1996 and All That
The glorious summer when all things seemed possible, and the failure of promise
There are few times in history which those living through them did not describe as troubled. All times, it seems, are troubled times, described as such as if there were such a thing as untroubled times. In the 1990s, people believed themselves to be living in times as troubled as any other. George Costanza, for one, in Seinfeld, explaining his decision to convert to the Latvian Orthodox church. And, of course, the 1990s were troubled times for some – in Rwanda, for example, when the Hutu majority enacted a 100-day genocide against its Tutsi minority, leaving one million civilians dead. Or there was the Balkan conflict, the first war of such a scale to afflict Europe since the end of World War II.
And yet, for those living in the Anglo-European-American bubble of privilege, these were harrowing but faraway events. For them, the 1990s were Untroubled Times, the like of which we may never experience again. What had evaporated with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequently the Soviet Union was the ever-present threat of thermonuclear war. The iron curtain had lifted and Russia was now led by a genial, unthreatening, red-faced drunk called Boris. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, roosted in the White House, overseeing the New World Order with his crafty mix of youthful, urbane modernity and southern homeliness, gradually rebalancing the books after the ravages of the Reagan years.
In the UK, prosperity was on the rise too, following the fiasco of 1992 when the UK crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. And yet, despite the economic blue skies of the mid-1990s, it was common knowledge that John Major’s hapless Tory government was fading to grey, a dead administration walking. With the exception of the short-lived interregnum of Edward Heath, politics in the UK tends to move in long cycles of around a decade and a half between Labour and Conservative. In 1964, Britain was fed up of the Tories, ready at last for the 60s and to elect Harold Wilson. In 1979, the UK was fed up of Labour and voted for the Tories to relieve us of the discontent and rubbish piled high in the 1970s. By 1996, Britain was once again fed up of the Tories, their socially reactionary politics, their venality, sleaze and rotten sense of entitlement to rule. They were ready for some white heat, embodied in the PM in waiting, Tony Blair, whose rejection of both Tory rule and Labour dogma felt like a truly fresh and Hegelian resolution of the UK’s chronic woes.
Peace and prosperity. And a certain very British frivolity which manifested itself in a new anti-seriousness, a laddishness instilled by magazines like Loaded, which were a reaction to what was perceived as the sombre, po-faced, politicised, PC-driven leftist culture of the 1980s. With a few extra quid in its pocket and prospects looking bright, Britain hadn’t felt this cocksure, this pleased with itself since – well, 30 years earlier, when Carnaby Street ruled the waves and the Union Jack was semi-ironically appropriated by a stylish young conflation of designers, artists, models and mod-ish art-pop bands from the Small Faces to The Who. The Beatles and the Stones, of course, reigned internationally. America had little in the way of a Great White Answer, with Elvis and now the Beach Boys lapsed.
1966 had also been the year England won the World Cup, a triumph with which an emphatically re-elected Harold Wilson was keen to align himself.
At some collective subconscious level, it was as if there was a need in 1996 to recreate the sanguine conditions of 1966, right across the board. All the ducks were floating into a row. Tony Blair was our new Wilson, arrived to restore Labour’s place as the People’s Government. Oasis were our Beatles, a collective North-West English white guitar phenomenon, whose antics and activities were a common talking point around every water cooler. They were a reaction to the fragmentary, local, iconoclastic, anti-monolithic music scene that had followed punk. Musically things were a bit too fragmentary and eclectic by half for a great many people. Goldie? DJ Shadow? Stereolab? Too many names. Just give us one name, I found myself asked at parties and dinners when it arose that I was a music journalist, the Next Big Thing, the Thing we can agree on. Since the rise of the Stone Roses, there had been a desire for mass sensation, a feeling of all of us in the same place worshipping in the same direction, experiencing the same experience. A bit like the football.
Such was the optimism of 1996 – fervent, nationally triumphalist and yet reactionary and retrograde, flinching from the future; as if a sense of British pre-eminence, of Cool Britannia could only be achieved by a re-enactment of the past than any great thing the present or the impending 21st century had to offer. It was very much of the moment, of Being Here Now, glad time to be alive, all together, faces fixed firmly on the past. The jangling, classic guitar stylings of Britpop and the suedes and corduroys and moptops sported by many of its practitioners, were the signature soundtrack of the era. Unlike the 1960s, which looked forward to an impending Aquarian age and ushered in a new era of permissiveness, experimentalism and free thought, there was none of that about 1996, which imagined a world frozen around the time the Beatles made “Paperback Writer” and in which the extra-time of the 1966 final was on a perpetual loop.
