Euro ‘96 – When football really came home.

During the summer of 1996, even the weather seemed keen to co-operate. June was sunny and bright as England basked in the warm glow of Britpop and Cool Britannia. Songs rang out reflecting the mood of the time. In football too, a song both captured the zeitgeist and focused its attentions on the possibility of success for England. For the first time in 30 years, England were hosting a major football tournament.

“It’s coming home,” went the refrain, and only the disinterested, sad and hoarily hardened cynics resisted, because, “They’ve seen it all before. They just know. They’re so sure.” For the rest of us though, happy to be washed along on a tide of optimism, we thought it was possible, because “Thirty years of hurt, never stopped us dreaming.” With home advantage England could become champions of Europe. Even if the abysmal record of the Three Lions in past European Championships was less than persuasive, and despite how “all those oh-so-nears, wear you down, through the years” Skinner, Baddiel and The Lightening Seeds convinced us. Football was coming home.

The dog days of Graham Taylor’s unlamented reign at the helm of English football were behind us. We could write off USA ’94, and look forward, not back. In stepped Terry Venables, cockney-charm, chirping like a sparrow with an infectious grin and air of persuasive confidence. Everybody loved Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses, and here he was, reincarnated as Jack the Lad, El Tel, late of the Camp Nou, QPR, Crystal Palace and Spurs now leading England. Cushty! He hadn’t got the right tie, the correct accent and probably little idea whether he should use a fork or knife to spread the pate de foie gras on his toast. To all England fans though he was the man for the job, the man of the moment, the man to deliver. Bright as a button, sharp as a knife and someone who the players apparently respected.

The FA had commissioned Jimmy Armfield to research and recommend the best man to succeed Taylor, and when the hugely respected Armfield came up with Venables, despite typically stuffed-shirt alarm at the prospect of someone of that ilk being England manager, how could they gainsay Armfield? On 28 January 1994, they reluctantly appointed Terry Venables, albeit on a short-term contract. He had wanted to take the team into the next World Cup tournament in 1998 as well and, in 1995 Venables sought an extension to allow that. The FA, however, already considered themselves hamstrung by Armfield’s recommendation and bounced into an appointment they really hadn’t wanted to make. There was little chance of the contract being extended and Noel White, the International Committee’s chairman, reports suggested, haughtily rebuffed such thoughts. Instead, they declared that any further contract would be decided on results in competitive matches, in effect meaning the European Championships.

Not unreasonably perhaps, Venables was hardly impressed by the apparent lack of confidence in him, and announced he would leave after the tournament anyway. Even before a ball had been kicked in Euro 96, Glenn Hoddle had been appointed to replace Venables when he left. There were disturbing echoes of the way in which the same organisation had shamefully treated Bobby Robson ahead of the 1990 World Cup. Ironically, had either manager chosen to fight their case based on their success at the tournaments, The FA would have needed hitherto unseen levels of bravery to move them on. 

Home teams are consistently among the favourites for most international competitions, and this was no exception. Despite England’s less than wholly convincing performances in the mini tournament during the previous year, misdemeanours involving dentists’ chairs, damaged aircraft and a main striker who hadn’t netted for his team in a dozen games, oh yes and a manager who had already been pointed, pushed and prodded towards the ‘Exit’ door, optimism among fans remained high.

There was plenty of competition though, and hardly any of the continent’s big-hitters were absent. After 1992, UEFA had decided to extend the tournament from eight teams to 16. It meant that the cream of European footballing talent would qualify. Only the Poles and Belgians, who had both performed badly in the qualifying groups, plus the Republic of Ireland, after losing out in a play-off against The Netherlands, would be among realistic contenders missing out. The Dutch, Germans, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Russians and Czechs all rocked up to play in a tournament spread across eight English cities. With London being the only one south of Birmingham, the whole country had the opportunity to delight in the displays of Denis Bergkamp, Hristo Stoichkov, Marcel Desailly, Zinedine Zidane, Gheorghe Hagi, Fernando Hierro, Pavel Nedvěd, Paolo Maldini, Gianfranco Zola, Jürgen Klinsmann, Davor Šuker, Zvonimir Boban and Luis Figo among so many other stellar names. With such a recipe of stars, a few tasty games were on the menu, along with a couple of delicious chips, and a sadly bitter taste of pizza.

