Sometimes history is written by the semi-finalists. Alan Shearer’s recent trawl around his old teammates to relive Euro 96 for the BBC was an enjoyable enough reverie, if viewed a little too much through a lens with a distinctive shade of rose. England made it to the last four of their home tournament, but no further. Everybody knows that, but as a detail it’s become little more than a footnote in the story. ‘It’s as if that team won the tournament, the way they’re remembered for it,’ Wayne Rooney said of Shearer and friends a few days ago.
The cultural resonance of that tournament doesn’t just baffle England’s current captain. On the face of it, a semi-final appearance for a host nation is a standard return. As a wider experience, the tournament was alarmingly under-attended at most of the matches not involving England. The football didn’t stink, but there was an unsatisfactory whiff about it. Only two other European Championships have provided less goals per game and the Golden Goal innovation backfired, reducing the knockout rounds to tense and often dreary spectacles. Anyone 25 or under looking back might rightly wonder what all the fuss is about.
Yet it’s impossible to understand Euro 96 from a distance, using only the results and YouTube clips as a barometer. To understand why it is such a powerful memory for those of a certain vintage, it’s necessary to understand the context in which it took place. That summer the country was under the hypnotic spell of Britpop and Cool Britannia, the lost weekend that carried on through the middle of that decade for around three years. In the same breath, the end of eighteen years of Conservative government was not just signposted but nailed on for May 1997.
There hasn’t been a more optimistic period in recent British history. Briefly anything seemed possible, with a broad sense of community fostered by this sudden cultural upsurge. With only two percent of the UK with internet access going into that year those communities were tangible rather than online. The simplest of group activities were responsible. ‘Much of this,’ wrote John Harris of that era of unanimity in The Last Party, ‘was down to those two great examples of social glue, music and sport.’
That the 1996 European Championship was staged in England while all this was going on was, of course, a fluke. Despite the concerns over hooliganism at the time England were actually awarded the tournament in May 1992, with Britain in the grip of a numbing recession and just months before Black Wednesday. The England team then, under manager Graham Taylor, was rubbish. In November 1993 they conceded a goal to San Marino in 8.3 seconds as their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in the USA fell apart around them. In British culture at the time the dominant forces in music, film and television were all American; that England missed the World Cup in that new frontier for the game felt oddly symbolic.
Just as the cultural forces that formed the phenomena of Britpop and Cool Britannia started to percolate, so Terry Venables was tasked with resurrecting England from its lowest point. The journey back was a painfully slow trawl. Embarrassingly low crowds trooped along for two years of friendly games at Wembley, as England struggled to find opposition bothered enough to do anything other than stroll around for a mutually suitable draw. One of their rare ventures away from the national stadium was a disaster. In February 1995 a match with the Republic of Ireland in Dublin was abandoned as England fans rioted. Had it been any further out from Euro 96 then England could well have had the competition taken away from them.
When the tournament started it was the England players that had the presidential suite in the doghouse. A pre-tournament beano in Hong Kong culminated with Gascoigne smashing up a Cathay Pacific plane on the way home. After an uninspiring opening draw with Switzerland, it heaped pressure on their second game at Wembley like coal being shovelled into a furnace. The match with Scotland, their first for seven years, is the biggest ever fixture between two composite nations of the UK. In contrast, the upcoming match between Wales and England in Lens is a bagatelle. It was a close run thing, but England won it. When Gascoigne finished the game with a brilliant goal the players re-enacted the Dentist’s Chair with water bottles in celebration. The whole saga helped to place the squad in the orbit of another mid-nineties movement – lad culture.
Powered by the magazine loaded, its influence was seeping in everywhere. When scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh cloned a sheep just days after the tournament finished, they decided to name their scientific breakthrough. ‘Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell,’ explained Professor Ian Wilmut, ‘and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.’ Men of science who should know better.
Frank Skinner and David Baddiel were two more obvious manifestations of the New Lad. Their TV show Fantasy Football League was a cult hit, sadly paving the way for Soccer AM years later. In tandem with The Lightning Seeds they had penned the England team song Three Lions for the tournament. When the stadium DJ played it at the final whistle it became the anthem of the summer, and has been the nostalgic trigger for the tournament ever since.
With the mood now changed the Netherlands, one of the pre-tournament favourites, were swept aside at Wembley three days later. Unless you had witnessed the gradual slide of England’s fortunes since their fourth place finish at Italia 90 it is virtually impossible to explain how surreal those eleven minutes early in the second half were, when England’s lead went from 1-0 to 4-0. The eventual 4-1 victory, achieved by some slick, counter-attacking football, was then and is now largely remembered as a dominant thrashing. It was such a euphoric experience that perspective had temporarily gone out of the window.
It remained in the garden for the next game. The quarter-final with Spain was a brutally tense afternoon during which England were completely outplayed. The golden goal, and the failure to score one, only cranked it up further. When England survived to win their one and only penalty shootout to date the relief was palpable. Spain had been done – they could have had three penalties and had a perfectly good goal disallowed. Rather than any level of finery, England were now lauded for the more traditional virtues of hard work and determination embodied by the roaring Stuart Pearce.
