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Euro 96, the complete history – part three: Scotland vs England, and the story behind Gazza's goal

Euro 96
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This feature first appeared in the February 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe to the magazine now to get a free gift worth £49.99

Every game from Euro 96 in being shown in full by ITV this month. Over the course of May, FourFourTwo will be publishing our complete history of the tournament. This is the third instalment – you can find part one here and part two here

Let’s be clear: as a nation, England has been guilty of, and despised for, multiple crimes across its history. And the Scottish, Welsh and Irish have more reason than most to harbour anti-English feeling which rarely strays too far from the surface, even when benignly expressed as individual patriotism. 

By contrast, during the post-imperial half of the 20th century, the English largely wore an apologetic air and what The Independent’s Bryan Appleyard called a “chain of guilt that has been hung around the English neck”. 

“Think how hard it now is to be patriotically English,” he wrote in June 1996. “Professional Scots, Welsh, Irish, French and Americans are everywhere, flaunting their idiosyncrasies, but the English cower, occasionally making fun of themselves.” For many people in England, waving a flag was an embarrassing relic of colonialism or hooliganism – until Euro 96 and a seismic Saturday afternoon in the Wembley sunshine, that is. 

The week didn’t start well for England. The press piled in after their draw with Switzerland, printing paparazzi shots of Teddy Sheringham, Jamie Redknapp and Sol Campbell swigging away inside an Essex nightclub. At England’s Bisham Abbey HQ, Venables upped the verbal ante, accusing the team’s critics of treason. 

“It’s awful but we’re getting hardened to it,” Venables told the press pack. “We just don’t understand why it’s necessary to do what you are doing. Some of you feel like traitors to us. They’re turning the public against the players, which can turn them against us in the ground.” Paul Gascoigne summed up the Three Lions’ attitude by punting a camera crew’s football into a Bisham Abbey lake. 

Having sided with his players, Venables also made tactical plans. He’d played a back three in some friendlies, and after the false start of the Swiss game, he wanted to make a switch that had been a long time coming. 

“We had a meeting with all the staff and he said that we could play like Holland and how they set up,” Venables’ No.2, Bryan Robson, tells FourFourTwo. “Don Howe was a little bit nervous about it, but myself and [goalkeeping coach] Mike Kelly said, ‘Yes. We have got the players to do that’.” 

Elder statesman Howe had been involved in football since 1950 but he was associated with tactical nous, as the brains behind Arsenal’s 1971 Double and Wimbledon’s 1988 FA Cup Final upset over the mighty Liverpool. He may not have shared Venables’ confidence, but he had no problem in explaining the plan to the players. “Don was excellent at going onto the training pitch, setting everyone up and saying, ‘This is the way we need to play,’” remembers Robson. “That was a massive learning process for me, just watching the players soak it all in.” 

Venables didn’t leave it all to Howe, though. Paul Ince liked Venables’ distillation of complex tactics into simple instructions. “Players don’t have a great concentration span but he would simplify it for each of us,” he tells FFT. “While the session was going on, he’d walk round to the full-back and say, ‘Listen, this is where we want you – do that, perfect’. We all knew our jobs when we got onto the pitch. They weren’t complicated, but he gave you the belief that if you did what he was telling you, we’d win.” 

A back three wasn’t a new concept. As well as the Dutch, it was still the default system for Germany, whose Euro 96 sweeper Matthias Sammer came as close as anyone to equalling the incomparable Franz Beckenbauer. Even Graham Taylor had a go, disastrously, losing a key USA 94 qualifier in Norway with a back three of Des Walker, Gary Pallister and Tony Adams. Venables’ approach was considerably less clod-hopping, however. 

“Terry was clever,” says Ince. “He could play Gary Neville at right-centre-half, because as a right-back he was used to going out on the wing. The same went for Stuart Pearce on the left. Terry was so intelligent about the game.” 

