Don’t mention the penalties! England’s 1990 team look back at the World Cup match that changed everything | World Cup

“It’s the one thing over my career I look back and think: if only,” Gary Lineker says.

“‘Gary Lineker, Leicester and England’ is one thing; it’s a whole different thing if you could go: ‘Gary Lineker, World Cup winner.’” But it wasn’t to be.

For many England fans of a certain age, Italia 90 is the greatest World Cup they have lived through. And the semi-final against West Germany, lost on penalties, the greatest match. Shilton, Parker, Walker, Wright, Butcher, Pearce, Platt, Gascoigne, Waddle, Lineker, Beardsley. The 11 that started weren’t all household names or supremely gifted individuals (with the exception of Paul Gascoigne). Goalkeeper Peter Shilton was 40, David Platt had never played competitive international football before, Gascoigne was a liability and there wasn’t a defensive midfielder in sight. Yet the team restored the reputation of English football and so nearly saw off the world’s best national side. What made the boys from 1990 so special, and what have they done with the rest of their lives?

England went into the tournament with little expectation. A week before, they almost lost to Tunisia before drawing 1-1. The press savaged them and the squad responded with a media boycott. England qualified for the knockout stage, but it wasn’t easy – two draws (against the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands) and a 1-0 victory over Egypt, and only two goals in total.

Inevitably, Lineker was among the scorers, against Ireland. In the previous World Cup, he had won the Golden Boot and he ended up England’s top scorer again, this time with four goals. “It was another good World Cup for me. In other ways it was horrendous.” How? He squirms. “Illness and embarrassment.”

Lineker had been struggling with stomach ache before the Ireland game, but didn’t tell anybody because he was desperate to play. It was 20 years later, in a BBC 5 Live interview, that the Match of the Day presenter finally came clean about what happened. Today, at his home in London, he’s laughing about it. Just. “I was cramping in the first half, managed to hold, got in the loo at half-time and thought, I’ll be all right now. Then 15 minutes into the second half I started cramping again. I tried to tackle their left-back and as I did, I relaxed and prrffff. It was everywhere. And I’m like, what do I do now?”

So what did he do? “Gary Stevens was standing over me and I go: ‘Gary, I’ve shit myself.’ I was sliding on the floor trying to get it out of my shorts. It was horrendous. I played on for a bit. I got a bit more space after that. Nobody wanted to mark me! Luckily it rained heavily so it was quite easy to wash my hands on the pitch. My kit was a mess. I threw it in the bin after. It was disgusting.”

Lineker is sitting on a huge turquoise sofa with his husky, Filbert, at his feet. The room is large and stylish, with vintage trimmings. He lives here alone. His four sons have left home and in 2016 he and his second wife, Danielle, divorced. Is he enjoying the single life? “Yeah, it’s better.” He looks at Filbert. “I’ve got him, though. He’s hard work, can’t be left alone.” As it happens, he says, Danielle is here now with her baby. “We just did the divorce online. That’s why we’re still friends.”

Lineker says he’s been lucky. “I don’t believe in gods, but I sometimes think maybe we’re part of someone’s PlayStation game on another planet, and whoever’s playing me is bloody good at it because I’ve been given a blessed life. I remember when I scored the fourth goal against Spain in the Bernabéu stadium and I was running back, Bryan Robson’s alongside me, and I went: ‘Robbo, why am I so lucky?’ and he went: ‘Oh fuck off!’”

It was the same when he stopped playing football: “I found another vehicle in the same sport that gives me as much satisfaction.” Did he think he’d go into the media? “Oh yes. My nickname at Italia 90 was Junior Des [after Des Lynam] because I always spent time with journalists. At school, I’d write match reports after every Leicester game. I always knew what I wanted to do.”

Of all the players from the 1990 squad, he is by far the most successful. He is the BBC’s top-paid presenter, earning £1.35m in 2021, and is worth an estimated £26m. Does he think former teammates are pleased he has done so well for himself? “You’d have to ask them. They might think that, or they might think: ‘Lucky bastard.’”

