Euro 96 20 Years On: Gazza, UKIP, Brexit – Where Are We Now?

Phil Harrison looks back 20 years to Euro 96 and all that, just to ask, "How far have we actually travelled since then?"

In February 2016, a new version of Baddiel and Skinner’s Euro 96 anthem ‘Three Lions’ appeared on YouTube. Re-written and performed by a group of UKIP-aligned Brexiteers and boasting vocals and choreography that made the Shaggs look like the Supremes in comparison, the new version manifested a brand of feeble-mindedly belligerent Euro-scepticism which, although soul-destroyingly repellent to listen to, did feel oddly and depressingly timely. This cheerless, witless and brainless offering was, if you felt the urge to over-analyse it, the completion of a loop, a perfect cultural artefact for its particular moment in time. But, twenty years on from Euro 96 and with the next couple of months set to be dominated by Euro 2016 and the EU Referendum, how did we get here?

Seen via the rear view mirror, the mid-90s are a bit of an embarrassment. They feel like an era of complacency – an aimless interregnum between the fall of the Berlin Wall apparently ending history and 9/11 revving it up again with a vengeance. The resulting mainstream cultural totems constituted slim pickings; Blur v Oasis, the Spice Girls, Tony Blair. And then there’s Euro 96 which, in terms of national identity, feels like an illuminating metaphorical staging post; ostensibly just a football tournament but in a wider sense, embodying something sad and portentous that remains unresolved to this day. Like many milestones of that era, it was a wild ride. But it didn’t really take us anywhere.

The early 90s had been tumultuous. The UK had witnessed the departure of Margaret Thatcher (amidst rancour and rioting) and the emergence of a new drug which caused thousands of British people to cast aside their reserve, dance beatifically in fields and share refilled bottles of Evian as if the joyless, neo-liberal ram-raid of the 80s had never happened. Suddenly and briefly, everything seemed up for grabs. And at the World Cup in 1990, there was evidence of a corresponding change in our footballing culture too. Ecstasy traces had permeated the half time oranges. England’s fans behaved better and, in the face of routine batterings by the Italian police, suddenly seemed more sinned against than sinning.

And the team was different too; watchable, likeable and personified by Paul Gascoigne; the belching, belming, body-swerving lummox-savant at the heart of something which was relatable way beyond the lumpen-prole constituency that, according to popular wisdom, represented English football’s heartlands. In the mid-80s, The Sunday Times famously felt comfortable describing football as “a slum sport watched by slum people.” Not anymore. For England and Gazza, the 1990 World Cup ended in operatic tragedy. But the ending was also a beginning.

Anyone pondering the process by which large chunks of the English working class have become disenfranchised, embittered, inward-looking and fearful could do worse than ponder the journey of English football (and English football’s talisman) from that moment on. Gascoigne, in retrospect embodied an irony. He was the epitome of a certain kind of northern working class football lineage. But his breakout success began the process of gentrification which would price many people of his background out of a game that had seemed to belong to them. A couple of years after Italia 90, we had ourselves a Premiership. Lucky us. With it came sport’s most obvious manifestation of free-market globalisation; wall-to-wall pay-TV coverage, all-seater stadiums, expensive foreign stars and sky-rocketing ticket prices.

Gascoigne’s Italia 90 tears might have enthralled a new generation of football fans but his class background was always glaringly obvious and his antics caused newly engaged middle class fans as much appalled embarrassment as vicarious gratification. Gazza might have helped to create the new footballing culture but that didn’t automatically mean he and people like him had a place in it. At the time, he was often posited as a new kind of footballer. But actually, it’s more accurate to see him as the last of a dying breed.

Still, even if 1990 had failed to provide fulfilment, it wasn’t quite over for Gazza. The next couple of tournaments weren’t kind but even so, much like the sensation lingering around the area of a recently-amputated limb, some intangible vestige remained of 1990’s flirtation with glory. And this sensation went across the board, reaching beyond football. Politically, the upheavals of 1990 had resulted in another Tory victory in 1992. But surely we were on the cusp of something better? Or maybe not – perhaps we should have been more mindful of John Major’s description of 1992 as "the election that killed socialism in Great Britain." Musically, the early 90s had brought much-needed jolts of serotonin in the shape of rave culture and success for the likes of Happy Mondays and Stone Roses. In the summer of 1996, Oasis – arguably the chart-conquering culmination of the sensibilities represented by those bands – were at the zenith of their trajectory. Those currents were on the point of curdling into the bland, flat-pack hedonism of the superclubs and the codified and conservative miseries of late Britpop. But in mid-96, an afterglow of early 90s flux and momentum still lingered – the culture felt like a cartoon character; over the edge of the cliff now, but still running frantically on fresh air.

Football had become crucial to England’s self-image and Paul Gascoigne remained central to English football. Back in 1990, Gazza had been part of New Order’s ‘World In Motion’, a record that had been central to football crossing the cultural streams. It’s not something people like to admit now but – for a few baffling weeks during which normal notions of taste were suspended – ‘Three Lions’ became almost equally resonant, speaking guilelessly and earnestly to the nostalgic yet hopeful dreamer in us all; bridging the 30 years of hurt since the summer of 1966 with its newly-elected Labour government, blissful Beatles music and English footballing triumph. But that belonged to another generation. It was our time now. As England progressed through the tournament, a feeling grew. This was it. It was now or never. We were surging towards a national date with either redemption or damnation. But which would it be? Jittery hope would turn to brutal tension and then, of course, desperate disappointment.

