Southgate laments his missed penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final

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Next Tuesday there is something bigger at stake than England’s future in this European Championships. Germany return to Wembley for the round of 16 and progress for Gareth Southgate’s side would mean many things.

A gentler-looking route to the final, immortality for the players and redemption for Southgate. But there’s the promise of something even more seismic too. Win and we can all finally stop talking about Euro 96.

You know it has been a bleak 25 years in English football when a semi-final defeat at a home tournament is a generation’s most venerated moment. Nevertheless, once more into the breach we must go. Prepare to relive the false dawn of Alan Shearer’s header, Paul Gascoigne’s brutal miss and Southgate’s fluffed penalty several dozen times in the next few days.

A final exorcism of those ghosts is overdue. The Southgate origin story is tantalisingly close to its happy ending. Why was he even taking a penalty? A serial captain by the age of 25, Southgate was a relative newcomer to Terry Venables’ team. He volunteered out of a sense of responsibility not as any statement of confidence in his shootout prowess.

Shearer, David Platt, Stuart Pearce, Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham had dispatched the first five successfully. Other options on the pitch for Southgate’s sixth slot were Darren Anderton, Steve McManaman, Paul Ince, Tony Adams and David Seaman. 

Ince was due seventh, but didn’t fare much better than Southgate two years later at the World Cup and was never a spot-kick taker for Manchester United. Anderton would go on to take eight for Spurs from 1998 onwards, only missing one. 

Adams thumped one in for Arsenal against Sampdoria in the 1995 Cup Winners Cup semi-final. Liverpool teams including McManaman had been involved in two cup shootouts, but he had not taken a spot kick in either. David Seaman would have been a truly maverick choice.

The confusing question is why those were the only options. Despite an exhausting 120 minutes of high emotion Venables made no substitutions. Les Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler sat unused on the bench, another manager might have put one on late in extra time specifically to take a penalty. Indeed, Fowler was due up in Sheringham’s spot in the previous round against Spain, having been on as a sub for him by that point in the game. But Southgate was an instinctive volunteer and had the chance to continue England’s flawless record from 12 yards in the competition. 

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Applying glorious 25-year hindsight, he looks hurried on his way to the spot. 

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“He’s only just forced himself into the England side, Gareth Southgate,” said Brian Moore, commentating for ITV. "’The model’ they call him. The model, at Aston Villa. Because he does everything right. Let’s hope he can do this right as well."

He placed the ball down without bother but Southgate was walking uncomfortably, like he’d just finished a marathon.

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He strode backwards facing the goal, then in the same movement, without taking a moment to pause, he started his run-up.

He would later admit to being overwhelmed by anxious thoughts at that moment. “Rather than focus on the things I could control, like my breathing or what side of the net I should aim for, I started worrying about what might go wrong,” wrote Southgate in his book Anything Is Possible last year. “What if I slice the ball, I fretted to myself, or don’t hit the target?”

By the time he reached the ball he had one modest aim – connect with it. “I didn’t think about power or precise placement. In fact, I didn’t really feel in control of my legs and I definitely wasn’t thinking clearly.” 

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His kick was too weak, too central and at a convenient height for German keeper Andreas Köpke. You know the rest.

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“Saved it! Oh my word,” said Brian Moore. “It was hit far too close to Köpke and suddenly England’s dreams of European glory are beginning to fade.”

Southgate put his hands on his hips and pursed his lips. Head down, he trudged back to his team-mates on the halfway line. “You play for 15 years,” he said in 2006, “and people remember 15 seconds of it.” 

Stuart Pearce was first on the scene when Southgate returned to the fold, burdened by a miss of his own at the same stage of a tournament to the same opponents in 1990. Paul Gascoigne threw his drinks bottle to the ground in frustrated disgust. 

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Andreas Moller did the inevitable with Germany’s sixth penalty, his team celebrated and Ince stuck close to a crestfallen Southgate.

Seconds later Terry Venables jogged over to his man, who was already being aggressively consoled by bench evacuees Don Howe with subs Steve Howey and Nick Barmby. There was a touching moment when Venables reached Southgate. He held his defender’s face and forced a smile to stress the message: it’s all okay. As you might if placating a distressed baby.

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Jurgen Klinsmann and Tony Adams were next to Southgate and the England captain dragged his defensive partner over to the England fans. They sang “there’s only one Gareth Southgate.” 

Southgate steeled himself and managed to sporadically applaud in response during a half-hearted lap of honour. He looked utterly bereft. His Mum was less sympathetic in the days that followed, asking her son: “Why didn’t you just blast it?”

Villa team-mate Andy Townsend was commentating and went to find Southgate after the game. He wanted to lift his spirits and had spotted Southgate in the player’s lounge but was beaten to the job by an unlikely source of comfort. “I was only going to say ‘better [players] than you have missed them, don’t worry about it, it’s done,’” Townsend said in 2017.

“As I went to say it Liam Gallagher appeared from nowhere and says ‘Don’t beep worry about, because at least you had the beep to take it, and those other beeps didn’t want to know.’”

When Gareth Southgate missed THAT penalty at Euro 96, one of the first people to console him that night was…@Oasis’ Liam Gallagher ?!! pic.twitter.com/QIOQkwBe4e

— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) March 21, 2017

Back at the England hotel Terry Venables gave the players the option of going home. Most went to the bar. Southgate did not join them initially, calling his family instead. When he returned Tony Adams booed and jeered him in jest, breaking the ice somewhat. Three Lions had soundtracked their summer, now it was the CD single of George Michael’s Fastlove on repeat.

Despite support from team-mates and Rock ‘n’ Roll stars Southgate carried a burden for years. He felt he’d let down his team and his country.

Ultimately supportive messages from the public and people living in difficult circumstances helped to jolt him out of feeling sorry for himself. There was also a Pizza Hut advert, an attempt to own the narrative alongside 1990 penalty missers Pearce and Chris Waddle. 

Southgate was reluctant to appear. Pearce and Waddle persuaded him because both had been offered excellent money. £40,000 was Pearce’s fee, not bad for an afternoon mugging for the camera.

As a work of filmmaking it has not held up well. Shouting “miss” at waiting staff is no more acceptable now than it was in 1996. Southgate, as ever, was a trooper. “It was hardest for Gareth in every sense – he was the butt of the joke and he was the one who had to keep eating the pizza,” wrote Pearce in his book Psycho. “The pizza he was seen eating in the advert had to look hot and steamy, so someone kept blowing cigarette smoke on it. Imagine how awful that was for a non-smoker and fitness fanatic. 

“Chris and I kept cocking it up on purpose so he had to take yet another bite. We had him on about 20 takes before we relented.”

Ultimately, despite the comfort of stuffed crusts, the penalty miss was traumatic for Southgate. 

In 2018, now England manager, he prepared his squad thoroughly for similar circumstances. Penalty training focussed on the controllable elements, placement and mentality. There was no room for the fear that has sometimes made the modern polyester England shirt as heavy as its rain-soaked woolen ancestors. There would be no pizza adverts for Jordan Henderson. 

After Eric Dier scored England’s decisive penalty in the World Cup round of 16 win over Colombia Southgate made a beeline for Mateus Uribe, the midfielder who missed his side’s fourth kick. If it is penalties again on Tuesday, Southgate’s first thought will be to do the same. England fans will be hoping their manager has an arm round a German rather than one of his own team. 

One thing is certain, his team will be prepared. The pain of missing against Germany is not something Southgate would wish on anyone.