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England’s long wait for Euro ‘96 – Part One

Next year several games are due to be played at Wembley during the European Championship. But unlike when England were the sole host nation in 1996, this time they have to qualify for it. Today we begin our look back at that two-year period, when friendly followed friendly for England under Terry Venables…

A lot of nostalgia surrounds England’s Euro ’96 campaign. And not without good reason. The memories remain vivid of Paul Gascoigne’s famous goal against Scotland, England ripping the Netherlands apart, Stuart Pearce’s joy during the shoot-out win over Spain and the side’s heartache in the semi-final against Germany. The nation was enthralled, as England come so close to ending 30 years of hurt.

The tricks of the memory may suggest that the entire Terry Venables reign was full of English excitement, the public flocking to Wembley to watch the side and buzzing with excitement for Euro ’96. There is no doubt that Venables was rebuilding English belief and playing attractive football in the process, but – through no fault of his own – the two years leading up to the tournament would not be so memorable.

Terry Venables became England head coach in January 1994.

As host nation, England did not need to qualify for Euro ’96 and so would be left playing a lengthy series of friendlies in preparation. Indeed, they did not play a competitive international – unless you count the Umbro Cup mini-tournament in June 1995 – from November 1993 to June 1996. That’s a long time to wait for anything. And sustaining public interest proved difficult.

This would have been an ideal time to play some home games at venues other than Wembley – not least because England would have to do so if they finished second in their Euro ’96 group – but the only time they were able to do so was during the Umbro Cup. Not for the first or last time, the issue of being contractually tied to playing home games at Wembley would be debated. Fears also remained over the threat of England’s hooligans striking during away games, with the side seldom venturing overseas during the period (and one rare occasion when they did so would prove disastrous). With other European nations regularly embroiled in qualifying action on international dates, England had to simply take the best that was available to be their opposition.

And so it was Wembley friendly after Wembley friendly that dominated the calendar for two years. Certainly, some of the attendances underlined the apathy that was setting in. Crowds of more than 40,000 were only occasionally recorded, with attendances often dipping below 30,000 – sometimes closer to the 20,000 mark. The Division Three play-off finals of 1994, 1995 and 1996 all attracted higher attendances than England games at Wembley around the same time, against Greece, Japan and Hungary respectively.

On the field it was hard to gauge just how capable England were of winning Euro ’96, as they did not face tournament favourites such as Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands in the build-up. But there would be reasons to feel some optimism as Venables began to get England adopting a less traditionally ‘English’ approach and the team would have the benefit of home advantage come the finals. And yet, despite the feeling there was a lot of waiting to be done until Euro ’96 would finally start, there would also be fears expressed by coach Don Howe to Venables that time was against them to get their new system successfully implemented by the time of Euro ’96 – some 27 months after the first friendly.

Venables would himself note in his autobiography his feeling of not having long enough to really get to grips with things, bemoaning that he had fewer than 20 games to make a final decision on his squad. He wrote: “Although we had so little time, the plan was to build the team in stages – gradually introducing what I saw as the final squad, working from the front backwards.”

This was to be international football’s equivalent of a long pre-season, as the boss set about finding the right personnel and system ahead of Euro ’96.

Oh Christmas tree…

The Venables England era began with an attractive home friendly against European champions Denmark in March 1994, with more than 70,000 fans turning up at Wembley. They went home happy, as a goal from captain David Platt gave England victory. But the main interest concerned the team selections and tactics, as the ‘Christmas tree’ formation swiftly entered footballing parlance. There were debuts for Darren Anderton, Graeme Le Saux and substitute Matt Le Tissier, while Peter Beardsley made a welcome return after almost three years out of the picture under Graham Taylor. It all boded well and there was a feeling of optimism resurfacing among the English public.

The first XI of the Terry Venables England reign.

