On Tuesday England welcome the Netherlands to Wembley for a friendly. In June it will be 20 years since one of England’s greatest nights in recent decades, when they beat the Dutch 4-1 during Euro ’96. We look back at that game today…
In December 1995, the Netherlands booked the 16th and final spot at Euro ’96 by beating the Republic of Ireland 2-0 in a play-off at Anfield. The match was shown live on the BBC and the football the Dutch played was met with great acclaim. Many now believed their side – containing young blood such as Patrick Kluivert and a strong presence from the Ajax team that won the Champions League in 1995 – was capable of winning Euro ’96 and becoming revered like the great mid-1970s side starring Johan Cruyff (RIP) and the Euro ’88 winning team.
Guus Hiddink was manager of the Netherlands during Euro ’96.
But manager Guus Hiddink was playing down their chances, pointing out they had lost to Belarus during qualifying (they only scraped into the play-offs by beating Norway in their last qualifying group match). Yet when England were paired with the Dutch in their group at Euro ’96 it looked a daunting prospect for the hosts. Two years of friendlies under Terry Venables had offered few real clues as to just how good England were. A competitive clash with the highly-rated Netherlands would provide a much better indicator.
The match at Wembley fell in the final round of group stage matches, with both sides on the brink of going through to the last eight. England had drawn 1-1 with Switzerland before beating Scotland 2-0, while the Dutch had been held 0-0 by the Scots before defeating the Swiss 2-0. With head-to-head records applying, England could only be eliminated if they lost and Switzerland won against Scotland at Villa Park and made up the goal difference; likewise, the Netherlands were only at risk if they were beaten and Scotland won and overturned the goal deficit. It all seemed pretty unlikely and the smart money was probably on a draw, which would take England through as group winners.
Memories of England’s controversial defeat to the Netherlands in 1993 were still fairly fresh as the sides met again during Euro’96.
As well as seeking to prove themselves against a highly-fancied side, England had another good incentive to want to beat the Dutch. Just three years earlier a controversial night in Rotterdam had ended with the Netherlands beating England 2-0 and effectively ending Graham Taylor’s side’s hopes of making the World Cup finals, while the Dutch – the eventual winners – had also beaten them 3-1 during a crucial match in the group stage of Euro ’88. You had to go back to 1982 for England’s last victory over the Netherlands and it would mean a lot if they could get it during the European Championship on home soil.
The Dutch squad was certainly not one happy family, as there were reports of divisions within the camp and midfielder Edgar Davids was sent home after speaking out of turn about Hiddink. Clarence Seedorf also had his say after being substituted early on against the Swiss following a booking. England, by contrast, seemed to have a good team spirit that had grown with the win over Scotland after a barrage of press criticism over matters both on and off the field. That togetherness would grow further on a never-to-be-forgotten night.
For Venables, this was a match he had planned for over the six months since the draw was made. Although he kept the same starting XI as in the previous two matches, he adjusted England’s formation. He outlined this in his autobiography, writing: “The Dutch were expecting us to play with two up front, with [Teddy] Sheringham just behind [Alan] Shearer, and four in midfield, as we had done in the previous two games. They liked to play with three at the back, with Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger lining up quite narrowly either side of skipper Danny Blind in the centre. In this way they would have been able to stifle our front men.”
Instead England would operate a 4-3-3 system, with Shearer in the middle and Sheringham and Steve McManaman either side of him. Venables added: “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. Until they adjusted, the Dutch defence was left with a dilemma as defences hate it if they don’t have a numerical advantage.”
Alan Shearer sets England on their way against the Netherlands.
The tactical tinkering by Venables would pay off. In the opening minutes Shearer saw an effort diverted away by Richard Witschge as England sent out a message that they were up for this. Midway through the first half came the breakthrough, Paul Ince being felled in the area and Shearer converting the spot-kick past Edwin van der Sar. Shearer had gone into the finals without an England goal since September 1994, but now he had netted in three successive games. The match remained delicately poised until the break, David Seaman producing an excellent save to deny his Arsenal team-mate Dennis Bergkamp an equaliser. It’s perhaps easy to forget that the Dutch looked the stronger side as half-time approached, although England crucially held the lead.
Teddy Sheringham doubles England’s lead.
It was in a 12-minute period in the second half that the night turned from a decent one for England into a momentous occasion. Sheringham headed in Gascoigne’s excellent corner on 50 minutes and seven minutes later a delightful third goal featuring both players sealed victory. Gascoigne, in one of his best post-Italia ’90 England displays, powered his way through and found Sheringham, who teed up Shearer to unleash a powerful drive into the net. On 62 minutes van der Sar could only parry Darren Anderton’s shot and Sheringham pounced to score. ‘Netherlands 0, England 4’ proclaimed the Wembley scoreboard (England were technically the away side for this match) and it was a ‘pinch me’ moment.