As England progressed their games became huge events, with blanket media coverage and ever increasing television audiences. Euro 96 was all anyone talked about, anywhere. ‘You need this ongoing momentum, that’s important,’ Blur’s bass player Alex James later reflected of Britpop. He could easily have been referring to England’s run that summer. ‘Success is a function of success; it needs to be seen to be getting bigger and bigger.’ Since the Scotland game, the England team had managed to briefly capture the mood of the whole cultural revival – bold, brash and hooking in followers from everywhere.
Britpop and Cool Britannia were both movements shrouded in the Union Jack, and were often clumsily asserted as statements of national pride. Euro 96 would become their awkward, Anglo-Saxon cousin. Wembley had seen an unprecedented display of specifically English patriotism, with a sea of St George crosses in the crowd. The trouble with expressing that kind of sentiment, particularly via the conduit of football, is that it seldom takes long for the atmosphere to become boorish. Britain was already at odds politically with the European Union over their decision to ban the export of British beef to the Continent for fear of its contamination with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Euro 96 became a vehicle for some sections of the media to thumb their nose at Europe and dredge up arguments long settled.
There had been plenty of chest-thumping, obnoxious arrogance ahead of the Spain game, but events took a thoroughly depressing turn after Germany were confirmed as England’s semi-final opponents. Most of the tabloids piled in but the ‘Achtung! Surrender’ front page by the Daily Mirror, from where they went on to declare ‘football war’ on Germany, scooped the prize for being the most numbingly crass. It was the handiwork of their then editor Piers Morgan, who showed himself up for exactly what he is years before he started to decant the banter on social media.
The notion that any football match between England and Germany is merely extra-time in the Second World War pre-dates ‘Guten’ Morgan and is still evident now. It largely took hold after the 1966 World Cup Final. Not only did the Germans watch England drift into thirty years of hurt after that match, they were personally responsible for some of its most aching moments. That dynamic between the two seems to really, really get to England. As a result, the semi-final at Wembley in 1996 had the build up took on the aura of the final itself.
As a communal event it dominated anything else in the mid-nineties. Around 2.6 million people tried to get tickets to see Oasis play two huge shows at Knebworth later that summer; almost half of the country tuned in for that semi-final. England’s eventual defeat was a mirror of their loss in Italia 90 at the same stage, to the same opponents (albeit with a West prefix) – a 1-1 draw followed by shootout misery. Yet this one stung even more. This German team were not as good, and the golden goal period offered two chances for England to finish the game in a heartbeat. By chaos theory alone Darren Anderton’s shot that hit the post might have been regarded as the big opportunity, were it not superseded by one laced with symbolism six minutes later.
Gascoigne paused fatally while throwing his battered body at Alan Shearer’s cross, and missed a tap-in to an empty net from two yards by a millisecond. To speculate on what it could have changed had he converted it – his own life, those of many others, England’s international history – only makes it more harrowing. The ball faintly clipped one of Gascoigne’s studs and tricked away for a goal kick, as the enormity of the moment sank in for everyone watching. In a BBC interview in 2014, Venables was asked how often he thought about it. ‘Most nights actually,’ he replied while chuckling ruefully. ‘I have nightmares about it.’
Andreas Möller converted his penalty after Gareth Southgate missed, and England were out. It was the end of England at Euro 96, and beginning of the end of the good times. Eras tend to end with a fade out rather than a full stop. Knebworth, Toby Young’s absurd ‘London Swings! Again!’ piece in Vanity Fair, New Labour’s election victory, Oasis firing a dud with ‘Be Here Now’ and the death of Princess Diana all followed, but it was Southgate’s penalty miss that started to shut things down. That feeling was solidified when Trafalgar Square was trashed in the hours that followed the semi-final, the worst trouble the capital had seen since the Poll Tax riots.
Like that, it had gone. The saturation of media coverage of England and the tournament dried up in the days that followed as everyone absorbed the defeat. So passes the glory of the Euros. Almost as an afterthought the final took place between the Czech Republic and Germany. The Czechs had a fine tournament, and it’s an arrogant assumption in the extreme to assume that England would have simply shoved them aside in the final. They came within 17 minutes of winning the whole thing, until Oliver Bierhoff intervened with a German equaliser followed by the tournament’s only golden goal. The Germans won, and celebrated by singing the ‘Football’s Coming Home’ refrain of Three Lions to their adoring public when they returned home to Frankfurt. No sense of humour?
It’s galling in the extreme for England that Euro 96 is arguably the least cherished of Germany’s seven international tournament victories. The Czech Republic and Croatia will take good memories from that summer but for most of the other nations at the tournament it will have been forgotten. Never, though, in England. The hosts’ story is a huge part of any tournament, and never more so than here. Whatever Rooney or anyone else might think of their semi-final exit the simple truth is that no England team before or since 1966 has ever been as close to a major final. Since Venables’ team, not one has even replicated a semi-final appearance.
It has always been the English paradox – we have all of the hubris and posturing of a great international football nation but not the record of one. That jars with our status as inventors of the game, and all of the modern largesse of the Premier League. In England’s sparse international history Euro 96 is at least something to cling to. The prospect of a brighter day, however brief, was a fuel in many walks of life back then. Until England find the brightest day of all again the feel good hit of the summer of 1996, for all its faults, is one people will continue to find comfort in.