England would get the first chance. Darren Anderton whipped in a low corner, the Tottenham corner routine, to near the penalty spot.
Alan Shearer shot on the half-volley and Richard Witschge, stationed on the line, cleared the ball to safety. Shortly afterwards, Aron Winter missed a glorious chance to score from two yards after mistiming a header from a corner.
Both sides were fizzing the ball across the pitch at a crackling pace and with real quality. The Dutch had quickly found a rhythm and purpose that suggested harmony on the pitch at least. England were moving it around with freedom and confidence, as if theyd collectively had their legs removed from manacles. ITV commentator Brian Moore happily noted this new trend. You sounded so surprised there, Brian, said Kevin Keegan. As you said: Good movement and good passing by
England. We can play like the Dutch, weve just got to believe a little bit more in ourselves.
England had adopted a policy of containment, remaining coiled to hit the Dutch on the counterattack. One such break put England in front. Teddy Sheringham picked up a clearance from a corner and floated a pass that sent Steve McManaman haring free into the Dutch half. As McManaman cut across to the area he rolled it to the on-rushing Ince, who improvised a Cruyff turn at full pelt. It was too quick for Danny Blind, who threw out an instinctive leg and tripped him over. Blind was booked and England had a penalty.
The penalty was down the far end from where we were, remembers Alex Dyakowski, taken to the game by his father, John, as an 11th birthday present. I seem to remember most of the game being stood on my seat, and everyone spent the whole game stood up. I said: I cant see. My dad picked me up and was holding me, and in the end he put me on his shoulders while he was stood on his seat.
When Shearer Shearered it into the corner, I remember having to hold on pretty tight through all the jumping and hugging and all the rest. It felt pretty unstable, my dad was trying to avoid jumping too much. The rickety old stadium was in for a rough old night. England 1,
The rest of the half was controlled by the Dutch. For someone just 20 years old, Clarence Seedorf was a frighteningly mature force in midfield. The most un-Dutch play imaginable some long balls over the top of the defence to Dennis Bergkamp created a few shuddering moments of panic. Long shots were deflected wide and the corners piled up. The Dutch had eight in the first half alone, and from one Winter put another simple header over the bar from six yards. Michael Reiziger then skipped past Anderton and crossed to Bergkamp, who put another good header off target.
As he had done against Switzerland and Scotland, David Seaman intervened with a crucial save. Gareth Southgate mistimed a header back to him, which put Bergkamp clean through on goal. Bergkamp waited and waited, eventually shooting low to the left corner. Seaman threw out an arm and palmed the ball behind for a corner. England really need half-time here, observed Barry Davies over on the BBC. To help stop the flow, Ince hauled down Jordi Cruyff and was booked, which ruled him out of any quarter-final.
Half-time arrived with England still in the lead. The Dutch made a change. Johan de Kock replaced Witschge, who had been guarding the right-hand post at corners. Someone failed to give him the memo about where to stand in the event of an English corner. That oversight precipitated the greatest 45 minutes for English football that didnt
involve an Azerbaijani linesman, a mini pitch invasion and Nobby Stiles jigging like an uncle that had overindulged on the table wine at a family wedding.
McManaman was the out-ball for England. Sheringham found him again early in the second half, and he pinned his ears back and took on De Kock. His cross was wildly hacked out by Reiziger for a corner. Gascoigne floated it over, a harmless-looking ball with no real pace on it. Sheringham climbed above Winter and cushioned a header towards the bottom-right corner. It drifted harmlessly past Seedorf and the goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. With De Kock at the other post doubling up on Adams, no one was protecting that part of the goal. From the most elementary of errors, England were 2-0 up.
Six minutes later came Englands best piece of play in the whole tournament. After some interplay with Anderton, Gascoigne played a quick one-two with McManaman. The return ball wasnt great, but Gascoigne used the bounce to poke the ball past Winter, shrugging him to the floor as he advanced into the penalty area. Blind came to him, and Gascoigne cut it back to the edge of the area. Sheringham was waiting, and threw his right arm out as if he was about to put his foot through the ball.
That pulled De Kock across to block the shot. Sheringham subtly opened his body out to let the ball run across him, and cushioned a square ball across the face of the area that was just begging to be blasted. Shearer, who had detached himself from the play as the Dutch defence was pulled out of position, stepped in to oblige. Van der Sar threw himself at Shearer, like a bodyguard taking a bullet for the president. It was a futile gesture. Shearers shot was surgically precise, clipping the inside of the post as it tore into the net.
The players ran off in two separate groups; Shearer and Sheringham milked the moment on one side of the pitch, Gascoigne, McManaman and Ince on the other. The camera panned to Guus Hiddink on the bench, with a facial expression torn between bewilderment and fear. England in control, said Davies. And doesnt he know it.
