Hot Press scribe Stuart Clark shares his lively memories from Euro 96
Euro ’96; Baddiel & Skinner and the Lightning Seeds were singing about football coming home, Gazza was pound for pound (and he weighed quite a few of ‘em!) the best midfielder in the world and long-suffering England fans like myself really did think that after 30-years there might be something to stick in the perennially empty FA trophy cabinet.
No matter that we had the Del Boy-ish Terry Venables as coach and other players of such dubious quality as Steve Stone, Nick Barmby and Steve Howey in the squad, Johnny Foreigner was going to be sent back from whence he came, tail firmly between legs.
That mindless optimism lasted until 4.42pm on Saturday, June 8th when Kubilay Türkyilmaz sent David Seaman the wrong way from the penalty spot to earn Switzerland a share of the Group A opening game spoils at Wembley.
Having been sent to interview him by Hot Press, I stayed on in Buswells Hotel to watch the game with Shaun Ryder and the rest of the well-lubricated Black Grape boys who were supporting Blur that evening in the RDS.
"Someone needs to give that c*** of a referee a twatting!" he proffered before nodding off for approx. the fifth time that afternoon, lit Benson & Hedges and a double brandy still twixt his fingers. If only Jimmy Hill’s punditry had been that incisive.
England’s chance for redemption came the following Saturday with the visit to northwest London of Scotland, a fixture that traditionally resulted in the Wembley pitch being dug-up by modern day Robin The Bruces and transported back to Caledonia on the Inter City.
Tickets were changing hands for £500 a pop, which even for a highly paid media professional like myself was a bit rich. As Clarkian luck would have it, though, my next interview was with Ray Treacy, the former Ireland player-turned-travel agent who’d cornered the market in sporting trips here.
Having put the footballing world to rights – sadly, we could only print about 15% of what Ray, a lovely guy, had to say about the FAI – I jokingly asked, “Do you have any England v Scotland tickets?”
"Actually, I got two returns in this morning."
I wanted to vault over the desk and plant a smacker on his saintly head but settled instead for, "Er, how much do you want for them?"
Never have two words sounded so sweet and so sexy. My next conversation was with my long-suffering Mum.
Me: "Where are you watching the Scotland game?"
Her: "At home."
Me: "No, you’re coming to Wembley with me."
Her: "Have you been drinking, dear?"
Which wasn’t the first – or last – time she’s asked me that question.
Forty-eight hours later, Mrs. C and I were walking up Wembley Way, revelling in the carnival-like atmosphere. The red-tops were predicting scenes of Braveheart-ian brutality, but both sets of supporters were determined that Wapping’s pre-written “Our national shame!” headlines went unused.
Following an on the pitch rendition of 'Three Lions' by Messrs. Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie – the mass sing-along crescendoed during the "… and Nobby dancing!" bit – we were treated to 45 minutes of football better suited to Hackney Marshes of a Sunday morning. If you’d asked me for a prediction when the referee blew up after a minute of added time, I’d have said both sides were going to lose.
It turned out to be the proverbial game of two halves, though, with English sphincters relaxing and then tightening again when Gary McCallister, God bless him, had his penalty saved by David Seaman just seven minutes after the restart. Seconds later, Alan Shearer nipped in at the left-hand stick to open the scoring, which was the cue for the rotund Tam o’ Shanter-wearing gentleman next to me to start crying big salty tears.
England teammates swamp Paul Gascoigne after scoring the second goal in today's (Saturday) Euro 96 clash against Scotland, at Wembley. Photo by Neil Munns/PA
His weeping became even more uncontrolled in the 79th minute when Gascoigne flicked the ball over Colm Hendry’s strawberry blonde head, and volleyed in one of the most iconic goals ever seen at the Home of English football. With big screen replays a thing of the future, I had to wait until I got home and saw it again on Sky News to work out exactly what he’d done. In 43-years of going to games, it and the mass dentist’s chair celebration that followed is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Having played their best football since the 1966 World Cup Final to trounce the Dutch 4-1, a group-topping England defied the laws of physics to win a quarter-final penalty shootout against Spain, setting up a semifinal showdown with that even bigger old enemy, Germany.
Mindless optimism now fully restored and Ray Treacy this time unable to wave his fairy ticket wand, I paid an eye-watering £1,000 to make a return trip to the Twin Towers with Mrs. Clark who’ll hopefully remember this when making her will.
Sadly, those 30 years of hurt were added to as Gazza failed by millimeters to connect with the extra-time Shearer cross that would have fired England into the final – if he’d had an extra layer of polish on his boots he’d have scored – and those broken laws of physics repaired themselves when the game went to penos and Gareth Southgate tamely miscued to hand Germany victory.
It was my turn to shed manly years but, hey, what a footballing three weeks.