Not just for England either. The Scots were for once delighted to hear of English success, as they were handed a serious chance of progression. Ally McCoist’s goal meant they led 1-0 against Switzerland and as England were 4-0 up, Scotland were now above the Netherlands on goal difference. Would this finally be the moment when Scotland advanced from the group stage at a major tournament? Alas no. Kluivert scored what was merely a consolation in terms of the match against England but was of great importance so far as deciding who went through was concerned. England’s position was now so comfortable they had withdrawn both goalscorers and Paul Ince – who faced suspension in the next round after picking up his second booking of the competition – with David Platt and youngsters Nick Barmby and Robbie Fowler entering the action.
As the final whistle sounded at Wembley to seal England’s 4-1 victory, play was still going on at Villa Park. ITV headed straight there to show the final moments live, but the Scots could not get the second goal. They had achieved the same points, goal difference and head-to-head record as the Dutch, but crucially had scored fewer goals. As in the 1978 World Cup they had come close to unlikely progression when all had seemed lost, only for the Dutch to end the dream. Not that there was much celebrating among the orange contingent at Wembley, their side having been well beaten. They now faced a quarter-final clash with France at Anfield. England could look forward to meeting Spain at Wembley, with the nation now increasingly expectant after this triumph.
Teddy Sheringham puts England 4-0 up against the Dutch.
It had been a glorious night for England against the Dutch, as fans joyously sang Three Lions with its ‘Football’s Coming Home’ chorus. For once after an England match, there was high praise for the team from the media afterwards and their showing made the front pages as well as the back pages. 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.”
Lacey’s colleague Richard Williams wrote: “England were, in a word, amazing. Against the best side they have so far met in this competition, they made those of us who have scorned their chances bend their knee to a performance in which they looked throughly credible candidates to win the Henri Delaunay Trophy. And even if they stumble at the next hurdle, or the one after that, at least Terry Venables and his team gave us a night we never expected, and will never forget.”
In the Daily Express, Steve Curry exclaimed: “Football came home all right last night in a torrent of irresistible English play. Holland, hailed as the team of the millennium, had the blueprint of their futuristic football screwed up and flung back at them by the men with three lions on their shirts.”
In The Independent, Glenn Moore wrote: “England’s performance was certainly the finest since the halcyon days of Italia ’90. It may even be the best since the days of Sir Alf Ramsey, though Bobby Robson could point to the 1986 World Cup win over Poland and a 4-1 win in Yugoslavia that earned European Championship qualification a year later. England outplayed the Dutch in every area of the game and were four goals up in barely an hour.”
There were notes of caution too, but euphoria was now gripping the nation. Four days later England looked far less potent against Spain and rode their luck as they drew 0-0 and won on penalties – still their only shoot-out triumph. The Dutch, who like England have endured their fair share of spot-kick heartache, duly went out that way to France. Destiny seemed on England’s side but those two familiar foes of Germans and penalties would end the dream in the semi-final. It was heartbreaking for the nation as the 30 years of hurt continued, but the memories of beating the Netherlands 4-1 remain special 20 years on.
This month in 1978 Wembley was packed as an England side featuring Trevor Francis and Malcolm Macdonald thrashed the Netherlands 5-1. Remember it? Well unless you read the comic Roy of the Rovers then the answer would be no. In a break from our usual nostalgic recollections of how England fared in real-life, we delve into the world of fiction and look back at when the legendary Roy Race was in charge of his country for one match…
Between 1954 and 1993 millions of football fans enjoyed following the fortunes of star footballer Roy Race in his Roy of the Rovers storyline (originally in Tiger, later graduating to his own comic). Although the vast majority of his adventures concerned his club Melchester Rovers – and briefly Walford Rovers – there would occasionally be a chance to follow Roy in action for England. The most memorable such instance came in January 1978, Roy taking temporary charge of the national team after the manager was injured in a car crash. As at Melchester, he was to be player-manager.
The 13-man squad Roy picked would have been familiar to regular comic readers, given that eight of the players selected came from Melchester Rovers and featured regularly in Roy of the Rovers. Johnny Dexter was lead character in The Hard Man in Roy of the Rovers while Nipper Lawrence and Mike Bateson were from the Nipper storyline which appeared in sister title Tiger and Scorcher. At least Roy stopped short of calling up the eternally 12-year-old Billy Dane of Billy’s Boots fame!
And there were two other players selected who were of particular interest…
When two worlds collide
The vast majority of the time, Roy existed in a clearly fictional world which comprised of make-believe people and teams. But there were occasions when this wasn’t totally the case and in his England squad were Birmingham City forward Trevor Francis and Arsenal striker Malcolm ‘Supermac’ Macdonald – the latter having not played for England since 1976. Other real-life stars such as Kevin Keegan were nowhere to be seen. But there was a good reason why Francis and Macdonald were named in the side – they each had a column in Tiger and Scorcher. If you took their selections literally then everyone was now living in the same universe, in which Arsenal co-existed alongside Melchester Rovers and where Trevor Francis could appear with Roy Race.
