You can’t be declared worldly until you have danced with a Dane, attempted to learn Turkish in Boots or been temporarily engaged to a Croat. During Euro 96 I am pleased to say I became a citizen of Europe.
In 1996 football came home and for Sheffield, the birth place of football, it really did turn up on the doorstep. Hillsborough co-hosted Group D of the Euros with the City Ground in Nottingham. For three weeks the city was alive with the sound of football.
Now I’d love to tell you about the three matches played at Hillsborough but I wasn’t there. I would also love to tell you that the three weeks of football was a sober occasion but that would be a lie (let’s skip over the fact that I was still six months off being the legal age to drink too). What I can tell you about is the epicentre of multi-cultural European relations, the local pub.
There may be fancy Fanzone’s at the recent Euros but there was no such thing in 1996. European fans had to make their own entertainment and like us Brits they headed straight for the pub. My local was The Travellers on Penistone Road in Sheffield, just five minutes walk from Hillsborough. It’s now sadly fenced off and missing all the lead flashings. It’s a sad sight for a place that saw the best of how football can bring people together, even when you can’t speak the same language.
The atmosphere in the pub was electric. There was constant singing and walls appeared to be elastic because fans of all denominations flooded in through the doors. No-one ever seemed to leave because they were having such a good time. My friend, who shall remain nameless, enjoyed herself immensely. The sight of endless streams of muscle bound Dolph Lungren types walking into our local made her come over all unnecessary.
After the first match, Denmark v Portugal, we went into the Travellers to celebrate the start of the Euros. At last orders we were just starting the night and headed into town to Uropa. Uropa was a nightclub that professed to be slightly more upmarket than the rest. We used to frequent the place because one of the bouncers was desperate to sleep with my friend so we were always on the VIP list (she never indulged but she was useful for getting us into for free.)
As we climbed the dark dingy stairs there was a certain buzz from the club above. As we pushed open the doors there we were….Euro 96 on a dancefloor. The club was full of Danes ‘dancing to electro pop like a robot from 1984’. It was packed. I looked to my left and then my right and realised my friends had already fanned out and were stalking their prey. I went to the bar. I vividly remember going out with £10 that night (yes kids it was possible in the old days) and waking up the next morning feeling the worse for the wear with £12 in my purse. I’d either had a really good night night or had been taking advantage of by only charging £2.
A little way into the night my friend who shall remain nameless, ran up to me declaring her undying love for the Danish man she was pointing at. In the distance I could see a tall man who spent too much time in the mirror and even more time at the gym.
‘He’s Danish. Can’t understand a word he’s saying but he’s gorgeous.’ She told me to go and stand with him whilst she went to the toilet so no-one else would get their mitts on him. She might as well have peed around him to mark her territory but I’ve a feeling that might have put him off. So I went to stand with him as her metaphorical urine stain.
So here I was introducing myself to a man who couldn’t speak my language and I couldn’t speak his but in the name of international relations I gave it a damn good go.
Hello, I’m Laura, I’m (friend who will remain nameless) friend.’
He looked at me, smiled and said ‘Hiya I’m Mark, would you like a drink?’
Bloody hell my Danish is good. I understood every word of that!
Very confused I said to him. ‘But I thought you were Danish!’
He looked back at me even more confused, ‘Er no I’m a West Ham fan’.
It was so loud in the club and my friend who shall remain nameless, was so drunk she couldn’t understand what he was saying. She just nodded and smiled because she fancied him. The last image I have of this East End Dane was him falling over on top of my friend who shall remain nameless, and walking off the dancefloor quicker than I do when a Steps song comes on.
Next came the Croatians. How do I say this politely, the Croatian fans were friendly but mental. I mean needing medication, mental. After the Croatia v Denmark match, which was without doubt the highlight of the Hillsborough matches, the Danes and the Croats came back into the pub. The Danes weren’t drowning their sorrows though. They seemed as determined to enjoy the party as much as the Croats, and bloody hell the Croats know how to party.
The party took a strange turn when the Landlord’s daughter was plucked from behind the bar and passed around the pub by at least forty Croats. Bewildered and a little scared she eventually landed on the shoulder of one particular Croatian and they all cheered and raised their glasses. A friendly, English speaking Croat we’d been talking to turned to us and said ‘That means they’re now engaged’, and he laughed from deep within his belly.
We continued to watch the scene as the barmaid, still over the Croat’s shoulder, was carried around the bar and pints of lager were poured over her backside and over the man’s head. It was utter madness. After a little while she was placed back behind the bar to resume her duties. Relieved it was over we let down our guard. Bad move. Before I knew it I was slung over the shoulder of another Croatian fan. I don’t know where he is now but he’s never fulfilled our engagement.
By the Denmark v Turkey match, we had made some Danish friends who we met up with throughout the tournament. One lived in Croydon and had a strange hybrid Danish/South London accent. We never saw the Portuguese as they were based in Nottingham but I did briefly meet some Turkish fans.
I was in Sheffield city centre doing some shopping when a group of Turkish fans approached me with a phrasebook. After some difficulty they pointed to the English translation of ‘Pharmacy’. Bizarrely we were standing at the bottom of Fargate right next to Boots. I pointed to Boots and tried to usher them in (imagine me gesturing like Les off Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out).
They shook their heads as if I had completely misinterpreted their meaning. For the next ten minutes they pointed to the same word and I repeated my best Les gesture towards Boots. In the end I practically dragged one of them to the back of the shop and pointed at the Pharmacy counter. He nodded at me as if we had finally understood one another. I left him looking bemused at the corn plasters.
Euro 96 will always mean the world to me, not just for Gazza’s goal against Scotland, or the drubbing we gave Holland. It won’t even be just for the Germany semi-final where I watched it in the pub, stood on a bar stool, looking over a stained glass partition, because that was the only space left in the bar. It will be because of the amazing fans.