What if Poland had scored in the last minute of the final qualifier and England hadn’t made it to Italia 90?
Gazza’s tearful night in Turin, Bobby Robson’s redemption and the origin of a national hang-up about penalty shoot-outs – for England football fans, these are the abiding memories of Italia ’90.
England’s unexpected run to the semi-finals, cruelly ended by spot-kick defeat at the hands of the Germans, would become treasured as a heroic near miss, a launchpad for rekindling public interest in football. That would swell into a large-scale rebranding of the sport just two years later under the Premier League banner and a first step towards the product that now generates billions of pounds around the globe.
Yet for England it might never have happened.
It’s easy to forget, more than 30 years later, that Robson’s under-pressure side were inches away from failing to reach Italia 90 at all. England had slogged their way towards qualification, sharing two 0-0 draws with Sweden and needed another point from their final game, away to Poland on 11 October 1989, to book their place at the finals.
Having not let in a goal throughout qualifying, the veteran goalkeeper Peter Shilton is still unbeaten in Chorzów as the clock reaches 90 minutes. And then… the Poland midfielder Ryszard Tarasiewicz lines up a 30-yard drive. Shilton stretches frantically but cannot get his hand to the powerful shot, which thuds against his crossbar and rebounds back into play. Within seconds the referee sounds the final whistle and England are through, albeit only as one of the best runners-up across the European qualifying section. Cue sighs of relief from Robson, his players and all followers of the national team.
So what might have been the consequences had the trajectory of Tarasiewicz’s shot been only fractionally lower?
Robson Out, Kendall In?
Most obviously, defeat in Poland would undoubtedly have spelt the end for Robson as England manager (as it was, before the World Cup he accepted an offer to take over PSV Eindhoven when his contract expired) – his legacy very different from that of the avuncular elder statesman who came to be regarded with general affection throughout the game. Robson had been pilloried by the tabloids for some time. Only a year earlier, one newspaper branded him a “plonker” for confusing England’s opponents, Sweden, with Denmark. He had also come under pressure to resign after England flopped at the European Championship in 1988, finishing bottom of their group with three consecutive defeats.
After the disgrace of a failure to qualify, Robson may not have gone on to pick up a series of plum coaching jobs around Europe over the next decade. Nor would the CBE and subsequent knighthood have come his way.
As to the identity of Robson’s successor, there’s a fair chance that the FA would have looked beyond the claims of Graham Taylor, the man eventually tasked with building on the Italia 90 platform. By then, Taylor had impressed by guiding Aston Villa to the First Division runners-up spot – but in the autumn of 1989, the outstanding candidate to replace Robson would surely have been Howard Kendall.
Kendall had transformed Everton into genuine rivals to their city neighbours during the mid-80s, bringing the League title, an FA Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup to Goodison Park.
Despite an indifferent spell at Athletic in Bilbao, his stock was still high and he would have been available – unlike the other outstanding English manager of the time, Terry Venables, who had recently taken over at Tottenham. So no “Do I Not Like That” documentary, no superimposing root vegetables on the face of the England manager – and a different term than ‘wing-back’ for that position. It was Taylor who popularised the term by using it in Moscow in 1992 to describe his deployment of Andy Sinton.
No Italian Job For Gazza
Paul Gascoigne attained the status of a national icon the following summer, partly for his swashbuckling performances at Italia 90 and partly for his outpouring of emotion that captivated TV viewers. The Spurs midfielder’s tearful reaction as it dawned on him that his yellow card in the semi-final meant a suspension – should England progress – would become a defining image of the nation’s disappointment. It catapulted Gascoigne to superstardom, earning him a lucrative move to Lazio in an era when the Italian league was regarded as the pinnacle of the world game.
However, it’s worth remembering that Gazza was by no means an automatic selection for England in 1989 – he didn’t feature in that game in Poland and his place in the World Cup squad remained in doubt until a dazzling display against Czechoslovakia in a warm-up match. Without the World Cup to showcase his skills, would Gascoigne’s career path have been different? Maybe the hype all went to Gazza’s head, resulting in the loss of self-control that led to his reckless challenge on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final and put him out of action for more than a year with a knee injury?
