Pete Davies couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. As he sat in the press box of the Stadio delle Alpi, the author wasn’t able to hold in his emotions any longer.
Chris Waddle’s penalty, blazed high over the bar, marked the end of a remarkable journey. The finale of a World Cup dream that had started long before the first match of Italia 90 had kicked off.
Davies, the author of seminal World Cup tome All Played Out, had been as close to England’s gallant losers as it was possible to be without being part of Sir Bobby Robson’s squad. Granted behind-the-scenes access to the Three Lions’ assault on glory – from qualification through to that night in Turin – the writer had been totally immersed in a run that immortalised the players who’d been part of it.
Culminating in penalty despair, England’s campaign had been fraught with plot twists and drama. And while memories of falling so agonisingly short against West Germany still choke English football fans of a certain age, Davies has a much more philosophical perspective.
“It was almost as though it doesn’t matter about the final,” he says, three decades on. “I was crying at the end because it had been such a fantastic adventure and to lose it in that way was completely heartbreaking. But on the other hand, I don’t actually mind that we lost.
“In other situations I wouldn’t say that, but that game and the performance England put in was as good as your story gets. You can’t imagine being given two hours of football like that in your life, it’s only going to happen once.
“I’ve seen some other great things in my life, but it was such a one-off event. I wish they’d won, but it didn’t matter because they gave that performance.”
Gazza’s tears, Chris Waddle’s extra-time strike that bounced back off the post and a stirring semi-final performance is all most people remember of Italia 90’s heroes.
Yet as Davies recalls, the storyline was nearly so different. He’d watched in close quarters as England scraped successive 0-0 draws away at Sweden and Poland to qualify for the finals, the negative reaction to an unconvincing passage to the knockouts and how close they’d been to crashing out to Belgium in the round of 16.
Then there was Cameroon. A quarter-final against Africa’s plucky challengers was seen as a gimme by many back home, but after they’d already beaten reigning champions Argentina in the tournament, England’s players knew the dangers that lay ahead.
“The press would have called it a disgrace [if England had lost],” Davies says. “A day or two before the Cameroon game, I was on the beach with a few players and they made the interesting distinction that it wouldn’t be a disgrace, but it would be a disaster because everyone would call it a disgrace. Don’t write off Cameroon, this isn’t going to be easy.”
And so it proved, as only Gary Lineker’s 83rd minute penalty – and another in extra time – rescued the Three Lions from a defeat that would still be spoken about now. Think England’s Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland. On steroids.
Robson, in praising his players’ grit to progress, almost conceded that the Indomitable Lions had been better than his charges. Most others went all the way to expressing how lucky England had been to avoid elimination.
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It was Sir Bobby’s old-school way to protect his players through thick and thin, and Davies witnessed first-hand the affection the squad held for their boss as a result – even if he did tell whingers complaining about being away from home for six weeks that ‘they were away for six years in the war’.
At a time when the national team was at loggerheads with the press, Robson united the side by creating a siege mentality to inspire them in a quest to prove their doubters wrong.
“The squad became hermetically sealed because the relationship with the media had become utterly toxic and had deteriorated progressively throughout the tournament. It was only really redeemed by the semi-final,” explains Davies, who earned the trust of the players as an author who hadn’t previously written extensively about football.
“The players didn’t really have anybody they could be comfortable talking to, so they became very much sealed to themselves.
“They knew they were better than people thought they were, but if you look at the different trajectory of West Germany against ours en route to that semi-final, you’d never have bet on us putting in a performance like that.”
Central to that display was the decision to play a bold midfield three of Gascoigne, Waddle and David Platt, a creative trio more attune with going forward than remaining disciplined.
It was a risk that nearly paid dividends and was only made possible because captain Bryan Robson suffered a double whammy of Achilles and toe injuries in the group stage that ruled him out of the knockouts.
“If Bryan Robson had been there and fit, he would have played. But would we actually have played as well? That was what had got us to the tournament, but was it what we needed in the tournament?” Davies asks.
“We had to be more modern. I’m not belittling Bryan Robson for one second. It allowed them [the other players] to come out. It was like saying to younger players ‘win or bust, it’s yours’. What had they got to lose?
“If you take Bryan Robson out from the middle, you’re giving them the field. Then if you lose [John] Barnes, you’re saying to Waddle ‘it’s you, go’. Then there’s the whole issue of Paul Gascoigne, who was absolutely stellar.”
Gazzamania is one of the crowning memories of Italia 90. Long before the alcoholism and tragedy sent the midfielder into a downward spiral, emerging Gascoigne was the epitome of a young player bursting with energy and talent.
As late as the spring before the tournament there was no guarantee Gazza would even make the cut to be in the squad. That was until a virtuoso performance in a friendly against Czechoslovakia in which he created three goals and scored a fourth highlighted exactly what he could do in a white shirt.
His ingenuity and lung-busting surges from the centre of the pitch became hallmarks of England’s Italia 90 journey and will always remain as a looking glass into what Gascoigne could have been.
“He was just a kid, basically nuts,” says Davies. “The trajectory of his life since is very sad, but the seeds of that were always there because he was not a stable person. He could be absolutely lovely and he could be really funny, but there was no governor on his engine, so he had to be babysat.
“He’d get away and he’d end up playing tennis in the heat of the afternoon the day before a quarter-final or wanting to play ping-pong at midnight. He had so much energy, he was just bouncing around the place. It was like having a toddler around. In the nicest possible way, it was exhausting.
“They deliberately put him in [a room] with Chris Waddle. They’re both from the north-east and Waddle knew he’d basically been appointed babysitter and it was fucking exhausting. But you put up with the fact he can be tiresome because he can be incredibly funny and incredibly uplifting.
“If your mood is dark, he’ll walk into the room and cheer it up. He was more fun to have around than not, plus you knew when he got on the pitch he could do something utterly magical at any moment.”
Sadly for England, Gazza couldn’t spur them on to get past West Germany. But the booking, his tears and visions of him charging about, socks round his ankles, form part of the Italia 90 legend that captures the imagination of so many.
It’s a narrative Davies has been indelibly linked to for 30 years and as time goes by, it hasn’t lost any of its sheen.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” he adds. “I’ve been to every continent on earth apart from Antarctica, I’ve been in a warzone, I’ve flown into the eye of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Carolinas, I’ve walked up volcanoes, I’ve walked on glaciers in the Arctic. But I’ve been to that semi-final in Turin. It was fantastic.”
So many that were there agree.
Want even more Italia 9o? Then stay tuned to The Set Pieces for the next few weeks, as our dedicated channel features interviews, features and quizzes from one of the World Cup’s most important tournaments – all in association with the Vincera podcast.