England's greatest performance of my lifetime – the day we thrashed the Netherlands


What a night. Whenever anyone asks what are my most treasured memories of playing for England, I can tell them without the slightest hesitation: being named captain, and the night we thrashed the Netherlands 4-1 at Wembley at Euro 96.

It was the first thing I thought of when the semi-final line-up at Euro 2024 was confirmed on Saturday night. I cast my mind back and I’m standing in the penalty area, watching Paul Gascoigne darting between a couple of Dutch defenders, laying it off to Teddy Sheringham. I’ve got my hands in the air, screaming for Teddy to pass to me, and then I’m absolutely lashing the ball inside the top corner and I’m off celebrating and all of us — players, staff, supporters — are in dreamland.

If I call it the best team performance of my England career, which spanned from 1992 to 2000, I think I would be underplaying it. I would go so far as to call it the best England performance of my lifetime.


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To be honest, I don’t think there’s much competition.

The 1970s and 1980s weren’t a great period for the England team. The 1990 World Cup saw that fantastic tussle with the Germans in the semi-final when we lost on penalties — the same at Euro 96. We gave it a good go against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup but lost on penalties again. There was that incredible 5-1 win over Germany in Munich in 2001, but that was a World Cup qualifying match. I’m not sure you can put it in the same category.

It’s only really since Gareth Southgate took charge that we’ve seen England start to produce in big tournament games on a regular basis: that dramatic shootout against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup, beating Germany, Ukraine and Denmark en route to the Euro 2020 final, seeing off Iran, Wales and Senegal comfortably at the most recent World Cup in 2022, those nerve-racking wins over Slovakia and Switzerland in the past week or so…

But in terms of a single performance, I don’t think we’ve come close to the heights we reached on Tuesday, June 18, 1996. That night, we were everything our manager Terry Venables had told us we could be.

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Shearer celebrates scoring against the Netherlands on a magical night (Mark Leech/Offside via Getty Images)

There’s a reason people like me still talk about it 28 years later. It’s not one of those that has been hyped beyond recognition with the years that have passed. Even as we walked off the pitch — and to be honest, even when we were still on the pitch, 4-0 up with nearly half an hour to go — it felt like an incredible event.

It was one of those rare matches — rare in international football, particularly with England — where everything just clicks.


When I was growing up, there was a mystique about Dutch football: Johan Cruyff and the “Total Football” teams of the 1970s. Then there was the great team that won the Euros in 1988 with Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten in their prime.

By the mid-1990s, there was an exciting new wave, much of it coming from the famous Ajax academy. I was in Vienna, as a guest of sportswear firm Umbro, to watch Ajax beat a legendary AC Milan side in the Champions League final in 1995. It was a very young Ajax team with the likes of Edwin van der Sar, the De Boer twins, Michael Reiziger, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert. They were all so quick and so skilful in possession: one-touch or two-touch passing like we hadn’t seen before.

When we were drawn in the same group as them for Euro 96, a lot of people thought we were already playing for second place. It had been a grim period for England: knocked out at the group stage at Euro 92, didn’t even qualify for the 1994 World Cup and, as the hosts, we had spent two years building toward Euro 96 without setting the world alight. I’ve mentioned before that I went 12 games without scoring for England before that tournament.

One thing I vividly remember is how even in the months leading up to Euro 96, Terry told us we were going to use different systems and different setups during the tournament. We might start out with a 4-4-2, but he was always showing us how to switch into different systems, which could be a back three or a diamond formation in midfield or the “Christmas tree” formation of 4-3-2-1.

On paper, the formation we had in the Dutch game looks like a 4-4-2: David Seaman in goal; Gary Neville, Gareth Southgate, Tony Adams and Stuart Pearce across the back four; Steve McManaman, Gazza, Paul Ince and Darren Anderton across the midfield; Teddy and me up front.

England line up vs Netherlands Euro 96

But it was far more fluid than that. The way Terry had worked with us, there would be times when Gary or Gareth would step up into midfield, or Macca would push higher up the right and Darren would tuck inside; Teddy knew when to play up alongside and when to drop into the hole behind me. It was all very fluid with a lot of movement. It was all part of Terry’s master plan.

Rather than worry about how to stop all these great Dutch players, Terry wanted to play them at their own game. It was a brave thing to do, particularly given the situation in the group. Only the top two went through to the knockout stages in those days; if we had lost to the Netherlands that night, there was every chance we would be out, which would have been a huge disappointment in our first tournament on home soil since 1966.

The pressure was on.


I watched the game back a few years ago, for a documentary I did for the BBC. It was the first time I’d watched it in a long time. It was reassuring to see the Dutch were as good and quick in possession as I remembered them being.

But we struck first from a penalty, which I scored. Two things stick in my mind here. The first was a brilliant piece of skill from Incey that led to him being brought down by Danny Blind; he was such a good player, Incey, especially in that tournament.