After a disappointing draw against Switzerland, England’s game against the Auld Enemy was a case in point. In the first game, Shearer had got off the mark kickstarting the tournament and breaking his goal drought. He had missed the last three games of Blackburn’s season, with doubts about him being fit for the tournament, but they proved unfounded and he would net again against Scotland. Not long after, the Scots were awarded a penalty, giving Gary McAllister the chance to level things up.

Little did the midfielder know though, as he stood over the ball that, hovering in an helicopter in the skies above Wembley, a certain spoon-bender of repute was strutting his mind-bending stuff. Eschewing misshapen cutlery for apparent telekinetic powers, Uri Gellar would claim that it was his influence that caused the ball to move slightly before the kick was struck, and Seaman saved. Whatever the merits of such claims, and let’s face it there are hardly any, Paul Gascoigne delivered some personal magic later notching one of the iconic goals of the tournament to secure the victory, flipping the ball over Colin Hendry’s head, before volleying home. Apparently, it compelled the bleached-hair Gascoigne to return to the dentist’s chair for a check-up. Fortunately, only a mouthwash was required.

Around the same time, the Czechs, playing in their first European Championships since the break with Slovakia, were flaunting some of their ‘sexy football’ for the slavering delight of Ruud Gullit, working as a pundit for television. The unfancied Czechs would go far. A 2-1 victory over Italy stamped their passport to travel to the next phase, and their 3-3 draw with Russia was probably the game of the tournament. Two goals up inside 20 minutes, they were trailing 3-2 in the dying embers of the game, before Šmicer equalised to bounce them into qualification. Germany, playing as a unified nation for the first time in the final stages of a tournament were typically efficient, if somewhat less raunchy than the Czechs.

Berti Vogts was leading Der Mannschaft after stepping up from being assistant to Franz Beckenbauer when they won the World Cup defeating a sorry, and somewhat bedraggled Argentina in 1990. His first tournament in charge was the European championships held in Sweden. West Germany had struggled through the group stages, with a 2-0 win over Scotland being their only victory, but then beaten the hosts to reach the final where they would face Denmark, the late replacements for the absent Yugoslavians. With a number of players retained from the World Cup triumph they were clear favourites to land the title, but in an uninspiring display, lost out as the Danes became probably the most unlikely European Champions until the Greeks usurped that title. The USA ’94 World Cup had also been disappointing. Again, they had reached the knockout stages, before falling to a surprise package as Bulgaria eliminated them. 

Although the united Germany squad of 1996 still retained some of the victors of 1990, it hardly carried the same pedigree and although the Germans are invariably considered as feasible contenders for such tournaments, hopes were perhaps not as high as they had been. Perhaps more artisan and less artist however, this group wouldn’t make the same mistakes as in 1992 and 1994, but the seemingly evenness of the players at least offered Vogts opportunities to vary his team, and he took them.

For example, Fredi Bobic opened the tournaments paired with Stefan Kuntz against the Czechs. Neither would score in the 2-0 victory and against Russia, it was Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff upfront. Again, a victory a comfortable victory failed to secure a ‘same eleven’ selection. It was Klinsmann and Bobic fronting up in the goalless draw against Italy that secured qualification. At least Klinsmann’s brace against the Russians saw him retained. Was it because Vogts was undecided, or was it a ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ mentality? It’s difficult to say, but if there were changes at the front, one player was sure of his position. Deployed as sweeper, Matthias Sammer was imperious in the group games, as Germany qualified without conceding a goal. His contribution would later be honoured with the Player of the Tournament award, and he would also collect the Ballon d’Or later in the same year.

It was also Croatia’s first tournament as an independent country, and they excelled in their debut on the big stage with a cast list of stars. As well as Boban, Robert Prosinečki, Alen Bokšić and Igor Štimac were just a few of the celebrated names wearing the chequerboard shirts, but in the game against Denmark, it was Davor Šuker’s audacious chip Peter Schmeichel that was both delicious and more than a ‘flash of an ankle’ sexy to boot.

