We continue our A-Z recollections of England’s history at the European Championship, including arguably the team’s most painful loss in the tournament as well as their most joyful display…
A lot of romanticism surrounds Italia ’90, but this is not a universally shared view as critics bemoaned the negative tactics often deployed during the finals and a lack of goals. Two years later many of these criticisms were resurfacing during the group stage of Euro ’92, which suffered from UEFA persisting with two points for a win and the backpass rule not coming into force until after the finals. Changes couldn’t come soon enough.
England, who were enduring an injury nightmare (more on that later in the series), were certainly not blameless for the opening few days of the tournament being a bore-fest. Their 0-0 draw with Denmark wasn’t great, but the second game against France in Malmo was dire. Barry Davies, left to commentate on what few highlights there were for the BBC, would later describe it as “the most sterile defensive international I’ve ever covered”.
Michel Platini had eight years earlier been the star of the expressive French side that won Euro ’84, while Graham Taylor – for all the criticism he had endured in his managerial career for his direct tactics – had previously preached about how the average fan wanted to be entertained by seeing multiple chances created. Yet both men adopted a safety first approach here, knowing that a draw would leave their respective sides still in with a good chance of progressing but being seriously in trouble if they lost.
Stuart Pearce was left bleeding due to the actions of Basile Boli.
England could at least say they had come within inches of going ahead, after Stuart Pearce’s ferocious free-kick rattled the woodwork. Pearce was central to the other memorable moment during the afternoon. His face bled after he appeared to be headbutted by Basile Boli, in an incident which went unpunished. Asked afterwards, Pearce told the media it had been an innocent incident. But years later he would admit he had decided it was best to avoid fanning the flames. “Common sense told me that if I’d said it was deliberate, then the first thing they would have done is dig out all the footage of me over the years and I’d be crucified,” he said.
The omens didn’t look too good for Alan Shearer as Euro ’96 approached. Going into the finals he had scored just five times for England in 23 caps, the last goals coming as far back as September 1994 against the USA. Not since 1992 had he netted against a nation which would be present at the tournament. He had also endured a frustrating season at Blackburn Rovers, as they were never in contention to retain their Premier League crown and finished bottom of a moderate Champions League group.
However, Shearer had continued to display his predatory instincts by netting more than 30 times for the third season running. Terry Venables still had faith in him to deliver for England and that belief was repaid midway through the first half of the opening game of Euro ’96 against Switzerland. Paul Ince fed an excellent ball through and Shearer fired home to break the deadlock. He didn’t look back. A superb team move ended with him heading the first goal when England beat Scotland 2-0 the following week, before he netted twice – including a penalty – as the Dutch were beaten 4-1 (more on that later).
Alan Shearer celebrates scoring for England against Switzerland during Euro ’96.
Nobody found the net in 120 minutes against Spain, but Shearer didn’t have to wait long to get on the scoresheet in the semi-final against Germany. A well-rehearsed corner routine ended with Shearer applying a trademark header to score after just three minutes. It was his fifth goal of the tournament, ensuring he finished as the competition’s top scorer (he also twice converted penalties during shoot-outs). England did not have the prize they craved, but Shearer could take solace in having regained his scoring touch for England when it mattered and clinching the Golden Boot. He would soon make a £15 million switch from Blackburn to his boyhood favourites Newcastle United, capping a memorable summer.
A few months back, Lee Dixon expressed consternation on ITV that his fellow analyst Glenn Hoddle had earned just 53 England caps. It’s a view often echoed on social media, usually accompanied by comments about how the team should have been built around him and that he deserved at least 100 caps. But, while he always had his legion of admirers, not everyone during his career was a fully paid-up member of the Hoddle fan club. The derogatory nickname ‘Glenda’ was unfortunately indicative of attitudes often expressed towards his type of player in England at the time, while he all too often would be dismissed as a ‘luxury’.
How Hoddle was used by England is a debate for another day. But it’s fair to say his international career did not bring the fulfilment he sought. The Euros would act as a microcosm of his England years. Although he memorably scored on his England debut against Bulgaria in a qualifier in November 1979, come the finals in Italy the following summer he was left watching on for the first two games before only appearing against Spain – by which time it was impossible for Ron Greenwood’s men to win the tournament.
Another frustrating major tournament followed for Hoddle at the 1982 World Cup. Although things improved a little after Bobby Robson replaced Greenwood as manager, Hoddle was still far from assured of his place and he was left out of the side for the crucial Euro ’84 qualifier against Denmark in September 1983 – even though Bryan Robson was injured – as England’s hopes faded with a 1-0 defeat. Although he played every game for England at the 1986 World Cup, Hoddle was usurped by Neil Webb during qualifying for Euro ’88 and was a substitute for the opening game of the finals against the Republic of Ireland.
