Des Lynam on the story behind Euro 96: ‘Football got its smile back'

"Ciao, it’s June 30th and we’re at Wembley for the European Championship final, England against Scotland. Bene, we can dream can’t we?"

So began the BBC’s coverage of Euro 96’s opening match, anchored and narrated, unmistakably, by Des Lynam. Eyebrow cocked, moustache bristling, Lynam was a master of knowing when a moment required stylish understatement or a sincere and earnest address. At the semi-final stage 25 anni fa, with the host nation fluctuating between euphoria and hysteria, his introduction to England against Germany was the perfect antidote: “You’ve obviously heard there is a football match on tonight.” Lynam closed that night’s coverage, after England’s penalty shootout defeat, with the line: “If you’re going to have a drink tonight, do it with pride and not with aggression.”

His phone call for this interview arrives, unsurprisingly, bang on time, and while the 78‑year‑old’s velvety tone has weakened somewhat, you can almost picture the wink as he settles in to talk about that tournament, Terry Venables and Ruud Gullit, arguably the pick of the BBC’s pundits that year.

“We hired Ruud, which was a terrific success story,” says Lynam. “The first day he came along, we had this BBC coach, which would take us from ground to ground. Being typical BBC, it was a 30‑year‑old thing covered in rust, and along came Ruud. He got out of his Mercedes limousine, took one step on the bus, and shouted out: ‘What is this shit?'

“I thought: ‘Oh God, we’re going to have some trouble with him.’ But he turned out to be the nicest guy you could possibly work with. I remember we played a couple of rounds of golf together between matches – Alan Hansen is a single‑figure handicap but Ruud was fairly new to the game. On one hole, I dumped my ball into the water. ho pensato: ‘I’ll put another one down.’ But Ruud rolled up his trousers and waded into the water to get it. ‘A ball is a ball,’ he said. That made me laugh, but that’s the sort of guy he was. He was an absolute delight, a charmer.”

On screen, after a somewhat grumpy start, Gullit coined the phrase “sexy football” and outshone all other pundits in the studio, including Gary Lineker.

“Gary was kind of shy in 1996,” Lynam remembers. “Very reserved, and didn’t really have a lot to say. Ma ora, he’s first class. Gary is a completely different character to me, but let me say this: I think he’s terrific at what he does now, and the way that he does it. And of course, he’s got the credibility of playing the game at the highest possible level, which yours truly never had. There’s room for people like me – Mark Pougatch is a decent presenter for ITV – but if you’ve played the game and can present, then you’re in.

“Euro 96 was one of the high points of football, in my opinion. You had “Football’s Coming Home” and the televising of it was done very well, by both BBC and ITV. Bene, predominantly the BBC. I think football got a smile back on its face during that tournament, in this country. In the 80s, all we seemed to talk about in football was hooliganism, but England played nice, bright football under Terry Venables, who always smiled whether they won or lost.”

Lynam was born in Ennis in the Republic of Ireland, and moved to Sussex aged six. “My parents retained their Irish accent all through their lives, but the other kids got it out of me pretty quick at school," lui dice. His smooth delivery and an accent difficult to place made him universally liked; he was well spoken but not posh, glamorous but with a common touch.

Despite being caught cheering on set as Ireland beat England at Euro 88, Lynam became a fan of England – “For a boy from County Clare, that takes some understanding” – particularly after the World Cup in 1990, where they glittered to the soundtrack of Pavarotti and Nessun Dorma. The idea for using the song was hatched by Lynam and his then girlfriend (now wife) Rosemary Diamond. “Cue Luciano," he uttered at the tournament’s close.

Those famous lines were often written just before going on air. Arguably his best introduction – “Shouldn’t you be at work?’ – was delivered before England’s lunchtime kick-off with Tunisia at the 1998 World Cup. “That came to me on the day, two hours before. My intros were always scripted but everything else was a free-for-all. I always wrote my own material … which wasn’t the case for some presenters.”

Lynam’s presenting proved so popular at Euro 96 that the BBC released a feature film, My Summer with Des, starring Neil Morrissey and Rachel Weisz (and Lynam). One of the biggest feelgood factors at that tournament was Lynam’s chemistry with Venables. The pair became close friends after the England manager’s earlier work as a pundit and remain so.

“When Terry used to work with Jimmy Hill, of course they used to battle like mad on the air,” Lynam says with a chuckle. “I would sort of just sit back, enjoy it, occasionally toss the firework in and watch it go. I don’t know why Terry and I get on so well. I liked him from the start. I’ve got a picture in my office here, of him and I roaring with laughter about something or other, and he’s got the same in his office. I texted him the other day and got something back.”

Lynam lives in Sussex near his beloved Brighton & Hove Albion (who failed to tempt him on to the board) and though he concedes that “when you get into your 70s you have bits and pieces falling off”, he insists his moustache remains very much attached. “People used to infer that I had something wrong with my mouth, that I was covering something up, but that’s not true. I keep threatening to take it off but my pals say: ‘It wouldn’t be you,’ if I got rid.”

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