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Euro '96: From piece of history to Pizza Hut

Ben Blackmore
June 7, 2012
Gareth Southgate was the only one of 12 penalty takers to miss in the Euro '96 semi-final © PA Photos
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As England prepare for the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, which commences on Friday, we cast our minds back to when the Three Lions came closer than ever to winning the tournament.

It is difficult to know what was more agonising on the crackling, desperation-filled evening of June 26, 1996. Was it Gareth Southgate's decisive penalty miss in England's Euro '96 semi-final against Germany? Or Paul Gascoigne's excruciating lunge to score a golden goal in extra-time, missing the ball and therefore a ticket to the final by a matter of centimetres?

England, led by Terry Venables, had swept the nation through a tournament so turbulent that it became much more than the typical quadrennial European Championship. As hosts and rulers of Wembley - where they played every game, England drew their fans into such a month-long drama that it would later be recreated in film, labelled My Summer with Des, referring to Des Lynam - the well-known TV presenter who headed up the tournament's coverage.

A far cry from the talent-deprived squad England boast today, Venables truly was blessed with a magnificent crop of players back in '96.

Where Roy Hodgson now struggles to build an attack out of Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck due to the absence of his one top-class striking option (Wayne Rooney), Venables could have lost an entire front three and still been laughing. Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham - providing brawn, brains and predatory instincts in front of goal - were the preferred option, but failing that Venables could have picked Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Stan Collymore, Andy Cole, Matt Le Tissier... several of whom had to watch the tournament on their TVs.

Supplied by the mesmerising dribbling skills of Steve McManaman, the crossing ability of Darren Anderton and the genius of Paul Gascoigne in midfield, England effectively operated with a front five - all built on the foundation of the Guv'nor Paul Ince, a rare English export to Serie A with Inter Milan.

Things started with a frustrating 1-1 draw against Switzerland - coached by Hodgson at the time, with England pegged back by an 83rd-minute penalty. It was in the second game that the tournament erupted, and it was all about Gascoigne.

Leading rivals Scotland 1-0, the game was in the balance after David Seaman saved Gary McAllister's penalty - aided by a mysterious ball shift right before the ball was struck that illusionist Uri Geller later claimed was down to him. There were 12 minutes left when 'Gazza' latched onto a ball over the top - closely shadowed by Scotland lynchpin Colin Hendry. In typically imaginative style, Gascoigne flicked the ball over Hendry's head with his left foot before smashing home the volley on his right. Wembley exploded at the sight of one of the ground's most memorable goals, and Gazza celebrated by reinacting 'The Dentist Chair', an alcohol-fuelled incident England had been widely slammed for in the pre-tournament trip to Hong Kong.

By now the atmosphere across the nation was at fever pitch; to throw England and Germany together seemed like the final had come a stage early

It was the moment that got the nation onside, and Netherlands felt the full force in the final group game. In one of the best performances ever produced by an England team the hosts destroyed their visitors, Shearer and Sheringham netting two each in a 4-1 victory. One of the goals, featuring a sublime lay-off by Sheringham for Shearer, was truly exquisite.

Momentum was building and suddenly there was a feeling that the name might be on the trophy when Spain twice had goals chalked off, and had a further two penalty appeals declined, in the quarter-finals. Seaman produced more penalty heroics in the shootout, and England were through to a semi-final against their fiercest rivals: Germany.

By now the atmosphere across the nation was at fever pitch; to throw England and Germany together seemed like the final had come a stage early.

The history between the two countries is deeply ingrained both on and off the football pitch. Back in 1935, one of the final collisions before World War II, the Observer noted of a 3-0 England win at White Hart Lane: "So chivalrous in heart and so fair in tackling were the English and German teams who played at Tottenham in midweek that even the oldest of veterans failed to recall an international engagement played with such good manners by everybody."

However, years after the war came 1966, when England beat Germany in the World Cup final thanks to Geoff Hurst's controversial goal. Two years later Germany scored their first ever win over England courtesy of Franz Beckenbauer, and from that moment on Germany had won almost every significant game between the two countries. Most fresh in the memory had been Italia '90, when England were beaten on penalties in the World Cup semi-finals.

In a sport that once saw England lord it over the Germans, the roles had now reversed and - fuelled by the lingering emotions left by the war - the English had always had a far bigger axe to grind with their European counterparts than Germany had reciprocated.

The English media served only to throw more logs on an already burning furnace, which became Wembley on June 26. The Daily Mirror's headline, "Achtung! Surrender! For You Fritz, ze Euro '96 Championship is over", was in particularly poor taste.

Gareth Southgate was inconsolable after missing the decisive penalty © PA Photos
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When the game arrived England could not have wished for a better start. Shearer, the goalscoring machine, netted a header after three minutes to amplify belief around Wembley. Even when Stefan Kuntz equalised 13 minutes later it hardly dampened spirit in an England team that poured forward in search of a winner.

Anderton and McManaman were outstanding for England, the former hitting a post in extra-time while the latter tormented the Germans with his mazy runs down the flanks. Golden goal meant the first team to score would win, and when Gascoigne momentarily hesitated - enough to prevent him getting his studs to an open goal - England's chance had gone.

It went to penalties, and suddenly Wembley - the home of English football - was the last place any English player wanted to be. Ince refused to take a kick, but Venables still had five generals to stick away the first five penalties. Shearer, David Platt, Stuart Pearce, Gascoigne and Sheringham all netted... the only problem was that Germany matched their efforts.

It was time for Venables to turn to his lesser lights, and Southgate stepped up where others shied away. With 76,000 England fans inside the stadium - and millions more outside it - not ready for their summer love affair to end, Southgate's low spot-kick was saved. Seaman, such a hero throughout, could not rescue his nation at the vital moment, and the dream painfully died.

What happened next?
Germany went on to win the final 2-1 against Czech Republic, scoring a golden goal through Oliver Bierhoff. Meanwhile, Southgate decided to make some money out of his heartache, posing on a Pizza Hut advert with a bag over his head.

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