This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
There’s an argument to say that 1996 was the peak of the 1990s. The Spice Girls ruled the airwaves, the N64 changed gaming forever, while in movies, Will Smith battled White House-obliterating aliens in Independence Day.
And for many, 1996 was the absolute apex of 90s English football. It was a time of Liverpool’s Spice Boys, Newcastle’s entertainers, and managers – Keegan and Big Ron mainly – generally losing their patience with pushy television interviewers.
England fans had a ball that summer. Having watched their side top a group ahead of the Netherlands and bitter rivals Scotland before surviving a penalty shootout against Spain, there was an overwhelming sense that Euro 96 was, at last, their year. There was a feeling that a major tournament would be captured on home soil just as it had been 30 years prior.
Whereas Will Smith had the assistance of Jeff Goldblum and Randy Quaid, England boss Terry Venables pinned his hopes on Alan Shearer, Steve McManaman and Pauls Gascoigne and Ince.
Expectations around that England crop sky-rocketed higher than the old Wembley’s twin towers as fans slipped hastily into euphoria; for them, the only conceivable outcome was a Three Lions triumph. That blissful presupposition, however, was not misplaced. After all, while Shearer couldn’t buy a goal for England, he had just signed off his final season for Blackburn with 31 of them in 35 games.
Elsewhere, Gascoigne had helped Rangers to the double, while fresh-faced Liverpool starlet Robbie Fowler – by far the youngest of a quartet of strikers that also included Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand – had just scooped his second straight PFA Young Player of the Year award.
By the last week of June, the group stages had been and gone. Shearer had thankfully remembered to take his scoring boots out of the Ewood Park home dressing room and Gascoigne ensured he forever haunted Colin Hendry’s dreams. But now, on June 26, it was time to get serious, time to face Germany for a place in the final, time for football to really come home.
For England, it was a chance to exorcise the demons of Italia 90. For Germany, it was the perfect stage to silence those detractors who looked upon Berti Vogts’ side as a pale imitation of England’s tormentors in Turin six years prior.
Having breezed through Group C with seven points from games against the Czech Republic, Russia and Italy, the Germans had been somewhat unconvincing in their quarter-final victory over Croatia, edging the Old Trafford meeting 2-1 thanks to Matthias Sammer’s winner. But even if they weren’t the Germany of 1974 or 1990, there was no doubt about it: they were going to provide the sternest examination England had faced thus far.
The tabloid coverage prior to the game was, as expected, intensely, unapologetically anglophile. The Daily Mirror tempted fate by producing a front-page depicting Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce, sporting World War Two helmets, bellowing “Surrender!” If that wasn’t enough, underneath it read: “For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over.”
On matchday, with Wembley rapidly filling up on a warm Wednesday evening, England, who were missing the impressive Jamie Redknapp in midfield, were given a significant boost with the news that Jürgen Klinsmann, Germany’s captain, was out.
The Bayern Munich striker’s absence, coupled with Ince’s return to the England fold following suspension, combined to lift the home crowd. Not that they really needed it, of course. With kick-off approaching, the thrilling sense that destiny was soon to be fulfilled inside Wembley was inescapable. Not only did they sing “football’s coming home”, they believed it.
The raucous pre-match buzz appeared to have the desired effect. Three minutes in and it was 1-0 England. Shearer, who else? Even after a golden tournament, the soon-to-be Newcastle forward couldn’t believe his luck. England had won a corner after Andreas Köpke, the German goalkeeper, decided to punch Ince’s punt from distance away, as opposed to catching it. Gascoigne found Tony Adams at the front post, who knocked it into the six-yard box for Shearer to gladly nod beyond Köpke.
Wembley roared as Shearer wheeled away in celebration. Of course, it was a strange sight to see despairing white shirts fall to their knees after an England goal, but with Germany ruled as the home team, the tournament hosts were wearing that strange‘indigo blue changed strip.
