May 26th provided football with an uncanny date to remember. It was the date Jose Mourinho was appointed Manchester United manager, the date he first won the Champions League with FC Porto; the date Sir Matt Busby died, the date Man Utd famously won the treble. A date seemingly written in the stars.
You will perhaps be forgiven, though, for missing another anniversary on May 26th. 20 years ago, on that date, England’s much vaunted Euro 96 team struggled to a 1:0 victory over the Golden Select XI – a team who had just finished third in Hong Kong’s top-tier league –. in their final fixture before hosting Euro 96.
It had been 30 years since England won the World Cup, and the first time since they hosted such a tournament. Superstition presided over form for England’s chances of winning Euro 96. Terry Venables’ stuttering England side were far from the semi-final team the nation came to love and revere. The notion of destiny being linked with dates called in Wembley’s heart, much like it wandered into Old Trafford on Mourinho’s appointment.
May 26th in Hong Kong, and its drunken hangover, gave despairing fans the sense that England would blow it again and throw it away. Dreams of ending 30 years of hurt vanished in all but song lyric. Elsewhere that day, Scotland lost 2:1 to the United States (a very poor team in comparison, at the time) and Wales lost by the same score-line to lower-league Leyton Orient.
None of those losses though compared to the ignominy of England’s narrow win against a collection of journeymen and ex-pros. Before looking at the build up to this match, the game itself, and the notorious after-math, it’s perhaps best to take a trip down memory lane. All was not quite as we nostalgically remembered before Euro 96.
A bright-eyed Tony Blair drove New Labour’s campaign against a greying and waning John Major’s Tory government. A heroin addict told us to ‘choose life’. Media-luvvies on TGI Friday cheered as they held pints of lager; debasingly pretending to be Chris Evan’s mate. Baddiel and Skinner took pub-football-banter to their sofa, on The Fantasy Football Show, whilst they wittily drank bottles of beer. Frank Skinner’s bottle was full of water, by the way. He’d been teetotal since the age of 30.
Ladism reigned the weekend and Hooch flowed freely. Booze Britain chanted ‘we don’t look back in anger’; then turned around to smash a kebab shop window. Dads waved their arms in despair as England stumbled to draws against semi-respectable opponents. Sons mimicked their fathers, for a nod of approval, as England unconvincingly defeated smaller foes. There wasn’t a gambling advert or smartphone in sight. Just a glance of Shoot or Match magazine, and a flicker through Teletext.
In the pubs, punters brayed into the corner, at a small TV screen, for Shearer and Gazza to be dropped. Shearer, despite his prolific form for Blackburn Rovers, had not scored an international goal for over 20 months. Gazza’s creativity had lost its lustre, with his selection deemed a nostalgic luxury. Venables dropped his ‘Christmas Tree’ formation and reverted back to the nation’s failsafe 4-4-2. An expectant nation were far from satisfied.
England arranged pre-tournament friendlies against China and the Golden Select XI; to build up team confidence and detach the players from the pressure of a fervent media. The intentions for the Far-East tour could not have been more calamitous.
Golden FC were made up of Carlton Fairweather (formerly of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’); 36 year old ex-Manchester United stalwart Mike Duxbury; Sheffield Wednesday Assistant Manager, Lee Bullen (at the time was a pacey striker who’d only played in Australia and the Scottish lower-leagues); a few Bosnian and Dutch journeymen, and a local Hong Kong international nicknamed ‘Foxy’. The team also featured Otis Roberts (Jason Roberts’ uncle) and future Atherstone Town manager, Martin Grainger. England had not played against such a team before or since.
Golden FC became a Select XI by drafting in former England U21 goalkeeper, Iain Hesford, and 35 year-old Everton captain Dave Watson. Hesford had dropped down the English leagues - famously scoring the winning goal for Maidstone United against Hereford United - before moving to Hong Kong team, Eastern.
Watson had only been called up to bolster the Golden Select XI’s defence because he happened to be in Hong Kong on holiday – allegedly receiving a £12,000 match fee. Watson had earned 12 international caps for England and was also part of their Euro 88 squad – a pub quiz question if ever there was one. Hesford would tragically die of a suspected heart-attack in 2014, at the age of 54.
“We had just finished our last game of the season when we played England”, Carlton Fairweather remembers. “The owners called us in for a team-meeting just before a light-training session. We were told they had somehow arranged a prestigious fixture, for our last game of the season”, Fairweather laughs. “When we found out it was against England, my first thought was we’re probably going to get battered. We had some good local players, ex-pats, ex-pros and a few lads who had played in Holland. But we were playing against the best players in the country”.
Mike Duxbury recalled in his autobiography, “There was no point feeling any trepidation. We had to prepare ourselves for the real business”. Duxbury’s experience would prove telling in that game, having earned 10 England caps and playing 299 games for Manchester United. The national press – tongue in cheek – called for Duxbury and Watson, after the match, to be selected for the Euro 96 squad. Duxbury would be made captain in what would be his last-ever competitive fixture. An unsuccessful trial at non-league Accrington Stanley followed, before Duxbury finally hung up his boots.
“There was a lot of publicity before the game”, Fairweather recalls. “We received a lot of phone calls from journalists. There was a lot of excitement amongst the camp, but the city was relatively calm because they were used to hosting major sporting events and prominent teams. There was only one training session planned in between our last league fixture and the England match. We trained as we usually did, prepared for England’s tactics, and discussed about what they might do”.
At the same time, a small club from Japan conveniently happened to be touring Hong Kong. The Golden Select XI hastily arranged an ad hoc fixture against them, to provide their recently assembled team with a competitive fixture. The Japanese team narrowly edged a win.