In England’s second match of the tournament, against the Netherlands, manager Bobby Robson called up Paul Parker to replace Stevens as right-back. Parker was surprised. “I was asking myself: ‘What am I doing here?’ Three years earlier I was in third-division Fulham and now I’m playing in the World Cup.” When I ask about the high points of his life, he mentions becoming a father, a grandfather, winning the league with Manchester United and getting to that semi-final. “It’s surprising how many people still talk about that World Cup. How many people talk about the 2018 semi-final?” He has a point. England reached the last four just four years ago – only the second time since 1966. Yet, unlike 1990, it is rarely discussed.

Parker was one of only three black players in the 22-man squad, alongside fellow defender Des Walker and winger John Barnes. So much has changed since then: today 43% of Premier League players are black and, since June 2020, most footballers have taken the knee to support racial equality. Yet so much remains unchanged: only 4.4% of managers are black and after the England men’s team lost the Euros final last year, the three black players who took penalties were racially abused online.

In 1990, black players simply played through the racism, Parker says. “There was a minority that didn’t like us, but it was a bigger minority than today.” Did you get support from the white players? “No. We wouldn’t have expected it. We dealt with it ourselves by being strong-minded and ignoring them.” Was there any racism within the squad? “No, not in a million years.”

Like the few black players of that generation who went on to manage, Parker did so at a lower level, at Chelmsford City and Welling United. “But it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy making big decisions and players not liking me.” Since then he’s worked successfully as a pundit. “I love watching and talking about football. And the bonus is once you’ve watched it, you can get home and close the door. Being a manager is 24/7.”

England football player David Platt celebrates after scoring against Belgium in the last minute of extra time, in the 1990 World Cup, 26 June 1990
David Platt celebrates the goal against Belgium, in the last minute of extra time, that put England through to the quarter-final. Photograph: Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images

He has also campaigned about awareness of prostate cancer in black men. “One in four get it, twice the risk for all men. My dad did. He’s got the all-clear now.”

In that second match, England drew 0-0 against a Dutch team that included the magnificent Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. They outplayed the Dutch, with Gascoigne imperious. There was one terrible setback – Bryan Robson injured his achilles, which put him out of the tournament. Despite the loss of Captain Marvel, the atmosphere changed. The press became supportive, the players lifted the boycott. There was now a sense of possibility. Excitement even.

Terry Butcher is being driven to the England v Germany Nations League tie at Wembley when we speak. There’s a historical inevitability about this fixture. Many of England’s memorable World Cup matches have been against Germany – the final victory in 1966, the quarter-final loss in 1970 and, of course, 1990.

After Robson’s injury, the tough centre-back became captain. Butcher is best remembered for celebrating a 0-0 draw against Sweden in 1989 drenched in blood. Nothing represents his indomitable spirit better. Yet he is a kind, thoughtful man. “I think about it from time to time,” he says of 1990. “Like today – we’re playing Germany. When Harry Kane leads the team out, you put yourself in that position because you’ve been there.”

What made 1990 special for Butcher was that it came when English football was in the doldrums. After the 1966 triumph and 1970 quarter-final, England didn’t qualify in 1974 and 1978, were sent home in 1982 after the group stages without having lost a match, and the 1986 quarter-finals brought Maradona’s “hand of God” goal. The 70s and 80s were a nightmare for the national team. “It was hard to take, considering we all felt we’d invented football,” Butcher says. “There was the ban on English teams in Europe and English football was seen as harbouring all the hooligans.”

1990 symbolised a new beginning: “Italia 90 gave the players and the country an enormous amount of pride. I felt: we’re back.”

After he quit playing, Butcher managed or coached 10 teams, from Coventry City in England to the Philippines national team. He also became the main 5 Live pundit for England matches. “Between 1996 and 2006 I only missed two. It wasn’t always pretty watching England, but it was great fun.” When we speak, he’s looking forward to a night’s light work at Wembley. “I’m doing the hospitality, talking rubbish and getting paid for it.”

He asks who I’m talking to next. Mark Wright, I say. “He’d talk a glass eye to sleep, Wrighty, he really would. I love him to bits. He’s a good lad. They all were.”

