Stuart Pearce can be forgiven for harking back to Euro 96 when he announced his squad for the visit of Holland to Wembley on Wednesday. The 4-1 victory in that tournament was, he said, "as good a performance as I've ever been involved in", before optimistically adding: "That kind of performance would help the whole country."

England's verve that night, with Steve McManaman subtly prompting in a wandering brief, was exemplified by Teddy Sheringham's cute dummy, shimmy and pass to Alan Shearer who smashed his shot past Edwin van der Sar to make it 3-0. For a while it seemed that the years of incoherence and frustration had been banished by the enlightened tactical approach of Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle but only four years later England were once more as muddled and fragile as they had been for the majority of the preceding three decades.

It was a rare moment of rapture against the Dutch, a team England have struggled to master since the game went professional in the Netherlands in 1954. It has often proved a chastening experience for the team and their manager. Even in 1970, Holland's first match at Wembley, neither England's status as world champions nor gratitude for Sir Alf Ramsey could stop the choruses of "what a load of rubbish" and bouts of slow hand-clapping castigating an experimental team's failure to pierce the opposition's defence during a goalless draw.

The old refrain rang out again seven years later, when Don Revie's England were humiliatingly outclassed at Wembley. The magnificent Dutch forward line of Johnny Rep, Johan Cruyff and Robbie Rensenbrink mesmerised England's defenders with their intelligent use of space and the 2-0 scoreline flattered the bedraggled home side.

The scorer of both goals, AZ's Jan Peters, was known as "Jantje Breed", "little Jan wide" in mockery at his preference for short, square passes which allayed risk, but his inhibitions did not prevent him getting into the box to finish moves orchestrated by Cruyff and put the ball past Ray Clemence twice in eight minutes. England were so inferior that our own David Lacey suggested "Oranges and Lemons" would have been a more appropriate song for the disgruntled supporters to sing.

Not for the last time when England's inadequacies have been exposed by the Dutch, international careers were terminated after defeat and Dave Clement, Mike Doyle, Paul Madeley and Stan Bowles never won another cap.

I was in the crowd at Wembley in March 1988 when England played Holland three months before they were due to meet in Düsseldorf at Euro 88 and the thing I remember most during a half-hour spell of Dutch dominance was the silence. England emerged with a deceptive 2-2 draw but such was Ruud Gullit's control of the game, making repeated menacing runs from a withdrawn midfield role like a marauding Gulliver among Lilliputians and slotting numerous passes behind England's square back four, that the sense of foreboding was palpable.

He created havoc with his intelligent, crisp passes and kept popping up in the wide gap between Tony Adams and Neil Webb like some malevolent whack-a-mole. Had the England players been armed with mallets, they still would not have landed a blow.

Anyone who saw that game would not have been surprised when Gullit set up two of Marco van Basten's three goals in the 3-1 victory in Germany, only that he did not score himself. England played better than they had against the Republic of Ireland and fought back determinedly to equalise through Bryan Robson's typically indomitable surge but Gary Lineker, suffering from glandular fever, could not match Van Basten's predatory poise. A game later Hoddle, then only 30, and Kenny Sansom, 29, were jettisoned.

It was with the threat posed by Gullit specifically in mind that England finally abandoned the flat back four when the two met at Italia 90, opting for two markers and a very English style of libero, and together they largely kept him in check in a goalless draw.

Orthodoxy returned under Graham Taylor and England paid the price in a 2-2 draw at Wembley during 1993 for Des Walker's loss of confidence following his transfer to Sampdoria. Taylor can justifiably claim he was abandoned by luck in Rotterdam during the return-game qualifier for the 1994 World Cup and he was understandably peeved when the referee failed to send Ronald Koeman off. "Linesman? Linesman?" he famously asked. "What sort of thing is happening here?" But Holland could also have demanded to know why Frank Rijkaard's first-half "goal" was disallowed when he was a yard onside.

England failed entirely to nullify Dennis Bergkamp, who ran at will at retreating midfielders and when Brian Moore's premonition of what Koeman would do from his retaken free-kick agonisingly came to pass, it delivered the coup de grâce to Taylor's three years in charge. It was the end too for Carlton Palmer, Tony Dorigo and Lee Sharpe, who never played for England again.

Friendlies, too, have turned out to be fatal. After the 1-1 draw in Amsterdam in 2002, out went Michael Ricketts, whose international days lasted barely the blink of an eye, Chris Powell and Kevin Phillips.

No wonder Pearce treasures that balmy June evening in 1996 so fondly. We all do. The lesson, however, when Holland play England, is that danger is often lurking.