A sample from the autobiography, ‘Confessions of a King’s Road Cowboy.’
Chapter 29. Italia ’90
‘Football, it seemed to me, is not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting. The lovers of football are large, boisterous, nobbly boys who are good at knocking down and trampling on slightly smaller boys. That was the pattern of school life — a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak.’
– George Orwell.
We had become a nation of riot and robbery, anarchy and rampage. The late eighties saw a string of events that were to damage our sporting reputation, and establish ourselves as hooligans throughout the globe. English football hooligans were ruining Britain and we needed a team to get us out of it.
The Heysel Stadium disaster occurred on May 29th, 1985. Rioting began and it was started by the English. Escaping fans were pressed against a wall at the stadium in Brussels before the start of the European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool. Thirty-nine Juventus fans died. After it, Britain didn’t think it could get any worse. But everywhere England played abroad, fans rioted. Only when it went local did the nation really have enough.
Even the words ‘Hillsborough disaster’ still make men shudder. It will surely forever be, in sport and British news, one of the truly sad things. It was an FA Cup semi-final and we have all seen the footage. The crush resulted in the deaths of ninety-six people and injuries to 766. It remains the worst stadium-related disaster in British history and one of the world’s worst football events.
A horrendous thing now surrounded English footy; it was as if a carpet of disease had been placed over us and England were banned from entering any European tournaments. The press called it ‘the English disease’. On the pitch, the players were not performing and off the pitch Bobby Robson was the subject of a press hate campaign; so the World Cup was set to be a disaster – there was even talk of a ban – and all were expecting English fans to riot and cause havoc but instead, something else happened, something incredible happened, and Italia ’90 is known today as a milestone in English football because of it. Italia ’90 was a PR exercise, everyone expected the worst but instead of giving us riots, England gave us something else, Gazza.
During my hitchhiking days, I grew close with my three Roman nephews, they were sons of my sister Maria and one of them happened to know a production assistant on a Bruce Willis film. He knew that the producer had rented an apartment overlooking the Forum for a year, but that it would be vacant for the World Cup, because they didn’t want to shoot the film during the tournament. I rented it for a month and it was the most fantastic flat. I had a party attended by my nephews and their well-to-do, well-connected Roman friends, but none had seen a view like it in Rome, across the Forum to the Coliseum. I simply wasn’t to know how phenomenal a trip I was about to have as I sat drinking a cold beer, admiring that view. I didn’t know how essential the events of the next few weeks were to be on the future of English football. Of England.
Against the hard battering on the team by an unrelenting press, everything was going great; Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne had announced himself on the world stage and was appearing as somewhat of a phenomenon. Lineker was banging in goals all over the place and Robson was proving himself as an experimental, confident and capable manager. The boys’ performance was having a knock-on effect across the country, and receiving word back from London, the pubs were filled with smiling happy people; everyone just loved Gazza and Bobby Robson was no longer the country’s enemy. Some people were even dancing on the streets.
Adam Whittaker, a friend from London, came to stay. He was managing director at Limelight, Siobhan and Steve Barron’s company. Adam brought with him someone called Keith Allen and a girl called Helen who had a commercials production company. I didn’t know Keith at that time, but he has since become well known as an actor, writer and singer and, of course, father of singer Lily Allen. Keith knew John Barnes, as he had written the lyrics to the England team World Cup song ‘World in Motion’, a song that Barnsie rapped, and this was how it all began…
The England team had done it the right way, Robson told them all to get it right on the field, and all the problems would vanish. They did just that and football, not scandal, was grabbing our headlines. England had made it through to the semis to play West Germany in Turin. The four of us flew there and went to the stadium and John Barnes passed us tickets through the fence. The nation was on the edge of their seats. We needed out of this hooligan culture for good. Come on England!
Today, the game has gone down as one of the most important in English football. It was the game that saw Gazza receive his second yellow card. It was when Lineker turned to Bobby Robson (famously) and gestured for him to keep an eye on Gazza. You see, Gazza had been given his second yellow, which meant he would not play in the final and Lineker was right – Gazza burst into tears, but not yet – first they would need to lose to West Germany on penalties. One photographer captured the moment of Gazza lifting his shirt to his face and it was the image that came out of the World Cup for Britain; it was poignant, it was patriotic and it was England’s first ever penalty shootout. For West Germany, it was their third. Shilton was in goal and was acting captain at the time but he was not experienced at shootouts. Our kickers, Lineker, Beardesley and Platt, had scored but Stuart Pearce hit it down the middle and Illgner blocked it with his legs. The country knew that the boys had taken us to a great place so far and the PR campaign had been a success – getting to the final would have been nothing but extra. Chris Woddle shot left-footed, over the bar to the left as Illgner guessed correctly. The question remains, if Waddle had scored and Berthold then missed, who would have taken England’s sixth pen? My guess… Gazza. But it’s academic now; the boys had lost to West Germany and they were out of the tournament. The thing was, they hadn’t lost lost, they had done what the country needed of them, they had kept their dignity, they had remained gents, but… the celebrations had not yet begun.
