Tears and heartbreak in Turin
It was the most memorable night of Bobby Robson’s career as England manager when, in glorious defeat, the former Ipswich Town boss was taken to the collective heart of the footballing nation. TERRY HUNT watches a film which brings back all the rollercoaster memories of one of the national football team’s most iconic games
So revered is Sir Bobby that it is difficult to recall how very different things were just 20 years ago. In 1990, after eight years as England manager, and in the build-up to the World Cup Finals in Italy, Robson’s reputation was on the floor. Despite a brave showing in the 1986 World Cup – England only lost to Maradona’s “Hand of God’’ goal – Robson’s record as national team boss was unimpressive, and the tabloids were hounding him at every turn.
Lacklustre performances in qualifying for the 1990 World Cup contributed to increasingly hysterical back page headlines from the Fleet Street red tops. “Plonker,’’ screamed one. “For God’s Sake, Go’’ demanded another.
Just hours before England’s plane was due to leave for Italy, an obviously furious Robson and Football Association secretary Graham Kelly were forced to front up at a press conference to respond to more unsavoury coverage. White-faced with fury, Robson could not stop himself interrupting Kelly to condemn the stories as “garbage.’’
It is on this less-than-promising note that the new film, One Night In Turin, takes up the extraordinary story of England’s 1990 World Cup campaign. For many football fans, of course, the tournament is epitomised by the image of Paul “Gazza’’ Gascoigne crying into his England shirt after the team’s desperate semi-final defeat to West Germany in a penalty shoot-out.
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Not surprisingly, that picture is the one selected for the DVD cover. But, for football followers in this part of the world at least, it is the total rehabilitation of Bobby Robson which came about as a result of England’s performances in this tournament which holds the greatest fascination.
At first, it was one step forward, two steps back for Robson. He took another pasting from the papers when someone helpfully “leaked’’ that his England contract was not being renewed after the World Cup, and that he had sorted out a managerial role for himself in Holland. In the twisted world of the tabloid writers, this somehow led to Robson being portrayed as a traitor to the nation. Another, more balanced, view might have been that he had simply avoided the dole queue.
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Robson, naturally, is at the heart of the film’s narrative of the tournament, which employs high-quality archive footage of matches, media conferences, and the England squad at rest in their training camp in Sardinia. Gazza features heavily, of course, either characteristically clowning for the cameras, or wasting his legendary energy playing tennis with fans in the burning Italian heat. With every view of the cheeky, bright-eyed, and immensely talented young Gascoigne, there is a growing sadness when thoughts turn to the haunted individual of the present day.
But back to Robson. Despite a disappointing opening game against arch-rivals Ireland, things perk up when the England boss (allegedly following suggestions from the players themselves) adopts the controversial European-style “sweeper’’ system for the match against European champions Holland. It works well, and England are up and running.
As the story progresses, so the tabloids fade deeper and deeper into the background as England’s performances improve. Fickle? Our national newspapers? Perish the thought! At the same time, a less uptight, smiling Robson emerges – the affable football enthusiast so loved by Ipswich Town fans for his exploits at Portman Road in the 1970s and 1980s.
Off the pitch, there is the dark and ever-present threat of violence from England’s notorious travelling fans. Trouble erupts on more than one occasion, and Italian police scoop up and deport 250 in one night, leading to the inevitable accusations of over-the-top strong arm tactics.
After qualifying from their group, England see off Belgium in the last 16, and Cameroon in the quarter-final, thanks to two Gary Lineker spot-kicks. That means England face West Germany, playing its last game as divided nation, for a place in the World Cup Final.
West Germany, under the management of Frans Beckenbauer and the captaincy of Lothar Mattheus, are the tournament favourites. But reborn England are confident. There is a delicious interview with Robson, on the morning of the big match, in which he is like an excited schoolboy. He bubbles with wide-eyed enthusiasm, constantly having to stop himself from racing too far ahead. More than once he makes it obvious that he is certain if his boys can beat the Germans, then the Argentineans will be no problem in the final.
He is so close to the World Cup Final that he can almost touch it. Only one English manager had ever reached football’s biggest final, and that man just happened to be Sir Alf Ramsey, who himself had also cut his teeth as a manager at Ipswich Town, and who for many years lived just a few hundred yards down the road from Robson in Ipswich. The story is that these two footballing greats would sometimes bump into each other as they walked their dogs.
Ramsey, of course, had achieved the ultimate: his captain Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy at Wembley in 1966. Could Robson repeat that feat – and this time on foreign soil? It was that close…
The centre-piece of the film, inevitably, is a forensic analysis of the semi-final. There are new and fascinating views of iconic moments: why couldn’t Shilton save Andreas Bremer’s deflected free-kick? Why didn’t Chris Waddle’s late cross-shot go in, instead of hitting the post? How did Gazza miss the rebound? Why are England so useless at penalties?
There are Gascoigne’s tears, of course, firstly after his booking meant he would be banned for the final, and then much, much more sobbing at England’s eventual exit. There are touching scenes as Robson attempts to console his young star. The film uses lip readers to tell us what Robson is saying to the disconsolate Gascoigne. There’s nothing too mind-boggling, frankly, but the compassion and humanity of Robson, even in gut-wrenching defeat, shines through.
The film ends with England being hailed as heroes on their return. An open-topped bus is mobbed by adoring fans. It is difficult to imagine such adulation being heaped on any other national football team which had finished fourth in the World Cup.
But the most remarkable aspect of this story is the transformation of Bobby Robson from tabloid hate figure to much-loved elder statesman of our national game. It was during the 1990 World Cup that the nation’s football fans first saw Robson’s true qualities: his compassion, his enthusiasm, his patriotism and his unrivalled love of football. The nation woke up and realised that here was a true footballing treasure, to be cherished, not vilified.
His great dignity in the heartbreak of defeat spoke volumes. His dream had been snatched away in the cruellest of circumstances, but Bobby Robson was not one to resort to snarling, and blaming others. He had been taught to be a dignified loser, and that lesson served him well.
From that moment, and for the nest 20 years, Bobby Robson was revered. His later years in club management, firstly in Europe and then with his beloved Newcastle, enhanced his footballing reputation.
When cancer ended his football career, his tremendous courage in fighting the disease no fewer than five times showed the entire nation just what kind of man he was. The foundation he set up, to help fight cancer, has soared past the �2 million mark.
When he lost his final battle, on the last day of July 2009, the nation mourned his passing. There was a huge outpouring of love for the country’s favourite footballing personality. It is an extraordinary story, and this film captures the moment when it all changed so dramatically – and permanently – for Sir Bobby.