AS evocative and iconic moments go, it was right up there in Three Lions’ history.
Blooded warrior Paul Ince, with his head bedecked in a bandage – if not quite possessing quite the amount of claret spilled by Terry Butcher in Stockholm in 1989 – enforcing order on a patch of green in Rome to help his country triumph in the face of adversity and clear a path to the World Cup finals of 1998.
It was the inimitable Paul Gascoigne – who else – who famously remarked that Ince resembled a ‘pint of Guinness’ charging around the pitch with his bandaged head.
Job done by the final whistle, it was he and his England team-mates who were left to toast one of the country’s finest international footballing hours in the eternal city almost two decades ago in October 1997.
And if the present-day England require any extra motivation ahead of Thursday’s qualification game at home to Slovenia, when victory can rubber-stamp a place at next summer’s World Cup finals, watching footage of that famous evening almost 20 years ago should manifestly provide it.
The sight of England roaring defiance and prevailing, despite a fair bit of hardship, was all very British, with Ince – taking over the armband in the absence of the injured Alan Shearer and becoming the first black player to captain England – at its core.
Against a daunting looking Italian line-up, a combination of blood and a fair bit of sweat saw England secure the point that they needed to book participation in the following summer’s finals, without having to go through the nerve-shredding lottery of the play-offs after a 0-0 draw at the Stadio Olimpico in their final Group 2 qualification match on October 11, 1997 in front of 65,892 fans.
It was a Roman evening for stout hearts, personified by Ince, who refused to yield and go off for a lengthy spell to treat a nasty head wound, which eventually required five stitches.
That lion-hearted effort drew praise of sorts from England’s other feted and bloodied hero of yore in Butcher, who later quipped: “He’s almost there, I had nine!”
Looking back on that famous night, hero-of-the-hour Ince recalled: “I played a lot of games for England, including Euro ‘96, but I think that the Italy game is probably still the stand-out one. At the time, it was just so important.
That night we all got drunk and it is not until the next day that you realise how much you put in and how much your body aches. You feel exhausted.Paul Ince
“I remember coming off and the doctor said it would take half an hour to put the stitches in.
“I wasn’t thinking at all about the cut, I was just thinking about getting back on the pitch. I didn’t want to leave us down to 10 men.
“Glenn Hoddle was going mad, saying, ‘Get him back on’. They just patched it up with a bandage and then, at half-time, I had a couple more stitches and it was all right.”
Taking the field in a tense Roman arena, Ince led by example in a heroic performance against an Azzurri side who had triumphed 1-0 in the reverse fixture at Wembley in February, thanks to a goal from Gianfranco Zola.
But England headed into the reverse fixture and final Group 2 game with a significant, if slender, one-point advantage, with Cesare Maldini’s Italy having dropped points in their penultimate group game, a 0-0 draw with Georgia in Tbilisi, while Hoddle’s side eased past Moldova in a 4-0 Wembley win.
Needing just a point from the game, England produced a thoroughly professional performance to keep the Italians at bay in a decorated home line-up including the likes of Zola, Filippo Inzaghi and Christian Vieri, alongside the feted AC Milan defensive duo of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta.
Alongside the traditionally British qualities of resolve, there was also poise from the likes of Gascoigne – in his last competitive match for his country – Teddy Sheringham and Ince against an Italian midfield containing no little talent in the likes of Demetrio Albertini, Angelo Di Livio and Dino Baggio.
It was Juventus man Di Livio who proved the villain of the piece for the hosts after being dismissed in his home city on a night when seven players were booked in total on a busy night for Dutch referee Mario van der Ende, whose excellent performance drew praise from Hoddle.
But in the final analysis, England possessed the cooler heads, managing to sedate an Italian side who had won its previous 15 competitive home matches.
Ian Wright went close to a winner for England when he struck the post after rounding Angelo Peruzzi, before there was one major scare at the other end when Vieri flashed a header over at the death when some home fans were celebrating a goal.
Hoddle clearly feared the worst too.
On that moment when the whole of the watching nation back home had their hearts in their mouths, Hoddle said: “It was like a dream and I think my heart was pretty close to stopping because I thought it was in the net.”
But stay out it did and it was Italy who were destined for the play-off lottery and another two games to secure their place at France ‘98 and not England.
It was a glorious evening for the Three Lions and their proud captain Ince, whose epic performance saw him pick up the man-of-the-match accolade.
On being bestowed with the captaincy, Ince recalled: “Glenn Hoddle knocked on my door the night before the game.
“I thought he was going to tell me I wasn’t playing.
“He pulled me out of the room because I was in there with Ian Wright and he said, ‘You are going to be England captain’. I just thought ‘wow’.
“I went back in the room, told Wrighty, and we started jumping about on the bed.
“It only really sunk in when I told my wife and sat down and thought about it. There were all these pressures. When you play big games like that, thoughts go through your head. You think, ‘What if we get beat, will we ever play in the World Cup?’
“If we don’t get through, you feel it could reflect on you.
“Once the game started, we got it absolutely spot on. We knew how they would play in their home town. It was basically a case of letting them play in front of us and try to counter-attack them. I spent most of the game running around, chasing the ball.
“It was a fantastic, fantastic night. When we got back in the training room, everyone was high-fiving and cuddling each other.
“That night we all got drunk and it is not until the next day that you realise how much you put in and how much your body aches. You feel exhausted.”
Italy went on to book their place in France after seeing off Russia in the play-offs.
After drawing 1-1 in Moscow, with Vieri finding the net, the Azzurri held their nerve to win the second leg 1-0 in Naples, thanks to a strike from Pierluigi Casiraghi.