On The Other Hand: England 4-1 Holland
The Euro 96 defeat of Holland is rightly remembered as one of England’s greatest results, but was the performance really that good? (Clue: no)
In the film of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the lead character ponders the nature of his obsession. “What came first: the music or the misery? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” The chicken-and-egg principle applies equally to another of Hornby’s loves, football, with particular reference to performance and result.
It is natural and almost logical to conclude that only performance informs result. When Watford lost 1-0 at Bolton in 2006, for example, their manager Adrian Boothroyd stomped over to the away fans punching the air, because he knew that if they kept playing like that they would get their just deserts. (They didn’t keep playing like that, but this is not the point.) Yet it is not as straightforward as that. It can work the other way round – a result can inform a performance; and in some cases even hump it into the pantheon. A prime example is England’s 4-1 victory over Holland at Euro 96. Rhetorically it is one of England’s greatest accomplishments: a near-reversal of Hungary’s symbolic 6-3 win in 1953, with the pupils giving the inventors of Total Football a lesson in their own concept. The FA’s official site describes it as a “display rarely matched in England’s footballing history”. The Guardian deemed it England’s best performance since 1966. But was it?
Part of the problem in appraising such matters is that football matches, like almost all sporting contests, are seldom revisited in their entirety. Whereas albums, films, books and the like are given an EZ-Peel label, which can easily be removed and replaced, football matches get those messy old ones which, when removed, leave a residue of the original label. A judgement of a sporting contest is invariably for life, not just for Christmas. So we get highlights which merely perpetuate the prevailing discourse, especially as those highlights are selected with that shared discourse in mind.
When we are encouraged to revisit England 4-1 Holland, therefore, we don’t see Aron Winter heading over from two yards, or Aron Winter heading over from six yards. We don’t see Dennis Bergkamp heading wide from six yards, or Dennis Bergkamp hacking wide from seven yards, or Dennis Bergkamp going through one-on-one only to be superbly denied by David Seaman. We don’t see the spell of hypnotic Dutch pressure which culminates in that Bergkamp chance and prompts the BBC commentator, Barry Davies, to opine that “England really need half-time here”. We don’t see that, in reality, this was a match entirely different to the label it was subsequently given.
Holland had more possession, more corners, more shots and almost as many clear chances. And while it is tempting to conclude that those shots came when England switched off for the last half-hour, analysis of the entire match shows that this is emphatically not the case. It sounds preposterous but, at 0-4, Holland had probably been the better team.
Another thing that must be considered is the relative weakness of that Holland team. In 2001 there was a widespread inclination to qualify England’s 5-1 victory over Germany by observing that this was the worst German side for decades. It was a poor side, and only four of the XI would play in the World Cup final 10 months later. Yet only four of this Dutch side – Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Ronald de Boer and Bergkamp – would play in the World Cup semi-final against Brazil two years later. By the sexy standards of Dutch football, this was a distinctly frumpy collective that was held by Scotland a week earlier. It included limited players like Winston Bogarde and Richard Witschge; a palpably past-it Danny Blind, 34; a callow Clarence Seedorf playing out of position in the holding role; Bergkamp playing out of position as a target man. And the wingers – perhaps the most relevant barometer of a Dutch football team – were Peter Hoekstra, an eccentric selection who was playing his fifth and final international at 23 and who ended up at Stoke, and Jordi Cruyff, who ended up being sent to Coventry.
All this is not to suggest that England did not play splendidly. Weak or otherwise, Holland haven’t taken such a pasting at a major tournament before or since, and it would be unnecessarily curmudgeonly not to acknowledge England’s tactically loose limbs and the worthiness of much of their work, particularly the genuine class evident in the build-up to both of Alan Shearer’s goals. But that is what good teams frequently do in a football match. Entry to the pantheon demands a little more. England arguably played better in the semi-final against a vastly superior German side; they certainly played better in the Italia 90 semi-final.
Ultimately this game was decided during a manic 11-minute period at the start of the second half, in which England scored three times: in that respect, it was not dissimilar to Liverpool’s victory over AC Milan in the Champions League of 2005. While the third goal from Shearer was a delicious fusion of stereotypically English and Dutch qualities, the second and fourth goals were distinctly rudimentary. Like the Liverpool game, it was essentially a freak.
Yet while that Liverpool triumph is hailed as a miracle, it is certainly not perceived as a great performance. Likewise England’s win in Germany in 2001, which had a similar smash-and-grab quality to the Holland game, is largely accepted for what it was: a night when the chips fell exactly where England wanted them, but not one in which they truly outplayed the Germans. Perhaps the nature of England’s rivalry with Germany provokes a need simply to hammer them, by fair means or fluky, whereas the relationship with and perception of Holland means that England must be seen to have beaten them on a purer, more intellectual level. (This would also explain why the 89 minutes and 44 seconds in which John Barnes is not slaloming through Brazil at the Maracana in 1984 have pretty much been airbrushed out of history.)
Terry Venables certainly felt so, proclaiming smugly that England “thrashed” Holland. You can’t blame him for reading what he wanted into the game, like Jimmy Corrigan discerning a deeper meaning from a kiss at the end of a text message, but that does not mean his judgement is accurate. Officially England were the away side for this match, and it was apt that they spent much of the game playing on the counter-attack. The notion of a thrashing evokes something more all-encompassing, like Milan 4-0 Barcelona, Liverpool 5-0 Nottm Forest, and, of course, England 3-6 Hungary. Those were performances for the ages. This was a result for the ages.
This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared on guardian.co.uk