Everyone knows about the butterfly effect, right? The idea that if a goalkeeper flaps at a cross in Leicester, a tidal wave is generated on the other side of the world (sorry Kasper - still love you really). Well, I've always thought that applied to Euro '96. If other things had been only slightly altered, Gazza would have stretched an extra inch and got to that cross in extra time to put us in the final - with only an average Czech side then standing between us and a farewell to '30 years of hurt'.
Anyone around at the time will remember that football, music and politics all seemed to be somehow interlinked - Three Lions was a fantastic football song, Liverpool were called 'The Spice Boys', Oasis went around wearing Man City tops and played historic gigs at Maine Road, Chris Evans and Danny Baker were the coolest DJs on the radio - and both talked constantly about football. Even our own Steve Walsh found himself on the cover of 'Definitely Maybe' (if you look closely enough). Did I mention politics too? Oh yeah - Tony Blair tried to hitch a ride on the zeitgist by doing that (actually pretty impressive) keepy-up headers thing wth Kevin Keegan, and then told his party conference that 'Labour's Coming Home' (and what's more, most of us fools believed him).
This heady brew of cultural miscegeny was, for people born too late to experience the real thing (like me), the closest we ever came to 1960s-style euphoria. There was something in the air, and as Euro '96 progressed, it seemed like a wave of optimism would somehow carry England all the way to the trophy.
But - the problem was, this wave wasn't quite powerful enough. And that's because two things failed to happen:
1) After the final whistle in the England - Scotland game in the group stages, England fans started a spontaneous song of celebration. 'It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming, football's coming home'....It spread round every corner of the old Wembley stadium (well, apart from the away end, of course) - and Frank Skinner and David Baddiel stood gobsmacked as the words they'd written became the new England anthem before their eyes. When they wrote the track (along with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds), they'd given it a glorious climax, where the 'coming home' part and the 'three lions on a shirt' part are sung in unison. Watching the Scotland game on TV in Wiggy, I waited excitedly to see how the England fans would handle this climactic section - surely they'd play ball - one section of the crowd would take one part, another section the other - and there would be 80,000 England fans enjoying a scintillating symphonic sing along. Just like the England rugby fans, with that wonderfully evocative 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', where some sing the high line, some the low.
Except it simply didn't happen. Somehow, Wembley was, collectively, a little too uptight, a little too 'manly', to go for it. We're not quite ready for that, England supporters decided en masse. We'll do the St George's face paint, we'll read Nick Hornby novels, and we'll even sing about emotional hurt (at least in an unthreatening football context), but somewhere, a line must be drawn. We will not sing a round! What next? Morris Dancing? Co-counsellling? Reading the Guardian like Graeme Le Saux? (Robert Crumb, the wonderful American satirist, once captured this idea perfecly in a cartoon in which a tough looking bloke's thought bubble reads 'I must maintain this macho pose or all is lost')
Had England fans cast off their inhibitions and fully lost themselves in the moment, who knows where it would have led? Instead, the message was 'We won't go all the way'. That, in the end, was precisely England's fate.
2) This one's Noel Gallagher's fault. He was trying 'not to be too commercial'. Don't Look Back in Anger had been the fourth single from (What's the Story) Morning Glory back in January, and it soared to number one. The Oasis TOTP performance where Noel swings his Union Jack guitar around just as Sally comes back again was one of the signature moments of the era. At the Brit Awards in February, Liam taunted the defeated Blur boys with a wonderfully witty parody of 'Park Life' (I'd like to thank all the people...'), (a moment that ranks alongside Gazza's dentist's chair celebration in the 'We may be louts, but we're smart louts' stakes). The whole country was singing along. One of my clearest recollections of the time is trying to work out the chords to Wonderwall on the guitar but not being able to concentrate because someone in the neighbouring flat was trying to work out the chords to Wonderwall on the guitar.
But, implausibly, there was still one more track on the album that was even more anthemic. Noel thought about putting out Champagne Supernova as the fifth single. The seven minute epic could have been all over the airwaves as Euro 96 approached, blaring from every radio, annoying Damon Albarn even more as he walked round the streets of Hoxton, with people constantly winding their car windows down to taunt him with another blast of the Gallagher boys. The track would have been sitting proudly at number one - the perfect soundtrack as the BBC put Gazza's volley and the 4-1 hammering of Holland on heavy rotation. That soaring, triumphant climax to the track would have sent out the message loud and clear - more clearly than a thousand hired aircraft circling the skies above London, each with a streamer saying 'This is going to end gloriously'.
But Noel decided that five singles was one too many. He didn't want to fleece the fans. So instead, we had The Fugees at number one for a month, and while Killing Me Softly was a fine tune which stood proudly outside the whole britpop mania, it was, for our current purposes, useless. It was never going to give the national mood that final boost- the one that would have, somehow, allowed Gazza to stretch that extra inch against the Germans.
So - in the words of a scally from a different decade, that's my theory and I'm sticking to it.
Feel free to add whatever you wish to this mixture of bitter sweet recollection and wild fantasy.