Wembley friendly with Holland was scheduled for 25th May with the annual crunch match against Scotland taking place on the 29th at Hampden. Spurs’ continued involvement in the FA Cup rendered Clemence unavailable for both matches and so Shilton got the nod, performing commendably in each. It was arguably these performances that made Greenwood’s mind up to plump for Shilton once the tournament proper in Spain commenced.

1982 World Cup

Thus it was that Shilton was in the starting line-up when England met France in the opening group stage and he played his part in a convincing 3-1 victory. In fact, the goal conceded in the 25th minute of the match would prove to be the only one he let in during the entire tournament.

A relatively straightforward 2-0 victory over Czechoslovakia ensued and with it, qualification to the next group stage was secured a match early. It was here that Greenwood proposed changing the side and giving a few players who hadn’t featured yet a run-out, Clemence being one of them. Shilton, however, opposed the plan stating he felt it more beneficial to keep an established defence and goalkeeper in place. Clemence was said to be extremely hurt when Greenwood then made a U-turn and kept Shilton in goal.

The tournament progressed and although England kept a solid defence, they were unable to do very much at the other end and a single goal scored against Kuwait was the only disturbance to the scoreline in England’s three remaining games. Scoreless draws against West Germany and Spain in the second group stage saw England eliminated from the competition without losing a game.

Following the World Cup, Greenwood stepped down and Bobby Robson took over. Robson too decided to stick with Shilton in preference to Clemence, and so Shilton remained an unmovable fixture in the side during Robson’s entire reign as manager.

Clemence hung around for another season as back-up to Shilton before declaring that he no longer wished to be considered as a back-up ‘keeper. This gave other younger men their chance to step up into the squad and Manchester United’s Gary Bailey, Aston Villa’s Nigel Spink, and Norwich’s Chris Woods were all drafted into the squad at various times.

England failed to qualify for the European Championships in 1984, but with Shilton still very much England’s recognised number one, qualification for the 1986 Mexico World Cup was secured. Bailey and Woods were named in the squad alongside Shilton, but having won just two and four caps respectively by this stage, neither was expected to play.

1986 World Cup

Indeed, if there was a criticism of Robson at this time it was at his perceived reluctance to give either of his goalkeeping covers much game time. Parallels with 1970 and the last time England appeared in a Mexico World Cup were made when a goalkeeping emergency occurred with the sudden illness of Gordon Banks. Then the enforced utilisation of a relatively inexperienced Peter Bonetti had been at least partly responsible for the 3-2 defeat to West Germany that ensued. What would happen, critics argued, should a similar fate befall Shilton this time around?

As it happened, the England squad did suffer a goalkeeping injury that summer and it was serious enough to be to all intents and purposes a career-ending one. Gary Bailey suffered a knee injury in training that was to ultimately cause his retirement from the game.

As to the tournament itself, Shilton, who by now was playing his club football for Southampton, was once again in solid form, conceding just once in England’s first four matches. These included the group games – a 1-0 defeat to Portugal, a 0-0 draw with Morocco, and a 3-0 victory over Poland – together with another 3-0 victory in the last 16, this time over Paraguay.

This set up a quarter-final clash with Argentina.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words have been written describing the events of the match that took place on 22nd June 1986. One Diego Armanda Maradona wrote himself into both infamy and folklore as he single-handedly (!) secured Argentina a place in the semi-final with two goals of such stark contrast yet similar devastating consequence.

The concession of these two goals, and Shilton’s culpability or otherwise, continues to be debated to this day.

Firstly, in the 52nd minute of the match, Maradona took hold of the ball in the inside-left position just inside England’s half. He set off on a mazy diagonal run that took him past three England defenders and yet into a crowd of four further England players on the edge of the box. At this point, Maradona attempted to play a one-two with Jorge Valdano and angled a 10-yard pass in his teammate’s direction. Unfortunately (for England as it turned out), the pass was a poor one and simply bounced off Valdano’s shin. Steve Hodge had tracked Valdano’s run smartly but now he too inexplicably failed to control the ball and instead of simply clearing with a left-foot volley, he somehow managed to screw the ball over his head and towards his own penalty spot.

Maradona, meanwhile, had kept going in the hope of receiving a return from Valdano and was now locked in a foot race for the dropping ball with Shilton in the England goal. As Shilton timed his jump to punch the ball off Maradona’s head, the Argentinian, sensing he was not going to get to the ball, circumspectly raised his left fist and, taking Shilton by surprise, was able to punch the ball into the net.

