by Tom Nash

Euro ’96. It’s easy to look back with fondness on the tournament which was billed as “Football comes home”, a slogan paraphrased in David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds’ huge anthem “Three Lions”. I was fifteen at the time, and being over six feet tall and the proud owner of both a fake ID and a bum fluff beard, it was the first tournament that I watched in the pub.

Perhaps my teenage intoxication is to blame for my rose-tinted view of the tournament as a whole, because if you look back with a cultured eye it was, in fact, guff. There were very few goals per game, the advent of the “Golden Goal” rule ensuring that after ninety minutes neither side dared attack for fear of being caught on the break, and the fact that two of the quarter-finals and both semi-finals were settled by penalties. The only golden goal that was scored was in the final as Oliver Bierhoff netted for Germany. Oh yeah, and that was the other problem — Germany won.

However, 1996 wasn’t just about the football. This was the height of Britpop — the very peak of it, before it became a political tool by the name of ‘Cool Britannia’. Bands such as Oasis (before they were dull and predictable), Blur, Pulp, and The Bluetones sound tracked the summer. This was also a tournament which took place within the context of significant social and political change in Britain, a country tired of years of Conservative governance and soon to commit (in May 1997) to what was perceived as the hopeful exuberance offered by Tony Blair’s Labour party.

Perhaps the most relieving aspect of the summer was that England were the host nation, so there was no way we couldn’t qualify, as we had done for the World Cup in the USA two years prior. That had hurt. Alan Shearer was back after missing most of the World Cup qualifiers though injury; and he was now a thirty-goal-a-season title-winning player. Forget the long international goal drought, there was an assured feeling that he was saving his goals for important games and that the floodgates would open at the tournament. There were Italia ’90 heroes scattered about the squad, including Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce, both of whom had demons to exorcise. Yes, despite the national team’s absence from the World Cup, there was yet again the overhyped sense of expectation and entitlement that England could do it this time, thirty years after 1966 and back on home soil.

Euro ’96 was the first European Championships to use a sixteen-team group stage format, expanded from an eight-team straight knock out. Brilliant! This, of course, meant that England could lose and still progress. Yes, even at fifteen I was an England cynic. A drunken one at that. More teams of course meant more players, and even though it’s only fifteen years ago, it was a time before common familiarity with foreign leagues. The Champions League had only been the Champions League for four years, and there wasn’t the blanket television coverage that there is now.

The Premiership (as it was known then) was also in its infancy, and there was no big four; Blackburn had won the title a year before, and there weren’t that many foreign players in England. My point is that European leagues and the players that graced them were still quite an exotic, unknown quantity. Players such as Stoichkov, Figo, Baggio, Hagi, Zubizaretta and Maldini were, at least in my mind, so much more glamorous than our own crop of Les Ferdinand, Nicky Barmby and David Seaman. Yes, I’ve cherry-picked the most glamorous against the least, but I didn’t mention Alanis Morrisette or Bryan Adams when discussing music, and you’ve read down to here already, so I’ll continue to do so.

For some reason, one of the things that stuck in my mind from that tournament was the multitiude of car window flags. St George’s crosses fluttered from Ford Escorts and white vans, but also from Range Rovers, BMWs and other luxury cars. They were proudly raised from council estate balconies and quiet suburban semis. They were everywhere. The nation entwined itself in a secular embrace of this holy and historical figure, and has done at every major tournament since then. It was the first time in my memory that such patriotism was not tainted, fairly or unfairly, with racism. For the first time in a long time, the St George’s flag was deployed to unify, not divide; symbols of pride used without earlier discriminatory agenda or later irony. It felt good to be proud to be English, and good to be able to express it. I was just as proud of Paul Ince as I was of Stuart Pearce. I’m not going to say that there was Rock the Casbah style scenes of Arabs and Jews rejoicing together, but there was a common cause in the England team, and what at the time was a genuine belief that England could win it.

