Southgate, Germany & Euro 96 trauma

How Southgate turned his lowest moment into England glory

He may not have won a trophy, but Gareth Southgate has already succeeded as England coach; he has rid the England national team, and indeed the nation, of its penalty shoot-out trauma.

Southgate turned his experience of missing the decisive penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final into a positive: he realised that penalties are a trainable skill that can be improved, and set about teaching England’s players how to do it. England has now won its last two shoot-outs, against Colombia (2018) and Switzerland (2019). Ahead of Tuesday’s Euro 2020 tie against Germany, here’s a reminder of what happened 25 years ago at Wembley.

Photo: PA

The first surprise is that England were more organised than their opponents. England’s five kickers - Shearer, Platt, Pearce, Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham – all scored (surprisingly, coach Terry Venables had made no substitutions, despite Robbie Fowler being on the bench). Germany, on the other hand, were in disarray. Coach Berti Vogts only had four players willing to take a penalty. Dieter Eilts had asked to be substituted so he wouldn’t have to take a penalty. Vogts asked Thomas Helmer if he felt his Bayern team-mate Thomas Strunz, on as a late substitute for Steffen Freund, was up for the task. “Absolutely,” came the reply, and Strunz grabbed the match ball from referee Sandor Puhl and did some keepy-uppies to get his eye in.

Vogts told Markus Babbel to sort out who would take penalties seven and eight with Marco Bode. “Marco, the boss said you are on penalty number seven,” Babbel told him. “My legs were getting weaker and weaker,” remembered Bode. Matthias Sammer was desperate, along with Eilts, not to take a penalty. “There would probably have been a punch-up between us to avoid it,” Sammer said.

None of Germany’s players had ever taken a penalty in a major tournament, but Thomas Hassler, Strunz, Stefan Reuter, Christian Ziege and Stefan Kuntz all scored. It was 5-5 after ten penalties.

England’s remaining outfield players were Tony Adams, Darren Anderton, Paul Ince, Steve McManaman and Gareth Southgate. Even now it seems surprising that Southgate and not any of the others took England’s next kick. We know what happened next. Andy Koepke went the right way, and saved Southgate’s effort easily.

A few months after the game, German writer Ronald Reng spent an afternoon with Southgate in Birmingham, where the player opened up about the miss. “I think it was because I was a German, and he wanted to get things off his chest,” said Reng.

The interview ran in Suddeutsche Zeitung and in it, Southgate said that he knew the penalty would define his career. He said:

“Living with it is extremely difficult. It was my first major tournament for England and I played very well; but the only thing people remember is this small, silly mistake. The only opinion people have about Gareth Southgate is that he can’t take penalties…. For a lot of other people who have experienced pain, I’ve sort of become a source of help and encouragement. People are writing to me not only to cheer me up but expecting assurances for their own problems. I’ve become something of an agony aunt…”

He admitted he was surprised that the coach had picked him to take one. He had never practiced penalties and had only taken one in his life, which he’d missed.

Southgate didn’t remember much of what happened after the penalty. “I lay awake that night and thought, ‘What will people think of me now?’ and it was frightening. Stuart Pearce had said to me, ‘Gareth, tomorrow I’m going home to feed my horses. I’ll look at them and say, ‘We lost to Germany on penalties again.’ And they’ll answer, ‘What do we care? Give us some carrots now.’”

Southgate later admitted that he knew things might not end well after Ziege had scored Germany’s fourth penalty. He had already decided where he would place the ball:

“But around the point where the score reached 4-4 and nobody had failed, my mind switched to the negative. ‘What if I miss?’ That simple thought, which with better mental awareness could have been dismissed, was now nudging its way into my subconscious and, with hindsight, I know that was the tipping-point of my failure.”

Stefan Kuntz’s mood had also changed as the shoot-out went on. He was a regular penalty-taker in club football – in fact his 30 penalties put him eighth in the Bundesliga’s all-time list – but had asked Vogts to name him as the fifth kicker because he hoped the shoot-out would be over by then. As he watched England score penalty after penalty, he became angry. Kuntz told me:

“It was terrible for me. I was fifth because I never wanted to take one, and when it came to it, my penalty was the most important of all. During that walk, you are so alone, so afraid. I had to find a way to conquer my nerves. So I made myself angry. That way, I forgot about the nerves.”

Kuntz thought about his children, who were then five and seven, and how their school-mates would tease them if he missed the penalty. “I got so angry at the thought of these clowns upsetting my kids. I thought, ‘Don’t do this to your family!’” Kuntz, left-footed, hit Germany’s best penalty, high to his natural side.

And next up was Southgate. Kuntz said: “Of course I have sympathy with Southgate. It is traumatic to be the guy who misses. But remember he had the courage to take one, and half the team did not do that.”

So why did England lose?

“There was additional pressure because of the meaning of the game, the fact that it was against Germany. But also sometimes when you’re at home, you can feel the doubt of your own fans. I wonder if Southgate thought, ‘Even the fans don't think I will score this.’ What is in your mind is often what will happen, and controlling your mentality is a huge part of the game.”

Kuntz said that the game is the highlight of his career, more than the final against Czech Republic, which he started and Germany won. “It was my first game at Wembley, it was against England, I scored in the game and the shoot-out… It was everything to me.”

He doesn't like to talk too much about the old days; he’s tried to steer away from it ever since he showed his grandma the blurb on his official sticker-card just before he retired. “It said: ‘1990 Cup winner, 1991 Bundesliga winner, Euro 96 winner, and all my goal records.’ And my grandma said: ‘Very nice, but can you pay for groceries in the supermarket with it?’ And then I realised you just have to move on with your life. Stop looking back. And maybe England should do the same with penalties.”

Meanwhile, the Germans had still not decided who would take their sixth penalty. That is, until Southgate missed. At that point, Andreas Moller broke from the group and headed to the penalty-spot. “He put himself forward and said, ‘My turn now, hey?’” remembered Helmer. It was too late for anyone to object, and Moller scored. Game over.

As for looking back on penalties. Southgate did just that: to learn the lessons from the past. He said before the Colombia game:

“It’s not about luck. It’s not about chance. It’s about performing a skill under pressure. There are individual things you can work on within that. We have to know who is in charge, who needs to get out of the way, who can speak with clarity to the players. There is lots we can do to own the process and not be controlled by it.”

And so, with penalty shoot-out victories over Colombia and Switzerland (we will look at these in more detail next week), he has already exorcised the ghost of England and penalty shoot-out failure: it would be the ultimate redemption if he did it again, against Germany at Wembley, on Tuesday.

Photo: Michael Regan / Getty Images

  • Please share any penalty thoughts or further questions to me either by commenting below or at @benlyt. Next week we’ll be sorting the names and order for England’s first five penalties if it comes down to a shoot-out… Send in your suggestions!

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