Going into their last group game, England needed to beat the Dutch to ensure qualification. It was a game long-remembered by England fans, and a performance that Venables later heralded as, “perfection – my most thrilling experience in football”. The front duo of Shearer and Sheringham shared four goals to dismay the Dutch, as England scored three times in eleven intoxicatingly, dizzy minutes of scintillating attacking football. So many England fans had hoped, some had dared to believe, others had been convinced. After this game, that conviction spread like a plague and an ex-England manager did ‘not, not, like that’ a whole lot more than a game back in October 1993. Realism and perspective were thrown out of the window. Surely now all things were possible for England. Sadly, for the Scots, a late, seemingly mere consolation goal at the time, notched by Kluivert actually saw the Dutch qualify by the narrowest of margins, and with lamented characteristic regularity, Craig Brown’s team were eliminated.

After the more ‘knockabout’ play of the group phase, the knockout stages of competitions are often tighter and such was the case in this tournament, with single goal victories and penalty shoutouts being the order of the day in all of the remaining matches. Dutch courage was insufficient against Gallic efficiency from 12 yards. Despite their reverse against England, for much of the game, it was the Dutch who threatened most, but with Desailly and Blanc solid and, for the most unruffled, they held firm. A header sent wide of the French goal by Ronald de Boer was probably the best chance of a tight first period. Late on, a free-kick by Phillip Cocu was deflected narrowly wide. Eventually both sides seemed to run out of ideas, and the goalless draw grew increasingly inevitable.

The Netherlands squad was hardly a vintage crop, when compared to both past and future vintages, although it did contain the essence of the Ajax team that had only lost out on penalties to Juventus in the Champions League final a few weeks earlier. Their vulnerability from 12 yards was exposed again when Clarence Seedorf’s effort was saved by Bernard Lama. It was left to Laurent Blanc to close out the win and, although he stumbled when striking the ball, it found the back of the net, and the Dutch went home.

The French had been less than impressive in the group games; certainly, for a team that could boast the talents of Marcel Dessaily, Laurant Blanc, Youri Djorkaeff and, of course, Zinedine Zidane. A single goal win over Romania and a draw against Spain was stodgy rather than spectacular for a squad that, with some changes, would secure the World Cup two years later. Only in the final group game against Bulgaria did they deliver on the promise of their squad, with a 3-1 victory. For all that, they were through to the semi-finals.

The Spanish had also been less than impressive. A goal by Alfonso had snaffled a draw against Bulgaria in their opening game, and after the draw with the French, it took a goal inside the last five minutes against Romania to get them over the line and deny a Bulgarian team who had Hristo Stoichkov to thank for all three of their goals. The Spanish would face England in the last eight in a game bereft of goals, but full of drama.

Germany edged out Croatia, in a game that looked like denying their captain any further part in the tournament. Reportedly suffering from a hamstring injury, Klinsmann was substituted ahead of half-time, after putting his side ahead with a penalty. With the reported injury normally meaning at least two weeks absence, it looked highly unlikely that his championships were over. It wouldn’t be the case however. Injuries had bitten into the German squad already, with Jürgen Kohler, the manager’s original choice as skipper lasting a mere 14 minutes of the opening game before suffering ligament damage against the Czechs. Others would follow as Steffen Freund was unavailable for the final thanks to more ligament trouble and Dieter Eilts would only last just past half-time in the final. There was even a rumour in Germany that Vogts was minded to hand outfield shirts to his goalkeeper substitutes in the final, although such talk was probably apocryphal.

In the other game, England and Spain played out 90 minutes and extra-time before facing their own shootout from 12 yards.  After the exhilaration of destroying the Dutch, Venables’ team were now expected to sweep aside the Spanish, but this is England, and things like fulfilling expectations and delivering sustained form are for others. Spain dominated for much of the game, had what seemed to be a perfectly good goal ruled out and three decent shouts for a penalty turned down by French referee Marc Batta. All came to nought, and Wembley was strangely relieved to get to the lottery of spot kicks.

Half-a dozen years earlier, under Bobby Robson, England had lost out to West Germany on penalties in a World Cup semi-final and, when Stewart Pearce buried his spot-kick against the Spanish, his screaming celebration doubtless convinced any tardy phantoms, inhibiting his soul, of the merits of a quick getaway. With the passion of Pearce washing away doubts, England amazingly triumphed from 12 yards, and went on into the last four.

In the remaining quarter final, another sumptuous chip, this time by Karel Poborský not only moved the Czechs past Portugal into the last four, but also went a long way to persuading Manchester United to sign the scorer – and caused a swoon for the watching Gullit.

