I have a friend who stopped playing football at the age of 11. Lost all interest, got into music and books instead. In retrospect, he reckons it was Teddy Sherringham moving from Spurs to Man United in 1997 that finished him off. The loss was too much to bear. Spurs fans, eh?
Towards the end of 2014 he came back. He was 15 years older and, though presumably a bit stronger, most of his ability had disappeared. 15 years of not playing any football will do that to you. He's remembered it all now – clawed back the ability to pass and shoot and not get knocked over repeatedly – to the point where you'd never know about his long sabbatical.
But in his first few matches it was tough going. He was struggling to make an impact on the game, misplacing passes and being beaten to most balls. Remember Andriy Arshavin's final days at Arsenal, when he resembled a man rushing home from the lobotomy ward? It was worse than that. Much worse.
But, amidst those early travails, he did something incredible. It was a game like any other: seven-a-side, shimmering astroturf, fitness a major factor after about 12 minutes. The ball was hoofed high towards him from the centre of the pitch, arching over his head and beginning a descent that would place it somewhere near his left boot. The expectation was that he'd have a job getting it under control, probably shank it over a fence. But no, a deft touch lifted the ball over the head of an onrushing defender, who could only stumble to the ground and watch. He steadied himself, pulled back his right boot, and fired a low volley into the bottom corner. It was an incredible goal from nowhere. And not the kind of "from nowhere" goals Lionel Messi scores, the ones that have in fact come from the feet of a football genius; this one genuinely appeared to come from the ether.
It was familiar, however, this lift over the defender and low shot into the net. And so it should have been, because it was a move-for-move recreation of Gazza's goal against Scotland at Euro '96.
I put this to my friend. He knew. He knew that what he'd just done was entirely unexpected, yet at the same time he was not surprised that he'd done it. Because, before his long football sabbatical, he'd watched Euro '96 and that Gazza goal.
"I practiced it for hours and hours in the garden afterwards," he recalled. "I suppose it's just muscle memory."
I think this sums up the affect that Euro '96 had on a certain group of football fans. If you were born between 1985 and '90 – as I and a lot of my friends were – Euro '96 is the cornerstone of your international football experience. Too young for Italia '90, for Pavarotti and Gazza's tears. Still a bit young for Euro '92, won by Denmark, which is a tremendous achievement in retrospect but not all that exciting to a five-year-old. USA '94 had its high points, but it was staged in another timezone and England had failed to qualify. Without them, the excitement back home was always subdued.
But Euro '96 had it all. England present as hosts, the nation wild with anticipation after missing a World Cup. Sunshine. A team that fans could really get behind. An iconic song in Three Lions (as well as the far less famous but also brilliant England's Irie by Black Grape).
And, crucially, England were bloody good. They battered the Netherlands 4-1, a result that remains the most impressive for an England side in my lifetime. Spain were dispatched on penalties, which was actually more cathartic than if England had run out 3-0 winners. The Germany game was decided on such fine margins that you couldn't feel anything other than sympathy for the players. Were Gazza a few inches taller, we'd probably be talking about the champions of Euro '96.
And, of course, there was the Scotland game at Wembley. A Gary McAllister penalty was saved by David Seaman. The resulting corner came to nothing and the 'keeper sent the ball up the pitch.
From here I know every frame of the goal, and I'm sure I'm not alone. The hopeful ball from Darren Anderton. Gazza looking skywards, the ball dipping, the flick. Colin Hendry sinking to his knees as Gascoigne wrong-foots him. The strike. Gazza already rushing off with his arms in the air before the ball has even struck the net.
Then the celebration. Gazza's goal came off the back of considerable press criticism for the team's behaviour during a pre-tournament tour in Hong Kong, where they were photographed indulging in the "dentist's chair". This terrifying social activity involves lying back in a chair with your mouth wide open while a variety of drinks are poured in. "DISGRACEFOOL", cried The Sun's headline. Gazza was "a drunk oaf with no pride".
After his goal against the Scots, Gazza rushed to the touchline, lay down and opened his mouth. Had he planned it? Did Gazza ever plan anything? His teammates willingly got in on the gag, spraying water from a nearby bottle into his mouth. Gazza had answered his critics perfectly. For a moment, it seemed that he could do what he liked off the pitch if that's what he could do on it. Sadly, 20 years later, that theory doesn't hold true.
But, at the time, it was the perfect tonic. After a disappointing opening draw with Switzerland, this brilliantly instinctive goal brought Euro '96 to life. It paved the way for what was to come, caught fans' imaginations and made them believe that this could be a special tournament. It was a perfectly executed goal by one of the few no-holds-barred geniuses of English football. It was Gazza's gift to the world, and we're still enjoying it 20 years later.
It was even more than that. It was a goal so special that it sent kids up and down the country rushing into their gardens with a football to try and do the same. To them, the "dentist's chair" meant nothing, but what Gazza did on the pitch made perfect sense.