David Platt: England’s Most Complete Midfielder of the 90’s

When you think of David Platt, immediately one goal springs to mind – England vs Belgium, World Cup second round, 1990 – and rightly so. But there’s so much of Platt’s career that gets overlooked: his rise to the top; holding his own in Italy; carrying England singlehandedly in the early 90s; his incredible goal scoring ratio and how he sacrificed his game to end his career in the Premier League.

So here I take a look at the story one of the footballing icons of the 90s.

Early Years

Spotted playing at his local side, Chadderton, Platt signed on as an apprentice at Manchester United, before turning professional at the age of 18 for the start of the 1984/85 season. Unfortunately, by February of that campaign, Platt was let go by United without playing a competitive game. It was a tough decision for the manager, Ron Atkinson, who didn’t want to lose him, but simply had too many big names in his squad ahead of Platt in the pecking order.

An initial loan move to Crewe Alexandra of the Fourth Division was made permanent not long after, following some heavy persuasion by manager Dario Gradi. Atkinson himself admits the mistake as he knew Platt was going to make it. As he left Old Trafford, Big Ron said to the midfielder, ”When you get an England cap, remember what I told you. Just keep working hard. I’ve always liked you cos you worked hard.” Platt never forgot those words.

For a player to drop three divisions like Platt did, must have taken huge belief in his own ability to be back in the top flight one day. So he knuckled down and quickly established himself as box-to-box free-scoring midfielder. In the 1986/87 season, Platt scored an incredible 22 goals in 43 league games, which encouraged West Ham to make an enquiry. With Crewe well known for nurturing talent and selling on as a way of survival, Gradi knew that if he kept hold of Platt more money would be on the table further down the line.

By the time Platt left Crewe – nearly three years to the day since he signed – he had tallied 61 goals in 163 matches in all competitions. Even though there was still three months of the season to go, Gradi got the right offer of £200,000 for his star man. That bid came from Aston Villa, who were going for promotion from the Second Division at the time. Manager Graham Taylor had seen his side falter going into the last third of the campaign and saw Platt as the key to getting them over the line. His new signing scored in his first three games, contributing 5 in 11 in the run-in, as Villa sneaked up almost apologetically with rivals Bradford and Middlesbrough both losing at home on the final day.

Back in the Big Time

Villa’s return season in the First Division was very much a transitional one, as they failed to make progress up the league table. They escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth, with a last game 1-1 draw with Coventry being enough in the end. The goalscorer that day? David Platt.

That year had seen a turnover of personnel that would change Villa’s fortunes for the 1989/90 season. In came the likes of Paul McGrath, Derek Mountfield and Gordon Cowans, out went Alan McInally and Martin Keown. Through all the uncertainty one thing was for sure, Taylor saw Platt as a player who could fire them to the top of the table. How right he was.

A slow start soon began to speed up and by November, Villa were in the top three and Platt was already on double figures. A seven-match winning run from Boxing Day (in which Platt scored a further 5 goals) fired Villa to the top of the table, but only five wins in their last thirteen games allowed Liverpool to take the First Division crown. Platt finished the season with 19 league goals (21 in all comps), a superb tally for only his second year in the top flight. He also had the honour of being named PFA Player Of The Year for 1990, at the age of just 23.

In the meantime, his form hadn’t gone unnoticed by England manager, Bobby Robson. Platt was first called up in November 1989, just as he was topping the goal scoring charts. He made his debut against Italy at Wembley and was then called up to every squad leading up to the World Cup. His seat on the plane was never in doubt, but his place in the team was. He had some quality central midfielders ahead of him, like skipper Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne and Steve McMahon. Platt also hadn’t yet transferred his club goals to the international stage. That was about to change…


Patience was the key for Platt at the start of the World Cup in Italy. Indeed, he was an unused sub for the opener against the Republic Of Ireland, but came on in both the remaining group matches against Holland and Egypt, making little impact. It was the Second Round match with Belgium however, which would change his life forever.