The last four pitted England against Germany and the French, stuttering somewhat, faced the Czechs who were still the surprise packet. There was little doubting the quality in Aimé Jacquet’s squad if they could deliver on it but, aside from that win over Bulgaria, they just hadn’t been able to produce their best. On the other hand, the Czech team was revelling in their status. Arguably, Nedvěd was their only player of true world class, but their ebullient form had wowed many fans, not just the dreadlocked Dutch manager of Chelsea.

Czech ambition was cautioned by the absence of Jan Suchopárek, Radoslav Látal, Pavel Kuka and Radek Bejbl for semi-final. The French were also at less than full strength, but the loss of injured skipper Didier Deschamps and the suspended Christian Karembeu were probably less of a hinderance. A resolute display by defence and goalkeeper would be required if the Czechs were to have anything like a decent chance of progress. Fortunately, they got both. The French pressed and pressured, but, between the sticks, Petr Kouba denied all of their efforts and when the game entered the ‘Golden Goal’ extra time period, for both teams, concerns about conceding overcame ambitions of scoring and time drifted away into a goalless draw. Unlike against the Dutch, this time it would be the French missing out. Each team had successfully converted five spot kicks when midfielder Reynald Pedros stepped up to put France ahead again. His effort was saved by Kouba however, and Czech captain Miroslav Kadlec’s cool finish extended his team’s adventure into the tournament final.

Over the years, in so many games between the English and the Germans, there’s been this siren call tendency for England to return to the red shirts of 1966. Sometimes they won, more often they didn’t, and all though the colour of shirt being worn was a hardly a ‘material’ factor influencing those outcomes, they provided a comforting familiarity when facing the Germans. In a coin toss for who would wear their preferred colours, Sir Bert Millichip lost out and the Germans wore white and black, potentially opening the door for England to go for red. In this tournament though, Umbro, England’s kit suppliers, had opted for what was officially called a ‘two-tone indigo’ design for the ‘change strip.’ For the first, and only time, in tournament football England wore it in the semi-final. To most fans, it just looked grey, and that dull, somewhat flat shade hardly served to brighten hopes, and disappointingly, the suppliers of Gascoigne’s boots, hadn’t made his studs an inch longer, otherwise the whole thing could have been different.

Encouragingly, Shearer gave the hosts an early lead with his fifth goal of the tournament, making him the top scorer, but Kuntz equalised just past the quarter-hour mark. After the remainder of the game and extra-time was played out without any further score, a repeat of that day back in Italy was inevitable. A cross from Shearer that eluded the touch of Gascoigne thanks to those darned short studs was the nearest anyone came to breaking the deadlock. England against Germany in the semi-final of a tournament was to be decided on penalties.

Shearer netted with efficiency, firing high to the left of the ‘keeper as Köpke dived low to his right. Häßler drove low and hard to level. Platt reprised Shearer’s strike and although Köpke got much nearer this effort, he was still comfortably beaten. Strunz sent Seaman the wrong way to level again. Pearce did the same to Köpke. Whither now you demons of doubt? Taking a long run up, defender Reuter stifled any English party plans by scoring, although Seaman got close to the shot, thumping the ground in frustration afterwards. Gascoigne was coolness personified with his penalty, but emotionally charged pumping his fists and exhorting the fans when the ball hit the net, but Ziege squared things again. In effect, it was now sudden death. Sherringham heaped pressure on the last nominated German, but Kuntz was unfazed and drilled high to score.

All five first choice kickers had now gone, and delivered. It was down to those who had either avoided the manager’s eagle eye, or merely been deemed less than worthy. As the barrel of the gun in a game of Russian Roulette is revolved, eventually, and inevitably, the chamber with the bullet will find its way underneath the hammer. Gareth Southgate, stepped up. Bang went the gun. Bang went England’s hopes as Köpke parried Southgate’s effort. It now needed the Coup de Grace. Bang went Möller’s penalty, and England were out. As in Italy six years earlier, they had fallen to the Germans on the very brink on a major final. As in Italy six years earlier, England would lose the manager who had taken them so close. Venables had managed England in 25 games, losing just once.

