Book Review: When Football Came Home
When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons
Published by Pitch Publishing
In June this year, Henry Winter will publish Fifty Years of Hurt , a volume that will use England’s 1966 World Cup victory as a springboard to examine the fortunes of the national XI over the subsequent half century.
We’ll have to wait and see as to whether Winter can manage to get through the exercise without spinning a specific narrative — be it about Charles Hughes, too many league fixtures, penalties and the practising thereof, foreign players in English football or the antiquated nature of the FA — but suffice to say, it’s often easy to use vague patterns and trends to shoehorn an argument.
As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski displayed in Why England Lose, later rechristened Soccernomics , England actually punch at about the weight they should do given the raw materials they have to work with and Hartlepool United fans might argue with the use of the word ‘hurt’ to describe a period that has actually come with more than a few high points.
Which brings me to Michael Gibbons’ outstanding new book, When Football Came Home , a chronicle of one of those peaks — the European Football Championships of 1996, commonly referred to as Euro 96.
That England’s best performances (1966, 1990 and 1996) have been in tournaments that have generally been regarded as subpar by the wider footballing fraternity is something we have remarked upon in the pages of The Two Unfortunates in the past and Euro 96 is probably no exception. As Gibbons himself admits, Germany’s team was the least impressive that country has offered up as a tournament winner, the general standard of play as the competition transitioned from 8 to 16 teams was patchy and the continent’s major powers, Italy, Holland, France and Spain among them, all fielded far from vintage sides.
Historical revisionism has also led us to be unkind about the mid-nineties in general – last year’s Britpop anniversaries were generally delivered in an embarrassed tone – while Tony Blair has been right royally skewered in Tom Bower’s new book, Broken Vows.
But such churlishness would be out of place. Optimism was everywhere in 1996 — Blair and Labour may not have been in power but the conservative administration of Jon Major were dead men walking while decent music was hitting the charts on a weekly basis — and some of it, most notably from Pulp and Elastica, was a lot more than decent.
North of the border, Trainspotting the movie was released — a significant cultural moment if ever there was one – while even England’s unofficial tournament song, the immortal Three Lions possessed real credibility. On the pitch and despite not winning the thing, this really was England’s moment.
Gibbons’ enthusiasm for the period really shines through and is utterly bereft of the cynicism that one fears will permeate Winter’s effort. England’s achievements in putting the poor performances of Graham Taylor’s spell in charge behind them under the canny, man-management and clever coaching of Terry Venables, is wonderfully recounted. For this book, despite some detailed and adept analysis of the other competing teams, is very much about the men in white.
The dynamics within the squad including the genuinely uproarious behaviour of Paul Gascoigne, the notorious Cathay Pacific flight and dentist’s chair incident and the reaction that followed the humiliation of letting in a goal after 8 seconds against San Marino in the dying embers of Taylor’s reign are brilliantly and compellingly described — that match in Bologna is the perfect starting point for a narrative that is by no means confined to the span of the finals proper.
This reviewer was present at a number of the friendlies that prefigured the actual tournament — a long 18 months that saw the US anthem booed roundly at Wembley and approximately 17 goalless draws with Norway. That Venables managed to shape this rag bag into a team that quite possibly should have emerged top dogs is eternal credit to him as well as his ability to let go — indeed, the book describes how he would often bow to the coaches around him such as the late Don Howe. That a light touch was taken with the irrepressible and yet surely superhumanly annoying Gazza was again a key strength of the manager’s policy.
But the book’s real strength is in its meticulous research — every match has been re-watched, be it on DVD, video or youtube, complete with BBC and ITV studio punditry; newspapers have been scoured with a fine tooth comb (one wonders how Piers Morgan has avoided jail for hate crimes given the phalanx of xenophobic assaults he launched in The Daily Mirror while interviews have also been carried out — only not to the extent that ‘access’ is held up as the sole imprimatur of seriousness, as they may have been in the hands of a more mainstream journalist.
Hence, we learn/are reminded of 10 nasties that Morgan asserted Spain brought to us (including Franco, syphilis and carpet bombing); ads with lines such as ‘Italy’s Goalkeeper: Easiest Job in the World’; Emlyn Hughes being booed at the opening ceremony, Gazza and others clashing with photographers while fishing at a remote spot near Maidenhead and Stuart Pearce choosing Zimbabwe as his post-tournament holiday destination.
In all, it’s an evocative and enthusiastic re-creation of a time and a place, delivered in witty and lively prose — Alan Shearer’s time at Blackburn is described as ‘less a purple patch, more an industrial spillage in a Ribena factory’. That the author takes time to paint the whole picture of a country and the way Euro 96 enveloped it would perhaps make him the ideal choice to pen a social history of Britain in the 1990s — a still elusive decade that even TV’s talking heads are finding hard to summarise and pin down. This is an unmissable book that anyone interested in the period should cherish.