It’s the first major sporting tournament I really remember… I was a little too young in 86 to properly appreciate football and by the time I got my Panini sticker book I actually thought England were world champions… After all we must have been? Right? So the confusion when flicking through the centre pull out of Football 87 to see a little stumpy Argentine holding a small solid gold trophy in Mexico had me thinking… I need to brush up on my knowledge.
And that I did… I still probably remember every major football game, result and scorer since then… The actual first tournament I remember was the Guinness Soccer Sixes held at Manchester’s G-Mex Centre when in 1987 Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest beat Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the final on penalties. Forest, my club, were serial winners back then, I was a young glory hunter supporting one of the best teams in the land… They won it again in 88 and prior to the Euro’s they also won a tournament set up to celebrate the Football League’s one hundredth year. The Mercantile Credit Football Festival.
Spread over two days at the twin towers of Wembley in front of a second day crowd of no more than 17,000 (but luckily for my viewing screened by ITV), Forest lifted the trophy on Sunday 17th April after beating Sheffield Wednesday on penalties. The games were 40 minutes long with sixteen teams involved. Tournament football condensed into one stadium over two days… The Euros itself wasn’t much different.
A rabbit named Berni donned the front cover of my Panini 88 sticker book, the tournament held in West Germany involved just eight teams, played over 15 days, remarkably in 8 stadiums across the country from Hamburg in the North to Munich in the South.
I was holidaying in Spain at the time but before we flew England had the more than routine and simple task of beating Republic of Ireland on the Sunday.
In Group One, Spain had beaten Denmark in the first match with hosts West Germany held by Italy on the Friday night. Sunday was all about Group Two, England v Ireland before Holland played USSR.
Since the Republic were formed in 1948, Ireland had only beaten England once, in 1949 at Goodison Park by two goals to nil. Almost forty years of English dominance… This would surely only go one way?
Six minutes into the match as Ireland pressed without any real intent a half-hopeful Tony Galvin cross was hooked up into the air mis-cleared by Kenny Sansom for little Ray Houghton to head over Peter Shilton… 1-0 Ireland… Well we didn’t expect that!!!!
“Don’t panic” I remember my Dad saying… “This will be four or five to England”.
Chances came… Minutes ticked… It was half time and still no leveller…
In the second half Lineker went close forcing Bonner to save as Beardsley skied the rebound… By the hour Ireland had the audacity to hit the bar… Ronnie Whelan with a typical volley… I started to notice my dad panic.. I had never seen England lose before… Tell a lie… We lost in West Germany 3-1 in 1987 but that day my dad said it didn’t matter.. ‘It was only a friendly’.. We since beat Turkey 8-0 and went to Yugoslavia and hit them for four.. I remember asking dad ‘why’ the Yugoslav TV company screening the game called us Anglia??? I knew back then it was where Great Yarmouth was.
England pressed some more as Robson’s shot was saved.. By now my dad’s saying ‘the best we can hope for is a draw’… But I still believed… Football does that to you from an early age… You tend to think the impossible is still possible… If I re-watched that game now, by five minutes into the second half I would be able to tell you England weren’t scoring if they played til midnight… That’s experience.. It was just one of those days… In fact we haven’t even beaten them since!!!
That loss hit me hard.. Proper geared up for my first tournament I had the Umbro replica kit, the stickers, the rabbit called Berni.. Like everyone I expected England to get off to a flyer and they didn’t… I don’t think I even watched the other group game that saw the Soviet Union beat the Dutch later that night… I was too upset… Too drained, too tired.
We flew a day later to Spain on holiday and Manolo who owned the local English bar said that ‘they’ are going to win the cup… A day later they were beaten by Denmark and I was teasing him silly.. Me and my dad went to find a bar to watch England v Holland where hopefully we would get back to winning ways.
