One Night in Turin: The Inside Story of a World Cup that Changed our Footballing Nation Forever
By Pete Davies
Yellow Jersey Press, 1990
Ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, every England fan should be prescribed a copy of One Night in Turin. It may be nearly a quarter of a century since Italia 90, but ‘Ghastly press, oafish fans, and 4-4-2’ is a summary that still rings true enough. This year, a Gazza-esque hero will rise and a Psycho-esque villain will fall. The FA is still run by octogenarians ‘bereft of common sense or ideas’, our newspapers still prefer to vilify than to praise, our national side is still dominated by brave but unspectacular grafters, and disappointment, penalties and heartbreak are all still guaranteed.
But A Night in Turin itself is an absolute one-off – no football writer will ever again get the kind of total access that Pete Davies had to Bobby Robson and his England team. Because in 1990, at the dawn of the agent-led, commercial era (or ‘Logoland’ as Davies calls it), it’s clear that the tension between press and players is already at breaking point. For Gascoigne, the epitome of the modern footballer, no money equals no comment. His reason? Simple: ‘I hate the press’. Luckily, Davies isn’t the press, as he has to remind his wary (and weary) subjects frequently. He may not be the most skilled of interviewers – ‘What would you be if you weren’t a footballer?’ and ‘What’s it like to score a goal?’ are his go-to questions – but Davies is in a position to offer a tantalising taste of the boredom and claustrophobia but also the ‘shared, sealed, exclusive group cohesion’ of the England camp.
Often you read ‘behind the scenes’ and are disappointed by the supposed ‘insight’. Not here – ‘off the record’ chats with the likes of Butcher, Lineker, Barnes and Waddle are peppered throughout the superb tournament analysis. These players might have nothing to say to the papers but they’re surprisingly forthright with Davies. The frustration of Barnes and Waddle with the negative, skill-stifling tactics is particularly telling; ‘They don’t say to Baggio or Hagi or Gullit, we want you back defending’, moans the latter. But perhaps best of all is the portrait of their much maligned manager. Much has been written on Bobby Robson but little can be as succinct as ‘he loved to win, he was desperate to win – but he was at least as much terrified of losing’.
In terms of style and tone, Davies hits the nail right on the head, bridging the gap between the tabloid journalism he rails against and today’s rising intellectualism. Like Nick Hornby, Davies is a football fan first and a writer second. One Night in Turinis an informal, bawdy, yet eloquent version of events, as entertaining as the ‘Planet Football’ it so lovingly describes. Humour is key to the approach – FA Chairman Graham Kelly is ‘a complete charisma bypass’, ‘you only had to show Caniggia (striker for Argentina, the team Davies saves his best vitriol for) the laces on your boot, and he was into a triple somersault’ and Bologna has ‘all the festivity…of a bad day in a bread queue’. Along the way we’re shown the funny side of tacky merchandise, bad sandwiches, Italian bureaucracy and sleepless nights in airports and train stations.
Serious comment, though, is never far from view – positioned between the team, the fans and the journalists, Davies is commendably objective, particularly on the central issue of English fans abroad. His balanced conclusion – that a thuggish minority, egged on by the trigger-happy media, scared the Italian police into an over-reaction, which in turn endangered the (largely) innocent majority – really stands the test of time.
As a title, One Night in Turin does the book a real disservice. Only the final 20 pages are dedicated to the semi-final against Germany, the last of the 21 chapters. Neither is this simply a book on England’s Italia 90 campaign; over 200 pages have passed before their first game against Ireland begins. Instead, as the original title alludes to, the perspective is much broader; football, travel, culture, and most significantly a snapshot of a nation. Davies’ argument is that hooliganism is not simply a football problem, but rather a reflection of our society at large – ‘the picture develops of a predominantly young, white, urban, male section of England’s following whose home environment…is, culturally, economically, politically, morally, all played out’.