The decision of ITV to replay Euro 96 in full, starting on Monday, is fraught with risk. They say you should never meet your heroes, and the same might apply to legendary sporting events. In this case even those who lived through it first time round and remember it as the very best of times may find, on getting to know it properly and soberly, that the reality does not live up to the myth.
Somehow that summer has come to be seen as the pinnacle of Cool Britannia despite the fact that, other than the Spice Girls and the greatest singalong sporting anthem of all time (probably), the only British chart-topper was Gary Barlow. Sometimes it seems a considerable amount of gloss has been applied to our mental snapshots of that tournament. As Wayne Rooney once said, asked about that year’s England team: “It’s as if they won the tournament, the way they’re remembered.”
Attendances were often poor and not only for the less enticing group games – there were more than 10,000 empty seats at Villa Park for the quarter-final between the Czech Republic and Portugal and a similar number at Old Trafford for the semi-final between the Czechs and France. As for the football, Euro 96 was the first 16-team European Championship and featured 64 goals; the next four, before the tournament increased in size again to 24 teams in 2016, averaged 79. Across the quarter- and semi-finals a total of six goals were scored at the rate of one every 110 minutes (excluding stoppage time).
And yet, at times there was something in the air, a magical combination of hope, pride and unabashed communal singing that grew in force as England progressed to the semi-finals. But that the hosts would be at all successful that summer was far from obvious when the competition kicked off.
Having not had to qualify, their last competitive fixture had been the World Cup qualifier against San Marino in November 1993 that started with Davide Gualtieri putting the home side ahead after eight seconds and ended Graham Taylor’s inglorious spell in charge. Friendly results under Terry Venables had been mixed at best and their first-choice striker, the 25-year-old Alan Shearer, had scored only five international goals, the most recent 12 games and very nearly two years earlier.
Then they went on a warm-up tour to Shanghai and Hong Kong, home of China Jump and its infamous tequila-consuming contraption, the dentist’s chair. Pictures of the team’s enthusiastic celebration of Paul Gascoigne’s 29th birthday scarred the tabloids on the weekend before the big kick-off. Back in Europe, Switzerland – England’s first opponents – read the papers with interest.
“A week before the game they were having a great time in Hong Kong, and we thought maybe they’ll be recovering from the hangover, so maybe it would be an opportunity for us to win against these guys,” Ramon Vega, their centre-back, says. “We were preparing that week, thinking we might have a good chance because they’ll underestimate us, a small Swiss team, and the way they were acting showed that.”
Les Ferdinand, who had just been crowned the PFA player of the year but was destined not to play a single minute at the tournament, was one of the players involved at China Jump. “Back then we had a big drinking culture in our football,” he says. “We’d come out of a long season and were going into a big tournament and it was the one night we were allowed to go out. We weren’t disrespecting anyone we were playing against, it was just young lads letting their hair down.”
The resultant furore, while unpleasant, was not entirely unhelpful. “It really brought us together,” Ferdinand says. “There was always a feeling with England that whenever we got to a major competition the media always seemed to be against us, for one reason or another. It just galvanised us all together and it was almost like a siege mentality – it wasn’t us against the rest of Europe but everyone.”
And so to kick-off, and an unconvincing start. Shearer put England ahead midway through the first half but the home side were far from dominant. Switzerland hit the bar before equalising from the penalty spot after a Stuart Pearce handball in the second half. “As the game went on, we started to gain a lot of confidence,” Vega says. “Going into the second half we were thinking, these guys aren’t great, no way whatsoever.”
The game ended in a draw, and a few England players chose to wind down at Faces, a nightclub in Ilford, Essex, leading to more photographs and tabloid headlines, and a deepening of that siege mentality. “We just don’t understand that it’s necessary to do what you’re doing,” Venables told the media. “There are a few that seem like traitors to us. They’re turning the public against the players. If there’s an advantage to being at home, we aren’t taking advantage of it, are we? The support isn’t as strong as we should have. Therefore the advantage, if there was one, is disappearing.”
It was during their second game, against Scotland, that England’s tournament ignited – though it took a while. “England were big favourites but I remember as the half-time whistle went there were a few little boos from the Wembley faithful, who expected them to roll us over,” says the Scotland midfielder Stuart McCall.
After a goalless first half Venables brought on Jamie Redknapp, a midfielder, for the defender Pearce, a tactical switch that changed the game. “Just as we’re coming out after half-time there’s talk of Redknapp coming on, and everyone’s scurrying around trying to work out who was coming off and what the change of shape was,” McCall says. “We didn’t sort it out quick enough.”
Eight minutes later Shearer headed in Gary Neville’s cross. Scotland regrouped and recovered, and had missed a couple of half-chances before McCall got the ball on the right wing and played it infield to Gordon Durie. Tony Adams dived in to dispossess him but caught the striker’s legs. England had conceded another penalty but this time – helped perhaps by the ball rocking gently on its spot as Gary McAllister ran up to strike it, for which Uri Geller promptly took credit – David Seaman made the save.
McAllister has said “there’s no doubt in my mind that, if I had scored, we would have won”. One minute and two seconds after his shot deflected to safety off Seaman’s left elbow England doubled their lead, Paul Gascoigne looping the ball over Colin Hendry’s head before volleying past Andy Goram.
“Pelé at his best would not have bettered that movement and finish,” Venables wrote. “It was a goal of unimpeachable quality, world-class, extraordinary, a wonder to behold. I could feel the crowd responding to what they were watching. I wanted a feast of football and I think it was at that moment I thought we could possibly provide it.”
