Euro 96: When Football Didn’t “Come Home”

by | Jun 9, 2016

In an episode called “In Defense of Ignorance” that was broadcast a little under two months ago, the podcast This American Life’s Stephanie Foo met Jill Price, a woman diagnosed with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. One of only sixty people in the world to have been identified with this condition, Price has a highly developed memory. Though not perfect, she can recall details of her life with extraordinary clarity, but this comes with significant pitfalls:

“Every day is like a bag of garbage. And then you go to sleep, and you wake up the next day. And it’s a fresh day. And you can throw that garbage bag out from the day before. I don’t have that. I got massive amounts of just piled up garbage bags everywhere.”

In other words, having too good a memory can feel like more of a curse than a blessing. The rest of us mere mortals have the luxury of being able to pick and choose our memories, to build a story of our lives at we are comfortable with. In football terms, we mythologise players, teams and even clubs, especially our own. And in the national consciousness, the 1966 World Cup finals and the 1996 European Championships have been built into something approaching Arthurian tales in recent years, in England. The 1966 World Cup finals were before my time. The 1996 European Championships, however, were not.

Its twentieth anniversary is passing with a welter of recollection, reinvention and reminiscence. What was the pre-tournament like? How did I think they’d do? How did they actually play? Well, let’s try to recall the summer of 1996. At that time, I was working as a junior buyer for a construction company. I ran the print shop, running off copies on these freakishly satisfying to use A0 photocopying machines, and I did some phone work, phoning subcontractors who were late sending through tender documents. It was… a job. But the print room was my den. I had a radio in there, and listened to the afternoon matches on the radio.

All of this, however, didn’t impact upon my England consumption. What I remember most vividly about the build-up to the 1996 European Championships is that I had no idea how England were going to do, and neither did anyone else. Our memories tend to leap immediately from Turin in 1990 to Wembley in 1996, whilst the years inbetween are either overlooked or feel as though they happened to England in a parallel universe, or something. But they didn’t. If anything, England were a mass of contradictions on the first day of June, 1996.

Between then, England had got knocked out in the group stage of the 1992 European Championships, scoring just one goal in three games, and were then knocked out of the 1994 World Cup before they even reached the finals. And then, of course, they’d had that horrible two year period when there’s only friendly matches to play and one can only guess at how they’ll react in a competitive environment. But the FA tried to plug that gap with the 1995 Umbro Cup, a four-way invitational tournament used as the nearest England could manage to some competitive football after that night in Rotterdam a couple of years earlier.

It didn’t exactly go to plan. England needed a penalty with two minutes to play to scrape a win against Japan, who, at that time, had never qualified for a World Cup finals. They needed two goals in the last couple of minutes to scramble a draw against Sweden, who failed to qualify for the following summer’s tournament. And then they were absolutely schooled by Brazil, beaten by three goals to one with a blinding second half performance. But on the other hand… that Brazil defeat was the only one that England suffered between that night in Rotterdam in 1993 and the start of the 1996 European Championships. Granted little of the opposition that they faced was of a very high quality – in 1995, for example, England played friendly matches against Columbia, Norway, Switzerland, Portugal and Uruguay, whilst the match in Dublin that year has long since passed into infamy – but perhaps this was the plan. Build a winning mentality before anything else.

This would certainly explain the series of incidents culminating in the “dentist’s chair” in a bar in Hong Kong. I wasn’t a tabloid reader and wasn’t much of a television news consumer either, at the time. I took my cues from the Independent, and occasionally the Guardian. It was a story there too, of course, but stripped of its luridity, it seemed to pass me by. To be clear, damaging the interior of an aeroplane was a dick move. The “dentist’s chair” was a dick move. But if that’s what was considered necessary to bring the players together, then the story becomes comprehensible, in its own way. The benefits may have outweighed the costs, but only if the team was successful in the finals. If they flunked their lines, that incident would be flung back at them.

