On decades of watching the England football team on the telly – culminating in the most socially influential squad, and one I am the least familiar with (compared to past ones in the late 20th Century) reaching the final of a major tournament for the first time in my lifetime. (i.e. after 1966).
For those of you old enough to have bought or listened to the original 1996 version of Three Lions on CD by Baddiel, Skinner, and the Lightning Seeds, you’ll recognise some of the lyrics that never made it past the producer’s cutting board.
Each of the lines below “Three lions on a shirt” should date historically the person recalling each of the lines.
- Pickles – we’re not talking the axeman of local government in the early 2010s, but the dog that found the original World Cup – the Jules Rimet Trophy, after it got stolen; [In those days the trophy was referred to after Monsieur Jules Rimet, the Frenchman who came up with the concept of, developed, and founded the World Cup as a tournament – one that England boycotted until after WW2 because the English Football Association wanted to stick with the Olympics only].
- Millichip, Bert – Sir Bert Millichip – a World War 2 veteran and football administrator who was the ageing chairman of the Football Association in the 1980s & 1990s – and was in his 80s by the time Euro 1996 came around, so to us teenagers at the time seemed to be from another era;
- Phone Book – You don’t see them anymore, but before mobile phones became mainstream in the 1990s, local directories listing every name and address in a geographical or municipal area were published annually and distributed to every household. Hence “The Phone Book”. It was published by British Telecom (later BT), and its predecessor nationalised owner of the landline phone network, the General Post Office (which ran both the UK’s postal and telecommunications networks, headed by the Postmaster General, a Minister of the Crown – one of whom was Lost Cambridge’s Prof Henry Fawcett.)
Euro ’88 in West Germany
Yes, you read that right. Germany in those days was split into East and West due to Cold War politics.
The first England match I can clearly remember is when Marco van Basten made mincemeat out of a young Tony Adams who was tasked with marking him. I was eight years old at the time.
I remember being absolutely scathing of both Gary Lineker and Glenn Hoddle who, at the time both played abroad so were never seen on domestic TV – in the days when we only had four channels. Lineker was supposed to be like the best striker in the world so how he hadn’t scored a hat-trick I could not understand. And Peter Shilton was supposed to be the best goalkeeper in the world – and he was in my football sticker collection too! So how did he let in three goals? It didn’t get better for England as they played the Soviet Union in their final game – the group favourites, and got hammered by the same score; 3-1. How would you explain the concept of the USSR as a football team to someone born after the year 2000? A sort of footballing wing of the communist party of the territories of the former Russian Empire that at the time dominated much of Europe and Asia.
The first world cup tournament I can really remember, and possibly the only one I really enjoyed at school as well. For a start it had a sound track – World in Motion by New Order, generally regarded as the first more-than-half-decent pop song about football. Football songs up until then had generally been excruciatingly awful. What the producers behind the Euro ’88 song were thinking I don’t know.
Above – “All The Way” by “The England Football Team Featuring The “Sound” Of Stock, Aitken & Waterman”
In Italy – for which Scotland and the Republic of Ireland also qualified, England got lucky. Very lucky. In the grand scheme of things their football wasn’t particularly inspiring. They only scored two goals in the group stages (like the current tournament) but kept clean sheets until the quarter-finals, when the tournament’s surprise package, Cameroon, tore England’s defences to shreds.
Ask anyone who watched that match in full (& can still remember) and they will tell you Cameroon were very unlucky not to go through. This was also the point at which African footballing nations started making the established footballing nations sit up and take notice.
England leaked five goals in the final three games of the tournament, and lost on penalties to West Germany – having been knocked out by the same country first in 1970 after going 2-0 up, and then in 1982 on goal difference in the then second group phase that saw two goalless draws. At the time I was at a school swimming gala at Parkside Pool, so missed the 90minutes, only catching Lineker’s equaliser in the car on the way back home on BBC Radio 5.
Euro ’92 and USA ’94
Lots of us expected Terry Venables to become the next England boss but it went to Graham Taylor – whose tactics and selections from that era still continue to baffle. Having started secondary school by the early 1990s, we expected England to progress from their group that contained France, Sweden, and Denmark – the latter brought in to replace the imploding Yugoslavia as the civil war got more violent. That war dominated the headlines in the early 1990s, and a stain on both the UK and the EU who failed to stop the bloodshed that was happening on Europe’s doorstep.
England were particularly bad at Euro ’92, having neither scored or conceded in the first two games – Taylor having particular bad luck with right backs, every single international-level player previously available was injured. They were ejected from the tournament by hosts Sweden after going a goal up – leading to the infamous headline: Swedes 2, Turnips 1 with Taylor’s face superimposed on a vegetable.
