Stuart Pearce has described Euro 96 as an “absolutely sensational” tournament to be involved in – and says he still listens to ‘Three Lions’.
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 in front of a partisan and expectant crowd at the national stadium.
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 and showcasing that we could actually put a tournament on that would go extremely well was wonderful.
“It was a brilliant tournament to be involved in from start to finish.”
Holland game a career highlight
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 and he famously took it.
His emotional celebration was one of the tournament’s most iconic images, but another moment stands out in Pearce’s mind.
“I’ve never played in a better atmosphere,” he recalled.
“I remember myself and Dave Seaman going straight off the pitch and to a room to do an interview for television. The door was locked and not a person had left the stadium and everyone was singing the Three Lions anthem. The stadium was literally rocking.
“It was fantastic, it really was, and we just looked at each other and smiled. It was just a wonderful day to be involved with England.”
Pearce on Three Lions
Three Lions topped the UK charts twice during Euro 96 and several other versions of the song have been released since, while even the Germans adopted it as their anthem after winning the tournament.
It is widely considered to be one of the best football songs of all time, but the England players did not immediately take to it.
“I tell you what, when Baddiel and Skinner came into the hotel and played it a couple of months beforehand everyone was a bit non-plussed about it,” former left-back Stuart Pearce recalled.
“It didn’t catch on straight away but all of a sudden when the games came and the fans picked it up it just became the most synonymous thing about the whole tournament.
“It’s a wonderful song to listen to and even when I hear it now it evokes great memories.
“It’s a song you listen to when you’re in the shower. I like it as a tune now as well as the memories it holds for me.”
Terry Venables used Three Lions as a way of getting the players’ blood pumping before arriving at the stadium.
“We played it when we left the hotel all the way to Wembley, for each match, and all the players sung it,” said the ex-England boss.
“It was good. Everyone played a part in that summer and it was just beautiful.”