Football: England at the World Cup: 1990 Italy - England's gritty struggle ends in tears

The 1990 finals signalled the end of romanticism and the beginning of an age of players as public property. Terry Butcher tells Ken Jones how the pressure grew on Bobby Robson's squad both on and off the pitch
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England 1 Rep of Ireland 1

England 0 Netherlands 0

England 1 Egypt 0


England 1 Belgium 0 (aet)


England 3 Cameroon 2 (aet)

Germany 1 Czechoslovakia 0

Argentina 0 Yugoslavia 0

(aet; Argentina won 3-2 on pens)

Italy 1 Rep of Ireland 0


England 1 Germany 1

(aet; Germany won 4-3 on pens)

Argentina 1 Italy 1

(aet; Argentina win 4-3 on pens)


Italy 2 England 1


Germany 1 Argentina 0

VETERAN World Cup observers, including one or two with a full attendance record since the Second World War, agreed that Italia 90 was the worst in their memory; no outstanding team, style at a premium, hardly an individual performance worth speaking about. "The game has lost it's soul," Joao Saldanha, the journalist and former Brazil coach, said shortly before his death in Rome just a few days after Germany defeated Argentina in the final.

Thinking modern developments a curse, especially the rapid spread of commercialism, Saldanha went sadly. "The last of the romantics," someone said of him and certainly there were precious few at work in the finals that summer.

Not that anybody in England's camp cared a hoot about criticism as plans were laid down for a semi-final against West Germany. Only in the year of their sole triumph had England progressed so far. Twice almost out, first against Belgium, then against Cameroon, the great prize glittered in their imagination. "By then we felt capable of winning it," Terry Butcher recalled.

Butcher, now a hotelier in Scotland [he also works with the youth squad at Raith Rovers] after ending his playing career on a high note with Rangers, will be at the finals in France working for BBC Radio. "It's going to bring back a lot of memories," he said.

The achievement of selection for three World Cup squads when making a total of 77 appearances for England gives Butcher a rare insight but it is Italia 90 that stands out most vividly. "I started out wondering whether I would get into the team," he said. "I didn't seem to fit into the sweeper system Bobby Robson had in mind and then I behaved stupidly at the end of a warm-up match in Tunisia, taking off my shirt and throwing it on the floor. It was reported as a protest but in fact I was angry with myself for playing so poorly."

Robson was again under fire, England's sub-standard display in North Africa leading, typically, to a tabloid witch-hunt. "For Allah's sake go," was just one of the smart-aleck headlines. "Things had changed a lot during my time in the game," Butcher said. "With Ipswich and England I had got on well with sportswriters, feeling that the majority could be trusted. But by then there were people around who had been sent just to dig up scandal, watching our every move, making something out of nothing."

It didn't help when a story broke alleging that a liaison officer, Isabella Ciaravola, had become involved with members of the England squad in Sardinia. "That put the lid on it," Butcher said. "We became wary and Des Walker refused to speak with the media under any circumstances. It's even worse now. The players know about me, know what I did in the game and in that sense I'm still one of them, but they aren't all that keen on giving an interview."

The doubts Butcher held eight years ago were removed when Robson included him for England's opening match against the Republic of Ireland in Cagliari. Drawn into the direct method that the Republic's charismatic manager, Jack Charlton, employed with considerable success, England never got going. "No matter what people said about Jack's policy the Irish could make life difficult," Butcher added.

Gary Lineker's goal after only nine minutes was the start England wanted but, with 17 minutes of a grim encounter left, Kevin Sheedy equalised for the Republic.

Never the most decisive of managers, Robson altered his strategy for the next match against the Netherlands, deploying the swift Walker as cover for two central markers. "The Dutch had some terrific players - Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard, Koeman - but they didn't seem half the team that won the European championship a couple of years earlier," Butcher said. "Not that we had much to shout about." Mostly the form of Paul Gascoigne, his powerful surges from midfield giving the Netherlands their most worrying moments.

Top of their group after defeating Egypt 1-0, England were extremely fortunate to carry their challenge past Belgium. "In truth they deserved to beat us," Butcher said, "but that's football and David Platt made his name with the volley that won it."

More good fortune to come. "I have to admit it," Butcher said, "Cameroon tore us to pieces. We knew they had some extremely talented players but weren't prepared for their teamwork and effort. We were down 2-1 with about 15 minutes to go when the manager replaced me with Trevor Steven. Sitting on the touchline I couldn't see us scoring until Gary [Lineker] panicked them into giving away a penalty. Another in extra-time put us through but my goodness it was close."

It all ended with penalties and tears. "We were transformed against Germany, hitting our best form but not getting that bit of luck all teams need," Butcher said. "The only genius Germany showed was from the penalty spot. The pressure on the takers is enormous," Butcher said. "Walking up to the ball knowing that billions are watching. You can practice every day, put the ball exactly where you want it time after time and still make a mess of the responsibility. Nothing much disturbs Stuart Pearce on the field and yet he couldn't drive his kick home. Chris Waddle strikes a great ball, but he failed, too."

Butcher remembers Pearce and Waddle being inconsolable, his heart going out to them. And the Germans so clinical. "Just like they were again when it came to penalties in Euro 96," he said. " All of them ice cool."

Outside the stadium afterwards Germany's bus drew alongside England's. "We could see hear their players singing and shouting," Butcher said. It's a sound he will always remember.