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Euro 96: The summer when football (almost) came home

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It has since been labelled ‘the summer of love’ and a ‘cultural renaissance'. It was supposed to be the year that football finally came home. In many ways, it did. Euro 96 gripped the nation, mainly due to the fact that it was played out on home soil and took place right in the middle of changing tides in England. Tony Blair’s New Labour, Britpop and Pulp Fiction dominated political debates, the music industry and cinema. 

England’s football team had just been through a period of monumental disappointment under Graham Taylor. An underperforming squad failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in America, in turn sinking the Three Lions to their lowest ebb. But two years on, under Terry Venables, things were different and prosperity was restored among an expectant nation, through nothing but sheer loyalty and patriotism to their beloved country. 

As a wider experience, Euro 96 was alarmingly under-attended at most of the matches not involving England; the football didn’t stink, but there was an unsatisfactory whiff about it. It didn’t matter, though, because it was England and it was the year that they were, quite literally, going to bring football home. The tournament began with an underwhelming 1-1 draw against Switzerland, but soon picked up after Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne both scored to seal a 2-0 win over Scotland in the group game which followed.

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It was the first time that England and Scotland had played each other in seven years, making the clash one of the most eagerly anticipated at the entire tournament. It is still deemed to be the biggest ever fixture between two composite nations of the UK. The game was a typically hard-fought battle between two nations who have had a long-standing, fierce rivalry with one and other for obvious reasons, which ultimately resulted in England winning. Following Gazza’s stunning 79th minute goal, the players produced that notorious celebration, re-enacting the dentist chair scene using water bottles on the touchline - an image that has become synonymous with the tournament as the years have passed by. 

Clearly full of confidence and blinded by optimism, England headed into their next group game against Guus Hiddink’s star-studded Netherlands with a bit between their teeth. The likes of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Dennis Bergkhamp were expected to give the Three Lions a run for their money, with many believing that they’d comfortably dispatch Venables’ side. But an emphatic display and brace’s for both Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham saw England run out as 4-1 winners. Hopes of winning the European Championships had suddenly become very real.

The iconic imagery kept coming in the quarter-finals, too. A goalless draw against Spain saw England rely on those dreaded penalties to obtain qualification through to the semi’s. The ever-reliable Alan Shearer stepped up and converted his spot-kick first, before efforts from David Platt, Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne sealed the win in resounding style, 4-2. Pearce’s heartfelt double-left-hook into mid-air, after he rifled his penalty past Andoni Zubizarreta into the bottom-left hand corner of the net, is another sight that will always be heavily associated with this glorious tournament. 

Now, hope really was instilled nationwide. Frank Skinner and David Baddiel had called it right and football really was coming home, but not until the Germans were defeated at Wembley.

Commentator Barry Davies, who was covering the game that fateful day now 24 years ago, remembers it vividly: “That was particularly special.

“If somebody told me you are going up to heaven and you can take one game with you, I think I would take that England game. I'd try to get the result changed when I got up there, though.

“It was a night where a lot of the things I believed in about commentary worked. If you go back to the original recording it was six or seven minutes before kick-off when Des Lynam handed over to me from the studio.

“I didn't really say very much in that time because the crowd were singing constantly. I just dotted a few I's and crossed a few T's. It was a huge atmosphere and of course England were incredibly unlucky in the end.”

Three minutes into the contest and Alan Shearer, whose five goals throughout the tournament ended up clinching him the Golden Boot award, headed home to put the hosts in front. It was a dream start for the Three Lions - similar to their exploits in 2018, where Kieran Trippier’s stunning free-kick gave England hope against Croatia, before a second-half collapse crushed the hearts of an entire nation. Stefan Kuntz equalised for Germany minutes later, though, which proved to be the final goal of the game despite an array of squandered chances from the hosts. 

Teddy Sheringham saw a shot cleared off the line, Shearer headed wide and Darren Anderton hit the post in extra-time. The most memorable chance, however, was undoubtedly Paul Gascoigne lunging to try to turn in Shearer's cross, but missing it by a matter of millimetres. Back then the old ‘Golden Goal’ rule still applied, remember, meaning that had any of those chances been taken, the game would have finished on the spot and England would have been heading for the World Cup final. Looking back, each of those missed chances were all just warning signs that the end of the journey was edging ever closer. 

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Penalties beckoned and nerves started to jangle. The penalty-scorers of the last round all stepped up for England again, hoping to repeat their performance from the quarter-final shoot-out win against Spain just days earlier, and they did. Shearer, Platt, Pearce and Gascoigne all converted, as did Sheringham - the man tasked with taking England’s fifth after Germany had dispatched all of their efforts in a typically convincing style. This left Gareth Southgate - current England manager - standing unconvincingly over that famous adidas Questra ball, in that magnificent old-school grey-like-blue Umbro kit, at the historically rich original Wembley Stadium. The stage was set but, truth be told, we all knew what was coming next. 

“I can honestly say that when Gareth walked up to take his penalty I did not fancy him at all. There was something wrong with his body language and you just get a feeling. It was horrible to lose like that, after coming all that way,” said Davies; he wasn’t alone in his thinking.

Southgate’s tame effort was comfortably denied by Andreas Kopke and, just like that, England were out. Germany went on to win the tournament, beating the Czech Republic 2-1 in the final. The dream was shattered, the enthralling ride brought to a painstakingly abrupt end. 

But what a ride it was.

“It was not only that we reached the semi-finals, it was that we had a lot of fun along the way, and I think the whole country did too,” said Alan Shearer, during an interview with the BBC back in 2012.

“It was great to be playing all our games at Wembley and the atmosphere kept getting better the further we went.”

The summer of love in 1996 will always be remembered as the summer that football really came home, despite what the history books say. It completely united a nation that had previously fallen victim to such a political divide, filled even the most cynical of England fans with unprecedented hope and, above all else, brought constant, uncut happiness to every single person involved in the journey. For that, it will never be forgotten. 

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