“If Bryan Robson Had Stayed Fit, We Would Have Won Italia ’90”


This article was first published on September 3rd 2015

Italia ’90 was a very exciting time for English speakers across the world. The USA were gearing up to host the succeeding global soccer tournament, Ireland had qualified for their first ever World Cup and were about to embark on a legendary journey that would bring the entire country to a standstill, while England had one of their most talented teams and best campaigns since winning it in 1966.

The Three Lions went one step further than their Irish counterparts, making it all the way to the semi final before bowing out to familiar foes Germany in the familiar old manner of penalties. At the heart of England’s phenomenal run to fourth place was Nottingham Forest centre half Des Walker.

Playing in a World Cup semi final is a momentous achievement that very few players get to experience in their careers. But asked about his nerves upon stepping out to the field in Stadio delle Alpi, Walker rubbished any suggestions that the Germans struck fear in him, “The only time I ever felt nervous that whole World Cup is the start of the very first game at that World Cup – against Ireland!”

“I had come up against John Aldridge a million times, and that should make things easier in theory. But when you’re there waiting five, six weeks for the tournament to start, and then all of a sudden – you’re there! This is what you’ve been waiting for.”

Walker spoke of the psychological effects nerves can have on a player, “It gets in your head a bit. I remember standing there and thinking to myself, ‘Just don’t make a f**king mistake here, Des.’ And that’s not me – I would never think that in a game. 

Des Walker of England is tackled by Hans Gilhaus of Holland

Des Walker of England is tackled by Hans Gilhaus of Holland. Photo: Billy Stickland/Getty Images

“I look back on my career and I can tell, that’s not like anything I ever felt before, that was nerves. Once you’re in the tournament and you’ve got the first game out of the way, then there weren’t any more experiences like that.”

The speedy defender reluctantly admits to having a degree of pride for England’s campaign in 1990, but is quick to underline that disappointment is his overwhelming emotion when looking back on that World Cup.

“The Germany game, obviously they were a top team, and you need to get lucky if you’re to win a game like that. As much as you can look back on my career and pick out a World Cup semi final as a proud highlight, the disappointment of losing it is equally as big. That England team we had – I’ll tell you, every single player in it was world class, it was a great team.”

Walker regrets one thing above all else, the terrible injury to Manchester United player Bryan Robson. The midfielder’s Achilles tendon, knocked against Ireland, began to flare up against the Netherlands, in England’s second group game. That combined with toe injuries hampered his campaign severely, much to the woe of Walker.

“I honestly believe that if Bryan Robson had stayed fit, we would have won it. He’s the best footballer I ever played with, and he got injured in the first game. It’s such a shame, because I really feel we had a great chance to win that.”

Paul Gascoigne of England tries to intercept the ball kicked away by Frank Riskaard of Holland

Paul Gascoigne and Frank Rijkaard in action during their group stage clash. Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

With so much talk and hype about England’s team reaching the latter stages of the tournament, Des says he was never phased by the achievements he and the rest of his team were accomplishing. “At the time you’re not really thinking of making history. You’re there to do a job, and you haven’t got time to stop and think about everything you’ve already done, because we always had much more to do.

You just take it game by game, and nobody’s thinking ‘oh we’re going to achieve this or that.’ With a bit of luck, which we didn’t get, you’re able to go all the way, and I fully believe we had a team capable of winning it. As great as the experience was, it was still a massive disappointment, because I know we could have done better.

England failed to qualify for the following World Cup in 1994, and haven’t done as well at any international tournament since Italia ’90.

“There are a couple of reasons why the England team hasn’t done as well,” Walker says. “The amount of foreign players playing in the Premier League right now is going to stunt the growth of English players, no doubt about it. The top teams is where most of our international class players are going to be playing, and if they’re not achieving anything there or getting a chance to learn, then that’s going to have an effect on them.

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

England players dejected during the defeat to Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

“The way the system is set up too with no competitive football really between the kids of the under 21s and the first team. No competitive football won’t breed winners. The best eleven play, and the younger lads just have to wait.

“Also, the academies are split from the first team. So the best young lads are buttered up and hyped up within the club, because they’re good and they’re young. In the bigger picture though they’ve done nothing for the club. They should all be put in the same bag so they can know where their place is, their discipline, and how far they still have to work.

“The young lads aren’t prepared enough these days to produce at the highest level. That’s regardless of ability – our young lads don’t have the experience or preparation to produce at the big tournaments. Anything that young lads should learn should always come from the first team. I played in the reserve teams at Forest when I was 16 and the learning curve I had then, playing against much older lads, was unbelievable.

“Some younger lads I watch nowadays seem to go hiding in games, and I think that’s as a result of not getting the proper teaching that players around my day got. You weren’t allowed to go hiding for a second back then.”

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