Turning the clock back exactly 25 years in the latest of our recollections of Italia ’90, we recall one of the most joyful moments for any England fan – David Platt’s dramatic and perfectly executed last minute winner against Belgium.
June 26, 1990 was a tense and long night in Bologna. The Belgians, with the dynamic Enzo Scifo pulling the strings, had been unfortunate not to forge ahead as both Jan Ceulemans and Scifo – with a stunning effort – were denied by the woodwork. But the luck was not totally on England’s side, as John Barnes had been flagged offside when he put the ball in the net during the first half despite TV footage suggesting it should have stood.
England captain Bryan Robson had flown home injured, with Steve McMahon having stepped into the combative midfield role. But after 71 minutes McMahon was taken off, with David Platt brought on. The fresh legs offered by Platt and fellow substitute Steve Bull proved welcome as the match meandered into extra-time. That had brought no change to the score, as the clock passed the 118 minute mark. Then Paul Gascoigne used up one last surge of energy to go on a run into the Belgian half and earn a free-kick after being fouled.
As Gascoigne lined up to take it, Bobby Robson hollered at him to get it into the box rather than trying to do anything fancy. He lofted it into a crowded penalty area and it reached Platt, who had just remained onside. He brilliantly swiveled to volley the ball past Michel Preud’homme. Platt had managed to correctly follow the flight of the ball and time his connection just perfectly. It was a goal of quality and equally one of real joy for England.
“And England have done it in the last minute of extra-time,” proclaimed BBC commentator John Motson – words that were fairly obvious but fitted perfectly. His ITV counterpart Brian Moore was hailing the “fantastic finale”, as England spared themselves the agony of a penalty-shoot-out. It certainly wasn’t a bad time for Platt to net his first England goal.
Suddenly, there were scenes of sheer joy. Platt sank to his knees and was being mobbed by most of his team-mates, with Gary Lineker looking particularly delirious. Bobby Robson danced a little jig on the touchline, knowing he had at the very least matched his achievement of four years earlier of leading England into the last eight of the World Cup. After the final whistle sounded a minute or so later, the party was in full swing and there was the memorable sight of Terry Butcher and Chris Waddle dancing (mimicked in plenty of school playgrounds the following day) as “let’s all have a disco” rang out. Sadly for Platt, he was whisked away from the party and taken for a drugs test as he endured the customary long wait to be able to give a sample.
“Don’t get me wrong, the goal wasn’t a fluke. I had an eye for getting on the end of that sort of ball and the technical ability to finish those chances off. I worked hard on practising overhead kicks and volleys in training at Aston Villa but, even so, if I had re-enacted that chance against Belgium 10 times in training the next day there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t have scored once from it. It was just one of life’s rare, perfect moments.” David Platt in an excellent interview with The Guardian in 2010.
Platt’s rise to prominence was particularly impressive. In 1986 he had found himself surplus to requirements at Manchester United and dropped into the Fourth Division with Crewe Alexandra, where he thrived before moving to Aston Villa two years later. His form with Villa early in the 1989-90 season brought a first England cap against Italy in November 1989 and he never looked back. Although he had gone into Italia ’90 on the fringes, the goal against Belgium thrust the 24-year-old into the spotlight. He started the next game against Cameroon and opened the scoring, before netting in the penalty-shoot-out against West Germany and then heading home in the third place play-off against Italy. He could return home as one of England’s leading success stories. The tournament had made the Italian public aware of Platt and he would spend several years playing there from 1991 with Bari, Juventus and Sampdoria. Platt continued to be a regular for his country until 1996, proving a natural successor to Bryan Robson as a goal scoring midfielder and often being England’s main marksman during the early 1990s.
But had Platt not scored against Belgium, then who knows how things would have panned out? Had they lost on penalties then one suspects Italia ’90 would not be as fondly remembered in England as it is. Bobby Robson would not have bowed out a hero and Paul Gascoigne would almost certainly not have been voted Sports Personality of the Year. There would have been no dramatic win over Cameroon and no tears from Gazza against West Germany. Platt’s goal was the moment that World Cup sprung to life for England, not unlike Bobby Charlton’s goal against Mexico in 1966 or Gascoigne’s against Scotland in Euro ’96. It was a special moment for both the player and the country.
Critics may argue England may have been a bit lucky to win on the balance of play. But Robson’s men had also made their own luck and Platt’s goal was anything but lucky.
When Brazil crashed to their astonishing 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany on Tuesday, the last thing they probably wanted was to have to stick around for another four days for the formalities of a third-fourth place play-off. Judging from Louis van Gaal’s comments that it “should never be played”, it seems the Dutch aren’t enthralled about tonight’s contest either. But has it always been like this? In one World Cup, England found themselves in the play-off when they came up against hosts Italy in 1990…
There are two main problems with the ‘consolation match’. The first is both teams are heartbroken, having just missed out on a place in the final. The last thing anybody wants to be doing when the dream has gone is to have to wait several days for another match which has no influence over the destiny of who wins the tournament. The second issue is the prize for winning this match isn’t really big enough to motivate anybody. While third place sounds a bit better than fourth, there is no glory in it and it isn’t what any team strives for. One can see the significance of the Olympic bronze medal match, but the World Cup does not work like that. The European Championship copes without such a match and so do English and European club competitions. There was an odd flirtation with it in the FA Cup for a short time in the 1970s, but that was unsurprisingly binned off.
