On Thursday night, the Three Lions will take on the Netherlands in a competitive fixture for the first time in over two decades. The Nations League promises to give England a chance at winning silverware for the first time since 1966, but they came agonisingly close when hosting a second major tournament, the European Championships in 1996.
Of course, it would all end in defeat and current manager Gareth Southgate would become the scapegoat after missing the decisive penalty against the Germans in the semi-final. He has certainly redeemed himself since then in charge of the national side and will be looking to replicate the result that Terry Venables had against the Dutch 23 years ago.
Just as we do today, the country faced some difficulties in 1996. The Dunblane massacre shocked the world in March, Manchester was still reeling from an IRA bomb which would eventually spark a multi-million-pound reimagining of the city centre and the Conservatives were losing their grip on power. Prime Minister John Major would be replaced by new Labour’s Tony Blair the following year but on a more positive note, the Spice Girls had released Wannabe and were on the way to superstardom.
Some 23 years on, the Tory government are once again clinging onto power and the Spice Girls are touring again. Some things never change. In the footballing world, gaffer Venables had announced he would resign as the national team manager after the tournament and Glenn Hoddle would be the man to replace him.
The tournament started inauspiciously for England with a draw against Switzerland. Having said that a win over Scotland meant that the hosts knew that a point would see them through to the knockout stages while the same result would also send the Oranje through. It was all set up for a cagey and uneventful 0-0, but that did not turn out to be the case.
Perhaps it was pure coincidence that ‘Killing Me Softly’ by the Fugees had replaced ‘Three Lions’ by Baddiel & Skinner at the top of the charts but there was nothing soft about England’s murder of the Dutch defence at Wembley that day. The Twin Towers glistened in the June sunshine as the fans and players roared out another rousing rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’.
The England team that day was nothing short of sensational. David Seaman in goal, a back four of Gary Neville, Tony Adams, Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce. Darren Anderton and Steve Mcmanaman out wide, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne in the middle and that potent front two of Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer. 4-4-2, simplicity at its finest.
The Netherlands team was also stacked full of star names such as Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf and Edwin van der Sar but they never stood a chance against this rampant England side. Things started badly and got worse for the visitors in a vibrant atmosphere in the capital.
Danny Blind, a man who would go on to manage his country, fouled Paul Ince after a wonderful turn left him dumbfounded. Shearer simply doesn’t miss from 12 yards and the Three Lions went into the break 1-0 up at half-time.
Venables had given a rousing speech before kick-off, convincing each player they were superior to their opposition number. He must have repeated a few choice words at the interval as England came out a different beast. In 11 second-half minutes they had scored three more goals and were rampant.
Sheringham nodded in from a corner for the second, before Shearer scored the most iconic goal of the tournament to make it three. Gazza burst into the box, leaving Dutch players in his wake on one of his trademark runs before squaring it to Sheringham. The Tottenham forward looked certain to unleash a rasping shot but instead dummied and laid the ball of to his strike partner.
Shearer finished with aplomb to score his fourth goal of the tournament on the way to winning the Golden Boot and the Wembley crowd could not believe what they were witnessing. This was Total Football being played by England against the Dutch.
The crowd were sent into delirium just five minutes later as Darren Anderton’s shot was too hot to handle for Van der Sar and Sheringham finished from close range. England. 4-0 up against Holland in a major tournament. This was nothing short of magical.
England somehow managed to make this result even better by conceding. A young Patrick Kluivert came off the bench to pull one back for the visitors, and it was that goal that sent the Netherlands through to the knockout stages ahead of England’s fierce rivals, Scotland.
This was the best England performance at a major tournament that most of us can remember and certainly the most dominant in recent history. Hopefully, Gareth Southgate can inspire a similar result on Thursday night and lead England to Nations League glory.