Don’t look back

Taylor Parkes watches a new film about Italia 90, a tournament that has assumed huge nostalgic significance for the English game

First published in 1991, Pete Davies’s All Played Out is still an astonishing read. An account of the author’s travels through Italy in a blazing World Cup summer, intercut with fly-on-the-wall stuff from an England camp to which he was granted an insane level of access (the subsequent tightening up is due in part to Davies himself, whose honesty cast the game’s top brass in a less than flattering light).

His long, informal chats with Lineker, Butcher, Waddle and Barnes – feet up, guard down – are unbelievably revealing and his close-up study of Bobby Robson says more about the man’s strengths and weaknesses than any straight biography could. But All Played Out is a book about England the country as much as England the team – sunk into late Thatcherism, caught between reflexive pride and drunken self-loathing, unsure of its future and the future of its national game. Some of Davies’s ponderings do now read like the thoughts of a young man (at least to this ageing, cynical man), but it’s hard to think of three better football books.

Precisely how this documentary is “based on” All Played Out, I’m not too sure. Passages are cut up, rearranged and used as narration (in Gary Oldman’s sombre tones) but its deeper themes are almost ignored. There’s not much here on the stubbornly yeoman-like nature of English football in 1990 or the encroaching commercialisation of the game, none of Davies’s uncomfortable insights into English society and English stupidity. This is primarily (and unashamedly) a toot of nostalgia for men of a certain age; you might wonder if it was based on Davies’s book just to get out of having to write a script.

One Night In Turin is one more documentary about England at Italia 90. It’s very watchable, but worryingly complacent. Its selling point is the previously unseen footage of the England squad training and relaxing, mullets and muscles everywhere. Uninspiring stuff, to be honest: jogging in the rain, horseplay on the golf course. In fact the clips from contemporary TV (Bobby Robson on Going Live or Des Lynam in tinted shades, raging at a lawnmower) do a better job of making the past seem creepily other, and it’s just a shame they’re cut up small to maintain the breakneck pace. That’s just the way these days, I suppose, but the whole film suffers from intrusive modern techniques.

The match footage is “livened up” with newly filmed, dropped-in close-ups meant to add extra visual interest (a ball, a boot, a rippling net) and the joins are all too obvious. Worse are the thunderous sound effects dubbed onto each kick, as though every ball were filled with nitroglycerine. There are, however, some very nice touches. As Robson consoles a blubbing Gazza before the semi-final shootout, non-lipreaders are provided with subtitles. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he says. “You’ve been one of the best players in the tournament. This is your first! You’ve got your whole career ahead of you.” It’s the most affecting moment in the film by far.

Perhaps because it hints at the elephant in the room. Italia 90 was, for English football, something of a false dawn (indeed, the tournament itself has been whitewashed – it was a rotten World Cup and England managed two good performances in six games, winning on neither occasion). Over the closing credits we see a montage of What Happened Next: Sky TV, Euro 96, the Premier League. It’s hard to gauge what we’re meant to feel here, but backed with the Farm’s grimly anthemic All Together Now, it looks oddly celebratory, almost smug.

What actually happened next was several more years of oafish, pisspoor domestic football, Graham Taylor’s England team, failure to qualify for a World Cup and then the gleeful gentrification which now leaves people like me priced out of the old Fourth Division. Of course the English league would improve as it grew less insular, but arguably the 1990 England squad, matured in the murk of the 1980s, was superior to the current model (Shilton, Gascoigne, Beardsley, Waddle, Lineker, Barnes and a soon-crocked Bryan Robson) and certainly superior to any England squad from the subsequent half-decade. One Night In Turin signs off with that sunny bus parade for the returning losers but chooses to omit Gazza’s plastic tits.

This is a film worth seeing for Englishmen who’ll never be 30 again, and are able to maintain a sense of perspective. But the danger with this kind of nostalgia is that it somehow becomes history.

From WSC 280 June 2010