A nostalgic Dan Fitch can still remember how England's brilliant Euro 96 victory against the Netherlands left him and a nation feeling...
"Perhaps it’s so fondly remembered because no other performance is so neatly summed up by a single goal."
How many times have you seen England play really well against another top nation? Having become transfixed by football during the 1986 World Cup, in the decade that followed, only three examples really stand out.
In 1987, there was a 4-2 away victory against Spain in which Gary Linker scored all four goals, that convinced people that England would win Euro 88 (instead they lost all three of their group games). Then you have to fast-forward to the match against Holland at the 1990 World Cup, in which England impressed, but still only drew 0-0. The other good performance in that tournament came against West Germany in the semi-final, where England (of course) lost on penalties.
So you can see why at Euro 96, there was some trepidation from England fans when the side took on the Netherlands in their final group game. Yes, we had home advantage and football was allegedly 'coming home', but the Dutch were good and history told us that in such situations, England were likely to disappoint.
Brilliant orange were built on the great nineties Ajax side
Holland were managed by Guus Hiddink. He built his reputation at PSV, where he won three successive Eredivisie titles in the late eighties and the European Cup in 1988.
If PSV were the best side in Holland during that period, it was Ajax that excelled during the mid-nineties and it was from that famous team that Hiddink formed the spine of his Dutch side. Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 and reached the final again in 1996, when they were beaten on penalties by Juventus.
Hiddink had eight Ajax players in his squad. This included the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer and Patrick Kuivert, while Hiddink also named several Ajax alumni such as Aron Winter, Clarence Seedorf and Dennis Begkamp. With memories of Holland's demolition of England at the 1988 European Championship still relatively fresh in the mind, this match was a big test for Terry Venables and his side.
Venables was a man with a plan
The lack of success of the England team during the seventies, eighties and early nineties, was in large part due to tactical inflexibility from successive managers.
Sticking rigidly to a 4-4-2 formation while the rest of the world experimented, some outstanding English talents were wasted. Graham Taylor was more guilty of this than most, jettisoning flair players such as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle when they were still at their peak.
Taylor was such a failure that public opinion essentially forced the FA to turn to the more progressive Venables, who had been overlooked for the job in 1990. Venables had a reputation for playing attractive football and had won La Liga with Barcelona. In his first match as England boss against Denmark in 1994, he unveiled an innovative 'Christmas Tree' formation, as he reinstated Beardsley to the side.
With England hosting Euro 96, Venables had two years of friendlies to experiment and hone his team. It would be an exaggeration to say that this period prior to the tournament was an unqualified success. A large number of games were drawn, England's possession game often lacked a cutting edge and Alan Shearer was on a long run without a goal. Still, England at least appeared to have a plan and that was something that they'd lacked for a long time.
England deliver what the nation least expects
If England's preparations for Euro 96 didn't inspire bulletproof confidence, the first two group games failed to change that. The opening game of the tournament against Switzerland ended in a drab 1-1 draw, while the second match against Scotland could have easily ended in another stalemate, but for David Seaman's penalty save and Paul Gascoigne's remarkable goal just moments later, which made it 2-0.
This passage of play turned a disappointing performance into a thrilling victory and set England up nicely for the final match against Holland. Confidence was high and a draw would be enough for England to win the group.
Yet England were not content with a mere draw. They would not only win, but would do so in a swaggering manner, far more associated with their opponents. It might not have quite been total football, but nether was it what we had grown accustomed to expect from the English game
This match has often been described as one in which the Netherlands were beaten at their own game, but in truth we saw England show the traditional qualities associated with both nations, in a rampant 4-1 win. England had strong defenders able to play out from the back and a holding midfielder in Paul Ince, who was capable of the outrageous moment of skill that won England the first-half penalty, converted by Shearer. On the wings, Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman could run all day, but were also fine footballers capable of subtlety.
It has been pointed out that England were not quite as good as everyone remembers. Holland after all, had more possession and plenty of chances. Teddy Sheringham's two goals came from a corner and a fortunate rebound.
This may be accurate, but those that think of this as a great game, do so because they remember how good it made them feel. The nineties were optimistic times, with New Labour in power and British music ruling the airwaves. England's win against Holland saw a nation dare to dream that better times were ahead.
Perhaps it's so fondly remembered because no other performance is so neatly summed up by a single goal. Gazza dancing his way through the Dutch defence and cutting it back to Sheringham. Teddy feinting to shoot and instead giving an exquisite pass to Shearer, who quite rightly called an end to this eerily accurate impression of Cruyff and Co, by simply leathering the ball into the top corner.
The summer of 1996 was a great time to be 19-years-old and thanks to YouTube, I can travel back there any time I want.