Holland provided the last test of the group stage. Often flattering to deceive, the Dutch were a team at war with each other. Childish in-fighting marred their campaign and at times it appeared they just didn’t want to be there. England just needed a point to qualify and was their first evening game of the tournament which meant cooler conditions for both fans and players. The game started brightly and England took the lead, the rejuvenated Shearer tucked home a penalty after Paul Ince was fouled. That was the first half. Fairly comfortable. England on the brink.
The second half, or at least 20 minutes of it, produced, arguably, some of the finest counter-attacking football seen by England. Time and again the Dutch defence was carved open and England scored three goals in 11 minutes to completely blow Holland out of the water. It was simply effortless, clinical and quite frankly, surreal. Teddy Sheringham, one of the most underrated players to pull on the three lions shirt, was instrumental in the victory. A visit to YouTube for those of you who haven’t seen the goals is definitely worth a minute of your time. It was men versus boys, Oasis versus Blur, Premier League versus Sunday League. More choruses of Three Lions filled the packed out Wembley stands. This is what balmy summer evenings were made for, surely?
To this day it is still spoken of in the same sentence as the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich in 2001 and I was lucky to have witnessed it. A small footnote was Patrick Kluivert’s consolation for Holland. It meant Holland qualified ahead of Scotland as they had a superior goal difference. Poor Scotland! The next day I rushed off to the shop and bought a paper, the English media are known for their borderline racist/World War-related headline puns and the Mirror’s ‘E-Dam Busters’ was the pick of a sorry bunch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time the media would embarrass themselves and the country during the tournament.
Spain were up next in the Quarter Final. The nation had gone completely Euro 96-mad over the previous week. There was blanket TV coverage and everyone was talking about the tournament and the team; there was no escape. It had truly captured the imagination of the nation, at last. As ever when there is massive expectation of the England team they rarely deliver and this was no exception. I watched between my fingers in my living room as England were outplayed by a very unfortunate Spainish side. If the Scotland game had been the starter, the Holland game the main course, then this was the very dry and lifeless dessert. Penalties were an inevitability and I was actually thankful when they arrived. England’s self-inflicted penalty shootout hell wasn’t quite as prominent in 1996, although I had witnessed the penalty defeat to West Germany in Turin in 1990; I was 11 and was allowed to stay up and watch the penalty shootout. I went to bed in tears though. Stuart Pearce, who had missed in that 1990 shootout, blew away the demons of six years earlier and struck his penalty home. It could’ve all gone horribly wrong for him and his fist-pumping celebration of joy and relief still brings out the primordial patriot in me. All of England’s player scored their kicks and Seaman, the other hero of the day, saved Miguel Angel Nadal’s penalty and sent England through to the Semi Final. Thoroughly hyped up, I went straight round to my friend’s house wanting to talk about nothing else all evening, and that’s just what we did, the memories of being extremely fortunate not to have been comprehensively beaten in normal time all but forgotten. Football was definitely coming home.
Germany would be the Semi-Final opponents, a massive rival, unfortunately it isn’t just because of 1966. There is and probably always will be a World War agenda to the attitude of some England fans whenever we play Germany, it really is a shame that such attitudes still exist. I met a thoroughly pleasant, football-mad bunch of German fans in a London pub before an England and Germany friendly in 2007, the drinks flowed and the football banter did too. It’s a shame most England fans wouldn’t have given them the time of day. The good old English press certainly played up to this bizarre obsession with the War as they excelled themselves in the racist headline stakes. The Mirror’s latest offering showed Gascoigne and Pearce in World War One soldier helmets (not literally, mid-nineties photoshop), either side of the headline “Achtung! Surrender! For you Fritz the Euro 96 is over” Now I’m sure the German players can read English newspapers and quite apart from the xenophobic, cringe worthy embarrassment this caused it will have no doubt fired them up too.
The game itself was a draining, sweat-inducing, nerve-shredding nightmare. England, in their very drab and unfamiliar, grey away kit, took the lead after just two minutes as Shearer headed in Gascoigne’s corner. His fifth goal of the tournament. This was it, we were going to do it! The country erupted. Pandemonium. I strutted around the living room, Mick Jagger-style, in delirious delight. However it was apparent England were not going to hold on to the lead, even against a mostly moribund German team and their equalizer was deserved. A cat-and-mouse game ensued in which Germany were marginally better. Extra time arrived, chances were few and far between however Darren Anderton hit the post with the ball falling straight into German goalkeeper, Andreas Kope’s, grateful hands, as the Wembley crowd gasped, howled and moaned their way through a myriad of emotions. 200 miles away I felt exactly the same.
