OptaJoke Revisits: England’s Euro ’96 Squad
***In this series of blogs, OptaJoke member Carl McQueen goes ‘back to the future’ and utilising his selection of vintage Premier League Merlin Sticker Books, he’ll ‘preview’ a team’s chances for that forthcoming season…therefore written as if the season had only just begun, rather than looking back with hindsight and saying what a great/awful team it was. This time he’s gone all out and previewed the England national team’s hopes at Euro ‘96***
So tomorrow the build-up finally ends and the first major football tournament to take place on English soil for 30 years kicks off with the 10th European Championships. After two years of seemingly endless friendlies – The Umbro Cup last summer doesn’t count as a ‘tournament’ – and despite the memorable moments for the wrong reasons, such as the abandoned friendly against Republic of Ireland in February last year due to crowd trouble, or the good reasons such as scorpion kick from Columbia’s Rene Higuita last September in a dire 0-0 draw, the viewing public are ready for entertainment. They’re ready for battle.
This is the first European Championships where 16 nations will compete – a sure-fire indicator of the growing strength of nations in Eastern Europe – Croatia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Czech Republic (since the break-up of Czechoslovakia), Switzerland and Russia (since the break-up of the USSR) are all making their first appearances in this competition. Who says the English aren’t a welcoming bunch?!
With talk of a new national stadium in the offing, this could also be the last time the world lays it’s eyes on the historic Wembley Stadium before it gets moved elsewhere in the country. In April last year, the English Sports Council launched a somewhat curious competition for the site that would host a new “English National Stadium”. After five locations – Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Wembley – all placed their bids, Manchester and Wembley have been short-listed, with the winner announced in December. Even if Wembley wins, it will reportedly be knocked down and rebuilt from scratch. A tragedy.
England’s Group A consists of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and of course, Scotland. Despite rumours UEFA would deliberately keep the two apart in the draw, such a conspiracy hasn’t occurred and the two rivals will meet at Wembley on Saturday 15th June. After the conclusion of the British Home Championships in 1984, and then the Rous Cup in 1989, this will be the first time these two enemies will have played each other this decade. Expect fireworks, and it could be a moment of sheer inspiration that decides this match. Before then, England takes on Switzerland in the tournament’s opening game, and Scotland takes on a promising Netherlands team.
Looking further ahead, should England win their group, they’ll take on the runners-up of Group B, or if they come second, they’ll take on the winners. Third and Fourth in the group gets you nothing, which would be unthinkable. Group B consists of Spain, France, Bulgaria and Romania – none of which shall be ‘easy’ games. A strong group performance however, and England will expect a semi-final birth.
But can England hope for the sort of success that Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s number one hit “Three Lions” sings about? Here’s a look through the players that can decide our fate…
A guaranteed starter for England since ensuring he can keep Tim Flowers away from the number 1 jersey, Seaman will be hoping to avoid Spain in the knockout stages of the tournament, with Nayim’s infamous lob for Real Zaragoza against Arsenal last season still fresh in the memory. Thankfully, Nayim won’t be at the tournament, but some of the talented players in the young Dutch squad, such as 19-year-old Patrick Kluivert and Johan Cruyff’s son Jordi, could be capable of similar piece of brilliance.
The captain, the leader, the man at the heart of our defence. Now aged 29, he has been the rock at the heart of Arsenal’s defence for several seasons now, and along with his teammate Seaman, will be vital at ensuring our defence stays water-tight throughout this competition. Having won the FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup in recent seasons, he’ll still be as hungry as anyone else in the squad to win something at international level. A strong tournament from Adams and the rest could fall in place nicely for England.