BBC coverage of the tournament was spot on. Des Lynam at the very top of his game. He was cocky, cheeky, smarmy and all of it with that awful moustache on his face. With the sports jackets, the moustache, the winks and the one-liners, Lynam anchored my whole summer. Since Des has moved on, people like Richard Keys and Andy Gray have tried to reach that level, by ‘bantering’ with each other, but Des bantered with the whole nation.

Game One: Switzerland. Shearer got an early goal. That was that, the goal drought was over, we had a new Lineker, someone who would deliver when it mattered. Switzerland’s late penalty to equalise put the dampener on celebrations, but as a sage fifteen-year-old boy, I consoled my drinking buddies with talk of how the best teams peaked towards the end of tournaments, when it really mattered. There was nothing to worry about – actually, drawing with the Swiss was good.

Game Two: Scotland. A huge game, absolutely huge. Frankly, England had looked a bit stifled against the Swiss, perhaps nervous in front of an expectant home crowd. And yet this game followed a similar pattern. Shearer put England in the lead, and then a penalty was conceded. Not again! Actually, no – not again. McAllister’s penalty was saved by Seaman (still with ‘tache, pony-tail not yet grown), and within a minute England produced the two iconic moments of the tournament.

Gazza’s goal, aesthetically as near-perfect as you could ask for from a mere mortal, gave England a 2-0 lead and the whole of England a reason to fall in love with him again. Since his propulsion onto the world stage six years earlier, Gascoigne had endured a torrid time. Two lengthy injury lay-offs had stalled his ascent into the stratosphere, a knee injury and a broken leg that kept him out of pretty much two whole seasons. He’d moved to Italy, but didn’t settle and had played inconsistently. His return to Britain had taken him to Glasgow Rangers, where he set about playing himself back into form. Gascoigne had won the Players’ Player of the Year, and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards, but then as is the case now, there were question marks over the quality of Scottish football, and whether Gascoigne was still anything like the player he had promised to be all those years ago.

That goal, that flash of genius, proved that Gazza could still do it. The second iconic moment of the tournament came just a few seconds after Gascoigne’s goal. The infamous dentist’s chair goal celebration, which is the first choreographed goal celebration that I can remember, was a hit back at critics in the media who had made Gazza a figure of fun and stuck two fingers up at the outrage caused by the team’s antics in a pre-tournament trip to China and Hong Kong, where players had got blind drunk, and then smashed up their plane on the flight home. The goal and ensuing celebrations connected the players with the fans. England were up and running at last.

Game Three: Holland. This was the big one. England didn’t just beat Holland so much as take them to bits, almost eliminating them from the tournament at the same time. Patrick Kluivert’s late goal proving much more than a consolation effort – taking them through on goal difference. I remember having such a swagger about me by this point that I was actually a little bit annoyed that England had let Holland score that goal.

England’s four goals were divided equally between Shearer and Teddy Sheringham. Ince won a penalty for Shearer’s first goal with a quite excellent dive. Well done to him, he appears to have got away with it until now, there was no way Ince was going to do anything else than go over Danny Blind’s leg, the ball was moving too fast. Up stepped Shearer for the penalty. In goal: Edwin Van Der Sar, the goalkeeper still in the early stages of his glittering career, already with three Dutch league titles and one Champions League medal from two consecutive final appearances with Ajax. 6’5” of daunting Dutchman. Unphased, Shearer tucked it away set off on that now familiar one armed celebration run. His third in the opening three games; we were obviously right about him saving his goals for when it mattered.

Sheringham nodded in from a Gascoigne corner, and then came that wonderful team goal. Gascoigne was again involved, England starting to wonder why they had ever doubted him and if he’d ever forgive them. Using that famous bulk of his to hold off a defender before feeding Teddy on the edge of the area, Teddy squared it again for Shearer who blasted home. What a goal that was. Delirium in the pubs across England, total disbelief. This was Holland for goodness sake. Holland were awesome, weren’t they? Well, yes, they were, a squad with names such as Kliuvert, Davids, Seedorf, Reiziger, Bergkamp, and Cocu should be incredible.

