With the benefit of hindsight, it seems strange to suggest that England were one of the favourites to win the 1988 European Championship. That was the reality was that England, quarter-finalists at the previous World Cup, breezed through an outstanding qualification campaign with an almost perfect record. Their place in the finals was confirmed via a remarkably impressive 4-1 win away in Yugoslavia.
This pre-tournament optimism wasn’t unduly tempered by the fact that England were rather dependent on the scoring feats of Gary Lineker and Bryan Robson, who between them had registered more goals than the rest of the squad put together. Of more concern, however, was the broken leg suffered by centre-back Terry Butcher that would see him miss the tournament. His experience and reassuring influence would be missed.
Without him, England were lacking those qualities at the heart of their defence. Twenty-four-year-old Derby defender Mark Wright was paired with the even younger Tony Adams, who at 21 was thrust into the international limelight.
Light as they were at the back, going forward England boasted some impressive names. In addition to Lineker and Robson, there were several who were at the peak of their powers as the tournament came around. John Barnes and Peter Beardsley had been crucial in recent Liverpool successes, while Chris Waddle and Glenn Hoddle provided a further degree of technical quality and style.
England went into their opening match against Jack Charlton’s Ireland in Stuttgart full of confidence. It was a match they should have won. That they didn’t is a testament to the battling qualities of the Irish side, some poor finishing from England, and an inspired performance from the Pat Bonner.
Ireland scored early, as some dithering English defending allowed Ray Houghton to loop a header beyond Peter Shilton and into the net. It took England an inordinate amount of time to recover from that early setback, but once they did they peppered the Ireland goal. Lineker, sluggish up front – which was later discovered to be, in part at least, due to having contracted Hepatitis B – missed a hatful of chances that ought to have swung the game England’s way. Ireland did hit the woodwork later on through Ronnie Whelan, as did Lineker, but in reality, it was a match England should not have lost. That they did meant that it was all or nothing in their next match against the Dutch.
The Netherlands had eased through qualifying unbeaten, well clear of their nearest group challengers. Despite missing out on all tournaments since Euro 80, they boasted a talented line-up with a host of star names. Many of those were part of an up-and-coming generation of talent, with the likes of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten set to become major forces in the European game over the coming years.
They were also led by the inspirational figure of Rinus Michels, who had managed the national team at the 1974 World Cup, after revolutionary spells in charge of Ajax and Barcelona. Like England, the Netherlands too had lost their opening group game, going down 1-0 to the USSR despite dominating for long periods. When the sides faced each other three days later in Düsseldorf, it was do or die for both.
For the Dutch striker Van Basten, on the back of an injury-plagued first season with AC Milan, it would herald his arrival on the international stage with a masterclass in clinical finishing. For England, it would mark a missed opportunity, and for the young Adams in particular, it would leave scars that took years to overcome. He was singled out for much of the criticism for failing to cope with the exquisite skills of Van Basten. And yet for most of the first half, the momentum had been edging towards England, who lined up with Trevor Steven in place of Waddle to give a bit more solidity at the expense of flair.
Lineker hit the post early on from a tight angle, then Hoddle did the same with a sumptuous free-kick. Looking back retrospectively, it seems odd to say that England were the better side for large parts of this defining match, displaying the sharpness and slickness that had been such a prominent part of their qualifying campaign.
That wasn’t massively changed by the fact that it was the Dutch who took the lead a minute before half-time. Gullit dispossessed Gary Stevens on England’s right and crossed low for Van Basten. He elegantly trapped the ball with his back to goal before twisting sharply to beat Adams with a slick drag-back and firing past Shilton.
England rallied again after the break and were rewarded with a fine battling equaliser. Lineker and Robson combined to cut through the Dutch defence for the latter to score, lifting the ball over the onrushing Hans van Breukelen. Midway through the second period, the match was there for the taking for either side.
It swung decisively in the Dutch favour late on, with two incisive strikes in the space of four minutes. The first of those will still haunt Adams, who would later admit he felt lost in this clash without the guiding influence of Butcher alongside. Van Basten, receiving a fine pass from Gullit, turned on a dime to leave the young Englishman scrabbling to recover, before shooting high past Shilton. Minutes later, he pounced on a loose ball following a Wim Kieft flick-on from a Dutch corner kick to seal his hat-trick – and England’s doomed fate.
