The Impact: 'It was an awful time. Poll-tax riots and Thatcher. England brought everyone together'

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The Independent Online

England may not have lifted the World Cup, yet the absence of a happy ending did not stop Italia 90 becoming a seminal moment for football in this country.

This is the view of author Pete Davies, who wrote a compelling account of England's campaign in Italy, 'All Played Out', and today, from a distance of 20 years, is more convinced than ever about the legacy it left.

"Italia 90 was the pivotal spur in changing the perception of English football, what it was and what it could be," says Davies, whose book, now reissued as 'One Night in Turin', inspired a recent documentary of the same name.

"It wasn't just the fact we got to the semi-final, it was the nature of the journey and the transformation of the image of the game and the centrality of Paul Gascoigne – the fact we evolved into a team that played some really beautiful, heroic football and the fact that the nation was able to gather around that.

"It was an awful time – poll-tax riots, Thatcher at the fag end of her premiership, recession. What sort of state was England in? But the England team brought everyone together."

It is a view shared by Gary Lineker, who speaks of a watershed moment. He says: "It wasn't just the working class watching football any more, it was right across the board with females, youngsters and a better atmosphere around football."

Davies underlines the symbolism of Bobby Robson's switch from "4-4-2 to playing a sweeper – it was like we are members of the planet, not bog-awful pariahs stuck on a crap little island".

The confirmation that English clubs' five-year post-Heysel exile was over came two days after the World Cup final – enhancing the sense of a fresh start.

League attendances, at a post-war low in 1985-86, had reached their highest level for eight years in 1989-90. The Taylor report's publication in January 1990 heralded a new era of all-seater stadiums. Moreover, the game's leading clubs had already entered into discussions with the new satellite companies about creating a super league, which John Barnes maintains was the "real turning point". He says: "The Premier League brought real money into it."

The winds of change were blowing beyond these shores too. In June 1990, the international board adapted the Laws of the Game to favour attackers, modifying the offside law to allow the forward to be online with the penultimate defender and introducing red cards for professional fouls. To counter the negative excesses so evident at Italia 90 – which led The Independent on Sunday correspondent Norman Fox to judge it "a mediocre World Cup"– the backpass ban followed two years later.

Here in England, the game could continue its late-Eighties resurgence buoyed by the knowledge that a record 26.2m people had watched the national team's semi-final.

It is intriguing to read the leader article in our sister paper, The Independent, published two days after England's semi-final loss in Turin. Calling for a streamlined "Premier division", it looked to the future, arguing for the need for "super-clubs playing in either existing European competitions or in a new European super-league" and urging clubs and even the national side to "start looking abroad for coaching talent". That future is here now.