My Euro '96 XI

Euro 2020 begins today, and with the final at Wembley it seems somehow right that the tournament had to wait a year to create a 25 year gap with the last one. During last year's lockdown Euro '96 was repeated on ITV's streaming services to deflect us from the enforced emptiness, and although I made a start on watching it, it was nowhere near as good as I remember it being. But with excitement building, I thought it might be a nice idea to share a few memories of the summer of '96, partly before I go ga-ga and partly because the highlights of these events are so much different from the reality. Mine, I'd argue, was a perfectly normal Euro '96 experience, and if you take a read of these eleven nuggets of memory, you might find yourself nodding along. And, y'know, it's something to do at half-time.
An Opening Day Win – In 1996 I lived in a very small world, one which encompassed about half a dozen streets between home, school, friends and grandparents. There was the odd trip to Birmingham and the single holiday per year my family could afford, but the biggest place I visited regularly was the TI, the recreation ground named for the mothballed factory skirting its edge. Euro ‘96 was labelled as football coming home, yet I wasn’t hugely aware of it ever leaving. It had only been six years since English clubs were readmitted to European competitions following the Heysel ban, and since I hadn’t followed football until after World Cup 1990, that barren chunk had made no impact on me. Despite my overwhelming obsession with the 1994 World Cup, football was represented by what happened on these islands, and the Premier League was all I needed to nourish me. I lived a parochial life, and didn’t even hanker after tickets for the games happening ten miles from my doorstep. On the opening day of the tournament, I forsook the opening ceremony to attend the summer fete at my old primary school, where I won a salad spinner on the tombola and then cleaned out the bottle-on-a-string stall, taking away a bottle of Coke and a duo of two-litre Cresta lemonades after noticing the string tension on them was far greater than the other options. Me and my best mate Owain went back to his to watch England-Switzerland, which was exciting because Alan Shearer scored early to break his two-year international drought, then Kubilay Turkyilmaz equalised with a penalty before the end, and nothing else seemed to happen at all. So Europe had dropped its suitcases in the doorway, and I toasted it with budget pop within a locus of smaller than half a mile.

A True Mathematician - I don’t bet. Not on football, racing, anything. If I’m going to waste money I at least expect to get something for it, and offering it up to the winds based on a hunch seems like insanity. You can study form, rub rabbits’ feet, choose birthdays or whatever you like, but I can tell you this for free: luck is luck, and you don’t get born with it. This is borne out by the only two opinions I had about teams other than England at Euro ‘96. Firstly, I watched the Germans dismantle the Czech Republic on the first Sunday, and have a distinct memory of amusement about the latter, as they went down by two identical first-half goals. Then, as the tournament reached the end of its first round of games, I sat in my maths class wasting time as usual and talking football with our teacher. Said teacher was one of my favourites, since he didn’t seem much interested in teaching, and as I was shit at maths that was perfectly fine by me. Somewhere in the group chat, I offered my true conviction that the unknown Croatians, in their first tournament game, would provide the feast against Turkey. My teacher said these exact words: “That’s not actually a silly statement. I think that’ll be a corker.” History shows it was one of the most turgid games in a mediocre tournament, played in driving rain and settled by a Goran Vlaovic solo effort. So I was wrong about that, and wrong about our maths teacher too: he disappeared, and the rumour was that he was sacked for going off with a sixth former. Stripped of his undisciplined influence, I ended up getting a B at GCSE instead of an E.

Pulling Teeth - The first week of Euro ‘96 didn’t sell itself particularly well. It seemed a mixture of teams hungover from World Cup ‘94 and sides who didn’t believe they could win it. Germany was an exception, and possibly Italy, but one notable party-pooper was the hosts. England, while not out of it, had spurned an excellent chance to go into the last game against the Netherlands without the pressure to get a result, but by drawing with Switzerland, they had placed the onus on their second game against Scotland. Scotland, not knowing they were approaching their peak years, had also got a draw, but were much happier to have gained it against the feared team in the group. The opportunity to stick it to the English at a boiling-hot Wembley must have conjured memories of that ‘77 melee, and I recall a kind of fatalism in the days prior; not of fear, necessarily, but a sense of tightening. The weather had been incredibly muggy, yet Saturday 15th was glorious; my sisters left on a coach tour of Bavaria that morning, and even at 8am as we saw them off, it was nuclear bright. As has been well documented, the game didn’t spring to life until the introduction of Jamie Redknapp; after that every person my age or older is familiar with the beats: Shearer’s header from Gary Neville’s wonderful cross; David Seaman’s instinctive, jutting fist to deny Gary McAllister, and then in the blink of an eye, Paul Gascoigne had looped the ball over Colin Hendry, and I knew - just knew - that as it met his foot again it would end up in Andy Goram’s net. It was too scripted, too much the hallmark of genius, not to end in a goal, and while I find the finish slightly scruffy (in a perfect world, it cannons into the far corner as Gazza lashes the print off it), I did what every England fan did, and went utterly potty. It was topped by a recreation of the Dentist’s Chair in celebration, and at least one nation in the Union felt the rush of some elixir as Gascoigne imbibed. It must have been this year that I stopped seeing the dentist myself, their sweep of NHS patients finding a keen volunteer in my terror of appointments, and for at least two people in this memory, it was downhill in certain ways from then on. Of course, come Monday, the playgrounds were packed with lads trying to recreate Gazza’s goal with tennis balls, failing, and recreating the recreation all the same.

