England at Euro 96: Passion, Pain and Football Coming Home Again

the english national team at euro 96

Euro 96 enjoys a reputation in England which is perhaps disproportionate to what the country achieved in sporting terms. Terry Venables’ side played five matches, winning just two of them. There was the customary lost penalty shootout, and fans were left with the bitter taste of what-ifs in their collective mouth. And yet, that England team is probably the most loved since the victorious side in 1966. Why? 

The simple explanation is that they reached the semi-finals, something that, until 96, England had done just once since the World Cup on home soil. There’s also the obvious fact that England was hosting a major tournament, again the first time they had done so since ’66. 

The group of players are also a contributory factor to the sunny glow which seems to envelop fans when they talk whimsically of Euro 96. There was the raw, undiluted exuberance of Gazza, the lovable Yorkshire burr of Seaman, the cheeky sheen of Sheringham, the steadfastness of Shearer. Everywhere you looked, there were characters.

That extended to the manager. Venables, affectionately known as El Tel, was as much one of the lads as any of the players. He and the players drew criticism from a headline-hungry tabloid press. The same sections of the media exonerated the Three Lions after they matched their feat at Italia 90 and won hearts and minds throughout the country. 

But perhaps above all, this band of footballers, who played with the kind of cavalier excellence that had not been seen in England for many a year, captured perfectly the mood of the nation. It was Britpop football. Swaggering and unapologetically brash.

The Squad

We’ve already mentioned Paul Gascoigne, David Seaman, Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer, the backbone of what was a particularly strong squad for England. Their ranks were bolstered by a blend of youth and experience, the perfect formula for a productive squad. 

In terms of youngsters, the two most prominent names were the two brothers, 21-year-old Gary Neville and 19-year old Phil. Both were playing for Manchester United and would get playing time throughout the tournament, the former in particular. 

There was also the young Robbie Fowler, a Liverpool marksman who’d scored a stunning 67 goals in the two seasons preceding Euro 96. He was relatively inexperienced on the international scene, having made just three appearances in England colours before the start of the tournament but would go on to play a more significant role as Shearer, Sheringham and Les Ferdinand grew older. 

Also among the youngsters was a fresh-faced Sol Campbell. Like Fowler, Campbell was just 21 at the time. Playing his football with Spurs, the future rock at the heart of the England defence had won just one cap for his country before the start of Euro 96. Slightly older were Jamie Redknapp and Nick Barmby, both aged 22 and playing for Liverpool and Middlesbrough respectively. 

Though an unassuming figure at the time, future England manager, Gareth Southgate, was also in the squad. The 25-year-old played for Aston Villa at the time and would have a memorable tournament with England for mixed reasons.

The irrepressible Stuart Pearce was the oldest player in Venables’ squad. At the age of 34, he had 65 caps at the start of the tournament and was one of a handful of players in the squad who had also appeared at Italia 90. David Platt and Paul Gascoigne were the other two.

The Tournament

England qualified for the tournament automatically by virtue of being the hosts. Their first major suspense, therefore, was waiting to see who they would be drawn against in the group stages. In a 16-team tournament, there are very few easy games. But England’s draw was reasonably favourable. They were to face Switzerland, one of the weaker teams in the tournament, on the opening matchday at Wembley. The Netherlands were undeniably their toughest challengers in Group A. The team led by Guus Hiddink featured the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Dennis Bergkamp. But the most exciting opponent for England fans was Scotland – the Auld Enemy and England’s biggest rival.

Group Stage

England 1-1 Switzerland, 08/06/96, Wembley Stadium 

On opening night – or rather opening day in the glorious London sunshine – England’s opponents were Switzerland. The usual feelings of pre-tournament suspense were amplified by an expectant home crowd at the old Wembley. And the pressure was felt out on the pitch as England managed a draw and failed to dazzle. 

They struck first through Alan Shearer. It was a goal made all the sweeter by the fact that the Blackburn Rovers centre-forward had been on a lengthy goal drought for the national side stretching back over a year. While Shearer was lethal on the domestic scene, there were accusations that he was not cut out for international football. But his critics faded into the background as his thunderous shot beat the Swiss goalkeeper at his near post in the 23rd minute. 

