Thursday, June 09, 2016

1996 and all that

Just when I thought I'd finally shaken off every last vestige of interest in the fortunes of the England football team, I found myself watching Alan Shearer's Euro '96: When Football Came Home and - very much in spite of myself - getting a bit misty-eyed.

I've stoutly defended Shearer's punditry for some time now, and will continue to do so (not only through allegiance to a former Newcastle Utd icon), though as a documentary presenter he was certainly no Grayson Perry. Nevertheless, he and the cast of interviewees - manager Terry Venables; fellow players David Seaman, Paul Ince, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Gascoigne; commentators John Motson and Barry Davies; and Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, presenters of Fantasy Football and co-creators of England's official tournament anthem with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds - were able to paint a revealing picture of what went on both in the public eye and behind the scenes before and during the tournament.

For those of us who instinctively feel that 1996 was only yesterday, the documentary was eye-opening in its portrayal of a hard-drinking culture within football (even during the tournament) that wouldn't be tolerated today. The sort of moronic, boorish antics (or "banter", as such behaviour would probably be termed these days) exemplified by the infamous pre-tournament dentist's chair incident couldn't be allowed to happen in public now - not in an era of smartphones, social media and even more intense media scrutiny. While the interviewees may have partially glorifying such antics with a smirk, the documentary did at least acknowledge the subsequent negative impact that this culture (and failure in the tournament) had on skipper Tony Adams and particularly Gazza - who was at his imperious best for those few weeks but whose professional and personal decline seemed to stem from that fateful miss in extra time in the semi-final against Germany.

Adams may have been captain, but, as Ince noted, the first XI was stuffed with experienced, vocal players who - on the pitch, at least - could lead by example. This is precisely what the current England squad lacks (and why Newcastle, despite a wealth of talented individuals, were relegated to the Championship last month). Not that the strong characters in England's dressing room inspired a succession of uniformly brilliant performances; the documentary underlined the oft-forgotten fact that England were distinctly average for long periods of the games against Switzerland, Scotland and Spain.

The summer of 1996 saw New Laddism, Britpop and football become even more inextricably bound up together, embodied in the cartoonish figures of Oasis, who after the tournament went on to play the history-making Knebworth gigs. Despite being no fan of either New Laddism or Britpop, I still look back on that period with fondness. England's bid for glory may have ended in heroic failure - as had Newcastle's title bid that year - but the club had broken the world record to bring Golden Boot winner Shearer home and there was reason to look forwards in optimism rather than back in anger. For a football- and music-loving 18-year-old, it was a pretty good time to be alive.

Incidentally, Shearer's documentary shared its title with my friend Mike Gibbons' book on the story of England's involvement in the tournament, as did a longer programme on Radio 5, which saw Mike Ingham actually reading to Shearer from the pages of the book - "a very surreal experience", the author has admitted!

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