“He’s going to flip one now. He’s going to flip one! HE’S GOING TO FLIP ONE!”
Soundtracking the decisive moment of England’s pivotal World Cup qualifier against Holland in 1993, Brian Moore’s despairingly prophetic words have taken their place alongside “they think it’s all over” and “it’s up for grabs now” as some of the most famous in the history of British football commentary.
But in truth they should never have been said at all. Ronald Koeman – who did indeed flip one, past the clutches of a youthful David Seaman and into the top corner – was only on the pitch because he’d been spared by an inexplicable piece of officiating.
Ten minutes before he put the kibosh on England’s American dream, Koeman had dragged down David Platt as the midfielder raced through on goal with the game goalless – a stonewall sending-off, and almost certainly a penalty too. As Platt recalled some years later: “I got up and realised that not only are we going 1-0, but the Dutch are going down to 10 men. We are in the driving seat here!”
Alas, England were not in the driving seat. In a move that did little for Anglo-German relations, referee Karl-Josef Assenmacher let Holland off the hook on both counts. “I didn’t have the impression that the foul was deliberate so I chose yellow,” he remembered. “I didn’t award England a penalty because I followed the indications from the linesman. It was an intuitive decision and I can’t say for sure I was right.”
The free-kick was slammed harmlessly into the wall by Tony Dorigo – as was Koeman’s 10 minutes later, before being called back for a retake because of an encroaching Paul Ince. Koeman promptly traded his iron for a wedge and delightfully dinked home. “Your referee’s got me the sack – thank him ever so much for that, won’t you?” said Graham Taylor to a nearby linesman.
Taylor’s prediction, like Moore’s, came quickly and bleakly true. England won their final qualifier against San Marino (albeit after conceding a goal to a computer salesman 8.3 seconds in) but it was in vain: Holland got the points in Poland, Taylor and the FA parted ways, and in came Terry Venables with the remit of straightening out this shambles ahead of Euro 96.
Yet in hindsight, perhaps that night in Rotterdam served a purpose for England. From the ashes rose not quite a phoenix, but certainly a likeable and faintly thrilling creature. Venables was precisely what the setup needed: a magnetic and buoyant personality, and an adventurous, forward-thinking coach. Over the next two years various mainstays of the underwhelming Taylor era were cut adrift to make way for the youthful exuberance that crackled through the Euro 96 squad.
By the time the two nations next faced each other, under the baking sun at Wembley, Take That’s ‘Relight My Fire’ had been replaced at the top of the charts by the Lightning Seeds’ ‘Three Lions’ and Des Walker, Tony Dorigo, Carlton Palmer and Paul Parker had been replaced by Gary Neville, Gareth Southgate, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler. Rather than wilting against the fearsome Dutch, this team sized up Bergkamp, Kluivert and co. and quickly went to work on tearing them to shreds. England decimated Holland 4-1, the chorus of “football’s coming home” providing a deafening reminder of how sharply the mood had changed in the two years since Rotterdam.
And indeed so began what we can now look back on as a golden era for the England national team: the players were charming, the managers were gung-ho and the failures were heroic. For the decade that followed (that is, until the summer of 2006 and the dawn of the ‘golden generation’ and their wags, books, unsolvable midfield conundrums and insipid defeats) supporting England was a proud and exciting pursuit.
How Taylor – a great manager under certain conditions – would have harnessed the talent that emerged just after his departure is a matter for debate, and he can count himself firmly unlucky that the crop of entertainers his successor was blessed with were not born a year or two earlier. But equally it’s fair to say that the Euro 96 side, who delivered the most exhilarating tournament campaign from an England team in the last quarter-century, had more than a whiff of the Venables about them – a fact reflected in how gushingly those squad members have spoken about him in the years since.
You suspect that generation may not have blossomed quite so thrillingly had Koeman been sent off that night, and Taylor been granted a stay of execution with England limping into the World Cup. That’s the good thing about stark failure: it can spark a shake-up.
“I expected the red card,” Koeman admitted 20 years later. “I turned round and was surprised to see the referee had not sent me off. I was lucky.” So, perhaps, were England.