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From Wooden Spoonists to World in Motion: Part 17 – July 1990

Our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago have now reached the dramatic month of July 1990. It would include the nerve-jangling games at Italia ’90 against Cameroon and West Germany, as well as the curtain coming down on Bobby Robson’s managerial reign…

The England squad awoke on July 1 knowing a clash against Cameroon was all that separated them from a first World Cup semi-final appearance on foreign soil. The previous round against Belgium had ended with the drama of David Platt’s late winner and there was now widespread expectation that the Three Lions would overcome the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. But it was to be anything but easy.

The impact Cameroon made at Italia ’90 should not be underestimated. They had defied all expectation by finishing top of a tough group containing Argentina, Romania and the Soviet Union, following it up by beating Colombia in extra-time in the last 16. They had gained popularity in England by defeating Argentina in the opening game, with their cavalier approach helping brighten up a World Cup littered with dull games. Further attention had come their way thanks to the goalscoring exploits of 38-year-old supersub Roger Milla, his trademark wiggle celebration being replicated on playing fields across England.

But their weaknesses were also apparent. They would have four players suspended against England, while their defensive record was suspect. They had conceded six goals in four games, albeit with four of them coming against the Soviet Union when they had already secured qualification from the group stage. England scout Howard Wilkinson had watched that game and told manager Bobby Robson he believed his team could be in for a “bye”, given how poor Cameroon had been. It was a comment that would almost come back to haunt England.

Robson was confident his team could triumph in Naples, writing later in the year: “I honestly could not see us losing under the circumstances.” But it was far from a foregone conclusion. Cameroon had played seven matches at World Cup tournaments and lost just one, having gone out unbeaten in 1982. Confidence was high and their success represented a major achievement for African football. After being held to a draw by Morocco in 1986, needing a late equaliser to avoid defeat in an Italia ’90 warm-up friendly away to Tunisia and narrowly edging out Egypt in the group stage, Robson was well aware that England could not take African opposition lightly.

The England side that faced Cameroon.

He would again favour the sweeper system, with Mark Wright selected and joined in defence by Paul Parker, Stuart Pearce, captain Terry Butcher and Des Walker. Veteran Peter Shilton was earning his 123rd cap in goal. David Platt was rewarded for his winner against Belgium by starting in midfield along with Paul Gascoigne, with wingers Chris Waddle and John Barnes picked. Gary Lineker was the only natural striker in the side, so Barnes was pushed forward.

A rollercoaster ride

In what was becoming a recurring pattern, England played the last game of the round and Robson took his place on the touchline knowing his reign would be over with a defeat. The night began with Des Lynam unusually making a hash of things at the start of the BBC’s live broadcast and the England team would do their best to follow suit as they struggled to find their rhythm. The match has been aired a few times this summer and England seem to get worse with every showing.

They would though hold a 1-0 lead at half-time, Platt carrying on where he left off by heading home an excellent Pearce cross. But there was little else to be elated about. The lack of a natural holding midfielder was felt as Cameroon continually broke forward, while Jimmy Hill in the BBC studio bemoaned the absence of the injured Bryan Robson.

Bobby Robson was far from happy with his players, warning them they would be punished by Cameroon if they carried on playing like this. But he was pleased with the contribution his goalkeeper was making. During the course of the evening, Shilton took credit as he thwarted Francois Oman-Biyk on four separate occasions – most notably in a one-on-one situation in the first half. Hill would hail the veteran goalkeeper as “the cornerstone” at the night’s end.

One man unable to make an impact was Barnes. He had failed to overcome the injury picked up during the Belgium game and made way for Peter Beardsley at half-time, playing no further part in the tournament. At the same time, another substitute was entering the arena. Milla came on for Cameroon. Although he didn’t score, the evergreen forward made two significant contributions that swung the game in favour of his side.

A charge into the area ended with him being fouled by Gascoigne, with Cameroon being awarded a penalty that Emmanuel Kunde scored. Cameroon were impressing with their technical ability and it paved the way for Milla to play in substitute Eugene Ekeke, who got to the ball before Shilton and scored. A witch doctor had forecast a 2-1 win for Cameroon and it seemed the only way he was going to be wrong was if they could increase their lead, as they controlled proceedings.

England’s World Cup campaign was falling apart and a missed chance by Platt looked like being costly. Robson, seeming set to depart amid a final barrage of criticism, was left with a last throw of the dice. He went back to basics, reverting to four defenders as Trevor Steven came on for the first time in the tournament in place of Butcher. It was a move that almost backfired, as Wright sustained a facial injury with England having already made the two substitutions that were allowed. But the Derby County defender played on and he would help England claw their way back into the contest.

