Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne celebrate England's draw against Italy in Rome in 1997
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Just as it will be again this weekend, England’s last trip to Rome was another game they simply could not contemplate losing. With qualification for the World Cup at stake, England travelled to Italy’s capital in October 1997 freighted by a familiar sense of crushing expectation.
The fears were real and whipped up anxiety levels. Four years earlier, England had failed to qualify for USA ’94 and the scars had not healed, despite reaching the semi-finals of the European Championship a year earlier.
Heading into the final qualifying game, Glenn Hoddle’s side were one point above Italy, but had lost to them 1-0 at Wembley, courtesy of a moment of inspiration from Gianfranco Zola (watch video below).
Italian football was revered. Their clubs had recently dominated the European game and the world champions of 1990 had reached the final in 1994, only losing to Brazil on penalties. They had superstars all over the pitch, combined with a cynical, streetwise approach that England had struggled to deal with in the past.
“We were under a lot of pressure, there was a lot of scrutiny,” recalls goalkeeper David Seaman. “We were coming off the back of Euro 96 and the positive things we had achieved. That should have helped us along, but we stumbled a little bit [in qualifying]. And we were still carrying the negativity of failing to qualify for the World Cup in 1994.
“There was definitely concern that we wouldn’t do it. The pressure before those games is huge, it really gets to you.”
Tension was also palpable off the field in the hours before kick-off. England fans had clashed with police the night before the game, and there were running battles in the stands before and during the game itself – with the police subsequently criticised for heavy-handed tactics.
England fans clashed with Italian police
On the pitch, however, there was cool clarity, courtesy of Hoddle, who set his side up in a bold 3-5-2 formation to match up with the Italians. With Paul Ince as captain in place of the injured Alan Shearer and a young David Beckham joining the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Ian Wright and Teddy Sheringham in attack, the back line picked to secure the point that was needed featured Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and a certain Gareth Southgate.
The result was probably the finest England performances away from home since the 1990 World Cup – Italy frustrated as England controlled the tempo, passing precisely amid an increasingly frenzied atmosphere, and winning the physical battles, a point most memorably encapsulated by Ince, who suffered a gashed head that required five stitches and left his shirt soaked in blood.
Paul Ince suffered a gashed head that left his shirt soaked in blood
England ultimately closed out a goalless draw, and while the following year’s campaign in France ended in the frustration of another penalty shootout defeat to Argentina, the achievement of leaving Rome unconquered does not deserve to be forgotten.
“We played some really good football, it was one of the best 0-0s I’ve seen or played in," he recalls. “We showed what a good team we were and played a different way too. We were passing it around, we had a great game.
“Paul Gascoigne was superb, which made the decision not to take him to the World Cup a few months later an absolute shocker. That had a big impact on us as a group of players before that tournament and seeing him play in Rome, that really came back to me because he was brilliant.
“I watched the game back recently and it was a fantastic team display, with so many good performances. Paul Ince with his bandage on his head, battling everyone in the way only he could really.
“Getting that result against Italy, it showed we could grind out a result against top-class opposition under massive pressure, but also play really good football. We were in control of that game and I didn’t have much to do – a couple of shots to save. It was quite a comfortable night as I remember.”
Paul Ince celebrates with the England fans after the draw with Italy in Rome
Not entirely comfortable, though.
“There wasn’t long to go,” Seaman remembers. “They had a shot that was more or less straight at me. I’ve got the ball in my chest and I saw Wrighty standing there almost on his own, one on one. So, I put him through on goal, with a precise Glenn Hoddle-style pass.”
Seaman laughs. “Actually, it was a big hoof – and he was through. He took it around the goalkeeper and from a tight angle hit the post.
“He was so frightened, I remember him saying that, because 30 seconds later Italy had a great chance with a header from Christian Vieri.
“I told them all afterwards I didn’t dive because I knew it was going wide. I’m not sure they believed me, but I swear, my first reaction was it’s going wide.
“I think I was the calmest Englishman on the planet in those few seconds because nobody else did. Looking back at it, it was a little close. But, ultimately, it was well judged!” (watch highlights of the match below)
And what of Southgate? The man who has gone on to lead his country and become something of a national pin-up was not one of the big voices in the dressing room that night (even if he did pick up a rare booking), but Seaman does remember the quality of his performance.
Southgate and Seaman retain a bond, more than two decades on. Southgate even namechecked him in the aftermath of the victory over Germany at Wembley earlier this week, observing that seeing Seaman at Wembley that day had brought back the pain of his missed penalty in 1996.
Back then, Seaman had offered a consoling arm to his team-mate; now, there is simply pleasure at seeing him flourish as a manager.
“Gareth was a guy who just got on with his game,” he said, when asked what it was like to play with him. “He was very articulate and looked after himself. He was a really good guy.
“Did I think he would become a manager? Not really. He was very tactically aware, but I didn’t think he would go on to do what he is doing. I wasn’t sure he would have that sort of strong character to do it, like a Terry Venables or Bobby Robson.
“But he has developed into this brilliant manager. I think his personality and style suit the modern game and the modern manager. He has the perfect mix.
“As a player, he dealt with disappointment. When he mentioned his memories of ’96 and the picture with my arm around him, that hit me really hard. I was like, ‘woah, that’s a lot to carry for a long, long time’. But none of us blamed him. It was a team performance that meant we didn’t go through.
David Seaman with his arm round Gareth Southgate after his missed penalty at Euro 96
“But he has taken that feeling away, carried it with him for 25 years. That’s tough but it surprised me if I’m honest. I did feel for him. That’s just how he has chosen to deal with it but it was moving to hear him say that.”
Seaman also revealed another side to his former teammate – a harder edge to that affable, polite demeanour.
“He was harder than you realised, Gareth,” Seaman added. “That is something I remember about him. Roy Keane, of all people, said Gareth has a bit of a mean streak, a nasty side, so that tells you something.
“Gareth could be nasty on the pitch when he needed to be. He would put his foot in and it was left in, too.
"He was a bit like Dennis Bergkamp – everyone remembers Dennis as a brilliant player, but, wow, he could look after himself. Gareth could, too, and you saw that in the Italy game. He didn’t take any nonsense, he didn’t allow the Italian strikers to dominate him physically.
"He was physically tough, a really good player. And he needed to be in Rome – we all did.”
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