| 11.2°C Dublin

Nice show -- shame about the title

No wonder so many people detest ITV. Its output is often drivel and -- on the isolated occasions it manages to produce something that isn't drivel -- it insists on dressing it up to look like drivel.

Gazza's Tears: The Night That Changed Football is a title which, I'm sure, will have put off countless viewers, British as well as Irish. That's a shame, because this was an engrossing documentary about England's rollercoaster Italia '90 campaign, when they came within a whisker of reaching the final for the first time since 1966.

Actually, Paul Gascoigne's tears -- captured for posterity by the TV cameras and in an iconic photograph by Irish photographer Billy Stickland -- moments after England lost the semi-final to Germany on penalties, figured only incidentally here.

The real story was how football can transform the mood of a nation, which is something we can identify with in this country, since the efforts of Jack Charlton's men at the same tournament had a similar effect on us.

If things ultimately ended badly for England, they had begun in even worse fashion. In the summer of 1990, English football was in a heap.

Club sides were still banned from European competition. The Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death while penned inside cages designed to control the hooligan element, had happened the previous spring. The summer before that, England's Euro '88 campaign had ended dismally. They had been beaten 1-0 by Ireland and finished bottom of their group, and without a point.

The tabloids were calling for manager Bobby Robson's head even before a ball was kicked in anger. Football writer Nigel Clarke, who appeared here, was one of the leaders of the baying pack. He remains unrepentant about what he wrote, some of which was extraordinarily vicious.

England press conferences were tension-packed affairs, recalled Mark Austin, a football reporter for ITN at the time, during which the normally genial Bobby Robson -- a great football man and a thoroughly decent human being -- radiated hostility.

"Quarantined on the island of Sardinia," as the voiceover put it, the England squad effectively pulled the shutters down on media access and Robson banned newspapers from the camp (there was one choice piece of footage of the players ripping up the tabloids in front of the camera).

England's opening group game against Ireland ended in a 1-1 draw, a result that kickstarted a golden summer of football on this side of the water, but drew more red top vitriol against Robson and his squad.

When Robson switched to a continental-style sweeper system for the next game, against the Netherlands, the turnaround was remarkable. Footage of Gazza effortlessly weaving his way around Dutch defenders reminded you of the footballer he was. Soon, the whole of England -- including the media -- had swung behind the squad.

"Here was one of our own doing to them what they'd been doing to us for years," said Jim White, one of the few English football writers worth reading. "This was the last team to have a direct link to the fans. Gazza was the guy you could imagine having a pint with after the game."

Plenty of people, as we now know, would indeed have pints with Gazza after games. For a few weeks in 1990, however, he and his team-mates really did seem like the so-called Golden Generation that Fabio Capello's under-achievers were supposed to be.

Despite the understandable absence of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, whose missed penalties handed the semi-final to Germany, and Gary Lineker, who's contractually glued to the BBC, this was a rich and evocative film.

STACEY'S STARS

GAZZA'S TEARS: THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED FOOTBALL ***


Privacy