It was the summer when football came home. Those hazy, heady days when Wembley rocked, the Three Lions roared, and the Germans won. It was a time when, as Baddiel and Skinner sang, England’s years of hurt were set at 30; a total that had seemed protracted at the time, but with the benefit of almost two further decades of disappointment, now seems positively fleeting.

The frequently perceived recollection is, for the most part, of a glorious tournament and an England team that performed well, only to fall just short when it came to the crunch. The optimism generated by Paul Gascoigne’s spectacular goal against Scotland had been further enhanced after the comprehensive victory over the Netherlands. Even a lacklustre display in the quarter-final against Spain, when England were rather lucky not to lose, did little to dent the all-pervading positivity.

The magical glow of recollection suggests that it was a summer of great entertainment and bouncing, partying stadia. While that was true at England’s games – and indeed Scotland’s – it was far from true elsewhere. At many matches, half empty stands and row after row of vacant seats provided the backdrop to several of the key clashes, up to and including the first semi-final between France and the Czech Republic. And yet, the fondly recalled images are of a full Wembley replete with joyous fans waving the flag of St. George, which provide a lasting dose of warm nostalgia.

Hosted by a nation whose clubs had not long returned to the European fold, it was a relatively trouble-free and friendly occasion. But is it remembered as a bigger success on the field for its hosts than it deserves to be?

It is fondly remembered as one of England’s best tournament performances, which indeed it was in terms of finishing position; after all it was only the fourth time England had reached a semi-final in world or European competition. Put simply, Euro 96 is recalled as a success for its hosts; one of relatively few tournaments where England reached the latter stages.

But was it really a success? Did England achieve enough in the tournament to justify this perception? Should they actually have done better? Far from being one of England’s rare success stories, I would counter that England actually failed at Euro 96. The rose-tinted view is rooted in the fact that England rarely reach such a late stage of a tournament, so therefore if they do, it is automatically a success. And yes, of course to some extent that is true. But in 1996, England missed their best chance for a generation to end those years of hurt. The stars had aligned for England. It was a tournament they could, and perhaps should, have won.

Admittedly, it can be said that for many national teams, judging success merely in terms of silverware is as futile as trying to win a FIFA vote without resorting to bribery. Very few countries can actually lay their hands on silverware. For England, perhaps success, or otherwise, shouldn’t be measured in that way. Reaching a semi-final could certainly be described as a success for a nation that has only gone that far twice in World Cups and twice in European Championships.

In the 1990 World Cup, reaching the semi-final, beyond most people’s hopes and expectations, was a success. In Euro 96, the opportunity was there to achieve so much more. Viewed as a finishing position in isolation set against England’s tournament history, then yes, it was a success. And yet it was a real missed opportunity. Many of the other major European nations were either in transition, played poorly, or were simply weak at that time. The opportunity was there for so much more.

I don’t want to come across as the stereotypical England fan, full of jumped-up entitlement and unrealistic ambition. The occasional high of a quarter-final appearance in amongst a few earlier departures is, to my mind, about par for England. The times that England has made the last-eight of a tournament are good achievements. Any firm expectation of going further than that is pure delusion to my mind.

In recent times, the superiority of other nations makes the prospect of England reaching the sharp end of another tournament anytime soon quite a distant one. Prevailing over the recent Spanish vintage, or the present German side, is an unlikely and unrealistic aim. England are decent, but belong to the level below the best, capable of causing a surprise or two, sure, but to go all the way and win a major tournament seems a very distant prospect now.

That was not the case in 1996. There was no supreme opponent, no team of the ages, no superstar player set to drag his nation to the trophy. It was an evenly balanced tournament that many teams could realistically have won. As several of them gradually dropped away, England were one of the few who made a real bid to do so.

And yet England had come into the tournament following the prolonged low ebb of the Graham Taylor era, having shambolically failed to reach USA 94. The arrival of Terry Venables heralded an upturn in fortunes as England, playing frequently at home in the build-up to the tournament, steadily built their squad and boosted their morale.

England, for once, boasted a set of players of sufficient calibre as to make the usually unrealistic dreams of glory carry a hint of realism with them on this occasion. Players such as Tony Adams and David Seaman from Arsenal’s much-vaunted backline, Paul Ince prowling the midfield, Darren Anderton, Teddy Sheringham and a young Steve McManaman providing the ammunition for Alan Shearer up front, fresh from a title-winning season with Blackburn Rovers the year before.

When the tournament began, with a nervy, jangly, disappointing draw with Switzerland, there was still the positive of Alan Shearer’s goal, which heralded something of a return to form for the striker in national team colours. Having gone almost two years without an international goal, his strike against the Swiss was not before time, but signalled the start of a productive tournament for the Geordie marksman; he ended with five goals in England’s five matches as the tournament’s top scorer.

His goals helped take England to the top of their group amidst the burgeoning belief of England’s followers. From the scrappy draw with the Swiss, England beat Scotland with the assistance of that dramatic minute of action from Gary McAllister’s penalty miss to Gazza’s big moment, and then destroyed the Netherlands.