The World Cup had so far yielded just one goal for Lineker. He had spent the previous day practising penalties – varying where he put them amid suspicions a Cameroon spy was in the stadium – but once more it seemed he wouldn’t be required to take any. England hadn’t been awarded a single spot-kick since February 1986 and had taken just four during the whole of Robson’s reign. However, there had been several instances when they had seen appeals waved away. That included early in the second half of this game, when Platt went down in the area over goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono but nothing was given.

But in the closing 10 minutes the long wait ended at the moment England most needed it to, as Wright played the ball into the area and Lineker was felled by Benjamin Massing. The theatrical Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal Mendez pointed straight to the spot. Lineker’s initial delight over the spot-kick being awarded was tempered by realising the consequences if he missed. “Never a more vital penalty for England,” whispered BBC commentator Barry Davies. Lineker held his nerve, seeing N’Kono start to dive early and firing into the opposite corner of the net. The relief was palpable.

Gary Lineker earns England’s second penalty of the night against Cameroon.

The quirks of football were once more emerging. After not playing extra-time for 20 years, England would now do so for the second time in a week. Having gone more than four years without being awarded a penalty, they would now get their second in the same game. With half-time approaching in extra-time, Gascoigne played an excellent ball through to Lineker and the forward was brought down by N’Kono. The penalty produced the same outcome, Lineker able to pick his spot and restore England’s lead.

For arguably the first time in the night they were on top. Lineker came within inches of completing his hat-trick, but that would have given the scoreline a very flattering look. England had been fortunate to emerge triumphant, but they had also made their own luck by refusing to submit when 2-1 down and staring at the exit door. Argentina, Romania and Colombia had all failed to recover after going behind to Cameroon during the tournament. What England had lacked in skill, they had compensated for in guts and desire.

Those were qualities shared by the manager. Robson beamed with delight at the whistle, embracing Gascoigne and feeling proud that he had taken England further at a World Cup on foreign soil than anyone else beforehand. He had held off persistent calls to quit and was now just two games away from bowing out as a World Cup winner. “I’ve had 17 heart attacks. I feel 92,” he joked at the end of an exhausting night, before declaring how he wished he was home to be dancing in the street like the English public.

The statistics showed how this game had been at odds with the tournament at large. It was the only match in the World Cup in which both sides scored at least twice and one of just two games where a side came from behind to lead (excluding penalty-shoot-outs). This game had contained five goals; the other three quarter-final matches produced just two between them. But the one statistic that really mattered was that England had prevailed. The last four now beckoned.

The crying game

England now headed to Turin, to face West Germany. After enjoying gaps of five days between games so far, now England would have a mere three to prepare for their biggest match since 1966. The enormity of it all was clear. A first World Cup semi-final appearance since 1966 and, with Italy losing on penalties to Argentina the night before, they were one of just three sides left who could win the tournament.

Not that the smart money was on them doing that. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian on the morning of the game: “Even now, the idea of England playing in the 1990 World Cup final stretches the imagination.” The critics had not been totally silenced despite the prolonged run in 1990, the Cameroon game having seen them earn praise for desire but not performance.

“Their best hope of beating an undoubtedly superior West German team is to retain the sort of spirit which enabled them to beat Cameroon,” wrote Lacey, who described England’s run to the semi-final stage as “a triumph of the will”. The West Germans had laid down a marker by scoring nine times in their first two games in the tournament, although their goalscoring ratio had reduced since then. Much of their threat came from the Inter Milan trio of Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann.

Beardsley was recalled to the starting line-up in the absence of Barnes. Other than that it would be the same side as had faced Cameroon. Butcher would wear the captain’s armband, as the injured Bryan Robson was left to provide analysis in the BBC studio and wonder what might have been. He, along with many millions of TV viewers back home, would see the players give a performance to be proud of.

The night’s key images remain embedded in the mind. Waddle’s audacious long-range effort that almost beat Bodo Illgner, albeit with the whistle having already gone: England falling behind in the second half, with Andreas Brehme’s effort striking Parker and looping over Shilton; Parker supplying the cross for Lineker to equalise in the closing stages; Waddle hitting the post in extra-time; Gascoigne being unable to hold back the tears when he received his second caution of the tournament, ruling him out of the final if England got there; Lineker’s gesture to the touchline following the booking and Bobby Robson’s words of comfort to Gazza prior to the penalty-shoot-out; Pearce and Waddle failing from the spot, with Shilton unable to keep out the West Germans: and the touching image of Matthaus heading straight to Waddle to console him, rather than celebrating with his team-mates.

