‘Jocks. Piss on them. Summer. Full stop.’

Gazza’s goading, Three Lions, Fish from Marillion, Tosh McKinlay, McAllister . . . and of course that goal.

By Mike Gibbons

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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Everyone is aware of the three key second-half moments that dominate any retrospective of the match. What’s less often recalled is that Scotland edged the first half.

A palpable sense of inevitability hung over the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham on the afternoon of December 17, 1995. There were only two balls left in the bowl of seeded teams for the draw for the 1996 European Championship; Germany and the hosts England. They couldn’t play each other, or at least not in the early stages. One of them however was about to be placed at the head of a group containing the Netherlands, Switzerland and Scotland. Although UEFA had earlier that week considered skewering the draw to keep two sides in particular apart, they eventually decided to let the draw take its course. ‘Will this be England in with Scotland?’ ITV commentator Brian Moore wondered as one of the balls was removed from the bowl and cracked open.

There was a sustained, guttural ‘Ooooh!’ that filled the room when the piece of paper within was unfolded and England’s name was revealed. It captured the significance of the moment more than any words could. The ramifications were still sinking in while the formalities were completed and Germany were placed into a ‘group of death’ alongside Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic. That news was a bagatelle given what had preceded it. On 15th June 1996, the second Saturday of the European Championship, England and Scotland would meet at Wembley in the biggest ever game between two of the home nations.

‘We welcome the Scots with open arms,’ said tournament director Glen Kirton. The respective managers, Terry Venables and Craig Brown, made all the right noises about using it as a springboard to play each other more regularly.

Privately, the fixture was an enormous headache for the tournament organisers. The annual fixture between the two had been abandoned in 1989 after years of escalating fan trouble had culminated in England’s fans treating Glasgow city centre to a particularly aggressive feng shui. Despite the end of the Heysel ban and being chosen to host the European Championship, hooliganism was still a latent problem in England. Just ten months before the draw, the Combat 18 group had instigated a riot and forced the abandonment of a match with the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.

At Euro 96 two million pounds would be spent on security for England-Scotland alone, with 1,000 extra police officers and a similar number of stewards drafted in on the day.

If the six-month build-up to the match was stress-inducing for the organisers, the pressure on both sides for the game itself was higher.

Twenty years ago, the buzz was ramped up mainly by newspapers, whose circulations dwarf what they are now, and television, still an analogue pursuit for most of the UK across four channels. Just two percent of the UK population had access to the fledgling internet going into 1996, so community discussion of the big game was in person rather than online. Teddy Sheringham’s tournament website, Teddy Hits the Net, was about all that was available in cyberspace. Mobile phones were thick rather than smart, the size of house bricks and mostly a trinket of the nouveau riche. Scotland’s striker John Spencer had one, and was threatened with a barrage of mobile-based hilarity from his club teammates. ‘The Chelsea boys have been telling me to make sure it’s switched on after the game,’ he said. ‘They reckon there’ll be a few messages.’

Rivalry between club colleagues had always been a strong feature of the England-Scotland fixture., By the time England and Scotland met in a play-off to reach Euro 2000 the make-up of the Scottish squad had changed dramatically. After decades of Scottish players having a dominant presence at the big English clubs the Bosman Ruling, passed two days before the Euro 96 draw, had a terminal effect on this production line. Arguably the shift was taking place anyway. ‘We don’t look in Scotland as much as we used to,’ admitted Alex Ferguson in a Euro 96 preview programme. Nevertheless, the game in 1996 saw Blackburn’s Colin Hendry and Tottenham’s Colin Calderwood marking their club teammates Alan Shearer and Sheringham respectively. And then there was the Gascoigne factor.   

‘Jocks. Piss on them. Summer. Full stop,’ he chanted as he jogged around the Glasgow Rangers training pitch with his teammates a few months before Euro 96.  ‘Jocks. Piss on them. Summer.’ Gascoigne was larking about and goading his colleagues for the benefit of the television documentary crew filming the latest instalment of his off-the-wall lifestyle, Gazza’s Coming Home. When he signed for the champions in 1995 he was arguably the biggest name to ever transfer into Scottish football. Although his spiralling problems with alcohol were mere months from taking a devastating hold on his life, Gascoigne’s first season brought 19 goals, the league and cup double and the SFWA and PFA Scotland Player of the Year awards.

At Wembley he would have his midfield colleague Stuart McCall sticking to him like a limpet. Andy Goram and Gordon Durie were also there, and his partner in japes Ally McCoist would make an appearance as a substitute in the second half. ‘Scotland isn’t an international team,’ Gascoigne continued through his daft grin at training. When informed by one of the Rangers coaches that Scotland had a better international record and had qualified for five World Cups in a row, Gascoigne countered: ‘Yeah, but you’ve only played five games.’ In an obligatory nod to the Loaded magazine-influenced behaviour of the day, the earnest debate ended with Gascoigne being wrestled to the floor and kegged.