All of these influences – the retro-shambling sensibility, the footy, the new laddish anti-seriousness, were embodied in Fantasy Football, hosted by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner and in particular “Three Lions”, the song they recorded with trad-indie songwriter Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds. The idea that football, comedy and pop music would be convergent in this knowing way was, as it happened, a new one. The rise of football fanzines, spearheaded by When Saturday Comes, as well as the minor roles played by figures like John Peel, Pat Nevin and Nick Hornby, had established that football was a reasonable preoccupation for inoffensive, reflective Guardian-reading sorts of bloke, not merely stereotypical bog roll-throwing knuckleheads of Giles cartoon folklore; they also performed the more serious task of asserting that football fans as a whole weren’t the “scum” of popular tabloid imagination but citizens with the same rights to health and safety and consideration from the authorities as anyone else.
Conversely, a preoccupation with football showed a lack of preciousness; to get all daft and passionate about something that didn’t ultimately seriously matter showed that you were matey, not too far up yourself like those pallid 80s Joy Division types with their overcoats and Sartre novels. Such was the new man in the 1990s. Liked his music, his football and his ironic, post-PC comedy. Wasn’t apolitical, but savvy, post-political. Because politics, in the 1990s, was sorted. Our troubles were over.
Fantasy Football was funny, benefiting from its shambolic performance, its re-enactments of old goals, items like Jeff Astle Sings and general puncturing of some of the hyperbole and tension with which the game had become inflated as Sky began to pump in its millions. Funny up to a point; its persistent taunting of Jason Lee and his “pineapple” haircut felt deeply uncomfortable, especially when David Baddiel got himself up in blackface to add to the mockery, as if to prove some point about post-political correctness. The guests did not always play along – they found themselves upbraided by, of all people, the Emmanuelle star Sylvia Kristel, presumably invited on in a Loaded spirit for a spot of bantz. Following a less than amusing item involving black football she snapped, “I do not approve of racism!” Skinner and Baddiel sank chastened into their chairs.
However, come Euro 96 and the Skinner/Baddiel/Broudie-penned anthem “Three Lions”, a fervent gleam entered Skinner’s eye in particular. There was a certain quiet clenching of the fists, a whitening of the knuckles. Actually, this really mattered. The phrase “coming home” had a real resonance. Where and why had we wandered since 1966? “Thirty years of hurt” felt like it referred to more than England’s successive failures even to qualify for international tournaments in the past three decades, let alone be competitive in them. It was the hurt associated with being British – the sense of smallness and moribundity inculcated by the strife and crisis-ridden 1970s, the punitive ravages of Thatcherism in the 1980s in which Britain felt like it was being broken up for scrap and national pride was the province of Little Englanders clutching shares in privatised utilities rather than the nation as a whole. After further recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, it suddenly felt that Britain was muddling through, a more service industry based, post-modern, cleaner, post-industrial, heritage version of itself but itself nonetheless – and, thanks to Sky, the boost of Italia 90 and the emotionally redemptive effect of Gazza’s tears, and detoxifying measures such as the Taylor Report and the rebuilding of stadiums, football was back on top. England was back.
The euphoria of 1990 was put on hold by the appointment of the late Graham Taylor, whose lacklustre campaign in Euro 92, when England were brushed aside by Sweden, and failure to qualify altogether for the 1994 World Cup attracted derision and opprobrium and tabloid comparisons with root vegetables. The immense decency for which he has properly been credited since his death in January went unacknowledged in his England heyday. He was a laughing stock, the wrong sort of Englishman, a bane of excellence – the sort of provincial jobsworth who somehow ended up in positions of authority only to hamper English exceptionalism. All small-minded functionalism and no imagination, was it any wonder he picked the likes of Carlton Palmer and overlooked the likes of Matthew Le Tissier?