Paul Ince placed a beautifully timed reverse pass that broke the red defence and found the feet of Shearer. He stepped over the ball, allowing it to come into his stride before applying the finish and sending the home crowd into delirium. 

As is always the case with England, an early goal got the fans dreaming of glory. But they were unable to add to their lead and, in fact, looked second best to Switzerland for large portions of the match. Kübilay Türkyilmaz hit the crossbar from a yard out with the goal at his mercy before his side eventually found an equaliser with less than ten minutes of normal time remaining. 

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Türkyilmaz atoned for his error from the spot after the ball struck the unfortunate Stuart Pearce on the arm inside the area. The striker’s penalty was cool, sending Seaman the wrong way and firing the ball in at the foot of the right post. 

It was a draw for England and not the glittering start they were expected to produce. Not what they needed with a pressure match against their closest rivals up next.

Scotland 1-1 England, 15/06/96, Wembley Stadium

The Scottish had started pretty positively, frustrating the Dutch in a 0-0 draw at Villa Park two days after England’s opening day struggles. They were never going to roll over in what was the first meeting between the two home nations at a major tournament in their long histories. 

The atmosphere at Wembley was electric on June 15. Nearly 80,000 people were present as England secured a historic 2-0 victory over the Auld Enemy. It was one that meant the nation really started to believe and provided one of the most iconic images in its modern football history.

England knocked on the door throughout the first half, but the pressure was mainly blunted. In the second period, they came out with renewed purpose, knowing that anything but a win from their second game would have been unacceptable. Less than ten minutes into the second half, Gary Neville feathered in a perfectly weighted far post cross which found the head of Alan Shearer. He dispatched and, suddenly, after what felt like aeons without a goal, England’s number 9 had two in two games. 

They had chances to double their advantage, but none were taken. They looked like they might pay the ultimate price as a mistimed challenge from Tony Adams brought Gordon Durie to the floor inside the area. England had given away a penalty yet again. But David Seaman was the hero as he saved Gary McAllister’s powerful shot. It was a let-off that England had to take advantage of. 

And almost immediately, Paul Gascoigne did exactly that. His charging run from deep caught the attention of Steve McManaman who lifted a through ball into his path 25 yards from goal. Gascoigne flicked the ball over Colin Hendry’s head and, in one movement, fired a low shot beyond the Scotland keeper. It was a goal widely considered one of the best in England’s history, and it had a celebration to match.

Running to the touchline in celebration, Gascoigne fell flat on his back on the turf. Teddy Sheringham then squirted a nearby drinks bottle into his mouth in an attempt to recreate the famous ‘dentist’s chair’ incident in which Gascoigne had been pictured having liquor poured into his mouth just days before. It was classic Gazza and became one of the most enduring images of Euro 96.

Netherlands 1-4 England, 18/06/96, Wembley Stadium

The Netherlands had beaten Switzerland by a 2-0 scoreline two days before England defeated the Scots by the same margin. This meant that England went into the final group stage game knowing they needed just a point in order to qualify for the quarter-finals. In the end, they exceeded even the most optimistic of England fans’ wildest dreams as they demolished Guus Hiddink’s Netherlands side 4-1. This match, in terms of performance, was the high point of the tournament for England. Many have proffered that it is the Three Lions greatest display since ’66. 

Having conceded two penalties in their opening two games, England earned one for themselves as Paul Ince’s cheeky chop fooled Danny Blind. The Dutch captain brought Ince to the floor and Shearer converted the resulting spot-kick with aplomb to score his third goal in as many matches. 

England continued to be the better side against an uncharacteristically lacklustre Netherlands side. Six minutes into the second half, Teddy Sheringham’s header from a corner put daylight between the two teams in terms of the scoreline.

