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Josh Benn
15 August 2001

England's Greatest Matches: Netherlands vs. England 1996
Josh Benn and son watch England shine at Euro '96


Netherlands 1 England 4
Tuesday, 18 June 1996
Wembley Stadium -
Att: 76,798

"They're not laughing at us now" -This is the headline that one newspaper chose following England's rampaging victory over one of Europe most accomplished international sides.

For the Dutch their widely admired concept of 'Total Football' gave way to 'Total Annihilation'. This was quite simply the best performance I have ever seen an England side play. To score four goals in any game is special, to do it against a side of the calibre of the Dutch is extraordinary, to do it in a major championship -at Wembley- is the stuff fantasies are made of.

It almost seems like nit-picking to dissect the individual performances of the England team when their contribution as a whole was so admirable. Perhaps the impact such an England accomplishment has on the tournament, and more importantly their likely opponents, should be the subject most worthy of closer examination.

Nevertheless seventeen million people tuned in to watch an England side playing at Wembley in their final Group 'A' game -knowing that a draw would be good enough for both sides to reach the quarter finals. The Dutch team, glittering with the jewels of talent that are the likes of Bergkamp, Kluivert, Winter, Witschge, Cruyff and De Boer came to Wembley the side to beat, the side to admire, and the side to favour.

England, despite home advantage, always regarded this fixtures as the one group game most likely to give them a headache -they came away 90 minutes later having outplayed, outshone and outgunned the second favourites of the tournament and invigorated with a self-belief and confidence not seen for 30 years.

My son William and I drove through heavy traffic to reach a bubbling and enthusiastic Wembley. The first thing to catch our eye was the number of Dutch fans. To their eternal credit the Dutch are as well supported internationally as any of the best sides in the world and they know that the secret of boosting your team it to get behind them vocally - especially when playing away. The stadium, full to capacity, bristled with a sizeable contingent of perhaps 15-18,000 Dutch supporters. Their distinctive orange attire bleeding through the red and white masses of England fans packed into the Wembley stands.

The atmosphere had an even heavier air of tension and expectancy than during Saturday's two goal victory against Scotland and nerves jangled during the opening 15- 20 minutes as Cruyff and Co. worked a twenty pass move into a shooting opportunity at one end for Holland while Alan Shearer skilfully and powerfully drove a half-volley against the legs of Witschge for England at the other.

William and I looked at each other and sensed a night where simply repelling the enemy might by England's primary task -just how wrong could we be. Twenty-odd minutes into the game -Steve McManaman holding up a penetrative through ball from Teddy Sheringham set up Paul Ince to trick the ball into the penalty area only to be blatantly fouled by Danny Blind. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot and at last it seemed the odds, or perhaps Gods, favoured England. Alan Shearer, without a trace of emotion or nerves, struck decisively to put England one up after 23 minutes. Alan Shearer is clearly a man with scores to settle both professional and personal.

What Shearer does to goalkeepers, Seaman does to strikers. David Seaman offers a commanding and intimidating barrier to the opposition and when Gareth Southgate's uncharacteristically weak back header allowed Dennis Bergkamp a clear sight of goal -Seaman once again proved, with a brilliant one handed save, that it will take more than the likes of Bergkamp to put a goal past him in open play.

The first half drew to a close accompanied by the rapturous cheering of the crowd. All too often England disappear into the Wembley tunnel to the buzz of the loudspeaker system rather than the crowd but this time the applause continued until the last player was lost from view.

William and I endured the queues and headed for the Long Bar where they were evidently selling the last drops of water to be found in London - given the extortionate price and the appalling crush. We mistakenly came back up a different entrance and glared rather too enthusiastically at a group of 30 Dutch supporters who had apparently taken not only our seats but almost all those of the people sitting around us in the first half. Then William said "Dad, these aren't our seats -we're over there".

The opening 20 minutes of the second half encapsulated the most comprehensive and complete destruction of a top flight international side as one is ever likely to see, anywhere in the world, at any time. An early corner, by Paul Gascoigne found the head of Sheringham. Given that Teddy Sheringham has had at least three excellent opportunities so far in Euro '96 to put England two up - this chance, by far the most difficult, was almost nonchalantly nodded into the corner of the goal past an unsighted Van De Sar. Teddy Sheringham was the picture of liberation in the same way as Shearer was against when he scored against Switzerland in the opening tournament game.

Not content with two goals, England's attack took on an altogether more ominous tone as Gascoigne and McManaman exchanged passes near the edge of the Dutch penalty area. Aaron winter, a former Lazio team-mate, could do nothing as Gazza tricked his way into the area and flicked the ball to Sheringham a few yards back from the penalty spot. His deft, and selfless pass to Alan Shearer produced as clinical a finish as any striker could wish for. The English Premiership know all too well from whose boots goals like that come - Europe and the rest of the world are just beginning to find out.

Four goals in three games for Alan Shearer and the tournaments top scorer- try telling that to someone two weeks ago and they would have marvelled and laughed at your misguided optimism.

Barely had the astonishment subsided than Darren Anderton, a man pleasingly coming to form in this tournament, shot powerfully at goal -a slight deflection and Van De Sar was unable to hold the save -his desperate push, back out of goal, was pounced on by Sheringham who placed a firm shot into the corner of the net for his second and England's fourth.

4-0 and I looked at William and he looked at me and we looked at the scoreboard and we looked around Wembley and we cheered and clapped and sang and shouted. This was the England whose potential we had always dreamt of. The reality was magical and will live with me for ever.

Past encounters with the Dutch however are often remembered with pain. The three goals Marco Van Basten put past Peter Shilton in 1988, the agony of the 0-0 draw in Italia '90, the 2-2 draw at Wembley for USA '94 when Jan Wouter's broke Gascoigne's cheekbone and England's unforgettable 2-0 defeat when Ronald Koeman scored from a free-kick when he should have been off the field for cynically bringing David Platt down in the penalty area. The exorcism of those ghosts was almost completed on Tuesday -I say almost, as we may yet meet Holland later in the tournament.

Patrick Kluiverts' consolation goal was one of only three disappointments on the night. The second was the few minutes when England 'wobbled' slightly following the Dutch goal and the third was Paul Ince's yellow card putting him out of the quarter finals.

Spain are to be their next opponents. The Euro '96 organisers have apparently had half of the Spanish ticket allocation returned unused. There will be 8,000 Spanish supporters and 70,000 English ones -that's got to be worth something.

Can England do it ? -Spain are a very good side -swift and purposeful they will attack relentlessly and often straight through the middle. I don't believe that wing play is their strongest card. With Ince absent the word is that Sol Campbell may come in. Personally speaking, I think he is far too slow for a game like this - though I desperately hope I am proved wrong.

In short, England can win - everything seems to be in their favour, home advantage, a rich vein of form running through the whole team and a rare confidence. This is an England side better, both individually and collectively, than at any tournament I have witnessed over the last 16 years.

Written for the CompusServe Sports Forum's Soccer Section in June, 1996