Psycho is back. After the heartbreak from that night in Turin six years ago, Pearce has his vision set on putting the record straight. After being overtaken by Graeme Le Saux as the first-choice left-back in the squad, a broken leg to Le Saux saw Pearce seize his opportunity back in the side. After a very disappointing performance (from the entire team) at Euro ’92 in Sweden, with the tournament now on home soil, this will mean Pearce and the rest of the team will have 80,000 people cheering them on at Wembley every game. Should we need to decide a game later in the tournament on penalties, everyone’s hearts will be in their mouths, but Psycho will not shy away from trying to right the wrongs of Italia ’90.
The difficult ‘other’ centre back position alongside Tony Adams seems to have been handed to the young Aston Villa defender. Aged 25, he built a worthy reputation at Crystal Palace as a central midfielder, but has begun to mould into a central defender while in the Midlands, and picked up a winners medal in this season’s League Cup with Villa after their 3-0 win against Leeds United. He was known to have an eye for goal during his time in South London, so expect a couple of moments of goalmouth action from him during the tournament.
If you take David Platt and Paul Gascoigne out of the starting line-up for England (rumours are circling that Platt won’t make the starting XI against Switzerland) then our most experienced midfielder is Paul Ince, with just 19 caps – yet in that short time he has become the first black man to captain his country, and no one can question his ability. After being part of the successful double-winning Manchester United team of 1993-94, a trophy-less season saw him bite the bullet and head to Italy with Internazionale. Despite not winning anything last team, many believe he flourished in Serie A and this continental experience could put our midfield in good stead.
Part of the now rather infamous ‘Spice Boys’ group of Liverpool lads after wearing those white Armani suits at the FA Cup Final last month, McManaman does at least show talent and culture on the pitch when playing football! He has drawn a lot of comparisons in his style of play with his mentor at Liverpool, John Barnes. Interestingly, he was the first player without first team experience to play for the England Under-21 team back in 1990, so his talent has always been there. Now he needs to deliver on one of the biggest of stages.
The man who has single-handedly destroyed every defence that has been put in his path in the last few seasons, but remember, Shearer hasn’t scored for England in nearly two years – the last time he found the back of the net was September 1994, 14 matches ago. This is enough to concern any England fan. He’ll be given the number 9 jersey, and with that comes genuine responsibility. After scoring more than 30 league goals in each of the last three seasons, a goal against Switzerland in the opening match could open the floodgates for him. If he adds another couple of games to his England drought, we may have reason to worry.
Known to his mum as Edward, to the rest of us he’s Teddy. He’s just passed the 30-year-old mark and knows he may not have too many more major tournaments in him. A flourishing partnership with Shearer, he’ll be the first to remind Switzerland he scored against them when the teams met in a friendly last November in a 3-1 England win. With a wily footballing brain, he’s often out-thought the opposition before they’ve even realised the balls in the back of the net. If Sheringham and Shearer hit form, expect a successful tournament.
So there you have it – just some of the players that Terry Venables will be looking towards in this tournament. Of course, the talent of other players such as the mercurial Paul Gascoigne is unquestionable, and after his ‘dentist chair’ incident, needs to set the record straight.
Should they fail to beat Switzerland, it’s not the end of the world thanks to the style of round-robin group stages, but it would mean they need at least four points from their matches against Scotland and the Netherlands. Other young players such as Darren Anderton, Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville will also have the pressure thrust upon them, with even less internationally experienced players such as Gary’s brother Phil Neville, and Sol Campbell waiting in the squad. But after not qualifying for the World Cup in 1994, very few members of this team know what it’s like to battle at the highest level. This lack of experience may be their downfall. But the advantage of being at home, along with the prospect of a talented generation coming to fruition could result in at least a semi-final place.
***Of course, in reality, England managed to reach the semi-finals of Euro ’96. They drew with Switzerland, beat Scotland and the Netherlands in their group. They then beat Spain on penalties (the only time England have ever won a penalty shootout) and then lost on penalties to Germany in the semis after drawing 1-1 after 120 minutes. Alan Shearer was the tournament’s top scorer with 5 goals. David Seaman, Steve McManaman and Paul Gascoigne were all included the “UEFA Team of the Tournament” too.***