With the game on a knife edge, Platt came on for McMahon in the 71st minute. Despite Belgium hitting the post twice and John Barnes having a perfectly good goal disallowed, the match ended 0-0 after 90 mins. As penalties were looming with a minute to go in extra time, Gascoigne was fouled, giving England one last chance to lump the ball into the box. Gazza has since said he was considering shooting from 40 yards, until Bobby Robson got the message over to chip it in. Platt watched it carefully in the air like a plane spotter, and spun round to face the goal as the ball dropped over his shoulder. All in the same movement he volleyed it wide of the Belgian goalkeeper, Michel Preud’homme. It would have been rated a classic goal in any football match, but in the last minute of a World Cup finals game it must go down as one of the greatest goals ever scored for England.

Cue pandemonium on the pitch and in the stands, with a pile-on of players topped off by Gary Lineker’s wide-eyed elation for all to see. Even Bobby Robson did a little jig of joy in the dugout. Within a minute the final whistle went and the Three Lions were into the quarter-finals. Unfortunately for Platt, the euphoria didn’t last long as he was hauled off for a drug test, waiting for 40 minutes before being able to give a sample. By the time he came out, his teammates all had their suits on and the moment had passed.

A freak injury to the Bryan Robson opened the door for Platt to now start. The England captain had tried to tip Gascoigne out of bed as a prank, only for the bed to land on his foot, ripping off his toenail. Platt would join Gascoigne and Waddle in what was a very offensive central midfield trio against Cameroon in the last eight. Things couldn’t have started better for him either, as he headed home a Stuart Pearce cross in the 25th minute. England held off pressure from the African side until half time. However, after the break, 38 year old Roger Milla was brought down by Gascoigne, with the resulting penalty scored to even the scoreline up. Then Milla sliced open his opponent’s defence, setting up Ekeke to give Cameroon a shock lead.

Platt was arguably England’s best player in this match, tirelessly running box-to-box to help cover the gaping holes in his side’s backline. The introduction of Trevor Steven gave Platt more licence to do what he did best, as England desperately tried to save the game. In the end, two Lineker penalties restored their lead as the Cameroonians ran out of steam. For the second pen, Platt cheekily went up and said to Lineker that he would have it if the striker didn’t fancy stepping up again. The striker politely declined his request. They had done it the hard way, but they were in the semis nonetheless.

Bobby Robson pulled no surprises for the match against West Germany, with Platt once again asked to cover every blade of grass. The semi-final was one of the best games of the tournament with both sides going for the win. After Andreas Breheme’s fluke opener, Lineker hauled England level with 10 minutes to go. In extra-time, Platt had a goal disallowed for a very questionable offside decision that never even gets mentioned today. He also nearly got on the rebound from Chris Waddle‘s effort which came off the post.

As the final whistle went, Platt was down as one of the penalty takers, given it was his job at Aston Villa. He calmly placed England’s third pen to the keeper’s left. You don’t need me to tell you what happened to their fourth and fifth kicks. Elimination meant one more match with the 3rd/4th playoff left. Platt kept his place in the side, despite wholesale changes to give fellow squad members a game. And his fine form continued, as he equalised with a bullet header, ensuring he had three goals for the competition. Italy won 2-1, but England left the World Cup with their heads held high. Gascoigne took the plaudits, but the true breakthrough performances came from his midfield partner. David Platt was now a worldwide star.

The Italian Jobs

Despite interest from overseas, Platt had one more season at Villa, who struggled following Graham Taylor’s departure for the England job. In came Dr. Josef Venglos from a decent World Cup run as Czechoslovakia boss, becoming the first manager outside Britain or Ireland to take charge of a top division club in England. Even with his side languishing in the bottom half, Platt once again scored 19 league goals from midfield – 24 in all comps. He was now in serious demand.

A move before the start of the 1991/92 season was inevitable, but the club he signed for was certainly surprising. AS Bari were very much the West Brom of Italian football, with as many relegations as promotions in their recent history. However, they were the only willing bidders for the midfielder, stumping up the £5.5 million asking price. With plenty of rumours around of other Serie A clubs wanting him, Platt almost turned down the offer, before realising that this was his ticket to the best league in the world. He knew if he gave a good account of himself in his first campaign, the bigger clubs would come knocking. So much so, that he even added a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave if any other Italian club placed a bid. It was a shrewd move.

