BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
The day Euro ‘96 started was the day my dog committed suicide. This is a true story. Zico, my German Shepherd, was not like the other dogs. He had never participated in the age old canine pastimes of chasing sticks and rutting against a postman's leg. He was more introspective. He would stare sadly out of the window as my sister played her 'Louder Than Bombs' album. It was as if he understood the lyrics. 'Call me morbid. Call me pale. I've spent six years on your tail.' These words were both apt and influential. Well, to a depressed Alsatian anyway.
Sometime just after Alan Shearer was slide-ruling one in against Switzerland, Zico launched himself into the Hartlepool Marina. There was no offside decision against him, just a solitary paw bubbling beneath the surface. It was tragic really. Over the forthcoming days his canine death would bring a great wave of sadness down on our family home. Was it a sign too, I wondered? Had it been thrown down as a spiritual precursor like the great, Greek philosophers would talk about. Was there an awful menace about to be cast over society and its minions. Was Steve Stone really about to get a starting role in England's midfield?
For many, 1996 would be a glorious summer. It was a pretty glorious Britain too. The great musical arm of Britpop still resonated, and it was impossible not to get carried along with it. Later, it would be sniped at and dissected by thin, young men in black polo necks, who probably played with slugs as children. For everyone else though it seemed a coming together. It would peak that year at Knebworth with Oasis – the last great coming together before the internet's self-isolation and cynicism kicked in: something optimistic and communal. Those shards of beatific positivity even went tentatively as far as the football too. The national team may have still veered from strictly competent to the backside of a pantomime horse, but at least they were always exciting.
In reality no one expected much of the European Championships anyway. Not really. The widescreen epic of Italia ‘90 and England's one true blue centre light moment had long faded into the ether to be replaced by non-qualification for USA ‘94 and the Graham Taylor reign which had been disastrous from the off. The one everlasting impression of Taylor's time as England manager would be of him being turned into a turnip on the back pages of Fleet Street, which was a shame given his football credentials. For Euro ‘96, the FA had taken no chances. In strode Terry ‘El Tel’ Venables and his air of confidence. He had a lot in common with the Gallagher brothers – the same sense of swagger and self-worth. He seemed the perfect choice to have a good crack at the Euros. Sink or swim, you got the feeling England were going to go out firing. Which suited us disciples fine.
For those of us in small towns in England the connection to the national team was massive. All those flags at away tournaments didn't lie. Your Rochdales. Your Halifaxes. Your Chesterfield Union Jacks. The great core of nationalistic pride was born out of the lower leagues. Hartlepool was no different. I didn't know of a single football fan in the town who hadn't been to an England match over the years and every time the national team would play, the bars in Church Street and beyond would be crammed with people clamouring for a bit of tournament success. For those on the outside looking in, the obvious cliché was that it was because our own clubs were so unglamorous and small by comparison – but it was more than that. We still believed. As unfashionable as that was, the romantic ethos of football was written through us like a stick of Blackpool rock and where better to finally win the Euros than on our own patch? After all, the last time we'd held a tournament back home we'd hadn't done too badly, had we?
The general consensus amongst others was quite different, however. The lacklustre draw against Switzerland had brought the defeatists out early when it came to such lofty ambitions for our national heroes. They were everywhere. Thin faced malcontents who you never saw on the terraces during the season but who suddenly became the voice of football whenever you bumped into one in the street, or worse, had them stood behind you in the pub as you watched the match. Carling Warriors really. An annoying by-product of the Sky revolution who hadn't been interested in football before 1992 but had been to the boozer for every live Premiership game like it was some badge of honour. Plastic men who drank out of plastic glasses. It was hard not to pine for a time when football had been unfashionable but vital, a kitchen sink alchemy of flying boots and sideways sleet but strangely devoid of cynics and a rising negativity that threatened to envelope the Euros before they had hardly begun.