England had to frustratingly sit out the following month’s internationals after a planned trip to Germany was called off just two weeks beforehand due to fears about potential disorder, the game having been scheduled to take place in Berlin on the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth. “We came to the conclusion that the risks were just too great,” said FA chairman Sir Bert Millichip. It was realistically too late to arrange anything else.

But England would at least face a Wembley double-header in May, the first coming against Greece. England fielded an unfamiliar line-up, with eight of the 14 players who featured having fewer than 10 caps to their name as 31-year-olds Steve Bould and Kevin Richardson were handed international debuts. The Greeks were going to the World Cup while England weren’t, but Venables’ side looked a class above as Anderton, Beardsley, Platt (2) and Alan Shearer all scored in a 5-0 win.

Kevin Richardson pictured during his only England cap against Greece in 1994.

David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “If Terry Venables was taking England to this summer’s World Cup, the United States would not complain. Some of the participants might be harbouring reservations, however, with Greece not least among them.” The Greeks would duly look out of their depth at the World Cup. It was too late to undo the failure to make the finals, but England were starting to build towards the future and the first two games offered hope in terms of style and personnel.

That match attracted an attendance of 23,689, but the visit of Norway five days later proved more of a crowd-puller as 64,327 turned up at Wembley to see if England could gain some degree of revenge after the Norwegians had beaten them in World Cup qualifying almost 12 months earlier in Oslo. They couldn’t, but at least the 0-0 draw meant England had yet to concede a goal under new management after three games. Dennis Wise became the latest player to return to the fold, almost three years since his last appearance under Graham Taylor. England struggled to break down the visitors but they did put the ball in the net 15 minutes from time, only for David Platt’s effort to be ruled out.

Remaining unbeaten

The second half of 1994 would bring three sides to Wembley who had reached the last 16 of the World Cup. The first of them was the tournament’s host nation USA, whose footballing reputation had improved since beating England the previous year in the US Cup. There was to be no repeat, as Shearer’s two first half goals settled the contest. But he was to now endure a barren international run, not finding the net again for England until Euro ’96. Barry Venison became the latest belated England debutant at 30, while John Barnes and Teddy Sheringham made their first international appearances since June 1993. For Sheringham, winning only his third cap, this was to mark the start of his successful partnership with Shearer.

Alan Shearer scored twice as England beat the USA at Wembley.

October brought arguably England’s biggest test yet. Romania had demonstrated during wins over Colombia and Argentina at the World Cup that they were capable of pulling good sides apart on their day. It looked like they might be too strong for England when Ilie Dumitrescu became the first man to score against them under Venables, but another newcomer would mark his debut by levelling on the brink of half-time. Rob Lee boosted his prospects of staying in the international picture as his goal secured a 1-1 draw, on a night when Tony Adams captained England for the first time in Platt’s absence. Venables reflected afterwards: “We learned tonight that we still have a distance to go, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get there.” One man who wouldn’t be a part of the building process was Ian Wright, who was substituted against Romania and did not reappear until Glenn Hoddle was in charge.

Wright’s Arsenal colleague Adams was a shoe-in for the Euro ’96 side, but the centre of defence was an area where England were struggling for options as other players looked to earn the chance to partner him. Against Nigeria in November there would be debuts for Steve Howey and Neil Ruddock as they both played at the back, while the famously-uncapped Steve Bruce would later recall turning down a potential chance to feature on the basis he thought it would have been a “sympathy cap”.

Dennis Wise in action for England against Nigeria.

Howey and Ruddock would earn just five caps between them, but for another newcomer it was the start of a more fruitful international career. Steve McManaman came on for Lee during the first half and he would go to play for England in the next three major tournaments. Nigeria had won admirers at the World Cup, but they left Wembley defeated courtesy of a goal from Platt on his 50th cap.

For only the third time since 1966, England had completed a calendar year undefeated. But there would be an asterix placed against the achievement. They had not played a single match away from Wembley, there had been no competitive fixtures and the total of six games in a year was their joint lowest since the Second World War. But this should not detract from the sense that England were going in the right direction again, 12 months after their failure to qualify for the World Cup was confirmed.

