30 August, 2007

What if..................

With the season not even two weeks old, people have already been muttering those immortal footballing words ‘what if…’: “What if Liverpool had taken three points against Chelsea?” “What if Healy’s goal for Fulham had stood?” and so on. If either team’s ultimate fate this season is decided by a point or two either way, then fans will definitely look back on these big decisions when in retrospect the officials got it wrong.

Here at STT though we’re not about finger pointing (unless it’s a WAG-related ‘wardrobe malfunctions’), so the co-ordinates of our What If Machine (patent pending) for this first instalment take us back to a time when cruel fate was the perpetrator of England’s downfall in the 1996 European Championships on home soil.

What if ......... Gascoigne had connected with Shearer's pass and scored the deciding golden goal (England vs. Germany - Euro '96 semi final)

Ok, so an obvious place to start. But as young boy I seemed to spend my entire spare time day dreaming about England winning a major international trophy, and I refuse to believe I was alone in kicking a ball into a empty net at my local park, screaming “Sheeearer” and wheeling away as if I’d just won the European Cup in the last minute. We’ve all done it, because it means everything. And the closest England have ever come in my lifetime was Euro ’96 so this is without doubt my ultimate ‘what if…’

In the few years prior to the tournament, England’s record had been poor to say the least. Euro ‘92 saw the team fail to progress further than the group stage; managed by Graham Taylor, and boasting players of the calibre of Carlton Palmer and Tony Daley, it was hardly surprising that we exited at the hands of a Tomas Brolin-inspired Sweden. And then, just over a year later things went from bad to worse as England failed to even qualify for World Cup ‘94 across the pond in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

By the time Euro ‘96 finally came around, the nation appeared to have lost all faith in the team, a fact no more evident than in Skinner and Baddiel’s pleading anthem ‘3 Lions’ : “thirty years of huuuurt, never stopped me dreeeaming!” To further set the tone, England also only entered the tournament as the bookmaker’s fifth favourite, unheard of for a seeded home nation. Even worse though, the team itself did little to inspire confidence when it was reported that Gascoigne, Sheringham and McManaman amongst others, had partaken in the famous ‘dentist’s chair’ incident on the team’s recent Far East tour. So to summarise: we were a load of drunken losers, only in the tournament in the first place because we were hosting it.

But something was happening that summer. Buoyed by a continuously sold out Wembley, and driven by the inspirational Terry Venables, the team somehow found itself in the semi-finals against the Germans; old enemy and the tournament favourites. To reach this dizzy height, England had beaten Scotland 2-0, with a sublime goal by Gascoigne, and destroyed the Dutch in a display that highlighted the effectiveness of Venables’ infamous Christmas-tree formation. But perhaps the most important point to note is that against Spain, another pre-tournament favourite, England had actually won a penalty shoot-out. The demons of the previous six years had in theory, been exercised, and the team entered the match mentally capable of anything.

England took a third minute lead through Shearer latching onto a Gascoigne corner, before the aptly named Kuntz equalised on 16 minutes. Unlike any previous World or European Tournament, a golden goal would have been good enough to see either team through after 90 minutes, and it was Gascoigne’s despairing attempt to reach a Shearer ball that came closest; failing to connect by no more than the length of a bottle of hair bleach. But IF Gascoigne had made that slight touch, England would’ve been flying into the final against a solid but far less talented Czech team, where inspired by the victory over Germany, they surely would’ve won their second major trophy.

The knock-on effect would have been palpable.

England wins the European Cup, as a team who had not only beaten the Germans on merit but perhaps most importantly, a team who had won their last penalty shootout. The Gareth Southgate stigma doesn’t exist and England enter the ‘98 World Cup in France with the nucleus of the winning side from Euro ‘96. Hoddle, unable to drop the hero of Euro ‘96, includes Gascoigne, who starts the match against Argentina in place of David Batty. Gascoigne, as a natural penalty-taker, steps up and coolly slots home to take the shootout into extra time. Both sides, struggling to find players willing to take penalties, look to defenders. Argentina place faith in ageing centre-back Nelson Viva’s, who chooses power over precision and blasts his shot straight at Seaman. For England, Gareth Southgate boldly steps forward. Knowing no different, Southgate chooses to place his penalty to Carlos Roa’s right. Roa, having chosen left in four of the previous penalties, sticks to his guns and fails to prevent Southgate’s rolled penalty finding the net…

Would England have beaten the Dutch? Perhaps not. The Brazilians? Certainly not. But after two major tournaments, England hold a 2 to 1 record in penalty shootouts. Given the psychological element of penalties though, a team’s past record can be half the battle, as demonstrated in our recent failed effort against Portugal at World Cup ’06.

So, in a grand statement of pure speculation: just six inches have determined an entire decade of international disappointment and heartbreak for English football…sorry Gazza!