The tension and the disappointment are well enough documented. But what about the hope? Towards the end of England’s semi final against Germany, there was a moment which remains lodged in the memory of every England supporter. Euro 96 was utilising the short-lived Golden Goal rule which reduced extra time to that playground staple; next goal wins. Deep into the extra period, Teddy Sheringham floated a languid pass into the path of Alan Shearer on the edge of the German penalty area. Shearer directed the ball across the face of the goal. It eluded the German goalkeeper. With the goal gaping, Paul Gascoigne stretched towards destiny and found it, in the shape of thin air. He was fractionally, agonisingly late. He’d adjusted his stride pattern in anticipation of the keeper getting a touch and was unable to lay more than a stud-scrape on the ball.

And there it was. Cue penalties and despair. Gascoigne and England had neglected to seal the deal. That night, a pattern of heroic English failure was re-established and it’s never subsequently gone away. Indeed, the failure has, over the years, become a good deal less heroic. Last year, the Guardian ran a readers’ Q&A with Gascoigne during which he was asked about that moment. His response was heartbreaking. "We were so close to getting in the final," he said. "It would have been fantastic. We would have won the final, definitely. It’s such a shame, it really was." It’s worth taking a moment to consider that final sentence. It’s utterly tragic. "It’s such a shame, it really was." It’s a sentence that can’t decide whether it belongs in the past or the present. And rightly so; it belongs in neither and it belongs in both. It was indeed, such a shame. And it still is.

That doomed lunge was pretty much Paul Gascoigne’s last touch in international tournament football. Gazza’s post Euro 96 life has been an act of attempted retrieval; like an greying, paunchy raver, down at an Old Skool hardcore revival night, double-dropping in the hope of replicating that first hit. For a couple of years, Gascoigne chased the buzz, both on our behalf and on his own. But David Beckham was Glenn Hoddle’s midfield string-puller of choice for the 1998 World Cup. Beckham was a new kind of footballer; emollient, attractive, bland and perfect for the age of Tony Blair. So where did that leave Gazza? Now, he shambles sadly around, drunk on his own tragedy. His very existence is a reminder of something that could have been but wasn’t.

Gascoigne’s loss of place and purpose symbolically mirrors that of the English working class as a whole. Through the years of Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, the industrialised solidarity of pre-90s working class life has given way to a cheap suit and a call centre; a pair of Sports Direct tracky bottoms and a zero hours contract. This atomised and alienated insecurity has led to suspicion, fearfulness, a sense of forcible dispossession and detachment. And most importantly, perhaps, it’s led to a sense of identity loss. The UKIP surge in northern, working class England is surely a symptom of this sense of impotent rootlessness.

While most footballers still emerge from similar backgrounds, they’re slickly deracinated now, cosseted and homogenised by wealth unimaginable to Gazza’s generation and media trained into meaninglessness. The effect is approximately oligarch’s son meets unusually dull-witted Apprentice contestant – which actually sums up the priorities of our current cultural climate pretty aptly. Michael Owen was the first of this new breed, epitomising a sort of grit-free aspirationalism, a sterile aura of frictionless middle-management propriety. The maverick has been replaced by the ‘role model’.

So, 20 years on from Euro 96, where are we now? English football rarely feels like a happy place but then, England doesn’t really feel like a country at peace with itself either. There’s a bitterness, a sense of thwarted grandeur, a petty meanness that sneers at idealism and baulks at hope. The national narrative feels increasingly inward and backwards-looking; narrowing, isolationist, defensive. And here we are, seriously considering withdrawing from the EU. The EU is a flawed organisation for sure. But even so, this feels like a petulant act of potential self-harm; a temper tantrum with potentially grim long-term consequences. It reflects an impulse to assume the worst; to react to adversity by simply pulling up the drawbridge.

And, as another tournament looms, how do we view our national football team? With a wry shrug at best, and with outright scorn at worst. Even in the light of the emergence of young thrusters like Dele Alli and Harry Kane, we don’t expect much anymore – in football as in politics and popular culture. With England in Euro 96 as with Tony Blair in Election 97, when we surrendered to hope, we got burned. John Lydon once warned: "There is no future in England’s dreaming." He was right but perhaps not quite in the way he intended. Via Steve McClaren and Gordon Brown; Mumford & Sons and Katie Hopkins; John Terry and Iain Duncan Smith, England, in the years since 1996, has forgotten how to dream.

Euro 96 was characterised by an unusually high level of camaraderie between supporters of competing nations. But it turned out the good vibes couldn’t withstand drunken, impotent English disappointment. At the end of the Euro 96 semi final, a bunch of pissed-up, pissed off England fans stormed down to Trafalgar Square where they spent a few hours scaring tourists, throwing bottles around and vandalising German cars. It might be pushing it to detect in this destructive, directionless ugliness, the seeds of every EDL march, every UKIP vote, every slamming of a door that had seemed to be opening. But one thing was for certain. Normal service had been resumed.

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