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Towers and Arches: The Twenty Year Pitch

25 May 2016

IN May 1996, football - and the nation - was on the brink of change.

Politically, it was becoming clear that the sleaze-ridden Conservative government led by John Major was on its last legs, and the Tony Blair-driven New Labour was set to effect change. In 1996, the Conservative majority had eroded, and Blair was in pole position to take over. Scandals of his own, including unpopular foreign policy, may make it seem laughable now, but when the new PM took charge in 1997, there was a genuine wave of optimism in the land. 

Part of society's buzz came, as it often does, through music. No matter your preferences, it seemed as though there was something for you. Oasis and Blur led the Britpop movement, with many others in their trail, as British music soared at its highest since the days of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones and the British Invasion. For the mainstream, 1996 was the year that the Spice Girls blasted onto the scene, oozing Girl Power and spouting various slogans, while if you liked your living a bit faster, the Ministry of Sound and its superstar DJs were on hand to pump up the volume. 

New York-based periodical Newsweek ran a famous front page that declared: "London Rocks". Our capital became the envy of the world, with its banks driving a financial boom; fashion houses drawing eyes for the first time since the 1960s; and young British artists were turning heads, pickling sharks and not making beds. This, we were told, was Cool Britannia. 

But while music, fashion and the arts may well dominate the items considered to be the symbols of the age, it was not just Blair, Liam Gallagher, Charles Saatchi and Alexander McQueen putting Britain on a podium. Something was happening on the football pitch. 

Many things were devastated during the 1980s, and that included English football's reputation. The atrocity at Heysel capped off a shameful era in our sport, and while Europe shunned English teams, plenty of casual supporters turned their back on the game entirely. Football simply was not something the family could enjoy together. Horrible incidents such as those at Bradford and Hillsborough saddened all - out went the terraces, largely, and with it, coincidentally or not, football's soul. 

With the Premier League in 1992 came Sky's tubthumping version of the top flight known as the Premier League, and while not to everyone's taste, football had at least entered a new era. A number of factors chipped away at the existing fabric, in an area one may not have expected. Nick Hornby's wildly popular autobiographical book Fever Pitch charted his love affair with Arsenal, and the acclaim it received in all walks of life turned some heads. A new craze of 'Fantasy Football' offered a new way of enjoying the sport by picking your own players in a social game, and this spawned a TV show featuring David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. 

Baddiel, Cambridge educated and overtly middle-class, was paired with cheeky, working-class Brummie Skinner in a show that simultaneously lampooned football and yet oozed love for the game. Tucked away after 11pm on a Friday night, the show was a cult hit with football fans. If they mentioned Mike Walker they expected you to know that was the Norwich manager - you were not patronised with an explanation of who he was. 

The Baddiel and Skinner combo was the key, a latent indication that football existed across the class spectrum. And they were about to become a major part of a summer extravaganza that changed football forever. More of them shortly...

Football in 1996 saw things you would not expect - Leicester won a division, for goodness' sake - and things that were less surprising, such as Manchester United doing the double. Eric Cantona's goal did for Liverpool in the FA Cup final at Wembley, shortly after the Red Devils had snatched the league from a previously rampant Newcastle United. The Magpies had led by 12 points, but despite Kevin Keegan's assertions about how much he would 'luv it' if his side won the top flight, they fell short. 

Being an even number, it was a major championship year, like it is right now. 

If you are a bit down on England's chances in the upcoming European Championship in France, then do not worry - this is not a brand new phenomenon. Before England's semi-final appearance in Italia 1990, little was expected. The manager at the time, Bobby Robson, is now recognised - rightfully - as one of the greatest managers of all time, but the press wanted him out before 1990's World Cup. His successor Graham Taylor delivered nought but failure, and then came Terry Venables. 

Venables only presided over five competitive England games in his tenure, as he did not need to qualify for the 1996 European Championships, since they were being held in England. Despite only being judged on friendlies, Venables was not a popular figure in the run-up to the tournament, nor were his England team fancied - at least in the media. 

A pre-tournament trip to the Far East yielded a 1-0 win against a 'Hong Kong Golden Select XI' that was in truth a troupe of aging journeymen, and the infamous 'Dentist Chair' incident that saw several England players getting drunk in a nightclub. The players were derided, the coach's acumen was questioned, and, unthinkable as it may sound now, there were calls for Alan Shearer to be dropped and Paul Gascoigne to be ditched because of his behaviour. Can you imagine, these days, people thinking we are not good enough; that Roy Hodgson does not know what he is doing; that Wayne Rooney should be dropped; and Jack Wilshere should be left out? Wait, hang on...

