BY DEREK BELL
Ah, the summer of 1996. One of those golden summers that has gone down in the mythology of English football. The summer of Britpop; of Three Lions, Cool Britannia, Loaded and the New Lad; of Blairism and New Labour. A summer where Britain, and England in particular, seemed to be rising on a wave of optimism and, as the title of this book would have it, the summer when football came home.
The subtitle ‘England, The English and Euro 96’ suggests the book is going to be about more than a catchy pop song and a failure so glorious that football did indeed come home. The cover art starts to suggest something else, the picture of Wembley’s Twin Towers against what looks like post-war wallpaper has a sepia tint that suggests an older period and, of course, there had to be picture of Paul Gascoigne; but not one in a white shirt turning Scotland’s Colin Hendry inside out, instead one in the uninspiring grey kit, red of face straining every sinew to try and reach the ball.
Hot on the heels of looking back 25 years to Italia ‘90 we now look back 20 years to Euro 1996 bringing those two recent high spots of English football, already strongly linked in the public perception, closer together and conveniently ignoring the intervening six years.
Gibbons realises that you can’t just jump into 1996 though and instead starts with Davide Gualtieri and the end of 1993 and a goal after 8.3 seconds for San Marino in the final qualifier for USA ‘94, and what effectively was the death of the post-Italia ‘90 optimism for the national team. It was a nadir no-one really expected to come. This was a strange, almost limbo period for English football – the Premier League had been born, Italia ‘90 had grabbed the imagination of those who previously had shown no interest in football, the Fever Pitch effect was taking effect as all seater stadia started popping up and football was moving away from the notorious description of being ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people’. Early 1994 would see a new post-llpub Friday night football show presented by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel tapping into the new mood.
It’s a perfect place to start the book – the championships had already been awarded to England in 1992, originally for eight teams but it would be expanded to 16 partly due to the changing face of post-Iron Curtain Europe. The failure to qualify for USA ‘94 was to be the end of Graham Taylor and the search for his replacement gives Gibbons the opportunity to show just how the FA worked, or perhaps more pointedly, didn’t work with various factions arguing for and against the appointment of Terry Venables. Despite his coaching experience in England and Spain, his fresh ideas, his media skills, he was not a universally popular choice within the FA due to his image away from football and his legal problems; something that was to hang over his whole tenure and effectively ensure he would never get beyond the end of Euro ‘96.
As he takes us through the friendlies England play in the two year build up, Gibbons shows a game that isn’t always the one which is painted in other features on 1996. We see a team struggling on the pitch, a team struggling with injuries and international retirements and a manager trying to impose his coaching philosophies and introduce new young players. This was a time when England didn’t sell out Wembley for friendlies even when Brazil were the opposition, though interestingly they could sell out Elland Road for Sweden. The riot in Dublin in early 1995 left a sense of unease but seemed out of sync with everything else going on in the country. Britpop was in the process of claiming the Union Jack back from the far right; Noel Gallagher could have a Union Jack guitar with little fear of criticism despite Morrissey receiving heavy criticism only two years earlier for waving the flag at Finsbury Park. Through these chapters building up to the finals, Gibbons weaves the cultural backdrop, the rise of Britpop, the rise of Blair, the growing sense of confidence in the country. It’s as if football is the last thing to be dragged kicking and screaming from the eighties into the bright lights of the nineties.
With the draw for the finals in December 1995 things start to become real, the finals are less than seven months away but still the FA struggle over Venables and early in 1996 it’s announced he will leave after the Euros – the off field problems becoming too much of an issue for the FA. By February 1996, Oasis are sweeping all before them and in a rare moment of actually getting the public mood right, the FA get Ian Broudie to write England’s song for the Euros. He in turn enlists Baddiel and Skinner in the process. What better synergy than a northern Britpop artist who has a song used on Match of the Day and the presenters of a programme making football palatable to the middle classes. What they were probably expecting was a joyous “we’re going to win” song. Instead they got something a bit more melancholic yet full of hope, something that was to capture the public imagination and propel Baddiel and Skinner into a different stratosphere. It didn’t take long for them to become portrait boys for the New Lads and the new football fan – as they did so they became less entertaining and more boorish – and set the template for Tim Lovejoy. Though it’s probably unfair to blame them for him, as they were at least long standing genuine football fans and could be genuinely funny.
