Armchair Pundit

Why can’t we forget about 1990?

Alex Chick

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In the absence of any football, last night I watched ITV's nostalgia trip 'Gazza's Tears: The Night That Changed Football'.

Scheduled for the 20th anniversary of that infamous night in Turin - and a couple of days ahead of the current World Cup semi-finals - it focused on everybody's favourite England defeat: the penalty shoot-out against West Germany in 1990.

What ITV had obviously hoped would be a rousing prelude to England in the last four in South Africa, instead represented a slightly melancholy throwback to a distant time when we were nearly contenders.

Happily, the programme was not really about Gazza's tears, but a well-constructed meander through England's campaign at Italia '90.

It's nothing we haven't seen hundreds of times, but there are some good archive clips and the talking heads including Eurosport-Yahoo! favourites Paul Parker and Jim White.

Although journalist Brian Woolnough rather lets the side down by suggesting only Peter Shilton knows whether Andreas Brehme's deflected free-kick was savable. Sorry Brian, I know, and so does anyone with a functioning pair of eyes.

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The programme's main attraction was hearing Paul Gascoigne's views on the semi-final. The man is clearly still gutted and was close to turning on the waterworks as he described his booking. Not sure I'd go along with his claim that he 'never touched' Thomas Berthold, though.

And it was quite amusing to hear Shilton's team-mates openly deride his attempts to save the German penalties.

It was even more fascinating to see footage from inside the squad, who clearly treated the whole thing like a Club 18-30 holiday - especially in light of the reported problems within the 2010 squad.

There's Chris Waddle pushing a birthday cake into Gazza's face, a rowdy horse racing night and Terry Butcher's admission that the squad spent most of the tournament on the lash.

I'm not a big fan of the romanticisation of the old-fashioned drinking culture in football. Players who booze are obviously going to be less professional and less fit than those that don't.

But I will say this: the Italia '90 squad certainly seemed to enjoy each other's company, which is more than you can say for the miserable bunch that moped their way through a dispiriting campaign in South Africa.

Programmes like this are never allowed just to tell a story, and feel duty-bound to tack an unconvincing conclusion on the end.

This claimed the 1990 campaign sparked the resurgence in football's popularity, a state they strangely chose to illustrate with multiple shots of Theo Walcott - a man who is perhaps the perfect embodiment of England's unfulfilled potential.

Of course Italia '90 did not hurt football's popularity or image, but a cursory nod to the Taylor Report, Sky TV and other more important factors would have been nice.

Furthermore, the optimistic picture painted of the modern game seemed to jar with the present state of national depression about English football, and the programme's own rose-tinted depiction of 1990 as a golden age.

As Waddle blazed his penalty into the arms of a seven-year-old in the crowd (who, now 27, presented the ball as evidence) I was in danger of getting swept up in 1990 and all that myself.

That is until my wife pointed out that the defining England moment of my lifetime was that time 20 years ago when we were the fourth best team in the world.

Sensing my sudden disenchantment, she stuck the knife in, adding: "It's a shame we're crap now."

As a nation, we are obsessed with a tournament in which we edged Egypt, and needed extra-time to see off Belgium and Cameroon - hardly a murderer's row of adversaries - then lost that infamous shoot-out to West Germany.

And as a 1990 Mark Austin ended his ITN report by calling penalties 'a lottery' I wondered whether the whole shebang didn't actually set us back by convincing us that heart and effort are an adequate substitute for technique and discipline.

Worst of all is the time span. ITV commentator Brian Moore said the West Germany semi-final was England's biggest match for 24 years. The same period again will have elapsed before we have another crack at winning the World Cup.

It really is a shame we're crap now.

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