Euro 96: Remembering how to enjoy football

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To complete our week marking the 15th anniversary of Euro 96, here's a piece from Jonathan Wilson looking back at a summer which wasn't always halcyon, but was eventually unforgettable 

There are times when the myths are truer than the facts. Euro 96 has become, in the popular imagination, a halcyon time.

The sun shone, Des smiled, Gazza grinned, Shearer scored, England sparkled, and hardly anybody beat each other up. Britpop and Britart were at their peak; a deeply unpopular government was palpably in its death-throes; England played football of unimagined tactical sophistication, and Britain suddenly seemed an exciting, vibrant place to be. That was the golden summer, to which nothing else has ever quite lived up.

Or at least that is how posterity recalls it. Who now remembers that England actually played well in, at most, two and a half games? Who now remembers the goal the Spaniard Julio Salinas had ruled out (incorrectly) for offside in the quarter-final?

Who remembers, even, that the morning England beat Scotland, just five hours before Gary McAllister missed that penalty and Paul Gascoigne scored that goal, an IRA bomb exploded in Manchester, injuring over 200? Who remembers the violence that followed the semi-final and the Russian student stabbed, presumed German?

Certainly when Euro 96 began there was no reason to believe it would be a glorious summer. England were in disgrace. After the ‘dentist’s chair’ incident in a Hong Kong nightclub, a pre-tournament trip to China slunk further into disrepute when £5,000 of damage was caused to a Cathay Pacific plane on the way home.

INTERVIEW One-on-One, Oct 2004: Steve McManaman – "I had a 13-hour flight with no TV or table 'cos Gazza had broken them"

After the heights of Italia 90, a desperate Euro 92 had been followed by failure even to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. England, admittedly, went into the tournament unbeaten since a 3-1 defeat to Brazil the previous summer, but a 3-0 win over Hungary in their last Wembley warm-up had done little to erase the memory of turgid draws against Croatia and Portugal and a 1-0 win over Bulgaria.

If there was optimism ahead of the opening game against Switzerland, it had little foundation, a fact that was brutally exposed in a 1-1 draw, even if Alan Shearer did bring to an end an international goal drought stretching back 1,088 minutes over 21 months.

“I was under a lot of pressure for that game,” Shearer recalls. “Terry Venables had said to me that I was his first choice for the tournament, but you know as a forward that it’s your job to score goals. I always wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got that goal.”

FEATURE Euro 96: Terry Venables – "Shearer had his critics but you can never leave a player like that out, and he proved me right"

There was little else, though, to quicken the blood, and although the handball decision against Stuart Pearce that handed Switzerland the 84th-minute penalty from which Kubilay Turkyilmaz equalised was harsh, it was hard to argue that England deserved better.

“Football came home all right,” wrote Martin Samuel in The Sun. “But as often happens when you’ve been away for so long, the garden was overgrown with weeds, the pipes had burst and ants had invaded the kitchen.”

It got worse as Teddy Sheringham, Jamie Redknapp and Sol Campbell were pictured drinking beer at 2am in Faces nightclub in Ilford. Venables blamed the press. “There are a few that seem like traitors to us,” he said. “They’re turning the public against the players, which can turn against them in the stadium. If there’s an advantage to being at home, we aren’t taking it, are we?”

There's nothing like a spat with the press to focus the mind. Not that England started particularly well against Scotland. Switzerland’s Chapuisat had commented that when Paul Gascoigne didn’t play, England didn’t play, but at that stage the continued indulgence of the Rangers midfielder, his bleached hair only emphasising the redness of his puffing cheeks, seemed born either of sentimentality or desperation.

And then Venables brought on Redknapp for Pearce. England, for the only time in the tournament, switched to 3-5-2, and Gary Neville crossed for Alan Shearer to score. Even then it could all have gone wrong had Gary McAllister converted his penalty, but the ball moved a fraction in his run up and his shot struck Seaman’s elbow.

Seconds later Darren Anderton knocked a ball inside to Gascoigne, he flicked it over Colin Hendrie and smashed a brilliant volley past Andy Goram. As he lay back and Teddy Sheringham squirted water into his mouth, the dentist’s chair was transformed from disgrace into ironic celebration. In the space of a minute, the mood was changed, not just of that particular match, but of the entire tournament.

Still, what followed was extraordinary. Yes, Holland were riven by internal divisions, highlighted at a barbecue at which a photographer had snapped the squad sitting in racially discrete groups. Yes, Edgar Davids had been sent home after saying that the Holland manager Guus Hiddink “should not put his head in the ass of some players”.

Yes, Holland had such a spell of superiority towards the end of the first half that Barry Davies commented that half-time couldn’t come soon enough. But none of that should obscure just how good England were. “The Boys Done Gouda,” screamed The Sun as everybody proclaimed England’s 4-1 win as their greatest since 1966.

