The Changing Game Part 8 – It’s Coming Home

The 1995 Charity Shield was contested between league champions Blackburn Rovers and FA Cup winners Everton. It was Blackburn’s second successive appearance in the Wembley showpiece – few would have believed at the time that, as of 2023, it would be their last.

More pertinently, it would be another 25 years before the season’s curtain raiser would not feature at least one of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United. Often it would feature both, until the 2021 Community Shield between Leicester and Manchester City finally bucked that trend.

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The 1995/96 season would be the last before teams in Europe were given a bye into the third round of the League Cup. It would also be the final season in which international matches involving home nations were only played on a Wednesday night during the domestic season.

The latter may be the reason for the former, or as stated in the 1994/95 review, Manchester United’s decision to field a high proportion of their youth team in the second round that year may also have been a factor. It may also have been influenced by yet another poor showing by the league’s representatives in Europe, with Blackburn having a disastrous Champions League campaign and everyone else out in early November apart from Nottingham Forest, who reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup, making them the best performing English side by some distance.

The European competitions continued in the same format as they had the previous season. There was, however, a monumental change that would affect all leagues and competitions across the continent. It came not on the pitch, or even at the headquarters of one of football’s governing bodies. It came at the European Court of Justice on 15 December 1995, which ruled in favour of Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman.

The ruling meant that out-of-contract players could now leave without their clubs demanding a fee. Previously in the UK, if a situation like that of Bosman’s arose, he would be allowed to join a new club with a tribunal setting the fee, rather like happens with youth players now. Other nations, however, hadn’t been so accommodating, and this universal law applying to all leagues in Europe would at least allow for consistency if players were switching leagues as well as clubs when their contracts expired. And players switching leagues was about to become a much more regular occurrence thanks to the other ruling that resulted from the Bosman case.

Equally seismic, if not more so, the European Court of Justice decided that the “three foreigners rule” that applied in some leagues and in all UEFA competitions was also unlawful.

The old rule was a particular hindrance to clubs in the UK, where other home nations players were still considered “foreign” as they had separate leagues and international teams. There were of course concerns about these new rules changes, and they would have a much more detrimental impact on more low profile leagues, where an even greater volume of their better players could head to the more lucrative nations, causing the gap between the moneyed leagues and the poorer leagues to become a gulf. With the Champions League already a money spinner with its group stages and exclusive match days, and set to expand to the benefit of the nations with the better coefficients, the gulf was set to widen further as the decades passed.

There were also concerns about how it might affect the bigger leagues and their respective national teams too, with fears that foreign imports could not only take the place of an established home grown player, they could also prevent younger players from gaining much needed first team experience to enhance their development.

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In the nearly 30 years since though, with the exception of Greece in 2008, the World Cup and Euros have continued to be won by the usual nations. As for player development, changes to the loan system involving top tier clubs have helped, and many of the bigger clubs have excellent youth systems and domestic scouting networks, meaning that the best home grown talent will still prevail.

Coincidentally, this would be the season in which Manchester United’s “kids” would win The Double. The title race went to the final day for the second successive year, and once again Sky showed both key matches. However, unlike the drama of the previous year’s finale, this one proved to be a formality as the league leaders cruised to a 3-0 win at Middlesbrough, which proved irrelevant anyway as Newcastle could only draw with Tottenham.

The most memorable part of that title race, though, came when Kevin Keegan was interviewed after the final Monday Night game of the season, in which he’d taken exceptions to Alex Ferguson’s recent comments about two of Newcastle’s remaining opponents. While Ferguson’s comments about Leeds are often taken out of context, Keegan’s passionate and at times almost personal venting of his disapproval has been replayed and lampooned ever since.

So not only were Sky catching all the key incidents live on the pitch, moments off the pitch such as the one involving Kevin Keegan could only have happened when interviewed live immediately after a game. Had that match at Elland Road simply been played on Saturday at 3pm along with eight or nine others, there’d likely have been nothing beyond a generic post match press conference containing the usual platitudes.

This lack of restraint seemed to be encouraged, and, as the years passed, the personal rivalries between some of the more high profile managers would become almost like an early form of reality TV.

Incidentally the two managers involved here seemed to be on good terms again a few weeks later when they were regularly co-pundits for ITV’s coverage of Euro ’96. More on that in a moment!