Sir Alf Ramsey becomes caretaker manager of Melchester Rovers in 1982.
And the willingness to mix the two worlds would continue in the coming years. Sir Alf Ramsey took over as Melchester Rovers caretaker manager in 1982 after Roy was shot; Bobby Robson featured in the storyline as he considered whether to select Roy for his England squad in the mid-1980s; cricketer Geoffrey Boycott became Melchester chairman during the same period and then came the infamous decision to have Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and Steve Norman in the Melchester side along with the retired duo of Emlyn Hughes and Bob Wilson (the latter having last played professionally 11 years earlier!). It didn’t sit comfortably with loyal fans of the comic, including Frank Skinner.
Later there would be characters – albeit under different names – who couldn’t have been more obviously based on Jimmy Greaves and Paul Gascoigne. It all made a mockery of the small print that all characters appearing in the storylines were fictional and any resemblance to real people was coincidental. Meanwhile, Mr Squeaky Clean met Mr Squeaky Clean as Roy and Gary Lineker struck up a friendship that led to them releasing a single together.
But going back to 1978, was the average schoolboy reader bothered about having real stars joining the storyline regulars to play for England? Probably not. They no doubt just wished that things could work the other way round and Roy could play for England in real-life!
Roy becomes the national hero
The choice of the Netherlands as England’s opponents was probably not coincidental. They had won acclaim in real-life with their run to the 1974 World Cup final and in 1977 had looked a class above in winning 2-0 at Wembley in a friendly. This would effectively be a rematch, although unlike with England the Dutch side would be totally fictional – as Roy was reunited with an old “chum” in Dutch captain Johan Seegrun.
Soon ‘Supermac’ would break the deadlock as England gloriously went on to win 5-1. Fans depicted watching the match at Wembley or on TV were shown looking delighted with the result, including one armchair viewer who – having earlier been castigated by his wife for criticising Roy’s decision to pick himself – was declaring the new manager had done the country proud. The night really had been ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’.
Malcolm Macdonald sends England on their way to a 5-1 win.
Club over country for Roy
There then followed a tug of love as Roy considered whether to become full-time manager of England or remain at Melchester. Club would ultimately win over country in the battle for Roy’s heart. He later played a couple of times for England under Bobby Robson in the mid-1980s. That proved to be the end of his full international career, although he would spend the summer of 1992 leading the England B team to success in a mini-tournament as player-manager.
It has to be said that, given how prolific and skilled Roy was, he made a surprisingly low number of appearances in an England shirt during his 39-year playing career (during which he aged remarkably well!). There are probably three reasons for this. Firstly, the title of the storyline was Roy of the Rovers and therefore his club endeavours were always intended as the main focus. Secondly, constantly switching between what Roy did for Melchester and England would have disrupted the flow of the story. And thirdly, a fair proportion of readers were not English. Whereas everybody would get behind Roy when he donned the Rovers shirt, those from other parts of the UK or overseas may have not felt the same desire to see him firing them in for England.
Roy Race teams up with Gary Lineker in 1989.
Roy’s playing career ended with a helicopter crash in 1993, the underlying reason being falling sales of his weekly comic. Revivals of the storyline – with son Rocky now playing up front for Rovers – in a new monthly Roy of the Rovers comic and the magazines Shoot! and in Match of the Day all proved fairly short-lived, with the last official new storylines appearing on the shelves as far back as 2001. But those who have missed their regular ROTR fix can enjoy regular adventures at at ‘Storky Knight’s’ website containing fresh storylines, including some set in past seasons. Looking at the site, the newest story sees Melchester managed by Johan Seegrun – the Dutch captain during that 5-1 defeat by Roy Race’s England in 1978. In a hectic era when he got married, became a father to twins, suffered the most unlikely of relegations and was almost killed after being shot, Racey’s time in charge of his country stood out as another memorable moment for Roy of the Rovers.
As England get ready to play their last World Cup match against Costa Rica already having suffered the humiliation of elimination after just two games, it is appropriate to look back at the last time England were in a similarly helpless position after two matches in the finals of a major tournament – the horror show that was Euro ’88.
