Euro 96: England's Glory – FourFourTwo's contemporary reaction

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It's 15 years since Euro 96, so we thought we'd spend a week looking back at the last major tournament held on these shores, with the help of FourFourTwo's unparalleled archive. For instance, in the first issue after Euro 96, FFT's founding editor Karen Buchanan's leading article summed up the mood of the English...

In May, the idea of waiting up for football to come home seemed ridiculous. England would stagger in at 3am, smelling of alcohol and kebabs, and produce a wilted bunch of flowers by way of an apology. Meantime, in a state of worried anticipation, I would have called friends, family, the police and finally, fearing the worst, the hospital. Yeah, right: why overload the system with another few weeks of hurt tacked onto the previous 30 years?

By eight minutes past 10 on Wednesday 26 June [when England beat Holland 4-1] I was glad I’d decided to hang on in there. I could list the superlatives that described my emotions at that moment but it would be quicker to photocopy the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus. What a game!

And what a championship. Prior to 8 June my indifference to the England side (borne out of the last six years of unspectacular monotony) was matched only by the ferocity of the tabloids’ condemnation of them. England expects... er, nothing, actually. Although a goal would be nice.

The official England team song underlined the apathy inherent in every England fan. Sure, we could hope, but realistically there were 30 years of clichés to deal with first. Just as the Scots are gallant losers, so England are the unlucky labourers. Ha! Just ask a Dutchman who wears the clogs in European football now!

What clues were there to the Tangoing on one of the best nights Wembley has ever seen?  Certainly not the dull performance 10 days before against the Swiss. My own lethargy was matched only by that of the players and – lock me up in the Towers of Wembley for saying so – I started willing the Swiss to gain the equaliser they so deserved. (For their plucky show, of course.) The Swiss looked fitter, brighter; hell, they even had the impudence to look technically better than us. England, for much of the second half, looked as though Uri Geller had put them in a trance.

The gentlemen of the press busied themselves asking rhetorical questions about whether the players’ allegedly high intake of alcohol had had a detrimental effect on their performance. The Sun had said "The only thing we’ll win is the Men Behaving Badly trophy for drunken also-rans". Sadly the Mirror scooped them again, clinching that award for their own horrendously OTT anti-German campaign a few weeks later.

Before the championship the tabloids condemned El Tel, the squad, the beers, the tactics, the secret pictures of Paul Ince having a beer at a friend's barbecue (ooh, shocker, Ince in unwinding-with-pals exclusive!), Gazza’s birthday celebrations (tabloid hacks never get drunk on their birthdays; everyone needs a night off), the beers… alright, there were quite a few beers. But the age-old ‘them and us’ confrontations between rabid press and tired and emotional players left me cold. Here we go, here we go, here we go. Again. Boring, boring England. Boring, boring tabloids.

Eventually, of course, those same tabloids were forced to overdose on humble pie: The Mirror ran a front-page apology to Paul Gascoigne the Monday after the victory over Scotland – and ran a campaign to rid the world of Harry Harris.

But the big question remains: in the days between the Swiss and Dutch matches did Venables threaten death, spice the players’ food with cocaine or bring in a crack squad of 12-year-olds to show them how to trap a ball? Or had he shown cunning over and above the call of duty? Like a rambler facing a savage bear and remembering that the best survival technique is to pretend to be dead, had Venables told his team to play dead in order that the trap he planned to spring on the Dutch would have an even greater element of surprise?

Whatever; three days after the Scotland game England turned the Orangemen distinctly green and an entire nation got repetitive strain injury from leaping up and down in front of the telly to celebrate yet another goal. Don’t know about the trophy, but the smiles were coming home. Having given footy to the world and got it back with knobs on, finally we could play them at their own game.

Oops! Three steps forward, two steps back, Spain was a scrappy affair; penalties a tense relief from the nailbiting but nonetheless disappointing tedium of the preceding 120 minutes. Once again we were up against a technically better side; once again we showed our battling spirit. To be fair, with Tony Adams injured and Ince suspended, England really weren’t in a position to play from the back, but Holland still moved back one place in the memory banks.

The build-up to the semi-final against Germany was everything you’d have expected– and less. Having sent a reporter behind "enemy lines" and declared "soccer war" on Germany, the Mirror was forced to retreat as it realised the country wanted to look forward to the game, not hark back to the past. And what a game!

Gone are the imperialist days of England Expects. Thank God. The pure joy with which most people, including the tabloids, celebrated England’s semi-final fling rather than slumping into recriminations about what might have been, suggests that instead of "England Expects", "England is bloody grateful to have seen such a thrilling, brilliant game of football".

And to have found heroes again. To be proud of our team. And not just for their ‘indefatigable British Bulldog spirit’. The words silky, skills and England suddenly didn’t look out of place in the same sentence. Euro 96 both confirmed our prejudices – Seaman is in the top five keepers in the world – and turned them on their head. Pearce was a hero again, Shearer finished as top scorer. We discovered Gareth Southgate. And discovered that, as well as being an extremely competent defender, and as well as being the only defender we had who really understood the word distribution, he had bottle.

So we lost. So what? We only just lost. We had a feast of football and fun. And, actually, we were really rather good.

FEATURE Euro 96: Scotland the brave
Euro 96: Watching with the fans
The 10 best goals of Euro 96

Meanwhile, from the web's best football interview archive...

INTERVIEW Ask a Silly Question, Mar 2009: Teddy Sheringham
"If they wanted to clone me, it'd be interesting to see the reaction"
INTERVIEW Perfect XI, Sep 2006: Tony Adams
"There’s an art to making things look easy; that’s why I've picked him"
INTERVIEW One-on-One, Sep 2005: Paul Gascoigne
"I trained with Goram every day, so I knew how to beat him"