All England needed was a draw, but in the 94th minute they came within inches of a historic victory.
It was 11 October 1997, and Glenn Hoddle’s squad had travelled to Rome to face Italy in a decisive World Cup qualifier. With the game goalless and England on course for the point they needed to secure top spot in Group two and a place in the finals in France the following year, Ian Wright danced around goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi in the depths of stoppage time.
A nation, watching from afar, held its breath, but the angle of the Arsenal striker’s effort proved too tight and the ball cannoned back off the post.
The 33-year-old was only chosen to partner Teddy Sheringham in attack because captain Alan Shearer was injured, but a goal would have capped an outstanding display from Wright, whose energy and speed had troubled Italy centre-backs Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro.
“I remember joining up with the squad and we were playing little eight-a-side games,” Wright tells BBC Sport. “I kept flicking it first time, and Glenn Hoddle went mad. He slaughtered me in front of everyone, saying: ‘Stop flicking it. Hold it. We need to keep the ball.’ That’s when I knew I was playing.
“I almost scored at the end. That would have rounded it off as the best game I ever played in. I just had to close them all down and make sure that I kept the ball, then if you get a chance, see if you can take it. It was my best-ever 90 minutes.”
Italy had reached at least the semi-finals of the previous two World Cups, finishing third on home soil in 1990 and being defeated on penalties by Brazil in 1994. Serie A was the most glamourous league in the world and Cesare Maldini’s side included several of the division’s biggest names – Paolo Maldini, Angelo di Livio, Filippo Inzaghi, plus Chelsea’s Gianfranco Zola.
They were a fearsome side who, having beaten England 1-0 at Wembley eight months earlier, ought to have had their World Cup destiny 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 in Le Tournoi in France in June.
“Their stars at that time were all the defenders – the Maldinis, the Costacurtas. They were the big hitters,” remembers Steve McManaman. “I don’t think we were scared of anybody in the forward positions.
“Of course you’re nervous going out, because it’s a partisan crown, away in Italy. But you also know that we’re good enough, we’re strong enough, we’ve all been in European games, we’ve all been in games of that magnitude.”
And while a degree of nervousness was inevitable, the Stadio Olimpico’s away dressing room was a sanctuary of calm pre-match.
“We used to play a two-touch game in the dressing room – you keep the ball in the air; one touch to control it and then you play it back,” says England’s then assistant manager John Gorman. “And I remember Wrighty getting all upset because I beat him. Glenn was laughing. It really calmed the atmosphere down.”
“Glenn had a strength of relaxing the players,” adds former Arsenal and England physio Gary Lewin. “He wasn’t dissimilar to Arsene [Wenger] in that everything we did, he liked to keep relaxed and normal, no pressure.”
Operating in a 3-5-2 formation, with David Beckham and Graeme le Saux as wing-backs and a midfield of David Batty, stand-in captain Paul Ince and a majestic Paul Gascoigne in what would be his last competitive international appearance, England played confident, passing-focused football from the outset.
And when they were forced to play with 10 men for a stretch, England showed their technical credentials.
Their one-man deficit was a result of Ince having to leave the pitch for treatment when Demetrio Albertini’s elbow opened a gash on the Liverpool midfielder’s head in the 12th minute. This led to both the most iconic image of the match – Ince with his head bandaged and blood soaking his shirt – and a period of farce unthinkable for football’s highest level.
“What happened was they’d locked the dressing rooms and they couldn’t find the key,” remembers Lewin, who attended to the bleeding skipper. “It lasted about eight minutes. Incey was getting upset and Glenn wasn’t best pleased, either.
“In those days, we didn’t keep stitching equipment on the bench; we set it up in the dressing room with a lamp. But we never had the keys to the dressing room. They’d locked it. Every time we went back there and said, ‘We need the key’, they just kept shrugging their shoulders. In the end, we patched him up with a bandage and got him back on.”
“It’s amateur hour that they locked the doors,” says McManaman. “It’s like on a Sunday league pitch, to protect their valuables.”
Di Livio was sent off in the 76th minute, earning a second yellow card for a late challenge on Sol Campbell, but Italy continued to press for a breakthrough. In stoppage time, they almost found it.
Mere seconds after Wright hit the post, Italy poured forward. Substitute Alessandro del Piero crossed for Christian Vieri, and the striker’s header flashed inches past David Seaman’s right-hand post.
That proved to be the last meaningful action on the match as England’s qualification was confirmed. Earlier, clashes in the stands between England fans and Italian police had been shown on the television broadcast. But news of the trouble only filtered through to the players and staff after the game, by which point ire had given way to jubilant celebration.
“There were three cardboard cut-outs of Minis, and the fans were moving them along, singing the song from The Italian Job,” Lewin says. “At the end it was chaos. It was real emotional celebrations.”
The result and performance seemed to signify a bright future for a technical, streetwise and tactically astute Three Lions. But they were eliminated at the last-16 stage of the following summer’s World Cup, losing to Argentina on penalties, and Hoddle was sacked in February 1999 for airing insensitive views regarding disabled people.
That one night in Rome was ultimately the apogee of Hoddle’s England. But what a night it was.
“To qualify in those circumstances, in that stadium, it was special,” says Gorman. “The whole staff was celebrating like we’d won the World Cup. That’s how good it felt.”