His successor Terry Venables, however, was altogether more amiable not just to Fleet Street but also the spirit of the country in 1996. He represented the Cockney flair of 30 years previously – Spurs-Chelsea up for the FA Cup in 1967, a spot of West London panache, a throwback to breezier, cockier, more charismatic times. Graham Taylor, as the documentary Do I Not Like That hilariously showed, could barely speak properly. (“Can we not knock it?”). Venables had patter. He even dabbled in showbiz, co-creating the detective series Hazell. He might have stepped out of a Blur song. He was even a bit of a chancer in his business dealings which humanised him that bit more, a ducker and diver who made the blazers of the FA harrumph – not their sort of man, but certainly, for English fans, their sort of bloke. He would lead England into Euro 96, on home turf, in the shadows of the twin towers, like Sir Alf before him.
Britpop had defined itself, through Blur and interviews they gave around 1993, as a resistance to overbearing American cultural domination. Blur strove to bring back to the front and centre of UK pop the stuff of these isles – horse brasses and dog tracks, parks and package holidays. Oasis, meanwhile, would bring cigarettes, alcohol and achievable dreams of rock’n’roll stardom that didn’t depend on Stateside approval. In the early 1990s, British pop culture had endured the prolonged, despondent drizzle of grunge, culminating in Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana and his suicide. England’s turn now.
Euro 96 would be England’s chance to define itself against Europe. So little has changed in terms of cultural output in these last 20 years that 1996 can feel a bit like yesterday. The gap between 1996 and 2016 feels a great deal smaller than the one between 1996 and 1976, still less the one between 1976 and 1956. It’s therefore striking to recall precisely how “other” European football felt 21 years ago, with the implications of the recent Bosman ruling yet to impact fully and even the big teams mostly comprising players from the British Isles. Foreign players had a way of seeming particularly foreign, either exotic or other in terms of their skills or the character they projected on the field. (Let’s quietly forget Manchester United’s William Prunier here). Éric Cantona, rampant in 1996, projected almost a Depardieu-esque caricature of Frenchness, in both his wayward temperament and the arrogant panache with which he played the game. He had been the difference between United and Liverpool in a tight, disappointingly dour 1996 FA Cup final, arrowing in the only goal of the game. Dennis Bergkamp, meanwhile, recently signed at Arsenal, brought with him a coldly brilliant technical acumen that seemed to derive from a wholly different, more advanced continental culture. Their on-field domination, the acres they garnered in media coverage and the legends they forged belie how few foreign players there were in the mid-90s.
Today, when Arsenal field teams composed entirely of foreign players it excites little comment. So great is the extent to which the Premier League has hoovered up overseas talent that international tournaments can feel in part like mere composites of assorted English teams, players ranging from Manchester City to Reading. Furthermore, given the multi-national nature of our domestic league and the financial strength of club football the fact that teams are ranged against other based on which country they happened to be born in can feel almost quaint nowadays.
None of that in 1996. The sense of national difference was stronger and the sense of foreign-ness of foreign teams and players greater. Klinsmann’s arrival at Spurs had bridged a certain Germanophobic gap but Germany still felt like a team from another, mullet-benighted country and culture altogether, inscrutably efficient killjoys, of English joy in particular.
Now, once again, it was the turn of them Germans, them Dutch, them Spanish to come over here and try their luck against a national thrumming once more to the effervescent rhythms of the theme to The Italian Job.
That said, the bifurcated nature of media drum-banging was in full effect in the run-up to the tournament. And in the warm-up matches, the percussive sound was more akin to that of aristocrats being wheeled in tumbrils to the guillotine. Not initially, however. There was a febrile return to the going-to-the-dogs narrative in a friendly match in Hong Kong during the run-up to the tournament. England had performed indifferently in a 1-0 victory against a local XI and Venables’ claim that the grass had been too long for the players’ liking had been branded “the most pathetic excuse ever” by the Mirror, which in time would outdo even the Sun in its nationalist histrionics. The real ire was reserved for Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, about whom the tabloids had never quite been able to make up their minds: stout fellow, cheeky chappie and salt of the earth, or hooligan, boorish scum? Pictures of his 29th birthday celebrations, which involved thousands of pounds’ worth of damage on a Cathay Pacific flight, were splashed across the front page of the Sun, who condemned Gazza as “a drunken oaf with no pride”. The lack of pride was the key point at this vital juncture; suspicions were already growing that these increasingly well-paid players thought more of playing for their clubs than of the allegiance they owed to their country. They appeared to be oblivious to the fact that they were carrying not just England’s footballing hopes but the esteem of a nation, yearning in the bright blue Nineties to pick up where they left off in the Swinging Sixties when we swung, granted, but swung sensibly. As an admonition, Alf Ramsey was trundled out by the Mirror to write a column titled “I’d kick you out, Gazza”, in which he assured the player that his antics would not have been tolerated in his World Cup winning squad of 1966.
