Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Euro 96 - Was it any good?

Ask most England fans what their favourite tournament is and Euro 96 will feature heavily as an answer.  Gascoigne’s wonderful goal against Scotland, the thrashing of Holland, Pearce’s penalty, Shearer’s goals.  Looking back it’s easy to view Euro 96 as a magical time for football.  But looking back now, the truth is rather different.

My Euro 96 story actually started in early 1995 when tournament tickets went on sale. An entrepreneurial school friend decided that he wanted to go to the Final and the only way to guarantee a spot was to order tickets for around 12 other games.  It was a bit of an odd system, but Final tickets were only available to people who had purchased tickets for plenty of other games.  Obviously, there was a lot of interest at school and we ended up having an in house draw whilst resulted in me getting 2 places at the Opening Game…England v Switzerland.  Suddenly, I was a popular student, but still had the good sense to pick a fellow Gills fan to accompany me to the game.

The game fell in the middle of my GCSEs and a trip to Wembley wasn’t exactly the ideal preparation. A fact that would soon be backed up by my rather disappointing results.  However, no exam was going to get in the way of my first visit to Wembley stadium, especially as it was for the biggest game in the country for 30 years.  Being a lower league fan, I was used to crowds that could be counted by hand, so it was a bit of a shock to experience the London Underground, Wembley Way and the sheer scale of the Stadium. 
Our seats were behind the goal and about 5 rows from the front – it was a woeful view, the goalposts at our end were obliterating about half of the pitch, so any action at the far end was largely a mystery.  Even more annoying, was the presence of an obese man behind us, who was hideously drunk and fell asleep within seconds of taking his seat…more of him in a bit!

Before the action started, we were treated to an opening ceremony that consisted of on field jousting, parachutists missing the stadium and Simply Red.  That’s right, whilst we all associated Three Lions with Euro 96, the official song was actually this dirge.  If you – quite rightly – despise Hucknall than I’d still recommend watching the link, just for the unintentionally hilarious video.

Anyway, the game was a drab affair, with only Shearer’s well taken goal deeming the first half memorable.  In truth, they were lucky to be ahead and struggled to put anything together against a well drilled Swiss team. 

And then the obese man vomited!

When I say vomited, I mean VOMITED!  I’m talking litres of the stuff, all over himself, all over the floor, all over our seats and all over our feet.  It’s in the top 3 most disgusting experiences of my entire life.  The man was swiftly taken out by the police, but despite our protests we were told that there were no over seats available for us to move to.   AS such, we had to spend the entire second half stood up, trying not to gag.  The net result of this was – due to the shallowness of the stadium – the fans two rows behind us also had to stand up to see over us, and the people behind them etc etc.  Gradually the standing are got wider and wider until after a few minutes it appeared that everybody behind us was on their feet.  By my estimation, around 20,000 people had to spend the second half standing up due to the mound of sick that was on our seats.  There certainly wasn’t anything happening on the pitch to get people on their feet!

The Swiss gradually got into the game and fully deserved their late equaliser, scored from the penalty spot following a dubious handball decision against Stuart Pearce.  For the first time in tournament history, a ground reverberated to the sound of cowbells, as the 8,000 Swiss fans made considerably more noise than their 72,000 English counterparts.  If football really was coming home it hadn’t made a great start to the journey.

Things didn’t improve much over the next few days.  Looking back the results, I can only remember 4 or 5 games from the entire Group stages.  In the main, the games were defensive and drab, there were scarcely any great goals, very little controversy and a distinct lack of quality.

Of course, England’s victories over Scotland and Holland completely change the mood of the nation.  After the Dutch were trounced by a fantastic display of attacking football, there was serious talk in the media (and the playground!) that England could actually go on and win the tournament.  I managed to miss both matches as I was playing cricket.  Back then, it was pretty easy to avoid a match result, before going home to watch a recording.  On the evening of the Dutch game, I arrived home at 10pm - after a particularly late and dark finish to a twenty over game - to be confronted by my grinning dad holding a video tape.

“I think you’re going to enjoy this.” he announced, before heading off to bed.  Hmm, either this was hardcore pornography or England had won!  Given that my Dad hadn’t looked under my bed lately and was unaware of my film preferences, I assumed it was the latter, and any mystery surrounding the game was gone.
After that victory, it was impossible to avoid Euro 96.  It was on the front, back and middle pages of newspapers, all over the tv news and the radio seemed to be permanently playing Three Lions.  It genuinely seemed as if an England win was inevitable.  The rest of the competition seemed like a sideshow.
So much so that it’s largely forgotten that Euro 96 produced some truly awful attendances.  Games in Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield struggled to break the 20,000 barrier.  Even the supposed "football mad” city of Liverpool struggled to care about the 15 other teams.  Which was a shame, because Anfield was the host for what was by some distance the game of the tournament.

A mere 21,000 turned up to watch the Czech Republic and Russia put on a six goal thriller that saw the Czechs go two up, then fall 3-2 down, before a late strike form Vladimir Smicer gave them the draw they needed to progress.  That progression was at the expense of Italy, who, needing to beat Germany to go through, managed to miss a penalty and only secure a 0-0 draw.  It was a thrilling evening of football, completely out of keeping with the rest of the competition.