For Van Basten, who had only been a substitute in their opening defeat to the Soviets having lost his place in the side thanks to his injury problems, this performance not only brought him to international prominence, but also served to secure his place in the starting line-up for the remainder of the tournament.
Again, hindsight makes that sound an odd statement, but what followed for Van Basten and the Dutch was built on that stunning few minutes when he grasped the limelight in Dusseldorf. It transformed his season and his career. Where previously there had been a string of difficulties to overcome, suddenly everything was positive as both his profile and his fortunes escalated.
For England, elimination wasn’t confirmed until later that evening when Ireland drew with the USSR, but the body blow inflicted by the Dutch was severe, as were the recriminations. In truth, England hadn’t played badly in either of their two losses at that point but with nothing to show for their efforts, found themselves pointless and defeated and headed for an early return home.
They would go on to lose their third match with a much-changed line-up, also 3-1, to the USSR and headed back to England to face the flack. Three games played, three defeats, two scored, seven conceded; not the kind of numbers that herald a happy homecoming. There was more than a dose of misfortune in England’s luckless campaign, in the first two games at least. But the defeat to the Dutch, and Van Basten’s heroics, knocked the stuffing out of the side, and they were a lacklustre shadow of what had gone before in a sloppy performance against the Soviets.
The Netherlands went on the opposite trajectory. Initially they stuttered some more in only belatedly, and rather fortunately, edging past Ireland in the final group match. Ultimately, though, they would claim the prize of tournament victory thanks to a seismic, cathartic semi-final victory over their West German hosts and a final victory of the USSR, which featured perhaps the greatest tournament-winning goal of all-time from Van Basten. His volley, and the celebrations that followed, owed a lot to what had gone before in the victory over England.
Eight years later, the two sides would clash again in the group stages of a European Championship, this time in England in the heady summer of 1996. There had been a few key clashes between the two nations in the intervening years, the recurring theme of which was of English disappointment. They had played wonderfully well in a goalless draw in Cagliari in the 1990 World Cup group stages, in a match that saw Paul Gascoigne unveil his version of the Cruyff turn as he inspired his side to a more positive version of themselves. Ultimately, though, it was a match that they ought to have won but didn’t.
Then came the World Cup qualifiers for USA 94. Leading 2-0 at Wembley and seemingly heading for victory, Dennis Bergkamp inspired his side’s revival to grab a draw, before the return match saw any hint of English good fortune desert them entirely. First, there was Ronald Koeman’s professional foul on the rampaging David Platt when he was in on goal, which resulted in only a yellow rather than a red card. Naturally, Koeman then dealt the fatal blow soon after, winning the match and effectively eliminating Graham Taylor’s England with a flicked free-kick.
Needless to say, by the time Euro 96 came around, England were thoroughly sick of the sight of the Dutch. But the barren years under Taylor had given way to a sense of greater optimism under Terry Venables. At a time when the UK was rocking the world with Cool Britannia, the air of positivity extended to the national team as the tournament progressed. Culturally, England was at the forefront once again, and football became a part of that. Initially, though, things were as nervy as ever.
The tournament hosts began the competition well enough, Alan Shearer grabbing his first international goal for some time in taking the lead against Switzerland. The second half saw England become increasingly bereft of belief, ideas and attacking coherence. The Swiss duly made them pay, snatching a 1-1 draw with a penalty.
It looked as though the same fate would befall them a week later against their neighbours, Scotland. Again, Shearer gave England the lead and again England conceded a penalty in the latter stages. But this time David Seaman saved it, and within minutes Gascoigne had scored his wondergoal and the English partied in the sunshine.
In such moments, a team’s fortunes can turn. As Gazza and co doused each other in their celebratory re-enactment of the “Dentist’s Chair” drinking shenanigans, so England’s confidence seemed to surge. In the blazing sunshine of that summer, England celebrated to the backdrop of Three Lions, and went into their meeting with the Dutch on a wave of optimism.
In contrast to England, the Netherlands came into Euro 96 off the back of a relatively successful World Cup in which they reached the quarter-finals. In Bergkamp they had a bona fide star, but there was no Gullit or Van Basten anymore; the great striker’s career having been prematurely curtailed through injury.