In the weeks building up to the start of the tournament, I formulated a pretty rigid idea of what I thought England would do in their group matches. I thought they’d beat Switzerland and lose to the Netherlands, leaving everything tilting on the axis of the Scotland match. And I couldn’t call the Scotland match. It can be easy to forget that Scotland were much closer to parity with England than they are now, in 1996. They’d been to last the European Championships finals and won a match, which is more than England had managed at the same tournament. Prior to 1994, they’d qualified for the last four consecutive World Cup finals and been unlucky once there on more than one occasion. Indeed, in their next Wembley meeting after this, in 1999, Scotland would beat them.

I was confident on the other two – I even convinced myself of a correct score for the Switzerland match of three-one to England, which I, usually a quite reticent person, would never usually take on with such conviction – but the Scotland match felt too tight to call. At half-time in the Switzerland match, I was increasingly confident that my correct score prediction was coming in. I prepared myself for the disappointment of knowing that I hadn’t put a tenner on it. There was even a bookmakers ten minutes up the road.

Well, we all know what happened next. Paul Gascoigne was substituted with thirteen minutes to play, and shortly afterwards Kübilay Türkyilmaz converted a penalty kick after Stuart Pearce’s handball. It was an award that angered some, but considerably worse than have been given. A failure to beat Switzerland blew my confident predictions for England’s progress at the tournament to smithereens, and next up were Scotland, which I’d not even been able to call prior to the Switzerland match. I gave up on the idea of making bold predictions.

By half-time in the Scotland match, I was reasonably convinced that England were going out. Scotland had shaded the first half, and England looked as though they were playing with the weight of the same world on their shoulders as they had been for the second half of the Switzerland match. Gary Neville’s cross for Alan Shearer to open the score from close range settled some nerves, but the lead was slender and looked as if it had drained away altogether when Tony Adams tripped Gordon Durie to hand Scotland a penalty kick with thirteen minutes to play.

It’s strange, how such narrow margins can change the ebb and flow of any particular football match. The illusionist Uri Geller would later try to claim that he had cheated the ball onto David Seaman’s elbow by directing the ball to move slightly as the Scotland captain Gary McAllister approached it to shoot. That detailed eluded most, though, in the immediate moment. Indeed, so raucous were the celebrations of the penalty save that many likely missed all that happened between the save and the ball fizzing inside Andy Goram’s near post at the other end of the pitch barely a minute later. Gascoigne had been through another quiet match prior to this moment, but his lob over the head of Colin Hendry and daisy-cutter past Goram was enough to unleash bedlam in the moment, and change the tone of the remainder of the tournament for England.

My memory tells me that, by the time of the Netherlands match, the extent of their debilitating inner discord was public knowledge, but this could be a false memory. What I do know for certain is that the performance on that evening at Wembley remains the most enjoyable that I can remember seeing from an England team. By the time of the match against Germany in Munich five years later, my falling out of love with England was already in full flow and anyway, this was a match in the finals of a major tournament, rather than a qualifier. There were still nerves in the air – defeat could still eliminate England – and a third consecutive one goal lead, thanks to a penalty kick following something of a swan dive from Paul Ince, is always a brittle one for England.

That second half performance, though. England’s race to a four goal lead was sprinkled with insouciance, in the form of Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham languidly teeing up Alan Shearer to almost tear the goal from its moorings, to a moment of hang-in-the-air tension as time stood still while Sheringham reacted quickest to a parry from Darren Anderton’s shot for the fourth goal. The Netherlands’ late goal, which kept them in the competition and eliminated Scotland, was treated to a polite round of applause and, yes, a small amount of schadenfreude. England were through to the quarter-finals as group winners and, in spite of everything, they’d managed it with a little to spare.

It’s worth pausing to recall all of this within the context of its time. England’s win against Scotland was their first win in the finals of the European Championships since a meaningless one-nil win against Belgium in 1980, sixteen years earlier. In 1984, they’d failed to qualify altogether. In 1988, they’d qualified but lost all three group matches once there. In 1992, they’d drawn two matches but failed to win and scored just the once. Since the European Championships became a tournament, in other words, England’s record had been almost as dismal as a team’s record could be. In the space of the four days that took in the matches against Scotland and the Netherlands, however, they’d already achieved more in this competition than they’d managed over the course of the previous decade and a half.

