Anniversaries always invoke nostalgia and football tournaments are no different. This summer’s European Championships in France will come exactly 20 years since Euro ’96, hosted by England. For many people, this is their favourite tournament, and for me it is no different.
I’m generally not too bothered about England nowadays, that ship sailed for me over a decade ago, but I still look back at Euro ’96 with great memories. I remember bits from the World Cup in 1990, and Euro ’92, and of course England failed the qualify for the World Cup in USA in 1994. Being 13 at the time of Euro ’96, it was the first tournament containing England that I was old enough to fully appreciate.
Being hosted by England was also one of the factors that made this tournament so special to the masses. Pre-1990 football matches were generally no-go areas for many people, characterised by hooliganism and decrepit stadia. The Taylor Report, produced in the wake of the Hillsborough Disaster, recommended major changes for the national game. The Premier League kicked off in 1992 and by 1996 the face of the English game had changed dramatically.
A fairly poor performance from England opened the championships, on a Saturday afternoon at Wembley Stadium. Alan Shearer opened the scoring against opponents Switzerland, lashing home a cute Paul Ince pass, for what was to be his first international goal for 20 months. The game ended 1-1, however, after the Swiss converted a penalty conceded by Stuart Pearce.
The second game, on Saturday 15 June 1996, was a must win for England, given the draw in the opening match and the fact that the opponent was the Auld Enemy, Scotland. The Scots were a good side at the time, with many of the team plying their trade in England or featuring regularly in the Champions League for Rangers. England took the lead as Shearer nodded in a Gary Neville cross to silence the invading Tartan Army. The Scots had a chance to equalise after Tony Adams felled Gordon Durie in the box, but David Seaman saved Gary McAllister’s resulting spot-kick. What happened next produced one of the most iconic images of the last 20 years. Paul Gascoigne lifted the ball over Colin Hendry’s head with his left foot before smashing a volley past Andy Goram with his right. It was made all the sweeter given that he played for Rangers at the time, and was coming face-to-face with many of his colleagues. The goal was followed up with the famous Dentist Chair celebration, making light of some pre-tournament shenanigans in Hong Kong, which predictably involved copious amounts of alcohol.
That date was also significant for another reason, as an IRA bomb ripped through the centre of Manchester. I remember hearing whispers about the bomb, as we walked the empty streets following the game, but fortunately we were too young to understand the implications of such a tragic event. Luckily, no one was killed, although 212 were injured.
With four points in the bag from the first two games, it was on to face the Netherlands in the final group game. This Dutch team were no mugs, and contained 5 players who had won the European Champions League with Ajax just one year prior: Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reizeger, Danny Blind, Clarence Seedorf, and Ronald De Boer. England were just unplayable that day, winning 4-1 thanks to a brace apiece from Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham.
Having negotiated the group stage, England were to face Javier Clemente’s Spain side in the quarter-final. This Spain side contained some decent players, although they were unrecognisable from the side that dominated world football between 2008 and 2014. The 0-0 draw was barely memorable, although the penalty shoot-out produced yet another iconic moment. Stuart Pearce, who had missed a crucial penalty in the World Cup semi-final six years earlier, and bawled like a baby on national TV, stepped up and thumped the ball into Andoni Zubizarreta’s left-hand corner. The exuberance of the resulting celebration saw Pearce live up to his “psycho” nickname.
The semi-final was to be against the Germans. It was thought that whoever won this would go on and win the whole thing, so when England took the lead after two minutes expectations began to rise even further. Shearer’s header was his fifth goal of the competition, but it was cancelled out by the comically named Stefan Kuntz, a commentators nightmare. Like with the previous round, the game was to go to extra-time. Germany had a goal disallowed before Gazza almost won it, his outstretched leg seemingly an inch too short to convert Shearer’s cross/shot. It was to be another shoot-out, and after ten brilliant penalties up stepped Gareth Southgate. The rest, as they say, is history.
Euro ’96 created some great memories, and I can still remember exactly where I watched the majority of the games. I remember enjoying the tournament massively, watching the games at friends houses. I remember walking home after the semi-final feeling dejected, despising Gareth Southgate and even more so when he did those ridiculous Pizza Hut adverts.
I don’t actually remember the final. Germany beat the Czech Republic 2-1 but the country had lost interest after England were knocked out.
“Britpop” dominated the airwaves during 1996, and as well as Blur and Oasis we heard memorable songs from Coolio, The Bluetones, The Luniz, Pulp and Mark Morrison to name but a few. However, the star of the show and the backdrop to the whole tournament was provided by the legendary Three Lions song by comedians Baddiel & Skinner, and The Lightning Seeds. Easily the best football song of all time, Three Lions was sung in stadia, pubs and living rooms up and down the country. One of the lyrics of the song talked about 30 years of hurt, although that has now risen to 50. Writing this, 20 years after makes me feel old, and although I’ll enjoy this summer’s tournament it won’t be with the same verve I did it with when I was 13. Hopefully though, there is another generation of fans out there that will make their own memories, good or bad, happy or sad.
For a little nostalgia, watch the video below 🙂