In the most crucial match in the history of English Football, Mark Wright nudged in a header against the stubborn Egyptian to help England through as the toppers of Group F, where the fate of the teams was hanging in the balance until the respective last group matches. Holland and the Republic of Ireland drew again, but England did the opposite. Egypt had to leave and just imagine, Wright hadn’t scored, England would have been left to draw lots with their opponents to determine who went through as the best third-place team and who was eliminated.
The above words might give one an idea, those who did not watch Italia 90 live, that England might have been terrible during their group matches. But as a matter of fact, they had been far better than Holland – Euro Champions 1988, and the Irish and Egyptians.
Sir Bobby Robson had regrouped a bunch of fighters and youngsters – Gary Lineker, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne, Terry Butcher, Mark Wright, Stuart Pierce, Bryan Robson, Paul Parker, Des Walker, Chris Waddle, Peter Shilton, and David Platt – to strike gold and fight back until the end.
They lost the skipper Robson in the middle of the tournament due to an injury, but rather than getting demotivated, it made the unit determined enough.
It was evident in the knockout stages.
The tense night at Bologna
On June 26, 1990, at Bologna; a brilliant Belgium met Sir Bobby Robson’s boys.
That Belgium of 1990 had matured in the course time and players like Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemens, Mark De Gryse, Van der Elst, and De Wolf had become world beaters since 1986. It was a much better unit than the one, which shocked Brazil in Kazan two years ago. But it was one of those nights, where, in the battle of nerves and luck, they failed to click.
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.
Van der Elst said, “When we entered extra time, we didn’t feel that we should be satisfied with a draw. We were the better team and felt that we could decide the match before the penalty shootout”.
According to Waddle, “As the game went on you could see both teams thinking that they didn’t want to give anything away, so you become a bit more cautious, playing no-risk football. I couldn’t see anyone scoring”.
Shilton said, “As the minutes ticked away, it started to cross my mind that this could be our first penalty shootout with England”.
The David Platt moment
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 swivelled 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.
According to Platt, “The ball dropped over my shoulder and I just tried to get something on it. There wasn’t a great deal of power. It was all technique”.
“Everything was intuitive, the way I met and hit the ball and then dropping to my knees. Instinct just took over. I’d never ever dropped to my knees after scoring before – I don’t know why I did. 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”.
Van der Elst said, “When I realized that the ball had gone over my head, Platt had already scored”.
“The worst thing was that we couldn’t do anything – we did not get the chance to put it right. I was heartbroken. You come into the hotel and the first thing you do is empty your cupboard and fill your suitcase. It was very hard. And it dragged on enormously. When you get home you get another kick. On the way home, you are still together with the group and you digest the loss with the team. But at home, the first days I went to the bakery, and that was it. I stayed at home a lot, trying to avoid people. If I look back at it, I was involved [as Platt’s marker]. You still feel guilty. It was my fault. But Platt also did a great job”.
Belgium were left stunned, but it was a moment of joy and a piece of history for England.
They prevailed in a battle of nerve and skill.
As Waddle said, “I remember going over to the fans and clapping them, their arms were going up and down, so I and Terry were so happy that we just started to do the same. That image was shown everywhere and it’s funny because it’s almost part of that Belgium game now. People talk about Platty’s goal and some of the incidents, but they’ll always say: “Remember at the end, Butcher and Waddle doing that dance?” I think we were on such a high because two years previous, in 1988, we lost all three games in the group stage at the European Championship finals and got hammered. And even before the World Cup, it was like: “Get yourselves home, you’re not good enough to compete.” Suddenly, though, it felt different. After what seemed like hours in the dressing room, we went back to the team hotel and Terry got a big tray of beers in for us. And then another”.
At Naples England would overcome the threat of Cameroon, but the Germans would leave Gascoigne and England in tears.
They would claim fourth place and win the FIFA Fairplay award.