Simultaneously, the Mirror ran with the slogan, “WE DID IT IN ’66, WE’LL DO IT IN ’96”, with Alf Ramsey balancing his remarks about Gazza’s dispensability with the observation that he could be “England’s match winner and inspiration”. Meanwhile, a piece in the Sun appeared under the by-line of England player Paul Ince, who wrote that, “The time has come for the footballing bulldog breed of old England to strike back. Patriot missiles if you like… This team is good enough to inherit the fame of Sir Alf’s boys.” The phrase “Patriot missiles” was an interesting one; it had become familiar to TV spectators of the first Gulf War of 1991, in reference to the missiles used to repel Saddam Hussein’s Scuds. The Brits had been heavily involved in that war with Operation Granby; this was the New World Order, in which war was no longer stupid, as Eighties Boy George had insisted, but a liberal imperative — one in which Britain would play a starring and benevolent role. The Cold War had ended, but the spirit of bellicosity continued to glow hard and nowhere more so than in discussing England’s sporting chances.
Paul Ince did a lot of work for the rebranded England of 1996, the team and a perception of the country with which even Skinner and Baddiel-watching liberals could feel comfortable. The England team, as with the Britpop scene in general, felt excessively Caucasian for some – the Euro 96 squad featured just three black players, two of whom, Sol Campbell and Les Ferdinand, were second stringers. Paul Ince, however, the self-styled “Guv’nor”, was a regular. He would eventually show the ultimate commitment to the English cause in 1998, continuing playing despite sustaining a head injury, his white headband stained with his own blood in a manner reminiscent both of Terry Butcher in 1989 against Sweden and of the colours of the flag of St George, which from the 1996 tournament enjoyed a rehabilitation.
Ince was crucial in this respect, his self-proclaimed credentials as an Englishman truly vital in reclaiming the flag of St George from the far right; parties such as the National Front and BNP, whose influence on club football had sunk to a low ebb since the 1980s, but whose increasingly elderly membership still turned out for internationals. As recently as February 1995, Combat 18 members had been responsible for rioting at a friendly fixture at Lansdowne Road between the Republic of Ireland and England, which had to be abandoned in the first half. Still, with their antiquated chants of “No Surrender to the IRA”, they felt like obnoxious relics of an era England was getting past. The fluttering of St George flags like cleaned bedsheets from windows in the warm, sunlit run-up to Euro 96 felt as if to say that the scum of yesteryear had been washed away. English pride, shared by Ince, was no longer a racist sentiment. A nation like England could never feel entirely at ease with itself, but in 1996, England felt as at ease with itself as England was capable of feeling.
Still, after years of hurt, it would be great to stuff the rest of Europe and show that football was at last coming home to the land of Bobby Moore.
England made an inauspicious start to the tournament, only managing a draw with relatively lowly Switzerland. Alan Shearer, bullet-headed epitome of English pride, scored, but then they had allowed the Swiss back into the game to equalise with a penalty. Next up were Scotland and the pattern was repeated, with a goal by Shearer followed by a clumsy tackle by Tony Adams, donkey to Taylor’s turnip in the tabloid fables of folly, and here we went again. Except Seaman saved the penalty and in the blink of an eye a peroxided Gazza received the ball upfield, looped it over the head of doughty Scottish defender Colin Hendry and then angled it expertly into the bottom left hand corner. Vindication for the “drunken oaf”, whose immediate reaction was to parody tabloid pictures of him being plied with drink. No apology for his high jinks; it was as though vodka and carousing lent him his élan on the pitch. Moreover, although displaying enormous skill, nothing felt schematic about this goal – nothing premeditated or drilled or taught by any suspiciously advanced coaching manual. This goal was a product of sheer mischief, created in the moment.