“The three central defenders were all very comfortable playing close together,” explained Venables, “and if one of the flank men had to move out and deal with any danger, Paul Ince dropped back into the space. And we also had Teddy Sheringham in a position where he could make up the numbers in midfield but still stay in touch with Alan Shearer.” 

Venables’ first England back three, in a 0-0 draw with Croatia at Wembley in April 1996, had Pearce and Neville sat either side of Mark Wright. The Liverpool sweeper’s knee injury in the next match, a 3-0 victory against Hungary, created an opening for a fresh-faced Gareth Southgate. By the time of the Asia friendlies, Adams had returned to a back four alongside him, but Southgate could also play in midfield. The decision was made: Scotland would face a back three who had never played together. 

***

About 30 miles east of Bisham Abbey, Fleet Street had its own tactics to tweak. The press had pilloried England’s players, but by midweek the English public were preparing for a derby. Suddenly the papers switched to their version of patriotism, namely nationalism bordering on jingoism. 

The tabloids were knee-deep in references to centuries-old skirmishes, recently brought back into focus by Mel Gibson’s historically extravagant 1995 film Braveheart. The Battles of Bannockburn and Culloden were invoked; Paul Gascoigne was portrayed as Henry V; Gary McAllister, William Wallace. The broadsheets were stirring the pot, too: The Guardian’s Frank Keating dared to evoke a line from Flower of Scotland by saying the “blueshirts” would “be sent home to their grim glens, cold crofts and chilblained lives ‘tae think again’.” No wonder The Herald’s James Traynor said: “The manner in which... just about every English paper has been approaching the finals makes it virtually impossible to harbour any good neighbourly thoughts. Frankly, I hope they get stuffed.” 

Striving for balance, the BBC paired Alan Hansen with Tartan Army hate-figure Jimmy Hill. Alongside them, new Chelsea boss Ruud Gullit eschewed a staid suit in favour of a polo shirt, but even Ruud couldn’t be the coolest man in any studio with Des Lynam in it. Up in the gantry, Trevor Brooking displayed quite the failure of imagination: “I can’t think of a bigger game that any of these players could play in.”

***

Kick-off at last. During the first half, England stuck to Terry Venables’ carefully prescribed Plan B… and it didn’t really work. 

With Southgate patrolling just in front of the back three, Ince had licence to push on, but the visitors had other ideas and, indeed, the better chances of a stale first half. Southgate clattered Gordon Durie with an elbow, leaving the striker’s face covered in blood. The teams went down the tunnel to a large Scottish roar. 

“It wasn’t much of a game in the first half,” Scotland midfielder Stuart McCall admits to FFT. “We gave as good as we got, and England fans weren’t too happy at half-time because they were big favourites. We were going down the tunnel and I heard metal studs clanking behind me. I turned around and there was [Rangers team-mate] Gazza, running topless. He handed over his shirt, said, ‘That’s for your daughter’, and ran off to the dressing room. I’d done a TV interview the night before and said she loved Gazza, and hoped the match would finish 3-3 with hat-tricks for Paul and me. He must have seen that. It was amazing.” 

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Meanwhile, the BBC’s pundits piled on. Gullit thought England “just kicked it long”, and Hill was blazing: “Gascoigne doesn’t look physically right, he doesn’t look emotionally right... Steve McManaman is never happy on the left, Darren Anderton is in a semi-coma... England do not look like an international team.” Hansen was happier, if you can imagine such a thing, and claimed, “Scotland have done really well… all that was missing was a goal.” In the press box it was asked, “How can a coach with Venables’ reputation make the team look worse?” 

Over in England’s dressing room, Venables was unleashing Plan C: bringing on Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp to add a creative boost. “When I came on for the second half, I was walking on air,” Redknapp later told FFT. Pearce went off and Southgate dropped into the back three, with Redknapp sat alongside Ince as a quarterback. Just for good measure (or just to keep Hill quiet), McManaman and Anderton swapped wings. 

