Southgate’s England can provide the healing a divided nation needs.
Selly Oak, Birmingham, 26th June 1996, a 6-year-old boy lets out a sob as England defender Gareth Southgate’s meek penalty is saved by Andreas Köpke, advantage Germany. Moments later the waterworks would begin in earnest as Moller emphatically finished off England with the decisive spot-kick.
This is of course a reminiscence on Euro ’96, a tournament with so many golden moments for England, central to a sun-baked summer, the parallels with this year’s belated Euros are clear. The fall guy that night at Wembley, in a peculiar quirk of fate, is now the man charged with overseeing another home tilt at glory, his own unique form of redemption. England went into Euro ’96 very much an unloved side following a disastrous period under former Villa man Graham Taylor which saw abject failure at Euro ’92 followed by missing out on USA ’94 entirely. Throw into the mix a squad branded as bibulous and unprofessional after the events of the infamous pre-tournament trip to Hong Kong and you get a sense of just how low an ebb things had reached.
Then, throughout the course of that summer something enchanting happened, England romanced the nation, a nation running on sunshine and lagers, basking in the glory of the old Wembley Stadium as Scotland, Holland and Spain were put to the sword! Euro ’96 was catharsis for a nation, you see the England team do have a habit of doing that.
Italia ’90 is regarded by some as the high watermark of international tournaments, iconic stadiums for iconic players to produce iconic moments, most notably from an England perspective the semi-final tears of a man who had become the darling of a nation, Paul Gascoigne.
As in ’96, this was not an England team that was loved, football, in general, was in the gutter following five years of exile from European competition for English clubs, punishment for Liverpool fans involvement in the Heysel disaster which saw 39 fans killed at the 1985 European Cup final. The ’80s was a decade marred by football violence and tragedy of various sorts, notably the Bradford City fire and Hillsborough book ending Heysel. The government, led by Margaret Thatcher, sought to demonise football and its supporters, perhaps symptomatic of a wider demonization of the working class. So, against this backdrop of political, social, and sporting unrest England once again set off on an unenviable voyage to win over the nation, Gazza cried, and England exited the tournament in heroic yet familiar fashion against Germany at the semi-final stage.
Following their return to England an estimated 300,000 supporters came out for an open-top bus parade, saluting a team that had shown them the light, it was okay to love football again. English clubs returned to Europe after Italia 90, back in the fold, no longer pariahs and exiles, stadiums became all-seater in the years that followed and the demonization of the ’80s began to cease.
Fast forward twenty-eight years to the World Cup of 2018, Russia the hosts and England in familiar territory as both a nation and a footballing force, divided and with low expectations. The previous two international tournaments had seen an almost impressive desire on the part of England to reach new levels of humiliation, 2014 a group stage exit and 2016 knocked out by the footballing powerhouse of Iceland.
The political landscape was fraught in 2018 too, two years on from the referendum Brexit continued to cast its long shadow over the nation, animosity amongst Remainers and Leavers showed no signs of abating and if anything, the argument was becoming nastier.
As in Italia ’90 and Euro ’96, the stage was set for England to provide a healing touch. And so, it proved, a run to the semi-finals including a glorious shootout win over Colombia and people felt elation again, scenes of lager throwing jubilation swept fan zones and pubs across the country. Yes, England had a favourable draw and yes, we fell short when it mattered most, but that almost misses the point. Expectations had been well and truly exceeded, Gareth Southgate and his waistcoat had made us smile and brought people together.
So here we are, June 2021 with a clash against Germany at Wembley on the horizon and a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and racial and political tension, encapsulated by the rumbling row over the booing of taking the knee. It is a recognisable scene, and I hope that as in days gone by, England is about to wine and dine us all over again, with a run deep into the tournament and some much-needed therapy for a nation in dire need!
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