“You know, I still haven’t watched the semi-final on the telly,” Mark Wright tells me. Why? “Because I know how close we were. I can’t bring myself to watch it. You go that close to the fucking World Cup. We know we were better than Germany in that semi-final.”

Although he lives in Wirral in north-west England, I meet him at a golf club in Derby where he is having a drink with his two business partners. Wright, who won 45 caps for England, never thought he would become a professional footballer. He had planned to be a PE teacher and is one of very few players of his generation who stayed on at school to do A-levels. He is a big man with a crushing handshake and an open, freckled face.

Wright was the surprise third centre-back in the team, introduced in the Netherlands game. There were rumours the players had called for the change, but Wright says it was Bobby Robson’s idea. “He said to me after the first game: ‘We’re going to change to a sweeper system and I want you to sweep.’” Wright ended up scoring the winner against Egypt that took England to the knockout stage – his only international goal.

As Butcher says, Wright can talk for England. He gives me a precis of every match. “Against Belgium in the last 16 you ride a bit of luck, then Platty scores a fantastic goal. Against Cameroon [the tournament’s surprise package England met in the quarter-finals], they had nothing to lose and were fit as fleas.” England went 2-1 down and faced a shock exit, until two Lineker penalties saved the day.

Wright ended the match with a plastered forehead and gashed eyebrow after what looked like an accidental clash with Roger Milla. Today, he admits it was anything but – it just went wrong. “I went after him and done my own eye in on the back of his head.” So you were trying to whack him? He grins. “It was to make my presence felt. That’s the way the game was played.”

Who was the leader of the squad? “Bryan Robson,” he says instantly. “And he was the most complete player. He could do everything. Fittest player you could think of. He could have a drink and still run you the next day. He could score goals, defend, tackle, head, he mixed it up.” Was he a good player to be around? “Let me tell you now!” he roars with approval, before segueing to Butcher’s style of captaincy. “Terry Butcher used to smash the door before he went out: ‘Go and get emmmmm!

Paul Parker and Terry Butcher, the ex England football players, pose together at the Loft studio in Colchester on October 18th 2022 in Essex
Paul Parker (left) says captain Terry Butcher (right) didn’t bother with a motivational team talk before the match: ‘He just went round to each one of us and stared us in the eyes.’ Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

When I ask about his A-levels, he looks coy. “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.” Can’t you remember? “I can. Art and art history.” He was 18, still in sixth form, when Oxford United signed him. “I completed the art history A-level but not the art one.” Is he still into art? “Yeah, I love it. If you asked me about English painters, Turner or Gainsborough, I’d know who is who.” He stops. “But you shouldn’t say that because they’ll go: ‘Fucking Wrighty knowing about that!’ Ha ha ha!”

Like so many footballers, Wright struggled after he retired. “When you play at the top and all of a sudden you’ve finished, it hits you like a frying pan in the face. You don’t know what to do next. Not so much for top-level players now, because you’re earning so much, but lesser players have to plan for the future. I wish I had.”

In 2000, two years after retiring, he and his wife got divorced. Wright admits it was acrimonious, but doesn’t tell me quite how bad. In 2002, magistrates imposed a 12-month restraining order on him after he admitted harassing his former wife in a series of phone calls. A second marriage also ended badly.

“When you finish, 85% of players get divorced.” Life suddenly changes – you’re at home all the time, under the family’s feet, without the buzz of football, the roar of the crowd, lost. He says his divorce was hideous, partly because so much time and money was wasted on lawyers. “I was raging in court at the solicitors, but now my first wife and I are very good friends.”

Wright has had a number of jobs since he retired – managing teams, opening a football school in China, property development, renovating houses – and is now a partner in a company called Fair Result, which helps ex-footballers get divorced amicably without resorting to the courts. “What happened to me is an example for others. Most solicitors just drag it out whereas we try to sort it out so you walk away as friendly as possible.”

Sure, he says, he’s made mistakes, but why dwell on them. “I’ve never felt sorry for myself. Things happen, maybe because you’re doing things wrong, and you have to assess yourself. You have things, then you lose things, then you get off your bum and work a bit harder.”

