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.
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.