June 1996, a month which will always bring a smile to the face of English people old enough to remember the European Championships in England. Not just because the hosts reached the semi final (a semi final for England back then was almost a minimum requirement), it was just a magnificent time to be a teenager in England. It was a Summer of Britpop, Blair and blonde haired dynamic, midfielders and it felt like the whole country was on top of the world for a few months.
Personally I was 17 and had just doubled my measly £70 per week wage as I’d started my first office job. At the time though it was more than enough to keep me in clothes, cheap beer and have enough left over to watch my team, Stockport County, every other week, so for me the sense of change and growing up was huge back then. I had been looking forward to the tournament for years, I have vague memories of the 1990 World Cup in Italy and of Euro 92 in Sweden. England didn’t qualify for the corporate snooze-fest that was the 1994 World Cup in the USA and were awful in Sweden. Presiding over that period was Graham Taylor, a man who had his head super-imposed on to a turnip by the English media after defeat to Sweden at Euro 92. A behind the scenes documentary shown after his resignation showed just how much pressure he was under and it was difficult not to feel sorry for him. Being an adolescent England fan wasn’t fun.
The off the field problem of hooliganism was all but ignored by the media and the FA and had, in the main, been brought under control since the introduction of all-seater stadiums in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. In regards to the tournament itself actual football related trouble was relatively low, it can be argued this is due to a certain degree of under-reporting as the FA didn’t want to undermine their bid for the 2006 World Cup. The high price of tickets is another factor, again it can be said the FA priced out anyone they thought to be the main cause of trouble, thus ensuring a peaceful environment for the games. Domestically, there was a general good feeling that football was starting to attract a more family-friendly type of fan. While this was good for the people counting the cash, it generally wasn’t good for the atmosphere of the newly refurbished stadiums. The formation of the new Premier League in 1992 greatly developed the new wave of football fan in England. For the first time games had been broadcast via a TV subscription, it may be the norm now, but at the time it was a peek into a future of the armchair-style of consuming football games and the gentrification of football in general. The Premier League, as a separate entity to the Football League, was able to negotiate its own TV rights deal, thus instantly making the top 20 teams in the country far richer than the rest. With seemingly endless cash reserves the teams were able to attract the continent’s best players and so began the story of the Premier League we know today.
There was of course the pre-tournament pop song; long ridiculed as cliché-filled ramblings full of awkward-looking footballers mouthing the words to unspeakably awful songs on Top of the Pops. The official Euro 96 anthem was the equally awful “We’re in This Together” by Simply Red. Obviously no one remembers that, the one we do remember is “Three Lions” by the Lightning Seeds and featuring comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. The Three Lions song stayed away from cheesy pop and melodically told the world exactly what it was like to follow England since their 1966 World Cup victory; a time of being so close, yet so far. It was a catchy, simple song and was massively over played before, during and still many years after the tournament. It became the very definition of a summer football anthem and perfectly struck a chord with England fans. Although these types of songs are few and far between now, and although it is a little dated looking back, no one has come close to capturing the mood of life as an England fan since. It certainly makes me smile, even 22 years later.
Like any hosts England had proceeded the tournament with over two years of dull and meaningless friendlies, most of which were usually draws and all seemingly played out in the north London drizzle. The most notable exception was an away friendly in Dublin in February 1995; the game didn’t last a half as a proportion of England fans rioted and forced the abandonment of the game. A political nightmare of a game at the best of times, an apparent failure by the Irish police to act upon intelligence of pre-planned trouble allowed the game to become a magnet for those fans with anti-Irish political views. As we know friendlies are usually played in midweek and this meant the majority of the English support came from the south of the country as the vast majority of friendlies were played at Wembley. As a result, and going against the general myth that Manchester United supporters come from the south of England, players of the aforementioned club were roundly jeered and booed. It’s little wonder most United supporters like to poke fun at England’s failures and generally distance themselves from the national team.
Boring friendlies and rioting fans aside and despite their recent failings in major competitions the England team were still expected to do well and the comparisons with 1966 were unavoidable. England had a lot of attacking talent with Alan Shearer (despite being in the middle of a national goal scoring drought), Steve McManaman, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham, however their defence remained suspect against the best teams (this all sounds very familiar!). On the pitch England prepared for Euro 96 with the usual pre-tournament warm-up games, these games are usually against no-mark patsies and teams from the same continent as the upcoming opponents, sometimes a mix of both. In May 1996 the FA sent England to the far east to play two friendlies, no doubt in order to help grease the wheels of the Hong Kong handover to China in 1997. I remember coming home from work early to watch one game, God only knows why, as England went through the motions to avoid fatigue and injury so close to the tournament. The tour was made famous by what happened after the second game. Several of the players were caught out on the town and seemed to be enjoying the local hospitality a little more than is respectable. The most infamous photo of that night was on the front cover of most newspapers and showed Sheringham and Gascoigne among others, drunkenly fooling around. According to reports Gascoigne was lay on a dentist’s chair while the bar staff poured several bottles of spirits into his open mouth. The controversy didn’t end there as Gascoigne was apparently responsible for £5000 worth of damage to the Cathay Pacific plane which brought the team home, the squad however claimed “collective responsibility”. The outrage was understandable and there were calls for Gascoigne among others to be dropped from the squad. I remember picking up the newspaper in my local shop and thinking it was hilarious. It didn’t matter that the players looked infantile and thuggish in front of the world. It definitely appealed to my youthful, exuberant side, although in hindsight it can’t be denied it was hardly great publicity or great preparation for a tournament they were hosting.
