When you think about Euro ’96, you can’t help but smile. Yes, Scotland lost to England. Yes, we went out in the group stages on goal difference, again. Yes, the latter stages of the competition in particular had some very poor games, a fact emphasised by only five goals across six Quarter and Semi Final matches.
But Scotland were there, and it was just down the road South of the Border. It is also the last time we’ve played at the European Championship Finals, which was only the second in our history. A quarter of a century is quite a long wait, and, of course, twenty three years for any kind of major tournament for Scotland.
For me, the story of Euro ’96 starts in August 1995. Scotland were playing closest rivals Greece at Hampden. I was sitting in the old South Stand, which was demolished a year later, and it was a nervy affair that looked as though was going to either peter out to a goalless draw, or that the Greeks would snatch a 1-0 win that would’ve put them in pole position for the second qualifying spot behind Russia in our group.
Enter Ally McCoist. Almost two and a half years since he broke his leg in a disastrous 5-0 hammering in Portugal, and after a number of failed comeback attempts with Rangers, he was back on Scotland duty. Replacing Duncan Shearer on 71 minutes, McCoist got his head on a perfect cross from John Collins to glance home the games only goal. Positioned almost in line with that 18-yard line, I had the near-perfect view of that neat finish and Hampden erupted.
Coisty was back, we won the game, and we were going to the Euro’s!
After officially securing qualification in October after Russia beat Greece to mathematically end their hopes, it was then onto January 1996 for the draw. Our belated Christmas wishes came true as we were drawn against England. Make no mistake, this drummed up the hype big time for the Finals, Holland and Switzerland were almost forgotten about, conversations at school mainly focussed on the Auld Enemy. Que Sara Sara indeed, we were going to Wem-be-lee!
June ’96 and the tournament was here. Wembley had to be parked aside for now as the opening group game against Holland at Villa Park approached. This was viewed by many as our toughest test with the Dutch side largely featuring players who’d won the Champions League with Ajax a year earlier, and only lost on penalties to Juventus the previous month to prevent back-to-back successes. Add to the mix the talents of Dennis Bergkamp, who was now settling into life at Arsenal, and you get the picture of how daunting a challenge we faced.
Getting home from school in time to change into my Scotland top, I settled down to watch the build up to the game. I remember being quite shocked when it was revealed that Andy Goram took the place of Jim Leighton in goal. Leighton had played the last six qualifiers, all without conceding a goal, so to see he had been dropped was a little surprising, although Goram had, arguably, his best season at Rangers as his side won the double.
Three minutes in, it proved to be the right decision as Goram made a superb save from Clarence Seedorf. This set the tone for the early stages as wave after wave of Dutch attacks were repelled by the men in the all Tartan kit, though we got away with one when Collins handball on the goal line was missed by the officials. Slowly we grew into the game and nearly took the lead ourselves when Gary McAllister’s free kick was brilliantly tipped over by Edwin Van Der Sar, who wasn’t a bad keeper either!
There weren’t many clear cut opportunities in the second half and we held on for a goalless draw. Arguably, it was deserved for the endeavour we put into the match to keep Bergkamp, Davids, Overmars and co at bay. Confidence was so high that when my late Granda called me post-match, he said we could beat England, having previously written off our chances.
Onto a sunny afternoon at Wembley, and it was scorching in Scotland too. Having drawn with the Swiss in the opening game, adding to the critics from their drinking antics on a trip to Hong Kong, the host nation were under severe pressure. Could we add to their woes and take a step towards the Quarter Finals?
The first half was largely uneventful, no real chances of note for either side and we took most of the plaudits from that goalless opening period. We looked fairly comfortable, England weren’t troubling us, it was all going to plan. However, the hosts brought on Jamie Redknapp for Stuart Pearce at half time and the pendulum swung for the opening quarter of an hour of the second half, culminating in Alan Shearer heading England in front. Well this was a blow, and it could’ve been worse had Goram not made a superb save low to his right from a Teddy Sheringham header. Gradually, we fought back into the game and almost levelled when Gordon Durie’s header was clawed away by David Seaman.