Gascoigne was a figure who had transcended football culture to become a part of popular culture; certainly not through the merits of his brief, post-1990 pop career in which he released a bumptious, ravey cover of Lindisfarne’s “Fog on the Tyne”. Impetuous and sputteringly brilliant as a player, he was the extreme epitome of English laddishness in the 1990s; irreverent, volatile, sweet, drunken, boorish but engaging, the sort of one-man liberated force every Loaded reader might have dreamed of being, if not constrained by their office jobs and their Sunday pub team mediocrity. An über-oaf. His antics had a random, surreal quality which Danny Baker found beguilingly life-affirming. In Going Off Alarming, the second volume of his memoirs, Baker describes, hilariously but also persuasively and movingly, an incident in which Gazza, typically acting on a childlike impulse with unique adult privileges, commandeered a London bus in the middle of its route and, unbeknown to its passengers, drove it a short distance before disembarking. This was the frivolity of the 90s in extremis, à la Seinfeld, Vic Reeves, in its own way; stuff about nothing but because nothing quite mattered the way it used to in these untroubled times.
In the final game of the group stages, England met the Netherlands. This was a grudge match of sorts since, thanks to some dubious refereeing, the Netherlands had beaten England 2-0 to deny them their place in the 1994 World Cup. However, those of us watching imagined a difficult game which England might just shade if they were lucky but in which a draw would be respectable. Instead, England’s stars tore the Dutch apart, the likes of Ince, Sheringham, Anderton, Shearer and especially Gascoigne playing to their maximum potential, threading past the opposition with an unexpected panache, with Gascoigne the midfield orchestrator.
It was a combination of John Bullseye directness, epitomised by the two goal scorers Sheringham and Shearer but also the more silken aspects of the build-up play, such as the right heel drag by Paul Ince prior to being tripped by Danny Blind to earn England’s first penalty. This was one of the euphoric moments of the summer in which, fleetingly, notions of English pre-eminence did not seem delusional. 4-1. Describing the game in a later, retrospective TV show, Danny Kelly bristled with boyish, parochial excitement as he described the joy of Shearer’s third goal hitting the back of the net; “players you watched every week” putting it across to international opposition. Such was the distance between the English and the Foreign back then that you could still feel that way. The world was bigger then. By 2017, pretty much all players were players the reasonably dedicated British football fan watched every week.
The crowd at Wembley, St George’d up to the hilt, were overwhelmingly white and male but with a certain rounded non-threatening air about them rather than the clenched, noxious rage associated with English supporters and which Lansdowne Road had shown was by no means extinct. These looked like the sort of white English fan who enjoyed Prince and felt a bit guilty about not having more black mates. But still, seeing off the Dutch in this manner clearly meant an enormous amount to most of them. This was football’s own, too-rare answer to the euphoria of a mass Oasis gig.
As a music journalist in 1996 I was disdainful of the Oasis phenomenon. I found alien also the new spirit of laddishness, the postmodern rehabilitation of words like “bird” and the ironic-but-not-very-ironic re-objectification of young female stars in mags like FHM. As a creature formed in the 1980s, the era of Joy Division, I was utterly alienated by the retro-conservative, lairy spirit of the Britpop 90s. I hated all that. However, as a football fan I was entirely in the spirit of the times when it came to Euro 96. I loved it like Kevin Keegan. As one whose memories of watching England stretched back to the 1970 World Cup and England’s eventual 3-2 capitulation to West Germany, and a long series of subsequent let-downs, I was jumping up and down in spirit with Baddiel and Skinner. I couldn’t pretend to be one of those clever, “Anyone but England” fans. I wanted them to win because that’s what I’d always wanted since I was a kid.
