Tuesday 17 March 2020 5:32 pm

Trevor Steven: It may have ended in tears but 1990 World Cup was the best time of my career

Picking a highlight from my playing days is so difficult but – despite it ending in disappointment – for the intensity of the emotions it generated, I would choose the 1990 World Cup.

At that time Serie A was the best league and Italy was set up to host a great event. Hooliganism was an issue, though, so all our group games were held in Cagliari to restrict England fans to Sardinia.

It was a turbulent time too for Sir Bobby Robson. Our manager was under fire and, having announced that he’d be stepping down after the tournament, we were written off before getting there.

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This was my second World Cup. It was a dream come true to be picked in 1986 but this time round I was a seasoned international. It was great to be part of it, although the feeling was different.

During the group stage I was on the bench and not playing, but I knew from four years earlier that it could open up and players who don’t start the tournament in the first XI can end it there.

David Platt’s extra-time goal to beat Belgium in the last 16 gave us momentum and set up a difficult quarter-final with Cameroon, who were a very physical team.

Again I was on the bench but this time I came on. It was a great moment; I felt like I was really in this now. It also felt as though we were lifting the country during what was otherwise a bleak time.

Surreal atmosphere

After my performance against Cameroon I trained really well and thought I’d start the semi-final. I knew it was between me and Chris Waddle, but Bobby said he hadn’t made up his mind yet.

By now my family had flown out to Italy. My brother and his wife were there. So when the team was named after training and I was on the bench I felt really down.

Sir Bobby Robson
England manager Sir Bobby Robson came under fire before the tournament

It was a surreal atmosphere aboard the team bus to the game. We knew that the world would be watching us, and that this was the gateway to an incredible opportunity. We all just had to hold our nerve.

My mindset was still positive and after about an hour I was asked to warm up. On I came for Terry Butcher as we switched from a back three to 4-4-2 in search of an equaliser. I had to pinch myself.

Soon after we were level, through Gary Lineker, and from then on it was end to end. It carried on that way through extra-time. Waddle hit the post for us. They hit the post too.

Paul Gascoigne became a star of that World Cup and, in this game and up against Lothar Matthaus, he ran the show. To be on the field and feel the confidence now flowing through the team was amazing.

You have to remember as well that English clubs had been banned from European competition since 1985. We hadn’t played against Bayern Munich or AC Milan or Barcelona for five years – that’s half a career.

To be in touching distance of the final when we were nearly all playing in our back yard was a massive achievement against the odds.

Out-of-body experience

The penalties, looking out at the frenzy of excitement in the crowd and then the recognition that we’d have to take a kick, was like an out-of-body experience.

Although I’d taken spot-kicks for Everton, I wasn’t one of England’s five takers. I was due to be sixth, though, so I had to believe I was going to take one and keep a calm head.

I knew I could become the hero or the villain. Football is full of ifs, buts and maybes but this was a different level. The emotions were so intense and it’s difficult to relate to now.

We started the shoot-out well but then suddenly it was over, after Stuart Pearce and Waddle missed the fourth and fifth kicks. All that opportunity had gone. We were completely deflated.

Stuart Pearce
Stuart Pearce would miss one of England’s penalties in the semi-final shoot-out

It could have been so different. We were the better team in the semi and I don’t think there was any doubt that we believed we’d have beaten an Argentina side that wasn’t very good in the final.

But my overriding emotion when I look back is pride. It was the biggest stage I ever played on and, although it didn’t end well, that is what being a footballer is all about.