ONE of the most thoroughly depressing games I have ever watched as an Englishman was the third-place play-off against Italy in 1990.
Defeat against the Germans in the World Cup semi-final had hit me hard as a 12-year-old, and I was seriously considering switching sports altogether.
Just down the road, Wigan were entering into a golden era of rugby league – with legends like Frano Botica, Sean Edwards and Denis Betts doing their stuff. It seemed like an easy pain-free switch and my dad was already a regular at Central Park.
I remember realising England had one more match to play and it would be against Toto Schillachi’s Italy, who had also suffered heartbreak against Argentina on home soil in the other semi-final.
We could still finish third – that’s bronze – so I sucked it up, got ready for another 90 minutes of football that could potentially make or break my sporting tastes for life.
I cannot put into words what horror I felt that day when I saw the team. Stuart Pearce, my favourite defender of the time, had been replaced by Tony Dorigo. Paul Gascoigne by – and this hurts me to type even 24 years later – Steve McMahon. Even Neil Webb came off the bench!
It felt as if none of the England camp cared as much as me about finishing third. Even a Fair Play Award, granted to the team who received the fewest yellow cards in the tournament, could not cheer me up.
So, for about a month, I quit watching football altogether. Unfortunately, the rugby league season didn’t start until early September back then, so by the time John Monie’s all-conquering Wigan side were back in action, I was collecting Panini stickers again and trying to break the magical 30 kick-up barrier. I never got past 10 with a rugby ball, by the way.
Quite a few young football fans will be in the same boat as I was back in 1990 as they sit to watch the first England game that has fallen neatly inside their bed-times this evening.
Some will be blissfully unaware that this is an inconsequential 90 minutes and I hope the inclusion of Phil Jones, Adam Lallana or Luke Shaw doesn’t scar them in the same way as Bobby Robson’s much-changed side did all the way back then. At least I watched Peter Shilton reach a magical 100 caps – a feat I was sure would never be matched.
Since then, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard have managed to reach a century. Go figure.
England can’t really salvage pride with a win but I’d like to think a good performance will make it easier for parents around the land to break it to their oblivious little ones that we’re out of the World Cup and from now on, they are going to have to cheer Colombia.
Flags, banners, bunting and silly hats in storage for another two years.
The life of an England fan, eh?