Unfortunately for England, their old foes weren’t to roll over as easily as the Dutch had done in the final group game eight days earlier. After the goal, Germany simply reset and got on with it. They dominated possession, and while much of it was in front of a back three of Gareth Southgate, Adams and Pearce, Vogts’ men, like England, did not waste their first meaningful sequence in the final third.
It was a fine goal, too. After David Platt relinquished possession with a heavy touch in midfield, Stefan Reuter launched the German move by running infield to find Thomas Helmer, who exchanged passes with Andreas Möller before sending an inviting pass across England’s box. Everyone bar Pearce could see what would happen next. With the centre-back unsighted, Stefan Kuntz crept in behind to fire past David Seaman.
Of course, Helmer had strayed offside before sending the ball in Kuntz’s direction. With no decision in England’s favour forthcoming, Pearce, who had missed his penalty in Turin, felt another unjust hit of tournament-semi-final-agony.
England’s lead had lasted 13 minutes. Whereas Germany’s response to going behind had been impressively obstinate, Venables’ men looked rattled after being pegged back, with Matthias Sammer, Germany’s influential sweeper, dictating the pace.
Despite that, England came closest to scoring the contest’s third – twice. With Sheringham already having been denied by Reuter’s near-goal-line clearance, Shearer came agonisingly close to ending the half as he had started it: with a headed goal.
Following impressive work down the right by Darren Anderton – who was easily outshining the anonymous McManaman on the opposite flank – Shearer met the Spurs midfielder’s cross with a thunderous header only to watch it fly inches wide of Köpke’s right-hand post.
There were few chances in a predictably nerve-shredding second half. Helmer missed the best one, curling a shot over Seaman’s bar after Dieter Eilts’ productive burst down the left a minute before the hour. And so it finished 1-1. Extra-time, and the possibility of the golden goal, loomed large.
In the added 30, it was Anderton’s turn to pass up a gilt-edged chance, striking the post after McManaman’s cutback. Three minutes later, Seaman beat away Möller’s shot before Kuntz had his second goal disallowed for a foul on Southgate. It was heart-pounding, excruciating stuff and, as time stood still in the 99th minute, Gascoigne’s left boot somehow didn’t connect with Shearer’s cross from all of three yards out.
Everywhere you looked, the game was being watched through fingers. As time ticked away in the second period of extra-time, Christian Ziege and McManaman added to the growing litany of missed chances before referee Sandor Puhl’s whistle offered a momentary reprieve. Once again, these two enemies would have to be separated by penalties.
It was a shootout of serious quality, too. Shearer, Platt, Pearce, Gascoigne and Sheringham all converted for England, only for Thomas Häßler, Thomas Strunz, Reuter, Ziege and Kuntz to reply in equal measure. Then, under the most supreme pressure, Southgate’s weak spot-kick gave Köpke and the Germans something to celebrate.
With Venables helplessly chewing his nails in the dugout, Möller made sure his final contribution to the tournament – his yellow card for lashing out at Pearce earned him a suspension for the final – was a telling one, rifling his penalty into the roof of Seaman’s net to send Germany through. His celebration, with hands-on-hips, was a pointed reference to Gascoigne’s reaction to scoring earlier in the shootout.
England’s exhilarating journey on home soil climaxed in devastating fashion. Wembley, which sounded like an Oasis concert earlier in the day, resounded with German cheers. A hair-raising viewing experience, it had the pacing, tension and gasp-inducing ending of a David Fincher movie. Unfortunately, for England, theirs was an ending as gut-wrenching and as hard to stomach as ‘Se7en’.
Germany’s reward was a meeting with the Czechs in the showpiece. They won it, of course, Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal giving Die Mannschaft their third European title.
England, almost a quarter of a century on, are still chasing that high of reaching a tournament final. But 1996, with its mix of German success, home soil agony and Gazza’s tap-in-that-never-was, arguably cuts as deep as any missed opportunity.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11