Check Please - While I was obviously pleased about England’s progress, no team at Euro ‘96 captured my heart like Croatia did. I guess you could say I had a crush on them. Certain things about this are easy to explain (the otherness of that delightful red-and-white checked kit; the exotica of those acutes and circumflexes), but I barely knew where Croatia was, why they were only making their debut if they’d been around since 1992, and whether they were really as good as Davor Suker’s qualifying form suggested. The fact that I’d seen Robert Prosinecki’s goal for Yugoslavia at Italia ‘90 completely passed me by, as did the fact they were once a part of that same country. It’s hard to believe now that there was a genocidal war happening a few hundred miles from me for five years and all I did was change the channel. So Croatia were a clean slate yet exciting enough to be my dark horses based on nothing more than aesthetics; many a band I ended up championing in my days as a music writer benefitted from the same. It was in their second game where my admiration tipped into obsession - playing Denmark at Hillsborough, the Croats made the incumbent champions look slow and second-rate, and they were tortured by Suker, whose arrogance was worn on that change kit like a badge of honour. He revelled in causing havoc to their defence, and the Danes, chasing a route back into the game at 0-2, kept sending Peter Schmeichel up at set-pieces, opening that huge Sheffield space up for a precise and single-minded antagonist. The ‘keeper was caught on his heels as the number 9 advanced on his area, and from a hilarious angle, Suker overcame Schmeichel’s narrowing of space by backlifting a dink over his despairing glove, watching it nestle into the net before saluting all four corners of the ground. I was smitten, and sulked for most of the day when Germany ruined Croatia’s march to glory in the quarter finals. That night, though, the BBC cut from the match to a forgotten drama called No Bananas. No bananas, but a chip I still savour.

Roberto Fowlerov, post-tournament poster boy

Three Lions - A thing which features heavily in recollections of Euro ‘96 is the use of ‘Three Lions’ as a cultural touchstone, and younger readers will probably assume it’s overplayed. After all, was England in 1970 swamped with ‘Back Home’ from morning until night? ‘All The Way,’ England’s 1988 effort, didn’t even make the Top 40. ‘World In Motion’ seemed to get a lot of airplay, but I can’t be absolutely sure of that, since my sister had the 7-inch single, and that got a regular spinning. But yes, ‘Three Lions’, far from being an overburdened totem, was everywhere, even before the Scotland win. After that, it began to get sung after England games at Wembley and soundtracked their progress, but it existed far ahead of that. I first heard it on the last episode of Fantasy Football League, a show I taped every Friday night and was obsessed by. Fantasy Football was exactly the right show at exactly the right time for me - as a student of the game who lacked a teacher (beyond my grandad’s Aston Villa tutelage), its jokes, references and lack of explanation were pitched just so, enough for me to feel I’d discovered a door in thin air. Maybe it was made for people going out or coming in on a Friday night, but like all the best kept televisual secrets, the ones who appreciated it most were teenagers. Feeling angst over my looks and my averageness, at least I had a club who, if I wanted to be a member, just had to tune in. When Frank Skinner and David Baddiel introduced ‘Three Lions’ for the first time over the show’s credits, I felt like what it must have been like to hear ‘She Loves You’ or ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; not that they’re in any way comparable in craft or cultural heft, but just that there was a song out there which tesselated with me exactly at the time. I rewatched those few minutes at least a dozen times that night. Had ‘Three Lions’ been released the year before (notwithstanding the reasons for its recording in the first place), I don’t know how successful it would have been - 1995 was the imperial period of Britpop, and while football had become cool, England weren’t. But a year later, the Spice Girls arrived from nowhere with a certified banger, and strange pop songs like ‘Female of the Species’ and ‘Something for the Weekend’ comfortably co-existed with Robson and Jerome and the Manics. Time passing has judged Britpop a reductive ghetto in quite a lot of ways, and Fantasy Football League too for its hectoring and questionable aspects. I’m probably too subjective a judge not to turn a blind eye to either, given their significance in my teenage life. It probably is problematic, and maybe ‘Three Lions’ is a cliched, sickening nursery rhyme. But it was my club’s chant, and that’s why I’ll always adore it. 

