When Alan Shearer hammered the ball high into the Dutch net at Euro 96, English football experienced possibly its happiest moment since winning the World Cup 30 years earlier.
Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick goal in the 1966 World Cup final represents the pinnacle of the English game, but while Shearer’s goal only occurred in the group stage, it is worthy of second place in the pantheon of Three Lions occasions.
Why is that?
Not just a major tournament, but a major tournament in England no less. Euro 96 rode on a wave of Britpop and good feeling in England that summer, but poor results could have seen the tournament fall flat on its face.
Since Italia 90, England had floundered at the 1992 European Championships and failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. A good showing on home soil was necessary not just in making sure England weren’t the party poopers at their own bash, but also in reviving a national side that needed reviving.
Shearer won the golden boot despite England’s semi-final exit, helping fan the fervour that made the tournament what it was, but one goal in particular captured the imagination.
England went into their final group game against Holland with qualification for the knockout rounds looking likely, but crucially, not confirmed.
Both sides would qualify with a draw, but a defeat for England would leave the door open for Scotland, who could leapfrog the hosts with a win against Switzerland.
Shearer’s third meant England fans could banish the thought of their neighbours knocking them out of their own tournament, and the supporters could look forward to the important knockout games to come.
For a country that had won the World Cup 30 years earlier, England had recorded startlingly few victories over top opposition at major tournaments since ’66, with only wins against Spain and France, at Euro 1980 and the 1982 World Cup respectively, to boast of.
Holland were just such a worthy competitor, and provided a chance for England to prove themselves. Although the team that travelled to Wembley was a shadow of the one that won the 1988 European Championships, it still boasted plenty of pedigree.
Ajax had won the European Cup in 1995 and finished runner-up in 1996, while Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Danny Blind and Edwin van der Sar appeared for the Dutch. Shearer’s second meant England were dominating a big team on the scoreboard for the first time at a major tournament since, well… ever.
Remember this goal from Teddy Sheringham against the Dutch in Euro '96? We face them at Wembley in March, f... https://t.co/niuQb28mqK— England (@England) December 29, 2015
There’s something about going 3-0 up that sends the supporters of any team into party mode.
England’s first, a penalty from Shearer, broke the tension, while the second, a header from Teddy Sheringham, put them in control, but the third was what made it all seem like a wonderful dream.
Three goals to the good, at Wembley, against the Oranje at a major tournament? It was pretty sweet.
Of course, the goal itself was a thing of beauty too, put together by a team who were just as worthy of precious metal as the golden generation that followed.
Steve McManaman moved the ball expertly into the path of Paul Gascoigne, who beat his man before unselfishly squaring to Teddy Sheringham on the edge of the area.
It was this spirit of unselfishness that defined the goal, as Sheringham opted not for the shot, but the disguised lay-off to Shearer, whose arms were aloft as he screamed for the ball.
The striker’s arm was raised for a very different reason seconds later, after expertly hammering the ball high into the roof of the net. Has a more beautiful England goal, in context and aesthetic, been scored before or since?