Bari knew they had a world class player on their hands and straight away gave Platt the captain’s armband and the number 10 shirt. He made the best possible start too, scoring a penalty on his league debut, but unfortunately the team didn’t flourish as hoped. They were unable to win a match until January of that campaign, with a managerial change taking place three months earlier. Despite his team’s poor form, Platt still stood out, scoring 11 goals from 29 matches – Bari only notched 26 in total all season. A brace in a 2-1 win over Roma is still fondly remembered by fans to this day. His best efforts couldn’t stop relegation, but they did get him another big money move.

Halfway through that campaign, Sampdoria captain Roberto Mancini (who Platt became great friends with), got hold of his number and tried to persuade the Englishman to consider moving there in the close season. However, Juventus also bid £6.5 million, turning Platt’s head to Turin. Mancini’s influence with his chairman had worked, but the lure of an Italian giant was too tempting.

Moving to Juventus turned out to be a mistake, with Platt suffering from the fierce competition for places. He was often behind the likes of Dino Baggio Antonio Conte and Andreas Moller, sometimes not even making the matchday squad. He did however score again on his league debut, but was out for three months in the middle of the season and struggled to ever make his mark on the team. Juventus won the UEFA Cup in 1993 and once more Platt did not make the bench. It was clear the transfer to the Delli Alpi wasn’t working out. Luckily, his friend from Sampdoria was still ringing him.

In July 1993, the move was finalised, and Platt at last had his wish of regular first team football at a big Italian club. Sampdoria’s manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, placed Platt in a team which included the likes of Mancini, Ruud Gullit, Attilio Lombardo and Vladimir Jugovic. Yet again, the Englishman continued his tradition of scoring on his debut and contributed 10 goals in all competitions that season. In fact, the Genoa side netted more than any other Serie A club, finishing 3rd in the league and winning the Coppa Italia – their last major trophy to date.

Unfortunately, Sampdoria were unable to duplicate their success the following season, finishing in 8th. Platt however, ended the campaign just one goal behind joint top scorers, Gullit and Mancini. With a mass exodus on the horizon, Arsenal came in with a £4.75 million bid to try and tempt him back to his homeland. He was in two minds. Now he was settled in a country that he loved, fluent with the language and had become a better player, technically and tactically. But he was also now pushing 30, well aware that this was his last chance to move to a big English club.

Taylor Made

It’s no exaggeration to say that David Platt was the only consistent performer throughout Graham Taylor’s England reign. Admittedly, it was a transitional period for the national side, as half the 1990 World Cup squad were either retired or coming to the end of their best days. But Platt was a mainstay throughout Taylor’s tenure, playing 34 times out of 37 matches.

After scraping through qualification for Euro ’92, all the focus was on Gary Lineker chasing Bobby Charlton’s 49 goals for England. The fact is, Lineker didn’t score in his last 6 matches for his country, failing to break the record. Whereas Platt scored four of England’s five goals in that time, including their only strike in the tournament itself.

With a disappointing Euros behind them, Taylor knew his side had no excuses but to qualify for the World Cup in 1994. England started well against Norway in their first match of the campaign, going 1-0 ahead at Wembley with Platt scoring again to continue his incredible goal scoring form. Despite the home team’s dominance, a long range effort from Kjetil Rekdal earned a 1-1 draw for the Scandinavians, which set the tone for the rest of qualification.

Platt was now pivotal in Taylor’s plans, and was made captain for the first time in the 6-0 home win over San Marino. It was in this fixture that he almost equalled Malcolm McDonald’s record of 5 goals in an England match – a missed penalty near the end meaning Platt had to settle for 4 instead. Yes, San Marino were the whipping boys of the group, but this was a brilliant performance from a midfielder. Two more goals were added in the 2-0 victory in Turkey and the 2-2 draw with the Netherlands at Wembley. With seven strikes in the first five matches of qualifying, Platt was keeping any World Cup hopes afloat by himself.

With further points dropped in Poland and Norway, the skipper was given a rest for the first match of the US Cup – a warm up for the big tournament a year later. In one of the most embarrassing results of the last 30 years, England lost to the USA 2-0. Luckily for Platt, he was an unused sub. He came on at half time of the second match against Brazil to give his side the lead in a 1-1 draw and was back as captain for the 2-1 defeat to Germany in the final game, scoring again. Even in a friendly competition, Platt had shown two of the world’s greatest sides why he was now comfortably one of the best players in Europe.

