England’s greatest World Cup moments: Bobby and the boys return as heroes from Italia ‘90

Each week on Football FanCast we’re looking back at a unforgettable moment from the Three Lions’ World Cup canon. This time out we revisit an unforgettable welcoming home for a team that reminded us of football’s good side.

A reputable online publication claims that 100,000 people flocked to Luton Airport on July 8th 1990 to welcome Bobby Robson and his boys home from their World Cup adventure.  Another equally reputable source insists there were three times that number.

Yet it doesn’t really matter, the magnitude. When you get to a certain point you just stop counting and what we can state for sure is that 24 hours after losing to Italy in an inconsequential match to determine who finished third at Italia ’90 a squad of players in ropey official shell-suits returned to Blighty expecting a relatively routine hero’s welcome. Instead they were lavished with a level of adoration far beyond their wildest imagination.

And deservedly so too because what Gazza, Lineker, Platty and the rest had achieved in Sardinia, then Bologna, then Naples and finally Turin was little short of astonishing. By reaching the semi-final of that year’s World Cup they had reignited a nation’s love for a sport long blighted by hooliganism and class division – and by doing so at that particular time in that particular summer, it unified us all.

Four months earlier the Poll Tax Riots struck a significant blow against the iron rule of Thatcherism while up and down the country raves sprung up, in warehouses and fields, and the media were beginning to call it the second Summer of Love.

Now what was needed to push this nascent upsurge in people power into the realms of the mainstream was a major sporting event to re-energise some feel-good patriotism, ideally one sound-tracked to World In Motion and Nessun Dorma and featuring a cheeky, lovable man-child with talent that astounded.

The lads along with the boy duly delivered.

Advertisement

Paul Gascoigne had left a star but came back as ours and really it was he who everyone descended on the town of Luton to see: this wunderkind who had the audacity to Cruyff-turn the Dutch then melt our hearts with tears at the sight of a yellow card. We were fascinated, we were in love, and though the rest of the players were wildly cheered in truth they were the supporting cast on the day.

On a boiling hot Sunday afternoon a portion of the population packed the route hoping for a glimpse of everybody’s new adopted son as the open top bus slowly made its way from the airport to the Chiltern Hotel in Waller Street. There the players were scheduled to spend the night before disbanding in the morning: back to their clubs after a good holiday; back to some degree of normality.

Even having the need for a bus had surprised most of them when they were informed of it on the flight over. That surprise turned to outright shock when they landed, seeing the aforementioned multitude and pandemonium that awaited them.

As they walked through the terminal all hell broke loose.

At some point – nobody quite knows when or by virtue of whom – Gazza was handed a large pair of plastic breasts and stomach that bore his name. He loved it immediately. He affixed it to his body and on he went, through the hordes, his lop-sided grin that touch wider if that were possible.

He had always been insecure about his stocky build but equally too he was naturally inclined to seek out laughter and today of all days the latter was inevitably going to win out. For good measure he also donned a chunky baseball cap, again with ‘Gazza’ scrawled upon it.

Gazza returns home after Italia 90

The players, to their credit, ignored both items as best they could as he played up to the crowd. It was after all typical Gazza – the clown prince – and frankly they probably had enough to internally rationalise as hundreds of thousands of people clamoured to see them, to thank them. The public and press however lapped it up and it occurs now that only Gazza could make a tacky piece of merchandise from a local joke shop so utterly iconic.

We can look back and pinpoint that daft-as-a-brush moment as the time when Gazza became a cartoonish creation – initially of his own making but soon losing the copyright to the press core. But let’s not end on a sad note. Because on that sunny Sunday it was fun, it was silly, it was perfect.

Three years earlier Margaret Thatcher had declared there was no such thing as society. A summer of love, riots through Trafalgar Square, and Italia ’90 had proven her very wrong indeed. And yes, those ridiculous plastic boobs too.

What happened next?

Attendances increased significantly in the top flight as people fell in love with football all over again. In due course the Premier League was formed and the modern era was upon us. Sky were on the money with their advertising slogan that accompanied its inception – it really was a ‘whole new ball game’.