His selections and tactics for the qualifiers for USA ’94 were similarly questionable. I remember being surprised to find an England game on TV – a qualified away to Norway (at a time the new subscription-only Sky Sports had bought the domestic rights to the England home games and to the new Premier League – a very smart commercial gamble by Murdoch’s empire). At a time the Scandinavian countries were producing excellent teams consistently, Norway played England off the pitch and came top of the group.
The most painful match to watch was Netherlands vs England in late 1993 – see the highlights here and note the incident that did not lead to a penalty and red card for Dutch defender Ronald Koeman – ironically later a manager in England at Southampton & Everton.
Above – David Platt on the professional foul.
That must still hurt Platt – the England Captain who was denied the chance to play at another World Cup.
Me and some friends came back from the pub in late 1997 and stopped round at a friends to see the final stages of the Italy vs England match that Italy had to win in order to qualify. It ended up 0-0 with two heart-stopping moments in the last few seconds as Ian Wright hit the post after which Italy went up to the other end and missed a sitter. Sadly for Ian Wright he injured himself in a world cup warm up match and never got to play in a major international tournament for England despite doing so much to ensure England qualified.
England’s matches clashed with my A-levels, so I only got to see England’s second goal against Tunisia having just completed an A-level Geography statistics paper a few minutes before. Both Euro ’96 and France ’98 cost me a grade or two in a number of subjects. Taking a year off from full time education meant that my university finals would clash with the World Cup 2002.
Euro 2000 in The Netherlands & Belgium
This was around the time I turned away from football as a watching hobby. I had just completed my first year at university and wondered what it was all for, having spent much of it doing A-level standard content from economics & geography again. I also never settled in with a stable group of close friends either. Most of the people I became friendly with were from continental Europe. Up until then I had been influenced as a teenager by the newspaper my grandparents bought – the Daily Express. They were Conservatives by disposition. I was too young to know how I was being influenced by the headlines, even though when I started A-levels & was told to read a broadsheet every day, I bought The Mirror because it was clearly a Labour-supporting newspaper and I blamed the Tory government for all the bad stuff that was happening. Seeing a newspaper tearing into the Tories every day was very therapeutic.
But it didn’t stop my then Euro-sceptic outlook until I went on an international student conference in Athens in Easter 2000, where I met lots of wonderful people from across Europe and the USA – and asked why university wasn’t like this. One night we went out to a restaurant in Athens, organised by one of the locals there, and I was struck by the conversations we were having. I was the only person out of over 30 of us from the UK, and one of only two of us who spoke English as a native language. Everyone else was from continental Europe. Yet the only language you could hear at the table was English. I’ve been pro-EU ever since.
England’s football team going forward were exciting, England elsewhere were woeful – and this was when I noticed their big achilles heel tactically: They kept on giving the ball away, and their style of nearest man defending made them panic. Interestingly, Gareth Southgate is the only England manager who has successfully dealt with both issues.
The year 2000 showed that Euro ’96 did not deal with the country’s hooligan problem that had recurred again in France ’98. One Dutch student on my course told me the way the Netherlands dealt with England’s hooligan problem (they have one too) was simple:
- Water down the beer at all of the pubs and bars
- Have a very low profile policing presence (but have them hidden away as back up just incase),
- Play lots of very loud Euro-pop on big sound systems in the squares and piazzas where fans congregate, so they cannot chant offensive group chants – yeah, you try having a riot when The Venga Boys are being pumped out full blast.
- Distribute *lots* of spliffs towards the end of the game
- Direct the fans to Amsterdam’s red light district after the game ends.
He told me there was not a single arrest after the England vs Portugal match.
Above – Vengaboys re-united in 2013: Anti-riot beatz. According to one of the Dutch students I studied with at university in 2000.
After the England vs Germany game where the Belgium Police did none of the above, there was a very big riot – even though England won an ill-tempered game at a time Germany was going through a notable trough in international football. They had to do some serious soul-searching having been knocked out of the quarter-finals of the last 2 world cups in a row (they had reached the final of the previous three before then) and now were bottom of the group, going out – ironically with England.
But by that time my love of the game had gone. In the decade that had just gone (1990-2000), footballers’ salaries had gone through the roof. And yet there was no commensurable improvement in either England’s passing or the behaviour of too many of their followers at international tournaments. Why would I want to associate myself with either when my outlook at the time was turning towards the Continent?
The naughty-noughties…no England still can’t pass the ball for toffee.