 

The second is walking up to take that penalty, I remember seeing Van der Sar and thinking, “Jesus, he looks big in that goal. I’m going to have to get this right in the side-netting because if I don’t and he goes the right way, he’s saving this.”

It was a relief to see it go in. It was my third goal of the tournament, after that long run of games without scoring, and I felt so confident. I could feel the confidence growing throughout the team as well.

The second half is where it all happened. Teddy made it 2-0 with a header from a corner, which was the prelude for the kind of spell of domination and magic you dream about as a footballer.

I mentioned my second goal at the start. I love that goal. I was screaming for it, but to be honest I was half-expecting Teddy to shoot because he was in such a great position. He feinted to shoot, but instead he squared it to me and I just put my head down and hit the ball as hard as I could. It’s one of the sweetest strikes I ever had, the way it bent away from Van der Sar and into the top corner.

 

And here I want to talk about the difference between Teddy and me.

In our first group game, against Switzerland, there was a similar situation where I had a chance to roll the ball across the six-yard box to give Teddy a tap-in. And I’m sure Teddy wasn’t surprised when I took the shot myself; I hadn’t scored for England for such a long time and I was desperate to score, which thankfully I did.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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Then when Teddy had that chance against the Netherlands, to be honest, I wasn’t even sure he had seen me or heard me, even though I had my arms up and I was screaming for it. But Teddy always had a picture in his head of where everyone was. He was such an intelligent and unselfish player and I was so glad when he got his second goal and we were 4-0 up. Incredible.

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Shearer celebrates with Sheringham after getting his goal (Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images)

Terry substituted the two of us soon afterwards and I remember not being particularly pleased about it. Terry was rightly thinking ahead to the knockout stages and keeping us both fresh, but as a striker, I was thinking, “Hang on, I’m on a hat-trick here. I’m on a hot streak. I want the Golden Boot.” But you can’t get too annoyed on a night like that. It was the right thing for the team.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

England starting XI to face the Netherlands: Drop Kane? Guehi back? Eze for Foden?

Watching the closing stages of the game from the bench, the atmosphere was incredible. I’d been playing for England for four years and I had never known anything like those few days: first the victory over Scotland on the Saturday and now this took it up another notch. “Football’s coming home” and all that.

It was the same in the dressing room and back at the hotel bar afterwards, where we all had a few drinks and probably a bit of a singalong. We knew we had been part of something special that night.

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A scoreline for the ages at Wembley (Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

Expectations weren’t high going into that tournament, but we had beaten the Dutch — thrashed them 4-1 — and we were starting to think, “We might just have a chance here, you know.”

I remember leaving the hotel to go for a haircut in the nearby town of Burnham the next day (yeah, I know what you’re thinking…).  I got out of a taxi and there was a kind of street party happening. People were still out celebrating what we had done the night before. I had never known anything like it. It was like we were riding a wave. How far could it take us?


Well, it took us past Spain in the quarter-finals — on penalties and by the skin of our teeth, if I’m honest — and it took us all the way to extra time and penalties against Germany in the semi-finals. And we were so close to getting to the final. We can look back on the “If only…” moments: Gazza sliding in with the goalkeeper nowhere and just failing to connect with my cross a yard or two out to score what would have been the winning Golden Goal in extra time, poor Gareth having his penalty saved in the shootout. So, so close.

But we didn’t get over the line. That team got to one semi-final, but never a final. There are fine margins in sport and for years England always seemed to be on the wrong side of them, whether it was losing on penalties or whatever else.

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This England team is different. They keep finding themselves on the right side of those same fine margins. I don’t think they’ve clicked at all at this tournament, but they keep getting the job done. I’ve been as critical of some of the performances as anyone, but there is something admirable about the way they stick to their task. Under Gareth, we have become good at tournament football.

It would be nice to think England could produce another performance like 1996 against the Dutch tonight (Wednesday), wouldn’t it? Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka turning on the magic, Harry Kane smashing a couple in. I think that’s what we all dream of — Gareth included.

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England are yet to click at Euro 2024 — but they’re in the semi-finals (Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)

I don’t see it happening, to be honest. I don’t see there being many goals. It could be another long night.

Unless the performance level improves, I might find myself airing my frustration in the commentary box again, like I have been for the past few weeks. England haven’t played free-flowing football at this tournament and it’s hard to see that changing dramatically in a semi-final when the stakes are so high.

That was the amazing thing about 1996. We knew we had good players and big personalities in that team, but I don’t think even we realised how good we could be together, in an England shirt, until that night at the old Wembley.

It was a performance so good that people still come up to me and talk about it now — about how well we played and how it made them feel. Unfortunately, we didn’t go on to win the trophy that summer.

Even if their performances haven’t reached the same heights so far at this European Championship, I really hope Gareth and his players can go one or two steps better and finish the job.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

England 4-1 Netherlands at Euro 96: Three Lions’ greatest win in tournament?

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)





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