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Book Review: All Played Out

All Played Out, Pete Davies’ gripping account of what it’s like to be inside ‘Planet Football', is truly a masterpiece of sports writing.

Davies somehow gains an astonishing level of access to the England squad and management and this is an opportunity he does not waste. The interviews are interesting and insightful as the players open up about being away from home, the pride of playing for their country and even the tactics of the team.

There are none of the usual cliches and platitudes here. There’s an afternoon on the beach with Chris Waddle, where the winger reveals his dislike for 4-4-2 while elsewhere John Barnes talks in depth about what it's like to be John Barnes. Steve McMahon contemplates his error against the Irish while Gazza’s periodic cameos are just what you expect. Bobby Robson himself comes across as a passionate football man and is extraordinarily generous with his time.

For the most part, Davies travels with the sports reporters from the major newspapers as they battle their way through the seemingly endless Italian Bureaucracy, and traffic. Here, we gain an insight into the workings of the UK press, as jaded old men complain about first world problems while running up their expenses. The reporters are initially suspicious of Davies but as the tournament goes on, he gains the dubious distinction of being accepted as one of them.

When crossing paths with many England supporters, Davies writes without prejudice. The spectre of hooliganism lurks in the shadows and the undesirable elements are all there but Davies takes them all at face value and concludes that they are mostly just young men who like beer and football. The passionate tribute to England’s travelling support in the aftermath of Lineker’s equaliser in the Semi Final is spine tingling.

From what I remember, most of the football at Italia 90 was crap,but it didn’t really matter. It felt like such a huge event. This sense of occasion is brought to life with stirring passages from Cameroon’s shock win over Argentina and Italy’s epic tragedy against the same opposition a month later.

England were a writer’s dream as their performances swung from the ridiculous to the sublime and hardly anything went to script. Of the established players, only Gary Lineker and Peter Shilton lived up to their billing while tyros like Paul Parker and David Platt came to the fore. Paul Gascoigne’s genius dazzled when England were on top and Mark Wright finally realised his potential as a world class defender. If you had asked anyone in England at the start of June what our team would look like if we made it as far as the semi final, no one would have got it right, least of all Bobby Robson.

Incredibly, even the matches themselves are page turners, despite the fact that the reader knows the outcome. The semi final really gets the heart racing and for a few minutes you actually feel like England are going to win the World Cup and for a moment I am taken back to being 18 years old and stood on a pool table at the Silver Jubilee Pub in Peterborough, watching a Chris Waddle’s shot coming back off that post in extra time.

It is clear that Davies is first and foremost a fan and desperately wants England to win. He loves it when they do well but he is not shy with his criticism of the team and their deficiencies. It is this balanced writing that is the cornerstone of this book, whether he is writing about the players, press or the supporters.

The only mis-step is the same one all of us made, so it can probably be forgiven. Davies envisages a future England team with ball players all over the pitch, Gascoigne at the heart of it all. He summarises that after years of backward thinking, maybe the country that gave the game to the world were finally emerging into the light and going to become a world force. We all know how that worked out.

After I first read this book in the early 90’s, it inspired me to follow England to a World Cup. Reading it again, almost thirty years later, it is less of an inspiration and more of a trip down memory lane.

Where Davies trod the streets of Cagliari, Naples and Turin, I have followed down those of Marseille, Sapporo, Gelsenkirchen, and Bloemfontein in search of England’s ultimate glory. That’s pretty much where our similarities end. wish I could write a book like this.

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