They could boast a significant smattering of the stars of Ajax’s Champions League winners of the year before; the likes of Edgar Davids, Edwin van der Sar, Ronald de Boer, Clarence Seedorf. And in Patrick Kluivert, they had a young striker with the talent to push the Dutch a long way in the tournament, even if the squad beyond these names was of limited ability in truth.
It was Kluivert who had sealed the Netherlands’ place in the finals in a winner-takes-all qualifying playoff with Ireland. They had begun the tournament with a draw against Scotland, before a comfortable 2-0 win over Switzerland. That left them in pole position in the group as they made for Wembley and the clash with England.
The match itself has gained a rose-tinted perspective to those of an English persuasion. The prevailing feeling in the aftermath was that England had played in a swashbuckling style – the Dutch style if you will – leaving the real Dutch floundering in their wake. This sepia view of things is almost entirely based on the stunning 11-minute spell early in the second half when England scored three times, as everything they tried seemed to come off.
They did play extremely well, of course – you don’t win 4-1 against the Netherlands without doing so – displaying a fluidity and tactical flexibility that had been alien to many an England side in the preceding years. But up until that manic few minutes, the game was very much in the balance, with England clinging on at times.
They had taken the lead midway through the first half when Paul Ince was tripped by Danny Blind as he surged into the penalty area, Shearer thumping home the resulting penalty. For much of the remainder of the first half, the Dutch were in the ascendency. In the lead up to half-time, the Dutch pressure was incessant, with both Bergkamp and Aron Winter going close on more than one occasion. Indeed, Bergkamp was superbly denied by Seaman when put through one-on-one. As Barry Davies noted in the BBC commentary, “England really need half-time here.”
England held on, though, and once able to regroup at the interval, came out with a renewed vigour, prompting that 11 minutes of sublime excellence. First Teddy Sheringham rose unchallenged to head England into a 2-0 lead, before Gascoigne seized his moment again with England’s third and fourth goals coming as a result of his dynamic bursts into the box.
The first was perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing of England’s haul that night, as Gascoigne found Sheringham whose no-look pass to the unmarked Shearer was a sheer delight. Shearer struck home into the top corner past the hopelessly exposed Van der Sar. Moments later, Gascoigne found Darren Anderton surging forward. When his shot was saved, the rebound fell for Sheringham to side-foot home, and England were in dreamland.
This early second-half blitz was as impressive as it was memorable, but it sealed the collective brain-fade of what had gone before in the match. However, at 4-0 England were in utter control while the Dutch were left in a floundering panic, shorn of all belief, barely keeping their heads above water.
To make matters worse, as Scotland took the lead against Switzerland in the other group match, the Netherlands were on their way out of the tournament. A well-taken late goal from Kluivert may have been a mere consolation in this match, but in terms of the tournament as a whole it was so much more, as it nudged the Dutch above Scotland, qualifying them in second place.
The cracks in the squad were starting to show, however, and while speculation about racial tensions were at least partially wide of the mark, there was no doubt that the internal issues were affecting the Dutch performances. Amid all the turmoil of a squad at loggerheads with each other, team spirit was shot to pieces. After a goalless quarter-final, the Netherlands lost to France on penalties and were knocked out.
England’s belief now soared. For Adams, now the captain, redemption had been eight years in the making. As he remarked, he’d waited all that time to get revenge on the Dutch for the humiliation he’d felt in 1988. In turn, a loss of form at international level stemming from his eroded self-belief in an England shirt, injury, and then a failure to qualify, had prevented Adams from having another opportunity in a tournament finals to erase the memories of 1988. That he was a key part of the 1996 England side, and played almost flawlessly against the Dutch, cemented his redemption.
England ultimately reached the semi-finals on the crest of a wave, only to fall short from the penalty spot.
When we look back now at the summer of ‘96, it is the match with the Dutch that shapes the collective memory the most. Even though England arguably played better in the semi-final with Germany, the rosy glow of that second-half blitz against the Netherlands came to be seen as the peak of what was indeed a very good side, albeit one that ultimately missed its opportunity to enter legend.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams