This was the tenth UEFA European Championship. England was the host nation for the first time and it was the first international tournament in the country since the 1966 World Cup.
Similarities were made with the ’66 tournament as, for the first time, the Euros would be contested by 16 nations. When the bidding was open all countries were expecting another eight-nation competition. Austria, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal all put bids in, along with England. After choosing the host, UEFA eventually announced they were expanding the tournament. The break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia gave UEFA more competing nations, so an expanded finals seemed sensible. England was also a good venue for this, with so many stadiums equipped to handle hosting without any need to build.
For people like me who were born just after 1966, we grew up hearing stories of that competition and how it was a fantastic time bringing the whole country together. The tales were told with an undertone smugness in how we’d never see the like again. That was until 1996.
There was a great similarity to that fabulous World Cup, as this competition would feature 16 teams, as that World Cup had 30 years before.
After missing out on USA ’94, England embarked on a new era with Terry Venables taking over from Graham Taylor. An engaging, and innovative coach, Venables had, had a successful career at club level with Crystal Palace, QPR, Barcelona and Tottenham. He was a breath of fresh air for the national team, despite being ‘marmite’ for the press. Some were desperate for him to fail and picked apart most of his selections during a difficult build-up. Having followed England since the mid-70s I was used to having to sit out of tournaments we didn’t qualify for. But this was the first time I’d ever experienced what it was like not having to go through a qualifying tournament. England spent two years playing friendlies.
Taylor had been unlucky in never having the option of picking Paul Gascoigne when he was at his peak. There was no doubt his injuries had taken an effect, but Venables was certainly able to get the best of him. Taylor gave Shearer his international debut but it was Venables who benefitted from him evolving into a world-class striker. Venables was flexible enough to devise different formations and was clearly keen on giving young players their chance. Players loved Terry and would walk through walls for him. He was astute enough to bring in Don Howe as a coach and also Bryan Robson. Robson had not long finished his playing career, and therefore provided a valuable link between the more mature Venables and Howe, and the players.
England were well fancied for the tournament.
The Euros were different from the World Cup at this stage as the defending champions still had to re-qualify for the following tournament. Defending champions, Denmark, were there to fight for their crown. They won Sweden ’92 in extraordinary circumstances, having been a last-minute replacement for Yugoslavia.
Germany, losing finalists four years earlier, won their group from Bulgaria. The Bulgarians had finished top four in the World Cup two years before. Other group winners were Spain, Switzerland, Russia, Croatia, Romania, Czech Republic and Portugal. Six of the runners-up made it through as well, with the two others playing-off against each other. France, Italy, Denmark, Turkey, Bulgaria and Scotland were the successful runners-up. The Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland contested the play-off. Two goals from Patrick Kluivert saw the Dutch win the match at Anfield.
For Turkey, this was their first Euros. They’d only ever qualified for one World Cup (1950) to this point, but this competition was the catalyst for the country to go on and perform well at future international tournaments
Notable absentees were Sweden, top four in Euro ’92 and USA ’94. Yet they only won twice in the group which saw Switzerland and Turkey progress.
For the four groups eight venues would be used, two per group. Wembley, Villa Park, City Ground, St. James’ Park, Anfield, Old Trafford, Hillsborough and Elland Road. This was another follow on from 1966 when many countries developed an affinity to a particular area which adopted them as their own.
The draw in Birmingham saw England, Denmark, Spain and Germany as seeds. The first shock was Scotland being drawn in England’s group. France were drawn in with Spain and Italy went into Germany’s group. Denmark’s group looked the weaker, but Portugal and Croatia were group winners from the qualifiers so could well be the dark horses.
Along with Scotland, England would come up against the Netherlands and also Switzerland, who were managed at the time by Roy Hodgson.
The tournament was to kick-off with England taking on Switzerland at Wembley on 8th June 1996.
As mentioned earlier, Venables received a varied press. Some seemed in awe of the man who could do no wrong. Yet there were extremely vocal sections of the press seemingly intent on bringing him down. They’d succeeded in toppling Taylor before him, and Venables was definitely in their sights. To get away from some of the hype at home, he took the team off to China for some pre-tournament friendlies. The game against a Chinese XI saw the end of Peter Beardsley’s international career but the beginning for Phil Neville and Ugo Ehiogu. Middlesbrough’s Nicky Barmby scored twice in a 3-0 win.
They then played against a Hong Kong Golden XI in a meaningless friendly. Whilst in the Far East there were reports of players ‘letting their hair down’ in a bar in Hong Kong. One infamous incident involved a ‘dentist’s chair’ where Gascoigne was strapped in whilst a barman poured alcohol down his throat.
Back home no one knew of these shenanigans until there was another incident on the flight home. Coming off the flight Gascoigne was seen looking bleary-eyed with a plant pot on his head. Gradually reports filtered through of £5,000 worth of damage to the Cathay Pacific flight.
Eventually, Venables reported the players had taken ‘collective responsibility’ for what happened. But unofficially everyone knew Gazza was involved and for some members of the press, it was manna from heaven to satisfy their agenda.
England now had the task of taking on the press and some of the public before they’d even kicked a ball. Not many host nations go into tournaments with their public so opposed to them. But for this squad, it had the ability to galvanise them. Venables just needed to find the right way to enhance it.
This series has been produced in advance of ITV Hub’s announcement they would show every match of this tournament in their entirety in May.
In preparation, I will be posting an update on a day-by-day basis summarising the events on each matchday.
So strap yourself in, put some Brit-Pop in your playlist and enjoy football coming home.