The day before the match, the Golden Select XI met up with the England team for a meal at the Sha Tin racecourse. According to Mike Duxbury’s autobiography, he humbly approached Gary and Phil Neville (then 20 and 19 years old, respectively) to see if they’d remembered him from his Man Utd playing days. The last of which, Duxbury was ruthlessly dropped from the 1990 FA Cup final squad against Crystal Palace. This trophy would famously save Sir Alex Ferguson from being sacked by Man Utd. The Neville brothers gushed at being in the presence of their hero, with Phil Neville pre-arranging to swap shirts with Duxbury after the match.
The club-owners unsuccessfully tried to arrange kick-off for midday, so the Golden Select XI could gain full advantage from the peak temperatures in a humid Hong Kong. Gabriel Batistuta was also mooted to play for the Golden Select XI that day, but alas failed to turn up.
On the day of the fixture, the Golden Select XI calmly went about their business. Meanwhile, a sleeping England were expected to wake-up to a hammering. “We told each other not to play against the badge or name. Make sure you do your job and work harder than the opposite player,” enlightens Fairweather. Duxbury, Watson and Fairweather were more than rehearsed in playing against such players from their Premiership days.
“Our manager told us it’s just another game. He placed the importance of keeping our shape really well, and trying to be more organised on the pitch than England. Restrict their opportunities and make sure we don’t concede possession”, Fairweather recollects.
On the morning of the 26th May, the whole nation nearly choked on their cornflakes as they saw England edging out a 1:0 lead against the Golden Select XI – courtesy of a deflected Les Ferdinand header. An incredulous George Weah (current Ballon d’Or winner) watched in the stands, as part of AC Milan’s promotional campaign for their forthcoming tour to the Far East.
The dedicated England fans in the stadium couldn’t even numb their pain with alcohol. There were concerns about England’s reputation for hooliganism, with the postponed fixture against the Republic of Ireland (at Lansdowne Road) fresh in the security forces’ mind. The local authorities (under Hong Kong Governor Chris Pattern) imposed an alcohol ban, in the Happy Valley Stadium, and laid on 120 soldiers and an extra 100 police.
“The longer the game went on the more we hoped a chance might come”, Fairweather recollects. “We started to look for an opportunity to knock the ball over the England defence to Lee Bullen. Lee Bullen was really quick then. Exceptionally quick”. That may be hard to believe for Sheffield Wednesday fans who recall their former-captain as a versatile defender.
Such an opportunity to score arose when Lee Bullen was placed one-on-one with David Seaman. A chance to equalise and place the Scot in the history books. Seaman saved. The goal seemingly getting smaller, with each yard that Bullen got closer. Perhaps it’s fortunate for England Batistuta never turned up.
After the game, Venables unconvincingly tried to put on a positive spin with the reporters. “They’re a good side. I don’t know much about them, but they’ve got some good results apparently”. The confused England team were then presented with the Golden Investec Century Challenge Cup, as a heated and sober crowd looked on.
“It was a brilliant feeling in the changing room afterwards - having only lost 1:0, and to get that result. England would have felt disappointed with the way they played and should’ve scored more goals. Football works that way sometimes though”, Fairweather sages. “A game like that helped them with their motivation. As you can see from them reaching the semi-finals of Euro 96, it worked out well for them and gave them the arsenal they needed”.
After the game, Fairweather caught up for a chat with his old Wimbledon team-mate Dennis Wise. Wise and the rest of the England team would soon depart the Happy Valley Stadium for a 12 course end-of-tour banquet, at a local hotel. The consequent placement of the dentist chair into English footballing folklore was but a few hours away.
Venables allowed the England team to go out and celebrate the end-of-tour and Gazza’s early 29th birthday party. Gazza had missed the Golden Select XI fixture on account of suspected blood poisoning. The team were to be supervised by Bryan Robson (then part of the England coaching team and no stranger to drink), and told to be back at the team hotel by 2:30 a.m.
Most of the England team abstained from attending the after-function revelries. The experienced players sensed trouble was in the air. David Platt advised a number of the younger squad to stay behind at the hotel. Tony Adams would lock himself in his hotel room with his inner-demons (Adams would famously hold a press conference that September to bravely inform of his alcoholism).
Gazza, Teddy Sheringham, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Bryan Robson and a few others would go on to China Jump club, in the Causeway Bay Area. The team-members would wrestle with each other (ripping their clothes to shreds), and take part in the club’s ‘dentist chair’ challenge. Meanwhile, the bar staff laid on a punch bowl which the players latterly consumed with straws. Robson states in his autobiography that he’d never seen a group of people get so drunk, so quickly. The payers had, however, stuck to their 2:30 a.m. curfew.
The drunken team celebrations into the late hours of the Hong Kong nightlife were soon spread across a baying media. The ‘dentist chair’ photos turned England fans’ familiar pessimism into anger. Cathay Pacific’s threat to press charges against some of the England team’s antics on their return flight, further exacerbated the nation’s furore.
Football was coming home, but not even the fawning studio audience on TGI Friday could be convinced that things could only get better. That is, until Gazza’s moment of genius against Scotland – both his goal and ‘dentist chair ‘celebration. That moment seemed to galvanise a nation – from the press to pubs; fans in the stands to living room sofas.
The nation was suddenly drunk on expectation, until the sobering experience of yet another German penalty shootout win. The Golden Select XI result became a very distant memory, and that night in Hong Kong seen in a much different light. England had temporarily fallen in love with their team – penalties, drunkenness and all - in a way probably not seen since.