Sliding Doors: Italia ’90, modern football and England expectations

Italia ‘90 is looked back on as the birthing moment for English football’s swanky modern era, yet it couldn’t have begun with any less glamour.

On the pitch, England spent their scrappy opener against the Republic of Ireland playing football with all the style and colour of Gary Lineker’s skidmarked undershorts. Lineker had bundled his side in front but when Kevin Sheedy nicked the ball from off the toes of a floundering Steve McMahon and rifled Ireland level with 20 minutes left, the goal had been coming.

Off the pitch, swathes of England fans had spent the previous evening drinking Cagliari dry, singing about the IRA and eventually being acquainted with the truncheons of the carabinieri. None of it was a surprise.  

The stale showing from Bobby Robson’s team impressed no one (“Is this all there is to England?” asked the Rome newspaper La Repubblica) and left the manager sufficiently displeased to tear up his entire blueprint after one game.

For the next match, against the Netherlands, he brought in a sweeper system, with Mark Wright – who hadn’t featured at all during qualifying – stepping into the breach alongside Des Walker and Terry Butcher. The change brought a goalless draw against Marco van Basten and co, no mean feat, and Robson persisted with the idea for the final group game, in which Wright himself nodded home the only goal (had he not, England would have been left to draw lots with their opponents to decide who went through as the best third-place team).

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The rest, it’s fair to say, is history. Belgium and Cameroon were seen off in knife-edge knockout meetings before the epic denouement against West Germany mesmerised a nation. By the time Chris Waddle had slammed the decisive penalty into orbit, the English public had been so captivated by this heart-wrenching story of heroic failure that the status of an entire sport had been salvaged from the gutter.

In the blink of an eye football and its fans had, in the words of Christopher Wallace, gone from ashy to classy. And before you knew it England had entered the age of lads mags, Britpop and would-be prime ministers playing keepy-uppy with Kevin Keegan. A cynic might wonder whether a sweeper system had ever dredged up so much rubbish.

Either way, the British public were swept off their feet. After their opener, England’s World Cup campaign resembled a European arthouse movie: bleak, punishing, packed with existential angst. By the end Gazza’s tears, Lineker’s grinning impudence and Bobby’s paternal presence at the heart of it all had turned it into a smash-hit soap opera. More than 26 million tuned in to watch the semi-final.

Britain’s broadcasters, previously wary of football’s synonymy with violence and disaster throughout the previous decade, quickly cottoned on to the endlessly lucrative potential in a sport that delivered cinematic spectacle like no other, and within two years the FA Carling Premiership was being beamed to satellite dishes across the nation.

Broadcasting rights have been on the rise ever since and, a quarter-decade on, England’s domestic game is effectively unrecognisable from the one that introduced the country to Gazza and chums; it has become an ever-more TV-ready product, from the kick-off times to the overblown storylines to the bronzed protagonists who deliver well-rehearsed lines to the cameras after each game.

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But can we really trace all of this back to Mark Wright? Or to put it another way: did Italia ‘90 really cause all this, or was it simply an early symptom of what was to come?

Pete Davies, who chronicled the tournament in his masterful book All Played Out, believes the former. “The way the game is now derives, to a very great extent, from the transformation that Italia ‘90 affected,” he said in a 2014 interview. “Prior to then football in England was perceived as a squalid, hooligan-ridden, embarrassing sump of gormless violence. Our team was crap, our supporters were worse, and you did not talk about it over dinner.”

All undoubtedly true. But had England staggered out at the group stage – and they nearly did – would English football have simply been left to drift further out into the sea of public apathy? No breakaway league, no deal with Sky, no Cantona or Zola or Juninho?

Unlikely. Italia ‘90 may have been the first tournament to draw in a mass TV audience, but a year earlier the show-stopping finale to the 1988/89 league campaign had already alerted the nation to the operatic drama that could be gleaned from televised football, with broadcasters surely becoming attuned to the golden goose that was up for grabs.

Similarly, the growth of fanzine culture around that time suggests the sport was making inroads towards the middle-brow mainstream long before the BBC was piping Pavarotti into England’s living rooms. The raw ingredients, surely, were all in place. Italia ‘90 was simply the catalyst that threw them all together.

In fact, perhaps the real aftershocks from England’s heroics in Italy were on the England team itself. Had they not hauled themselves so spectacularly to the brink of glory, would we have so expected them to repeat the trick at every tournament since, crushing the players under our brattish expectations? Would England’s chronic penalty complex – the shortcoming that has sent them home from no fewer than five tournaments in the years since – have gone on to manifest itself as it did were it not for the trauma of Turin?

Mark Wright, then, cannot quite be held responsible for the cacophonous onset of modern football. But maybe, just maybe, he played a bigger part than you’d think in the last two decades of English despair.

This feature was originally published on 20 December 2017.

Sliding Doors: Italia ’90, modern football and England expectations
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