Twenty (more) years of hurt
Twenty years. Wow. Feels a lot when I write that. Even longer when I say it out loud. But it really has been two entire decades since Euro 96; that long hot summer when I did more than just fall in love with the beautiful game. I became besotted by it.
That goal Gazza scored against Scotland became one of three “JFK” moments in my life to date (the others being when Lady Diana died and the 9/11 attacks), when I can still vividly picture my location, remember my thoughts and sense my feelings. Etched in my psyche, like it only happened yesterday.
I was 14, and had depressingly been talked into going to a summer fair at a local primary school with my best mate Tom. There were rumours that teachers would be dunked into a vat of water on an Aunt Sally machine, which was a key persuader for me, but the promise of the England-Scotland game being beamed live onto a 14-inch colour portable TV in one of the classrooms was the clincher.
Sure enough, three teachers received the full wrath of my right arm that afternoon as my accuracy with a bean bag proved particularly devastating. The perfect hors d'oeuvre to the big match at 3pm.
England had had a shaky start in the tournament with an unconvincing draw against the Swiss, so this was a must-win game to get out of the group, with few believing England could overpower the Dutch in the final group game (though we all remember how that turned out).
But when Gary McAllister missed his penalty with ten minutes to go – the penalty that could’ve brought Scotland level after Alan Shearer’s headed opener – it felt more like relief that we weren’t going to suffer another draw, and a likely early exit.Relief immediately became jubilation, as David Seaman launched the ball upfield up to Teddy Sheringham, who brought it down for Darren Anderton to play beautifully into Gazza’s path. And what happened next was just electrifying.
The feint to shoot before knocking it over Colin Hendry’s head with his left foot, then the most perfect of right foot shots to Andy Goram’s right and into the net. I can still feel it now; the hairs standing on end as I started hugging some random bloke who had also been dragged to the summer fair. As we bounced up and down in that way you do when your team scores. Sheer elation.
The atmosphere not just in that classroom, but everywhere you went that summer was just so special. A mixture of confidence, hope, and pride that we might actually win the tournament. There truly has been nothing like it since. Not internationally anyway.
Yes there was Michael Owen’s wonder goal in France 98, and there was Beckham’s free kick versus Greece to get us into the 2002 World Cup. Rooney bursting onto the scene in Euro 2004 was exciting. And there was even the 5-1 win in Berlin. But none of them quite as magical as that Gazza moment.
Twenty years and nothing to write home about. To put that timeframe into perspective, the rat-stachioed right-back Gary Neville was just 21 and the boy that was to become megastar David Beckham hadn’t yet scored the goal against Wimbledon from inside his own half. Yeah, that long.
It’s quite sad when you think about it. And about all the players that endured trophyless international careers since. McManaman, Owen, Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham, Ferdinand; all unplayable world-beaters on their day, but all having to get early planes home time after time.
And whether the blame lies at poor grass roots training, lack of investment in facilities, or a reliance on overseas talent at the top level, it’s such a shame that all the confidence, hope, and pride I felt during Euro 96 has never been emulated.
Can Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and co break the England curse in France? They turned things around in Germany last week, so anything is possible. Plus stranger things have happened. Just look at Leicester City.