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Paul-GascoignePaul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham

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Belief soared, even if the scoreline against the Dutch was perhaps of greater margin than the performance really deserved. What is often forgotten in the collective memory of that heady evening is that England had been clinging on at times in the first half, and were fortunate to be ahead at the interval. The early second half blitz was as impressive as it was memorable, but it sealed the collective brain-fade of what had gone before.

And yet, England continued to progress through, riding the crest of a wave as well as their luck at times – notably against Spain in the quarter-final – to reach another semi-final with Germany. England were still standing and were full of optimism, belief and assurance. The confidence of the public was matched by that of the squad. Potential stumbling blocks, when thrown in England’s path, were hurdled with style. Nothing seemed to be able to dent the belief.

It hadn’t all been plain sailing, but England had indeed performed reasonably well and reached the latter stages in great shape. As their potential rivals gradually fell away from contention, the suggestion that this was a tournament there for the taking for England gathers some credence. Coming into the tournament, the usual suspects were highly rated: Germany, Netherlands, Italy and France being the prime contenders. But each had their own shortcomings in 1996. Portugal and the Czech Republic also won praise as the tournament developed but didn’t always convince.

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The Azzurri of Italy had only narrowly missed out on winning the World Cup two years earlier, and were still coached by Arrigo Sacchi as they had been in that 1994 tournament. They had a wealth of talent, although they were without Roberto Baggio who had become embroiled in a spat with Sacchi from which there was only going to be one winner. But there was Paolo Maldini, Zola, Albertini, Dino Baggio, Casiraghi and Ravanelli. The list goes on. It was a strong squad that should have made a significant challenge for the tournament.

They began well enough, beating Russia 2-1, but Sacchi made several changes to his team for the next match with the Czech Republic, resting some key names for challenges further down the line. It was a huge mistake. The sending off of Luigi Apolloni made matters worse, and the Czechs seized their opportunity to win 2-1. Now needing a win against Germany to sneak through, Italy made things hard for themselves once again. Gianfranco Zola missed an early penalty which summed up their evening. Even when Germany were reduced to ten men, Italy proved unable to find a way through as the match, tense and intense throughout, finished goalless. And still, Italy could have been saved.

With five minutes to go Russia were leading the Czechs in the other final group match; a result that would have sent Italy through regardless. Just as it seemed the Azzurri would be rescued, up popped Vladimír Šmicer to snatch a last-gasp equaliser for the Czechs; simultaneously sending his nation delirious with delight, and consigning the Italians and their fans to the turmoil and ignominy of an early exit. And what is more, an exit that could have been easily preventable. Italy, one of the pre-tournament favourites, were gone.

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As with Italy, and in stark contrast to England, the Dutch came into Euro 96 on the back of a good showing at the previous World Cup, although they had needed a winner takes all playoff against Ireland in Liverpool to seal their spot at the finals. But, not for the first time, the Netherlands team succeeded in imploding when the real action began in the summer.

Their squad was led by the sublime skills of Dennis Bergkamp with a significant smattering of the stars of Ajax Amsterdam, Champions League winners the year before. Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Edwin van der Sar, Ronald de Boer, Clarence Seedorf; the list of names reads like a who’s who of Dutch stars of the era. After drawing with Scotland, they beat Switzerland 2-0 to be on the verge of the quarter-finals even before the disaster against England. But by then the internal cracks within the squad were rapidly becoming significant fissures as the Dutch dirty laundry was aired in public.

The rumours have often suggested a racial split within the squad – largely on the basis of a photograph showing the black players and white players sitting on separate tables for dinner. While there may have been some truth in that, it seems the biggest issues affecting the Dutch were actually to do with the inequality felt between the young Ajax players and their better-rewarded colleagues playing elsewhere. Some also felt they were being undeservedly overlooked in favour of some of Hiddink’s favourites.

Jordi Cruyff started every match for the Dutch ahead of Kluivert, while Davids commented that the manager Guus Hiddink was “too deep in the ass of [Danny] Blind”. The fact that several of those young players were black is true, but several of the team have since corroborated each other in stating that race was not the issue. When the notorious meal time photograph came out it certainly didn’t help matters, but it wasn’t the root cause.

A late Kluivert consolation rescued the Dutch against England, grabbing a quarter-final spot from Scotland in the process, where they faced France. Amid all the turmoil of a squad at loggerheads with each other, team spirit was shot to pieces. After a goalless quarter-final, the Oranje lost to France on penalties, and another favourite bit the dust.

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The team that beat the Dutch, France, were also strong, but were very much still building towards their peak. After the dramatic failure to reach USA 94, both coach Gérard Houllier and star man David Ginola – the man blamed for Bulgaria’s decisive late winner which sent them to America in France’s place – were no longer a part of the national team. Neither was Eric Cantona, who initially lost his place following his eight-month ban from football for his kung-fu kick in early 1995, and never got it back.