The four of us drove our rental car, looking for the country hotel where the England team were staying. Eventually we saw some carabinieri with submachine guns and we knew we had found it. We blagged our way past the police and were in the lobby of the hotel. Gazza was on the phone to his father back in Newcastle, in tears. Sometimes, there’s nothing more heart wrenching than seeing a man cry, especially over something so important in the world as football. I gave him a consoling hug, and he cried on my shoulder. The rest of the team were in a small bar, dealing with the loss a different way. We were the only people there apart from the team. I sat next to Lineker and I still remember what he told me: ‘It’s a scandal that important games end in penalties.’ The truth was, West Germany had a lot more experience in shootouts than England, and penalties were now to haunt England way into the future. Lineker told me that Pearcy (Stuart Pearce) was crying in his room because he had missed, but to understand this, one needs to understand it in context for non-football fans. Football is something that is built into the English culture like pubs or the weather, it is one of the essential ingredients that make England England. For the working class, we needed heroes, and for most of the country, those heroes weren’t politicians, they weren’t bankers, or any other upper echelon of society, no no, they were football players. Representing the country in football at the World Cup has a lot of pressure attached, but Italia ’90 was something else, there were political ramifications and we, the people, needed them to perform. It was pressure of a different kind. It’s worth noting as well that football was different then, and the likes of John Barnes, Garry Lineker and Gazza were heroes for British folk, they were men who kids could relate to; it was different than today with all the money and the glamour. The players now are often seen as superheroes but back then in Italia ’90, they were human beings and Gazza, crying on my shoulder, was surely proof of that. Bobby Robson kept coming around trying to get the players to go to bed. ‘You have an important game on Saturday, you can party after that,’ he said, but the boys were not convinced. Lineker said to me that no one cared about that game, it was the third-place play-off. Robson came back once more trying to get them to go to bed but he was struggling; these lads had the weight of an entire nation on their shoulders. Something happens during the World Cup and it is unique, much like the Olympics, but everyone on British soil comes together and manages to shelve any prejudice or forget any history of the empire, but instead: support England, and it’s football that does it. In the bar, Bobby Robson looked down at me and told me, ‘You are a very bad influence on my lads.’ Bobby Robson became a national hero for taking the England team to the World Cup semis, and he was knighted as a result. Sir Bobby Robson passed away in 2009 and will be remembered for a long time to come as a national treasure. I was proud to have met that man.
We were in the third-place play offs, which was in Bari in the South. After the game, which England lost (because they couldn’t give a damn), we went back to the hotel and arrived just as the team were finishing dinner and presenting commemorative medals to their coaches, trainers and physios. When the dinner and presentations were over, the players picked up Bobby Robson and threw him in the pool. I have some great shots of that. The boys were out of the World Cup and they had lost their playoffs, but they had won the world’s respect back and had done a great thing for the country. The job was done in a lot of ways and the pressure was off. As expected, they got drunk, and did they get drunk! We stayed up all night, boozing and singing anthems until it was dawn. I recall John Barnes even rapped out his famous ad and they all went skinny dipping in the pool. The players had their swimming costumes on, but we four from Rome did not! I’ve got great shots of that too, but I won’t include those in the picture section of this book! At 8am, all the wives and girlfriends (WAGs) arrived. They weren’t allowed to travel with the team during the tournament so they were shipped out for the last game and final party – after a month-long tournament, all the poor girls wanted was a night to celebrate with their men, but the players objected and didn’t want any of their women at the final party. Our friend Helen was the only girl there, and I think she made the most of it, with one of the better-looking players… who of course I will not mention. So, having flown from England especially, the WAGs were put up in a distant hotel and only saw their fellas when they collected the players on the way back to the airport. They had an open bus ceremonial ride when they got back to England. It was famous because Gazza was photographed for all the newspapers wearing a pair of fake female breasts. The beginning of Gazza’s antics had just begun. I spoke to him on the phone later. He told me they were all completely hung over when they did that ride through London.
After the all-night party, the four of us from Rome drove back, also with hangovers. I dropped the others off at the flat and in great shock I realised I had a ticket to the final – West Germany and Argentina! I turned on my heels and ran for the car – but didn’t arrive at the stadium until half time. I remember thinking, as I walked into the stadium, I must be the only man in the world to get a ticket to the World Cup final and miss half the game! On that note, and after what I had experienced, my god – what a boring game, or maybe I was just one of the ninety-nine percent of Brits who once again didn’t give a damn about football now England were out?!? No, it wasn’t true – and that game is now renowned as one of the most boring finals of all time; the England vs. West Germany match, however, is renowned as being the most dramatic and intense in the entire tournament.
I went to another World Cup final, in LA, USA ’94 between Italy and Brazil. That was also a boring one, and went to a penalty shoot-out. The biggest tragedy was that Roberto Baggio, who pretty much singled-handedly got Italy to the final, was the one who missed. He took the kick just below where I was sitting, and I have a photograph of him with his head lowered in shame and disappointment. My heart went out to him; he had been so brilliant throughout the tournament, and all I could do was think of the boys: Pearce, Lineker, John Barnes, Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley, David Platt, Gazza. Football isn’t the same today. It was different then, then it belonged to us, like all of these things, it was a time. Even now, twenty-five years on, English football still rides the crest of the wave those men created on that field and the massive names that go with that squad – heroes to today’s players. Everyone will remember the squad from Italia ’90, especially me – I got pissed and naked with them! For Germany, it would be the last tournament to feature a German side representing a divided Germany; we were in the nineties now, Thatcher was out, Major was in, and Britain was changing. England were allowed back into European competitions. Change was coming, to us all.