Given the furore around the Hong Kong trip you could be forgiven for forgetting about the tournament but when England took the field against Switzerland on 8 June the nation expected them to be dispatched with ease. Of course we know just how disappointing England seem to be during tournaments and this was no different as the players wilted in the baking English summer. Shearer scored his first goal in an eternity but that was about it, England were happy to hold on to the lead. The Swiss, buoyed by a respectable performance in the United States two years earlier, looked more likely to win as the game wore on and they even contrived to hit the crossbar from pretty much underneath it with the game still finely balanced. They did however equalise when Stuart Pearce’s handball gifted them a penalty with eight minutes left. Personally I missed it as I was in the toilet, I might as well have stayed there. 1-1. At least England didn’t lose. The press criticism reached epic proportions afterwards, the dentist’s chair farce still fresh in the memory coupled with a drab draw in the opening game increased up the pressure ahead of a game versus their biggest rivals.
Saturday 15th June, a day I’ll never forget. I had been eagerly anticipating the Scotland game all week, my youthful optimism yet to be tainted by years of hurt. On the morning of the game I was nervously kicking a football around my back garden when I heard a very deep rumble which lasted for around 20 seconds, living near a busy road meant this wasn’t completely out of the ordinary but this was different, almost what I’d imagine an earthquake to sound like. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but around half an hour later my Mum, upon ending a phone call, told me a bomb had gone off in Manchester. For the next hour I was glued to the news, the IRA had detonated the largest bomb in mainland Britian since World War Two, causing £700 million worth of damage to the city centre. I lived around 12 miles away, as the crow flies, in the foothills of the Pennines and that rumble I heard was the echo of the bomb. It still chills me when I think of it now. Fortunately no one was killed, my cousin who had been working in the area at the time was, thankfully, evacuated when the warning was given. Seeing my home town ruined by terrorists was deeply saddening, it still is, but the regeneration of the city centre in the months and years afterwards has been spectacular, Manchester as a whole has changed beyond recognition and the city has enjoyed economic growth in each of the 20 years since then. A lot of regeneration had been carried out in the years prior to the bomb as Manchester bid to host the Olympics in 1996 and of course were awarded the Commonwealth Games of 2002, the bomb of 1996 meant a whole lot more would be carried out before those 2002 games. Manchester was one of the host cities at Euro 96 and the show went on, the game between Germany and Russia went ahead the next day after Old Trafford had been guarded overnight and searched extensively before the game. To a 17 year old awaiting a game versus Scotland the bomb quickly took second place in my conscience.
Some still question the English passion for such occasions, instead suggesting the Scots, Welsh or whoever they’re playing, take it more seriously. This is completely wrong. I can assure you, the English take a game versus Scotland just as seriously. Watching Pearce barely being able to look his opponents in the eye as they went through the pre-match handshake showed just how much it meant to the players too. I watched the game at a friend’s house and we collectively sighed as England again made a frustrating start, the summer heat taking its toll very quickly to serve up a anti-climatic first half. The second half saw a complete turnaround as England finally clicked into gear after the introduction of Jamie Redknapp in midfield. The breakthrough came in the 53rd minute, Gary Neville crossed for Shearer to head home at the far post. Cue delirium, cue Three Lions being sung with gusto; and not just at Wembley. Eventually though the nerves crept in and Adams conceded a penalty after a foul on Gordon Durie. It felt like the lyrics to Three Lions were ringing true all over again. At the time I didn’t see the ball move during Gary McAllister’s run up, all I saw was David Seaman dive to his right and push the ball away. Cue sun-stroked, sweaty teenagers hugging each other in a heap of joy. I ran to the phone in my friend’s house (no widespread ownership of mobiles in the mid-nineties) to call my half-Scottish Mum, as she picked up the phone I heard a collective scream from the living room, I ran back just in time to see Gascoigne peel away and celebrate, on his back, as though in the dentist chair again, with McManaman, Redknapp and Sheringham pouring mock spirits into his mouth. Yes I missed it. That goal. Arguably the greatest moment of his career and almost certainly his last. The game was done, England had almost qualified for the knockout rounds. For me it was time to retire to the local park with my friends, a football and several cans of cheap, watery lager. The chance to listen to a few Oasis tunes and to try and recreate that goal under the sultry evening sky wasn’t one we passed up.
Stay tuned for part two.