IT was a golden summer as the Three Lions roared and football almost came home.
Euro 96, a tournament that gave us ‘that’ goal by Gazza, redemption for Stuart Pearce and the demolition of Holland, kicked off 20 years ago this Wednesday.
For three glorious weeks, England embraced its footballers like never before. The 30 years of hurt that Baddiel and Skinner sang about on that summer’s soundtrack really were coming to an end and the entire country knew it. Or so it seemed.
Could ‘El Tel’ emulate Sir Alf? Was Shearer able to match Geoff Hurst and shoot us to glory? And, why can’t we wear red shirts in the semi-finals?
All these questions and more dominated the chatter in pubs, clubs and workplaces up and down the land as even those who had previously shown no interest in football suddenly didn’t want to talk about anything else.
Considering how the country’s imagination was subsequently caught, the build-up to only the second major tournament to be held within these shores was surprisingly negative.
Terry Venables’s first two years as manager had consisted entirely of friendly games due to his side qualifying as hosts. Results were okay but performances underwhelming and his tactics – Christmas tree formation, anyone? – at times ridiculed.
Add to that an ill-fated trip to Beijing and Hong Kong in the weeks leading up to Euro 96 that proved to be the last hurrah for the hard-drinking footballer and the nation could not have been any less enamoured with its football team as that opening game against Switzerland came around.
‘Disgracefool’ was just one of the many lurid front-page headlines that followed the infamous visit to the ‘dentist’s chair’ by Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham et al and the subsequent emergence of images showing the players having copious amounts of booze poured down their throats.
Calls were made for Gazza to be dropped from the squad but Venables stood firm. Instead of pandering to the gallery, he used the saga to foster a siege mentality among his players.
The value of this approach would be confirmed by England going on to reach the semi-finals but, at first, it seemed to have little effect.
A disjointed 1-1 draw against Switzerland in the opening group match had few positives other than Shearer ending a 12-game goalless run in international football.
With Scotland up next, England faced the ignominy of the Auld Enemy inflicting a blow so serious that their involvement beyond the group phase could be as good as over.
Thanks to the foresight of my late father, we had tickets for all three of England’s group games at Wembley.
Plus, if Venables’s side could finish top, the quarter-final and semi-final ties to be played under the Twin Towers.
For the visit of the Scots, we were in the lower tier behind the goal at the end where Shearer headed England in front and then Gazza made a chump of Colin Hendry to complete a 2-0 win.
Thanks to the advertising hoardings being so high that Gazza was hidden from view when he hit the deck, we knew nothing of the subsequent re-enaction of the ‘dentist chair’ hi-jinks until back home.
Nevertheless, by the time we were back at Wembley three days later for the visit of Holland, there was no missing the sea change in mood.
A squad that had been heavily criticised just a fortnight or so earlier was fast becoming the nation’s darlings. That magical night as Holland, those purveyors of Total Football, were destroyed in glorious fashion merely cemented that feeling.
Patrick Kluivert’s consolation effort flattered Guus Hiddink’s team. Amusingly, it also knocked out Scotland on goals scored – something that only added to the euphoric mood as the crowd inched its way back down Wembley Way.
Spain were next up in the quarter-finals and the performance could not have been more contrasting with the demolition of the Dutch. The end result, though, was the same and the post-match scenes inside Wembley after England had won on penalties will live with me forever.
‘Three Lions’, a collaboration between the Lightning Seeds and comedy duo David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, had already reached number one in the charts.
It had also been sung loud and proud after the victory over Scotland.
But, in the wake of Pearce scoring from the spot to banish the demons of Italia 90 and David Seaman’s heroics in goal, the passion generated as Football’s Coming Home boomed around the old stadium was such that the hairs stood up on the back of the neck.
I could not tell you how long we were all there, chanting and celebrating, but it must have been a good half-hour after Miguel Angel Nadal’s spot-kick had been saved by Seaman before we or anyone else thought about moving. We all just wanted to drink in a truly special moment.
So, England moved on to face Germany, Wembley again the venue on June 26. Shearer stooped to score early on but Stefan Kuntz equalised and, eventually, the semi-final went into extra-time.
Darren Anderton hit a post and Gazza went agonisingly close to diverting Shearer’s pass into the net. So, the right to face the Czech Republic would be decided by penalties.
Perched high above the tunnel at the opposite end of Wembley, the tension was unbearable. I was certain Pearce’s redemption of four days earlier would be followed by a miss but he scored. So, too, did all 10 of the penalty-takers.
That meant sudden-death and it was here when everything went wrong. Gareth Southgate’s penalty was weak and Andreas Kopke saved. Andreas Moeller stepped up but any hopes he may join Southgate in missing were dispelled by a firm kick that gave Seaman no chance.
England were out and the Germans destined to triumph in the final thanks to the newly-adopted ‘golden goal’ rule. The silence on the walk away from the stadium would have been total but for the muffled roar of German celebrations from inside Wembley.
Driving back north a couple of hours later, reports came through on the radio of Trafalgar Square being turned into a war-zone by 2,000 rioting fans.
The party really was over. The feelgood factor had been firmly swept away by the actions of idiots who thought attacking a German car in central London was striking a blow for a beaten football team.
Happily, 20 years on, it is the football we recall and nothing else. Let’s hope this summer can bring us more of the same.