Shilton and England were outraged. A seemingly clear infringement went unpunished and the goal stood. More than three decades later and still the ‘Hand of God’ incident invokes ire and angst amongst English folk of a certain vintage. Yet for the legions of those who refuse to see Maradona as nothing more than a cheat, there is almost the same number who consider Shilton at least partly culpable.

How could such an experienced six-foot goalkeeper allow himself to be outjumped by a midfield player some eight inches shorter, they demand to know. Do they have a point? Well, Shilton himself contends that the answer is simple: he wasn’t expecting Maradona to use his hand. Had he thought for a millisecond that there was any chance of that scenario unfolding, he would have adjusted his positioning and run-up to the ball accordingly.

Four minutes later and Argentina’s lead was doubled when Maradona scored what is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest goals of all-time. This goal too was not without controversy, however, as Glenn Hoddle was undoubtedly fouled in the build-up. Notwithstanding this, Maradona ran for 60 yards with the ball and in doing so beat Peter Reid, Peter Beardsley, Terry Fenwick and Terry Butcher (twice) before rounding Shilton and slipping the ball into an empty net.

As amazing a goal as it undoubtedly was, questions continue to be asked of the England defence and how it was that Maradona was allowed to get so far. Maradona himself expressed surprise that he hadn’t been chopped in half and later actually praised England for their ‘fair play’, but the truth is England’s players couldn’t get close enough to even foul him.

Shilton, it could be argued, didn’t cover himself with glory for this goal either. As Maradona completed his slalom run through the England defence, Shilton rushed from his goal line but rather than either standing his ground and forcing Maradona to shoot or going down horizontally at his feet and spreading himself, Shilton did neither and came out feet first.

Instead of narrowing the angle, Shilton’s actions actually had the effect of making himself smaller, thus making it easier for Maradona to skip around him.

Moving on and England qualified for Euro ’88 in West Germany with Shilton on 98 caps. Unfortunately, things didn’t go well over the next two games with defeats to the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands in Shilton’s 100th game for his country ensuring a swift exit. Shilton conceded four goals in the two games and although Shilton was not directly responsible for Ray Houghton’s goal for the Irish, there was a feeling that all three of the goals that made up Marco Van Basten’s hat-trick at least highlighted, if not openly exploited, Shilton’s fading reflexes.

In his autobiography, Sir Bobby Robson stated that he was unsure about Shilton’s suitability to carry on as England’s number one following this tournament and he wrote that he determined to keep a very close eye on Shilton once the next domestic campaign kicked off. He was adamant that the slightest hint of standards dropping would result in time being called on Shilton’s England career. As an indicator of Robson’s intent, he dropped Shilton for the third and final game of the tournament against the USSR and gave Chris Woods a rare start.

Putting the tournament behind him, Shilton, by now at Derby County, raised his form levels once more and kept his place throughout England’s World Cup qualifying campaign. By now, of course, he was well within sight of the record number of caps held by Billy Wright at 108. Woods would get the occasional game when Shilton was injured, but as the World Cup approached Shilton kept on piling up the caps, even in friendlies.

Other than Woods, the only other regular goalkeepers given even a sniff of an England jersey in the run-up to Italia ’90 were David Seaman of QPR and Chelsea’s Dave Beasant, who both made substitute appearances.

Again it was questioned in some quarters why Robson was allowing Shilton to rack up the caps without having a truly experienced back-up ‘keeper on the bench. By the time the tournament started, Chris Woods, the recognised number two, was 30 years old and had played only 16 times with just seven starts.

To be fair to Shilton, though, England had come through the qualifying campaign without conceding a goal in six matches. In England’s final qualification match against Poland in Chorzowh, Shilton had been in inspired form and had done more than most to ensure England obtained the point they needed for qualification.

1990 and The End

So to the tournament proper and by its conclusion England would be fettered as heroes in failure, and yet Shilton’s lasting legacy would take a slight hit, deserved or otherwise, as a result of how events unfolded.

England played a total of seven games in the tournament and Shilton played every minute, keeping three clean sheets. These clean sheets would mean he retired with a record number of ten from 17 matches, an achievement later matched by France’s Fabien Barthez.

The group games included a goalless draw against Holland, in which England played exceptionally well, being sandwiched between two of the worst games in living memory; a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland, and a single goal victory over Egypt.

In the last-sixteen clash with Belgium, Shilton had a good game, making several vital saves to keep the scoreline goalless before David Platt scored the only goal in the dying seconds of extra-time. So, England were into the quarter-finals and a clash with Cameroon that England scout, Howard Wilkinson, confidently informed Robson was ‘as good as a bye into the last four’.

