England Since Euro '96: A Nation's Fortunes Played Out On The Pitch
Euro '96 was a high point for English football, and reflected the national mood as a whole. It's all gone rapidly downhill from there, but can England turn things around at Euro 2016?
It was hard to recognise through all the tears, misery and despair, but it's fairly clear now that English football's happiest moment of modern times came 20 years ago, with Euro '96. In fact, that was probably a high point for the national mood as a whole. But let's stick to the football for now.
By now, the story of English football's early-90s rebirth is well-told. Six years before football came home, Italia '90 had set it on its way, the World Cup's tears, trauma and operatic soundtrack recasting football as a drama to rival any TV soap or Hollywood film. In the coming years Fever Pitch and fanzines piqued the interests of the chattering classes by elevating a sneered-at sport to a worthy literary subject, while the Premier League's cheerio act, energised by Sky's cash injection, gave the game a sheen of glamour, shipping in sexy foreign superstars and accelerating its ascent away from the 1980s nadirs of Hillsborough, Heysel and hooliganism. In the space of a decade, football had gone from being "a slum game played by slum people in slum stadiums" (™the Sunday Times, 1985) to a legitimate national obsession.
For football, then, England's hosting of a major tournament came at the perfect moment. But for Euro '96, football is only a fraction of the context. Where the tournament succeeded – really – was in reflecting a wider mood of that was blazing its way across the country. It was a summer when England was, as Terry Venables said at the time, "intoxicated with happiness and exuberance". And that mood came from culture and politics as well as simply sport. It was of course the time of Britpop, Blair and Cool Britannia.
Formerly strangers, the frontmen of football, pop culture and politics had suddenly tumbled into each others' arms like long lost lovers. The Labour party schmoozed rock stars to win votes, while its chirpy leader made known both his credentials as both a Newcastle fan and an amateur musician. Noel Gallagher hailed Blair at the Brits, Gazza hit the town with Danny Baker and Chris Evans, Liverpool's starlets were christened the Spice Boys. As Euro '96 approached, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner – who had come to epitomise the middle-class's embrace of footie-obsessed laddishness as well as anyone – teamed up with alt-rockers the Lightning Seeds to provide the era's note-perfect soundtrack. Like its Britpop backdrop, Three Lions was an anthemic, not entirely serious, and unashamedly patriotic self-portrait of a resurgent England.
And when the tournament did arrive, England won hearts and minds (if not, in actual fact, that many matches). In the midst of a nationwide heatwave, the country became enamoured by the mischievous dynamism of Gazza, Fowler and McManaman, the slick goalscoring of Sheringham and Shearer and the chest-beating warrior-pride of Adams and Pearce. As Michael Gibbons writes in When Football Came Home, it was a group of players that "can genuinely claim to have been the only England side ever to have captured the spirit of the nation and reflected it on the pitch". And with half the squad 25 or under, the team's future was brilliantly bright.
Gascoigne's goal in England's second group match against Scotland came to epitomise the tournament
By the end of that summer, Shearer had become the planet's most expensive ever footballer, Oasis's Knebworth gigs had become the most in-demand in British history, and the number of people watching football had continued its upward soar. A year later, Blair was elected into No 10 by a landslide and unemployment hit its lowest level since the early eighties. Gallagher clinked champagne flutes at Downing Street, while Manchester United, led by lifelong Labour supporter Alex Ferguson, clinched the club's fourth title in five years and eyed Europe. From the ashes of Thatcherism, England was on the up.
But if 1996 was a time of unbridled optimism, affluence and ambition, it's fair to say its starry-eyed vision of the future went unrealised.
Two decades later, Blair has become a magnet for the nation's hate, Gazza a magnet for its pity. England has clocked up one publicly reviled war, one catastrophic economic downturn and a litany of major-tournament humiliations. Britpop is variously remembered as 'the last collapse of hope', a 'cultural abomination' and an episode of 'bowel-curdling shame'. The Premier League has become a remorseless corporate cyborg, its stadiums quieter each year, its best sides routinely battered by Europe's elite. And the England team, with its chronic addiction to big-stage chokes, has gone from national treasure to national let-down; the heroic failures of 1996 long since giving way to the specialists in failure of today. Where the hell did it all go wrong?
Weirdly, the parallels between the recent histories of the English national sport and the nation as a whole extend beyond simply where they started and where they are now. They took similar paths to get there, too. If New Labour's rampant victories were squandered in a series of shameful PR disasters, the starry-eyed pursuit of celebrity and the incompatibility of its egos, England's Golden Generation will forever be defined by John Terry's racism, the Wags' adventures in Baden-Baden and the perennially unsolvable Gerrard-Lampard conundrum. In politics and in football, the youthful optimism of the nineties gave way to a toxic complacency of the noughties, the grand failures of which have seen the installation of today's regimes of safety-first conservatism.
Across all fields, principles have been jettisoned. Voted in as the man to restore Britain's pride and self-worth, Blair left office having reinvented himself as a yes-man to US imperialism. Oasis, masters of the four-minute firecracker, soon lapsed into drug-fuelled self-indulgence. Fowler, once 'God' to the Anfield crowd raised on Shankly's socialism, is now a property magnate – a transformation that is small fry next to how Ferguson, the former trade unionist, gladly greased the wheels of United's takeover by the vampiric Glazer family.
