Fifteen years ago on Wednesday, England took on Scotland at Wembley, their second game as hosts of the European Championships. Despite having missed out on the World Cup finals of 1994, much was expected of the hosts. They were to suffer disappointment but the tournament served to increase the acceptability of football among the country's chattering classes. The English game has not looked back.
It is regarded as the month when the English nation reaffirmed its love with football. "It's coming home," was its motto, a refrain adoped in a chart-topping song that is re-imagined for every major tournament and was eventually paraphrased by Tony Blair as the watchwords of his victorious run to power in 1997. Football was fashionable, the play-thing of politicians, pop stars and television personalities, yet it was here to stay and remains so, long after those who adopted it as a badge of credibility faded into the shadows.
In truth, Euro '96 completed a watershed that had begun at Italia '90, when a game that had entered the doldrums in the 1970s became a cause for national interest rather than embarrassment. Gazza's tears, the BBC's choice of Nessun Dorma as a soundtrack and a loosening of attitudes that halted the problems caused by hooliganism made for a heady summer. The huge television ratings that followed England's progress to semi-final defeat in Turin set the football business' wheels in motion. The summer of 1992, by coincidence a disaster for the national team under Graham Taylor at Euro '92, begat the Premier League, and a TV deal worth £304 million over five seasons.
Those riches and the all-seater stadia now required of top-tier English grounds after the Taylor Report that had followed the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 pushed England to the front of the queue to host a tournament now swelled to sixteen rather than eight finalists. Austria, Portugal and Netherlands would all be made to wait for their chance to welcome Europe.
Thirty years after hosting the 1966 World Cup, England could dream of another victory in the self-styled home of the game, a conceit that on the evidence of the recent doings at FIFA clearly rankles with the rest of the footballing world. Unlike 1966, however, the hosts would be denied.
On English soil, memories of Euro '96 often do not stretch beyond those sun-drenched Wembley afternoons and evenings when the national team kept a nation rapt. Terry Venables' team, in particular during a 4-1 destruction of the Dutch and their semi with the Germans, played an enterprising brand of football. Rarely since have we had it so good.
Fluid in comparison to the stultified panic football supplied by the crashing England disappointments that have followed, Venables' team featured players like Paul Ince and Tony Adams at their peak, while interchangeable wingers Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton played their best football for their country. In Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer, Venables had two strikers who overcame a flood of previous criticism to arrive at the tournament both in form and tandem.
Apart from a brief flowering between Emile Heskey and Michael Owen, England have yet to discover as potent a partnership in the decade-and-a-half since. Robbie Fowler was then at the height of his Liverpool goalscoring powers but could not find a way of breaking up a partnership that Venables stubbornly, and correctly, stuck with.
For two old allies in Venables and Paul Gascoigne, this tournament provided something of a final flourish though neither were to know it. Following the tournament, the coach stepped aside to deal with the mounting legal issues that enveloped his failing business interests. Varying roles at Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Leeds, Middlesbrough, the Australian national team and finally as assistant to Steve McClaren 's umbrella-poisoned England regime were all unsatisfying codas to a career that never quite matched the reputation Venables held with much of the football media.
Gascoigne supplied the tournament's champagne moment, probably literally, when scoring a wonder goal to defeat Scotland but his late miss against the Germans in the semi-final may well serve as a microcosm for his entire career. Glory beckoned but was denied by a lack of timing as he failed to reach to reach Shearer's cross to score a 'Golden Goal' in extra-time. England would, once again, lose to Germany on penalty kicks. Two years later, a teary and angry Gascoigne was left out of Glenn Hoddle's squad for France '98, the preceding two years having seen his personal life collapse amid the demons that haunt him to this day.
The Scotland game provided a first, and so far a last. The oldest rivalry in international football met for the first time at a major championship finals in their second game of Group A. A Shearer header and Gasgoigne's bewitching of Rangers club-mate Colin Hendry secured a win that long looked in doubt and needed David Seaman's penalty save from Gary McAllister to provide the platform. Save for a qualifying play-off for Euro 2000, the pair have not met again and the Scots have not qualified for a finals since, their participation here being ended by a late Patrick Kluivert consolation as England took it easy in the closing stages against the Dutch.
Of course, describing solely England's campaign can never tell the story of a tournament won by another team, and the rose-tinted spectacles can be abandoned when considering that this was by no means a classic German team. While Matthias Sammer was a libero in the finest tradition and Christian Ziege in particular impressed on the left of midfield, this was a functional outfit, in reflection of a dour coach in Berti Vogts. After Germany topped a group in which Italy paid for a shock defeat to the Czechs, Croatia, playing in the first ever finals for a former Yugoslav republic were squeezed past after a hard-fought quarter-final.
The rest of the participants could barely be termed strong. Both France and Netherlands would be far better at the World Cup two years on, and while Portugal possessed the burgeoning class of Luis Figo and Rui Costa they suffered from their age-old problem of not scoring enough goals. Italy had the same problem, and were hardly alone in a tournament that shortened on goals as the knock-out stages began and a sequence of penalty shoot-outs resulted. Spain suffered their then-customary choke when England should have been ousted in the quarter-finals and it was left to the Croats, for whom Davor Suker was a striker in his prime, and the Czech Republic to provide the element of an exciting narrative. The Czechs, having knocked out Portugal, reached the final after defeating a punchless France on penalties in the other semi-final at Old Trafford,
A glance at the attendance figures of the tournament also reveals a truth about the host country's parochialism of that time. Tales of those denied 2012 Olympic tickets in a ballot for the most obscure of events can be contrasted to Euro '96 crowds at the likes of Elland Road and St James' Park that would be underpar for a Carling Cup game these days. Your scribe's only visitation was to that Germany-Croatia encounter, on a ticket sold for £20 less than its very high - for the time - £55 face value. Old Trafford, with 43,412 present, looked emptier than at any time since the late 1980s.
A high price of tickets and a chaotic ordering process were blamed but a lack of a depth of interest was probably as large a factor. Fifteen years on, and it is difficult to imagine such apathy. Football's acceptability - and its pricing - grows ever higher, and had the World Cup returned here in 2018 such swathes of empty seats would be difficult to imagine.
After Gareth Southgate became England's latest tearful penalty misser at Wembley, to win himself a pizza endorsement among his fellow fall-guys from tournaments past, a nation's interest faded yet more. The final, with the stadium itself not even full, saw Queen Elizabeth II attend her first football match since that famous day in 1966, perhaps her very last, and she closed her evening by handing over the Henri Delaunay Trophy to Jurgen Klinsmann.
Her Majesty's dutiful act had left the host nation unsatisfied but wanting more.
What Happened Next: Venables was replaced by Glenn Hoddle as England coach, and a promising start was followed by problems of man management before a disastrous newspaper interview revealing some rather controversial views on the disabled ended his tenure in 1999. Venables failed to get Australia to their first World Cup when losing a France '98 play-off to Iran. The 1996-97 Premier League season continued the cosmopolitan feel of the summer by inviting in a host of foreign talent such as Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola , Patrik Berger, Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky. Foreign players now totally outnumber Englishmen in the Premier League. Croatia would gain revenge on an ageing and Sammer-less Germany by knocking them out of France '98 while England's reaching of the 1996 semi-final is still their best performance in a European Championship.