The match was on late afternoon midweek, usually siesta time in Spain. We walked everywhere to find a bar that would screen it as most were closed but finally traipsed into an ice-cream bar a good few minutes into the game… A few locals sitting on plastic chairs were watching… We sat down all excited myself Knickerbocker gloried up, my dad with a coffee, but to their credit the Dutch were good. Van Basten gave them a deserved lead before half time with a stunning goal.. Outside of the right boot the floppy haired Gullit crossed into MVB with his back to goal he ‘Cruyffed’ Tony Adams and slotted past Shilts. We were down but not totally out.
The second half began and England attacked… Robson with a typical forward run, things opened up for ‘Captain Marvel’, he carried on going and stretched a boot to poke over van Breukelen before falling over as the ball bounced in… “YES” my dad leaped up from his chair… The Spaniards looked around bemused… “Sorry” he then said holding his hands up in the air…
The joy didn’t last for long though… Gullit played in van Basten again to give the Dutch the lead and just a few minutes later van Basten completed his hat-trick… “FUCK” my dad shouted… I don’t think we even stayed for the remaining fifteen minutes…
The only joy I got from the rest of my time in Spain was to tease Manolo after Spain were again beaten this time by West Germany… “We are both out” he said in broken English… “both rabbish”
We flew back the day after England were beaten by the Soviet Union… I didn’t even see the game, I didn’t know it had been played, I thought we were out so that was it. I read about it in the newspaper at the airport, Tony Adams scored… That’s all I remember.
I remember watching both semi-finals and in particular that classic match between West Germany and the Netherlands which Holland won 2-1. Van Basten already the star of the tournament with a late winner.
In the other semi-final I remember wanting Italy to win but that didn’t pan out… The Soviet Union had a special side back then and I can still reel off some of their names without slip of the tongue… Rinat Dasayev in goal, Oleg Kuznetsov, Sergei Aleinikov, Vasiliy Rats, Oleg Protosov and my favourite name of all to say Oleksei Mikhailichenko… Star player Igor Belanov didn’t play in the semi final win against Italy.. They were that good they didn’t need him.
Holland were a different matter though… I remember the sun blessed sea of oranje in the Olympiastadion Munich, one of the weirdest looking sporting venues still to this day that you’ll ever see… I can still name the team that played on the day too… van Breukelen, van Aerle, van Tiggelen, Ronald Koeman, Erwin Koeman, Rijkaard, Vanenburg, Wouters, Muhren, Gullit, van Basten… WHAT A TEAM under the guidance of Rinus Michels.
The game itself lives long in my memory. Gullit with a thumping header… I still see those dreadlocks flow today as he winds back his neck muscles to give everything in powering home past the Russian captain in goal. 1-0 at half time… Suddenly, I’m a Dutch supporter as well as Forest and England.
It was shortly after the break however when the most unforgettable moment of European Championship history for me was written, in the stars by the competition’s star player, the stunning sight of Marco van Basten volleying home from an acute angle is still one of the finest goals you will ever see… An iconic moment when a legend was properly born. I saw that with my own eyes… Football at it’s best.
The rest of the game was almost a formality, van Breukelen gave away a soft penalty but redeemed himself by saving from Belanov… It was Holland’s day, Dutch Delight, the Netherlands were Kings of Europe… Nobody could ever argue that the best team did not win.
After that my love for the Euros has ever since grown fonder. I still think it’s the hardest and best international competition in the football calendar… After all England are yet to win it… I used to like the old format of sixteen teams in four groups, top two straight into the Quarter Finals and business end knock out football without the need for fuss… Money has dictated that more teams these days qualify for the finals than don’t.. It has slightly lost it’s edge but I still take the flights to various nations to watch what the best on the continent has to offer.
I was all set to go this year… I had tickets for Italy v Wales in Rome and tickets for England v Croatia at Wembley… Covid-19 put an end to that but I hope they’ll be still valid for 2021… Because having felt the buzz in 88… Having witnessed it on my doorstep in Nottingham in 1996… Having been to Poland in 2012 and France in 2016 I have a fondness for this competition which was my first that I can remember… Other than the Mercantile Credit Football Festival of course.