In their next game, against the Netherlands, England served up an all-you-can-eat buffet. Again Shearer opened the scoring and three more goals came in 11 second-half minutes. “We were playing a team you would expect to dominate possession but it was as though England became foreigners for a night,” Gary Neville wrote. The Dutch, among the tournament favourites, packed with members of the Ajax team who had won the Champions League a year earlier, were routed.
With England 4-0 up and Scotland leading the Swiss 1-0 at Villa Park, the Scots were through on goal difference – until Patrick Kluivert clawed one back at Wembley. As Craig Burley put it: “At one point Craig Brown is shouting to me: ‘Get up, get up, we need a goal.’ Then two minutes later he’s screaming: ‘Go back, go back.’ Then five minutes later it’s: ‘Get up, get up.’ I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.”
Once again for Scotland the journey ended in the group stage. “We actually came back with quite a few plaudits because we’d come that close but as a player it’s always harder when you get so near,” McCall says. “I was gutted not to continue. It was the same old Scotland – the number of times we’ve found different ways not to qualify.”
England’s quarter-final opponents were Spain, who had snuck through their group thanks to Guillermo Amor’s late goal against Romania in their final game. The Spaniards had the better of the encounter and England needed a couple of penalty decisions, several Seaman saves and a pair of offside calls – one of which, to disallow Julio Salinas’s 33rd-minute strike, was particularly charitable – to go their way to make it as far as a penalty shootout.
“The England game was the only game I didn’t play in; you sit and watch it on the bench with a feeling of powerlessness,” says the midfielder José Emilio Amavisca. “It always looks easier from the outside and you sit there thinking you could help. The feeling at the end was so bitter because it was our best game at the Euros. We were quite a lot better than England and we deserved to go through but in that era we kept being struck by the curse of the quarter-finals and we didn’t have that luck.”
Before the shootout started Javier Clemente, the Spain manager, considered who should take his side’s penalties. “I never prepared a list in advance,” he said. “For me, all 11 players on the pitch are capable of taking a penalty. Against England, I approached the first player I had in mind but he said no. I went to the second and he was happy to take one but the third also said no. What can you do in these moments? Nothing.” Fernando Hierro hit the bar, Miguel Ángel Nadal’s effort was saved and Stuart Pearce’s fist-pumping celebration after exorcising the ghosts of 1990 became one of the images of the tournament.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong against England,” Salinas said. “I had a perfectly good goal disallowed and once again we go out on fucking penalties, with everyone singing ‘Football’s Coming Home’, which I’ll never be able to get out of my head.”
England’s semi-final followed precisely the opposite course. This time the hosts clicked, created but could not convert their chances: Shearer headed just past the post, Stefan Reuter cleared off the line, Darren Anderton hit the post from six yards, Gascoigne failed to reach the ball as it rolled along the goalmouth. It was 1-1 after 90 minutes, the same half an hour later, and Gareth Southgate missed England’s sixth penalty while Germany’s were perfection.
“When Gareth missed, it felt a bit like death must do,” Venables said. “It was the lowest point of my career. That was my chance to win a trophy for my country in front of our supporters.”
And so Venables’s footballing feast was over, its ending – in the words of the England manager – “like getting ready to sit down at a wonderful banquet when somebody takes the chair away from under you”.
The night ended with riot police dealing with a drunken, bereaved mob in Trafalgar Square; the tournament with another Germany victory, 2-1 against the Czechs thanks to Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal, five minutes into extra time. The victors landed in Frankfurt the following day and sang Three Lions on a balcony in the town square as supporters thronged below them; when they won the World Cup in 2014 fans in Berlin spontaneously broke into the same song. As Jürgen Klinsmann, Germany’s captain in 1996, has said: “We took the trophy and the song.”
Magical as England’s performance against the Netherlands had been, and as well as they played against Germany, perhaps more than the sport it was its soundtrack that made the summer.
“The drive to Wembley was frightening,” Anderton said of semi-final day. “As we got nearer the stadium, Alan Shearer put on Football’s Coming Home to get the boys pumped up and ready. Once we got to the stadium, it felt like there was already 100,000 people there. I remember staying out for the warm-up probably longer than we should have done, with Baddiel and Skinner on repeat. It really did get us going.”
It was not only England and Germany who felt its effect. “We were singing it sometimes on the bus, especially after the game against England, where we surprised a lot of people,” Vega says. “We were very excited, we were singing in the dressing room: ‘It’s coming home’ – and then on the way to the hotel. As a team we were very satisfied and we were singing the song.”
Santiago Cañizares, the Spain goalkeeper, says: “The soundtrack to the tournament was part of its history. I have nice memories of those Euros – the football was good, there were a lot of teams that could have won it. But Three Lions was part of what made it an enjoyable, memorable Euros. It was the atmosphere that surrounded it, that magic you always get with football in England. There’s a sense of respect towards the game. It’s a place where people take their hat off when the ball starts to roll, so to speak.”
Thanks to ITV we will soon see what appeal the tournament retains once stripped of its optimism and uncertainty. Meanwhile the wait continues for another such English summer, when the nation will be united once more in song and spirit.
Or as they put it in Three Lions, with a combination of hope for the future and yearning for the past that resonates more than ever in a year that has been stripped of every communal experience except isolation: “We know that was then but it could be again.”
Additional reporting by Sid Lowe