Former England football player Mark Wright, against blue background, Nov 2022
Mark Wright: ‘When you play at the top and all of a sudden you’ve finished, it hits you like a frying pan in the face.’ Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

Wright asks if he can help me get in touch with any of the other players. I tell him I’d love to track down Des Walker, who seldom gives interviews. He was a pure defender – pacy, a fine man-marker who scored only one goal in a career spanning 717 games (59 of them for England). Walker suffered a period of depression after retiring and has worked 15-hour shifts driving long-distance lorries. His sons became professional footballers: Tyler, 26, is at Portsmouth, on loan from Coventry City; Lewis, 23, is at Gillingham.

Wright gives Walker a bell. From this end, it sounds all mateyness and laughter. But it hasn’t gone well. “Des is a no. He’s not a talker. He don’t trust too many people.”

Walker is not the only player to say no. Chris Waddle, who missed the final penalty in the shootout, replies to my text: “No thanks, not for me.” A winger and attacking midfielder, Waddle adored playing and turned out in non-league football for Worksop Town in his early 40s. At 53, he made an appearance for Hallam FC in the 10th level of the English Football League. After commentating for many years on 5 Live, he quit after being dropped for the England v Italy Euro 2020 final.

Stuart Pearce, nicknamed Psycho, the left-back with the thunderous shot and a Nottingham Forest teammate of Walker’s, missed the other penalty. I call to see if he’ll be interviewed. “I can’t help you out on this one, I’m afraid,” he says. “I’ve done a couple for other outlets covering 1990. So I don’t think it will be fair on them.”

Pearce has a highly developed sense of fairness. Last year, I asked if he’d talk to me for the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Euros, in which England also reached the semi-final. “Happy to over the phone. However, I have done a number of these and have been paid a fee for each. In fairness to the others I would require a fee to go ahead.” (The Guardian doesn’t pay for interviews.)

David Platt came on for the injured Bryan Robson against the Netherlands and went on to have a wonderful World Cup. He scored three of England’s eight goals, including a famous acrobatic winner against Belgium. That volley came in the final minute of extra time and was his first international goal. I assumed Platt would be happy to recall his glory days but he, too, is proving elusive. After years coaching and managing, he has now left football to focus on his business interests.

Eventually he replies, saying: “I’m afraid I don’t do media any more.” I text back, asking why. His reply is fuller, and more interesting, than I expect: “I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m fortunate to be able to live as I choose – within reason. I have a couple of business interests that keep me occupied, play my golf, walk the dog, watch my boy play sport. There is no need to retain my profile because I am happy living how I am doing. I don’t need to be in the public eye, don’t need to be recognised … it’s exciting searching for anonymity.”

With the help of football journalist friends, I’ve managed to get contact numbers for virtually the whole team. Everybody I’ve tried has responded except for Peter Beardsley, though I can see he has looked at my two messages. Beardsley was the worker bee who played up front alongside Lineker. In 2019 he left Newcastle United, where he was head coach of the under-23s, after an FA panel upheld three allegations that he had used racist language, charges Beardsley denied.

Lineker tells me he was surprised and saddened by the story. “I don’t understand what went on. He probably just lapsed into that old speech, silly jokes or something, because he’s not that kind of guy.” Parker agrees. “The one thing I do know about Peter Beardsley is he’s 100% not a racist.” He says Beardsley was one of the squad’s most popular members. “The people who played with and against him, people like myself, we know the truth.”

Parker may not have observed racism within the squad, but there have since been incidents involving three other players besides Beardsley. In 1994, Pearce allegedly called his England teammate Paul Ince an “arrogant black cunt” in a game between Nottingham Forest and Manchester United. No charges were brought, though Gordon Taylor, then chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, said, “Stuart regrets what he has done. He will be ringing Paul to apologise.” The incident was largely ignored at the time, but resurfaced in 2012 when Pearce was made caretaker manager of the England team. In 2001, the FA ruled that a verbal attack on the black referee Joe Ross by Mark Wright, then managing Oxford United, contained a “racial element”. Wright was fined £1,750 and banned from the touchline for four games. In 2006, while managing Peterborough, he was accused of making a racist comment to a player and was subsequently sacked. On both occasions, Wright denied racism.