A 1-1 draw with Switzerland did little to raise the mood, but a 2-0 win against Scotland - with Gascoigne scoring one of the greatest ever Wembley goals - perked things up. After a 4-1 win over Holland, the nation was transfixed on the footy. The odd thing to recall is that we only won two out of five games in the tournament, but as well as strong performances on the pitch, what was going on in the stands and in the streets was equally as beguiling. 

Skinner and Baddiel, together with the Lightning Seeds, had penned a song called Three Lions. The catchy chorus - "It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming: football's coming home" - had struck a chord with the nation. It felt like every day was sunny, everyone was watching the football and everyone knew the words to that song. 

Back Home in 1970 was jaunty and memorable, sure, and World in Motion in 1990 was certainly cool, and different. But Three Lions was the people's song, and when the tournament ended, it ended up on the terraces. 

And so did people. English football attendances rose, as did the noise in the stands. Variants on Three Lions were not the only melodies - takes on Daydream Believer became popular around this time, thanks to Sunderland's ode to man who would become Argyle boss, Peter Reid - but Skinner and Baddiel's effort was being rewritten everywhere. 

In Plymouth, the tune became reserved for a certain Ronald Carlton Mauge...

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After Cantona had beaten Liverpool and sent them back to Merseyside with red faces and white suits, looking like a bunch of Swan Vestas, and before England so nearly achieved a second major title and captivated the nation, came another important game. 

With Hiram Boateng, Tyler Harvey, Jordan Houghton and Ben Purrington all under a year old - Ben Purrington had not even completed his first week on this Earth, actually - Argyle marched on Wembley for the first time. The opponents were Darlington, a club that sadly went out of existence in 2012, before generating a phoenix club, known as Darlington 1883. 

(If you are interested, the original Wimbledon FC finished 14th in the top flight that season. AFC Wimbledon were still six years away from being founded on - do you believe in fate? - May 30, 2002.)

I have rather odd memories of that day in May, 1996. I remember Wembley Way being such a sea of green and white that it looked like a home game. In my mind, once in the stadium, there were a few dozen Darlington fans huddling together meekly for warmth, while Argyle filled half of the stadium with bodies and noise. I remember the warm-up, as the lads ran from side to side to ovations from each respective side of the arena, with the air punctuated by the call of 'Green Army'. I even remember BBC meteorologist Craig Rich presenting the weather forecast from an open-top bus outside the ground. "What's the weather going to be like, Craig?" I shouted, thinking I was being hilarious. I was twelve, but even so, it was still a hugely disappointing catcall. 

Weirdly, I do not remember the goal - but I remember the day. I remember the immense pride. And I remember being in the back seat of a car driving back down the M4 with my friend Daniel, who had only just become a Pilgrim, as we drove past approximately the 752nd car with an Argyle scarf hanging from the window. We beeped, they beeped; lights flashed in acknowledgement of our shared achievement, and fists were clenched in a reciprocated, unspoken display that clearly meant 'Yeah! We did it.'

Daniel turned to me and said: "I feel like I made 33,000 friends today." I have never forgotten those words, and that 12-year-old lad puts it in a better way that this 32-year-old journo could ever dream of. 

My twin passions in football have long been Argyle and the England team. They are 1a and 1b. If you ask me if I prefer Argyle to go up or England to win the Euros, I cannot answer you other than to say: "Why not both?"

But by far the coolest thing about that summer of Shearer and Gazza and football so nearly coming home was my feeling every time I saw Wembley rocking during the European Championships. "I was there not long ago," I thought, "and we won." It may have belonged to 80,000 England fans on that day, but on one ideal deal, it was Argyle's. All Argyle's. 

Had Gareth Southgate chosen the other corner we may have won the tournament and it could have been the perfect summer. It was not to be, but it was possibly my most formative year - and it forged memories for young and old in the green and white. 

You can keep Cool Britannia - the only truly cool Britannia is on Wolseley Road - as well as Britpop and the Young British Artists. The only movement that truly mattered in 1996 was Leadbitter, to Patterson, to Mauge. 

That was the old Wembley. Now we head to the new - and it is time to make new memories. 

I cannot wait to read what they make of it in 2036. 

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