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fae07222e123a662a5afb2eb9134b5c8Djorkaeff and Zidane made their mark on the world stage at the Euros

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Instead of Ginola and Cantona, Aime Jacquet, the new man at the helm, went with two up-and-coming stars in the form of Youri Djorkaeff and Zinedine Zidane. There were also the likes of Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Laurent Blanc, but several of the squad were too young to have yet reached the top bracket of players that Cantona belonged to at that time.

This made the France team of ‘96 something of a work in progress, having shunned the services of the French player most in his prime that year. Had Cantona been included, the extra guile, craft and class may have enabled the French challenge to go all the way. As it was, they reached the semi-finals only to lose on penalties to the surprise package of the tournament, the Czech Republic.

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France lost out to the Czech Republic, who reached the final against all expectation. Their tournament had begun with a fairly insipid loss to Germany at Old Trafford but, as previously mentioned, was revitalised against Italy. In the quarter-finals they faced the “sexy football” of Portugal, as Ruud Gullit famously described it. Where Portugal had previously been in fine form, they were unable to make their greater ability tell against a well-organised and obdurate Czech team. Karel Poborský’s magnificent scooped lob won the match, and Portugal’s original golden generation were on their way home.

The Czechs marched on to the final where they would face either England or Germany. For those two old rivals, the chance of silverware was within touching distance.

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And so to Germany, England’s semi-final opponents on that unforgettable summer’s evening. World Cup winners in 1990, European runners-up two years later when only complacency, the remarkable spirit of the Danish team, and the brick wall that is Peter Schmeichel, prevented them adding the European crown. But by the World Cup of 1994 the squad was on the wane, characterised by their loss to Bulgaria in the quarter-finals that summer, and two years later many of the same old faces were still there.

Jürgen Klinsmann, then 31, was not the dynamic goal-getter he once was, with Oliver Bierhoff now being the primary threat. Matthias Sammer was outstanding in his defensive role, but these bigger names were supported by a group of good, but undeniably more limited players. That Dieter Eilts, a workmanlike water-carrier of a midfielder unlikely to ever set pulses racing, was one of the players of the tournament says a lot about the German team that year.

But they had a happy knack of finding a way to win through. They had won their group by seeing off the more expected weaker challenges of the Czechs and Russians before the draw with Italy sent their big rivals packing. They edged past an impressive Croatia team in the quarter-finals before facing the hosts.

It was a memorable match for all sorts of reasons. With Klinsmann suspended, one of Germany’s prime threats was gone, though his replacement, Stefan Kuntz, scored Germany’s equaliser after Shearer had given England the perfect start. England had their own suspension issue – Gary Neville missing out – but with Venables going for a dynamic three-man back line in Neville’s absence England had every chance of victory.

Both teams could have won it before the drama of the penalty shoot-out became necessary. But England’s missed chances are the ones that would haunt the most. Paul Gascoigne’s agonising lunge, fractions of a second too late, when the ball rolled across the empty and inviting German net is the painful image etched on millions on English minds. Darren Anderton also hit the post in extra-time as England poured forwards attempting to seal their destiny.

Sadly it wasn’t to be. Germany went on to beat the Czech Republic in the final with a fumbled golden goal to take the title again, while England were left to lick their wounds. It could have been more, and to my mind it should have been more. England were on a roll, had ridden their luck, and had the belief to go all the way. Having reached the semi-final they were faced with a distinctly average German team, certainly one weaker than the 1990 World Cup winning team.

England even took the lead after just three minutes, leaving Germany rattled. But gradually the Germans composed themselves, stuck to their game plan and played their way to an equaliser soon after; Kuntz levelling the scores well before all of that late drama.

The penalties took their seemingly inevitable course, German nerve holding better than English when it reached sudden death. Perhaps Robbie Fowler should have been brought on to be the sixth man – as he would have been in the quarter-final shoot-out with Spain – rather than Southgate, but in the end it was the impressive defender who struck his penalty unimpressively. Moments later England’s dream was over when Andreas Möller secured Germany’s win. The German team ended up with another trophy, while England reflected on a decent showing that fell short.

Heroic failure is beloved by the English sporting viewer. It allows pride to remain intact, while leaving open the ‘what if?’ possibilities had a few key moments gone differently. Popular perception maintains that Euro 96 was a triumph for England, an all-too-infrequent high. In reaching a semi-final, it was indeed a high in terms of finishing position, though in reality they only won two of their five matches, were very lucky against Spain, and failed to beat a run-of-the-mill German side. And despite it all, there was never a more perfect opportunity for England to claim a major trophy.

Those 30 years of hurt are now 50. Half a century on from that lone piece of silverware, the hurt looks as unlikely to end as ever. In 1996, the annual count of years of despair should have been reset to zero. On the crest of a patriotic wave, England could, and should, have gone all the way in 1996. That they didn’t shouldn’t be viewed as a success and should not cause for nostalgic glory and celebration. It was a golden opportunity missed. One that may not come England’s way again for a long time. The trophy had beckoned, but England failed to grasp it.

By Aidan Williams. Follow @yad_williams