As he walked back up the tunnel, Venables displayed his knack for simple explanations by neatly outlining his modifications down a BBC microphone. “We’re not keeping the ball as well as we would like,” confessed the boss, “so I’ve put Jamie Redknapp in there to help us do that. We’re looking to get crosses in quicker and keep our shape better.” 

It didn’t take long – the Three Lions upped the tempo, took their game upfield and, in the 53rd minute, a neat move ended with Shearer nodding home Neville’s cross at the back post. Sheringham should have made it 2-0 before Scotland fought back, while Ince and Shearer were booked for eye-waterers. Then came the two minutes that decided the game. 

First, Adams pointlessly brought down Durie in the box, England again offering their opponents the opportunity of a late leveller from the spot. As McAllister ran up, the ball moved fractionally, but he still made meaty contact to hammer it goalwards – which made David Seaman’s reactive fling to elbow the ball over the bar all the more remarkable. Yet it was nothing compared to what happened a minute later. 

“Not a lot of people knew at the time, but we could see, just as we were winning the penalty, that England were preparing to take Gascoigne off,” reveals McCall. “I felt sure that if Seaman hadn’t saved Gary Mac’s penalty, he [Gazza] was going to be substituted. Of course, the inevitable then happened…” 

From the resulting corner, Scotland gave up a free-kick, and as Seaman’s clearance was controlled by Sheringham, Gascoigne was already darting past him towards the box. What followed is etched onto millions of inner eyelids either side of Hadrian’s Wall. 

Sheringham tapped the ball left to Anderton, who cushioned it first-time towards goal for the Geordie to let it bounce, flick it left-footed over Colin Hendry and volley right-footed past his Rangers club-mate Andy Goram. 

“When he scored, it didn’t surprise any of us,” a grinning Sheringham tells FFT. “Gazza was special – without a doubt, the most talented I ever played with.”

Gascoigne’s goal was the perfect balance of coaching and talent. He’d been taught to make the run, but thereafter it was all instinct. John Motson’s commentary relayed every England fan’s reaction, perhaps with fewer expletives: “Here’s Gascoigne! Oh brilliant! Oh yes! Ohhh yes!” followed by seven seconds of microphone silence as Gazza reclined on the turf to recreate the dentist’s chair with his gleeful team-mates. Motson composed himself to then summarise: “What a wonderful goal by Gascoigne, what a pertinent answer to all his critics, and Terry Venables vindicated!” 

The goal merely extended England’s lead. Materially, it meant nothing. Emotionally, though, it meant everything. For Gascoigne, for Venables, for the squad, it was – to use Motson’s entirely correct word – vindication. 

Gazza avenged himself on all his critics with a goal celebration both self-deprecating and defiant. “We’d said that if any of us involved in the dentist’s chair scored, we’d make a good celebration of it,” says Sheringham, although he was beaten to the water bottle. “I was on the other side of the pitch – it took me a while to get there. Jamie Redknapp and Alan Shearer were already there, so I had to do it again!” 

By making a joke out of events in Hong Kong, Gascoigne set his persecutors free to perform a humiliating volte-face into fully backing the Three Lions. 

Monday’s Mirror genuflected into self-flagellatory correction with an article headlined ‘Mr Gascoigne: An Apology’. “Gazza is no longer a fat, drunken imbecile; he is, in fact, a football genius,” they said. The Sun? “General Sir Gazblaster Gazza of Gascoigne led a one-man onslaught on the Tartan defences.” From this point, barely a word of criticism was published, and England’s players started to believe. 

“The pivotal match was Scotland,” says Ince. “That was the one.” 

Within minutes of the whistle, Wembley’s PA operator made an inspired decision to snub the official Simply Red dirge and blast a joint venture between two comedians and a Scouse songsmith. As Three Lions’ effortlessly catchy refrains were taken up by the crowd, so were its humble hope and fragile optimism: “Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming…” 

With Tony Blair, the increasingly inevitable next UK Prime Minister, promising devolution referenda, England was looking to let go of its domestic dominion. Following a first European Championship victory in 16 years, its football team dreamed of starring on a bigger stage.

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