The Argentina ghost was put to rest by Beckham and co in Japan and South Korea – which involved some very early mornings at a friend’s house before I moved back from Brighton to Cambridge. England went out on the morning I moved back home. I remember sitting shell-shocked in a cafe on Trinity Street after one of the semi-finals still trying to get my head around why I had such a miserable time at University, and wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life in the face of belatedly diagnosed mental health problems with depression & anxiety. How I got a 2:1 degree in economics despite missing most of the first term of my final year with depression & panic attack symptoms I will never know. It was only later on that people far more educated & qualified in medicine & psychology told me that it was a reflection of my talents and potential as well as the failure of successive institutions to give me the support I really needed over the years. From that point I started looking at the role of institutions and not just how I was failed by them, but entire cohorts and generations too.
Euro 2004 & World Cup 2006 – and not qualifying for Euro 2008.
Both of these were at a time of great change for me in my mid-20s as I transitioned from being a student to being in a career – I joined the civil service just as the Euros kicked off. Being in a settled post also enabled me to do some career planning – I took up GCSE German as an evening class – and did a term of Swedish too. (The less said about the latter, the better – the teaching was awful!) I had a vague aspiration that if my German was good enough in four years time I might be able to get a placement in Vienna during Euro 2008. Yeah…exactly.
In both tournaments, many felt that this was a golden generation, and if England could not win with Rooney, Owen, Beckham, Scholes, Ferdinand, Campbell, Gerrard, Lampard and more, we’d never win anything. The only player who performed consistently throughout that period was Ashley Cole at left back. At the time I thought given England’s consistent problem of the lack of world class left-footed players, Cole should have been played as a left-winger, with Wayne Bridge as left back. They managed it only once – during the closing stages of the Argentina match in 2002.
Despite Joe Cole’s cracking opener against Sweden in 2006, England made the same mistakes as in 2002 – giving the ball away time and time again. They were lucky to get an equaliser in the closing stages. They made hard work of relatively straight forward ties against Costa Rica and Paraguay – the latter we all watched on Parker’s Piece that summer. I remember feeling utterly depressed as England went out on penalties against Portugal, watching at a friend’s house party. It was also the moment when I realised that I had to leave Cambridge again for something and somewhere bigger and better.
Euro 2008 passed me by, and I found myself on my younger brother’s stag weekend in Leeds watching the opener of England’s campaign in South Africa in 2010 against the USA. We had a table booked and we were on this raised platform on the outside part of the pub but still able to see the big screen. There was a lower platform the other side of us with perspex screens between the terrace and the pavement. On the other side of us in the pub was a table of Leeds Met. Uni students singing songs about how ‘orrible and stuck up Leeds Uni students were – which was awkward given where my younger brother graduated from. Then, shortly after England scored, these skinny White teenagers appeared from nowhere and started getting into shouting arguments with people on the terrace, threatening violence. None of them were wearing any t-shirts. Then out of nowhere this huge Black security guard appeared and slapped down one of the gang, at which point they fled. I was like: “Can’t we get back to watching the football?” – unable to avoid noticing the very southern accents of the patrons of the pub hurling abuse at the local scuzzballs who had just fled.
I went back to the flat early – having decided years ago that night clubs weren’t my thing, and even less so having turned 30 less than a year previously. The same passing errors cropped up time and again, England scraping through to another “WW2” game against Germany, who, in the grand scheme of things played England off the park. Even if Lampard’s shot had been given as a goal (we got VAR from it, and at this tournament most match officials showed how to use the technology properly) Germany would still have got through comfortably.
Euros 2012 & 2016, World Cup 2014
The one thing that all of these have in common is watching these 1) through the lens of post-breakdown fatigue, and 2) not working full time or permanently anywhere. Ironically given England’s crowd trouble reputation, far fewer fans made the journey to the Ukraine because of long-trailed media reports of hooliganism over there. It was only when the quarter-final match with Italy was secured that more people flew out. But again the manner of England’s exit on penalties was depressing – as well as the racist abuse that both Ashley Young and Ashley Cole received on social media having both missed. This was the time when Twitter in particular had gone mainstream.
By 2014 in Brazil I remember watching the first game in The Rock – the nearest pub to my house that every so-often pre-pandemic I might pop in, but very infrequently. I wouldn’t pretend to call it my local, even though my first pints in there were back. in the late-1990s. I remember thinking Raheem Sterling had scored early in the game, but alas. I wasn’t surprised England failed to get passed the group stages. Italy was always going to be a challenge, and England also traditionally struggle against South American opposition. Yet I was happy that Roy Hodgson was England’s manager as he seemed to be a popular figure with his international colleagues – helped by being fluent in several languages. But then when England went out to Iceland shortly after the Brexit vote, out he went as well.
Why did that Golden Generation fail?
Ferdinand, Lampard and Gerrard explain – and also spot that Southgate back in 2017 had spotted the weaknesses and had already started to rectify them.