With these wins, however, came the beginnings of a burden of expectation. Spain were England’s opponents in the quarter-finals, and the Spain of 1996 were not the Spain of 2016. Weird thoughts of “destiny” were starting to enter some people’s heads. Following the wins against Scotland and the Netherlands, it was perhaps inevitable that hope would start to turn to expectation, and it was certain that England would find a pay of seeking to puncture that growing confidence, to some extent or other.

Our collective memory remembers the catharsis of Stuart Pearce in the penalty shoot-out very well, but it says very little about the one hundred and twenty minutes that preceded it. To that end, this match very much set the tone for the remainder of the competition. The four quarter-finals and two semi-finals produced just six goals between them, and Spain and England couldn’t manage any between them. England managed a couple of half-chances, but it was Spain who had the greater cause to feel aggrieved that the match went as far as a penalty shoot-out. Salinas had a goal ruled out for offside under questionable circumstances, whilst a reckless tackle from Paul Gascoigne inside his own penalty area resulted in a free-kick to England and a yellow card for simulation for Alfonso, when a penalty kick would probably have been the correct decision.

The collective national neurosis that has embedded itself into the DNA of England barely existed in 1996. True enough, they’d lost to West Germany in Turin by this means six years earlier, but this was no reason to necessarily believe that they would this time around, especially after Fernando Hierro smacked the first kick of all against David Seaman’s crossbar. England’s kicks weren’t perfect but did all go in. Seaman saved Miguel Angel Nadal’s kick to send England through to the semi-finals, deservedly on the basis of the penalty shoot-out, if not necessarily on the basis of the two hours of actual football at Wembley that afternoon. But in the next morning’s newspapers, Stuart Pearce’s “redemption” was the story, not Paul Gascoigne’s rash tackle that might have brought Spain a penalty kick before the shoot-out.

No matter how low we might expect them to be capable of stooping the British tabloid press can always do worse, and so it proved with Piers Morgan’s “Achtung Fritz…” headline on the front page of the Mirror in the build-up to the semi-final against Germany. My recollection of the fallout from this is condemnation from almost every direction, and in a pre-social media era, it’s possible that this was the case. It certainly felt at the time to me like all the ammunition that the Germany team would need to raise their game, but on the evening, following early goals from Alan Shearer for England and Stefan Kuntz for Germany, only stalemate followed. There were chances for England – Darren Anderton hitting the post and Paul Gascoigne seeming to change his mind at the last second as a ball fizzed across the six yard area and the Germany goal open and exposed.

The penalty shoot-out, it does feel, is accurately represented in our collective memory banks. The six German penalties were perfect, and England’s were as well. In extra-time in the penalty shoot-out, Gareth Southgate stepped up and took the kick that has come to eclipse everything else that he achieved in the whole of his career. We can only ponder how satisfying it must have felt to be a German supporter or player at Wembley that night, ramming the words “fussball’s coming home” down the throats of tabloid newspapers that had been crudely insulting them for years. This was a dour, attritional battle of a match that had more of a hint of end of season exhaustion about it. And as the bubble of optimism popped, so the animals came out to play, fighting in Trafalgar Square that night and elsewhere, as well. English football didn’t quite drag itself back into the gutter from which it had part-emerged over the previous ten years after the end of that match – it might be argued that it retained at least one foot had remained planted there all the time – but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of some.

I fell out with England after that evening. There was no Road to Damascus moment, more a slow ebbing away of enthusiasm that was fuelled by the continuing misbehaviour of the arms out-stretched, the continuing excesses of the red tops, and a less easily defined feeling that the England team didn’t speak to me any more. At a base level, however, I remain tied to England. I’m stuck with them and they’re stuck with me, and for as long as international football remains worth watching, every couple of years I will watch the England matches with an interested eye. But I do not have a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. I’ve referred to notes as little as possible over the last two thousand seven hundred words or so, precisely because my memory banks are most likely as faulty as everybody else’s. We’ve told ourselves a story about the England team of the summer of 1996, a story that is over-simplified, probably because it needs to be. In an era of schism and with society feeling more divided than ever, we could probably do with such a simplistic story again this summer. Whether such a thing is possible these days, though, is… uncertain, to say the least.

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