Gary Lineker equalises for England against West Germany.

It was heartbreaking stuff and Gascoigne was far from the only player to shed tears. England had given everything and earned genuine praise for their performance for once, having had a go at the West Germans and nearly toppled the favourites. If the luck had largely been with England so far in the tournament, then it was against them in Turin as Waddle’s effort spun back off the post and Platt had a goal disallowed. For all that the usage of a sweeper system is praised at Italia ’90, England had again got back into the game after going 4-4-2 as Steven came on for Butcher.

This was the first time England had been involved in a penalty-shoot-out. With the passage of time, increasing levels of criticism have come Shilton’s way on social media and a myth persists that Dave Beasant could have come on to replace him. However, it is interesting to note that little criticism was voiced in the media about Shilton back then from scanning various articles from the next few days. Hugh McIlvanney wrote in The Observer the following Sunday that, prior to the third place play-off, Shilton “had been quite the most impressive performer in his position in this tournament”. It was a view echoed by Lynam ahead of the World Cup final, telling viewers that Shilton’s performances had “probably left him as the outstanding goalkeeper of the tournament”. 

Instead, much of the attention at the time focused upon England’s failings from the spot. Robson had been confident beforehand, even though two players he said he would have been asked to take a penalty – Barnes and Bryan Robson – were out injured. The manager was particularly confident in Lineker and Pearce – specifically choosing the Nottingham Forest defender to take the fourth one, which he considered a crucial stage in the shoot-out – and he also selected Beardsley, Platt and Waddle in his first five takers. Gascoigne, although distressed, was ready to take the next one if required according to Robson’s memoirs.

All players had scored prior to Pearce having his shot saved by Illgner and the tide turned against England. Waddle had to score to keep England in the tournament, but he failed to hit the target and it was all over. He revealed afterwards he had barely taken a penalty away from the training ground before. Bobby Robson would flick his hand as if to say “so near”, which is exactly how it had been. And yet, at the same time, it felt so far away when Waddle missed and the dream ended.

One widely-held belief at the time was that shoot-outs were a “lottery” and an unfair means of settling drawn games. Indeed, Lacey wrote two days after the game that “losing in the lottery of penalties after having the better of a 1-1 draw was the ultimate frustration” for Robson. The manager called for the rule-makers to find a different solution for settling matches, saying: “There is a better way. You play on. You play to the first goal. Or you play another quarter of an hour. You play on because eventually somebody will crack.” He would never get his wish.

The end of an era

England’s appearance in the third place play-off against Italy in Bari three nights later is often overlooked in their Italia ’90 story, but it would be significant for marking the end of an era. After eight years, this would be the last game in charge for Robson. It had been a rollercoaster ride, one in which he had withstood constant criticism but refused to throw the towel in. It had, in many ways, mirrored England’s Italia ’90 campaign. They had shown fighting spirit whenever all seemed lost.

His final team selection would largely revolve around who played in goal. Dave Beasant has subsequently claimed that he and Chris Woods were each set to play part of the game, while Woods – ahead of Beasant in the pecking order – has said he had been told he was going to be picked only for Shilton to refuse to stand down. If both men recollect things correctly, then their lingering disappointment at not playing is understandable and neither would ever appear in a World Cup finals match.

However, their accounts differ significantly from Robson’s in the 1990 edition of his autobiography. He insisted it was his decision for Shilton to play, saying the veteran goalkeeper twice approached him offering to stand down. Robson wished for Shilton to earn his 125th and final cap before retiring from international football. Robson had also written in his 1986 World Cup Diary that he would have picked Shilton for the third place game had England been involved in it at that tournament.

The England squad pictured together prior to the third place match against Italy.

Whatever the reality, Shilton would captain a side containing a mixture of established players and those who had watched on during the tournament. Tony Dorigo was given his chance in preference to Pearce, while Gary Stevens returned after almost a month on the sidelines. A defensive reshuffle saw Parker paired with Walker and Wright, as Butcher missed out while carrying a knock. It meant his long England career had ended in the semi-final, as he would join Shilton in retiring from international duty.

Gascoigne’s absence allowed Steve McMahon to return and partner Platt, while Steven made his only starting appearance in the finals. Lineker had a chance of retaining the World Cup Golden Boot and he was again selected with Beardsley in attack. With Neil Webb coming on for McMahon during the second half, that left just Steve Hodge – who was dogged by injury during the tournament – as the only outfield England player not to play in the finals.