The final would be between the Czechs and Germans. For most pundits, the result was a given but, in the guise of Czechoslovakia, the East Europeans had more than a decent pedigree in European Championships. They were champions in 1976, ironically against the Germans when Antonin Panenka introduced the world to a type of penalty that would forever bear his name. Back then, they had shocked West Germany, again strong favourites, by easing into a two-goal lead inside the first 25 minutes, and it was only an equaliser by Hölzenbein inside the final couple of minutes that took the game to penalties. The Czechs had another surprise in store for their opponents this time around.

Certainly not overawed by the occasion, Dusan Uhrin’s side gave as good as they got throughout the first period and, when Poborský was felled inside the penalty area on the hour mark, Patrik Berger stepped up to convert. At the time, the midfielder was playing in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, but that didn’t stop him hammering home the spot kick. With 30 minutes to play, Germany were facing a second defeat to the Czechs in a European Championship Final. They needed a saviour.

Oliver Bierhoff was plying his trade as a striker with mid-ranking Serie A side, Udinese and, aside from the group game against Russia, hadn’t featured actively in the tournament. With 20 minutes remaining though, and the Czechs still holding their precious lead, Vogts removed Mehmet Scholl and sent Bierhoff on to supplement the German front line. Four short minutes later, he headed home a free-kick from the right and the Germans were level.

There were no more goals inside the scheduled 90 minutes and, as with so many other games in the knockout phase of the tournament, the final would go into ‘Golden Goal’ extra-time. Up to this stage, despite the innovation of the ‘next goal wins’ scenario, no team had managed to net that precious commodity. That would change in the final. Just five minutes into the added period, a long punt downfield was headed on by Bierhoff to Klinsmann. The German captain controlled, turned and then fed the ball back to Bierhoff. Closely marked, he feigned right then left, before twisting to fire in a shot that was deflected, and then almost saved by Kouba, before almost apologetically finding its way into the net. Germany had won. It was the first time that a Golden Goal had settled a European Championship. Four years later, in the next tournament, David Trezeguet would repeat the feat for France, netting the last Golden Goal to decide a European Championship.

So, on reflection, how should Euro 96 be remembered? The red rose-tinted glasses can focus on a tournament when England harboured a serious hope of success and despite falling short in the end, it was hardly the sad, unlamented elimination, scuttling away, tails tucked firmly between their legs, after falling ignominiously to dismal defeat. Plus, of course, at least Gareth Southgate could dip his crust into the largesse offered by Pizza Hut.

On the other hand, as well as the upswing of Britpop and Cool Britannia, any nationalistic fervour flared on the back of footballing aspiration can often dip into a much less attractive dislike of otherness. With the media of the day hammering away at the EU’s understandable reluctance to allow imports of British beef during the Mad Cow Disease epidemic, that slippery slope into xenophobia claimed many. A game against Germany is always enough to persuade a Red Top mentality to call up jingoistic war memories, and there was plenty of that going around at the time. Some things hardly ever change.

For all that though, there was something very simple about Euro 96 that should be remembered and treasured. Not only did England hardly let anyone down, the tournament also gave people in the country an opportunity to appreciate the skills of some of the world’s best footballers as the best teams across the continent came to visit. With the average attendance at games topping 41,000 – to date, the second highest of any European tournament before or since, it’s safe to say that many took the opportunity to do just that.  

Wembley had an abundance of fixtures of course, but away from the capital, there were plenty of delights to go around. Old Trafford were treated to a preview of the final as Germany and the Czech Republic, both competing in their first tournament as new countries, met in the opening game of Group C, and Anfield was royally entertained by that 3-3 draw between the Czechs and Russians. Villa Park hosted the Scotland games aside from their match up at Wembley against England, and Midlands fans watched Craig Brown’s team hold the mighty Dutch to a draw, and then beat Switzerland by a single goal, when one more strike would have sent the Tartan Army into the quarter-finals. Fans at Hillsborough could say ‘I was there’ when Šuker’s outrageous chip had Peter Schmeichel routed to the spot and The City Ground watched as Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’ of Figo, Rui Costa and Sousa flattered, then faded. North-East fans had the privilege of watching the incomparable Stoichkov score twice at St James’ Park, and Leeds fans saw Zidane at Elland Road.

You see, football really did come home in 1996, but it wasn’t about England winning the tournament. Instead, perhaps it was as a chance for fans across the country to engage with the continent’s greatest exponents of the game. Football was invented in England and to have it celebrated there was a rare privilege. Regardless of how England performed as a team, that was only a small part of the real Euro 96 story of when football came home. 

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