Despite his fine form with the armband, Taylor gave the captaincy back to Stuart Pearce for the last three matches of the campaign. The cameras followed the England manager out to Italy, where he filmed the discussion for the infamous documentary, ‘An Impossible Job’. Ever the professional, Platt took it on the chin with no fuss.

World Cup Qualifier Netherlands v England

A 3-0 home win over Poland was followed by the massive task of avoiding defeat in Rotterdam to ensure qualification. In an incident still shown now, Platt was blatantly brought down by last man Ronald Koeman, who somehow avoided a red card. Just five minutes later, the Dutch skipper went up the other end to score a free-kick. Did Taylor not like that. Dennis Bergkamp’s goal sealed England’s fate and barring a miracle, they would not qualify for USA ’94. The 7-1 win away to San Marino would do nothing but cause more humiliation, with the minnows opening the scoring after just eight seconds. It was the end for Taylor.

You have to give it to Platt during this period. He took it upon himself to roll his sleeves up when others were hiding. Always performing with his chest out and scoring goals even when qualification hopes were slipping away. Graham Taylor once said, ”When I hit the pillow at night, the one player I never worry about is David Platt.” Neither did we, Graham. Neither did we.

Home Chance of a Lifetime

The people’s choice, Terry Venables, took over in 1994 and instantly made Platt his captain, ahead of the likes of Pearce, Adams and Ince. The midfielder was now playing the football of his life for Sampdoria and Venables knew it. A goal in the first match of the new era against Denmark and two more vs Greece in the second, seemed to justify the decision.

The goals kept coming, but Platt had more serious things ahead of him as captain. In February 1995, the friendly match in Dublin against the Republic Of Ireland was abandoned after 27 minutes, following violent scenes in the crowd from English hooligans. This was the first away game under Venables and the rioting supporters brought back memories from the decade before. As skipper, Platt went over to the fans, pleading for calm and also had to face the media afterwards. It’s something no leader wants to have to deal with, but he did it in such a professional manner, something Venables never forgot.

The year before Euro ’96, another friendly tournament was organised – The Umbro Cup. Platt led his side with goals in the 2-1 win over Japan and the 3-3 draw with Sweden, but a 3-1 loss at Wembley to Brazil scuppered any chances of winning the trophy. After missing the first few friendlies of the 1995/96 season, Platt was back to captain his country for the last couple of matches before the pre-Euro ’96 tour of China and Hong Kong. That trip was overshadowed by the now infamous ‘Dentist Chair’ night, featuring Gazza and many more. Gary Neville stated in his autobiography, that when the night out was arranged Platt warned him that it might be one to miss. Neville stayed in and thanked his captain afterwards. These wise words were coming from an experienced player who had been there, done that, got the armband. Unfortunately for Platt, he didn’t have it for much longer.

Before the players caught their flight back to Blighty, Venables told his first choice captain that he wouldn’t be skipper for the tournament. The manager had found his best starting eleven and Platt wasn’t in it. Instead Tony Adams would lead England into their biggest competition since 1966. He was gutted, but shook Adams by the hand to wish him luck. Platt knew that he still had an important part to play from the bench, and he wasn’t wrong.

He came on in the opening draw with Switzerland for the last 13 mins but didn’t leave the dugout against the Scots. However, in the final group match, an opportunity arose. Paul Ince received his second yellow card of the tournament, meaning he would be suspended for the quarter-finals. With 20 mins left against the Dutch, Venables brought Platt on for Ince, which would be his dress rehearsal in a deeper role for the knockout stages. He passed the test.

So Platt started his first game of Euro ’96 in the quarters against Spain. In a match where England were probably the poorer team, penalties looked very likely early on. Indeed, with the scoreline at 0-0 after 120 mins, spot-kicks would be used to separate them. Having been a regular penalty taker throughout his career for Villa, Bari, Sampdoria and England, Platt was not going to shy away now and he tucked it away in typical style. Of course, Stuart Pearce rightly received the praise for his bravery in that shootout, but having been sat on the bench for the previous three matches, Platt also deserves credit.