In 2016, Paul Gascoigne was fined £1,000 for “racially aggravated threatening or abusive words or behaviour” towards a black security guard. But last year, the historian David Olusoga revealed a very different side to Gascoigne. Olusoga, who went to the same school, said Gascoigne helped him and his sister after he had been hit in the playground. “He must have been maybe nine, I must’ve been maybe six or seven, something like that … It wasn’t really in his interest to be looking after this couple of black kids. And I’m very grateful for that.”

Gascoigne came of age at Italia 90. He was fleet-footed, fearless, audacious, unpredictable. Gazza could do anything he wanted, and often did. He is regarded by many football fans as the greatest English player of his generation. His history is shocking (he headbutted his wife Sheryl in a drunken attack, then banged her head on the floor), yet many retain a soft spot for him. He had so many demons – a bipolar diagnosis, suicide attempts and, of course, the drink. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is he’s still alive. In 2008, his heart stopped three times when he was in rehab.

He’s the one person I can’t find. The strange thing is he’s also the only player I had met before starting this piece. I did two lengthy interviews with him. The last was in 2011 when he was doing rehab in Bournemouth, playing six-a-side, fishing and trying to get his life together. The previous year there had been stories in the tabloids that he’d died after a car crash. Gascoigne told me a funny story about it. “I was walking up the street and some guy comes up looking shocked and went: ‘Gazza?’ And I said: ‘Yeah.’ And he went: ‘Oh! It’s in the paper you’re dead. There’s just been a news flash.’ I went: ‘Oh, am I? Ah well, never mind’ and I just carried on.”

Wright tells me Waddle drew the short straw in Italy. “Chrissy was nominated to look after Gazza.” He corrects himself. “Try and look after Gazza. Maybe because he was also a geordie. Gazza was uncontrollable. He was one of those enigmas in football. Can you coach him? No. Everything he had was natural. Give him the ball and let him go, then we just fill in the pieces.”

I ask Lineker if they’re still in touch. “Gazza will call me every month or so when he’s off his face. Just to talk. I spend an hour on the phone listening to the things he told me the month before, and the month before that. Sometimes you see him and think, oh, he looks good, and when he’s good he can be so funny. When he was in his prime he was hilarious.” Last month, a story appeared in the Daily Star about Gascoigne at Italia 90. The headline was “Paul Gascoigne ‘mummified himself in loo roll’ before streaking nude at World Cup hotel”.

At 73, Peter Shilton is 10 years older than Terry Butcher, the second-oldest player in the team, and is waiting for a hip operation when we speak. “I never had any problems in my playing career and now it’s just gone a bit sore. I’ve not done too bad really.” Incredibly, he had made his England debut 20 years earlier, in 1970. He is the one player who could relate to the wages of the 1966 World Cup winners. “I was 15 when I signed as an apprentice for Leicester. We got about £8 a week. We had to wash the kits, clean the boots, clean the terraces and paint the ground in the summer.” At the end of Italia 90 he had 125 caps – still the record for a male England player. And by the time he retired from club football, aged 47, he had played 1,005 games. Another record.

Shilton experienced two decades of disappointment with England in the 70s and 80s. He was partially at fault for the Polish goal in 1973 that stopped England going to the 1974 World Cup finals. “Norman Hunter and myself shouldered the blame for the goal, but we should have won 5-1. It was just one of those nights. That England team was one of the best I’ve ever played in, so to not get to the World Cup was the first real blow of my career.”

Who was he closest to in the 1990 squad? “Gary Lineker. We were both Leicester boys.” Do they still get on well? “Yeah, we don’t see each other often, but we do compliment each other on social media.” Not always: Lineker challenged him on Twitter to a live TV debate about Brexit. Shilton says it was just banter: “Gary had his beliefs in terms of remaining and I had Brexit. People tried to make more out of it than it was.” He points out Lineker wrote the foreword to Saved, his book, published last year, about overcoming his 45-year gambling addiction.