If Blair's ultimate legacy was a dismaying subservience to the Bush administration, it isn't the only stage on which England's self-image of supremacy has been shattered. Euro '96, far from ending decades of hurt, in fact marked the pinnacle of England major-tournament performances. Since the turn of the millennium, England's even-numbered summers have churned out the same cycle of hype, hope and misery. Amongst the respectable defeats to Brazil or Argentina, they have been showed up on the big stage by Romania, Portugal, Algeria and Costa Rica. Established forces like Uruguay, Italy and Germany have swatted them aside with embarrassing ease.
At club level, England's brief semi-eminence in the Champions League has long since given way to secondary status behind the big guns of Spain and Germany, each high-profile defeat a measured counterpoint to the Premier League's bleating hype machine. Meanwhile, a string of stars, from Henry to Ronaldo to Bale, have demonstrated the first thing on the agenda of any elite footballer playing in England: get the hell out.
In both fields, the central dogmas of the age are blood relatives. The systematic hiking of ticket prices – English football's dominant ground-level issue – neatly mirrors the austerity politics imposed by Westminster for the best part of the past decade. In both cases, it's the people who can least afford to be fleeced who are being shaken down year on year. And in both cases, the policies of penny-pinching are set jarringly against the steadily fattening wallets of the men making them: just months before MPs were granted a substantial, controversial pay rise last year, the Premier League clinched a TV rights deal that brought its clubs unprecedented riches.
The parallels extend from policy to personnel, with the eras' icons having suffered eerily similar fates. Whereas 20 years ago the youthful faces of Blair and Gascoigne represented an unflappable fearlessness that was leading a sea-change on both fronts, in 2016 both men appear craggy and weather-beaten and old beyond their years. One bludgeoned by addiction, the other by the ire of an embittered electorate, neither venture out in public much these days. Gazza's periodical relapses are fodder for tabloid horror stories, Blair recast as a warmongering Bond villain. And if there are vague comparisons to be made between those two, they're perhaps even stronger in the case of the former leader-cum-diplomatic mercenary and Gascoigne's spiritual heir. Wayne Rooney, who burst so auspiciously onto the scene in his early career, has since gone on to let the country down on the world stage, enrage swathes of fans by making eyes at the enemy, and is now seeing out his latter days as an unloved and exorbitantly salaried symbol of unfulfilled promise.
Even the chronologies match up. In both politics and football, England hit its nadir in 2008, the collapse of the country's economy coinciding with the insipid failure to qualify for the Euros. Both were the logical conclusion to years of institutional complacency and top-down short-termism. In both cases, calls for root-and-branch reform were trumped by the expensive quick-fix: in October 2008, the government announced a plan to bail out its banks to the tune of £850bn; 10 months earlier, its FA had parachuted Fabio Capello into the England hotseat, paying him a £6m salary that more than doubled the world's second best paid international manager. His time in charge was quietly disastrous, culminating in a big-stage shellacking by those same wily masters of long-term strategising who won the Euros at Wembley back in '96.
These days, with prosperous Germany fast becoming the political centre of Europe, England's football fans also look enviously at the economic model put in place by the old enemy: the one that fills the country's stadiums with bodies and noise, prices its tickets fairly and has positioned its top clubs well ahead of England's in Europe's food chain. And, of course, has seen its cannily revamped national team crowned world champions.
In Cameron and Hodgson, England's current leaders are in many ways peas in a pod: both are uninspiring but broadly uncontroversial, their public having become resigned to accept a state of no-frills mediocrity as long as it means avoiding the full-blown catastrophes of prior regimes. Factor in Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Gordon Brown and it's obvious that both anointments owed much to the charisma-vacuums that came before them, as well as a paucity of alternatives. Both men specialise in platitudes and populism, but hint at a steely drive to serve their own interests. And ultimately, the trait likely to cost both men their job is the same one that got them there: they're boring. If Blair and Venables got hopes crackling by eying the fast lane, Cameron and Hodgson make sure never to deviate from the middle of the road. Both could be deposed by more media-savvy pretenders before the year is out.
Both will be desperate to remain in Europe in June (the EU referendum comes on the day Euro 2016's group stages make way for the knockout phase) but in fact this summer could mark the point at which the parallel paths of football and politics diverge. They've perhaps begun to do so already: only eight weeks separated the election of idealists' icon Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and Leicester City's first taste of the top of the table. But while the former has spent the subsequent months being wearily chewed on by the media and declared unelectable across the punditocracy, Leicester's exuberant jaunt to the title has provided a story of genuine little-guy triumph unprecedented in modern football, let alone today's Etonian-dominated politics.
Indeed, this entire Premier League season has been defined by the violent upending of its previously unassailable power structure – not a shift that threatens the country at large anytime soon.
And while last year's election – in tune with the national team's set-up of the last decade – was largely discussed according to which personality the public disliked the least, the squad shaping up for this summer's Euros are the perfect antidote to their disenchanting, book-plugging predecessors. In Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, and Marcus Rashford, England has a core of young, exciting players, whose global profiles sit healthily below the tasteless razzmatazz of the Golden Generation. Most crucially – as was the key trait of the Euro '96 crop – people like them. Rooney may still be there, and Hodgson at the helm, but for the most part this is a genuinely new England side, untainted by previous failures and whose defining trait is that same youthful dauntlessness of 20 years ago.
Unlike Gazza and co, though, this summer's team may well be the England side with the least claim of any to be reflecting the national zeitgeist through their football. Which, on the whole, may be no bad thing at all.