Gascoigne’s high jinks were indicative of a widely held view of the England – Scotland fixture as an imperious football behemoth with the weight of history in their corner facing an upstart neighbour armed with two rocks and a sling. A cursory glance at the results between the two sides did not bear this out. Head to head, England had won 43 to Scotland’s 40, with 24 draws. The idea that there was a chasm in quality between the two squads bridged solely by passion seemed a stretch. Yet the stereotype arguably suited both sides, as a conduit for a thoroughly deluded hubris for one and a powerful motivational tool for the other.

‘The mystery of Scottish sport is why we hate the English so,’ spoke Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh on The Big Man and the Scream Team Meet the Barmy Army Uptown, a collaboration with Primal Scream for Euro 96. ‘I love the English very much, as long as they don’t fucking beat us in the European Nations’ Cup.’ Straight after the draw for the finals Craig Brown had been quick to try and nix the idea that Euro 96 was only about the England game for his team. They were there to play three games, not one, although that didn’t wash with everyone. ‘For the vast majority of Scottish supporters,’ Alan Hansen claimed on the eve of the tournament, ‘if they beat England at Wembley then they’ve won the championship.’

Although the game hadn’t been winner-take-all prior to Euro 96, it soon took on that feel after the opening week of the tournament. England laboured to a 1-1 draw with Switzerland and substituted a knackered looking Gascoigne before full-time. The hosts then took a hammering from a media already on their case for a pre-tournament bender in Hong Kong that had culminated with Gascoigne smashing up a Cathay Pacific plane as the squad flew home.

While the opprobrium rained down, Scotland held the second favourites the Netherlands to a 0-0 draw in an incredible atmosphere at Villa Park two days later. Some of the Dutch players had been airily dismissive of their first opponents prior to the game, claiming to know none of their opposition. ‘I think one or two of the lads,’ Hendry said later, ‘when we came off the pitch said “Yeah well, you know us now”.’

When the Netherlands then beat Switzerland it heaped even more pressure on the Wembley showdown. What passed for banter back then was flying around ahead of the match. Frank Skinner, co-writer of the soon-to-be-huge England team song Three Lions, suggested that he had written Scotland’s song for the next World Cup, called Three Games. Alex Ferguson suggested in the Sun on the morning of the game that England would be flush with nerves. ‘Let them quake even more,’ he wrote, ‘in their fancy sponsored boots.’ In another twist Scottish Television, the regional broadcaster for ITV, dumped their hosts’ opening titles for being too Anglo-centric. Overall, an estimated 15 million British viewers tuned in on television. Ladbrokes estimated that £8 million pounds had been laid down in bets on the outcome.

As the game approached the tension around it increased. On the morning of the match itself, 163 miles away from London in Manchester, the Provisional IRA detonated the biggest bomb ever to go off in Britain during peacetime. It obliterated the city centre and injured 212 people, though miraculously no one was killed. Today in 2016, with an interconnected society and rolling, scrolling news coverage, it is highly likely that the game would have been postponed. In 1996, it was a case of as you were. 

“Everybody’s already told me this is a game in itself” Ruud Gullit said in the BBC studio before the game. “You have to see it. It’s my first time to be here for England-Scotland and I just want to know what it is.” The whole continent locked its eyes for what on paper was the juiciest fixture of the first round. That such an insular battle was taking place was quite apt. Britain was at odds with the European Union over the banning of British beef for export due to fears of contamination with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Many of the tabloids were busy banging the drum to flounce out of Brussels for good over the issue.

Within British politics Tony Blair was just counting down the days to May 1997, when the inevitability of a crushing general election victory for New Labour would become reality and he would replace John Major as Prime Minister. Devolution was earmarked for his brave new world, which meant the first Scottish Parliament since 1707. It would be a potential stepping stone to an even greater change. Raging debates on European Union membership and the possibility of Scottish independence; to think they say the wheel turns slowly in Britain.

Just before the 3pm kick-off Wembley was caked in baking heat as the players strolled out. John Collins broke the fourth wall and gave a reassuring wink to the camera. That summer Collins had been the first high-profile British player to use the Bosman ruling, controversially signing for non-EU state Monaco in the French league. For Euro 96 professional singers were wheeled out for the anthems. There was no influence of the national phenomenon of Britpop here; Paul Carrack of Mike and the Mechanics rumbled through God Save the Queen, while Fish from Marillion lost his 7,000-strong backing group for Flower of Scotland in a thundering din of boos. 

Everyone is aware of the three key second-half moments that dominate any retrospective of the match. What’s less often recalled is that Scotland edged the first half. They forced a catatonic Gascoigne to repeatedly cough the ball up while he wandered awkwardly around looking for an opening. The best player on the pitch in that opening stanza was not any Premier League starlet, but Celtic’s Tosh McKinlay. Scotland and several other teams in the tournament played a 5-3-2 / 3-5-2, formations that have survived fashion about as well as mid-90s curtain haircuts. From the left side, McKinley was a constant menace.

