Euro '96 '“ 20 years on...
Northern Ireland and Wales missed out, Scotland played well only to go out on goal difference and England, the hosts, suffered what David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds had prophetically described as another of their “oh so nears”.
But it was also a significant tournament for European football in general as it was the first championship to reflect the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia by increasing the number of teams from eight to 16.
It was the first European Football Championship to call itself ‘Euro’ plus a number, it was the first major tournament to use the golden goal, it was the first major tournament to be settled by a golden goal, England won a penalty shoot-out for once and St George’s flags went mainstream.
But it was also the last major tournament for Paul Gascoigne, one of England’s greatest talents, and the last time the national side got close to ending those years of hurt, which have raced from 30 to 50 alarmingly quickly.
Sure, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England made three straight quarter-finals, losing the last two on penalties.
But the nation never believed in them like it did for those eight giddy days between the 4-1 demolition of the Netherlands and the semi-final against Germany. Like England’s 1966 World Cup winners, some of this was to do with home advantage. Like 1966, some of this was to do with having a genuinely good team. There was another link – both teams were coached by men from Dagenham.
That is probably where the similarities between them end.
Sir Alf Ramsey, who tried hard to bury his working-class, Essex roots, was knighted for his achievements with England and lived out a quiet retirement.
Terry Venables, who could never escape his cheeky chappy persona, had already decided to quit before Euro ’96 so he could clear up some off-the-field allegations about his business dealings.
Regardless of anything off the field, he could certainly manage a football side.
England’s form coming into Euro ’96 was only so-so, Alan Shearer had not scored for an age and the dominant pre-tournament image was one of Gascoigne drunk in Hong Kong with his shirt ripped to shreds. He had overindulged in the ‘dentist’s chair’, the China Jump club’s unique selling point.
The opener was a disjointed 1-1 draw with Switzerland. At least Shearer scored. And then it clicked.
“I was unhappy with the first game against Switzerland, it was a bit iffy,” Venables recalls now.
“We had a meeting the next day and just said that’s not good enough.
“But we went to the Scotland game and it was great. You know they are going to go at us like a ton of bricks. But once we stopped that we started to play.”
A 10-pass move to set up another Shearer header, David Seaman’s save of a Gary McAllister penalty, Gascoigne flipping the ball over Colin Hendry’s head and then volleying home, before recreating that Hong Kong moment with the most famous goal celebration in English football history – flat on his back whilst his team-mates squirted sports drink into his mouth.
The whole country started to lose it a little when England thrashed the Dutch 4-1. Johan Cruyff’s ‘Total Football’ side would have been proud of a goal as good as Shearer’s second and Patrick Kluivert’s consolation effort flattered Guus Hiddink’s team.
The quarter-final was a nervy affair against Spain, who were twice denied by a linesman’s flag before Seaman saved another penalty in the shoot-out. Moments before that Stuart Pearce had converted his, banishing some of the demons from his miss against Germany at Italia ’90.
Those demons would not go far, though, as Gareth Southgate would soon join him and Chris Waddle in the Pizza Hut advert business by missing his penalty in another semi-final shoot-out against Germany.
It is unfair to suggest, as the song went, that England had thrown it away, but there is little doubt they were the better team on this occasion with Shearer, Sheringham, Darren Anderton and, most memorably, Gascoigne going close to scoring a winner.
But they did not, Germany won on penalties, beat the Czechs with a golden goal in the final and Venables moved on.
“Regrets? Of course. It was ridiculous not to carry on what we had,” says Venables.
“We were so close. It was crazy.
“We’ve not won anything since ’66, and it’s not for the players, it’s for the fans, who have not really had anything to cling on to.
“And I felt that was quite sad because we were there. We’d have won the final.
“You can’t say for sure but I think we’d have done it. We were the best team. They can’t take that away from us.”
England 1 Switzerland 1
Scotland 0 England 2
Netherlands 1 England 4
(Shearer 2 (1 pen), Sheringham 2)
England 0 Spain 0
(England won 4-2 on penalties)
England 1 Germany 1
(Germany won 6-5 on penalties)