This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
It is the summer of 1996. The weather is brilliant, football is coming home and I am terrified of Jürgen Klinsmann. I am so thoroughly petrified, in fact, that I am refusing to watch England’s European Championship semi-final against Germany even though Klinsmann is not playing. I have spent every waking hour of the last few weeks watching, playing, and talking about football as well as supporting England, but the moment of truth has arrived and my seven year-old brain has reached an unfortunate conclusion.
England is the best country in the world – like all English children of bygone eras, I take this idea as read and only realise years later that it is total nonsense – but being a great land is one thing: being the country of Klinsmann is another entirely. No amount of inherent national superiority can compete with Klinsi. Even in his absence his aura will inspire his comrades to victory. We are the proverbial lambs being led to the slaughter and I cannot handle it.
My parents do not much care for football but they can see how much it means to me. My dad has made sure to accommodate my desire for a long pre-match kickabout in the garden and my mum has rattled through the evening chores – washing up, ironing and bathing my younger sister – so that she is done before kick-off. We sit down as a family just as Des Lynam introduces the coverage and, almost immediately, I get up from the sofa, put my trainers back on and head for the back door.
“Where are you going?” calls my dad, following me into the porch, a look of confusion on his face.
“Garden,” I reply, grabbing the red football I love as though it were a brother and heading straight for the goal in the middle of the lawn.
“Don’t you want to watch England?”
“No,” I said.
Over the course of the next half hour both parents come outside, try to understand my bizarre fear and sympathetically tell me that Germany may not prove to be invincible. Neither is successful in persuading me to end my inexorable shooting practice and come back in, however, until shortly after kick-off, when my mum pulls the back door open and shouts “Goal for England! Alan Shearer!”
I hurry back inside just in time to see the last replay of the Blackburn Rovers striker powering home a Paul Gascoigne corner that had been flicked on by Tony Adams. I am stunned. Maybe my parents are right. Maybe England are not on the verge of humiliation.
The next thirteen minutes are torture. England get penned in, repeatedly squander possession and chances to counter. This is memorable for providing my first experience of ‘the sinking feeling’. Eventually they switch off entirely and allow Germany to score. A smart reverse pass from Andreas Möller bisects a square-on and flat-footed backline and Stefan Kuntz (insert obligatory titter here) steals in at the back post to convert Thomas Helmer’s low cross. Back to square one.
The rest of the game is nervy but encouraging. My Klinsiphobia is countered by the fact that Germany’s makeshift front two of Kuntz and Mehmet Scholl is not nearly as fearsome as the pairings the Germans have previously fielded in the tournament. The match is precariously poised but England, to my innocent eyes, give as good as they get and battle into golden goal extra-time.
I am positively buoyed at this point: games on the playground and at poorly organised and lazily run coaching sessions have taught me that ‘next goal wins’ does not necessarily mean ‘the best team wins’. It is basically a lottery in which even the most useless can emerge victorious. England really can do this. Extra-time begins.
And then it happens.
Gascoigne picks the ball up on the left of England’s attacking third. He is tackled but the ball falls to Steve McManaman, who quickly moves it square to Teddy Sheringham. The famed ‘extra yard in his head’ means that the Tottenham man has not only recognised where to be in order to receive the ball but also where to put it subsequently. He has spotted Shearer peeling away from his marker on the right hand side of the penalty area and plays an inch-perfect diagonal over the top.
The transition is so fast and Sheringham’s pass so precise that the German defence is out of the game. They are transfixed but unable to intervene; as helpless as those of us watching at home. Shearer watches the ball all the way on to his foot and guides a first-time cross low into the six yard box. Gascoigne has continued his run, escaped the attention of every potential marker and looks to be arriving at the back stick just in time to send England into the final.
Shearer’s cross rolls past three defenders and the goalkeeper. The goal is not just open: it is gaping. Every single viewer at Wembley and in both nations freezes. I am out of my seat. This is it. The golden goal. Gazza swings a left boot out, throwing his entire body into the shot, and… misses the ball entirely.
It rolls away for a goal kick and the sound of disbelieving screams reverberates around Wembley and our living room. Gascoigne lays face down on the goal-line, unable to comprehend the fact that he has not ended the match. The replays bring with them no explanation – just repeated exposure to severe trauma. The moment for which many fans have waited their entire lives may never be closer. England’s biggest chance of glory since 1966 has eluded them by mere millimetres.
Everyone knows what happened next. The match went to penalties and the national stereotypes took over. The nerveless Germans buried every one of their spot-kicks with extreme prejudice before a jittery Englishman, in this case Gareth Southgate, scuffed a meek effort straight down Andreas Köpke’s throat. Möller stepped up, hammered the decisive penalty into the roof of the net and strutted off behind the goal to goad the Wembley crowd. England were out of Euro 96 and Gazza’s career at major tournaments was over.
It could all have been so different. If Gascoigne had an extra half-yard of pace – or an inch more height, or bigger feet, or longer studs – he would have tapped home and England would have had its most glorious moment since their much-mythologised World Cup triumph. They would have gone on to face the Czech Republic in the final.
