Summer of ’96

With the Euros coming up, I thought I’d recall some stories from championships past, both personal and football related. Here is what happened in the summer of ’96…

Northern Ireland didn’t qualify: they had a great campaign, but home losses against Latvia and the Republic proved costly and they were pipped to second spot by their neighbours, who were unlucky to end up in a playoff against the Netherlands. The dutch proved too strong and they lost out.

Scotland, however, had a rather easier time of it, and qualified comfortably as runners-up behind Russia in their group; England, being the hosts, had no qualifying to worry about.

Euro 96 took place amid a backdrop of Peter Andre’s abs and Power Rangers: the “official” England song was by Simply Red, but everyone knew Three Lions was the song to blast out.

I was in my first year at school and it was shirt sleeve orders: you could play cricket and not worry about bringing in extra kit for games. The summer exams had just finished and it was cruise control until the holidays. However, that summer took place amid a backdrop I don’t think anyone in my class will forget. A few weeks prior, Christopher Dougan in our class had taken ill with meningitis, while another boy at the big school was also diagnosed. While he lay in a coma, we would record tapes for him. We were supposed to tell jokes and what was happening in the world but all we could do was beg him to wake up. With that going on, football seemed somehow insignificant, but the show had to go on.

We wanted England to win (well, my mum didn’t); I remember being disappointed when I asked Ari Kearney who he thought was going to win and he said “France”- that seemed a likely option after England’s opening 1-1 draw with Switzerland. Terry Venables was not happy. A couple of days later, Scotland, to our disbelief without Ally McCoist, held the Netherlands to a 0-0 draw.

The following Saturday saw the oldest game in the world: Scotland against England, featuring one of the most dramatic minutes of international football I can remember. Alan Shearer had fired England in front from Gary Neville’s cross, but Scotland began to press. Gordon “Juke Box” Durie had had a fine header saved by Seaman, and was then felled in the box. Gary McAllister stepped up to take the resultant penalty, which appeared to move on the spot (Uri Geller claims responsibility- its more likely a draught was to blame). England went up the other end, Gazza flicked the ball over Colin Hendrie and fired in. That was that. With the Netherlands beating Switzerland 2-0, Scotland had to hope for England to win against the Dutch while they beat the Swiss, with a swing of four goals required.

England kept up their end of the bargain with what I believe is their finest game in recent-ish history*, scoring seemingly for fun with a host of well-worked team goals to run out 4-1 winners.

Scotland, meanwhile, found the Swiss much harder going. They few chances they had, they were unable to take: the Swiss are renowned for their defensive capabilities, but without much bite up front. Ally McCoist’s effort in the 36th minute saw the Scots ahead, but Patrick Kluivert’s late consolation for the Netherlands turned out to be the goal that ultimately saw them through on goals scored.

You’ll be wondering why I’m not mentioning other games- I didn’t see most of them. But there is one I did see, and I’ll remember it, because during Croatia v Portugal, we got the news that Christopher Dougan had died.

A special assembly the next day confirmed the news, and it seemed like the clock had stopped. I don’t think any teacher tried to teach us anything that day and there was no football at lunchtime.

I didn’t go to the funeral that Saturday- it just didn’t hit me properly what had happened, and to this day I think I should have gone. There is now a trophy awarded in the junior school named for him, given to the boy who showed the most effort but didn’t win one of the other prizes.

Watching England v Spain that evening felt weird, but it felt like a good way to honour our football-mad classmate. England didn’t show as much pizzaz as they had against the Netherlands, and struggled to break Spain down. Spain had chances of their own, including a disallowed goal- there were no further goals in the golden goal extra time period, meaning a penalty soot-out. This was only England’s second shoot-out, so it did not bring the sense of dread it has in recent times. Stuart Pearce scored and screamed, Fernando Hierro hit the bar, and Miguel Angel “uncle of Rafael” Nadal  had his tame penalty saved, putting England through to face Germany.

I never saw the climactic end to this game- Alan Shearer’s header and Stefan Kuntz’s equaliser  took me through the motions, but staying up for extra time on a school night was non-negotiable. I did, however, have a radio in my room, and sat on the edge of my bed as I heard Anderton hit the post and Gascoigne miss by millimetres in the golden goal period.

All the penalties got scored in the shootout and Gareth Southgate stepped up. It was saved by Köpke. Andreas Möller scored the follow-up, and I switched my radio off and went to sleep.

We didn’t see the final between Germany and the impressive Czechs as we went on holiday to a rainy Switzerland that Sunday (it might have been better to stay in bed and drift away as the Lightning Seeds would later claim they did two years later), but we did listen to it on the radio as we drove through England. Oliver Bierhoff scored the golden goal winner, and it was kind of disappointing when the queen handed him the trophy.

A hard month ended, and the Euros would take second stage to the World Cup for a couple of years. England aside, the tournament was pretty uninspiring, so the next Euros in the Low Countries had a pretty low bar to beat… and it had to compete with GCSEs.

*Yes, they played well in the 5-1 win against Germany, but there was a huge degree of luck that night. This game was not lucky.

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