Unlike this World Cup, England headed out to West Germany in June 1988 genuinely considered to be one of the favourites to lift the trophy. After a reasonable showing at the 1986 World Cup in reaching the quarter-finals and falling victim to the Hand of God, Bobby Robson’s side enjoyed one of their best qualifying showings to reach the European Championship finals. They won five matches out of six and drew the other, with results including an 8-0 demolition of Turkey and a 4-1 away win at Yugoslavia in the decisive final match to reach the finals. John Barnes and Peter Beardsley had shone in their first season at Liverpool, while Gary Lineker had finished World Cup top scorer, Chris Waddle could complement Barnes on the opposite flank and courageous captain Bryan Robson was a tremendous asset going forward.
The draw seemed fairly kind to England in the eight team tournament. Whereas Group 1 contained hosts and 1986 World Cup runners-up West Germany, and strong Italy, Spain and Denmark sides, England were up against USSR, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. Only the Soviets of the other three teams in Group 2 had qualified for the 1986 World Cup, with the Republic of Ireland having never reached a major finals before. A place in the last four was seen as a minimal target for England. The team’s confidence was reflected in their official song of Going All the Way (one wonders if the song would be seen as less cringeworthy had England actually done so and lifted the cup).
Odd to think this was just two years before World in Motion…
But in the seven months between the Yugoslavia triumph and the start of the finals, the optimism started to subside slightly. England’s friendly results did little to inspire and their goalscoring touch seemed to desert them as they played out forgettable results such as 0-0 draws away to Israel and Hungary. More worryingly, England would have to contend without injured central defensive leader Terry Butcher as they reshuffled their pack. The relatively young central defensive pairing of Tony Adams and Mark Wright was Bobby Robson’s preferred choice. Also dominating the headlines in the build-up was the threat of hooliganism, not helped by violent scenes at the Rous Cup clash with Scotland at Wembley. There were genuine concerns the team could pay the price for any serious disorder and it would also prolong the ban placed on English teams from European competitions.
An interesting subplot to the tournament was England were starting against the Republic of Ireland, managed by 1966 hero Jack Charlton. Ireland had reached their first major finals and seemed revitalised under Charlton, their use of a direct system proving controversial but effective. Charlton also seemed keen to get one over on the FA after they’d totally overlooked him for the England manager’s job in 1977.
England get ready for two weeks of international glory. Surely nothing can go wrong…
“I don’t think they’ll cause the English lads too many problems,” was the verdict of ITV pundit Brian Clough about Ireland a few days before the contest. Shortly before the match kicked-off, he wrote off Irish defender Mick McCarthy (but he did at least stop short of calling him a “clown” after his experience with Poland 15 years earlier). The last laugh would be with Jack Charlton’s side, famously winning 1-0 with an early header from Ray Houghton as England squandered a succession of chances.
Brian Clough calls it wrong, no doubt to the amusement of Scotsman Ian St John…
England now had three days before they played the Netherlands, who had lost to USSR in their opening match. The build-up was dominated by disturbances involving English followers, that helped ensure the European ban would continue. On the field there was to be further disappointment for England against a Dutch side enjoying a renaissance after being absent from every major tournament since Euro ’80. Players like Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten were ready to shine and duly did so. An enthralling contest score the Dutch triumph 3-1, with Marco van Basten scoring a hat-trick on an afternoon when Bobby Robson’s men twice hit the woodwork at 0-0.
Like this year, England’s only hope of remaining in the tournament was for another team to win both its remaining games. They were given a brief glimmer of a lifeline later that evening when Ronnie Whelan scored a stunner for Ireland against Soviet Union, but the Russians came back into the game to draw 1-1. England were out and would almost certainly finish bottom of the group.
From bad to worse…
One blessing in the circumstances was there were just three days for England to wait before they could play their final match and come home. Bobby Robson was desperate for some pride to be restored against a side not yet certain of their place in the last four. In an unprecedented move, the BBC opted not to show the match live and selected the Republic of Ireland’s decider against the Dutch instead which was played at the same time on the Saturday afternoon (I believe this is the only time in the last 50 years an England match in a major tournament has not been shown live on English television). It was hard to argue with the choice and viewers would see Ireland stage a brave performance in defeat that put England to shame.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse for England, they did and left Robson a broken man. If the first two games had given the sense England were unlucky, this was the opposite and it seemed they couldn’t wait for the match to finish. Robson gave starts to Chris Woods, Dave Watson and Steve McMahon and the match would prove to be the end of the international line for Kenny Sansom and Glenn Hoddle. If Hoddle’s England days had began gloriously with a lovely goal against Bulgaria in 1979, they would end depressingly as he lost possession just three minutes in for the USSR to score. Although Tony Adams equalised, it came as little surprise when the Soviet Union added two more goals to leave England with a record of played three, lost three, with a goal difference of -5. Lineker left the action early after a bitterly disappointing tournament – it would transpire he had hepatitis.
The knives were out for Bobby Robson but he kept his job, receiving the support of the FA when he needed it most. He would turn things around and leave a hero after the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990. How different the course of history may have been had he been given the chop after the shambles in West Germany…