Meanwhile England continued to struggle through friendlies in front of low crowds, with injuries stacking up and star striker Alan Shearer failing to score in a white shirt. Struggling through ‘96 what England clearly needed just before the tournament were two meaningless friendlies against appalling opposition half way round the world. So to a night out in Hong Kong, a dentist’s chair, ripped shirts, a damaged aeroplane and tabloid moral outrage. It was never easy to tell even at the time how much the country shared the outrage – in many ways the actions seemed typical of any group of young men or women let off the leash for the night – but in the end it would lead to one of the more iconic Gazza images, and we all laughed when he celebrated against Scotland (even this Scot).
From here on in Gibbons takes us into the tournament focussing on the England games but covering what else was happening in the other groups. It’s not presented as one happy festival of football from beginning to end played out on sun bleached pitches in front of packed crowds. Instead he gives a picture of a tournament where crowds were frequently low even in supposed football hot beds like Newcastle and Liverpool. As ever with England each game seems to have its own sub plot. From the tension of opening the tournament and a game that didn’t offer much encouragemen, through the Scotland game where again they underperformed until that moment of inspiration from Gascoigne and the mood in the country starts to change. Then there’s the game against the Dutch – a performance that no one expected and that grabbed the country’s attention. At this stage you expect the book to be carried along on a similar wave of optimism but Gibbons gives honest coverage of all the games and points out the Dutch game wasn’t the walkover the scoreline makes it sound. By now the tabloids have realised they need a change of tack – these are no longer a bunch of louts but a team that can go all the way. Sadly, rather than take the public mood of joy and hope that is rising to the background noise of ‘it’s coming home’, they take an over the top and increasingly jingoistic, nationalistic approach. It’s all meant to be good fun and you suspect an attempt at grabbing the Loaded, New Lad generation but it feels nasty and unneccesary. There’s a brutally honest report of the Spain game and the redemption of Stuart Pearce. Then there’s the semi-final against Germany, a game boiling over with sub plots and which would create its own future ones.
Throughout these chapters we follow other nations with their own dramas – from Croatia bursting on the scene to Bulgaria’s distaste for Scarborough to the regular Dutch camp implosion and the Czech’s alcohol consumption.
It’s a decent read and one that will fill the gaps between games over the next few weeks; it may even give you a glow as you struggle through some of the group games.
One thing lacking from the book is the voice of anyone involved at the time. This is a story told through the prism of personal memory and research through the media of the time. At times I wanted to hear what some of the characters involved say about it now, but generally I enjoyed this approach even if occasionally it felt like a gathering of cuttings and references. I also felt that Gibbons didn’t always have the courage of his convictions to carry an argument right through to the end, none more so than in his own conclusion where he seems torn between the two views of the tournament. It’s almost as if he realises looking back that actually it wasn’t that great but can’t rid himself of the fact that he had a fabulous time during it and that it is a memorable summer enhanced by the football. Which, in the end, will be the conclusion of many members of that generation who had Italia ‘90 as a child and Euro ‘96 as young adults, a memory soundtracked by a resurgent British music scene, a memory of a team that on occasion did actually play like they always hoped an English team would play, and because it’s England a memory of shattered hope.
A whole new generation will hope that this summer can provide something similar and in 20 years we’ll be reading about an English team competing in Europe against the background of a vicious referendum campaign, the threat of terrorism and striking French workers. It could be quite a book. Any aspiring authors out there might want to start jotting their thoughts down now – maybe a new summer is about to enter English football mythology.
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