Even the cynics had to admit that for England's second game they had been handed a belter. The Auld Enemy themselves. Scotland had hardly been rivals in the nineties, in fact it could have been argued that you had to go back to the late seventies and those infamous games of Tartan invasions and broken crossbars to find the real heat of the match up. Sadly, apart from a few meaningless friendlies there had been a generation that had completely missed out on the vitality of the fixture but for those old enough to remember it, it had almost been as meaningful a game as the FA Cup final. Now though, the Tartan Army sensed their patriotic mojo returning. Where better to gain revenge on their richer and more successful neighbours than at a ‘home’ championships? In truth the Scots needed a result too. Their Indiana Jones method of navigating a safe route through a major tournament had them staring down a barrel early once again.
Ironically, on boiling hot afternoon at Wembley Stadium it would be the greatest player in the Scottish Premiership who would unravel them. The spectre of Paul Gascoigne and his madcap spirit had already made its seminal mark north of the border after signing for Rangers. Although many football analysts claimed his talent was beginning to dissipate, his performances against admittedly weaker defences were still as thrilling as ever. He may not have cut across the pitch like a midfield dervish like he had in the early nineties, but he still had enough class to outwit an uninspiring Scotland team. Cut to the 79th minute and he was about to score one of the all-time great England goals at a major championship. Shortly after Gary McAllister had missed a penalty to draw Scotland level, Gascoigne received the ball on the edge of the Scottish box and in one flowing movement flicked it deftly over Colin Hendry's head before smashing it past a despairing Andy Goram. The resulting celebrations were a hoot. The re-enactment of the infamous dentist’s chair: a legendary drinking session England players had participated in pre-tournament in Hong Kong, which the tabloid press had picked up on with their usual moral hypocrisy.
The alcohol fuelled celebrations off the pitch would be wild too. One of those brilliant Saturday sessions where a team’s win turns into the twilight of abandon and excess. Hartlepool was no exception. Even now, like the main character from Memento, I have trouble recollecting it. Vague memories of pints being thrown into the air at the final whistle. A revolving door of bars and endless shots like we were returning gunslingers celebrating a successful shoot out. Accelerating time and raised voices. Doing lines in cubicles and being escorted from the premises by bouncers as things got a little out of hand. Staggering home at impossible, mathematical angles and arguing over which was the greatest England tournament song, before singing World in Motion at the top of our voices much to our sleeping neighbours’ disgust.
The resulting hangover would be huge. A gnawing, ominous feeling in the pit of the stomach or was that nervous butterflies? Up ahead loomed a gloriously dangerous final group game against the ever-talented Dutch that on paper had Carpe Diem written all over it. The Holland team had been the poet laureates of world football since the early seventies. The ethos of Johan Cruyff and Total Football had its place in football history with a certain authenticity. It was over-romanticised and unrealistic of course but watching the Holland team gliding around the pitch in the early seventies on old football documentaries still had a hallucinatory and slightly dangerous feel about it. It was like they were a punk rock band rather than a football team. By 1996, however, their influence had waned. On their day they could still be devastating but rampant egos and a weird apathy had seemed to infect the Dutch around this time. Often, they were defeated before a tournament had even begun, fighting in house like squabbling housewives over a council estate gigolo.
On a balmy night at the old Wembley Stadium they would find little solace in a rampant England side either. It would arguably be England's greatest single performance of the entire decade. A meaningful game where the home nation’s drive and aggression snuffed out the pretty Dutch triangles with an ease that was astounding. Two goals apiece from Shearer and Sheringham gave a wide score line that didn't flatter their total dominance. It was a revenge best served cold moment too, especially amongst the England players. The Ronald Koeman incident two years earlier, in which the elegant sweeper should have been sent off in a group game, had meant that England had failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. It was a controversy that still rankled with the senior England players. As the rest of the nation rejoiced to themselves at the resurrection of the England team at a major competition, they gave a little nod to each other going off the pitch that a score had been settled. That ultimately it was job done.