“Even if they stumble at the next hurdle, or the one after that,” wrote Richard Williams in The Guardian, “at least Terry Venables and his team have given us a night we never expected and shall never forget.” That remains true. Since then, only the 5-1 triumph over Germany in Munich has come close.

But it wasn’t just the performance; it was the atmosphere. In The Times, Rob Hughes, presumably consciously invoking the Dutch problems with race, wrote of “orange shirts dotted among the English white defied the efforts of the organisers to separate human beings according to their colours”.

After all the fears of hooliganism, this had become a collective festival, as everybody sang along with Skinner and Baddiel. In The Guardian, Matthew Engel wondered whether the feelgood factor might even save the Prime Minister John Major’s sinking regime.

“In England, this most private of countries, the national football team’s success or otherwise ought not to effect any adult for very long at all,” Engel noted. “But… there does seem to be something fearfully illogical about the English just at the moment.” It was that same loosening of the emotional shackles, it could be argued, that led the following summer to the saccharine outpourings that followed the death of Diana.

In the stadia at least, the feeling endured through the penalty shoot-out victory over Spain and the penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany. England were lucky in the former, unlucky in the latter, yet the more important thing was the sense of carnival, something that pervaded despite the tabloid press’s insistence on filtering everything through the lens of past wars.

“The match cannot be separated from the atmosphere,” wrote Engel after the Spain game, and so dealt with the arguments of those who pointed out that without the suspended Paul Ince, England’s play was a tad disjointed.

“It was a sensational occasion," continued Engel. "It was also an almost wholly pleasant and enjoyable one… The vast majority of the crowd did not think it was VE Day or the Armada; they thought it was a football match and they loved it… Suddenly the world seemed fresh and new again.

"Now it was England’s turn to wave the flag. This new cult of St George… seems more agreeable than the old union-jackmanship that used to accompany the England football team.” Given that it was only a little over a year since an England friendly in the Republic of Ireland at Lansdowne Road had been abandoned amid rioting, this was a remarkable change.

Even the Germans noticed it. “It surprised us how warm the English people have been,” said Thomas Schneider, a leader of Fan Projekt, a liaison group for German supporters. “The cliché of the English is of being reserved and cool, of not liking to mix, but it just hasn’t been true for us. That has set a tone which has made the German fans very celebratory, not really aggressive at all.i”

It helped, perhaps, that the Britpop-influenced anthem of the tournament accepted failure as the natural state of the fan: “we’ve seen it all before…. England’s gonna throw it away/ Gonna blow it away…” And England did throw it away, not just on the field, but very nearly off it.

FEATURE Euro 96: David Baddiel – "What England fans normally feel is 'We’re going to lose, but we hope we’ll do well anyway'"

In the aftermath of the semi-final, police baton-charged 2000 rioting fans in Trafalgar Square as cars were set on fire. Two German tourists were attacked in Basingstoke. There were riots in Bradford. Three hundred fans rampaged through the streets of Bedford, looting. And, worst of all, in Portslade, east Sussex, 45 minutes after Andreas Moller had converted the winning penalty, a Russian student was stabbed in the neck because his attackers thought him German.

After all the friendliness it was a reversion to type. The bleakness after the semi was rooted less in the defeat than in the sense the legacy had been squandered. It was not. A then record of 26.2 million had watched the semi-final. People who had never watched the game before had become enraptured by it. Euro 96 was the final stage of a process that had taken in the fanzine movement, the Taylor Report and the Premier League.

League attendances had been growing from the low of 1985-86, when the average was 8,130, to 10,186 in 1992-1993, the first season of the Premiership, but that growth was slowing. Euro 96 gave them another fillip, to 11,190 in 1996-97, and onwards as stadia grew to permit greater and greater attendances.

It is now standard that during major tournaments, the nation stops to watch England play. The cross of St George is commonplace and, while events in Marseille in 1998 or Vaduz in 2003 suggest the battle is far from won, the mood at England games now is far more Euro 96 than what went before.

“Football’s been underrated for what it can do if we get it right,” said Venables. “We’ve witnessed, even for a brief moment, how we can be in unity and what a wonderful feeling it is again. We’ve forgotten what that feeling was like.” Euro 96 gave us a couple of the indelible moments of English football, but more importantly, it made us remember that feeling again. Beside that, the details barely matter.

FEATURE Euro 96: England's Glory
VIDEO LIST The best goals of Euro 96
FEATURE Euro 96: Scotland the brave
VIDEO LIST The best players of Euro 96
FEATURE Euro 96: Watching with the fans

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

INTERVIEW One-on-One, Oct 2004: Steve McManaman
"I had a 13-hour flight with no TV or table 'cos Gazza had broken them"
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"