It’s 25 years since England were knocked out of the European Championship semi-finals at Wembley. On Saturday, against Croatia, the men’s national team step back out onto the grass at a home stadium – Wembley, but not the same Wembley – for the first time in a major tournament since that infamous penalty shootout against Germany.
One of the players on that pitch against the Germans was Paul Ince, who spoke to 90min at the launch of the Paddy Park at Flat Iron Square, London last week.
“We should have won the  World Cup, without a doubt.”
“Euro 96 was more than just the penalties,” he reminisced. “It was iconic, people talk about it even now, there’s a lot of history. ‘Remember 96? Remember 96?’ Well, we lost on penalties to the Germans, but they don’t see it that way, they just see it as what it did to the nation.
“We’d not had a tournament in our country, the home of football, for 30 years since 1966, it was a long time for us English fans to wait. So to get it in ’96, sun shining, all the songs coming out, and with 2018, losing the semi-finals there – I believe we should have won the World Cup – brought everyone back together again.
“So we find ourselves in that kind of situation now, with the last 18 months of the pandemic and everyone being negative. This is important in many ways, not just for football. People are beginning to come together, sit and have a beer and watch the football together.”
Fast forward to 2021, and Manchester United – Ince’s former club – is still a major talent producer for the national team. However, a compressed season and a high-octane end to the season has left a couple of United stars struggling with injury as the tournament approaches.
Mason Greenwood is absent from Gareth Southgate’s final 26-man squad to recuperate from an injury he’s been dealing with for months, while Marcus Rashford has been struggling with his own fitness for some months; delaying surgeries to deal with shoulder and foot issues in order to keep playing for United and now England.
Ince warned that the short-termism inherent in those decisions could cause further issues down the line, saying: “When you kind of have niggling injuries, not injuries that prevent you from actually playing but probably make you about 80% or 70% of your game, it’s tough, and when you keep doing it all of a sudden something’s gotta give.”
“It’s gonna be worse [if Rashford breaks down] but because he’s so keen, he wants to play, wants to be out there, he loves football, you see he’s passionate about football. Then you start having little niggling injuries and that’s why all of a sudden something can happen, and you’re out for three or four months.”
He added, “You’ve got to feel sorry for people like that, people like Trent, these young players who have been looking forward to playing in a major tournament and all of a sudden…I always kind of felt if I had been injured playing against Croatia or Scotland, I could live with that. But when you get done in a warm-up game like Trent, a game that meant nothing.”
The Three Lions look like having a tough run through to the later stages of the tournament, likely to face one of Portugal, France or Germany in the second round, if they win their group. That’s led to some suggestions that, much like at the 2018 World Cup, Southgate could rest some players for the final game of the group stage; possibly ensuring an easier matchup in the last 16.
That idea has been met with a mixed response, but Ince dismissed the idea as potentially detrimental to the team’s mindset.
“You can’t start thinking ‘if we play this weakened side and we lose’, and so on,” he explained. “You’ve got to think ‘if we’re gonna win this tournament we’re gonna have to beat the teams that are in it, whether it’s Germany or France in the last 16, it doesn’t matter, we’ve got to beat these teams’.
“That’s why 2018 was so, I wouldn’t say disappointing from my point of view, but I thought we had a great opportunity to win the World Cup and I felt if we had that Euro 96 team or the 98 team, the passage that England had in 2018, if we had Croatia in the semis we probably would have won the World Cup.
“That was a great opportunity for us. The poor Sweden team, the poor Colombia team, they weren’t great teams. We should have won the World Cup without a doubt, but people forget about it because of what it did to the nation, how it brought us and gave us belief and faith that we can go and do something else.”
Paul Ince was speaking at the launch of the Paddy Parks, the ultimate fan viewing experience for all EURO 2020 games. Held at Flat Iron Square and Riverside Newcastle, tickets will sell out fast – visit www.paddyparkfanzones.com to book your spot.