Both sides were still reeling from their shoot-out losses and the atmosphere was always going to be a little subdued, but in the circumstances they served up a decent contest that did not undermine England’s achievements in the tournament. Unfortunately for Shilton, his farewell did not go to plan and it would be remembered for the howler that gifted Roberto Baggio the opening goal with 20 minutes left.

But England once more responded after abandoning the sweeper system, with Waddle coming on for Wright. Dorigo delivered a delightful cross for Platt to head past Walter Zenga with 10 minutes remaining. It was only the second time Italy had conceded during the tournament and it would be the last England goal scored during Robson’s reign. The manager was up off the bench, desperate to sign off with a win.

He wouldn’t get it after a controversy-filled finale. First, Parker was adjudged to have fouled Salvatore Schillaci in the area, allowing the striker to score his sixth goal of the tournament from the spot and clinch the Golden Boot. Robson was unhappy with the decision, but he would see the luck balanced out in the closing seconds when Nicola Berti’s header looped beyond Shilton but it was perplexingly disallowed for offside. Even Robson admitted the decision was “ludicrous” and it would sum up a tournament that had provided some dubious officiating. It failed to prevent Italy claiming a 2-1 win, only England’s second defeat in open play since the horror of being whitewashed during Euro ’88.

Robson never liked to lose, but this was a night when the pain wouldn’t linger. He had seen his team play with commitment and show good spirit. The sides both received medals at the end, with the players joining together in performing a Mexican wave and embarking on a lap of honour. Robson’s night would end with him being flung into the hotel swimming pool by the players. After 95 matches and eight years to the day since being confirmed as England manager, he had taken charge of the team for the final time.

A warm welcome home

The team were now ready to head home the following day, when they would see for themselves how the nation had been enthralled by the run to the semi-final. The streets of Luton were packed as the team enjoyed an open top bus parade, complete with the infamous sight of Gascoigne donning a pair of fake breasts. His world had changed significantly in the previous month and so too had English football’s.

After a decade dogged by hooliganism and tragedy, the World Cup marked a shift towards the sport enjoying new-found popularity. It would be wrong to say the tournament was trouble-free, but there were finally some hints of progress. That was reinforced when Aston Villa and Manchester United were given the green light to compete in Europe during 1990-91, the first English sides to do so since 1984-85.

Two men significant to England’s campaign weren’t at the homecoming in Luton, as Lineker and Robson had stayed on for the final. Robson’s last act as England manager was to collect the tournament’s Fair Play award on the team’s behalf with Lineker. It was by no means the prize Robson wanted to sign off with, but it showed English football in a good light on a night when cynical conduct blighted the final. West Germany won an abject contest 1-0, meaning for the second successive World Cup England had narrowly lost out to the eventual winners.

Coming so close to making the final wasn’t something most experts had predicted at the start of the tournament, even less so back in September 1988 when this two-year cycle began and confidence was very low. England had been aided by the way the draw had panned out and fortune being on their side, but they had also made their own luck. They had been rewarded for finishing top of their group with the path that took them to the semi-final, while their sheer refusal to throw in the towel had led to them getting as far as they had.

They may not have won the World Cup, but there was a sense of pride over the endeavour shown. Those who did not live through the 1990 World Cup, or who support clubs that regularly enjoy success, may see the scenes at Luton as ‘celebrating failure’. But many others can totally appreciate why the England players enjoyed such a rapturous welcome home, having given everything in the semi-final and come so near to glory. Gascoigne was now arguably as well-known as anyone in the country and there was widespread belief that brighter times lay ahead for the team.

Meanwhile, Robson’s successor had yet to be officially confirmed. It was an open secret that Graham Taylor was due to take over. But an ongoing impasse over how much compensation the Football Association should pay Aston Villa was putting the move on hold. It was not until mid-July that Taylor was confirmed as England manager. Robson headed off to the Netherlands for a new chapter in his life, managing PSV Eindhoven and spending the 1990s at the helm of several high-profile clubs on the continent. He would enjoy widespread adoration in the later years of his life, Italia ’90 unquestionably marking a turning point for him.

In September we will look at the start of Taylor’s reign and the feelgood factor that surrounded England at the time. But before then we will focus on a man who has only been mentioned in passing during this chapter, but who was at the heart of England’s campaign – Paul Gascoigne. As Italia ’90 ended, ‘Gazzamania’ was sweeping the nation…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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