Search icon


10th Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: An Ode To A Semi-Final

Italia 90, Euro 96 and now, Russia 2018

Simon Clancy

I cried when England beat Colombia

Not open bawling, not even sobbing. After all, boys don’t cry. But the sort of tears-gently-rolling-down-your-face kind of crying that appears from nowhere. Much like this magical run to the World Cup semi-final I didn’t see it coming. One minute I’m on my feet punching the air as Eric Dier slots the winning penalty, the next the emotion has overtaken me. My eyes are full.

These tears were twenty-two years in the making.

Euro 96 seems a lifetime ago. Perhaps it’s old fashioned to reminisce because of the tendency to do so through the prism of rose tinted glasses. And yet that summer was unlike any I’d lived through.

There was a togetherness to the country that hadn’t been evident to that point, not during my childhood years or in the everyday hustle and bustle of life. I’d grown up through the miners’ strike and the three-day school week, lived through the devastation of Hillsborough, the first Gulf War and the Poll Tax Riots.

England felt fractured – not as deeply as it does today – but it felt like a country at a major crossroads. Six years earlier we’d made the World Cup semi-final thanks in large part to the brilliance of Gary Lineker and the wonder of Paul Gascoigne.

Despite the best efforts of the press pre-tournament and the hooligan element that followed the national team throughout Italia 90, Bobby Robson’s men had taken us to the brink of something incredible. And although England came together as a nation, it wasn’t the same at it was in ’96.

That said, the build-up to 1996 wasn’t without its hurdles either. Once again the press, spurred on by a drunken night in a dentist’s chair in Hong Kong, tried to tear down the team before they’d kicked a ball. An unimpressive opening draw against Switzerland was followed by more condemnation.

Then finally, a moment in the second group game against Scotland when everything seemed to change: first David Seaman saved a Gary McAllister penalty to preserve a slender 1-0 advantage. Minutes later, Paul Gascoigne scored one of the great tournament goals and it was party time across a country that was suddenly learning to love this extravaganza of football that had broken out in its midst.

Days later, after England beat the Netherlands 4-1, I remember going out onto the streets and seeing people celebrating, strangers hugging, car horns everywhere. It was madness. It was bloody wonderful.

Next it was Spain and a glorious penalty-shoot out win before the arch nemesis in the semi-final once again. Yet this time it felt different. England was riding this incredible, emotional wave. People were happy. A song had captivated a nation. Football had come home. The Czech Republic of Berger and Poborsky waited in the final. But they were beatable. We just had to ease the Germans out of the way and……..and……….

When Shearer scored the opening goal of that semi-final the whole street erupted. The streets were empty but the pubs and the houses and the gardens were fit to burst. And burst they did when that header found the net, Shearer peeling away in that light blue kit. Maybe, just maybe. At 1-1, silence returned and then as darkness fell on Wembley it did so too upon a nation. What was surely meant to be just wasn’t.

The game ebbed and flowed before heading into extra time and the dreaded Golden Goal. There are two moments in that last period that are burned into the memory of every England fan. I can’t watch either without that emotion welling up once again. Without tears appearing in my eyes. First, Darren Anderton hits the post when surely it was easier to score, the rebound bouncing straight into Oliver Kahn’s arms.

Then, late on, England win possession on the left. Gary Neville plays it inside to Teddy Sheringham who swings a cross-field ball into the area that arrives at Alan Shearer in Van Basten territory. Instead of shooting, he volleys it first time across the face of the goal, no more than three yards out, just as Gazza runs in unmarked.

The goal is open. The final is waiting. A nation is on its feet. The moment has arrived. Gascoigne, the hero of Italia ’90 is about to write yet another chapter in his remarkable career.

For just a split second he pauses, perhaps thinking a defender will get a touch. The momentum is lost and the ball makes minimal contact with the end of his foot but doesn’t change course. Commentators, fans, Englishmen scream as the ball rolls agonisingly on.

The moment has gone.

As you all know, the inevitable followed. Southgate’s miss, Germany’s tournament. Tears, regret, heartbreak. Not just on a football level, but probably for the country as well.

You see, people were nicer to each other during Euro 96. You said ‘hello’ to random strangers. People had a collective spring in their steps. It was different. You felt it again during London 2012 and, six years on from there it’s back again.

Only now it’s not West Germany as it was in 1990 or Germany in ’96. Now it’s Croatia. They weren’t even a country the last time England was in a World Cup semi-final!

That song is back and whilst the racism that’s been allowed to poke it’s head above the parapet since Brexit still exists, England feels tentatively together, safe in the knowledge that there will probably never be a better chance than this to right the wrongs of Turin and Wembley.

I shall cry again on Wednesday night regardless of the result; whether Southgate and his 22 banish those memories of semi-finals gone or re-ignite the darkness over what might have been.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but both Bobby Robson and Terry Venables believed England would have won those respective tournaments in ’90 and ’96 had we had just a little bit of luck.

I believe we’ll win this one. Tears all round?

Yes please.