Imagine this is you will, 20 years ago in England Euro 96 happened and the country changed once and for all.I know it feels like at best a decade ago, but nope, it’s two decades and the effects of it last to today.
The fact it’s a two decade anniversary was driven home by this excellent article over at the Quietus which places the decline of in particular England, at this point. I can see the argument and there’s much to it as this was the end days of the Major government and unbroken Tory rule going back to 1979 with Tony Blair’s shiny new Labour sitting there waiting to be given the chance to hammer a broken, bitter, useless Tory Party that’d ran out of steam, ideas and popularity.
Yet I disagree with this..
Seen via the rear view mirror, the mid-90s are a bit of an embarrassment. They feel like an era of complacency – an aimless interregnum between the fall of the Berlin Wall apparently ending history and 9/11 revving it up again with a vengeance. The resulting mainstream cultural totems constituted slim pickings; Blur v Oasis, the Spice Girls, Tony Blair. And then there’s Euro 96 which, in terms of national identity, feels like an illuminating metaphorical staging post; ostensibly just a football tournament but in a wider sense, embodying something sad and portentous that remains unresolved to this day. Like many milestones of that era, it was a wild ride. But it didn’t really take us anywhere.
The mid 90’s felt like a wonderful place to be at the time, especially if you were on the right side of 30. There was a sense of adventure that doesn’t exist in the streamlined, divided 2010’s, and Euro 96 was closure of the old days of football and the opening of the modern age. At the time we never knew that as hindsight is a glorious thing. We were just having fun and Euro 96 was huge fun until right at the end when the worst aspect of English blood and soil nationalism reared its head, yet til then it looked fantastic then Gareth Southgate walked up one balmy summer night to take a penalty and it was over for many..
For myself as a Scotland fan living in Leicester at the time it meant vicariously living the dream that we’d maybe for once do well enough in a major tournament to get into the second round. Plus with Scotland games being based in Nottingham and Birmingham I could soak up some of the atmosphere even though I couldn’t get a ticket, and it’s also worth noting that we drew against an excellent Dutch side, beat a decent Swiss side and pushed England for around 50 minutes and were only put to the sword by a still stunning Paul Gascoigne goal that came after a penalty saved by David Seaman which saw Scotland yet again suffer failure.
It’s also forgotten now that England in the early games were soundly criticised until their final group game against the Netherlands where they came up against the same side we’d held to a more than respectable draw and battered to a inch of their lives. To this day I don’t think I’ve seen an English side play as well as they did that evening.
After that something did click in England. People reclaimed the St George’s flag from the far right, people seemed more open and a genuine surge of openness. Indeed, by the time England played Spain in the next round there was a sense of belief that maybe all the wrongs of the last decades could be washed away like you’d hose vomit off a pavement outside a nightclub after a student night.
I spent the day of the England V Spain game working at one of the last Westminster comic marts. Afterwards I ended up having to walk up from Westminster in search of a pub that had a TV (as amazing as it sounds, not every pub had a telly in those days) and wasn’t rammed to the door. Eventually I settled on the McDonalds in Piccadilly where with some confused tourists and a load of English fans I watched a tense set of penalties which saw England through to the semi finals against Germany.
And we know what happened then.
I was working in a nightclub in Leicester that night. We opened early at 8pm in the hope if attracting people, but nobody turned up so we sat around in the DJ booth drinking beer and watching the game. At the moment Southgate missed the last English penalty I turned round to one of my colleagues and said something along the lines of ”this is not going to be a good night”. It wasn’t. The first three lads through the door proved themselves to be trouble from the off and were quickly removed as were many other angry, bitter English fans who’d seen what they saw as a personal slight. By the end of the night I never wanted to see another England flag or supporter in my life and so did friends and colleagues I worked with.
When the dust settled the anger for some didn’t stop. It still seethes today and here is where I verge back into agreeing with the Quietus article. The roots of today are rooted in 1996 as it was a transformational year. 1997 saw Blair elected and some of us quickly saw we’d been conned and I walked from the Labour Party by the start of 1998 which was a World Cup year which yet again saw England attempt to burn away what some called ‘hurt’ but was really entitlement but things (barring one or two blips) did change. English football became a product and a lifestyle choice rather than something you’d follow because you stuck by your local side. Hooliganism faded. Then it blew up again this week.
I loved Euro 96. It was a time when the people of England finally embraced a civic nationalism, reclaimed the St. George’s Cross from the far right, and genuinely thought about their own culture and identity going into the future rather than constantly dwelling on the past. It didn’t last, but for a time it showed what England, as a country and as a football team, could achieve. Now people settle for fighting people on European streets singing about a war they were never involved in and a team built on spectacular failure. Perhaps one day it may become a forward looking country again, but I fear not at least for a generation.