For me, it was a summer I’ll never forget. I was 18, finishing school in a commuter town 20 minutes outside of London. The sun was shining. The days were long and beer fueled. Pulp, Supergrass, The Prodigy and Blur battled out for radio supremacy. Oasis at Knebworth. An intense, and at times, turbulent relationship. It was the best.
And there was the football. And what magic football it was.
Euro 96 had Poborsky’s lob, Davor Suker, Klinsmann’s return, the Tartan Army, the emergence of Zizou and most of all the Three Lions.
Expectation was not high. Terry Venables had rejuvenated the Graham Taylor era squad but trouble stalked the team. An ill-fated pre-tournament trip to Hong Kong saw the team make the headlines for the wrong reasons. Dentist chair. Gazza. Ripped shirts. Ugly.
On the pitch it didn’t get off to the best start either. I was on the weekend shift at my local supermarket as England stepped onto the Wembley turf to face the Swiss.
As the news began to filter through the store, I was glad I wasn’t watching. Alan Shearer broke a horrible goal drought, but after that England broke down, putting in a disjointed, stuttering display as the Swiss grabbed a late equaliser.
The air was slowly being let out of the balloon.
It didn’t get better in game two. A turgid first 45 minutes against the Scots at Wembley did not bode well. By this time I’d escaped shelf stacking for the afternoon and was propping up the serving area at a local hostelry. Little did I realise that exact spot would soon become a superstition.
At half time El rolled the dice. Redknapp on, three at the back, It paid immediate dividends. Shearer scored his second of the tournament. There was a guttural roar across the land.
But then the team stopped playing and the Scots charged. Adams brought down Durie in the box.. No. No! McAllister. Mr Reliable hits it…..Saved! Beer in the air! Almost immediately the ball is at the other end of the ground. Gazza, a flick, a volley, what a goal! More beer in the air! It was a feeling of relief and utter jubilation.
Full time and the song was played. “It’s coming home, it’s coming home.”
On a balmy night at Wembley three days later, the Dutch arrived and proved to be England’s toughest test to that point of the tournament. I took my same spot at the bar. What unfolded over the next 90 minutes was scarcely believable.
It was the display of a lifetime from England. The best I’d seen and have seen since. They tore apart the architects of Total Football. The game was pulsating and It was special. Looking back now, much of it was a blur. My strongest recollection was the 4th goal. It was a thing of beauty exemplified by Sheringham’s touch to Shearer; beautiful.
The team song is played after the final whistle. “Three Lions on the shirt.”
Suddenly the nation was utterly swept up in euphoria, jingoism, and flag waving fervour. The quarter-finals beckoned. Spain, another perennial bridesmaid, was the opponent. Much of the tabloid coverage was puerile and ugly - a theme throughout. “Adios Amigos, Gazza’s Armada, Francis Drake is our Mascot” Fleet Street’s finest were out in force.
The quarter-final was a complete contrast to the Dutch game. It was tight and tense. Shearer was in Nadal’s pocket and Gazza was subdued. Amor and Mandarin ran the show. Two Spanish goals were disallowed before Shearer squandered England’s best shot at scoring in regulation. The game was balanced on a knife’s edge as it went to golden goal extra time and then penalties.
It was heart in mouth stuff for all of England. We’d been here before. Spain’s Fernando Hierro drilled his kick against the crossbar. It was an early chance and Stuart Pearce hammered home and gave England the advantage. In one of the most evocative football images, Pyscho bellowed in relief. The Ghosts of Turin buried and we all bellowed with him.
England was faultless from the spot and when Nadal’s penalty was pushed away by Seaman, the home side snatched victory. The team song played with England headed for the semi-finals.
England were drawn to play Germany. The tabloids once again had a field day. Did you expect anything else?
BBC’s Des Lynam introduced the match saying: “Some of you may have heard there’s a football match tonight”.
It was a wonderful to see England’s biggest match in 30 years. It was a game which had everything.
Shearer had a dream start before Kuntz spoiled the party soon after. Chances came and went as the tension racked up notch by notch.
For the second straight game it went to golden goal. England had their chances to ice the game when Darren Anderton hit the post and Gazza missed an open cross by inches.
. A stadium, a pub, and a nation barely able to watch. After 10 successful kicks it was down to Gareth Southgate. His shot is saved. Germany’s Moller scores the next penalty to destroy the hopes and dreams of a nation. Devastated, Numb, and tearful. The song is played. “But all those oh so nears wear you down through the years.”
The trophy may not have come home, but for many of my generation in England, football truly did. Only football can give you the highs and lows that I experienced for that glorious, glorious month. It was a month to cherish and never forget.