After taking an early lead through Platt, England were largely outplayed by the African side and were barely hanging on in the game with less than ten minutes to go and trailing 2-1. In fact, Cameroon had had the chances to put the game to bed long before Gary Lineker won and then converted the first of two fortuitous penalties, the second of which coming in extra-time.

Again, England had a lot to be thankful to Peter Shilton for. Time and again he denied the Cameroonians in what was arguably one of his greatest displays of the 123 he had played at that point for England.

So how, then, did Shilton go from being ‘hero’ to ‘almost-kind-of-in-a-sort-of-way-villain’ in the space of one game?

The semi-final against West Germany played in Turin on 4th July was a battle for the ages. It was a game that flowed and ebbed first one way then another for the entire 90 minutes of regular time and the subsequent half-hour of extra time. Both sides played magnificently and either could have won or lost the game by a hatful. It truly was a wonderful exhibition of football and at the end of the two hours, the sides couldn’t be separated.

West Germany broke the deadlock 15 minutes into the second-half when they were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the area after Stuart Pearce fouled Hassler. The ball was touched to Brehme who smashed the ball goalwards only for it to hit the onrushing Paul Parker on the shins and spin up crazily towards the England goal.

Shilton had organised his wall and was standing stock in the middle of the goal as the ball began its descent. It appeared to drop almost directly vertically under Shilton’s crossbar and as he attempted to adjust his feet and turn oy over the bar, it crept in over his head with the unfortunate ‘keeper sprawled in the back of the net.

It was an unedifying sight to see Shilton prone in the netting thus, and it appeared that he had been caught flat-footed. Some again saw it as a sign of declining reflexes that Shilton had not been able to readjust and collect the ball as it dropped, while others contended that there was little Shilton could do.

England rallied, and a late Gary Lineker equaliser brought about extra-time and ultimately a penalty shoot-out.

Before the game, Shilton had discussed the possibility of penalties being required with Lineker, and Lineker had noted that a sizeable number of kicks in the tournament were being struck straight down the middle in anticipation of the ‘keepers guessing to dive one way or another.

It was then that Shilton decided that if the West Germany game were to be decided by the spot he would stand still in the centre of the goal and gamble that at least one or two of the designated five would be hit either down the centre of the goal or at least close enough to him to be able to react and make the save. He also declared that he was wary of being made to look foolish if he dived too soon and the ball ended up in the opposite corner of the net.

Perhaps it was with the embarrassment of ending up in the net following Brehme’s earlier goal still fresh in his mind, that Shilton took up his place on the England goalline. Keeping his promise to Lineker to wait and see what happens, Shilton was ultimately beaten four times out of four in the shootout and the misses of Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce meant that West Germany advanced and England were out.

Many a footballing judge contend that had Shilton gambled he could have possibly saved one or more of the Germans’ kicks. Shilton was said to have been boasting in the changing room afterwards that he had gone the right way for every kick, but this claim was said to have gone down badly amongst teammates who believed that he should have taken a chance. It is highly possible that even if he had done, the Germans would have still scored all their kicks, but perhaps those who contend that as the first couple flew past him and his ploy clearly wasn’t bearing much fruit, it wouldn’t have hurt to change tactics.

We will never know.

As a side note, a myth arose that as the match entered the dying embers of extra-time, Bobby Robson contemplated substituting Shilton for Dave Beasant in time for the shootout. Indeed, Robson himself claimed as much in his own autobiography, and yet it is untrue. There were only five named substitutes on the day and the named goalkeeping substitute was Chris Woods and not Beasant.

England still had one more game to play in the competition; the rather pointless third-place playoff game with Italy. Robson wanted to play Woods in the game but in echos of 1982, Shilton held out and stated that as he was retiring after the tournament he should be allowed to gain his 125th and final cap. Robson backed down and Shilton was at fault for Italy’s first goal after 71 minutes when he messed up a simple backpass from Steve McMahon.

Although David Platt restored parity ten minutes from time, Salvatore Schillaci scored the winner four minutes from time from the penalty spot. It was the sixth time Shilton had been beaten from the spot during the tournament.

So, finally, after two decades, Shilton’s England career came to an end. It was a career in which Shilton served his country with honour and dignity, never one being carded (yellow or red) and yet some to this day still maintain that it was his performance in his penultimate game that cost England a place in the World Cup final. These same critics contend that Shilton’s inability to keep out Brehem’s deflected shot or any of the German penalties are proof that at the age of 40 he was ‘past it’.

Harsh? Maybe.