Peter Shilton, former England goalkeeper, against blue background, Nov 2022
Peter Shilton: ‘I was 15 when I signed as an apprentice for Leicester. We got about £8 a week. We had to wash the kits and clean the boots.’ Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

He had kept it secret until 2020, when he announced he had beaten it and was now working with the government to raise awareness of associated issues, including mental health problems. Shilton managed Plymouth Argyle after he hung up his gloves, but you sense he found his true purpose when he started campaigning about the dangers of gambling.

Had he realised his gambling was a problem? “I saw it as a hobby. It probably wasn’t until I finished playing football and internet betting came in that I thought, yeah, you’ve got a bit of a problem.” He had hidden in plain sight. “People knew I liked to bet and owned horses, but they didn’t know the extent of it.” In recent years, many footballers have admitted being problem gamblers. Were there a lot then? “You occasionally heard of players who got skint gambling. Stan Bowles was one of the few who went public. Gamblers are very secretive.”

It’s understandable why footballers are attracted to gambling, he says. They have time on their hands after training, the successful ones have money and they’re looking for a midweek substitute for the high of playing. Shilton could tell himself he didn’t have a problem because he still had nice cars and houses and holidays. Meanwhile, he was losing a fortune. What’s the most he lost in a day? “Twenty grand. That was a lot then.”

After 40 years of marriage, Shilton got divorced in 2011. In 2015, he announced he was to marry Steph (who has worked in the NHS and as a jazz singer). Meeting her saved his life, he says. “I fell in love and that was a big part of me seeing the light. The way she approached it as an illness helped me.”

He now works with the project Six to Ten (so called because that is the estimated number of people profoundly impacted by one person’s addiction), which helps those affected by disordered gambling rebuild their lives. “Save one life and it will have been worth admitting how my gambling was.”

Shilton says the one time he didn’t bet seriously was at World Cups. Lineker confirms that. “There were no mobile phones to do it back then.” But, Lineker says, when he and Shilton were rooming together for home internationals the goalkeeper made it clear when he needed his privacy. “He’d chuck me out of the room to do his betting when we were playing at Wembley.”

Lineker tells me that during Italia 90 he ran a book for the squad. “All the lads liked to have bets on games – not our games, obviously. Me and Peter were the bookies. I knew how to run a book because I’d worked at Leicester races when I was 16/17.”

The night before the semi-final against West Germany, Bobby Robson called a meeting. “Just before Bobby came in, I turned his clipboard over and wrote: ‘Even money he mentions the war,’” Lineker says. “Then I turned it back over. So he walks in, stands up and says: ‘We beat them in the war!’ First sentence. The room just roared. He went: ‘What? WHAT?’ And one of the lads said turn over the board and he went: ‘Lineker, you bastard!’”

Like the rest of the squad, Gary Lineker adored Bobby Robson. “You’d run through a brick wall for him. He had a magnetic personality and was such an enthusiast – not just for football, for everything.” His meetings, though, “could go on a bit. The one before the semi-final, we had to tell him: ‘We need to go out now, Bobby.’”

Parker says the captain, Terry Butcher, didn’t bother with a motivational team talk before the match. “He just went round to each one of us and stared us in the eyes.”

“Terry used to smash the dressing room door before he went out,” Wright says.

How did Butcher feel leading England out that night? “I cannot describe the pride and fear. Only Bobby Moore had been England captain in a World Cup semi-final before. You’re treading in the steps of legends.”

Against the run of play, Germany took the lead in the 60th minute with a fluke goal. An Andreas Brehme shot hit Parker’s head and looped over Shilton. “It was from just outside the box, so I got in position, then in a second or two it’s spinning over my head,” Shilton says. I wonder how many times he’s replayed it in his head, with his body position corrected. “I just didn’t get a chance.”

How would Parker have felt if Germany had won 1-0? “My head was telling me I’d be remembered for scoring the own goal that knocked us out. That would have been the headline!” In the 80th minute, Parker made the England equaliser, with a cross finished by Lineker.

“I played Germany many times and in that last half of extra time I thought they had settled for a draw,” Shilton says. “They were on the back foot. When Chrissy Waddle had the shot that hit the post, that could have been it.”

In the eighth minute of extra time, Gascoigne got booked. It meant he would miss the final if England got through, and resulted in two of the most famous images in footballing history: Gascoigne breaking down, then Lineker looking at the bench, pointing his finger to his forehead and mouthing: “Have a word with him.”