But despite its limited reputation, the play-off match rarely fails to provide entertainment. Since 1982, every World Cup third-place match bar one has contained more goals than the following day’s final (the exception was 1998, when both matches had three goals). It has often helped players towards the Golden Boot prize and allowed others on the fringes to be rewarded for their patience with a World Cup finals appearance, as well as usually being an open contest and providing a couple of historic moments. The brilliant curling goal by Nelinho for Brazil against Italy in 1978 was one, the competition’s fastest ever goal from Hakan Sukur for Turkey against South Korea in 2002 being another (I will always regret switching my TV on about a minute into this one and missing it when it happened).
The end of an era for England
For England, the third-place match in 1990 against Italy is often forgotten amid the more famous memories of their best World Cup on foreign soil. When any documentary tells the story of that English summer, it seems somewhat anti-climatic to go from recalling the drama of the match against West Germany to the limited significance of whether England were the best of the losing semi-finalists in Italy. But we shouldn’t forget that this match marked the end of an era for two men synonymous with the England set-up.
Bobby Robson went out to the World Cup knowing his eight-year reign as manager was about to end and with his reputation still having not totally recovered from the horrors of the 1988 European Championship. England rode their luck a bit along the way, but they had gone on to reach the last four and Robson’s popularity suddenly soared. They had played with passion and produced one of their best displays in years during the semi-final against West Germany. Although it had ended in a heartbreaking penalty-shoot-out loss, England’s reputation back home was the highest it had been for a long time. Robson was left filled with a mixture of pride and regret by England coming so close, I think most of us had. But he was determined to end with a good showing against Italy.
Also coming to an end would be the England career of Peter Shilton, after 125 caps. I seem to recall his international retirement wasn’t confirmed until after the game, but it was no surprise. It was the right time to go at the age of 40. While the third-place game has been known as a chance to give fringe players a runout, Robson’s loyalty to Shilton and private knowledge he was about to retire meant he was given his final cap rather than a runout for deputy Chris Woods. The tournament would also mark the end of Terry Butcher’s England career, although he would not play in the third-place match. Both Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle were absent from the starting line-up after missing penalties against the Germans and Paul Gascoigne was suspended, as Tony Dorigo, Steve McMahon, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens came into the side. Neil Webb would come off the bench, leaving Steve Hodge as the only England outfield player not to feature during the finals.
It was quite common in this era for the third-place match not to be shown live on British television, but in 1990 it was covered by both the BBC and ITV. This meant Barry Davies and Alan Parry would both enjoy commentating on a live England match at the World Cup far later than they might have expected, with John Motson and Brian Moore saving themselves for the final between Argentina and West Germany 24 hours later. There were some comparisons between Italy’s positions and that of Brazil now, as a World Cup host with strong football heritage who had fallen short of winning the World Cup relatively recently after doing so abroad. But Italy had, like England, suffered penalty-shoot-out heartache in the semi-final; this time around Brazil have been well and truly humiliated as hosts.
Outshining the World Cup Final
The match wasn’t a classic, but it was a reasonable, enjoyable contest between two sides wanting to end on a high. It certainly outdid the following night’s abysmal final in every positive way. The atmosphere may have been fairly low-key, but the Italians played with determination and tried several long-range shots in the first-half including a Roberto Baggio half-volley. Shilton dealt with them, appearing to justify Robson’s faith in him. At the other end Gary Lineker uncharacteristically fired in a shot from about 25 yards out as he sought to retain the Golden Boot he won in 1986.
All the goals came in the final 20 minutes. A harmless-looking backpass from McMahon saw Shilton caught in two minds between picking it up and clearing it. As he hesitated, Baggio dispossesed him and appeared to be fouled by the goalkeeper. The ref played on and Baggio capped a good tournament by putting Italy ahead. “Well that’s a terrible mistake by Peter Shilton,” said his former international team-mate Trevor Francis, co-commentating on ITV.
Summing up their battling tournament, England refused to throw in the towel and levelled as a tremendous Dorigo cross was met with a bullet header from David Platt. Bobby Robson was up off the bench and urging his players to go on and win it. But five minutes from time he was left disappointed as Toto Schillaci was adjudged to have been felled in the area by Paul Parker. “Oh no, oh no,” howled Davies in bemusement at the decision, as Robson waved his arms in disgust. Looking for his sixth goal of the tournament, Schillaci took the spot-kick and restored Italy’s lead.
England sign off from the 1990 World Cup
There was still time for an excellent looping header by Nicola Berti to be dubiously disallowed. But it didn’t affect the outcome, while the defeat wouldn’t impact on how England’s World Cup was remembered. At the final whistle, they joined their opponents for the presentation and performed the Mexico Wave together.
England were treated as heroes when they arrived back home the following day. As well as their first semi-final appearance in the World Cup overseas, they collected the Fair Play trophy. The European ban on English clubs was about to end. This was a good time to be an England fan. And nobody seemed bothered they’d lost the third-place match…