WHEN Factory music impresario Tony Wilson stood up at an American music conference in 1990 and uttered the immortal line ‘wake up America. You’re dead.’, he seemed to perfectly sum up the cultural explosion England was under again. The second summer of love, musically and socially seemed a genuine youth movement that had Downing Street politicians scrambling to form a series of draconian acts. It’s drug of choice Ecstacy certainly was an all encompassing one. From Hartlepool to Harrow – barriers were coming down and hands were coming up. As hedonistic as it obviously was, it was also something of a revolution.
Curiously the drug would seep into more traditional waters too. If an eagle eyed member of the FA hadn’t spotted what New Order were up to with their commissioned World Cup song for the upcoming tournament, then the England team would have been marching to Italy on the biggest drug in-joke of all time. ‘Its E for England’ was the finished title, which the suits at football headquarters quickly insisted be changed to ‘world in motion.’ to save their collective embarrassment.
For Bobby Robson and his jaded squad they probably could have done with a night of strobe lights and podiums prior to the start of the tournament. Without a ball being kicked they had already became pariahs for a football press, who had written them off completely. Robson, who had seen it all when it came to media intrusion at the top levels, was their chief target. An unpopular choice for most – there had been a campaign to relieve him of his post prior to Italy. The consequent wave of negativity almost threatened to taint the campaign and the squad itself.
At least one thing or should it be said one character was keeping spirits up. The introduction of Paul Gascoigne into the squad was the equivalent of bringing a twenty-four hour cheerleader into proceedings. Crucially, the Spurs midfielder would lift spirits in what was already a jaded camp. Although no one knew it yet, he would also prove to be a pivotal member of the England squad, providing a creative edge in what was to be his grand introduction on to the world football stage.
For now though, the press circled as England took to the field for their first match. A homegrown fixture against the Republic of Ireland loomed. Jack Charlton’s side were built on long balls and physicality. In a match that would end up being more famous for Gary Lineker’s incontinence on the pitch after an early goal for the striker, Charlton’s grafters would nullify the creative spark in England and eventually carve out an equaliser ten minutes from the end courtesy of Kevin Sheedy. The resulting 1-1 draw would be criticised back home. Two points lost was the general consensus and a second match against Holland now looked unbelievably tricky.
Whilst the rest of the world basked in the romance of Italia 90, England were suddenly under pressure. The esoteric settings and iconic stadiums already had football purists purring but Robson and his back room staff had a major puzzle to solve. Their lack of creativity had been apparent not only in the previous ninety minutes but also in the friendlies leading up to the tournament. Robson decided to gamble and give his wild card a less restricted role than he’d enjoyed against the Irish. A raw but unshackled Paul Gascoigne might just surprise the Dutch he figured. At the very least he thought they couldn’t do any worse.
On a humid night in Cagliari the gamble would pay off. Gazza would run rings around an experienced Holland side who simply couldn’t contain him. It was the first stand out individual performance of the tournament and validated Robson’s faith in him. Before the World Cup had started many had questioned whether Gascoigne should have even gone to the tournament but the sight of him toying with the likes of Koeman and Rijkaard validated his inclusion. It also seemed to completely revitalise England too. Despite the 0-0 draw, they would ease past Egypt 1-0 in the final group game, to qualify for the knock out stages and do so with an ease many had thought impossible just a week earlier.
As they busied themselves for a knock out game against Belgium, the tournament was about to explode in controversy. A grudge game between Holland and Germany was to expose the dark arts of the game to a watching audience of millions. The infamous Frank Rijkaard incident in which he was caught spitting at Rudi Voller no less than three times made headlines around the world. In comparison England’s game against Belgium was tame by comparison. A winning, extra time David Platt goal sent England fans wild within the stadium and back home but the three lions had yet to be involved in a match in the tournament that had really caught fire. Their low key progression seemed almost too easy in the Italian sun.
That was about to change. The success of future opponents Cameroon at Italia 90 was a breath of fresh air to the dominance of South America and Europe within the tournament. African football had sporadically threatened to cause a major upset at previous World Cup’s but had never really ignited. With the enigmatic Roger Milla orchestrating proceedings they had suddenly caused interference. Milla, who looked like a man who had won a competition to be a footballer for a day was deceptively lethal once he got near the opposition box and in a thrilling quarter final – almost ensured England were on the next plane home before they realised what had hit them
It had all being going well for Robson’s men. Leading through a David Platt header they had seemed comfortable with Cameroon’s athletic but basic threat. The introduction of the wily Milla however would turn the game on its head. First a naive Gascoigne challenge on the ageing playmaker would hand Cameroon a stonewall penalty and subsequent equaliser. Then, a beautifully weighted through ball three minutes later by the man himself would find the advancing Ekeke. His sublime chipped finish sent the large African contingent in the stadium wild. With less than twenty five minutes left, England were in danger of being ceremoniously dumped out of the tournament by their underdog opponents.
England though had a fox in the box of their very own, someone who also recognised Cameroon’s fatal flaw during Italia 90: the way they would dive in to heavy challenges without temperance. For Gary Lineker it didn’t take long to spring the trap either. With just eight minutes left of normal play he invited a heavy challenge in the box and duly got it. Dusting himself down he converted the penalty himself to take the match to extra time. Worse was to follow for the African side. Having not learnt their lesson, Lineker simply repeated the equation. Another converted penalty later and it was England heading through to the semi finals, taking full advantage of Cameroon’s naivety.
