After filling out one last page of yet another notebook, Pete Davies tucked it in his pocket and kept on walking out of the Stadio Delle Alpi. West Germany had just defeated England on penalties on a night of nights in Turin. He had seen all he needed to see.
The author of the best book about the World Cup has not witnessed another game at a World Cup since.
He didn’t even stay to watch the final, which was as dull as he predicted: West Germany 1 (Brehme, pen 85) Argentina 0. There was writing to be done; All Played Out, which he completed amid a fevered blizzard of words in only 58 days on an old Amstrad computer, was the result.
Some have called it the best book about football, never mind just the World Cup, that’s ever been written. Without it, Nick Hornby once claimed, his own Fever Pitch would probably never have been published.
Italia 90. It was the last time Scotland won a game at a World Cup. It was the last World Cup where the goalkeeper could pick up a back-pass. It was a different era. The creation of the game-changing English Premier League was still two years away. Hooliganism remained a primary concern.
“Glasgow Rangers,” writes Davies in an early chapter, “is the richest club in Great Britain”. As well as also having the best stadium in the land, he notes the Scottish club also contribute the most players to Bobby Robson’s England squad; Gary Stevens, Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Trevor Steven.
Italia 90 was also, as one recently published retrospective describes it, “the tournament that changed football”. So it was a good one for the then 30-year-old Davies, pictured right, to decide to write a book on.
What he produced can endure constant re-reads and remains in print to this day. Flicking through it once more, on the eve of another World Cup, one paragraph leaps out. Davies is nearing the end of his adventures. By his own admission, he is a shell of a man. Someone who would write a book about chasing hurricanes (he literally flew into the eye of two of them) had nearly completed his most difficult assignment: running, and often jousting, with the English press corps in his bid to relay the inside story of England at a World Cup.
But now he is heading home on yet another flight, his 12th in only a few weeks and musing: “the miracle of flight…. eating up the ozone, burning up the atmosphere. And what will things be like 30 years from now, when Joe [his son, then only months old] is my age?
“Will we still jet about so casually?” he asks. “Will we still play World Cups?”
Here we are. Not quite 30 years later but as near as damn it. Joe is now 28 and living in Manchester. And we are still playing World Cups. The latest one, the 21st edition, has just started. The opening game is little more than an hour away when you remind Davies of this paragraph.
We are not only still playing World Cups, we are expanding them. Mutating them even. The next one but one will be a sprawling, ozone-shredding marathon contested by 48 teams across a continent and three vast countries. Talk about all played out.
“Absolutely horrific,” says Davies, now 59, of the prospect. He conjures up the phrase “late stage casino capitalism” to describe what’s happening in Russia now, summed up by the weird ménage à trois involving president Putin, the Saudi Crown Prince and Fifa president Gianni Infantino at the Luzhniki stadium on Thursday.
He concedes Italia 90 spoiled him. “I have to be careful and put in a caveat,” he says. “I was a young guy and 30 years old [when I started the project]. The tournament you were at is bound to be the tournament that means the world to you. It was in the home of football – people will say England is the home of football but in terms of a country completely soaked in the culture and tradition of football you could not ask for a better host nation than Italy.”
Still, it left the author strung out –and contributed to him burning out by the end of the 1990s. Davies wrote nine books in total in the decade, a remarkably productive period which took its toll.
Upon finding he could not write another sentence, let alone another book, he took a job at Sainsbury’s for a dozen years as team leader of the fresh produce section in a local store in Huddersfield. So it was as much a surprise to him as anyone else when he recently completed a comeback novel, Playlist.
As well received as his other books have been, it is All Played Out that really holds its charge. It was made into a documentary four years ago and re-named One Night in Turin, as has the book in recent editions (strangely, the Japanese version includes only the chapters dealing with the games). How does it all feel to him now from the perspective of three decades on?
“It feels two ways; in one way when you discuss the issues around it, it looks like a different universe and how different everything was,” he says. “On a personal level if you get me going about what it was like to be at a semi-final in Turin, it feels like yesterday.
“I remember how it felt to be sat there as [Chris] Waddle’s penalty is heading off into the middle distance. There was a Scottish journalist who could see the tears going down my face and as he went past me he patted my shoulder and said: ‘it is very hard for you’.
“It was [Hugh] McIlvanney. To this day I do not know whether he was taking the piss or not. In my heart I believe he meant it, I really do.”
Davies’ slightly prickly relationship with those football reporters covering England on the World Cup beat is a theme running throughout the book. In light of the remarkable access he was permitted it’s little wonder some viewed him with a mixture of suspicion, contempt and envy.
For some of the friendlies in the build-up to the tournament Robson even let Davies sit alongside him on the bench at Wembley.
“I have seen Stuart Pearce (left) tackle [Hristo] Stoichkov two yards in front of me and the earth shook,” says Davies.
But while he particularly enjoyed interviewing Waddle and Gary Lineker, he wouldn’t say he got close to anyone in the English camp. “That would be presumptuous on my part. I was doing a job. They [the publishers] were asking me to do that job. Apparently Butcher wanted to deck me. But that is because a journalist told him about one particular thing that was in it, something utterly trivial. I don’t think he has read it.”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t inclusion of the detail he chucked all his Simple Minds tapes out the car window as soon as he discovered singer Jim Kerr was a Celtic supporter that irked Butcher, nor the bit where he reveals a new found distaste for U2. “Rebel music,” the Rangers skipper complains. Rather, it was reference to a criticism of Andy Roxburgh’s methods which riled him.
Unlike nearly everyone else in Britain, Davies does not hear Nessun Dorma, the evocative, much loved BBC theme tune for the 1990 tournament, and instantly thinks of Toto Schillaci, Claudio Caniggia, Gazza et al. If you were sitting listening to Nessun Dorma, you were not there.
“In Italy we were not listening to Nessun Dorma,” he says. “Maybe back in Britain everyone was.
“I was listening to Sinead O’Connor singing Nothing Compares 2 U. That song was playing in every café in Italy the whole summer. That’s the song I associate with Italia 90.”