Devastation and delight: England’s Euros clashes with the Netherlands

<span>Ruud Gullit (left) set up two <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Netherlands;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Netherlands</a> goals in their defeat of <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> in 1988 and Paul Gascoigne provided assists at Wembley eight years later.</span><span>Composite: Allsport/Getty Images; Action Images</span>

For a few months early in the 21st century, Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables kept bumping into each other on north-east football’s social circuit.

Fellow lunch and dinner guests were regaled with wonderful anecdotes as Robson, then managing Newcastle, and Venables, in co-charge of Middlesbrough, reminisced about, among many others things, their respective stints in charge of England.

Venables worked alongside Bryan Robson at the Riverside only between December 2000 and May 2001 but it was long enough to confirm that he and Robson senior shared a deep mutual appreciation of late 20th-century Dutch football philosophy.

The latter loved the Netherlands and its sporting culture so much he managed PSV for a while but, back in 1988, Robson endured one of the worst moments of his career at Dutch feet.

Thirty-six years ago the European Championship was staged in West Germany (the Berlin Wall had yet to come down) and Robson’s England found themselves in a group featuring the Netherlands, the Soviet Union and the Republic of Ireland.

They lost all three matches, the last 3-1 against a Dutch side managed by Rinus Michels in Düsseldorf, where Marco van Basten scored a hat-trick.

England were the better team during the early stages when Gary Lineker and Glenn Hoddle hit posts but, in central defence, a broken leg had deprived them of Terry Butcher’s customary assurance.

Van Basten required a morale boost at the end of an injury-punctuated first season with Milan and a comparatively novice England centre-back pairing of Mark Wright and the 21-year-old Tony Adams duly provided it.

When the excellent Ruud Gullit dispossessed Gary Stevens (controversially selected ahead of Chris Waddle), he crossed low for Van Basten, who, positioned with back to goal, delighted in swivelling beyond Adams before shooting past Peter Shilton.

Although Bryan Robson equalised, Gullit’s stellar pass prefaced Van Basten again turning Adams before shooting for the second. All that remained was for the Netherlands’ key striker to announce his arrival in the international limelight by connecting with a flick-on from a corner and watching the ball hit the back of the net.

As Robson contemplated an array of unflattering back-page headlines – the Daily Mail’s offering suggested English football was “on the road to oblivion” – he pronounced himself “devastated and ashamed”.

Like Robson, Venables enjoyed several managerial high points but he reached a zenith against the Netherlands at Euro 96. As England’s manager he had developed something of an obsession with the then seemingly omnipotent Ajax team that formed the backbone of the Oranje and provided Paul Gascoigne and co with an unusually detailed and lengthy analysis before the pair’s Wembley group-stage kick-off. For once, the manager did not delegate his final pre-game team talk to his captain, Adams.

England had entered the tournament fresh from the “Dentist’s chair” drinking exploits of a warm-up trip to Hong Kong but their critics were left slack-jawed as Venables’ team, playing between the lines with rare fluidity, treated everyone to some exceptional passing and movement.

When Danny Blind fouled Paul Ince the resultant penalty was powered home by Alan Shearer but the Dutch rallied sufficiently for Dennis Bergkamp to draw a fine save from David Seaman and Venables to look suitably relieved once the half-time whistle blew.

Nerves were settled when Teddy Sheringham headed the second before Gascoigne mesmerised Wembley as he helped conjure another goal apiece for Shearer and Sheringham, leaving Patrick Kluivert’s late consolation to secure Guus Hiddink’s side second place ahead of Scotland, who beat Switzerland in the group’s other final game.

With Adams and a certain Gareth Southgate excelling in central defence England suddenly looked unstoppable and very nearly were until Germany derailed them on penalties in the semi-finals.

If Wednesday’s Euro 2024 tie will bring Euro 96 memories, good and bad, flooding back for Southgate, Ronald Koeman will quite possibly reflect on 1988 and his outstanding performance at sweeper, the Netherlands’ current coach helping to create the platform on which Van Basten wowed the world.

Robson and Venables are no longer with us but both men helped shape Southgate’s career. Although Venables was the bigger mentor, in April this year England’s current manager visited Newcastle Freeman hospital to meet patients at the specialist cancer trials treatment centre funded by the charity Robson founded before his death in 2009.

“I’m hugely proud to be mentioned in the same sentence as Sir Bobby,” Southgate said. “When I was a young manager at Middlesbrough he went out of his way to come and see me. I’ll never forget that.”