The only other item to address at club level, the League Cup, was won by Aston Villa, their last major trophy to date. After all the controversies that had dominated the previous season, this one passed without incident. Even the most high profile negative headline, that of Duncan Ferguson going to prison, has for an incident that took place in Scotland two seasons earlier and had nothing to do with the 1995/96 season in England, in which the game went some way towards cleaning up its act.

Eric Cantona, villain of the previous campaign, returned from suspension in October and led by example as helped to guide the aforementioned “Fergie’s fledglings” to glory. No more sendings off, in fact hardly any bookings, he even acted as peacemaker when tempers flared on the pitch at West Ham, and didn’t retaliate, in fact barely reacted, when allegedly spat on by Liverpool supporters when walking up the Wembley steps to lift the FA Cup, having captained the side in Steve Bruce’s absence and scored the winner with a few minutes left. His reformation story echoed that of the English game that season. What a way to go into the summer showpiece.

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England had been awarded the honour of hosting the 1996 European Championships when it was still expected to be an eight team tournament. The increase in the number of nations now competing in Europe since 1991 resulted in the number of entrants being doubled to 16. Luckily England had no shortage of adequate venues to host these extra matches, so requiring eight grounds instead of the initially expected four wasn’t an issue.

That said, some of the stadiums used for the tournament wouldn’t even be considered for the 2028 edition that is also coming to the UK. With Middlesbrough being the only top flight club to have built a new stadium, moving to The Riverside the previous year, some of the more historic and atmospheric stadia were in use, such as Elland Road, Hillsborough and The City Ground.

During the next couple of years, Sunderland, Derby County and Bolton Wanderers, to name but a few, would build impressive new stadiums, Stamford Bridge would be reconstructed almost beyond recognition, St. James’ Park would be further expanded, and one has to wonder if these would have been preferred venues had the tournament been hosted by England even four years later.

At all venues except Wembley, there seemed to be an alarming number of empty seats for most games, something that would also be inconceivable in 2028.

None of this was an issue for England, who would end up playing all their matches to a full Wembley. They had other problems, though. After the crowd trouble in Ireland the previous year, there were now concerns about the behaviour of the players themselves following their pre-tournament trip to Hong Kong, with heavy drinking culminating in the infamous “dentist’s chair” incident, and alleged damage caused to the bar and also to a the team’s plane home!

Matters were made worse when they could only draw the tournament opener against Switzerland, conceding a penalty after Shearer had opened the scoring (albeit with a deflected effort). Ironically, Switzerland had been one of their opponents in their series of home friendly matches during the domestic season, England winning comfortably and performing well on that occasion, suggesting that perhaps the pressure of the tournament and the spotlight and negative headlines was affecting them.

A week later came the match against Scotland, and after a poor first half, Shearer once again gave England the lead, before they once again conceded a penalty. Failing to win this match would lead to the daunting prospect of having to beat the much fancied Dutch side in the final group game to stand any chance of progressing, and would have the press sharpening their knives even more and the public increasingly losing enthusiasm. Dropping vital points to a penalty for the 2nd successive match could prove demoralising to the team and disastrous to their campaign.

However, as the usually reliable Gary McAllister was running up to strike the ball, it rolled slightly on the penalty spot. The spot kick was saved by David Seaman. Uri Gellar would later claim that the collective will caused the ball to move. McAllister himself would say that he didn’t strike it as well as he could have done and that his decision to change his usual approach and instead aim to the goalkeeper’s right was the reason he failed to convert.

Whatever the reason, that penalty save proved to be a turning point. Moments later, Paul Gascoigne scored one of the most memorable goals at Wembley, flicking the ball over Colin Hendry’s head with one foot and using the other to hit it on the half volley past Andy Goram to clinch the game for England. Having been on the receiving end of so much criticism in recent weeks for his involvement in the ‘dentist’s chair’, Gascoigne and some of the other players cheekily celebrated by recreating this scene.

The media and public alike loved it, and the team would further capture the imagination by thrashing Holland 4-1 in their final group game.

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The tournament’s official anthem, We’re In This Together by Simply Red, hadn’t made the impression it had hoped for. However, there were also several unofficial efforts, some quickly forgotten such as Black Grape’s England’s Irie, while Collapsed Lung’s Eat My Goal has since become almost the go-to song for any football related advert. The BBC’s Orchestra also released a version of Ode To Joy with English lyrics specially for the tournament.