Five minutes later and Shearer made it three with yet another goal, his fourth of the tournament. Gascoigne’s tenacity ensured that he came out with the ball after a tussle on the left-wing and he squared it for Sheringham. Sheringham could have taken the shot himself but unselfishly elected the lay the ball off to Shearer who was in a better position. Shearer blasted the ball home. 

“It gets better and better and better”: Martin Tyler’s words as Teddy Sheringham added his second and England’s fourth. Van der Sar could only parry Darren Anderton’s low drive from 20 yards and the ball fell to one of the last places on earth he’d have wanted it to end up: Sheringham’s feet. He dispatched and England were 4-0 up. 

Substitute Patrick Kluivert got one back for the Dutch with 12 minutes remaining, but by this time any fanciful hopes of a Dutch comeback had been extinguished completely. England progressed to the knockout stages of Euro 96 as group winners with seven points from three games.

Quarter-final

Spain 0-0 England, 22/06/96, Wembley Stadium

The European Championships have since been expanded, but in 1996 if you progressed from the group stages, you were just two wins away from the final. In their quarter-final match, Venables’ side were drawn against Spain. 

Under the management of Javier Clemente, Spain were not the all-conquering force they would become in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but they were still an impressive unit. They could call on the likes of Jose Amavisca and Fernando Hierro and had emerged unbeaten from arguably the toughest group, one that contained France, Bulgaria and Romania. They had, however, drawn two of those games against Bulgaria and France and were not wildly entertaining in doing so. 

England entered the quarter-final as clear favourites but would need extra-time and penalties to overcome the Iberians. The game itself was a tight affair with both teams threatening in bursts but unable to land a decisive body blow. 

It went to penalties, where England had been so unsuccessful in the past. Their shootout record had become the stuff of tragicomic legend and, therefore, hopes were not high as Alan Shearer made the long walk from the halfway line to take England’s first spot-kick. He scored, as did Platt, Pearce and Gascoigne. Thankfully, Nadal and Hierro missed and the Spaniards crashed out. 

Stuart Pearce’s face as his penalty flew in was a picture. He looked not so much overjoyed as furious with relief as the ball went beyond the keeper’s outstretched arm and hit the back of the net. It was an outburst which was clearly brought about by painful memories of his penalty miss against Germany at Italia 90. It became another iconic image that would stick with England fans well after the last ball at Euro 96 was kicked.

Semi-final

Germany 1-1 England (p6-5), 26/06/96, Wembley Stadium

The next match, it transpired, would be England’s last at the tournament. It also turned out that it would be England’s last semi-final in any major tournament for 22 years. It ended as so many of their tournament disappointments would: on penalties. 

Their opponents were Germany who had beaten a thoroughly impressive Croatia side 2-1 in the quarter-final after topping Group C. The Germans must have feared the worst after three minutes as Alan Shearer scored his fifth and final goal of the tournament to send England into the lead. Paul Ince’s 30-yard half volley was tipped over the bar and Paul Gascoigne swung in the resulting corner. Shearer stooped and headed home. England were 1-0 up and it seemed like it was their destiny to reach the final on home soil. 

But barely ten minutes later, Germany got a goal back. Helmer spun inside the area and fired a pass to Stefan Kuntz who applied a simple finish and levelled the scores at Wembley. 

England had chances to get back in front in the first half, with Shearer and Sheringham both having shots saved by the German goalkeeper. In the second half, the two teams went blow for blow without ever striking gold. The scores remained level and so to extra-time, the two teams went, knowing that, with the golden goal rule in place, just one good chance could see them through to the final. 

One such chance fell to Darren Anderton. Falling over as he struck the shot, he sent the ball crashing against the post with the keeper beaten. Minutes later, Gascoigne, the goal at his mercy, was centimetres from connecting with a cross that flashed across the goal. Both were guilt-edged chances. Both could have seen England reach the final. 

As it happened, neither team could find the back of the net and to penalties it went. The Germans were faultless from 12 yards. England hit four decent penalties, but Gareth Southgate saw his saved, giving Andreas Moller the chance to win the semi-final for Germany. He did exactly that, and England’s dream died. Germany would go on to beat the Czech Republic in the final.