Being the kind of wallow-eyed sentimentalist that gets all emotional over hearing the theme tune to Animal Magic or stubbing my toe on a discarded DAT player, Alan Shearer’s Euro 96 on BBC last week was the kind of television designed to fill my Proustian jug with alcopops and tears.20 years on from the last time that England reached the last four of a football tournament, big Al took a road trip to meet various survivors of that glorious summer that made Gina G a household name.
Alan met Terry Venables at his worryingly remote hotel in Spain, Paul Gascoigne on a symbolically empty stage in Newcastle, David Seaman in a haunted dogging spot. Only the perennially 30 year old Teddy Sheringham, swinging his way round a golf course, seemed relatively untroubled by the events of 20 years ago.
Venables, who now resembles a kind of semi-retired owl, claimed that it was the best time of his life but his eyes spoke of sleepless nights filled with what-might-have-beens. Gascoigne’s demons go much deeper than footballing regrets but the agonies felt by us all as his outstretched toe failed to connect with that Shearer cross seemed to still be terribly close to the surface 20 years later.
Contributions from Baddiel and Skinner, whose “Three Lions” became the anthem of the tournament, and commentators John Motson and Barry Davies added some nice perspective but it was interesting to note those absent from proceedings. England’s captain Tony Adams, whose own troubles with alcohol peaked soon after the tournament wasn’t included. Stuart Pearce, whose penalty against Spain was perhaps the most gutsy kick any footballer has ever made, and Gareth Southgate whose penalty miss proved fatal to England’s hopes – these would have been the ones to catch up with, to see how it feels to carry those burdensome memories alone for so long.
And without these perspectives, what could have been a genuinely interesting programme, proved to be a little bit of historical revisionism. Feel good stuff admittedly, for which fan cannot resist watching Gascoigne’s impudent brilliance against Scotland again and again, but detrimental to the programme overall.
There can be no denying that Euro 96 was a wonderful tournament to be an England fan. It was mainly because of the dross served up since Italia 90 up to and including half time against Scotland that made what happened in the following 10 days or so feel so special. This was a country celebrating not being world beaters but not being entirely shit either. Those ten minutes against Holland remain burnt onto the retina as being a moment when pre match optimism seemed delightfully negative. Sport is full of who knows and what ifs. It's what makes remembering events from 20 years ago such a bittersweet experience. But to gloss over the past is damaging and makes our memories less valid.
If Italia 90 was the start of football's image rehabilitation then Euro 96 and Three Lions was the last piece of the jigsaw. Within a year of Southgate's penalty miss we had New Labour in power. A repackaged working class product sold to the middle classes in an acceptable form. Just like the Premiership. After Venables, England went for their own Tony Blair figure in the form of Glenn Hoddle, a young, confident purveyor of vaguely Christian-bollock-speak. When Diana died, Michael Owen filled the void. When England shellacked Germany in 2001, the possibilities for the national side seemed limitless. 10 days later was 9/11 and England sneaked almost apologetically into the World Cup thanks to a 93rd minute free kick from David Beckham against those titans of European football, Greece.
And just as we flexed our shoulders on the world stage and pretended to be a minor superpower, so our footballers went to tournaments and did likewise. We have only won one football tournament and that was down to a home draw and a beneficial linesman decision. 1966 was the start of something awful in this country’s psyche, the beginning of a national obsession, the idea that our optimism could somehow manifest itself in the England team not being rubbish at football, that Johnny Foreigner could be subdued with rolled up sleeves and robust tackles, that the only thing that stopped us winning trophies was corrupt officialdom, foreign underhandedness and just darned poor luck.
It wasn’t just a patriotic short sighted devotion to our national team that was born in 1966, David Cameron was too. And if you can draw a comparison between an overpaid, undertalented, PR obsessed loser like him and Roy’s lads then you’re a better man than I.
We’ll come second in the group and lose to Portugal on penalties. But I'm more worried about Brexit in the group stage.