While not as sophisticated as Beethoven, the most famous song to come from this collection was Three Lions. When I reviewed the 1994/95 season I commented on the rising popularity of Britpop music and so-called Lad Culture. Both these aspects seemed to latch on to football, and vice-versa at times. The popular new sports quiz, They Think It’s All Over, took a more raucous approach than A Question Of Sport, with football being undoubtedly its biggest focus, with the host and both team’s comedians being ardent football fans, and Gary Lineker one of the two former athletes appearing each week. The other was David Gower, making him the only one of the show’s five regular not to have an affiliation with football.

Even on Friday nights, the mainstream channels were also largely dedicated to the game. TFI Friday would regularly feature footballers as guests, and while Under The Moon proved to be a short-lived footballing talk show on commercial TV, the BBC would show Fantasy Football League, which took a humorous look at the beautiful game and proved so popular that it would continue to run during the summer to focus on Euro ’96.

Britpop, lad culture and football would combine to lethal effect when its two presenters, Dave Baddiel and Frank Skinner, would join The Lightening Seeds to release an unofficial anthem that would be taken to the hearts of England fans and still be chanted regularly at tournaments and be high on the streaming charts at such times even after 25 years.

The easy to sing and catchy melody, chorus that can’t help but be chanted even when spoken, and the lyrics capturing the love of the national team despite the anguish. Even the fact that neither Baddiel or Skinner could sing particularly well, if anything, just added to its appeal and made it feel even more of an everyman’s song.

Joyously sung after the victory over Scotland, it seemed to capture the family friendly and ‘new fans welcome’ atmosphere that the tournament was hoping to bring. It combined with the feelgood factor of the summer of 1996 and captured the high spirits felt during that tournament.

Even an unconvincing performance against Spain in the quarter finals, in which the opponents wrongly had a goal disallowed for offside, couldn’t dampen the spirits. If anything, England winning a penalty shoot-out did more to boost the mood than if they’d won in regulation time! Especially Stuart Pearce successfully converting to banish the ghost of 1990, his enthusiastic celebrations at this being arguably the most iconic image of the tournament for England.

Then came the semi-final against Germany. When Shearer put England ahead just a few minutes into the game, people thought they were on their way to a walkover victory (echoed more recently with them taking the early lead against Italy in 2021). However, Germany equalised soon after, and the match went to extra time.

The “Golden Goal” rule was introduced ahead of this tournament, in which a goal in extra time would automatically win the match. England had two glorious chances to do just that against Germany, Darren Anderton hitting the post with the rebound going straight into the grateful arms of their goalkeeper, Andreas Kopke, then Paul Gascoigne stretching for but not quite reaching the ball in front of an empty net – incidentally both of these opportunities were created by the tournament’s top goalscorer, Alan Shearer, showing himself to be a great all round footballer and soon to be the subject of a world record transfer, not to mention being the most expensive player in Britain for the second time in four years, having become the first post-war player to score over 30 goals for three successive top flight seasons, the most recent being all the more impressive as the rest of his team seemed to be struggling under the weight of their champions crown.

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While England could consider themselves unlucky not to have capitalised, it’s worth noting that Germany had their own golden goal ruled out for an offence that other officials may not have punished.

Once again it was penalties, and like the day’s other semi-final (between France and the newly established Czech Republic), both sides successfully converted their first five spot-kicks (including Stuart Pearce again). And so it was on to sudden death, when players who don’t specialise in taking penalties have to step up. Unfortunately Gareth Southgate saw his penalty saved, Moller converted their 6th with ease, and England’s dreams were dashed – 1990 all over again.

And like in 1990, Germany would go on to win the final, the first Golden Goal being scored on the biggest stage possible.

And like in 1990, England’s progress and performance, to the beat of a catchy pop-tune, made the sport more popular than ever.

1992 is often considered the year that changed everything. I’ve written earlier about how so many other changes, both in our football and our culture and the world around this time, combined, and that it wasn’t only because the top division changed its name and Sky won the right to its live matches.

I personally consider 1996, or more accurately, the year from December 1995, to be the one that changed everything. The Bosman rule. The abolition of the three foreigners rule. The success of Euro ’96, in terms of the players restoring respect to the national team and raising the profile of the game, and also in terms of the tournament being organised well and passing without any serious incident, thereby showing the rest of Europe and indeed the world that English football was a positive environment to play in, and shaking of any lingering stigma from the period culminating in May 1985.

Later that summer, a number of foreign stars from the European Championships would quickly return to English shores to play their club football there.

And even after all this, another big change, arguably the most significant change of all, was still to come – 1995/96 would be the final season of English football in which the league’s runners-up would have to settle for a UEFA Cup place.

The Author

David Hardman

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