The Czechs were a formidable side in their own right – in Pavel Nedvěd, Karel Poborský, Patrik Berger and Vladimír Šmicer they had a host of future stars – but with home advantage and the momentum carried through from their greatest night in three decades, thirty years of hurt would surely have ended under the Twin Towers.
The knock-on effects of victory would have changed everything that has since occurred in English football. Culturally, technically and tactically, we would be in a significantly different footballing world.
Soon after the tournament, Alan Shearer became the world’s most expensive footballer by making a £15m move from Blackburn to Newcastle United. In an era when tournament showings meant everything – rigorous scouting and statistical analysis remained a decade away for most clubs – a Shearer with European Championship winner’s medal as well as a golden boot would probably have been offered an irresistible sum of money by one of the continent’s superpowers.
Whether or not Shearer would have succeeded in Serie A or La Liga is debatable. In any case, the peak years of his career would have been spent playing a better standard of football and, assuming he made the effort to adapt and escaped injury, he can only have improved away from a Premier League in which every team made the modern Stoke City side look like the Brazil of 1982.
The stylistic evolution of a domestic icon would necessarily have changed the character of the national team and made it a more cultured outfit. That means a vastly different history for them and, as an aside, for Kevin Keegan and Newcastle United. As it is, Shearer chose to forego professional development in order to stay at home. Every pre-eminent English player – with the fleeting exception of Michael Owen – has since followed that path exclusively.
Paul Gascoigne, already the face of the English game and the darling of the media, would have been even more ubiquitous a presence in the years following his golden goal. While he would never be the player he was before the infamous tackle on Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final, his goal would have made him an indelible cultural and sporting influence.
Hindsight allows us to state that Gascoigne’s unstable personality would have failed to cope with an even greater level of exposure. Given the nature of his disease, he would have become the same deeply troubled figure regardless and perhaps even sooner. Sadly, no amount of wishing can change or prevent that tragedy.
On a footballing level, however, he would have become the blueprint for every future English player. Imagine that he had scored that goal against Scotland, the winner against Germany and then won the tournament: every child in every playground would have wanted to play like Gazza, even if they were in defence.
Attributes missing in English footballers to this day would have been at the core of every child’s desired skill set. Instant and close control, impudent improvisation and sheer enjoyment of the game would all have been suddenly vital to our national sport – and drummed into kids by the products of an imminent coaching revolution.
Nothing breeds popularity like success. The post-Euro 96 boom of middle-class interest and investment in domestic football already defines the era but consider for a moment that it could have gone even further. With a general election around the corner England’s tournament victory would have been ripe for exploitation. Every party would have chased the votes of newly infatuated football supporters with promises of further glories guaranteed by greater investment at every level.
With England’s national coaching centre at Lilleshall increasingly outdated and irrelevant, greater investment at grass roots level at this time could have ensured that the Euro 96 victory was no fluke.
An influx of money in the national game would surely have led to thorough analysis of our standing and the implementation of a new set of coaching standards that ensured that we caught up technically and moved tactically ahead of the curve. It could have created the conditions for football’s equivalent of Clive Woodward or Dave Brailsford to emerge and flourish.
The implications of this coaching revolution would have been the most long-lasting effect of all. It would have come just too late to have an effect on Fergie’s Fledglings but the wave of newcomers that emerged in the late 1990s could have been totally different. Steven Gerrard was sixteen during Euro 96; John Terry and Joe Cole, fifteen; Wayne Rooney, eleven; Theo Walcott, just seven.
In reality, the ‘golden generation’ turned out to be a media construct designed to whip up blind hope and sell newspapers: the players were simply not as good as we were told. However, with marginal gains in areas of skill as well as more innovative coaches, they could perhaps have achieved what was expected of them.
For many of them, coaching reform would arguably have been too little, too late, but the generation of Rooney and Walcott would have been unrecognisable compared to the products that we have now. With a few years of better coaching before their emergence, the typical problems we as fans have become used to bemoaning – an infuriating lack of basic technical ability and sporting intelligence, a preference for predictable patterns of play and inexplicably static movement – could perhaps have been solved.
It is perhaps simplistic and presumptuous to say we would definitely have improved – we could easily have poured all that money into reinforcing the persistent but poisonous long-ball ideas of Charles Reep, Graham Taylor and company, for example – but with huge investment in footballing infrastructure we should have become a real power.
As it is, the ghost of Jürgen Klinsmann haunts my perception of the England team. As I now know, it was not Klinsi himself that terrified me but what he represented: in that tournament he was the bogeyman that we all know deep down will outthink and outdo England every time the chips go down; the technically gifted, intelligent and reliably deadly player that we do not produce but that all of our rivals have in abundance.
And yet we were a hair’s width from changing everything. We just needed Paul Gascoigne to get a touch on Alan Shearer’s cross. I watched the replay of Gazza’s miss several times in preparation for this piece and on most viewings I still gasp. I don’t cry as I did when I was seven – thankfully – but it still hits me in the gut.
Not just because it was the closest England have come to winning a tournament 1966 but because our entrenched short-termism ensures that we have not the remotest chance of winning one for the foreseeable future. When that ball rolled tantalisingly across the six yard box, Gazza had more than an open goal: he had the chance to usher in an English football revolution. That is why his miss still hurts.