Flying Colours - Pity the poor Dutch. Always the bridesmaids and seemingly never the brides (although their determination to wreck the wedding with hilarious bitchiness is a Netflix series waiting to happen), they’ve not only had to endure a half century of watching others succeed where Total Football failed, but since 2001, even their mauling by England is knocked into second place by another 5-1 victory in Munich. While I’m sure that won’t bother them in the slightest, it’s arguably forgotten how unbelievable it was to hammer the Netherlands in the manner England did. The 4-1 scoreline, incredible in and of itself, was just reward for the way in which a resurgent home side tore into their opponents from minute one, betraying not a thought that this might be slightly too good to be true. In all of my experiences following football, I can count on my fingers the amount of times I’ve had that giddy feeling of complete unreason, when the world has become detached from its axis. It’s brilliant, but there’s also a feeling that you’re wasting your nitro. That Germany win is a great example: I stumbled away from a heaving pub into a delirious street, bellowing into my mobile like everybody else. A year later, Germany made the World Cup Final, England lost to Brazil in the quarters. Unfortunately for me, end of year exams coincided with Euro ‘96, and so I was forced to watch this monumental 4-1 win with a pile of Wordsworth poems on my lap watching the portable in my parents’ bedroom (I had a television in my room, but it was black and white; okay for Eurotrash and The Red Light Zone but useless for appreciating het Oranj). So I missed that giddy feeling for the sake of a level 6, or whatever nonsense grading system was being used, and I’ve never bothered with Wordsworth since, not even when he was a compulsory poet on my degree course.

Redemption Song - England and penalties in 1996 were not really a ‘thing’, not in the way they are today. Sure, the loss to West Germany in Turin was an indelible scar on the national psyche, but it’s only in hindsight that it became a trend that seemed impossible to stop. The shootout with Spain in the quarter-finals was only England’s second-ever set of competitive penalties, and I don’t recall a fear that England would choke, not in the way I would subsequently. Maybe it’s because Spain should have won in normal time, having had a perfectly legitimate goal disallowed, or maybe it’s because after the Holland win England seemed fated to win the whole thing. Taking the nineties as the period between Thatcher clearing off and the attacks on the World Trade Center the summer of ‘96 was possibly the high point of post-Cold War Britain, maybe even post-World War Two: colonies had been lost, but we’d become experts at fighting culture wars instead. Tory sleaze was clearly turning people off and there was an election to come; flags could be waved and you started to see them in the second week of Wimbledon again. Hell, we could even win the Eurovision Song Contest. Of all the stony and winding paths taken in modern Britain, who knew it would ultimately lead here, the rebirth of a country embodied by a punk rocker with a point to prove? Stuart Pearce’s redemption was a sweet story, but somehow too soon, given we still probably had to face the Germans in the semi-final. England, and in this parallel Britain’s, moment would come, but when it did it happened in a rush, before we had time to appreciate it. A man, and a nation, redeemed, but only for as long as it takes a ball to travel twelve yards or an election promise to be broken. England didn’t win another competitive shootout for 22 years.

Rudi Kroll’s Killer Pass - On the Monday after the Spain win, when it became fixed that we would again face Germany in the semi finals, we walked into our English lesson with the forthcoming game on our minds. Our teacher, a huge bloke with a chronic inability to stop lifting his belt over his gut, posited that England were done as a force, claiming they had peaked too early. But hey, what did he know? When you wanted sporting predictions, you turned to the people who knew best, and that would obviously be the PE department. On the Wednesday of the semi-final, as thirty students crowded around the crummy tennis courts going through the motions, none of us could concentrate. In a few hours time, England were going to be in the final of Euro ‘96. It would take a German, or more accurately somebody of Austrian extraction, to throw cold water on our thoughts. Gerhard ‘Rudi’ Kroll was one of those PE teachers who can’t decide whether he is friend or fiend, and becomes neither. I didn’t know him that well - being utterly shit at all sports, I spent my classes with girls, in an unconscious yet stupendously obvious example of chauvinism. But tennis, being a non-contact sport, turned out to be rather more mixed, and so it was that Kroll, his nickname coming from the famous Dutch defender, was pressed on his prediction for the night’s game. ‘One-one, the Germans on penalties,’ he sniffed, walking off as if he had pinged one onto Johan Cruyff’s nut. Well, he couldn’t be right, could he? He wasn’t even English. Unless he was; I didn’t like to ask.

