Ahead of Euro 2016 we're ushering four international football stars into The Cult. The final inductee is an England goalscoring legend who was never more alive than during that sun-drenched summer of '96. You can read previous editions here.
CULT GRADE: THE BANGER
I had to confess to my editor – just as I must confess to you – that my relationship with the punditry of Alan Shearer is a complicated one. As a glory-hunting Blackburn fan (although, pitifully, my support began the season after they won the title) I took my commitment to the club with the seriousness only someone who doesn't have an actual bond can. As such, my feeling when Alan Shearer starts off on one of his analytical journeys on the Match of the Day sofa is akin to wishing that your dad, who you'd always cherished, would stop being such an annoying, simplistic bastard. And the truth of how deep my Ewood Park loyalties run is exposed by the fact that this is generally how I feel about Alan Shearer, whereas I'm pretty sure a true Rover could never bring themselves to cross that threshold.
Or, almost how I feel. It's complicated. Because there was a role that Alan Shearer played that truly did belong to me, as much as anyone, a cloak he wore that had the name of every Englander stitched on it, and that's a loyalty I can't shake. Euro '96 was my coming-of-age in football – the first and last time when England had a fully fit, fully firing striker who was, without much argument, the best in the competition.
I feel that for anyone – and there are presumably a lot of us late '80s kids – who shared the experience of Euro 96 as our first international tournament, it was a masterclass in the agony of England, the kind of template that will own your psyche from now until the end. It began, of course, with Alan Shearer banging it, one of those finishes that evoke silly but stirring jingoistic icons like English oaks and Lancaster bombers, against the Swiss. Two names from that game to drop into your subconscious, for the echo: Kubilay Turkyilmaz, and Ciriaco Sforza. Then he banged a header against Scotland. Then he banged two more against the Dutch – the purest example of the perfect game for any England fan under 60. Wembley perpetually bathed in sunshine. Gazza being a talented footballer and a wastrel, as opposed to wastrel, and then somewhere across the room, over a carpet of cans and copies of the Sun to check if he was still being hounded by paparazzi, a talented footballer. Penalties became wonderful. England either banged penalties, with Shearer leading the way, or Seaman saved them. A theme song you couldn't stop listening to. How could this ever end badly?
POINT OF ENTRY: MEDIUM
The most mournful thing is that Gareth Southgate's nerve-jangled little sidefoot was not the end, but the beginning. The tone with which, with ever decreasing returns onwards from France '98 to Euro 2000 to Japan 2002 to Wayne Rooney's torturing starburst of potential at Euro 2004 to the nadir-twins of Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, England played at tournaments.
A therapist would find it so easy to do a number on the bitterness I feel towards England and their efforts since. I trusted him. Oh, the Germans, people said, beware of the Germans. Why? Shearer had banged one within three minutes. And then why, when it came to it, was Gareth Southgate allowed to take the penalty? Why didn't Shearer just take another one? Gently, the therapist would say, You need to reconcile yourself with Alan Shearer not being a god. Oh I know he's not, I'd say, from my vantage point many years later, he's just a numbskull pundit who says 'pace, power and determination' like a fucking parrot with a brain tumour. Then I'd probably sob, suddenly and loudly, into my sleeve. I blame everything that's happened since on him. The routine before every new tournament, where foreign managers treat England like a wayward family member and kindly focus on their winning a prize at school speech day once as evidence of why they can never be ruled out, and ignore the string of house foreclosures and driving offences and dalliances with alternative medicine since. For Sol Campbell never being allowed to score; for the disgusting inability to realise that when Michael Owen scored against Argentina, or Brazil, or Portugal, it meant we were going to lose; and I blame him, from the bottom of my heart, for still feeling England might win on penalties. Fate dealt the cruellest ace on every young fan who came of age at Euro '96 – for that was when, at the end of a 0-0 quarter-final with Spain, Shearer banged his penalty, David Platt banged his, Stuart Pearce banged his and went apeshit, Gazza banged his, and England won. The most abiding memory I have of Euro '96, a mockingjay perched forever on the goalposts of my English soul, is that when first Darren Anderton and then Gascoigne missed golden chances in extra-time against the Germans, I was happy. I wanted it to go to penalties.
Alan Shearer is not my dad. I know he is not. He's my brother. An older brother, perhaps from my dad's previous marriage – the kind who, upon finding me trying to build some CD rack I'd found in the loft would say I can help you with that; and 10 minutes later, after it had been built and securely fixed to the wall, would accompany me outside for some football, and although he'd occasionally allow a shot I could save, would be most preoccupied with absolutely banging it. And so the tone was set. Michael Owen as your twin whose precocious success you felt was by extension somehow your own. Becks as your sister's boyfriend at school, who to this day she still talks about. Lampard as her boyfriend now, who'd pause for a moment to say Alright mate? in a friendly voice, and then go back to his Marlboro Light and his Audi and his mobile phone. Gerrard as the weird cousin who'd keep narrowing his eyes at you across the table. Terry as your mum's brother, and the reason why she feels so lucky to have met your father. My hopeless, dysfunctional family.
THE MOMENT – VS. HOLLAND, AT WEMBLEY
The second of the brace he scored. Because it contains two things, both of which are factors in it being an absolute guarantee that England were going to win this tournament. The first is that Teddy Sheringham, having recently scored his first, receives the lay-off from Paul Gascoigne in a position that a striker could quite reasonably call 'on', but still elects to slide it across to Shearer, who was in a position that a striker would call 'more on'. That's the kind of selfless desire for the team and not the individual to win that lifts trophies. And then, Shearer demonstrates the kind of form he was moving into, that zone strikers can fleetingly occupy where to thoughtlessly bang it at the fullest extent of their ability just means the ball flies into the further extremity of the net. That kind of form – Shearer eventually finished two goals ahead of second place in the Golden Boot chart – coupled with playing on home soil, made it a tournament that would basically be impossible to lose.
'Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you . . oh it's saved, saved, saved (repeat ad nauseam).' Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds, Three Lions '98.