The quarter-final against Spain was more fraught, with England lucky to make it to penalties, having benefitted from at least one dubious offside decision. However, here again, something quite un-English happened that made one wonder, in a half-formed sort of way, if St George had acquired a special dispensation from the footballing gods. England won, on penalties - penalties! - with Stuart Pearce, who had famously missed his in 1990, taking up the ball determined to slay the dragon of that memory. As he cannoned it home, it was as if his courage were unscrewing from a terrible sticking point. His face, normally a stoical blank, even when he had scored in an FA Cup Final in 1991 against Spurs, exploded through a range of unrepressed contortions; not just the expected “YESSS!!!!” but the sort of childlike, quivering frown that crosses a child’s countenance before it bursts into tears, as if in deep resentment at the injustice that he, proud Englishman Stuart Pearce, had had to wait so long for this moment. It was a moment of ugly/beautiful British emotion, a sense that something was bursting through at long last. With that net-bursting penalty, Pearce had not just scored but blasted away a mental block. England need never have any fear of the penalty shoot-out again.
And so, once more, Germany in the semi-final and a chance to make 1990 right. And 1972 and 1970, for that matter, previous tournaments in which the old vanquished Teutons had shown themselves to have assumed a palpable superiority against England that rankled because it seemed to speak a broader truth.
In 1996 the Mirror was under the editorship of Piers Morgan, who came across as someone desperately trying to be an authentic tabloid editor, like the middle-class bloke trying to ingratiate himself with the regulars in a greasy spoon. As such, he miscalculated wretchedly. On the day of the match, his Mirror carried the headline, “Achtung! Surrender! The Mirror Declares War on Germany,” accompanied by an image of Stuart Pearce in the Tommy Atkins-style tin helmet of a British soldier. Even with postmodern “patriotism” at large in the country, his own was just plain crass and failed to resonate with a nation whose generations of war evacuees were now approaching pensionable age. Terry Venables himself felt obliged to come out with a pointed public statement that this was just a football match; we were not at war.
Still, there was a residue of frustration and anger at high-achieving, perhaps even lucky Germany, which was more about an English sense of under-achievement by comparison. There was a temptation, in the context of football to regard Germany balefully, the way Homer Simpson regarded Ned Flanders. Always, it seemed to be Germany standing in the way, not baby-bayonetting, goose-stepping, monocle-tweaking Nazi Germany, but unruffled, sophisticated, high-functioning, slightly effete, post-war Germany, Kraftwerk Germany. God, felt even I, a fan not just of Kraftwerk but Can, Neu!, Faust, Herzog, Wenders, Stockhausen, WG Sebald, if only we could bloody beat Germany.
I watched the game with colleagues in the Stamford Arms, near IPC magazines, watching the TV screen between two bottles of wine, bought in advance, like the hairs of triggers. A small part of me was embarrassed at the fervent anticipation roiling in me, how deeply I was embroiled in the current national mood of expectation. I cheered as loudly as anyone when Shearer scored the first goal, heading in from close range through the German goalkeeper’s legs from a Gascoigne corner. We rocketed from our seats and hoped for a Holland-style rout, but Germany took the setback calmly, stayed organised and shortly afterwards equalised through Stefan Kuntz, his surname forcing a bleak moment of comedy as English commentator Brian Moore in announcing it sounded like he was expressing a non-neutral opinion about England’s opponents.
The remainder of the game was tight; the drama only resumed with extra time, which took place under the recently introduced, later discarded Golden Goals rule. Kuntz netted but it was disallowed; and then, here it came, coming up, coming up … Sheringham played a crossfield ball out right to Shearer, who put in a low half-volley across the six-yard box, to Gazza, coming up, coming up, a suddenly gaping goal; all he needed to do was connect with his left foot, only connect and it’s there …
In the run-up to Euro 96, it was well documented that Gazza liked a night out with a handpicked selection of celebrity mates including the embodiment of the spirit of 96, DJ and now TV host Chris Evans. I couldn’t abide the man. He struck me as a desperately poor and stupid man’s Howard Stern, a fugitive from the coloured-rimmed spectacled world of wet T-shirt competitions and mobile discos. To me, he was the anti-John Peel – loud and witless, boorishly ambitious, as clueless about music as a thousand Dave Lee Travises and yet he it was who was wheeled out to interview the likes of Björk and Damon Albarn, like he was some sort of leading edge figure.
He covered all angles of the Britpop square, however, and was also big drinking mates with Danny Baker and Paul Gascoigne. Gazza appeared on TFI Friday. He and Evans and Baker caroused, frequented Soho diners, shared late night kebabs, heroes of the hedonistic spirit of the age.