You only had to look at the England player’s faces as they left the pitch to see what getting to a World Cup semi final meant to them, especially Paul Gascoigne. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff, a small town boy from Dunston in the first class seats of the biggest tournament in the world. Back home Gazza was the new cult hero of English football which was a double-edged sword for the midfielder. Gascoigne would always be a player that inspired love in everyone but himself, but he did crave the worship of those on the terraces. Suddenly however, he also became tabloid news – the reality of which was simple. The invasion of a hysteric lifestyle was never going to end well. From then on in, through a looking glass darkly was the microscope existence for the most talented footballer of his generation. A life through a lens with little chance of media sympathy.
At least on pitch however, such things could be forgotten. For Gascoigne and the rest of the England team, the pressure was minimal compared to their illustrious, semi- final opponents. The rich vein of World Cup success for Germany would have been a ball and chain for virtually any other international side but there had always been a steel and a calmness about them that rarely tipped over into the unpredictable. England on the other hand were the rank opposite. The English game was built on passion and emotion and so it was to prove with one iconic image from a player that would be replayed for two decades after.
It would come in extra time of a classic that exploded into life from the moment Andreas Brehme opened the scoring just before the hour mark.
It put the Germans firmly in the driving seat. Their counter attack brilliance was perfectly suited against most teams never mind a side desperately searching for an equaliser. To England’s credit however they didn’t fall into the trap. Instead they would again rely on a player who despite his clean cut image was as tough as nails when it came to the unflinching nature of top level football. The underrated Gary Lineker would hold his line brilliantly all night and when he eventually gained a chink of space behind the German defence, he would finish his half chance superbly, bringing the match level with little over ten minutes remaining in normal time.
For Lineker it was business as usual, but even he couldn’t have foreseen the emotional moment that would occur as the match went into extra time and his almost parental role in it. A rash challenge by Paul Gascoigne and a resulting yellow card suddenly meant he would potentially miss the final. As this dawned on the young midfielder, he simply stood crestfallen in the middle of the pitch and fought back the tears. The resulting images of the emotional Gazza and the concerned Lineker mouthing ‘watch him’ to the England bench would be highly praised around the world. Although as one journalist somewhat cruelly pointed out at the time. ‘Running mascara doesn’t win you football matches.’
There would be tears around the rest of the country too. A penalty shoot out that was always going to be a big ask against the iron ore toughness of Germany. They didn’t burst into tears. of course. They didn’t miss penalties. either. As Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle capitulated wildly under the pressure, they simply made Peter Shilton look as though he was trying to save a tennis ball. It was simply business as usual for Franz Beckenbauer’s men. With English hearts broken, they dusted themselves down and skipped on nonchalantly to the World Cup final. Vorsprung durch brilianze.
With the most successful World Cup campaign since 66, the future suddenly looked bright for the national side, but just two years later at a disastrous Euro championships, they looked a pale imitation of the pistolero eleven that had carried them almost to the final.
Eliminated at the group stage and vilified in the press, they were under new managerial stewardship in Graham Taylor. Like other England managers before and since he’d enjoyed long unbeaten runs before failing at a major championships. In many ways though a failed Euro’s wasn’t the end game for the national coach. The real kudos was in a successful World Cup and tellingly Taylor was still around for the 1994 qualifying campaign to try and get things right.
With a group including Holland and Norway, qualification was no sure thing but England were expected to go through after comfortable wins both home and away against Turkey They certainly looked a surefire bet when they coasted to a 2-0 lead at Wembley against the Dutch. In what would become a frustrating habit during the campaign however, they just couldn’t finish the game off. It would finish 2-2, which alongside another home draw against eventual group winners Norway, meant that two crucial away games in Oslo and Rotterdam were the difference whether England would book their place in the USA or not.
First in Oslo, England would turn in one of their worst away performances in years. Goals either side of half time by Bohinen and Leonhardsen would echo an infamous win by the home side in 81 over their more illustrious neighbours. A disjointed England simply capitulated on a tight pitch and against tactics that were little more advanced than an average Championship fixture. It was standard fare. As was the sight of Graham Taylor getting more and more agitated in his dugout. By the time England reached Rotterdam there would even be a camera crew in tow filming his every move. As decisions went it was an admirable throw of the dice. Win and the bravery of such a decision would be praised to high heaven. Lose and every facial tic and touchline decision would be magnified by a football press looking for their pound of flesh.
Unfortunately on a miserable night in Rotterdam the latter would apply, England were plain born under a bad sign. A reticent referee refusing to give them a penalty and send Ronald Koeman off for a blatant professional foul on David Platt seemed beyond cruel. As England moodily went into their shells over the decision, the Dutch took advantage through the aforementioned Koeman with a retaken free kick and a Dennis Bergkamp second which had more than a touch of handball about it. It would leave England’s campaign in tatters. Relying on a blitzkrieg of unrealistic score lines and goal difference and a blunt realisation that it would be almost eight years from their heroics of Italy till they could potentially qualify for the World Cup again
The fact that the overriding image of whole campaign was one of half man, half turnip probably said it all too. There was a frank admission from Taylor some years later over the whole episode. ‘I lost the plot,’ he would simply say. Although it had to be said, that no one really came out the 94 campaign with any guts or glory.