Often in football, a player’s entire career trajectory can change with one swing of a boot. It’s 26 June on a balmy night in Bologna and England are squaring off against Belgium for a place in the quarter-final of Italia 90. It’s the 119th minute of a fairly even game when England are awarded a free-kick some 35 yards from goal. What happened next would go down as one of the most dramatic goals in England’s recent history.
The then Aston Villa midfielder David Platt rids himself of his marker in the box for split second as Paul Gascoigne’s ball descends towards him. Platt swivels and connects beautifully with a right-footed volley which arrows across Michel Preud’homme and into his right-hand corner. Platt peels away in celebration, euphoria overtaking him and sinking to his knees – a rare manner of celebrating a goal by his own admission – and is soon mobbed by teammates.
The goal was life-changing for Platt; in the immediate aftermath of the strike and for the long-term effects. He had been a substitute in every game of the World Cup prior to the goal, following the Belgium game he subsequently became an automatic starter against Cameroon, West Germany and Italy. Scoring a further two goals in the quarter-final and the third-place play-off.
The England squad returned home as heroes for their unexpected run to the last four, restoring pride to the national game after a decade of darkness. It could be argued that with the exception of Gascoigne, nobody’s value rose higher after the tournament than Platt’s. He had been named PFA Player of the Year in the season leading into Italia 90 as he rattled in 19 goals in the league from midfield, yet his performances in Italy garnered international recognition and speculation was mounting that he wouldn’t be playing in the Midlands for much longer.
As it turned out, he would remain for one more year, but not before equaling his 19-goal haul for the second consecutive season as Villa finished in a disappointing 17th position.
In an interview in 2010, recalling that moment against Belgium, Platt has no qualms in believing the goal sealed his move to Italy, saying: “If I hadn’t scored that goal, I might still have ended up playing in Italy, but, realistically, I’m sure it was the catalyst. Italian clubs were looking for international names and, before that goal, I was only really known as a club player with Aston Villa.’’
With his reputation at an all-time high and with the World Cup still fresh in the memory, it was not a surprise to learn that he was moving to Italy, his choice of team, however, was quite a surprise to everyone: AS Bari.
When one tends to think of the glamour clubs in the Italian game, Bari are certainly not amongst them. I Galletti had been something of a yo-yo club during the late 1980s and their latest promotion to Serie A had come as recently as 1989. However, their owner, Vincenzo Matarrese, son of construction magnate Salvatore, held lofty ambitions for his club and the signing of Platt, alongside Robert Jarni and Zvonimir Boban (on loan) was viewed as a signal of intent.
Why did nobody other than Bari step forward with a bid? Platt says: “Genoa had a couple of sniffs, Juventus and Sampdoria were interested, but there was a fear of English players from the big clubs in Italy because they had their fingers burnt in the past.”
He was initially going to turn down the Bari offer, hoping to wait for a bigger side, however he knew that if he played for one season in Italy and performed admirably then the teams from the north would be more inclined to buy him. Platt eventually signed on the dotted line, shrewdly inserting a clause into the contract that stated if another Italian team arrived with a bid, he would be free to go.
Bari’s £5.5m signing of Platt was a further example of just how strong Serie A was in the 1990s. It seemed every team in the division had one world-class star in its ranks (Atalanta with Caniggia, Cagliari with Francescoli and Skuhravý at Genoa). The league was abundant with world-class players, foreign and homegrown, and it was the aspiration of every player to test their mettle in Italy. It was perhaps the finest league in the history of the sport.
Platt was mobbed at the airport upon arrival by ecstatic Bari fans, as is Italian tradition when a big name arrives, in the claustrophobic-goldfish bowl-hysteria filled environment of calcio, where hyperbole and a desire to placate obsessive fans are never far away, especially in the 90s. Platt very nearly scored an own goal before even kicking a ball for his new club.
In his first press conference, he declared that he wanted to become the ‘Maradona of Bari’. Of course, to the Bari faithful this was music to their ears; maybe in Platt’s mind the statement was made purely to appease his new fans. However, declaring that he was attempting to try to replicate what El Diego achieved in Naples was nothing short of impossible, and just added further pressure to perform.
He was given the captain’s armband and the number 10 shirt, possibly the most iconic number in the Italian game as the 1991/92 Serie A season commenced on 1 September. Bari opened up the campaign at home to Torino and Platt scored on his league debut, a penalty in the 26th minute as the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
Bari wouldn’t win their first game of the season until January 1992, having only amassed five points as they sat in 17th. Gaetano Salvemini, who had been at the helm when Bari got promoted in 1989, received his marching orders after only five games and in came former Juventus and Roma striker Zbigniew Boniek in an attempt to reverse their fortunes.
They were finally victorious when they beat fellow strugglers Cagliari 1-0 at home. Two games later Platt undoubtedly gave his best performance for the Southerners in a 2-1 home win against Roma in which he scored twice, the second coming four minutes from time. However, Boniek nor Platt – nor even Maradona himself – could’ve stopped the slide towards relegation and Bari only won a further four games as they finished the season in 15th place, seven points adrift of Genoa. They were the last team to be relegated.
On an individual level, Platt shined in his maiden season on the peninsula. He would end the season with 11 goals from 29 games, an astounding tally given that Bari only scored 26 goals in the entire season and he was a midfielder playing for a struggling side in a league where goals came at a premium.