Now it was his moment. Connect with Sheringham’s goal and England would explode. Only connect. But … one too many kebabs. He fell a crucial yard of pace short and the ball drifted harmlessly away. One too many kebabs. There it was and that was that. Gazza had missed his opportunity and it was Chris Evans’s fault. One too many kebabs.
In that moment, the scales fell away. Gascoigne’s miss had inadvertently shown that England’s lingering sense of cultural entitlement and pre-eminence was irreconcilable with its lairy, ostentatious, braying penchant for hedonism as a boot stamp of national identity. At some point, you have to be serious. German-serious.
England lost on penalties to Germany; of course they did. The mental block instantly reinstated. When it came to cool and technique and self-confidence, they would always fall short, still more so in future tournaments when they failed worse, not better. Because England was condemned to refuse not to be England.
At the end of the game, a small bloke sitting alone at an adjacent table took umbrage at the glum silence that settled on the pub. He rounded on us, “Well, c’mon, are we English or what? That was a fackin’ good effort. Give us a fackin’ round of applause, eh? Let’s fackin’ ‘ave it!”
Types like us, part-time patriots, suffered similar England Expects moments in the aftermath of the game. Nick Hornby recalled coming away from Wembley and being confronted by a “confrontational nutter” wrapped in the flag of St George who approached him and his friends and asked, “Do you love England, lads? Do you really love England?” Expediently, they assured him that they did. “Well, fucking sing up for them, then,” he commanded.
We might have told our bloke where to stick his compulsory patriotism and mind his own business, but having so clearly been wracked with support for our national team it would have been impossible, or at least hypocritical, to pretend we were above that sort of thing. We weren’t. And so, sheepishly, we did as told and applauded. It felt like a double defeat. In central London, there were 200 arrests as angry, overheated fans, dehydrated by lager and frustration, went on the rampage. In Brighton, a 17 year old from Russia was stabbed several times on suspicion of being German. Never mind coming home – time to go home.
Unexpected futures were on the cusp of being born in 1996. The internet would, over the next few years, transform from a quirky, dial-up add-on for computer geeks and discussion groups to a ubiquitous feature of everyday life, with massive consequences for all aspects of human interaction. Later that year, an obscure, bespectacled fellow of Alsatian descent and no footballing pedigree of which anyone was aware would take over as manager of Arsenal. He would bring with him advanced scientific methods in match preparation, in which nutrition would play a starring role – English football would enter a post-English, post-pie and beer era.
There would follow one spectacular act of footballing vengeance on Germany, once England had broken with tradition, embraced sophistication and appointed a foreign manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson. A 5-1 away victory, in September 2001 in the World Cup qualifiers, rubbed out the 1-0 setback England had suffered at Wembley which had prompted Kevin Keegan, in an emotional admission of English smallness, to resign. It was a last, happy-go-lucky national moment. A week later, it and everything else was utterly overshadowed by 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center which marked the end of Untroubled Times.
Twenty years on, 2016. The mood of inclusive and renewed patriotism that marked Euro 96 and the impending change of government has given way to the ugly fear, ignorance and anti-immigrant loathing which underscored the Brexit vote. Three days later, on June 27, an England team who had inspired no particular hope of glory faced Iceland. This time, it was political. There was something more important at stake than Rooney’s march to triumph. I wanted Iceland to win; to puncture and disabuse the notion of innate English superiority and entitlement which fuelled the calamitous decision to vote to leave the EU. England somehow winning the competition would have been an appalling fillip for Gove, Duncan Smith, Farage et al. England needed symbolically cutting down. Thankfully, an England team who seemed at once complacent and cowed, distracted and desperate, obliged, losing 2-1.
1996 was a year blighted by Caucasian retro-laddishness and Cool Britannia delusions which, then as now, deserved to die away. Given the opportunity of peace and prosperity presented in the 1990s, what did we do with ourselves? Seek to evolve and advance on the End of History platform and its promise of a thousand-year rule of peace and democracy? No. We went down the pub. We tried to reverse 30 years rather than look to the future. And yet, given the miserable weather we’re currently enduring and the storms yet to come, I often yearn for the sunshine of 1996, epitomised for me, shamefully, down the pub, when Shearer blasted it into the Dutch net to make it 3-0 and I cheered as hard as I’ve cheered about anything in my life.