Of course, Gascoigne wasn’t the only member of the England team whose achievements in Italy would usher him into the spotlight and ultimately bring about a move to a Serie A. David Platt, who formed a potent midfield partnership with Gazza during the tournament, boosted his reputation by volleying a dramatic last-minute winner against Belgium and then finding the net again in England’s quarter-final win over Cameroon.
Platt emerged as a key figure during Aston Villa’s title challenge that season and went on to sign for Bari in the summer of 1991 before moving on to Juventus and Sampdoria, as well as becoming England captain. However, the Villa midfielder did not even make his international debut until a month after that game in Poland – and who can be certain that his name would have been on the mind of Robson’s successor anyway?
Platt might have ended up with significantly fewer than the 62 England caps he eventually won, while Peter Shilton would certainly not have gone on to amass a final tally of 125 had he conceded in Poland. Having already broken Bobby Moore’s England appearance record earlier that year, Shilton – who had already turned 40 – would surely have felt compelled to retire from international football there and then.
England’s Spot of Bother
England’s elimination from the 1990 World Cup came about after their first brush with penalties, setting in motion a national inferiority complex that would endure for another 28 years.
Successive England managers would be quizzed ahead of every major tournament about the extent to which they had prepared the squad for the possibility of penalties – accompanied by an underlying tone of dread and foreboding. The English public became conditioned to expect failure from 12 yards out and those fears would be justified over and over again until Gareth Southgate’s side finally triumphed on spot-kicks against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup.
Southgate, of course, had been one of the fall guys as a player – taking the kick that sealed another semi-final defeat to Germany at Euro ‘96 – and the fact that England’s old rivals were beneficiaries again can only have increased the growth of this national trauma. But maybe Southgate – along with Paul Ince and David Batty (1998), David Beckham and Darius Vassell (2004), Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher (2006) and Ashley Young and Ashley Cole (2012) – might have felt under less pressure if Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle hadn’t set the tone for such public misgiving about the team’s penalty-taking abilities in 1990.
Birth of the Premier League
English football wasn’t in a good place back in 1989. Hooliganism had plagued the domestic game throughout much of the decade, resulting in the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster and Uefa’s subsequent decision to ban all English teams from their competitions. Football fans were widely regarded as undesirables, to be herded in and out of grounds and the tragic consequences of that approach had come home to roost at Hillsborough, six months before the qualifier in Poland.
In the wake of Hillsborough, the Taylor Report forced clubs to begin upgrading their stadiums and the need to finance that encouraged them to seek ways of increasing revenue through a reboot of the league and a new TV deal. But, while the Premier League was in the pipeline anyway, it was the appeal of Italia 90 and the performance of the England team that triggered a renewed public interest in the game, snowballing sufficiently to bring about that upheaval within two years. As the 1990s progressed, football’s image changed and a second upsurge in its popularity after England had hosted Euro 96 made the Premier League an attractive option for the world’s star players and wealthy investors.
It’s also worth considering whether Sky Sports would have thrived – or even survived – but for landing the contract to broadcast live Premier League matches in 1992.
At the time, the company had been struggling to broaden their audience, but the Premier League proved an irresistible hook to football fans around the country and Sky turned their losses into a £60m profit at the end of that first season.
Perhaps they, like others, have reason to be thankful that Tarasiewicz was marginally off target that night in Chorzów.
This article first appeared in Issue Three of The Squall, a monthly magazine we produced for six months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. You can read all six issues, for a recommended donation of £3 each, here.
Order our latest quarterly – including how the COVID-19 pandemic changed football, a look at a selection of infamous footballing individuals and an investigation of the Afghanistan women’s national team and their fight for justice – Issue 40.
For unique and original football storytelling every quarter from just £20 a year – subscribe to The Blizzard.