Twenty years ago this summer, Bobby Robson's footballers went closer to winning the World Cup on foreign soil than any England side before or since. A semi-final shoot-out defeat by West Germany killed a dream but the English public came away feeling better about their national game than they had done for years. Read on to find out why it was the best of times – the finest songs and a surfeit of compelling storylines – and the worst of World Cups, featuring the fewest goals (2.21 a game).
If Gary Lineker has one regret about his life in football, it is the thought of how close he came to "winning the big one" with England at Italia 90. "It's the only thing I look back on with a thought of 'if only'," says the man who will head the BBC coverage of South Africa 2010.
"It was a really strong England team with a bit more creativity than other sides we have had. We were fractions from winning the World Cup." That England would have faced an Argentina side that won only two games outright to reach the final deepens the what-if feeling, yet England still returned to a heroes' welcome from 300,000 fans at Luton airport after an unlikely journey of redemption.
England had entered the tournament on the back of a fraught build-up with manager Bobby Robson savaged by the tabloid press after the news broke that he would be leaving for PSV Eindhoven after the finals – albeit after the FA had not extended his contract. Things hardly improved in a drab opening 1-1 draw with Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland. "Is this all there is to England?" asked Rome newspaper La Repubblica. Fortunately there was more, much more.
For the next match against Holland, Robson switched to a sweeper system and England, with Paul Gascoigne prominent, were transformed.
Lineker says: "Bobby was [thinking] about changing because of the way the Dutch played. He went to the experienced players – Bryan Robson, myself, Terry Butcher, Peter Shilton – and we all thought it would suit the type of players we had, particularly with Mark Wright, who was a natural player to come out with the ball." When Wright's header decided a tense final group game against Egypt, England were through as group-winners. Paul Parker, who excelled in a right wing-back role, said: "The whole atmosphere changed from how it was after 90 minutes against Ireland, where it was doom and gloom and papers demanding we come back."
However, England had to shrug off the loss of captain Robson with Achilles and toe injuries. Parker recalls that Robson damaged his left toe while "having a test of strength competition" with one of the team hotel's cast-iron beds. "The actual bed fell on to Bryan's toe." That Gascoigne was involved in that mishap is hardly a surprise. He was a central figure on and off the pitch, as Lineker recollects: "He was bright in those days, witty, and his practical jokes were unsurpassed. He'd drive you crazy occasionally, especially playing with him – he never passed unless he was either exhausted or you had no alternative but to give it him straight back."
The 23-year-old Gascoigne emerged as England's pivotal player. Against last-16 opponents Belgium, his surge upfield won a free-kick that led to David Platt's spectacular winner 30 seconds from the end of extra time. Gascoigne floated a ball into the box that a swivelling Platt volleyed in. Platt says: "The ball's come over my shoulder and I was just trying to direct it towards goal. I hit it so sweetly and that's taken the keeper by surprise. If I hadn't scored the goal, England may not have gone through and I might not have played the next game."
Platt duly headed the opener in a quarter-final against Cameroon where, as Lineker admits, England rode their luck. "Cameroon were as good a side as we'd ever played against going forward, and we were fortunate."
Inspired by 38-year-old Roger Milla, who illuminated Italy with his four goals and hip-wiggling celebrations, Cameroon had become Africa's first quarter-finalists. According to John Barnes, they made an impact even before the match by breaking into song in the tunnel. "We responded with a few 'Come on lads' and headbutting the walls and stuff – we were vociferous but they were much more cohesive than us and rhythmical."
Milla's introduction sparked two Cameroon goals in five minutes and it took two Lineker penalties to save the day. Robson's men had not had a penalty for four years but Lineker tucked away both. "When I stepped up to take the first, all sorts of negative thoughts were running through my head," he said.
England saved their best performance until last, only for their luck to run out in the semi-final against West Germany. "We hit the inside of the post, they scored a really lucky goal and we lost on a shoot-out," says Lineker, whose 80th-minute strike cancelled out Andreas Brehme's free-kick, which deflected off the out-rushing Parker and looped over Peter Shilton.
The woodwork denied both teams in an extra-time period remembered for Gascoigne's tears after he received a yellow card that would have ruled him out of the final. The tears really flowed when Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed their penalties.
England were out and an era was over – their failure to qualify for USA 94 meant that not one player graced the world stage again. Platt admits: "The magnitude of it didn't sink in. You're only young and you think, 'I'll have another World Cup in four years' time'. You don't realise how quickly your career comes to an end relative to World Cups."
It lends extra poignancy to the words Bobby Robson told Gascoigne on the pitch at the Stadio delle Alpi that night. "Don't worry, you've been one of the best players of the tournament. You've been magnificent. You've got your life ahead of you – this is your first."
The German view: 'You'd have won the final'
Andreas Brehme was the man whose penalty won the 1990 World Cup for West Germany but it is the semi-final against England, rather than a bad-tempered final against Argentina, that he remembers most fondly.
"That semi-final was the best match of the World Cup," said the former left-back. "It was a fantastic match involving two great teams – it was the final before the final. For 120 minutes the game went one way and then the other.
"England had an exceptional group with Gary Lineker, Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne. Paul was a great player, the same as when I played against him [for Internazionale against Lazio]. He had everything – he could win the ball, he struck the ball well, he could beat his opponent in a one-on-one. Technically he was strong and tactically too."
With Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann, Brehme was one of three Inter-based players in Franz Beckenbauer's German squad who eliminated Holland, reigning European champions, en route to the last four.
A dead-ball specialist, he admits that his deflected free-kick past Peter Shilton in Turin "was luck, nothing more". He later converted the Germans' first penalty but played down his country's shoot-out record in World Cups. "It is about concentration. We weren't convinced we'd win – we practised in training but in front of 60,000 people in Turin it is difficult. You can get nervous and perhaps the England players were a bit nervous."
The first reaction of Matthäus after the shoot-out was to put a consoling arm around Waddle. Brehme recalls the tremendous spirit between the sides. "It was very clean, 22 players with respect for each other."
The same could not be said of the final against nine-man Argentina, decided by Brehme's disputed late penalty. "That final was horrible, Argentina didn't have a corner, they didn't create a chance on goal. We had 10 chances to score. Argentina had a terrible World Cup but a lot of luck. Would England have beaten them? Definitely, 100 per cent."
Where are they now?
Peter Shilton Now involved in charity work and after-dinner speaking.
Paul Parker Emigrated to Australia, then Singapore where he is working as an ESPN analyst.
Mark Wright Had mixed fortunes in management; the last of three spells at Chester ended last June.
Des Walker Lives in Nottingham area, spends time on golf course.
Terry Butcher Has just taken Inverness Caledonian Thistle into Scottish top flight as manager.
Stuart Pearce Manager of England Under-21s and part of Fabio Capello's coaching team.
Chris Waddle Still turns out in Sheffield leagues and summarises for BBC radio.
Paul Gascoigne Living in North-east, battling alcoholism and mental health problems. Poignant figure at Bobby Robson's memorial service.
David Platt Match analyst for Sky Sports and Al-Jazeera.
Peter Beardsley In second spell coaching at Newcastle academy.
Gary Lineker The face of BBC's football coverage – as well as a popular brand of crisps.
Trevor Steven (sub) Combines football agency work with commentary for Irish broadcaster RTI.Reuse content