BY PAUL McPARLAN – @pmaccap
“When Football Came Home” was published prior to the European Championships of this year and in addition to reviewing the footballing events of 1996, it tries to place them in the wider cultural context of the rise of Britpop, New Labour and the media buzz phrase of the time “Cool Britannia”.
The author, Michael Gibbons, may be known to some readers as the co-writer of the critically acclaimed book “Danish Dynamite”, a study of the cult Danish football team of the 1980s. This featured an eye catching photograph of the shirt worn by the Danish team in 1986 on the cover and “When Football Came Home” also grabs your immediate attention with the classic shot of Paul Gascoigne being a stud’s width away from scoring the goal which would have placed England in the final.
It is probably a depressing reflection on the lack of international success of our national team that there is still an audience who may want to read about how we lost a semi-final of a major championship. Somehow, I cannot imagine there would be a huge number of football fans in Germany wanting to read about how they lost the World Cup semi-final to Italy in 2006. However, the World Cup of 1990 generated a number of impressive books which reached a wider audience and perhaps this study of Euro ‘96 may do the same.
This is a well-planned, meticulously researched and carefully structured description of the events of England’s progress in the tournament and the depth of descriptive writing engages the reader from the start. It commences with the impact of England’s performance in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, covers the failures of the European Championship in Sweden in 1992 and finally the disastrous qualification campaign for the 1994 World Cup, both under the leadership of the still much derided Graham Taylor. The search for a new England manager which ended with the appointment of Terry Venables is covered in detail. It then progresses to analysing the two-year period prior to the competition starting before moving onto the infamous “Dentist’s Chair” incident in Hong Kong and England’s attempt to win the trophy.
The difficulty facing any author in describing a major football event is that we already know the outcome, the ending cannot be changed. The key is to add to our understanding of what happened by trying to analyse why the competition unravelled in the way it did. We need to understand the thought processes that informed team selection, how key injuries unbalanced the formations, what pressures both personal and professional were evolving behind the closed doors of the dressing room and did the internal politics of the Football Association have some influence on the outcome. On the footballing side, Michael Gibbons cannot be faulted. However, in my opinion he struggles when trying to link events on the pitch to the wider cultural sphere involving Blur, Blair, Oasis and the whole concept of “the summer that nobody really wanted to end”. But more about that later, this is primarily a football book.
I enjoyed reliving both the background to the competition and England’s progress to the semi-final. Michael Gibbons has unearthed many nuggets that I must have previously wiped from my mind, such as the much maligned Mike Walker being considered as a serious contender for the England job in 1994; also that Andy Cole was given a mere nineteen minutes in an England shirt before being discarded by Venables. Between 1990 and 1995, Paul Gascoigne had only played twelve games for England in five years and that Venables asked David Seaman to take him fishing as it helped calm Gazza down between matches. Prior to the start of the first game at Wembley, there was a parade of “footballing legends” amongst whom, for some reason, was Emlyn Hughes who the crowd, demonstrating their football knowledge, loudly booed. And, of course, who can forget the impact of that song by Broudie, Baddiel and Skinner.
Many of the organisational concerns are highlighted. The lurking threat of hooliganism was ever present, particularly after the riot that forced the abandonment of the Ireland vs. England game in 1995. Attendances were also an issue. Many games were conspicuous by the number of empty seats in the stadia, only 21,000 turned up to watch the Czech Republic play Russia at Anfield. It is also still shameful that a number of the teams were asked to train at non-league grounds. Germany refused to use Macclesfield’s ground at Moss Rose; manager Bertie Vogts stated that it was the worst training pitch that had ever been given to a German team. Even on the day of England’s quarter-final against Spain, the Spanish F.A. returned 6,000 unsold tickets for general sale. Even worse, the two semi-finals were staged on the same day, leading many fans to leave before the end of extra time to head home to watch the England semi-final.
The England vs. Germany game occupies most of the concluding chapters. The author examines both the tabloid and media previews and coverage of the gap. Any decent person will still despair at seeing such headlines as “Achtung, Surrender“ in the Daily Mirror and “Let’s Blitz Fritz “ in the Sun. It comes as no surprise when Michael Gibbons reveals that Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, had planned several more jingoistic stunts involving tanks and Spitfires which thankfully did not come to fruition.
I agree with the author that the semi-final did bring the nation together in a fashion that has not been seen for twenty years since. Many businesses closed early to let supporters return home to watch the encounter (sadly, the school I worked in decided to hold a parent evening that night and refused to budge). The twists and turns of the match and the emotional rollercoaster that all England fans experienced on that fateful evening are recreated and analysed in a thoughtful and unprejudiced manner. I was totally unaware that for once England had practised penalties but sadly had only prepared to take five, therefore they had not anticipated that it might continue into sudden death, a glaring oversight. Gareth Southgate volunteered to take the penalty, (his previous record one taken, one missed) and proceeded to hit an awful penalty which was easily saved by the German keeper Kopke. Tony Adams revealed that he went on a seven week bender after the game, I can’t say I blame him.
The author, in keeping with his central thesis, argues that this game marked the end of “Cool Britannia”, which is quite strange considering that it was the flag of St. George, not the Union Jack which was the prominent feature of Euro 96. He claims that in 1996 the world was “under the spell of Cool Britannia” in particular the music of both Blur and Oasis. This is despite the fact that prior to 1996, these groups between them achieved four chart placing on the US Billboard Charts, the highest reaching number 8 and the others not even troubling the Top 50. Hardly world dominance by any standards, especially compared to The Beatles who at one time held the five top positions in the Billboard charts in the Sixties. It is true that Blur and Oasis may have been the idols of the “Loaded” generation but most females of my acquaintance from that generation have far fonder memories of Take That than Britpop. And, of course, in July 1996, a group called the Spice Girls had their first number one UK hit and surely they, in terms of worldwide sales, were the true element of “Cool Britannia”? The Spice Girls and the rise of the Premier League – a story waiting to be told?
The book would have benefitted from a detailed appendix with fixture and table information and also from a more detailed analysis of where some of the key players are now but, this is a very enjoyable book. Reading through it, I was transported back to 1996 again and it is to the author’s credit that, on the football history side, he has succeeded in bringing back to life the highs and lows of what was, from an English perspective, an unforgettable journey. It may be a long time before the next one.