From The Spice Girls to Gazza, how 1996 was the year we cooled the world
JUNE 1996, and at long last, Football Is Coming Home. It really is.
The European Championships, hosted right here, are in full swing. Terry Venables’s England face Scotland in a crunch match at Wembley.
To be fair, Scotland v England is never not a crunch match. These two sides first faced each other in 1872 in the world’s first international football fixture.
But I can’t imagine there has ever been more excitement about a meeting between them.
The whole of the UK has been captivated by what’s been a sensational tournament so far and now, on a Saturday afternoon in brilliant sunshine, the auld rivals face each other in front of a jam-packed Wembley at fever pitch.
Countless millions more watch on televisions, in pubs, town squares and beyond, all around the globe. The game is gripping — balanced on a knife edge.
Scotland miss a penalty. Then, as one, the entire crowd leaps to its feet as Paul Gascoigne, Three Lions On His Shirt, receives the ball on the edge of Scotland’s penalty area.
And with the whole world looking at him, he dinks it over the last defender’s head with the composure and the grace of a ballerina dancing like no one at all is watching. With his second touch he fires it home. It’s a veritable dazzler.
If, like me, you are English, and if you have ever, just once, enjoyed watching a game of football in your entire life, the roar of the crowd at that moment, the elation of the spectators, the players, even the photographers and ball boys behind the goal, will move you to the edge of tears. I’ve watched it dozens and dozens of times and it still does me.
Of course, if you’re Scottish, it will make you sick reet to the pit of your stomach, but do stay with me, because something special was happening across the whole of the UK in June 1996.
Three days after the Scotland game, England would trounce Holland, one of the most fancied teams in the competition, 4-1. This country had found its confidence. Some might say, its swagger.
It was suddenly OK to wear a Union Jack and wave England flags. Britain was Great. And for a long time, it hadn’t been. Take the talismanic Paul Gascoigne, for instance — a national hero since that night in Turin six years previously when we all shared his tears in the World Cup semi-final that England deserved to win.
I’ve heard it said that Paul was the first member of the entire Gascoigne family for two generations to have had a paid job.
Like all good rumours, this may or may not be entirely true, but it is certainly believable. Mass unemployment, along with rioting, power cuts and strikes, had cast a long shadow over the UK throughout the Seventies and Eighties.
Even our national game was in peril — mired in violence, hooliganism and tragedy.
Not to mention Turnip Head Taylor and his disastrous qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup. Unsurprisingly, matchday attendances had been falling off.
But the creation of the Premier League was proving to be one of the great re-branding exercises of modern times. Football had indeed come home — just as Fergie’s Manchester United, Wenger’s Arsenal and the entire Nineties were starting to swing. There was a sense of hope that went far beyond the football pitch.
It’s now exactly 25 years since 1996, the year Vanity Fair magazine, which had established itself as the very last word in style and taste, declared “Cool Britannia”. And, stoopid as it sounded at the time, maybe there was something in it after all.
Two quite good bands had put out singles on the same day the previous summer, and for reasons that are completely beyond me, the story had gone global and what they called “Britpop” was what they called “happening”.
The Spice Girls arrived in a Big Bang of Girl Power and sold more than 20million albums in 1996. Oasis played to vast crowds at Knebworth. And Blur quietly snuck off to America. This was just before the point at which we all had telephones or computers (I had neither in 1996) and just after cheap air travel had put the whole world within everyone’s reach.
I’d been to New York the previous year, quite often, making the most of the freedoms that came with those times. I’d flown out for a jolly with nothing but my wallet, my passport and the clothes I was standing up in to go to Damien Hirst’s first exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery.
That show had taken The City by storm and established the enfant terrible of British art and his pickled sharks as a global talking point. But perhaps the moment that it really hit me that Britain was hip again was in summer 1996, when, having drunk six dry martinis, I stumbled alone to a Manhattan address I’d been given on a little scrap of paper — as I said, this was before we all had telephones.
In the doorway, I bumped into Stella McCartney. At this point, she, along with fellow Brit Alexander McQueen, had just begun to make a name for herself as a global fashion trendsetter. We walked together into a very big room that contained a very small gathering of the New York elite in its entirety.
It was a tight mix of supermodels and rock stars. And there they were, sitting around a record player, listening intently to New Order’s first album, Movement.
The place to be
It was, even after six martinis, ridiculous.
Because this was a very obscure record, even in Britain and even when it was released, 15 years previously by an indie band from Manchester.
But here it was, the toast of New York City’s finest. And British films were the toast of America’s other coast. As well as Trainspotting, a world beater made on a tiny budget, The English Patient came out in ’96 and went on to win several Oscars, including Best Picture, the following year.
That was the year Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, but the wind of change was blowing and the country was already getting behind him in 1996.
A new leader who was dynamic and young added to our sense of hope and possibility — if it even needed adding to.
In 1996, culturally we really were firing on all cylinders — in fashion, film, food, music and art. I was travelling all over the place at that time, but it certainly felt like Britain was the place to be.
The capital had the snazziest restaurants and the best clubs in the world.
And now we had the football, too. Some people might think losing in the semis to Germany was a failure but the tournament was a major triumph.
Three Lions, the soundtrack to that summer, and indeed a song I wrote with Keith Allen a couple of years later about watching football, getting battered and eating curry, will be sung again by massed voices this year as England plays host to a major international competition for the first time since then.
I watched most of Euro ’96 in pubs as I was on tour and this time around I intend to watch as many games as I can with all of the rest of the men in my village in the heart of England’s green and pleasant land at The Royal British Legion, the hub of the community that has finally opened its doors once more, and I just can’t wait.
I’m feeling good again — do I sense another wave of optimism, another euphoric summer in the offing?
Back in ’96, England’s dreams were eventually shattered by a penalty missed by a certain Gareth Southgate.
I’m sure he’s keen to make things right.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Fifty five years of hurt haven’t stopped me dreaming. It really, really, really could happen.
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