My only other memory of the Group stage was a quite wonderful goal by Davor Suker against Denmark.  With the Danes trailing 2-0, Peter Schmeichal had gone up for a corner.  Croatia broke, Schmeichal sprinted the length of the pitch to get back in goal, just in time to get in position to see Suker float a perfect chip over him from the edge of the area.  Suker rounded off the humiliation with a nonchalant bow to the crowd in celebration.  The goal is exactly as how I remembered it.  It remains one of my all-time favourite goals.
By the time of the quarter finals, the tabloid media had taken its “support” of England slightly too far.  Both the Sun and the Mirror indulged in extreme xenophobia, highlighted by the Mirror’s “Ten Things the Spanish gave us” article, in which number one was syphilis!  It was all very unsavoury and detracted from the excellent form the team were showing.

Of course, England showed their usual inability to string good performances together and contributed to one of the dullest days in knockout tournament history.  A quarter final double header of England-Spain and Holland-France is enough to get the pulses racing of most football fans.  Sadly, the 4 teams managed to muster a grand total of 0 goals between them in 4 hours of football.  Admittedly, Spain were highly unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for a non-existent offside, but that was pretty all that happened in either game.  All anybody remembers from the day is Stuart Pearce going bonkers after scoring a penalty.  At the time few people cared, England’s journey was continuing towards glory and next up were the Germans.

The day before the Semi Final saw the Daily Mirror printed the following on the front page:

“Last night the Daily Mirror’s ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless […] they were prepared at once to withdraw their football team from Wembley a state of soccer war would exist between us.
We desired a peaceful and honourable settlement but the German manager Herr Vogts would not have it.  Having over-run defenceless Russia, the Czech Republic and Croatia, he has evidently made up his mind to attack England.”

This was accompanied by photos of England players made up to look like Second World War soldiers and the subsequent pages were full of racism and more abuse.  Just to add to the mood, violence erupted in London between rival fans and the build up to the biggest game in the country for 30 years was somewhat overshadowed. 

If the 1990 Semi Final is the most memorable England game of my lifetime then England Germany in 1996 runs it close.  It wasn’t a classic by any stretch, but as with the Italia 90 defeat it was full of memorable moments. Shearer’s early goal was cancelled out by Kuntz (still funny!) and the game went to Extra Time.  This was the first tournament to use the Golden Goal rule (iow next goal wins during Extra Time) and the aforementioned quarter finals, plus the mind numbing France-Czech Rep semi, had failed to produce any hint of a goal.  Teams were too scared to commit men forward and risk being caught on the break, it led to glorified training exercises as defences just passed the ball among themselves. 

For some reason England and Germany decided to abandon this policy and actually try to win the game.  Germany had a perfectly good goal ruled out for pushing, England hit the post and Gascoigne was inches away from converting a cross.  However, watching it, I was always pretty certain it was going to penalties, there was a strange fate to it.  This was our time to get revenge for 1990.
Well, that was the plan. Southgate missed, Muller didn’t and everyone had a cry.  Unlike everyone subsequent England tournament exit, there was no sense of despair or anger towards the team.  WE hadn’t been out of our depth or poorly managed, we had just lost a shootout to the kings of shootouts! 

To many people the final between the Germans and the Czechs felt like an anti-climax.  Not to me, I was now a full on tournament completest.  England’s exit, whilst sad, hadn’t dampened my excitement one jot, this was a major final and a chance for a massive upset.  This was by no means a vintage German side, but they were overwhelming favourites, so it was no surprise that the Czechs had the backing of the non-German contingent in Wembley.  The only element of the final I can remember is its defining moment.  After a drab 1-1 after 90 minutes, the game went into Extra Time and for the first time in tournament history a team scored a Golden Goal.  Unfortunately the Golden Goal in question was a tame shot form Oliver Bierhoff that Petr Kouba managed to fumble over the line (Here are 150 seconds of highlights, complete with the drabbest music ever produced).  It’s was all a bit surreal, one mistake and the whole competition was over.  It took a few seconds to register that the Czechs weren’t about to kick off and try and equalize, the German cavorted around the pitch, the crowd booed and I went to bed in a bad mood. 

So what else did Euro 96 have to offer?  A pathetic 9 goals were scored in the 7 knockout games. France were a shoot-out away from the Final but didn’t score a goal in the knockout stage.  The Dutch had probably the best team on paper, but completely imploded amongst stories of in-house fighting and factions forming within the squad.  Croatia, Portugal and the Czech Republic showed glimpses of their “Golden Generations”, but they were still works in progress.  Oh, and Scotland went out in the Group stage, but did OK and even won a match!

As to whether Euro 96 was any good, the answer is a pretty resounding no.  Aside from about 4 games, it was cynical, drab and played out in front of poor crowds.  The champions were a pretty average side and there were no real stand out players (Mattias Sammer, quite rightly, won player of the tournament and he played as a sweeper!).  If it wasn’t for England hosting and playing quite well, this competition would have been long forgotten.  Luckily for me, this was pretty much irrelevant - I’d been to a tournament and I was determined to watch every game whenever another one came along.

Next Time – World Cup 98 ruins my education!