At half-time both sets of players looked shattered. Heat, expectation, Wembley’s energy-sapping turf and cloying tension will do that. While the Scottish fans celebrated being narrowly ahead on points by bouncing around to Tequila by The Champs, England coach Terry Venables hooked Stuart Pearce and put on Jamie Redknapp. With England now mirroring Scotland’s formation, the game and in particular Steve McManaman were suddenly freed up. Before Craig Brown could react to England’s transformation, Shearer stooped to score a far-post header and put England into the lead.

Scotland came back into the game, and won a penalty. Just as they had against Switzerland, the legs of England’s players seemed to have gone at the end of the second half. The tournament, which was becoming a slowly unfolding nightmare for England, flipped on its axis in exactly 60 seconds. Gary McAllister had rolled in a penalty in the European Championship against the Commonwealth of Independent States four years earlier; in the numbing pressure of Wembley, he went for power.

Unperturbed by a slight movement of the ball on the penalty spot as he ran up, his shot cannoned off David Seaman’s elbow and flew over the crossbar. ‘It was just a flicker,’ McAllister reflected later, ‘it didn’t really move. I’m not using that as an excuse, that didn’t cause me to miss.’ The moment was brutally cruel on Scotland’s best player at the tournament. It had been a raking 50-yard pass from McAllister, one of the best of the Championship, which helped to win the penalty. History, being the uncompromising highlights reel it is, dumps all of that from the edit for the modern audience.

England quickly worked up to the other end of the pitch and Gascoigne scored that goal, looping the ball over Hendry and thundering a volley past Goram. It earned him a £10,000 bonus from Adidas and glowing approval from the English media, briefly resurrecting his public image to its highest point since Italia 90. The goal also dumped an industrial tin of gloss on his own wretched performance, and settled the match at 2-0. It had been a damn close-run thing.

That one, unforgiving, minute changed the whole nature of Euro 96 and the way it is remembered. Instead of having two points before facing the Dutch, England suddenly jumped above them in the table on goal difference. That drew a huge amount of the jeopardy out of the game between the two on the Tuesday night.  As the relief of victory spread around Wembley that early Saturday evening, the stadium DJ reached for Three Lions. The arm-around-your-mate, Britpop pastiche received the first of its mass karaoke airings that summer. It has been the nostalgic trigger for England’s last communal summer ever since.  By contrast The Big Man and the Scream Team Meet The Barmy Army Uptown had actually proved more divisive than unifying. Due to its Rangers-baiting lyrics, Irvine Welsh was forced to issue an apology and offered to donate his royalties from the single to charity.

McAllister’s penalty looked likely to be the abiding memory of the tournament for Scottish supporters as they trooped to Villa Park for the final group game with Switzerland. The night would turn into an exercise in agony that matches anything Scotland has produced in its unrequited love/hate relationship with the World Cup. McCoist put them in front with one of the goals of the tournament, a ferocious lash from twenty yards that flew into the roof of the net. Earlier in the game he had missed two routine chances, which would ultimately prove to be costly. At Wembley, not so much the unthinkable but the absurd was taking place; after going in front through a penalty in the first half, a rat-a-tat-tat of three English goals in 11 second half minutes suddenly vaulted them to a 4-0 lead over the Netherlands.

At Euro 96 Scotland had their 16 minutes, where they were in the knockout stages of a tournament for the first time. It had faint echoes of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where an early lead against the USSR looked likely to send them into the second round until a Soviet equaliser and some crash gymnastics by Hansen and Willie Miller annulled all hope. This time Patrick Kluivert called time on their campaign. At Wembley his scuffed shot trickled through David Seaman’s legs and into the net, a consolation that put the Dutch in the quarterfinals at Scotland’s expense.

Despite another first round exit at a major tournament, Scotland’s contribution to Euro 96 is mostly in credit. It was Scotland’s supporters that were largely responsible for any full houses and bonhomie outside of England’s sold-out fixtures at Wembley. Their games against the Netherlands and Switzerland at Villa Park were both packed out and fervently appreciated, while the rest of the tournament in the north of England took place in front of thousands upon thousands of empty seats.

It was also Scotland’s third tournament finals out of four in the 1990s, and they would go on to comfortably qualify for France 98 too. That evolving generation of players throughout the decade represent the last high watermark for the Scotland side. The quality of the Euro 96 squad can be measured in part by its absentees. For a variety of reasons Richard Gough, John Robertson and Duncan Ferguson were not around, yet still the team propelled itself to the finals south of the border.

Scotland’s following games with England ended that run of regular tournament football, a 2-1 aggregate defeat in a European Championship play-off in 1999. Since that pre-millennial tension there have been two recent friendlies, and the two are now pitched together in competitive games again in the qualifying rounds for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Whatever happens in those games, they are unlikely even to land in the park next to the ballpark of the enormity of that encounter at Euro 96. Without question, June 15, 1996 is the most important episode of the international football fixture that started them all. 

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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