When England kicked off Euro '96 at Wembley, I was a small child. Regarding the football itself, it's impossible to tell which of my memories, if any, are contemporary, and which of them have been formulated since. I admit that my recollection of that summer is an incomplete jigsaw of received sights and sounds – a mish-mash of television documentaries, VHS tapes and grainy online clips, watched in the years following the tournament – but I can at least be certain that I remember one thing with total clarity.
That summer, Baddiel and Skinner collaborated with The Lightning Seeds to produce Three Lions. I remember that with absolute accuracy, because – whether or not my adult self likes to admit it – I loved that song with all my tiny heart.
So great was my childhood love of Three Lions that – a year or so after its release, doubtlessly after much harassment – my mum bought me whatever "Football Anthems" album was going at the time and allowed me to play it in the car over, and over, and over again. It included legitimate classics like World in Motion and We Are The Champions. It featured the highly irresponsible whisky-drink-vodka-drink-lager-drink-cider-drink rap of Chumbawamba's Tubthumping, which made a great impression on me and may well be at the root of my current drinking habits. Most importantly, the album boasted the anthemic euphoria of the proper, authentic, Euro '96 version of Three Lions.
I must have played that album several hundred times. My mum must have been on the border of certifiable insanity. I was far too young to watch Fantasy Football League and had no clue who Baddiel and Skinner actually were but, nonetheless, their nostalgia for the Jules Rimet and their nasal crooning over 30 years of hurt moved my childish soul. In the end, we probably had to throw the disc away, so hopelessly scratched was its shiny, diffracted surface.
That, for me, was the immediate legacy of Euro '96. With the benefit of hindsight, however, its significance seems rather more profound.
Euro '96 represents the last major tournament hosted on English soil. It was the first (and so far only) time that the competition had been held on these shores. England hadn't been granted a showpiece sporting event since the triumph of the 1966 World Cup, an omen that seemed to bode well for the home side. Optimism and hope abounded in the months leading up to the tournament. Under the scorching sun of that inordinately hot summer, people really believed that football was about to come home.
Back then, that belief was far from unfounded. Over the course of the '90s, the England team developed into a serious force. The indomitable David Seaman stood strong between the sticks, with a back four marshalled by the towering Tony Adams in front of him. Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce were the fiery full-backs, while the capable Gareth Southgate understudied Adams in the centre of the defence. While the midfield was a tad mercurial – the manic talents of Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince alongside the youthful promise of Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman – the strike force were simply superb. In their pomp, Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham were two of the most lethal forwards in Europe. They were tasked with hauling England to victory, and coming up with the goals.
With a rock-solid defensive core, several creative outlets in the midfield and two natural-born finishers up front, it was a team to be proud of. On paper, few previous England sides could have matched them, and we certainly haven't seen a better team since. Not only was Euro '96 a home tournament, it was a tournament that England had the flair and quality to dominate. Excepting Italia '90, it was their best chance of international glory for three decades.
There was genuine expectation. Accordingly, the players were desperate to win.
The pressure seemed to get to them at the start of the competition. England began their campaign against Switzerland on June 8, and could only muster a 1-1 draw. Shearer appeared to have settled home nerves with an early goal, but England failed to capitalise. Gascoigne had a torrid time of it in the midfield, nothing really clicked, and the Swiss eventually equalised through a late penalty. In the stands, pubs and newsrooms, there were grumbles galore.
England's second group game was far more successful. They faced a Scotland side that included the likes of Stuart McCall, Gordon Durie and Gary McAllister, and swatted them aside with relative ease. The first half was a tense affair, but Shearer broke the deadlock with a pinpoint header early on in the second. Then came the defining moment of the tournament, straight from the boot of a man who had spent the previous week being widely maligned.
Gascoigne might not have performed against Switzerland, but he produced an iconic goal to finish off the Scots. After Seaman had pulled off a magnificent penalty save from McAllister, a quick counter-attack saw Gazza latch onto the ball just outside the Scottish box. Deftly flicking the ball over Colin Hendry, he then smashed a low finish past Andy Goram and into the back of the net. Wembley went wild, while Gascoigne's "dentist's chair" celebration was soon plastered over every back page in the country.
Next up, England squared up to a Holland side which, on paper, looked a formidable prospect. Danny Blind, Clarence Seedorf and Dennis Bergkamp all featured for the Dutch but, nonetheless, they were blown away by a brace apiece for Shearer and Sheringham. The game ended 4-1, with many hailing it as England's most complete performance since '66. The flickering flames of pre-tournament optimism had become a roaring conflagration, and it looked like it would be impossible to extinguish.
Baddiel and Skinner were at the top of the charts, their singalong chorus blaring out of every pub and stadium tannoy in the land. Having gone through a fairly bleak period over the past decade, football united the nation once more. England had qualified for the knockout stages, and were set to take on Spain in the quarter-finals. If expectations had been high before, they were now practically stratospheric.
The Spain match was a painfully tense affair. Julio Salinas had the ball in the back of the net in the first half, but was denied by the offside flag. Spain forged out chance after chance, with England looking anxious throughout the game. However, the home side did manage to take the game to extra time, and then penalties, with their clean sheet intact.
In the dreaded shootout, England did the unthinkable. Somehow, they actually succeeded in winning on penalties. Shearer, Platt, Pearce and Gascoigne all scored – Pearce celebrating like a man possessed – while Fernando Hiero hit the crossbar and Seaman saved from Miguel Ángel Nadal. Just before Nadal stepped up to take his spot kick, the ever-prescient Ron Atkinson remarked: "David Seaman is surely going to stop one, isn't he. He always stops one."
Seaman's save was the cue for all hell to break loose. There was pandemonium at Wembley, with the stadium shaken to its foundations by the celebratory roar. England were through to the semi-finals, and within touching distance of greatness. Then came some sobering news. They would have to play Germany.
For those members of the squad who had been at Italia '90, the prospect of a rematch against the Germans must have been daunting. England had come so close to World Cup triumph at the turn of the decade, only to be thwarted on penalties at the same stage in Turin. Gascoigne's tears that night had become iconic, but there would be no more tears this time around. That's what the players told themselves, anyway.
On the night of 26 June, with England all in grey, the game began. Three minutes later, Alan Shearer had headed the home side into the lead. With Wembley rocking, it looked as if Terry Venables' men might produce another performance like they did against the Dutch. Though they were pegged back by a goal from Stefan Kuntz just over 10 minutes later, hope still remained.
While they had been under the cosh in the Spain game, England had by far the better of the chances against the Germans. Sheringham saw a far-post header cleared off the line, before Shearer headed a Darren Anderton cross narrowly wide. Anderton hit the post late on in the match, before the best chance of all came in extra time. Gascoigne was an inch away from poking home a low cross from Shearer. The ball eluded him, and so it went to penalties once more.
What happened next felt amazingly familiar. Both sides tucked away five penalties, before Gareth Southgate stepped up to the mark. Nervous and flustered, his skittish run gave away his intentions. Andreas Köpke dived low and saved his effort, leaving Southgate to trudge miserably back to the halfway line. Andreas Möller thumped home a sixth penalty for Germany. Seaman couldn't always stop one, as it turned out.
It was Italia '90 all over again, but the nation was doubly heartbroken. In the tournament where England were finally ready to go all the way, they had been cruelly denied in timeworn fashion. The firestorm of expectation had blown out with barely a whisper, one spot kick the difference between glory and failure.
Though Three Lions still blared from the pubs, the singalong was over. England have never experienced such a tournament since, and may never see its like again.