In the second part of our recollections of England’s preparations for Euro ’96, we look back at the 1995-96 season as Terry Venables began to finalise his chosen side for the finals…
The old adage about there being 0-0 draws and 0-0 draws rang true in the early weeks of the 1995-96 season, when England played out two very contrasting goalless games. In September, Colombia’s visit to Wembley provided no shortage of entertainment. As with their previous visit in 1988, they played with vibrancy and certainly did not come to park the bus.
It all made for an enjoyable game that contained everything but goals, on a night when John Barnes made his last England appearance and Jamie Redknapp became the latest debutant. He would play his part in the most memorable incident of the night, his goalbound effort prompting Rene Higuita to produce his ‘scorpion kick’ save that is still fondly recalled today. Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne and Dennis Wise would all strike the woodwork, while there would be a succession of near-misses at both ends. Of all the goalless England games over the years, this was one of the best.
But contrast that with the trip to Norway five weeks later. Another nil-niler, but a truly forgettable occasion as England remained on just one win in 1995. Jimmy Hill would slam the “most uninspiring performance” during BBC analysis, as England failed to carve the Norwegians open and again failed to defeat them. This had been a rare opportunity to go overseas, but the remaining months would see the emphasis placed on becoming as familiar with Wembley as possible ahead of the finals. Not until the following May would England play away again.
Glenn Moore would sum up the night’s frustrations in The Independent, as he wrote: “England did not lose last night, and they did not concede a goal. Given the defeats inflicted in their last two matches in Norway that is at least something for which they can be thankful. However, that is almost the sum total of positive things to be said about an eminently forgettable match against the spoilers of international football.”
More inspiring would be the November game against Switzerland, who Roy Hodgson had successfully steered through Euro ’96 qualifying. This would be his last match at the helm before joining Inter Milan. It was a good night for Nottingham Forest fans as Stuart Pearce and Steve Stone – who had made his debut against Norway – both found the net along with their former forward Teddy Sheringham, as England came from behind to register a 3-1 win.
It would be the last time that Gary Pallister was capped by Terry Venables, who continued to seek the ideal partner for Tony Adams. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “If England did not look quite ready to take on Europe’s finest last night, they made a start by beating Switzerland with a performance that grew in confidence the more goals they scored.”
Paul Gascoigne battles for possession against Switzerland.
One figure emerging as a contender was a certain Gareth Southgate, who made his England debut as a late substitute during a rare December friendly at home to Portugal. Stone did his hopes of making the Euro ’96 squad no harm by scoring in the 1-1 draw against a side that were re-emerging and had a good crop of talent in their ranks. In terms of not losing, England were on the right track. The bigger challenge was to win games and look capable of beating anyone. The clock was ticking to achieve the latter.
The Portugal game was part of a busy week for England, with the draws taking place for France ’98 qualifying and the finals of Euro ’96. At around the same time, matters were starting to come to a head over Venables’ future in the top job. By the time England took to the field again, it would be known that Venables was moving on after Euro ’96. He would look to go out with a bang.
The final countdown
England’s first game of 1996 took place near the end of March at home to Bulgaria, whose stock was higher than usual after reaching the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup and qualifying comfortably for Euro ’96. But still apathy persisted as a crowd of under 30,000 gathered to see England wear the new change ‘grey’ (indigo blue) kit for the first time.
Les Ferdinand’s goal gave England victory over Bulgaria.
It would be christened with a memorable early goal, Sheringham playing a majestic ball through for Les Ferdinand to score in only his third appearance under Venables. The goal proved decisive, with England giving a particularly encouraging first half display and handing Robbie Fowler his first cap as a substitute.
A first meeting with Croatia the following month would effectively represent England’s mock exam, Venables opting not to make any substitutions against a side that had qualified for their first tournament as an independent nation. Seven members of the England team – David Seaman, Gary Neville, Stuart Pearce, Paul Ince, Steve McManaman, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham – would start the opening Euro ’96 game against Switzerland in June, with three more players – David Platt, Robbie Fowler and Steve Stone – making appearances during the tournament.
England met Croatia for the first time in April 1996.
The only exception was Mark Wright, who was earning his first England cap since September 1992 and, with Adams absent, was the only natural central defender in the side as England opted for a 3-5-2 system. Wright would mark his return to the international fold by helping England keep a clean sheet, but they could not make the breakthrough at the other end despite creating opportunities. Venables would declare himself “very satisfied” with England’s performance, knowing the side just needed to find the cutting edge and they had been without Shearer.
Wright kept his place for the final Wembley warm-up against Hungary on May 18, but an early injury would curtail his involvement in the game and mark the end of his international career. There would be a surprisingly high amount of experimentation at this late stage of preparations, with Jason Wilcox playing the whole game as he earned his first cap and Sol Campbell and Ian Walker making their debuts after coming off the bench.
With both sides bringing on five substitutes – a rare instance of Venables making more than three changes in a game – it was hard to read too much into the contest, while Hungary were not a side who could be compared with what England would face in the finals. They hadn’t qualified for a major tournament for 10 years and were beaten 3-0 here, Darren Anderton marking his first cap for 11 months by scoring twice. Platt also found the net.
England’s decision to end their preparations by heading to Asia to play China and a Hong Kong Golden Select XI raised a few eyebrows, with it being questionable how much of a relevant test either side would provide ahead of the Euros. It’s fair to say the tour was not without its problems, given some of the headlines generated surrounding alleged off-field incidents involving members of the English party.
But on the field they kept earning results. The more pleasing game of the tour brought a 3-0 win over China in Beijing, with Nick Barmby boosting his tournament hopes by scoring twice and Gascoigne netting his first goal of the Venables era. Ugo Ehiogu and Phil Neville made their debuts, while it was the end of the England road for Beardsley. He would miss out on a place in the Euro ’96 squad, but took his omission with good grace. He appreciated that Venables had brought him back into the fold, giving him 10 caps to add to the 49 he had seemed set to end his England career with when axed by Graham Taylor.
Steve McManaman in action for England in Hong Kong.
This was followed up with a less impressive display against a Hong Kong Golden Select XI, who fielded several British players. No caps were awarded – so it isn’t one of the 999 matches England have so far officially played – but it received plenty of media coverage back home. Les Ferdinand broke the deadlock early on but England were unable to add to the scoreline on a wet and uninspiring afternoon at the Happy Valley Stadium.
There were now just 13 days left until the start of Euro ’96. Three Lions was hitting the top of the charts and Venables was set to announce his squad, with the shape of the side becoming clearer. At long last the wait was ending and England were about to return to competitive action…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.