Euro 96: When England actually loved England

Date published: Thursday 2nd June 2016 3:20

The time has come for you to accept what you’ve known in your gut for a while: that God invented the year 2000 as a neat end to the last truly great decade this planet – or our version of it – will ever enjoy. That time, strangely, was ushered in by a documentary aired on the BBC on Wednesday evening, when Alan Shearer wandered around various golf courses and Spanish country hotels and local parks, talking with some of the players and the manager who’d fallen at the penultimate hurdle with him at Euro 96.

The soundtrack was the effortlessly timeless music of that decade. It was accompanied, for anyone aged between 25 and 50, by a current of what the Portuguese call saudade – a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something.

Not that Big Al didn’t do his best to turn it into a comedy roadshow of John Nicholson’s exquisite Football on TV for this site. Al approaches an opportunity for nerve-settling banter in the same manner he would approach a bouncing ball in the box – single-mindedly. To wit: no picturesque landscape can be surveyed without offering where did it all go wrong, no event can be described without asking whether one or more of its participants had a few beers either during or afterwards, and no question of a person’s well-being may be posed without also informing them they have aged badly. Frank Skinner, David Baddiel, Teddy Sheringham, and Shearer himself were all informed of this during the course of the program. Terry Venables, who looked like a guy who got up around 11, tanned for a few hours, then padded the corridors of his Spanish hotel trying not to think about Gazza’s agonisingly mis-coordinated lunge in extra-time against the Germans, was told he looked unbelievable…for his age. Gazza, in a touching exchange between two guys who clearly cared for each other, was simply told he looked fantastic. So awkward did Shearer seem in the presence of non-footballers Skinner and Baddiel that he started bantering at the couch they were sat on to try to calm his nerves.

There’s another thing about this desire to smash in the open goals of banter; it does seem to come with a boneheaded twin of being incapable of seeing the obvious. He asked Venables whether he ever thought about Gazza’s extra-time miss; after collecting his jaw from the floor, Venables only looked half-joking when he said he dreams of it every night. Joshing Paul Ince about how many more trophies United would have won if he’d joined them was met with the pleasant but firm advice to consider how different his own trophy cabinet might have looked. He also has the non-interviewer’s habit of telling his interviewee what to say, so that quite a few exchanges went like this: “How was it? Stressful?” Venables: “It was stressful.”

If you watched it, and you’re in the age sweet spot, I doubt any of this made you feel anything but occasional gusts of saudade for the world before it got so complicated and over-designed as to make buffoons out of most of us. Bagginess was everywhere, that slight shabbiness of pre-millenial England was everywhere, lots of people with kind of the wrong hair, bad sunglasses, were everywhere.

Know what that allows? Liberty. Less demand for an image means less demand for image, less subconscious urge to be camera-ready. It was a cause of mild surprise for the England team that pre-tournament topless stripping in a Hong Kong bar and having spirit bottles emptied into their throats would make it into the papers; if Jack and Dele tried that now, they would look out on a massed army of camera phones.

I should declare an interest, as far as the football goes – I am the sweetspot, born in 1987, and thus was experiencing my first encounter with England at a tournament. I am, like you if you’re around 28, poisoned forever by the experience. A host of little moments rose during the course of the program to jog my memory, and remind he how attached to it I still am: the ball rolling slightly as Gary McAllister ran in to take the penalty against Seaman; Spain’s disallowed goal; Germany’s disallowed golden goal; Gazza going off early and the crowd booing against Switzerland.  None of Sheringham, Venables or Seaman, the three most sentient beings interviewed, still seemed to know what to make of it all, the ultimate misery of its outcome an impossible side dish to how bloody great it all was.

Three things happened at Euro 96 that have yet to repeat themselves. One: England absolutely walloped a good side. In the program they took to the field against the Netherlands to the crunching guitars of Some Might Say, needing a result; and produced what Barry Davies, a man not prone to overstatement, called “the best performance I’ve ever seen from England”. Shearer said it was the best atmosphere he’d ever played in. Although he did shortly after say that about the Germany game. Since then, England have played Germany twice, Portugal twice, Argentina, Brazil, France and Italy in tournaments, and lost almost all of them – the 1-0 in 2002 against a malfunctioning Argentina side and 1-0 against a poor Germany in 2000 notwithstanding. But against the Dutch in 96, they simply decided this was their match, and took it. Two: they won a penalty shoot-out. I can’t dwell on this, except to say that for a brief period in 96, England to me had a 100% record in shoot-outs which now reads W1 L5.  To dwell a little more – after how exciting I found the Spain shootout, I wanted it to go the distance against the Germans. I was happy Gascoigne missed. I was only eight.

Three, and most importantly: England loved England. Most often, at international tournaments, I’ve hated England. In 2006 (violently), in 2010 (contemptuously), in 2012 (like you’d wearily hate a lightbulb that keeps going out). In 1996, the love of England for their team was epic, swelling on the glorious strains of Skinner and Baddiel’s anthem, buoyed by Gazza’s goal against Scotland and the 4-1 dismantling of Holland, and Psycho scoring a penalty, and Shearer scoring after two minutes against the Germans, and that being an England fan no longer meant looking for the nearest piece of hardware to throw at someone and the fact we were going to win this. And then it ended.

Little was said about Gareth Southgate. They felt bad for him, was as much as they could collectively muster. Paul Ince produced the most circular non-justification you ever heard for why a seasoned midfielder of ten years left it to a virginal centre-back to step up ahead of him. I think of him though, Gareth Southgate, when someone makes the generally pretty facile argument against how much footballers get paid. Do they include in their reasoning the chance to live practically forever as an icon of failure in not just your own mind but about forty million other minds? I think most of us would want to be well-paid for that opportunity. Think of Marco Reus as a more recent example: the long-term agony of losing a Champions League final, missing your starring role in a World Cup your country won, and now missing the Euros. Think of the shade to football’s light.

It’s obviously foolish not to think of the 90s in the same way. If you were Stephen Lawrence, or the Hillsborough families or a citizen of the Balkans, nostalgia is clearly a nonsense. But terrible things happen in every decade, there is no blissful past; what matters equally is how high the average line of happiness is lifted by how great the good stuff is. In the 90s, the last decade when we didn’t all know everything about everybody all the time, that bar was set pretty high.

Toby Sprigings

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