A great sigh of relief was exhaled around the country. For the first time since Italia ‘90, positivity was the key phrase and a musical refrain that would grow in intensity as the tournament progressed began to be picked up on around the country. 'It's coming home,' a Euro 96 song by comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, seemed perfect for the tournament and quickly became its unofficial anthem. Both Skinner and Baddiel were terrace stalwarts themselves and their brilliant fantasy football show on ITV at the time seemed more like a great fanzine than a commissioned television show. It was a huge hit around the UK for its creators; its irreverent take on the glorious game echoing the type of banter you heard in pubs before games. It captured the nation’s jingoism too. Three lions on a shirt. It was hardly neutral, but who cared. With hundreds of thousands of Union flags hanging out of council estate windows, the general consensus of sporting nationalism was the default setting.
Thrillingly too, England were suddenly in the business end of the Euros – a quarter final match against Spain, who almost a decade later would become the new artisans of world football. In 1996 though, they were more like the Emperor’s new clothes than bespoke Armani. Perennial championship bottlers whose flair was undoubted but who seemed to freeze at the vital moments; a malaise that England had suffered from post Mexico 1970 like it was woven into their DNA.
The game itself was always going to be a cagey affair and so it proved. A fascinating but tactical encounter in which England's spirit and aggression were superbly nullified without Spain ever capitalising on their superiority. England, in fact, would get lucky through Spain's lack of ambition rather than their efforts on the pitch. Only goalkeeper David Seaman would really be on point with a series of saves over a game that not even the feted 'golden goal' could save. Only the great terror of penalties remained. England's monkeys paw since that famous semi-final in Turin, when the whole country believed only to be crushed by the brutal lottery of spot kicks.
Strangely, that same Germany lay ahead in the semi-finals of Euro ‘96 too. Watching with an alligator’s eye as it was Spain's turn to evaporate under the sudden pressure and a brilliant Seaman display. The image of an impassioned and victorious Stuart Pearce punching the air like an emotional boxer after burying his spot kick was the one true image of that quarter-final, a match that had thrown up a lot of reality checks too. The ease in which Spain had nullified Shearer; the lack of diverse tactics and a slightly shaky defence had thrown up tactical question marks against the hosts. As they retired to come up with a game plan for the imperious Germans, they weren't the only ones plotting their downfall. The English media seemed to go into a weird tactical mode that bordered on absolute xenophobia.
As the whole of the nation eagerly awaited the clash, this was the tabloid press' cue to come up with some of the most embarrassing and offensive headlines ever to be printed before a sporting event. Images of the Second World War and phrases that belonged from a Dad's Army script screamed from the red tops in utter hysteria. It had little effect on the German team of course, who psychologically were as tough old boots. They were also safe in the knowledge that they had the Indian sign over England and had done right from Mexico in ‘70. By the time they lined up on the pitch there was the feeling that they were about to shift into a familiar pantomime role – the villain who somehow always got away with the spoils.
For the neutral of course, the England/Germany fixture at major tournaments was always a sensational watch. Furiously open and dramatically tense it was a match up that ebbed and flowed from one goalmouth to another. The game at Wembley would be no exception. In front of a fervent home crowd it didn't take long for the game to ignite itself. As early as the second minute a Shearer header had everyone in raptures. The joy didn't last long. Just after the quarter hour mark a German equaliser through Stefan Kuntz redressed the balance. So began a gigantic tactical battle. The cavalier approach of gallant England versus the offensive guile of the Germans. It was a top-class football match for the ages. Full of pace and movement. You couldn't take your eyes off it.
The trouble was, the further it went on, your mind couldn't help but wander back to Italia ‘90 and a dystopian torture of spot kicks. Germany just didn't miss them and as the England chances came and went, Sheringham and Anderton both hit the post and Gascoigne was inches away from an open goal in extra time, a sense of déjà vu came over an entire nation: such sickness and cruelty couldn't occur again could it?
And as the inevitable happened, we would all watch around the country as our hearts were broken at the conclusion. Five perfect penalties apiece, but within the confines of sudden death, Gareth Southgate would buckle to give the Germans the upper hand when it mattered. It would bring to a close a tournament that had been glorious, exciting and unforgettable but also one in which England had gripped defeat from the jaws of victory once again.
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