Alan Shearer scored England's winner – but the joy was short-lived


In the rich history of the England v Germany fixture, encompassing glory and despair, ignominy in 1938 and a kind of nobility in 1990 and 1996, one match has rather been forgotten, consigned to a secure trunk in the attic of popular memory, covered up on grounds of taste and dignity. That it should be England’s first and in fact only tournament victory over their old foes since 1966 makes its obscurity all the more peculiar. But the 1-0 win in Charleroi at Euro 2000 between two shamefully inadequate teams was so swiftly overshadowed by both sides’ elimination that any sense of triumph was promptly extinguished.

History was hastily rewritten after Kevin Keegan’s resignation as England manager to gloss over how favourably his appointment was received by press and public when he replaced Glenn Hoddle in 1999. By contrast with his predecessor’s unemotional approach, prickly relationship with certain players and crackpot views, Keegan was greeted as the Mr Motivator the country craved, all passion and rousing man-management.

It was a reductionist view of Keegan’s qualities but much of the discourse around the national team following Hoddle’s sacking was simplistic: pride was valued more than nous. Five years of progress fashioned by a back three, a possession-based style, composure and patient, probing build-up was ditched. In came a tub-thumping return to 4-4-2, ‘up and at ‘em’ and a system of attack focused on the increasingly immobile captain, Alan Shearer, who had already announced his forthcoming international retirement.

Shearer remained a high-class striker even after a dislocated ankle had ravaged his pace but the question of whether he was the most suitable centre-forward for an unbalanced team was never addressed. “We were back to playing in straight lines,” Tony Adams said. Shearer had to be pushed so high up the field that his positioning obliterated the space for Michael Owen to run beyond him, which frustrated the Liverpool flyer, and meant that service from the wings was fundamental to England’s strategy.

Keegan may have lacked tactical ingenuity but he was also unlucky, losing Graeme Le Saux and Stuart Pearce to injury early in the year, the latter, even at 38, still trusted by the manager. Consequently the 22-man squad for the European Championship finals, for which England had only qualified via the back door of a fraught play-off victory over Scotland after finishing nine points behind Sweden, lacked a single left-footed player apart from Aston Villa’s 19-year-old Gareth Barry. Keegan overlooked the teenager and opted for the right-footed Phil Neville, Manchester United’s third-choice left-back, for the opening match against Portugal, putting Steve McManaman rather than the two-footed Nick Barmby on the left of midfield ahead of him.  

Kevin Keegan's lighter touch was viewed as a welcome antidote to the Hoddle years

Credit: Reuters

They got off to a vibrant start in Eindhoven, going 2-0 up after 18 minutes, but lost 3-2, their defence tormented by the movement of Rui Costa and Luis Figo. The price of that chastening defeat, which also cost them Adams and McManaman to injury, was a precarious position for their second match against Germany who had squeaked a draw with Romania in their opener. Lose it and England would be out.

Understandably the five days before the match were monopolised by the melodrama of past meetings yet if England were in reduced circumstances, Germany were unrecognisable, virtually derelict.

Erich Ribbeck had succeeded Berti Vogts in 1998 after Jupp Heynckes and Ottmar Hitzfeld had ruled themselves out. The German FA had summoned him from retirement in Tenerife, giving him the job he thought he had been promised in 1984 but, worried that he had lost touch with the modern game, imposed the spiky Uli Stielike as his assistant. The two never got on and Stielike walked out on the eve of the tournament, leaving Ribbeck with a mutinous squad riven over the starting place he had guaranteed to the 39-year-old Lothar Matthaus.

German great Lothar Matthaus retired after the tournament

Credit: AP

The sweeper had been holed up in his Trump Tower apartment since the spring, enduring a torrid spell with the Metrostars, but, with Franz Beckenbauer’s backing, remained a mainstay of the national side. He could still pass and his reading of the game was masterly, but by that stage of his career most of his work was organisational – pointing, yelling, cajoling and hardly touching the ball. Olivier Bierhoff, the captain, did not want him in the side and after suffering a tournament-ending injury against Romania went public with his criticisms. Mehmet Scholl, the fearless, rascally playmaker did not want Matthaus either, believing he slowed the team down, but Ribbeck would not bend.

Germany teams are often fractious but this one did not have the bedrock of belief in each other. Ribbeck made matters worse by picking Carsten Jancker and Ulf Kirsten up front, a lumbering centre-forward at his best with his back to goal and a veteran poacher. They were manna from heaven to Martin Keown, drafted in to replace his Arsenal colleague, Adams.

The tone for the match had been set in the 24 hours before kick-off. Six Belgian Air Force Hercules flights had deported 240 England fans to Stansted for fighting in Brussels and a chartered hovercraft had taken 110 more under the armed guard of 40 police officers to Folkestone for their part in the riot. On the day of the match itself there were 500 ‘preventative’ scattergun arrests of disorderly supporters who had been tear-gassed and doused by water cannon. About a quarter were German.

Police turn the water cannons on fans in Charleroi

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

England, officially the ‘home’ team, chose to wear the red of 1966 while Germany opted for the ‘Turin green’ of 1990, but these were impostors dressing in champions’ mufti. A cagey start only sprang to life when Owen’s header was well saved by Oliver Kahn in the 35th minute. The English disease, temporarily eradicated by Terry Venables and Hoddle, of giving the ball away was prevalent but mitigated by the fact that Germany kept giving it back.

Eventually, England took the lead, with a rare moment of ingenuity. Beckham was fouled and took the free-kick himself, whipping it from the right into the box. Scholes and Owen took Jens Nowotny and Jens Jeremies with them on adroit near-post runs and Shearer beat Markus Babbel to the bouncing ball and bulleted a diving header past Kahn.

Shearer's diving header was enough for an England win

Credit: Getty Images

“Once Shearer scored,” said Keown, “I knew it was my kind of match to go and fight. Every man and his dog was being thrown at us by the end but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

The win was celebrated for ending ’34 years of hurt’ but the next day objective analysis characterised it as an anomaly, two teams at their lowest ebbs essentially “two bald men fighting over a comb”. It was the worst match of the tournament, the worst between the two sides in 32 meetings to date.

When England were knocked out by Romania and Germany by Portugal’s second string 72 hours later, the hollowness of the victory, perhaps even its pyrrhic nature in shoring up Keegan’s belief in 4-4-2, like a man jiggling the wrong key in a lock convinced it will yield, was obvious. Winning ugly is palatable if it leads somewhere positive. As a prelude to humiliation it leaves a bitter taste, best forgotten.