Five minutes later it switched to fear alone. Shearer reached a flick-on first and bounced De Kock out of the way to get control of the ball. He must have wondered what the hell hed walked in to. Shearers short ball found Anderton, whose shot deflected off Blind and was parried back to the penalty spot by Van der Sar. The first to react was Sheringham, who slid in to drive the ball into the inside of the post. Now were going in to the unbelievable! said Keegan. England had scored three times in 11 minutes and led 4-0.
England had had less possession, fewer shots and corners than the Dutch but in one short blast after half-time had become the first team to put four goals past them for 21 years. In and around Englands cathartic blast of goals, the Dutch had missed golden chances of their own. Three fell to Bergkamp and he missed them all. England were on the edge, always one good pass from being opened up. The Dutch couldnt find it. As the scores stood, Holland were out.
McManaman was causing havoc, released by one gorgeous ball from Gascoigne that required Bergkamp to chase back and bring him down deep into the Dutch half. There seemed to be space everywhere, with Sheringham dropping into it to receive the ball and get things moving. He had a guiding hand in everything England did. Another searching pass by Sheringham set McManaman free again. His whipped cross just missed the foot of Anderton for a fifth goal.
Hiddink turned to one of the Ajax Youth Academy alumni to get Holland out of the hole they were in. The
European Championship should have been Patrick Kluiverts tournament, but 1996 had been a turbulent year so far. Kluivert was involved in a car crash in September 1995, which killed one person and permanently invalided another. He was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to 240 hours community service just weeks before Euro 96, and then required an operation ahead of it. Holland had only used him as a substitute thus far.
His impact was instant and vital. Bergkamp delicately lofted a pass over Southgate which Kluivert drifted on to. He rolled the ball through the legs of Seaman for a consolation goal that might just keep the Dutch in the tournament. There were 11 minutes left.
By the time Kluivert scored England had started to shut down. David Platt took the place of Ince, an obvious course of action given that Ince was unavailable for the next round. Shearer and Sheringham, who were both at risk of suspension if yellow- carded, were removed for Nick Barmby and Robbie Fowler. Both were hungry to get involved. Fowler narrowly put a header over the bar, and when he slid a return ball through to Barmby in the area a desperate man and ball tackle from De Kock could easily have been given as a penalty.
The final few minutes
belonged to one man. When Platt had entered the fray he gave the ball straight to Gascoigne. Come on, you take it, Platt told him. Its your game. Gascoigne had arrived at the game without his boots, and had to borrow a broken pair from Sheringham in the first half that were a size and a half too big for him. Now in more comfortable footwear located for him at half-time, he taunted the Dutch by instigating a session of one- and two-touch keep ball, each pass drawing an ol! from the crowd. The referee eventually brought the love-in to an end. Gascoigne held up four fingers and pointed at the scoreboard. Holland 1 England 4. It has been a great night for the English, said Davies, the understatement of the decade.
It totally stunned everybody in the ground and it stunned us up here as well, said Jack Charlton. Underneath Wembley, in the changing rooms in the bowels of the stadium, the England players sang
Three Lions and took turns throwing each other in the huge communal bath.
In the initial post-match interviews Venables did his best to play it down, but it was pointless. Messages of congratulation flooded his way, from Stanley Matthews to John Major. The following day, the press went into hyperbolic overdrive.
The Independent led with the headline ENGLANDS NIGHT OF RAPTURE. In The Sun Martin Samuel evoked the Battle of Britain, Our finest hour? Oh boy, youd better believe it.
I can sleep easily now, Venables said in the days that followed. This makes all the years of hard work, the planning and the worrying worthwhile. Im full of pride, because to beat Holland like this means so much to me. To everyone, it seemed. Most of the England players involved than night rate it as the greatest England performance they ever took part in. The crowd had been stunned into ecstasy. I have never known it like this before, said Venables of the atmosphere at Wembley. It has been special an incredible feeling of patriotism and unity.
Ten days had shaken the country.
Momentum soon gathers when a team hits its stride. In an editorial two days later about Euro 96, The Guardian noted: It has exploded into the largest, most contagious shared experience in recent memory. The game is now enshrined in folklore as one of Englands greatest ever performances. Most people who saw it can recall the goals from memory, and seek them out on a brief internet video if they need an instant hit of nostalgia. Anything the Dutch did in the game has long since been forgotten. We thrashed them, said Venables in the BBCs end of year review When Football Came Home. Theres no doubt about it its nice to say, thats what we did. This is an extract from When Football Came Home, the story of the 1996 European Championship in England. It is published by Pitch Publishing, priced 12.99