But, as has so often been the case, something would soon go very wrong…

Despair in Dublin

In February 1995, England would at last get to play an away game when they were to make the short trip to Dublin to face the Republic of Ireland. It may have been a friendly in name, but there would be a guaranteed competitive edge as England looked to get one over Jack Charlton’s side after failing to beat them in their four most recent meetings. That bleak run looked set to continue after David Kelly put the Irish ahead midway through the half. But within five minutes the match had become an irrelevance.

England’s match away to the Republic of Ireland was abandoned due to rioting among a section of away followers.

‘Riot revives football nightmare’ screamed the front page headline in The Guardian the following morning. The deplorable scenes off the field at Lansdowne Road involving a section of England’s followers were to have a direct bearing on events on it, as the match was abandoned after 27 minutes. Yet again, the conduct of England’s hooligan fraternity was the main talking point when they had played an away game – but this time preventing the game being completed. “This was not a small minority,” wrote Glenn Moore in The Independent. “This was a substantial number of fans bent on causing trouble, and it seems astonishing that FA officials can pick out known hooligans in the ground – as they did last night – but are unable to prevent them travelling with England.”

Charlton was incensed, while 1966 England colleague Alan Ball was visibly hurt as he tried to make sense of it all in the Sky Sports studio. “You get these mindless few again who have absolutely ruined it for us all,” he said desparingly, as once more a blame game took place over how the trouble had flared and who was responsible for it getting out of hand. There would even be questions raised over whether England would still host Euro ’96. Nothing would change on that score, but the side would seldom venture overseas again before the finals. Like Bobby Robson in the late 1980s, Venables could not simply pick friendlies based upon what was best for the team due to the risks many away trips posed. For what it mattered, Kelly’s goal in Dublin was wiped out but the caps would stand.

England’s 0-0 draw at home to Uruguay was a disappointing spectacle.

England returned to the field in March at home to Uruguay, with a year having passed since the first game under Venables. It certainly wasn’t a classic, as England struggled to break down the visitors and the game ended goalless. Nick Barmby and Andrew Cole – who had remained uncapped during his prolific spell at Newcastle United, prior to a big-money move to Manchester United in January 1995 – both came on for their England debuts. The main talking point arising from this game in years to come was Cole claiming he was ignored by Sheringham as he replaced him, but he would almost break the deadlock when he struck the the crossbar shortly after coming on. Few would have thought at that moment that six years would pass before his first England goal. The night marked the final cap at right back for Rob Jones, who would have surely enjoyed a more fruitful international career but for injury woes.

England sat out the international fixtures in April. But in early June there would at last be something approaching competitive action, as they hosted the Umbro Cup and faced Japan, Sweden and Brazil. It’s something we will recall in more detail at a later date, but, in brief, England left it late to beat Japan 2-1 at Wembley and draw 3-3 against Sweden at Elland Road – the latter remembered for a ferocious equaliser from Anderton. It was followed by a cracker from Le Saux against Brazil at Wembley, but the world champions came back to win 3-1 as England’s unbeaten run was brought to a close.

Graeme Le Saux celebrates his goal for England against Brazil.

England’s week had not been helped by the absence of players including Seaman, Adams and Ince – the latter not representing his country again until the following March. There had been debuts for Stan Collymore, Colin Cooper, John Scales and David Unsworth, plus appearances for Warren Barton whose only previous cap had been in the abandoned game in Dublin. All would soon be out of the reckoning, but for another new boy it was the start of a long international journey as Gary Neville made his debut against Japan. There was also a welcome return to England action for Paul Gascoigne, appearing for the first time since March 1994 following his second lengthy injury lay-off in the 1990s.

For those players who had been involved, they had gained some welcome experience of a tournament environment. But it could not compare to the real thing, which was now 12 months away.

In the next part, we’ll pick up the story in September 1995 when Colombia visited Wembley…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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