Head shot of footballers Paul Gascoigne (back) and Gary Lineker in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against West Germany
Gascoigne and Lineker. Photograph: BBC

The match went to penalties. Lineker, Beardsley and Platt scored, as did Germany with their first three. Pearce, a proven penalty taker, ran up and smashed the ball straight at goalkeeper Bodo Illgner who saved with his legs. The Germans scored their fourth, and it was down to Waddle to keep England in the World Cup. He hit his penalty high into the stand, and West Germany became the first country to reach a third consecutive World Cup final, where they beat Argentina 1-0.

“When Chrissy’s shot went over, my stomach sank,” Shilton says. “I only faced four penalties and every one was a good one. On the way off the pitch myself and Stuart Pearce were pulled in for a drugs test, which was unbelievable. You have to sit there for about two hours, giving a sample with two of the German lads. To be fair they were great, but it wasn’t the ideal scenario.” You wanted to be with the boys? “Yeah. We knew everyone would be gutted, but we still wanted to be there.”

England players look nervous as they watch the penalty shootout in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against West Germany
England players watch the shootout. Photograph: Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images

Butcher says the mood was very solemn. “Back in the dressing room you were just numb. You go off for your shower, get dressed, go on the bus. You’re like a zombie.”

“We were devastated,” Wright says. “You could hear a pin drop afterwards in the dressing room. Then Bobby said: ‘I’m proud of all of you.’ My grandmother used to say: ‘What’s meant for you won’t pass you by.’ And we just didn’t have that extra little bit of fortune.”

It was only on their return to England that they realised they were regarded as heroes. “What should have been a 10-minute journey from Luton airport to the hotel took a couple of hours,” Wright says. “There were hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets.”

Despite the disappointment, Butcher says Italia 90 was the highlight of his career and even now there are powerful triggers. “Nessun Dorma. Pasta. Swordfish. Whenever I have it now I think of 1990.” Then there was the journey home. “When I saw all the people at the airport – the fans were singing our names and passing McDonald’s and beer up to the bus. It was crazy. I’ve never known anything like it. My son was on that bus.”

Thousands of England football fans line the streets near Luton airport to welcome the England football team back from Italy, following the World Cup tournament. They were eliminated in the semi-finals by West Germany. 8th July 1990.
‘It was crazy. I’ve never known anything like it,’ Terry Butcher says of the team’s welcome home. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Suddenly the big man chokes up. “It was really special because we lost our son five years ago.” He comes to a stop. “Oof. That’s a tough memory, but a nice one.” Chris Butcher was a captain in the British army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. On his return home, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and turned to drugs. His inquest concluded he died of an abnormal enlargement of the heart, combined with the effect of drugs “against a background of PTSD”. Butcher described him as a “victim of war”. “He died when he was 35,” he says today, “so we had him for a good time, and he never forgot that time on the bus. You wanted it to go on and on, just being part of that group, being with Bobby.”

The class of 1990 are unlike those who came before and after. They are not sanctified like the boys of 1966 who played for a pittance and won the World Cup. Nor are they like the 00s golden generation, who earned big bucks and achieved so little internationally. All life is here in the 1990 group, with their human flaws, tragedies, triumphs – divorce, addiction, abuse, racism, rehabilitation, redemption. And, of course, what ifs.

Butcher was substituted in the 71st minute of the semi-final. At the time, he hoped he had one more England game left in him: the final. But then reality hit home. He didn’t play in the third place playoff match against Italy, which England lost 2-1. “I knew I wasn’t going to play for England again really. My knees were gone, and I was 31. I thought: my days are done here. I knew the semi-final was my last game, as it was for a good number of the boys.” Yes, they were proud of what they had achieved, but they’d hoped for so much more. “We’d made amends for 86 and the hand of God,” Butcher says. “We’d gone far, but we hadn’t gone far enough.”

Football Weekly Live: World Cup preview
Join Max Rushden and Barry Glendenning for a look ahead to all the beautiful games, live at EartH in London, or via the livestream, on Thursday 17 November, 8-10pm. Book tickets here.

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