In that win, Gary Neville would also pick up a second yellow card, meaning he would now miss the semis against Germany. This time, with a defender suspended, it wasn’t so clear if Platt would take his place. However, Venables knew he had a big-game mentality, so changed his formation to three at the back to accommodate him. It turned out to be one of the most entertaining/stressful matches in England’s history. As we all know, the in-game drama resulted in penalties yet again, with the first four takers remaining the same. The kick turned out to be Platt’s last wearing the Three Lions. A trademark, undisguised but emphatic sidefooted penalty, which was struck with as much confidence as his goal against Belgium six years earlier.

London Calling

Just as Platt was about to agree to a two-year extension to his Sampdoria contract in 1995, Arsenal manager, Bruce Rioch, interrupted his own Portuguese holiday to visit him at his home in Sardinia. The deal was done hours later. This made him the world’s most expensive footballer, with over £22 million totalled in transfer fees. Together with the signing of another Serie A star, Dennis Bergkamp, Platt’s signature suddenly made the Gunners look a force again. He slotted in nicely, scoring in his second league match, eventually contributing six for the season, including a vital strike in the final game which secured UEFA Cup qualification.

Rioch was sacked at the beginning of the next campaign and in came Arsene Wenger, along with new signing, Patrick Vieira, from AC Milan. Platt was Vieira’s first central midfield partner at Highbury, taking the 20 year old under his wing. Arsenal just missed out on a Champions League spot on goal difference to Newcastle Utd in Wenger’s first year. However, changes were coming.

The 1997/98 season began with the signings of Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit, and suddenly Platt found himself on the periphery. Wenger accepted a £1.5 million bid from Middlesbrough, but he preferred to stay and fight for his place. He reverted his game to a more controlled style, to fit in with the newer, younger legs. Platt ended up playing in more matches that campaign than the previous two, adding a further three goals, one of which was vital in their title-push.

The crucial winner in the 3-2 victory over Manchester United in November 1997, is widely regarded by Arsenal fans to have given them the belief they could go all the way. In fact not only did they lift the Premier League trophy in ’98, but they added the FA Cup too. That final turned out to Platt’s last match for the Gunners, coming on as a sub for the last half an hour, when Ian Wright was not given the same courtesy on the bench. It was a fitting way to end a wonderful top flight career.

Goal Scoring Record

There’s no doubt about it, Platt’s goal record was phenomenal for a midfielder. He scored 150 goals in 448 club games, just better than 1 in 3. That’s a ratio that most strikers would be pleased with. It gets even better when you look at his international record of 27 goals in 62 matches, which is not far off 1 in 2. Just to compare, here’s the best England midfielder goal scoring records from the last 40 years…

PLATT: 62 caps – 27 goals (0.44)
Robson : 90 – 26 (0.29)
Lampard: 106 – 29 (0.27)
Sterling: 56 – 12 (0.21)
When you look at those stats written down, it’s quite apparent what a special talent Platt was.

An English Great?

I would say the answer to that is a resounding yes. Not only for his goals, but the path his career took him. For a start, players who drop down to climb back up must be admired, but with just over two years between turning out for Crewe in the Fourth Division and his World Cup exploits, there can’t be many who have made it that quickly to stardom.

His time in Italy can be summed up by a simple comparison to Paul Gascoigne. Gazza showed small glimpses of his incredible talent between injuries, but he never truly embraced the Italian culture, which was shown by his lack of self-discipline off the field. Platt on the other hand loved it so much he wanted to become an Italian. He knew it was the best league in the world at the time and lived the same way of life as his teammates, including becoming fluent in the language within a year. The top players adapt to their surroundings.

Platt had a consistency for his country that cannot be ignored. If he was fit, he played. Nobody appeared more under Graham Taylor, and only Shearer and Sheringham won more caps under Terry Venables. Even though he was dropped just before the Euros, he played the two most mature and disciplined games of his life against Spain and Germany, and scored two vital pens in the shootouts. Platt was definitely England’s unsung hero of that tournament.

By the time we became preoccupied with more recent goal scoring midfielders like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, Platt’s achievements were unfairly forgotten. Paying the price for having his best years at international level overshadowed by Graham Taylor’s torrid time as manager. The repeats of Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 over lockdown have reminded us what a wonderful player Platt was.

The most reliable and complete English midfielder of the 90s, bar none.

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