His assertion that a year in Serie A would make him more appealing to the more grandiose clubs in Italy turned out to be correct. Five months prior to Bari’s relegation he received a call from Roberto Mancini, the Sampdoria skipper and talisman who would ultimately play a huge role in his life – but at this point, the pair weren’t exactly on a first-name basis. “We’d played Sampdoria a few times and I’d faced Robbie,” Platt recollects. “But I didn’t know him and he’d tracked my number from somewhere. He said: ‘I know you’ve got a good relationship with your president, I’m sure you could push through a move to us.’’
With Bari’s relegation confirmed, combined with the clause in his contract and his performances throughout the season, it was never likely that Platt was going to stay in Puglia. This time around Juventus did show concrete interest and offered £6.5m for his services. Platt weighed up his options between Juventus and Sampdoria, ultimately determining that the lure of La Vecchia Signora was too great an opportunity to pass up.
Juventus had finished as runners-up in 1991/92 and embarked on a massive spending spree over the summer in the attempt to overthrow the mighty Milan of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten. Platt was among a host of signings that included Gianluca Vialli, Andreas Möller, Dino Baggio and Fabrizio Ravanelli.
Platt struggled to make an impact in Turin, the competition for places was fierce and despite Giovanni Trapattoni being a fan, he often failed to make the squad. He repeated his Bari feat and scored on his league debut against Genoa but got injured in a home game against Udinese in November 1992 and wouldn’t return until February ’93 against Atalanta.
He would end the season a UEFA Cup winner, picking up his first piece of silverware as Roberto Baggio’s genius inspired Juve to decimate Borussia Dortmund 6-1 on aggregate. Following the general theme of his season, Platt didn’t make the squad for the two-legged final and rarely featured throughout the tournament.
Throughout the season, as it became clear that the move wasn’t working out, he was continually getting phone calls from a familiar voice. Mancini, in what would surely in this era be viewed as tapping up, was persistent in trying to bring him to Sampdoria. When the Blucerchiati played against Juventus in the Stadio Delle Alpi in May – a game he scored in – Platt would recall that, “Robbie was playing, so I was marking him and hovering around, hoping he would say something.”
In July 1993, the move to Sampdoria finally happened, with much-loved owner Paolo Mantovani paying £5.2m for him. In three successive summers, Platt had wracked up an accumulative £17.2m in transfer fees. Mantovani might have stumped up the money for him but he is unequivocal about who made the deal materialise, “I’ve always suspected I wasn’t on Sampdoria’s list that summer, because their president wanted to sign Marco Osio from Parma but he ran the transfer list past Robbie (Mancini), who had much of the say. I soon made the move.”
For the next two seasons, under the tutelage of future England manager and Swedish Lothario Sven-Göran Eriksson, Platt excelled at the heart of the Sampdoria midfield. His marauding runs from midfield complimented the guile of Gullit – who was brought in on loan from Milan – and the combative nature of Vladimir Jugović and all-action style of Attilio Lombardo. All led, of course, by the irresistible Mancini.
Platt once more continued his propensity for scoring on his debut, this time a header away to Napoli in a 2-1 win. He would net a further eight goals in the league – including an equaliser in the Derby della Lanterna – and two in the Coppa Italia, including a crucial penalty in the round of 16 against Roma.
The death of Mantovani, the orchestrator of the club’s resurgence, months after signing Platt left a dark cloud over the club. However, they battled on to enjoy a fine season playing in swashbuckling fashion, scoring more goals than anyone in the division. They eventually finished third in the league and won the Coppa Italia. They haven’t won anything since.
By June 1995, following a season that saw Sampdoria fail to emulate the success of the previous campaign despite losing in two classic encounters against Arsenal in the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Platt decided the time was right to move back to England.
He confessed to having envisioned winning trophies in England yet conceded he was torn between staying in Genoa, where he was settled, and with a proposal from Arsenal on the table, believing that at the age of 29 this was his last chance to join another big club. In his own words: “I couldn’t have my cake and eat it.”
He completed his £4.75m transfer to the Gunners a month later, thus ending his four-year odyssey in Italian football. Platt departed Serie A in the same summer as Gascoigne, his fellow break-out star of Italia 90, yet their experiences couldn’t have been more contrasting. The latter showed only mere glimpses of his unbelievable talent, blighted by a combination of injury, lack of self-discipline and a failure to embrace the culture.
Meanwhile, the former became a success because in his own words he “wanted to become an Italian, speak like an Italian, to live and eat like an Italian”. Platt stated that he became fluent in the language within his first year of moving to Italy; Gascoigne could never speak more than a few sentences. Platt became a more technically accomplished and tactically astute footballer in Italy; Gazza unfortunately regressed.
Over two decades on since his departure, Platt is the last English success story in Italy, though Chris Smalling has certainly impressed in Rome. Paul Ince could make a claim to be considered, however his stint at Inter, like Smalling’s at the Stadio Olimpico, lacks the longevity compared to the man from Lancashire.
Platt would return to Italy sooner than he expected in a short and controversial stint as manager of a struggling Sampdoria in the 1998/99 season, but was sacked after six games due to not having the relevant coaching qualifications. Despite this, Platt is still revered in Genoa and Bari for his performances on the field and for becoming, as he stated, “one of them”.
By Emmet Gates @EmmetGates