Netherlands 1 England 4
Tuesday, 18 June 1996
Wembley Stadium -
"They're not laughing at us now" -This is the
headline that one newspaper chose following England's rampaging victory over
one of Europe most accomplished international sides.
For the Dutch their widely admired concept of 'Total
Football' gave way to 'Total Annihilation'. This was quite simply the best
performance I have ever seen an England side play. To score four goals in any
game is special, to do it against a side of the calibre of the Dutch is
extraordinary, to do it in a major championship -at Wembley- is the stuff
fantasies are made of.
It almost seems like nit-picking to dissect the
individual performances of the England team when their contribution as a whole
was so admirable. Perhaps the impact such an England accomplishment has on the
tournament, and more importantly their likely opponents, should be the subject
most worthy of closer examination.
Nevertheless seventeen million people tuned in to watch
an England side playing at Wembley in their final Group 'A' game -knowing that
a draw would be good enough for both sides to reach the quarter finals. The
Dutch team, glittering with the jewels of talent that are the likes of
Bergkamp, Kluivert, Winter, Witschge, Cruyff and De Boer came to Wembley the
side to beat, the side to admire, and the side to favour.
England, despite home advantage, always regarded this
fixtures as the one group game most likely to give them a headache -they came
away 90 minutes later having outplayed, outshone and outgunned the second
favourites of the tournament and invigorated with a self-belief and confidence
not seen for 30 years.
My son William and I drove through heavy traffic to reach
a bubbling and enthusiastic Wembley. The first thing to catch our eye was the
number of Dutch fans. To their eternal credit the Dutch are as well supported
internationally as any of the best sides in the world and they know that the
secret of boosting your team it to get behind them vocally - especially when
playing away. The stadium, full to capacity, bristled with a sizeable
contingent of perhaps 15-18,000 Dutch supporters. Their distinctive orange
attire bleeding through the red and white masses of England fans packed into
the Wembley stands.
The atmosphere had an even heavier air of tension and
expectancy than during Saturday's two goal victory against Scotland and nerves
jangled during the opening 15- 20 minutes as Cruyff and Co. worked a twenty
pass move into a shooting opportunity at one end for Holland while Alan
Shearer skilfully and powerfully drove a half-volley against the legs of
Witschge for England at the other.
William and I looked at each other and sensed a night
where simply repelling the enemy might by England's primary task -just how
wrong could we be. Twenty-odd minutes into the game -Steve McManaman holding
up a penetrative through ball from Teddy Sheringham set up Paul Ince to trick
the ball into the penalty area only to be blatantly fouled by Danny Blind. The
referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot and at last it
seemed the odds, or perhaps Gods, favoured England. Alan Shearer, without a
trace of emotion or nerves, struck decisively to put England one up after 23
minutes. Alan Shearer is clearly a man with scores to settle both professional
What Shearer does to goalkeepers, Seaman does to
strikers. David Seaman offers a commanding and intimidating barrier to the
opposition and when Gareth Southgate's uncharacteristically weak back header
allowed Dennis Bergkamp a clear sight of goal -Seaman once again proved, with
a brilliant one handed save, that it will take more than the likes of Bergkamp
to put a goal past him in open play.
The first half drew to a close accompanied by the
rapturous cheering of the crowd. All too often England disappear into the
Wembley tunnel to the buzz of the loudspeaker system rather than the crowd but
this time the applause continued until the last player was lost from view.
William and I endured the queues and headed for the Long
Bar where they were evidently selling the last drops of water to be found in
London - given the extortionate price and the appalling crush. We mistakenly
came back up a different entrance and glared rather too enthusiastically at a
group of 30 Dutch supporters who had apparently taken not only our seats but
almost all those of the people sitting around us in the first half. Then
William said "Dad, these aren't our seats -we're over there".
The opening 20 minutes of the second half encapsulated
the most comprehensive and complete destruction of a top flight international
side as one is ever likely to see, anywhere in the world, at any time. An
early corner, by Paul Gascoigne found the head of Sheringham. Given that Teddy
Sheringham has had at least three excellent opportunities so far in Euro '96
to put England two up - this chance, by far the most difficult, was almost
nonchalantly nodded into the corner of the goal past an unsighted Van De Sar.
Teddy Sheringham was the picture of liberation in the same way as Shearer was
against when he scored against Switzerland in the opening tournament game.
Not content with two goals, England's attack took on an
altogether more ominous tone as Gascoigne and McManaman exchanged passes near
the edge of the Dutch penalty area. Aaron winter, a former Lazio team-mate,
could do nothing as Gazza tricked his way into the area and flicked the ball
to Sheringham a few yards back from the penalty spot. His deft, and selfless
pass to Alan Shearer produced as clinical a finish as any striker could wish
for. The English Premiership know all too well from whose boots goals like
that come - Europe and the rest of the world are just beginning to find out.
Four goals in three games for Alan Shearer and the
tournaments top scorer- try telling that to someone two weeks ago and they
would have marvelled and laughed at your misguided optimism.
Barely had the astonishment subsided than Darren
Anderton, a man pleasingly coming to form in this tournament, shot powerfully
at goal -a slight deflection and Van De Sar was unable to hold the save -his
desperate push, back out of goal, was pounced on by Sheringham who placed a
firm shot into the corner of the net for his second and England's fourth.
4-0 and I looked at William and he looked at me and we
looked at the scoreboard and we looked around Wembley and we cheered and
clapped and sang and shouted. This was the England whose potential we had
always dreamt of. The reality was magical and will live with me for ever.
Past encounters with the Dutch however are often
remembered with pain. The three goals Marco Van Basten put past Peter Shilton
in 1988, the agony of the 0-0 draw in Italia '90, the 2-2 draw at Wembley for
USA '94 when Jan Wouter's broke Gascoigne's cheekbone and England's
unforgettable 2-0 defeat when Ronald Koeman scored from a free-kick when he
should have been off the field for cynically bringing David Platt down in the
penalty area. The exorcism of those ghosts was almost completed on Tuesday -I
say almost, as we may yet meet Holland later in the tournament.
Patrick Kluiverts' consolation goal was one of only
three disappointments on the night. The second was the few minutes when
England 'wobbled' slightly following the Dutch goal and the third was Paul
Ince's yellow card putting him out of the quarter finals.
Spain are to be their next opponents. The Euro '96
organisers have apparently had half of the Spanish ticket allocation returned
unused. There will be 8,000 Spanish supporters and 70,000 English ones -that's
got to be worth something.
Can England do it ? -Spain are a very good side -swift
and purposeful they will attack relentlessly and often straight through the
middle. I don't believe that wing play is their strongest card. With Ince
absent the word is that Sol Campbell may come in. Personally speaking, I think
he is far too slow for a game like this - though I desperately hope I am
short, England can win - everything seems to be in their favour, home
advantage, a rich vein of form running through the whole team and a rare
confidence. This is an England side better, both individually and
collectively, than at any tournament I have witnessed over the last 16 years.
Written for the CompusServe Sports Forum's Soccer Section in June, 1996