Euro ’96 was a tournament that brought the nation together and left England’s inspirational left-back Stuart Pearce with memories that will last a lifetime.
It says much that the competition is remembered so fondly despite the worst possible ending for hosts England – a penalty shoot-out defeat to bitter rivals Germany in the semi-finals.
Backed by a nation gripped by football fever and embracing the official song ‘Three Lions’, England grew into the tournament and were a millimetre or two away from taking on the Czech Republic for the chance to win their first European Championship.
As it was, England failed to take their chances – Paul Gascoigne’s agonising lunge at Alan Shearer’s volleyed cross in golden-goal extra-time the most memorable – and Germany went on to lift the trophy.
But the feelings generated from playing every game at Wembley and having the whole country behind the side left Pearce with only happy memories.
“To play in a tournament in our own country was wonderful,” he said.
“It was probably the best tournament I’ve ever been involved in – it was absolutely sensational.
“Obviously I played in the World Cup in 1990 but because you were out of the country and in a sort of bubble you didn’t really see or hear the euphoria of it.
“Playing in England was wonderful. It was a brilliant tournament to be involved in from start to finish.”
England kicked off Euro ’96 with a disappointing draw against Switzerland but a 2-0 victory over Scotland sparked them into life before they delivered one of the country’s best performances at a major tournament against Holland. “Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland was sensational and Dave Seaman’s penalty save in the same game was good,” said Pearce.
“I played international football for 12 years and the best game I’ve ever been involved in was the Dutch game. It was a 4-1 victory and the manner in which we played was sensational.”
Terry Venables’ side played Spain in the quarter-finals in a game that is best remembered for Pearce’s penalty in the shoot-out. The Nottingham Forest left-back had the opportunity to exorcise the pain of missing from the spot in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against West Germany.
His emotional celebration was one of the tournament’s most iconic images, but another moment stands out in Pearce’s mind.
He said: “I remember myself and Dave Seaman going straight off the pitch and to a room to do an interview for television. Not a person had left the stadium and everyone was singing the Three Lions anthem. The stadium was literally rocking.
“It was fantastic. We just looked at each other and smiled.”