When football came home - 25 years since Euro 96 captivated a nation
- Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images
As Euro 2020 finally kicks off, Nick Richards winds the clock back 25 years to June 1996 and an unforgettable few weeks in England
Given that major international tournaments happen every two years, it's rare that we get to celebrate the 25th anniversary of anything in football.
But thanks to Covid, tonight Euro 2020 kicks off a year late, 25 years to the week since England last hosted a major international tournament.
This year is different with games taking place all over the continent, but, just like in 1996, England will be Wembley-based (apart from a possible quarter-final), will face Scotland, have a reasonable side and are in with a shout of winning it.
England has only hosted two tournaments before and somewhat unbelievably it's 25 years this month since a song about it being 30 years since we won the World Cup topped the charts and soundtracked a three-week period when it felt great to be a young English man caught up in football fever.
Euro 96 stands up for me as a giant step in the post-Hillsborough rebranding of football, a notch on the ladder of Cool Britannia and a tournament that tipped its Three Lions beanie hat in the direction of both lad culture and Britpop.
The mood and feeling of early-90s brilliant British alternative homegrown TV, magazines, art, music and movies needed a cherry to top it all off and who can argue that Euro 96 didn't offer that?
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It was an era of Britpop, alcopops, Trainspotting, The Spice Girls, grandad shirts and slip dresses. I read Melody Maker and FHM and made compilation tapes. I used to wake up to Chris Evans on Radio One playing the indie pop hits that I'd go out and buy. Music from the same bands I'd see on TFI Friday or watch in London as a student.
Evans partied with Paul Gascoigne. David Baddiel and Frank Skinner hung out with the Lightning Seeds. Oasis wore Manchester City shirts and played gigs at Maine Road. Danny Baker was as passionate about football as about music. The two things that I and most of my friends loved had never seemed more closely linked.
First up it's worth remembering that it wasn't until after the dramatic, patriotic 1990 World Cup that football was a cultural hit once more.
Yet despite a new found love affair with the beautiful game, England were about to serve up half a decade of utter dross.
With Graham Taylor in charge they were woeful at Euro 92, scoring just one goal, and they didn't even qualify for USA 94. Players such as David Seaman, Tony Adams, Paul Ince, Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer, all in their prime, had missed out on a World Cup.
They'd form the spine of a side which England fans hoped would deliver some international success. Since Gazza's tears in Turin six years earlier, the national side hadn't won a game at a major tournament and going into Euro 96 I didn't particularly feel that they would come close.
England probably had better players in 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006 when they possibly could've won those tournaments, but Euro 96 felt special that it was starting and ending at Wembley, just eight miles from where I was living in Twickenham.
Friends had tickets to games. I remember seeing banners tied to lamp posts, there was an expectation that something big was happening. It had the same sort of feeling that the 2012 London Olympics did.
Just like back in 1966 when England won the World Cup, people who didn't really care if England won wanted to be part of the feelgood factor.
You can't blame them - who doesn't want to join in a nationwide party?
My dad was a couple of months from turning 20 in 1966. I was just 21 when England kicked off against Switzerland on June 8, 1996.
Euro 96 felt like it could be as important to my youth as the 1966 World Cup win was to his.
Those three weeks mirrored an incredibly carefree period for me. I'd just finished the first year at university and had the exact duration of the tournament off, bookended by moving out of a flat and starting a summer job.
It meant that on June 8, I had the flat to myself. I remember waking up, waking into Richmond, buying a Guardian and looking at the Euro 96 Panini stickers on sale in WH Smith.
I'd collected the stickers at every major tournament since Mexico 86 but at 21, with a girlfriend, social life and a bigger love of music, it felt incredibly sad to even think about collecting them this time.
As I paid for the paper I found myself reaching into a box and picking up a few packets along with an album.
"For old time's sake," I told myself.
Alone in my flat I paused the packing to watch the opening ceremony and England game with Switzerland and felt a real sense of anti-climax that England had only managed a draw.
The tournament was on the move and so was I.
I headed back to Norwich the next day and spent the week catching up with friends who I hadn't seen for months, going to gigs and spending what money I had on records at Lizard and Soundclash.
It's important to remember that Euro 96 was the last tournament to take place before the internet took off. I think it adds to the charm of those three weeks that you could only follow the action on the telly, the radio or in newspapers.
I mostly communicated by letter and phone then - there wasn't social media or iPlayer or podcasts. The BBC didn't have a proper website until 1997. You couldn't catch up on the highlights on YouTube. You had to be in the moment and watch the games there and then with family and friends. Surely it added to the feeling.
I know it did for me. I saw the Scotland game with my mate Jake in Norwich. To be fair England struggled to see off Scotland and it wasn't until that magic minute late in the second half when David Seaman saved a penalty a matter of seconds before Gazza's wonder goal that England fans could start to see a path to the last eight.
I was on the move again, up to Yorkshire for a week to stay with my brother, then studying for a PHD. I hadn't seen him since March.
He's not the biggest football fan but he got excited watching that incredible demolition of the Dutch. Aside from the 5-1 win in Germany five years later, it is the greatest England performance I've ever seen. The Dutch were no mugs and neither were Spain who ground out a tense 0-0 draw in the quarter-final before Stuart Pearce's penalty redemption set up that famous semi-final against Germany.
I was back in Norwich for that one. I was convinced England would go through and was in dreamland when Alan Shearer scored in the second minute. I was calling my then-girlfriend during the game to reassure her that England would be OK.
I felt almost sick with tension as the game headed toward extra time. The same feeling as sitting in the stands in Cardiff in extra time during Norwich City's 2002 play-off final.
I didn't know if I should stand up or sit down, be happy or sad or just bite my nails down to stumps and throw up.
And then in extra time - remember it was in the days of Golden Goals - England just had to score first to be in the final. Darren Anderton scuffed one against the post and then minutes later Alan Shearer crossed the ball to Gazza who was an agonising inch or two away from sticking the ball in the net.
The rest is history. England lost on penalties with current manager Gareth Southgate the unfortunate player to miss.
The day before the final I flew to Guernsey, where my girlfriend's parents lived, to start a job for the rest of the summer working at a flower company.
I'd left behind a nation still gutted about the climax of a tournament. I'd hardly missed any of the games, but like most of England I had no interest in the final. I remember spending the evening bathing the family dogs instead, such was my disinterest in watching Germany win it.
Eight days later The Spice Girls released Wannabe. In August David Beckham scored from the half way line against Wimbledon. In September he'd make his England debut.
The day after that I flew home from Guernsey ready to start a second term at university. Euro 96 was soon forgotten then. Football soon moved on.
Gazza wouldn't make the next World Cup, by then Posh and Becks were megastars, ushering in a new world of WAGs where footballer's wives became as famous as their husbands.
England would suffer further disappointments at major tournaments but none on home soil in front of such a passionate flag-waving crowd.
Euro 2020 will be the 20th football tournament that will take place since I was first aware they can stop you in your tracks, capture the collective hearts of a nation and shape your summer.
Euro 96 was no better than any other tournament. There were few goals, few standout moments and a grim finale.
But seeing those flags wave at Wembley, seeing the country wrapped up in a dream that could happen, the game against The Netherlands, Pearce's face after that penalty against Spain, Gazza's goal - and his semi-final miss - unforgettable.
Even looking at them now sparks off nostalgic memories when times were simpler, easier and possibly better.
For those moments alone, not to mention the gut-wrenching agony of watching Gareth Southgate's penalty miss, Euro 2020 will have to be something extraordinary to better it.