Now there are moments in a game, usually just one, late in the game, where a team has a chance to score, this is their golden chance. Take it or leave it. A Sheringham cross was volleyed across the goal by Shearer from a tight angle, it evaded Kopke as it flew across the goal, arriving like a blonde freight train was Gascoigne, only he had checked his run in anticipation that the German goalkeeper would intercept the cross, he didn’t and the ball grazed the outstretched Englishman’s studs and carried on its way across the goal. Gascoigne lay shattered on the Wembley turf, he reflected the mood of the whole country; worn out and drained. That was the chance. That ten seconds of footage still brings me out in goose pimples. So close.
That was it. Penalties, for the second time in as many games and the real start of England’s tournament penalty shootout madness. Each team dispatched their first four (current England players take note, please), as I watched cross-legged in front of the TV unable to move, like a toddler watching The Wizard of Oz for the first time. Future England manager, Gareth Southgate, stepped up to take the fifth, he isn’t the first person you would think of as a penalty taker but his courage has to be admired. I remember Kopke hammered the ball against the crossbar during Southgate’s walk to the penalty area, forcing the England man to retrieve the ball from around 20 yards away, no doubt this played on his mind as he stepped up. I can still remember BBC commentator, Barry Davies’, loud and desperate cry of “oh no!” as Southgate’s weak penalty was saved. I burst into tears. It was over, there was no coming back (even typing this 22 years later it still brings a tear to my eye). Former Juventus player, Andreas Moller, scored Germany’s winner and that was it. TV shots showed a forlorn looking Baddiel and Skinner in the crowd, players cried during the lap of honour, coaching staff consoled each other. The world which had been so bright and joyful days earlier came crashing down in a shower of misery and sorrow. The now obligatory playing of Three Lions after the game now seemed different, hollow, as if it was now completely alien to me. I went to bed that night with the same phrase repeating in my mind “why didn’t he just hammer it?”.
The outpouring of anger and frustration was huge. Widespread rioting erupted in central London and this spilled over into many towns and cities. The spectre of hooliganism may have all but been eradicated but it was a sickening throwback to an almost pre-historic football era. England fans’ behaviour at the World Cup in France in 1998 and at Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium would be a nadir and almost lead to the team being removed from the latter tournament.
After the defeat to Germany, Euro 96 was over for me, the final was just another game. The England team, for a short time, had given the country a real sense of community in the days before widespread internet made the world seem a lot bigger and more shallow. Before Euro 96 the English population were embarrassed to admit they watched their national team, but the players representing England in Euro 96 very briefly made us extremely proud once more. From being branded as drunken thugs not more than a month ago, the same players were now the pride of the nation.
To anyone from one of the other competing nations or indeed a neutral fan, Euro 96 wouldn’t evoke many fond memories. The tournament was dominated by dreary, defensive football punctuated with only a handful of decent games, the knockout stages produced just nine goals in seven games as the new golden goal rule backfired. It had been designed to be a professional football version of the school playground next-goal-wins rule, all it ensured was the two teams would just play out the final half an hour in midfield before penalties, like some unfulfilling foreplay before the main event. The stadiums were mostly half empty and atmosphere lacking as local communities didn’t get behind the tournament in the same way the London Olympics captured the public’s imagination in 2012. However to truly understand why English people of a certain age still love the summer of 1996 one has to understand the country at the time. The wave of pop culture movements such as Britpop, under the umbrella term, Cool Britannia, still had the country in its grip. British-made art, fashion, music and film were thrust into the spotlight and held in extremely high esteem. An apparently fresher and younger Labour government was already heavily predicted to oust the Conservative government in May 1997. Even as crass, superficial and boorish as that whole era seems looking back it had a certain Englishness about it. A two fingers up to the establishment as the underdog rose up for a short while. English to the core, like a Michelin star restaurant serving Pot Noodles. Euro 96 was the cherry on top of a real eccentric and joyful cake, it was a huge caricature of mid-nineties life in England and is something to behold, to be revered and remembered. A Summer of Love-style euphoria mixed with chips and gravy, indie pop and the Union Flag.
As with most eras they tend to drift away, there isn’t a full stop but they just continue until no one is really bothered and they’re preoccupied by the next big thing. The Cool Britannia era faded as Labour, under Tony Blair, won the 1997 election, thus ending 18 years of Conservative rule. Oasis, Blur and Pulp released albums which reflected the almost literal hangover of the era and as I approached my 18th birthday in early 1997, I didn’t know it at the time, but there would never be another summer like 1996 again.