On the face of it Pete Davies tome is a straightforward account of the England football team’s odyssey through the FIFA World Cup Finals held in Italy and known to all as Italia ’90. It was an amazing journey full of twists, turns and controversies and ended with a heartbreaking penalty shoot out defeat in the Semi Finals. That game against the Germans in Turin marked the furthest England has ever progressed in an overseas World Cup tournament. Gazza’s tears, Platt’s last minute winner against Belgium, Waddle’s mullet and Lineker’s toilet incident against the Irish spring to mind. This tournament saw England finally live up to it’s potential on the world stage. West Germany was the top team and deserved to win Italia ’90, but England definitely had the best story.
But the genius of Davies book lies in it’s analysis of where England found itself as a nation as the misery of the 1980’s gave way to the possibilities in a new decade.
1990 saw the fag end of Thatcher’s rule over the UK as the Tories tore themselves apart over Europe and the Prime Minister was driven from Office by the mass movement against the Poll Tax. Community action outside Parliament brought down a politician who had reigned supreme over the political landscape and I can remember vividly being at the Goldstone Ground as City and Brighton fans sang in unison “We won’t pay no poll tax!” that April. We lost 2-0 for the record. Ken de Mange had a stinker and Big Dave Bamber was involved in a comical own goal from a corner.
Whilst the Labour Party stood idly by and decided that arguing with each other took precedence over defending the people they were meant to represent, the public took matters into their own hands and the Anti Poll Tax Alliance saw community’s band together to defeat the Tories’ wicked policies and unseat Thatcher. The first thing Major did on his elevation to Number Ten was to repeal the Community Charge.
There are two crucial lessons here for the Labour Party. Firstly if they don’t take the political temperature on a regular basis, then organised mass campaigns and the workers will sweep it aside rendering the Party as, “irrelevant to the needs.” If the Labour leadership is hell bent on leaving the playing field open to other groups, inertia is the way to go.
Secondly, no matter how much the Tories make a mess of things, the electorate is not guaranteed to return to Labour. Hence meltdown for the Tories in Westminster, which resulted in the toppling of Thatcher, was not translated in votes for Labour in 1992 because the public gave no credit to the Party for getting shot of Thatcher and Labour had no different programme to offer the voters in that General Election. Smith attempted to trim and bluster over taxation and paid the price for his dishonesty. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, for all their faults made it 100% crystal clear that investment in the NHS and education, funded by targeted tax rises was their very different priority for the UK and won three elections in a row.
Davies holds up a mirror to ourselves in 1990, and the image ain’t a pleasant won. The destruction of the manufacturing base in the UK (25% was lost in just one Parliament), and the butchering of traditional mass employers (usually nationalised) led to a breakdown in the extended family structures that the Tories go misty eyed over. The slave labour of the YTS schemes and the return of chronically low paid work saw a return to what Marx, Engels and Orwell described as “alienation”. Heavy weekend drinking and the reversion to Hogarth’s Gin Lane habits of the working class were pilloried in the tabloids. The inexorable rise of football violence was the inevitable consequence. Davies draws some interesting conclusions on this and analyses Thatcher and her pocket battle ship Toff Sports Minister Colin Moniyhan’s responses in some detail.
As for the players, it is interesting to compare the England group with the ‘Spurs side of Hunter Davies’ classic “The Glory Game”. In that 1968 snapshot we find only two Labour voters (Joe Kinnear and Martin Peters), and the interview here with Terry Butcher reveals him to be a proud Tory and a bigot. When he signed for Rangers his teammates derided U2 and Simple Minds as “Fenian music”. Butcher went home and threw all these records away. The players naivety towards those making an absolute fortune out of their success on the pitch is somehow quaint and annoying at the same time, but what comes over more than anything is that these young men simply loved to play football and got a great kick out of bringing a sense of pride and community to their fellow workers. “I wish I was at home and dancing in the streets with my mates”, concludes Paul Gascoigne after England beat Belgium.
This is a well-researched book and Davies includes extensive interviews with all concerned, especially the fans and players giving the workers the control of the narrative. I wonder what this book would look like if repeated in 2012?