If Italia 90 was babyfood then Euro 96 was real taste of solids. In 1990, most of today’s “millennials” would have had a bedtime. However, by 1996, there was at least a chance of pocket money and your first steps towards independence. It helped that the English national team, returning to serious international competition for the first time since 1992, was going far in a football competition that was being played in the country we were growing up in. You were growing up, the football team was growing up, but there was an added twist too – the country was changing and fast. All three processes were visibly interconnected.
A year before Euro 96, Britain had been offered a glimpse of then then Prime minister in waiting, Tony Blair, confidently playing head tennis with Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan at the Labour party conference. Blair was a man who understood the value of the image. The pictures of the event were striking in their explicitness. Don’t see me just as a politician, see me as the relaxed (see the open top buttoned shirt) bloke who’s just as good at football as I will be running the country. “New Labour” intended to be in lockstep with a Britain that he wanted people to believe he was at the masthead of. A football playing Prime minister was an excellent medium to sell that story. No matter what side of the political divide you were on, Britain was already in the throes of a huge makeover that could be felt in the key particulars of the country’s personality. Oasis and Blur were providing the soundtrack to a nation that was eating curry and drinking cappuccino with the strut of Liam Gallagher in his best parka. All aspects of Britain’s class orientated society would feel the influence of the new hybrid Britain that absorbed domestic and international influences in expressing itself. However, football, the national sport, could provide the best evidence of the interconnected strands which were making the tapestry of the new Britain.
In 1994, Blair had called for “national renewal” and football was about to show him just how well it had heard him. The relatively new Premier League had already catalysed a renewal of the nation’s football but, by 1995, Case C-415/93 of the European Court of Justice would be a milestone in the process. Jean-Marc Bosman would probably have been completely unknown to the British public until the effects of his litigation touched the country’s footballing consciousness. As Bosman won his right to move from RFC Liege to Dunkerque for free, he opened the door for other players to do the same across Europe. However, more critically, the case led to a brave new world where foreign player limits for EU players were abandoned, offering British clubs a far broader choice to meet their playing needs.
The results of the newly internationalised British transfer market would shape the generation of teenagers who would become adults by the time Blair’s first term as Prime minister had ended. The country had already been primed for the Bosman effect by Channel 4 and the café-dwelling James Richardson. “Football Italia” was already pulling in nearly a million viewers for its Saturday morning Gazzetta preview show in 1993 (then the highest rated show ever for Channel 4 on a Saturday morning). It was also being eagerly watched by the likes of the young Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand. The trickle, that had reached its modern zenith with Eric Cantona at Manchester United, was about to become a flood. Not just in relation to players but in relation to style. In the new Britain, cosmopolitanism was now firmly on the march not just as matter of taste but of law.
Most football supporters will remember the start of their associations with their clubs as unique, marked by idiosyncrasies of local connection and individual incidents that frame your first memories. The 12 year old me was a Chelsea supporter by dint of geography. However, I had also fallen for the mosaic of a club that had a black Dutch manager, Italian playmakers and was captained by an English rascal from Shepherd’s Bush. My experience was shared, in different contexts, by virtually every football fan my age – whatever British club they supported. The then dominant Manchester United’s ubiquitous fans chanted loudly about Eric Cantona and Andrei Kanchelskis alongside their domestic talents like Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. Arsenal, managed by Arsene Wenger, had Bergkamp and later Vieira, Petit and Overmars. All of these supported by the almost stereotypically British backline of Adams, Winterburn, Bould/Keown and Lee Dixon. On and on it went, throughout the Premier League.
It didn’t matter where you were in the country, cosmopolitanism was king. It didn’t even matter how successful your club was. Most early teenagers, up and down the country, were copying the celebration of the star striker of the soon to be relegated Middlesborough: the Italian Fabrizio Ravanelli. Possibly after they had popped their shirt collar like Cantona.
Within 5 years of Bosman, Manchester United had won the Champions League. Chelsea had won the Cup Winners Cup and Arsenal had reached the UEFA Cup final. In the same period, Chelsea had also fielded a side that did that did not include an English player. A new boldness had swept across English football as visiting players from all over the globe matured into club legends.
However, there would be one area which would call the success of this revolution into question and sow the seeds for a new debate about the English game. As club football boomed on and off the pitch, not aspect of the game would bask in the glow. After a dismal Euro 2000, the performance of the English national team was making people wonder whether a global approach had been such a good idea after all. A new chapter and a new debate was about to start.