We were now dominant, all we needed was a break, and we got one when Tony Adams upended Durie in the box. It was a stonewall penalty, nobody in white complained, this was our chance to level and have momentum going into the last quarter of an hour. Step forward Captain Gary McAllister, such an assured penalty taker for Leeds United, most of us felt certain he would score.
Seaman’s only gone and saved it. Why McAllister, who normally put his penalties into a corner, changed tactic to go down the middle only he can say. It was gut wrenching, nobody could believe it, that was not supposed to happen! To make matters worse, England go up the other end a minute or two later to score the second, and it had to be Paul bloody Gascoigne! The one guy in their team who played in Scotland, the man most criticised by their press for the Hong Kong shenanigans, and it was a great goal to be fair. With the game gone and restraining myself from booting the TV, I walked away from watching the last ten minutes to play footy down the park!
With fate now out of our hands, it was onto the final game with Switzerland at Villa Park. The permutations were that we had to win by three goals and hope that Holland lost in their last game, or that we won 1-0 and that Holland lost by four or more. You know what this meant don’t you? Yes, the most uncomfortable position for any Scotland fan, we actually WANTED England to win!
Scotland started on the front foot and should’ve been at least a couple of goals in front as Ally McCoist, recalled to the starting line up, spurned two good chances, and Craig Burley ballooned one over the bar. Then came the moment we needed, and what a moment it was, as McCoist played a neat one-two with McAllister to rifle home an unstoppable shot into the top right hand corner of the Swiss goal from just outside the box. The relief could be heard all around Villa Park that we finally had our first goal of Euro ’96.
At half time, the news from Wembley was that England were one-up on the Dutch. As things stood, 1-0 to both sides was not going to be enough to send Scotland through. If the score line remained the same at Wembley, we would need at least two more second half goals to go through on goal difference. A big 45 minutes lay ahead.
The goals did come, but not at Villa Park. Unbelievably, England raced into a four-nil lead against the Dutch. The cheers from the Tartan Army could be heard from Birmingham to John O’ Groats. What was happening? We were delighted that ENGLAND were winning, we were going THROUGH to the knockout stages. I had to quickly flick over to Eurosport, which had the game at Wembley, just to check it was all real. With a little help from our rivals, a first ever progression to the knockout stages of a major finals was on the horizon.
Of course, this is Scotland we’re talking about, there’s always a cruel twist in the tale!
Patrick Kluivert managed to squeeze a shot through Seaman’s legs to give Holland a crucial consolation goal with a little more than ten minutes to play. All of a sudden, we needed goals again, just one, and McCoist had been taken off. Despite all our endeavour, it wasn’t to be and the players slumped to the Villa Park turf at the final whistle knowing their efforts were in vein.
It was the most gut wrenching way to go out of a major finals. The tightest of margins, one more goal against Switzerland and we would’ve been through. Of course, us defiant Scots will blame David Seaman for letting Kluivert score to knock us out, that suits the script. The reality is, however, that we simply didn’t do enough in our game to merit going through, whilst England went above the call of duty by blowing the Dutch away. Add to that the penalty miss a Wembley when we were on top and the “what if” sliding doors moments emphasise that we just lacked that extra ingredient required to progress in the tournament.
Euro ’96 became the latest chapter in this “Glorious Failure” novel. When you look through the National Team’s history, it’s better to have this kind of experience at a major international tournament than in a qualifying campaign missing out on a place at these tournaments in the first instance.
To summarise, just being at Euro ’96 was special, and it was definitely something we took for granted at the time given we had been to four out of five international tournaments from 1990 to 1998.
Little did we know it would be a quarter of a century before we’d qualify for a European Championships again, and that we’d be going back to Wembley. Let’s just enjoy these finals for what they are, and not get too worked up if we go out on goal difference again. These times don’t come around too often.