Hoddle started the next match against the Netherlands and hit the post at 0-0, but it was the third game against the USSR that would tarnish his international prospects. England were already out, but Bobby Robson was desperate for pride to be restored with a good performance and result. He got neither as England tamely lost 3-1, with Hoddle taking the blame for USSR’s first goal after he lost possession. It was a pitiful team display and Hoddle was to become a scapegoat for it.
“It is said of Glenn Hoddle that he is reluctant to play a simple pass,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian as he assessed where it had all gone wrong for England in the tournament. “In Frankfurt, he refuted that by playing any number of simple passes straight to Soviet feet.” Robson wrote two years later that after the Euros he had to decide “whether he was a luxury” (that word again). Given he never picked Hoddle again, the answer seems fairly obvious.
There’s no getting away from it. If we are to recall England’s history at the Euros then that means looking back only four years to the nightmare defeat by Iceland. Going into Euro 2016, some hope existed that England could enjoy a good run. Roy Hodgson’s side had qualified with a perfect record, they had come from behind to beat Germany 3-2 in a March friendly and had been handed a favourable-looking draw at the finals.
But hopes of glory receded when England could only finish second in their group after a tame draw with Slovakia. In all probability they would have to overcome hosts France in the last eight and world champions Germany in the semi-finals. But less fear surrounded their second round match against minnows Iceland, who had qualified for their first major tournament. Yet they had merited their place in the last 16 after beating Austria and drawing with Portugal and Hungary.
The old adage about taking each game as it comes certainly needed remembering. Beforehand the biggest fear was that England would struggle to break Iceland down, yet within four minutes a Wayne Rooney penalty broke the deadlock. But Iceland struck straight back and were 2-1 up after 18 minutes, never relinquishing the lead as England seldom threatened to turn things around.
Four days after the Brexit vote, England were out of Europe. It was a humiliating end to Hodgson’s reign. Those who dismiss England’s run to the last four of the 2018 World Cup on the basis of who they beat along the way should remember that earlier in the decade they failed to defeat Algeria, USA, Costa Rica, Russia and Slovakia at major tournaments. The loss to Iceland represented a new low and the criticism poured in. “That was the worst performance I’ve ever seen from an England team from start to finish,” fumed BBC pundit Alan Shearer. Things could only get better for England and they would duly do so.
If the defeat by Iceland represented England’s worst night in the European Championship, then it seems appropriate to immediately follow it by recalling what must surely rank as the best. Both sides were on the brink of qualification for the last eight when England met the Netherlands at Wembley in their final group game during Euro ’96, but neither team was certain of progression and both would be striving to claim top spot.
The Netherlands had been touted as a potential tournament winner after their display in the play-off victory over the Republic of Ireland at Anfield. But the Dutch being the Dutch, internal strife was never far away and Edgar Davids had been sent home by the time they faced England at Wembley. Their unhappiness would grow deeper after a night in which they were reduced to the role of peripheral guests at an English party. Terry Venables would come out on top in the tactical battle with Guus Hiddink by tinkering with the formation as England went with three up front. Steve McManaman would join Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham in attack.
“By doing this I believed the Dutch plan to stifle our attack would be in trouble, and I was sure they would be forced to play an extra defender, which would reduce their attacking threat,” wrote Venables in his autobiography. “Until they adjusted, the Dutch defence was left with a dilemma as defences hate it if they don’t have a numerical advantage.”
Teddy Sheringham scores for England against the Netherlands.
It was a move that paid off. Shearer and Sheringham both scored twice to give England a sensational 4-0 lead and they were doing it in style. This was epitomised by the third goal, with McManaman playing a neat ball to Paul Gascoigne – who then burst forward. He laid the ball off to Sheringham, who in turn perfectly teed up Shearer to fire home amid delirium around Wembley. The Dutch were even pushed to the brink of elimination, only a late consolation from Patrick Kluivert allowing them to edge out Scotland for second place in the group. But that was about the only positive they could take from the night. Suddenly, it really did feel like England could be ending 30 years of hurt and win major silverware.
In The Guardian, David Lacey wrote: “Nothing is impossible for England after their most famous victory at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. Beating Holland, the champions of 1988, to reach the quarter-finals of Euro 96 was not entirely unexpected, but sweeping past them amid such a cannonade of goals had surely crossed few people’s minds.”
But four days later they were to get a reality check as they found Spain a far tougher nut to crack…
Update: Following the understandable decision to postpone the European Championship until the summer of 2021, this series will now be put on hold until nearer the time that the tournament takes place.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.