Of course, on paper, they were. In reality though, infighting in the Dutch camp had destroyed morale, racial tensions between white Dutch and those of Surinamese heritage being blamed by some. When the fourth went in for England, you could see this was a team in disarray. How any defence that is beaten to a rebound Sheringham (something of a veteran even in the mid-nineties) are not helping each other out.

So, England had made the knock-out stages. The press got behind the team and the manager. Terry Venables’ dodgy business dealings were forgotten about and he was rightly lauded as an astute tactician. At the time I had no idea why everyone called him El Tel, I just thought it sounded cool, I later found out it was from his time at the helm of Barcelona. Terry had the magic touch, and seemed the man to get the best out of Gazza and his colleagues. As if to confirm the happiness of the camp, Shearer later said that Venables’ England was the best group he ever played with at international level.

The knock-out stages saw a lot of negative football – not just from England but from all participants. England drew 0-0 with the Spaniards who had two goals declared offside and two decent penalty shouts declined. Perhaps the officials had got caught up in the mood too, and didn’t want it to end? Anyway, isn’t that the mark of a great team? Being able to grind out results when not playing well? However you saw it, progression to the semi-finals produced a confrontation with our favourite enemy – Germany. As is to be expected, the tabloids went absolutely mental. In retrospect, some of the newspaper headlines were completely abhorrent. There was even an investigation by a Heritage Select Committee into violence during the tournament which laid blame partly at the doors along Fleet Street, calling it ‘xenophobic, chauvinistic and jingoistic gutter journalism’.

Before and during the tournament, especially once drawn against Germany, the press had built up a feeling of the Championships being some kind of invasion. From scaremongering before it began about Dutch, Italian, Turkish and German hooligans that would be invading our sceptre’d isle for bloodletting on a huge scale, a sort of sub-tournament to decide which country had the hardest firm had been warned of. This didn’t materialise, of course, and the tournament was played and watched in a friendly atmosphere.

When it had become evident that their pre-tournament baiting and scaremongering had failed to inspire any actual incidents of violence to report on, the British press changed tack. They attacked the team after the draw with Switzerland, urging that Gazza be dropped from the team, and again bringing up the Cathay Pacific aeroplane incident and the boozy culture of the England team. Boss Terry Venables went on the defensive, and was savagely lambasted.It turned out, as it usually does, that it was the press who had misjudged things, as the country proudly supported the team and turned a blind eye to previous misbehaviour.

Eventually, the journalists began to get it right, and supported England’s footballers. The trend was set for mixing sports, military history, and jingoism. As each of England’s games drew close, the opponents began to feel the heat of the headline writers. Great battles with the Scots were recalled, and a new one added after the game. The Dutch escaped pretty lightly, perhaps enough damage was felt to have been meted out on the pitch. When it came to Spain, things ramped up again. One tabloid even went with the questionable front page of a matador being beheaded by a Beefeater. The Armada was remembered, of course, as well as a far more recent and inconsequential dispute about fishing rights. With that, we come to the game against Germany.

Piers Morgan at the Daily Mail put in a spectacular, concerted effort to disgrace himself and his employers, not to mention embarrassing his countrymen along the way. Headlines such as “Achtung! Surrender!” next to mocked up picture of Stuart Pearce and Gascoigne in WW2 helmets were supplemented by borderline racist jokes, photo captions such as “Filthy Hun”, a declaration of football war, and a letter to the German embassy demanding that they withdraw from the tournament. They actually printed the words “Two World Wars and one World Cup”.

Needless to say, Germany were better than us, and they beat us on penalties.

Read more from Tom on his blog, ‘The Frustrated Footballer‘, and follow him on Twitter.