All England needed was a draw, but in the 94th minute they came within inches of a historic victory.
It was October 11, 1997 and Glenn Hoddle’s side had traveled to Rome to face Italy in a crucial World Cup qualifier. With the game goalless and England on course for the point they needed to secure top spot in Group 2 and a place in the finals in France next year, Ian Wright danced around goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi deep into the delays.
A nation, watching from afar, held its breath but the angle of the Arsenal striker’s effort proved too tight and the ball ricocheted off the post.
The 33-year-old was only selected to partner Teddy Sheringham in attack because captain Alan Shearer was injured, but a goal would have resulted in a superb display from Wright, whose energy and pace had troubled Italy centre-backs Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Canavaro.
“I remember coming into the team and we were playing little games with eight,” Wright tells BBC Sport. “I kept hitting it the first time and Glenn Hoddle went crazy. He butchered me in front of everybody, saying, ‘Stop hitting it.’ Keep it. We have to keep the ball.” That’s when I knew I was playing.
“At the end I almost scored. That would round it out as the best game I’ve ever played. I just had to shut it all down and make sure I was holding onto the ball, then if you get a chance, see if I can hold on. It was my best 90 minutes.”
Italy had reached at least the semi-finals of the previous two World Cups, finishing third at home in 1990 and losing on penalties to Brazil in 1994. Serie A was the world’s most glamorous league and Cesare Maldini’s side featured many of the biggest names in the world. of the class – Paolo Maldini, Angelo di Livio, Filippo Inzaghi, plus Chelsea’s Gianfranco Zola.
It was a fearsome side who, having beaten England 1-0 at Wembley eight months earlier, should have had their World Cup fate in their own hands, but a draw with Georgia a month earlier allowed England to go top of the group.
England also had the confidence that came from beating Italy 2-0 at Le Tournoi in France in June.
“Their stars at the time were all the defenders – the Maldini, the Costacurtas. They were the big hitters,” Steve McManaman recalls. “I don’t think we were afraid of anyone in the forward positions.
“Of course you’re nervous to go out, because it’s a party crown, outside of Italy. But you also know that we’re good enough, we’re strong enough, we’ve all been to European games, we’ve all been in games of this magnitude.”
And while a degree of nervousness was inevitable, the away dressing room at the Stadio Olimpico was a haven of calm pre-match preparation.
“We used to play a two-touch game in the dressing room – you hold the ball in the air, one touch to control it and then you play it back,” says then England assistant manager John Gorman. “And I remember Wright being upset because I hit him. Glenn was laughing. It really calmed the atmosphere.”
“Glenn had the power to relax players,” adds former Arsenal and England doctor Gary Lewin. “He was no different from Arsene [Wenger] in that whatever we did, he liked to be relaxed and normal, no pressure.”
Operating in a 3-5-2 formation, with David Beckham and Graeme le Saux at full-back and a midfield of David Batty, captain Paul Ince and a majestic Paul Gascoigne in what would be his final competitive international appearance, England played confident, pass-focused football from the start.
And when they were forced to play with 10 men, England showed their technical credentials.
Their one-man deficit was a result of Ince having to leave the field for treatment when Demetrio Albertini’s elbow opened a gash in the Liverpool midfielder’s head in the 12th minute. It led to both the match’s most iconic image – Ince with his head bandaged and blood soaking his shirt – and a period of farce unimaginable at the highest level of football.
“What happened was they locked the dressing rooms and they couldn’t find the key,” recalled Lewin, who tended to the bleeding captain. “It lasted about eight minutes. Incey was upset and Glenn was none too pleased.
“In those days, we didn’t keep sewing gear on the bench; we put it in the dressing room with a lamp. But we never had the keys to the dressing room. They had locked it. Every time we went back there and they said, “We need the key,” they just kept shrugging. In the end, we patched it up with a bandage and put it back on.”
“It’s time for amateurs who locked the doors,” says McManaman. “It’s like a Sunday pitch to protect their valuables.”
Di Livio was sent off in the 76th minute, earning a second yellow card for a late challenge on Saul Campbell, but Italy continued to press for a significant lead. In delays they almost found it.
Seconds after Wright hit the post, Italy surged forward. Substitute Alessandro del Piero crossed for Christian Vieri and the striker’s header went past David Seaman’s right-hand post.
This proved to be the last meaningful action of the match as England’s qualification was confirmed. Earlier, the television broadcast showed clashes in the stands between England fans and Italian police. But news of the problem only got out to the players and staff after the game, by which time fury had given way to jubilant celebrations.
“There were three pieces of cardboard Minis and the fans were going along, singing the song from The Italian Job,” says Lewin. “In the end it was chaos. It was real emotional celebrations.”
The result and performances seemed to signal a bright future for a technical, pedestrian and tactically astute Three Lions. But they were eliminated at the last 16 of the following summer’s World Cup, losing to Argentina on penalties, and Hoddle was sacked in February 1999 for making insensitive views about disabled people.
That one night in Rome was ultimately the pinnacle of Hoddle’s England. What a night it was.
“To qualify in those conditions, on that field, was special,” says Gorman. “The whole staff was celebrating like we’d won the World Cup. That’s how good it felt.”