Italia 90: England defender Paul Parker’s World Cup semi-final heartbreak

Andreas Brehme’s free kick balloons high into the air. Cannoning off Paul Parker’s foot, the ball loops upwards before steeply entering its descent.

Underneath, Peter Shilton scampers backwards reaching desperately at fresh air as the ball drops behind him and into the net.

It’s one of the most freakish goals a World Cup semi-final is likely to witness, but it’s enough to give West Germany the advantage.

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“If that had been a golf shot, it would have been absolute perfection,” recalls Parker, 30 years on from the goal he deflected past Shilton in the Italia 90 semi.

“It looked like someone was using a wedge and the ball dropped down just on top of the hole.”

For the moment not to have characterised Parker’s career is testament to the sheer drama and action that followed the goal.

By now, we all know about Gary Lineker’s equaliser, Gazza’s tears and the post that denied Chris Waddle glory. Oh, and the penalties.

But had the game remained at 1-0, Parker may have been the target of some criticism from the unforgiving British press, simply for trying to block Brehme’s strike.

“Peter Beardsley was trying to tell me to get closer to him [in the wall] but I couldn’t,” Parker tells the Vincera podcast.

“If I had moved closer to him [Beardsley], Peter Shilton wouldn’t have been able to see the ball. My one aim was to get closer to the ball, get as close as possible when the whistle was blown and, if anything, get some sort of touch of the ball to deviate it.

“Shilts wanted to see the ball and would have been in my ear, so I went out to block the ball. I probably didn’t make myself as big as possible – nobody ever does because, as men, we do worry – and adjusted my body because I believed I was going to get hit, which I did. It’s just strange what the ball did.”

For a goal like Brehme’s to settle the match would have shown just how close Sir Bobby Robson’s team had pushed West Germany, a team many people considered to be the tournament’s best.

The fact the Three Lions pushed the Germans even harder highlights the incredible character within the ranks.

Parker admits it would have been easy to ‘sit back, pitch in and lose 1-0’ but it wasn’t in the side’s nature. And it was the QPR defender who played a pivotal role in earning parity, hoisting in the cross that picked out Lineker to draw things level.

“A simple pass was just to knock it wide again and hope something happened from there, but the percentage pass was to pull it into a decent area, the one that causes an issue,” Parker says.

“It was just an angled ball trying to hit Gary. That’s what I did and I think it was Thomas Berthold who missed the flight of the ball, it’s hit Gary and he’s hit it with his weaker foot across the goalkeeper and got us back into it.

“If we’d gone out with a goal like that [Brehme’s opener], I don’t know how my mindset would have been after that. But that feeling of relief when the equaliser went in… was a great feeling.”

Parker’s importance to the semi-final storyline is often overlooked in preference of other higher-profile protagonists. Yet his inclusion in England’s team at all is, arguably, one of the unheralded catalysts in the entire run.

Not in the starting XI for the opening match, a turgid draw with Ireland, Robson brought in Parker in a less-than-familiar wing back position for the second game against the Netherlands.

The change allowed England to play with three central midfielders, a ploy that benefited the team as they progressed through the tournament – especially with captain Bryan Robson’s injury – and culminated with Sir Bobby naming three attack-minded midfielders, Waddle, Gascoigne and David Platt, in the semi.

“The [tactical change for the] game against the Dutch, who were called the pass masters and their ball retention was very good, boiled down to a lot of the senior players saying we had to really pack the midfield out,” says Parker.

“We had to have a lot of players in and around them to not give them the opportunity to get the ball and pass through us.

“I think I got in at wing back because I wasn’t bad at getting close to people and sticking with them, and my mindset as a wing back would be defensive rather than making forays forward.”

Three decades on from Italia 90, Parker doesn’t mind conceding that the squad was never ‘100% believing’ they’d progress past West Germany because of how impressive they’d been on the road to Turin.

On the other hand, England had relied on extra-time winners to get past Belgium and Cameroon in the knock-out rounds, so Parker’s focus was initially on simply ‘doing us justice’.

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“We’d been watching the Germans play and all the way through, they’d been immense, especially in the group stages in Milan,” Parker recalls.

“The way they were playing with [Lothar] Matthäus and the way they were moving the ball around: the fitness, the agility. The way they were playing, they looked like a side that would dominate.

“The belief was that we were there and as the saying goes, when you’re in a semi, anything can happen.”

So it proved. Although England still didn’t come out on top.

But despite not reaching the final or getting their hands on the World Cup, England’s campaign transcended anything anyone could have imagined at the time. Culturally and politically, things were changing globally and at home – and there’s a clear correlation between Italia 90 and the changing perception of English football that paved the way for the Premier League’s worldwide success today.

Individually, the lives of the players changed too. Parker’s no less than others.

“That summer made me,” he adds. “Everyone before knew my name and all of a sudden people knew my face too.

“The media was different then and as a player for Queens Park Rangers, which was not deemed a fashionable club, they knew the name but people got to know the face because of being involved in the England squad.

“That World Cup was integral in getting me a move to Manchester United [in 1991]. Even to the fact of coming back from the World Cup to my local supermarket in Wokingham and the supermarket closing down because the shop went into a frenzy, so I had to sign autographs. It’s something I still can’t believe happened.

“It made a massive difference in my life and when you think about international tournaments, 1990 comes up, my name gets brought up again and people still want to talk about it.”

If only Brehme’s free kick hadn’t squirmed in, who knows how the script may have ended?

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.

Italia 90: England defender Paul Parker’s World Cup semi-final heartbreak
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