Everybody knows that Nick Hornby invented football literature in 1992. Because before then the likes of Eamon Dunphy, Hunter Davies and, most importantly, Pete Davies had obviously been trotting out nursery rhymes for a living.
The sporting literature revolution of the 1990s in the UK owes a hell of a lot of Italia 90; Gazza's tears, Nessun Dorma, Gary Lineker's deranged smile after David Platt's goal against Belgium and all. But that revolution also owes a hell of a lot to Pete Davies, whose All Played Out is rivalled only by Duncan Hamilton's Provided You Don't Kiss Me and Gary Imlach's My Father... when it comes to football writing. Good football writing had been thin on the ground until Davies somehow managed to wangle unlimited access to Bobby Robson's World Cup squad. Since then, among the glut of cash-in autobiographies there have been many nuggets of gold.
The book is part travel article, part interview, part match report and part news bulletin. That's not to say it's disjointed, however. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bit by bit then:
The travel stuff sets the scene perfectly. Italy is a beautiful country, and in 1990 it was blessed with the most aesthetically pleasing stadia in the world. Davies documents his travels around one of the most frenzied, stunning countries in the world in a manner that would do Bill Bryson justice.
The interviews are candid, insightful, funny and, in the case of Paul Gascoigne, incredibly sad. The way the players open up to Davies when they were doing their best to shut out the rest of the press is testament to Davies' journalistic skills. Knowing now how these players' futures have been shaped makes their predictions for their lives after football fascinating reading.
The match reports bring the tournament to life. Italia 90 is generally recognised as one of the greatest World Cups ever. This isn't right. As far as the football went, it was a dull, defensive tournament. But Davies' writing, particularly in England's games against the Netherlands, Belgium, Cameroon and West Germany, keeps you on the edge of your seat (even though you should know the outcomes) and helps you relive the joy and disappointments.
Finally, the 'newsy' stuff. Davies was, as far as I'm aware, the first British writer to look beyong the headlines when it came to English thuggery abroad, and aportion an element blame to the British media, British politicians, FIFA and the local police forces and organisations. It can't have been easy - and Davies never tries to hide that there are a worrying number of England fans hell-bent on causing trouble - but he makes his point in a clear and conscise way that is most persuasive. What a shame his observations seem to have been ignored, and the only area which seems to have been improved upon is in the behaviour of English fans (which, while still not good is a great deal better than it was in 1990).
Davies' tone captures the mood of Italia 90 perfectly. His access to the team mean that this book is both compelling and revealing. An absolute must-read for any football fan aged 30 or over, and strongly recommended to anyone younger than that.