‘We were like a boy band’ – How Italia 90 can inspire England in Russia
Paul Parker takes a trip down memory lane as he recalls his experiences at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where England reached the semi-finals under Sir Bobby Robson, as Gareth Southgate prepares to lead his side into Russia…
The atmosphere in the England camp at Italia 90 was bright. Everyone was relaxed as there were no great aspirations or expectations to win the tournament, with many people still reeling from what happened in 1986 and the ‘Hand of God’.
There was a little bit of negativity from outside the camp too as Sir Bobby Robson prepared for his final trip with England before his move to PSV Eindhoven, but I think this only contributed further to taking pressure off us.
I was very much the new kid on the block in Italy. While I had experience of youth football and had a few outings with the senior side, my competitive CV showed just 15 minutes for England. I needn’t have worried.
We were in-and-out of rooms; we had a games room, tennis courts and a swimming pool. But the main thing was communication – everyone spoke to, and got to know, each other. I was on my own when I arrived as the only Queens Park Rangers player, but after a month away I had grown to know loads of individuals.
England's Paul Parker (#12) moves in to tackle West Germany captain Lothar Matthaus (#10)Getty Images
Spirits in the group were always high because there were enough individuals who kept people laughing: Gary Lineker cut people to death with his one-liners, Paul Gascoigne liked doing silly things and Chris Waddle had his own sense of humour. People took the p***, but it was always done in good taste.
There were too many characters to name. Even the quieter players like Stuart Pearce would have their say. Our hotel was quite remote, stationed near the Sardinian coast, and it had the potential to get very solemn given 20 odd blokes were together for a long time. But players added humour to keep things fresh.
I remember one day when the Rangers boys (Gary Stevens, Terry Butcher, Chris Woods, Trevor Steven) decided to have dinner backwards. They turned up with their clothes back to front, and when we arrived they were already tucking into their desserts, before moving on to main course and starters. All the committee members, the blazers we called them, were in the background looking stony-faced – probably praying for punishment – but the players and immediate staff, Sir Bobby included, were laughing.
Then there was Gazza. There was a golf competition going on at our hotel, but he was more interested in running around the course just in his swimming trunks. It wasn’t appropriate, but it was just his nature – he was only ever serious for 90 minutes during a match. The moment you were in his company you had to expect the unexpected.
But it was this team spirit that carried England into the semi-finals in 1990; not ability. Some of the teams in the tournament had unbelievable individuals, but what we couldn’t match technically, we rivalled with spirit, passion and desire.
Landing at Luton Airport after the World Cup defined everything that had gone on when we were away. When we left England, barely one man and his dog turned up to wave us off, but when we returned nearly 300,000 people had crammed into Luton – a place people are normally desperate to get out of. We were like a boy band.
We did something no one expected. It transformed how we were seen as players. So even though England left to little fanfare before flying out to Russia on Tuesday, let's wait before saying nobody cares – there are signs there could be a repeat transformation in the national mood.
Sure, people would struggle to name a character in Gareth Southgate's dressing room – à la Butcher, Waddle, Lineker, Shilton, Beardsley, Barnes etc. in 1990 – but that's just a reflection on today's world. People are raised differently these days in football.
But while England may lack the personalities, they may yet be OK in Russia and that’s due to Southgate evoking another of Robson’s talents: his trust in players.
Southgate has reminded players of what it’s all about to play for their country, that it’s bigger than anything they can achieve for their club. When you see the performances of certain individuals, it’s clear they are so relaxed. If they take a positive decision and it doesn’t work, they’re brave enough to try again. Paul Gascoigne gained that confidence from Robson; there are signs Marcus Rashford is getting it from Southgate.
England manager Bobby Robson and doctor John Crane console Paul GasgoigneGetty Images
We felt like we were letting Robson down if we were playing poorly. He didn’t have to shout – a friendly ‘come on’ was enough to tell us we were playing terribly – as we wanted to put things right because of the respect we had for him.
He spoke from the heart and had fantastic integrity. Of course, there were sceptics after we started the World Cup with two draws against Ireland and the Netherlands, even though the second result was a brilliant point against the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard. The system we played in that match – three or five at the back, whatever you want to call it – suited us and gave us belief.
It was a decision taken by Robson. Yes, people came out and claimed the players said something to him after the 1-1 draw with Ireland, but he still had to say yes or no. People had an opinion, he agreed and said yes. It proved to be a great managerial decision, one that laid the platform for our run to the semi-finals, and another example of his brilliant communication.
Robson became part of our group. He would join us, watch films with us, and yet when game time arrived you still had the same respect for him. If your manager is relaxed, your outer-casing gets a little softer and you can enjoy your football more. If I could give Southgate one piece of advice, it would be to relax and become part of the team.
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