Grey Day - I won’t relive the game, as it’s still painful at this remove. 1990 didn’t mean loads to me, because I didn’t understand the significance of England reaching a semi-final, and penalties seemed a fair way of dividing a draw. I was ten, and barely doing fractions so, y’know, a goal each had to be decided somehow. In the six years hence, I’d come to see that penalty shoot-outs were one of the worst things ever created by man, to rank alongside the Brazen Bull or Turkish Delight. So when the shoot-out arrived, and each England player stepped up in that drab grey change strip, this is when I realised that these things do matter, and they don’t happen that often, and life and its failures and successes sometimes can be based on one kick or one exam or one single, hopeful question. Of course, I wasn’t thinking existentially at the time, I was just there, sitting with my mate, in the dark living room lit only by the television and the streetlight at the end of next door’s drive. Gareth Southgate, having had a fine season for Villa, just had to miss, and then the whole thing stopped, like a steam engine which had blown a huge hole but had managed to do so without waking the neighbours. I don’t know how long it was between Andreas Moller’s winning penalty and the BBC playing Cast’s ‘Walkaway’, but I do know I didn’t speak, and when I looked round again, I was alone. I went to bed, but before I did so, I took the German flag my sisters had bought me back from their holiday and shoved it far underneath my bed. I almost ripped up the Bayern Munich postcard they sent me too, but something stayed my hand. I may have been upset, but there was only time enough for one act of teenage defiance before I had to start growing up again.
Subeditor: Otis Redding

5000-1 - I mentioned earlier that I don’t like to bet, but I have to admit I had a little flutter on Euro ‘96. A boy in my science class (I’ll just refer to him as Rob) ran a book on the tournament - winner only, with odds to one on each nation. I gave him two quid and went for England and Croatia, the latter because I’d read the Total Sport supplement and was quietly chuffed to know something he didn’t. The odds were reasonable enough, except when you got down towards the outliers. At the bottom of Rob’s list sat the Czech Republic, whom he had given odds of 5000-1 against them winning the big pot. I remember laughing when I first saw them, as we all did, but not because of Rob’s presumptuousness. No, it was because it seemed so appropriate. I knew nothing about them, not even from reading that same guide, and had no idea that their forerunner nation had actually won this thing in 1976, Antonin Panenka giving his name to the chipped penalty that did for the West Germans. Czechoslovakia had also been in a World Cup Final, but in 1996 the Czech Republic meant nothing at all, and it goes to show that even with the money and the influx of foreign names and the expanding Champions League, there was still a sporting wall in our collective heads. As a joke, another lad called Kev laid a pound on. I don’t know at what point Rob started to sweat, but my money (were I a betting man) would be when the Czech Republic beat France in a penalty shoot-out on the afternoon of the England-Germany semi-final, sealing their place in the Wembley showpiece. In a fine example of teenage solidarity, throughout the next two days people were rubbing Rob’s nose in his predicament or asking him how the hell he was going to find five grand. I thought I’d been miserable after England went out, but I can’t imagine the coronary-in-waiting Rob must have been having when Patrik Berger gave the Czechs the lead in the final. Mercifully, Oliver Bierhoff arrived in the nick of time to score both equaliser and Golden Goal winner, restoring reality to a poor final and tournament. The bet, such as it was, couldn’t have been enforced given we were too young for gambling, but it was a crazy summer, and one none of us would have bet on occurring a month before.

To France and Beyond - I know that in a lot of ways, Italia ‘90 gets the plaudits for resuscitating English football, but to me, Euro ‘96 seemed like powering up to the next stage, like a rocket attempting an orbit. Hooligan culture still existed, but in 1996 the Premier League and the marketing thereof was something undreamed of immediately after 1990. Euro ‘96 had produced saleable stars; not just English ones, but Europeans. In the grab that always follows a tournament, its protagonists found themselves signed up by your Uniteds and Liverpools; soon enough, they would be found in cereal adverts. The post-tournament edition of Four Four Two blared ‘After six years, an England team that we (and the rest of the world) can RESPECT’ alongside a picture of Sheringham and Shearer, and football experienced a second, bigger, bang. By World Cup ‘98 it would be the biggest pop bands recording the official England anthem rather than two comedians, and replica shirts were being designed for their suitability with jeans as well as their use on the pitch. As soon as Euro ‘96 finished a select group of us at school resolved to learn to drive at the earliest opportunity so we could get tickets for France and travel around the World Cup, a plan with as many holes as Wembley’s nets. For the record none of us learned to drive in time to go to the World Cup, or had the money to do so, or the time, given it happened at the fag end of Year 12 and some of us had to bunk off for the afternoon games. The repercussions of Euro ‘96 stayed with me for the rest of my life, though: that issue of Four Four Two contained a short story by Chris England, the co-writer of An Evening with Gary Lineker, where he revisited the main characters in the context of the more recent semi-final. It was then that I realised you could write about football in a fictional way and also use it as a backdrop to human drama, and I’ve been doing so ever since, eventually completing my own collection of short stories. I also was the only one of that group to be as good as my word: I did travel around a World Cup in my first project as a writer. There were lots of reasons why I decided to do that, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of the voices inside me encouraging me to do it sounded a bit like an introverted fifteen year old begging for one last summer like Euro ‘96.
Chris Stanley


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