As England return to a major tournament semi-final for the first time since Euro 96, Mike Gibbons looks back at the defining summer in the life of Gareth Southgate and the echoes of that famous campaign at the 2018 World Cup, soundtracked by a familiar song...
You’ve obviously heard there’s a football match on Wednesday night. When the agonising hours between now and then have passed, England will take on Croatia in the Luzhniki Stadium for their first major tournament semi-final in 22 years. Pretty much anyone in England aged 30 and above would be able to give you some sort of recollection of the previous one. On a night of compelling drama at the old Wembley stadium, a defeat on penalties to Germany sent England spinning out of Euro 96 and brought a juddering halt to a frenzy that had gripped the country for the previous 11 days. That night, and the semi-final to come in Moscow, are inextricably linked by England’s current manager.
Gareth Southgate should never have had to take England’s fateful sixth penalty at Wembley. Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman settled for places further down the list, the captain Tony Adams provisionally agreed to take that sixth kick but backed out and Paul Ince sat with his back to the action for the whole time. England’s assistant coach Bryan Robson had overseen preparing the players for penalties but had only practiced with the same core of five takers each day. For a campaign planned so meticulously by Terry Venables, it was a shocking oversight given the opposition. Southgate volunteered himself thereafter; we all know the rest.
That caused a power cut in the middle of one of England’s biggest parties and has defined Southgate’s life ever since. In the immediate aftermath, he was consoled by everyone from the Prime Minister John Major to Liam Gallagher. When he phoned his mum, she asked him why he hadn’t blasted his spot kick. A few months later Southgate tried to make light of the miss in a Pizza Hut advert, and there was quite the backlash; away supporters dredged up the memory of that penalty for him for the remainder of his club career. Southgate’s experience at Euro 96 was the genesis of the scapegoating culture that is now a feature of England’s fortunes at major tournaments. Now, over two decades later, he is entering a week in Russia that has the potential to be one of the greatest redemptive stories in sport.
There are links between Euro 96 and this World Cup that extend beyond the mere presence of Southgate and are compelling evidence that he had been making mental notes all those years ago. With two-and-a-half years of friendlies before England hosted the European Championship, Venables had a microclimate in which to experiment. Even with that, the radical flip to trying out three at the back only happened in the months before the tournament, an innovation Southgate replicated when qualification for Russia was all but secured. Though Venables clearly had the superior raw materials to work with, the adaptability of his charges and the accent on youth are both features of the squad in Russia, with a similar paternalistic bond between manager and players. In his preparations for the tournament Venables had missed one key detail, but Southgate drew on his own misfortune to plan the execution of penalties against Colombia to the thou of an inch.
One other thing that links these two tournaments is the ubiquity of the song ‘Three Lions’. The underscore to one of England’s most memorable summers has re-emerged at several junctures in the last 22 years, but never with the force of the last few weeks. Back in 1996, the song caught fire in England in the period between Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland and Southgate’s penalty, with the lyrics printed in the tabloids ahead of England games and pumping out from jukeboxes across the land. In the 21st century, it’s consumption is different; downloads have propelled it back to number one in the charts, while memes and gifs that riff on its themes go viral on social media. Whatever the medium the upbeat, anthemic, singalong potential at the heart of its appeal remains just as powerful. It is no coincidence that this resurgence has taken place under the stewardship of one of Euro 96’s key characters. The way the communal momentum of England’s campaign rapidly escalated in England that summer has been mirrored off the back of events in Russia in recent weeks.
England player Gareth Southgate has his penalty saved by Germany goalkeeper Andreas Köpke
Image credit: Getty Images
Much has been made of the England team reconnecting with their public at this tournament. Southgate’s squad are the selfie generation, but without the self-regard of previous squads that reached a nadir with the absurd, celebrity-culture posturing of Baden-Baden in 2006. They are approachable, self-deprecating and comfortable in their own skin; the bond between them is real and obvious and looks unlikely to be torpedoed by narcissism. All of this stems from careful squad selection by Southgate, overseeing the whole operation with the disposition of an amiable academic with a snappy line in waistcoats.
Before England swoons too helplessly at Southgate’s feet, it is worth adding a note of caution. This love-in could come to a very abrupt halt on Wednesday night, just as it did at Euro 96. Croatia are dangerous opponents and have previous; on a night of driving rain at Wembley in 2007, they wrote the epitaph for the ‘Golden Generation’ when they knocked England out of qualifying for the European Championship.
On paper, England are the weakest of the four remaining teams. Even if they do set-piece their way to victory next Sunday, there is already a backlash in the post. There will be some that insist on asterisking a World Cup victory based on who England played and how they played, the type of tedious contrarians who are adamant that Real Madrid aren’t a great team despite winning four Champions League titles in five years. In a wider context, a World Cup win would soon be hijacked for political capital by every Theresa, Nigel and Boris, held up as a triumphal example of Global Britain in the 21st century while gongs and knighthoods fly around like confetti.
That, however, is not the point of this coming week. Whatever happens, Southgate and his squad have generated more goodwill in the past few weeks than anyone thought possible beforehand. One of the key differences between this World Cup and Euro 96 are the social circumstances surrounding both. Twenty-two-years ago the country was under the spell of Britpop and Cool Britannia, and immersed in all of the hedonistic high jinks that ran unchecked throughout the mid-nineties. The Conservative Party that had been in power since 1979 were done for at the next election, and everyone knew it.
Euro 96 felt like an extension of that optimistic mood; this World Cup is a distraction from recent events. Years of brutal austerity, terror attacks, the destructive divisiveness of Brexit and the horrific atrocity of Grenfell Tower are alarming signifiers of a society approaching the brink. Just this week alone, the plans for leaving the European Union are in meltdown and the odious figure of US President Donald Trump plants his oafish feet on these shores in the coming days. Southgate and his team cannot cure any of these ills, but for the English people of the UK they can at least act as a serotonin that temporarily relieves us from them.
"I think for a long while we’ve not been feeling too good about ourselves in this country, for many different reasons," said a reflective Terry Venables ahead of the Euro 96 semi-final. "and it’s wonderful to see people thrilled at an event." Those words would be equally appropriate from Southgate now. Quite apart from what any of the fans feel, it’s been wonderful to see him so thrilled at this event.
Beneath that calm exterior, that affability, that boyish grin, that statesmanlike demeanour and that waistcoat beats the heart of a man healing in front of our very eyes. It’s evident in the way he hugs his players after each game, his fist-pumping exhortations to the England fans and, most revealingly, his wild relief in the immediate aftermath of England winning on penalties last Tuesday. Even then Southgate still found time to console Colombia’s Mateus Uribe. He had failed to score a penalty, and Southgate had seen that same film before. It was an act of empathy made powerfully striking when set against the contemptible apathy of modern British politicians.
Southgate has probably – and hopefully – done enough already to bury his personal disappointment of Euro 96. Though, to paraphrase the song, football never stops you dreaming. If he can work England past Croatia on Wednesday night, he’ll have a one-off match to make his young team champions of the world. The ultimate redemption might yet be within reach, and it would be hard to argue that it could fall on a more deserving soul.