Euro ’96 – When Football (Nearly) Came Home

For football fans across the globe, them few weeks immediately after the season ends are quite frankly horrible.

The buzz you get from every Saturday – and also midweek games – is gone for a couple of months, and despite constant transfer speculation and the fixture release dates being on the horizon, a void still needs to be filled.

Luckily this year the pain is lessened somewhat with the knowledge that the European Championships are just around the corner.

Football live on the box pretty much every day for a whole month.

Marvellous.

As the build up to this years competition in France starts to increase, it got me thinking about previous international tournaments, and then it suddenly dawned on me that Euro 96 was twenty, yes TWENTY years ago this summer.

How to make a fella feel old….

But rather than wallow in self pity in the realisation that I am now approaching my mid thirties, I have decided to celebrate what a wonderful, wonderful summer of football that was.

Of course it ultimately ended in penalty shoot out heartache for our boys against our old nemesis Germany, but right up until Gareth Southgate inadvertently secured himself a role in a well known pizza firms commercials, it was absolutely brilliant.

For me, as a 14 year old, it was the first international tournament that I felt fully a part of, that I could fully take in.

I had memories of Italia ’90; of David Platt’s last gasp volley, of Roger Milla’s dance and of course of Gazza’s tears in yet another gut wrencher against the  Germans, but a lot of what I recall now is stuff that I’ve watched on videos or DVDs over the years.

Euro ’96 was different, oh so very different.

I remember all the excitement as it got closer and closer, and I remember all the drama in the national newspapers – you have to remember the internet was still in its infancy back then so the tabloids were your first port of call – when pictures of the players getting boozed up on a flight were splashed across all the front pages.

But I wasn’t old enough to worry about that kind of stuff back then.

All the politics and external carrying on meant nothing to me, all I cared about was wall to wall football and, to coin a well known phrase ‘football coming home‘.

Which brings me to my first memory, that now iconic song courtesy of Baddeill and Skinner and the Lightning Seeds.

It’s coming home, it’s coming home, footballs coming home….

I find myself humming along to it now, a song that would become part of the English football landscape for the next couple of years and beyond, even now I am sure it will be played over and over again when this years tournament starts in earnest.

But back to that long glorious summer in 1996, and the tournament itself.

From England’s point of view, we didn’t make the greatest start, earning a 1-1 draw in a far from inspiring game against Switzerland.

Stuart Pearce endured more penalty problems, giving away the spot kick that earned the Swiss their point after Alan Shearer had given us the lead.

My enthusiasm couldn’t be dampened though, because it was just an utter joy to be watching all of the worlds best players on terrestrial television.

The likes of Shearer, Stephane Chapuisat, Patrick Kluivert and Paul Gascoigne back at his best all in our group alone.

On top of that there was the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann, Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov and Karel Poborsky all making the headlines.

Back to our boys though, and game two against the old enemy, the Scots.

And what a game too. Goals, chances, a missed penalty – not us for a change –  and then Gazza’s brilliance.

And of course it was his goal that got all the attention afterwards, and deservedly so, but there were some other big England performances that day.

People tend to forget a young Gary Neville’s wicked cross for Shearer’s headed opener, and also David Seaman’s penalty stop seconds before our Geordie hero sealed the game for us.

For me though it meant we were up and running properly, despite having what looked like a tough game versus the Dutch in our final group game.

In hindsight we should never have worried, because on a balmy summer evening, Wembley Stadium was treated to one of the great Three Lions displays.

The creators of ‘total football‘ were simply blown away by wave after wave of England attacks, with Gazza again pulling the strings from the middle of the park, and our very own SASShearer and Sheringham – at their destructive best up front as we ran out 4-1 winners.

For me it is still the best England performance I have been lucky enough to watch.

In fact I remember running down my back garden at full tilt, barefoot, after the fourth goal shouting at my slightly startled mum – blissfully doing the gardening as to avoid me and dad screaming at the telly – ‘4-1, 4-1, we are beating them 4-1!!‘.

Even to this day I’m not sure she really understood the importance – to me anyway – of my excited hollering.

Oh well, we were through to the knockout stages.

Spain awaited us in the quarter finals, but in truth the game was fairly abject, and in all honesty I don’t remember anything other than the penalty shoot out, and one penalty in particular.

Now as I’ve already touched on, Stuart Pearce didn’t have the best record regarding penalties at international tournaments.

The sheer ferocity and outpouring of raw emotion from him when he netted was brilliant and yet almost intimidating to a teenager, even watching on the telly, but looking back now, you appreciate the enormity of it all and what it meant to Pyscho.

It also meant that he helped us win – you are reading this correctly – the shoot out to advance to the semi finals versus the Germans.

You look back afterwards at days in the game, at the very biggest of matches, and realise just how huge they were.

This semi final was one such fixture, and all I remember in the build up is thinking of what would be happening if we won.

School seemed to drag more than normal, as I think I spent the day aimlessly staring out the window imagining how we would score the winning goal, imagining what it would feel like to watch England play in the final of a major international tournament.

The very prospect of it actually even being possible makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, but as we all know we never made it, again coming up agonisingly short when it mattered the most.

The go to man Shearer gave us the lead again, but it was to only last ten minutes or so until – perhaps aptly named in hindsight –  Stefan Kuntz levelled things up on the quarter of an hour mark.

After that I don’t recall loads of the games particulars, as a sense of nervousness – the first time I had really felt that emotion watching football – took over.

The two stand out moments as the game reached it’s heartbreaking climax for us were Darren Anderton hitting the post and then Gazza coming within a studs length of sweeping us into the final.

It wasn’t to be, and after that we all know what happened with the penalties.

The immediate feeling after was one of hurt that I hadn’t experienced because of football before, but reaching my teens lead to me realsing how much this wonderful game means.

Realising how it can create the full range of emotions, and realising  that it’s not just a game.

But that summer, on the whole, was a magical few weeks that created life long memories.

Of the positive attitude throughout the tournament, of the cars adorned with St George’s flags, of new anthems to bellow out, of all the great players and the great goals.

But more importantly because our football team made us proud to be English.

It was certainly the summer when football (nearly) came home.

Marvellous.

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