There’s probably never a good time to have an Old English exam, but having two on the day of England versus Scotland at Euro 96 seemed particularly unlucky. The second one, the translation paper which was supposed to take two and a half hours, began at 2.30pm. The target was to be back for the start of the second half that is, to complete the exam in half the allotted time. 

I worked harder for that exam than for any other exam in my life. Given I was sceptical of the value of Old English – much of what we studied, it seemed to me, had value because it existed rather than because it was good – that was probably for the best. The translation was from set-texts, so you could effectively just learn great swathes and, so long as you recognised the passages presented, spew it out. Back then, before booze and age had addled my memory, I was good at that.

I finished inside half an hour. They’d said, specifically, that nobody would be allowed to leave the exam hall in the first hour. Maybe they always said that. I had no idea; it had never been relevant before. I forced myself to check back over the paper. I was bored and I wanted a drink.

After 40 minutes, I decided to try leaving. What was the worst that could happen? They’d tell me to sit down?  

I pushed my chair back decisively and stood up. As I walked hurriedly between the rows of hunched shoulders, I heard the scrape of at least half a dozen other chairs. I knew I was free: to stop that many of us would be far more disruptive than letting us go. I dropped my paper in the tray, and walked on and out, unchallenged.

As soon as I hit the sunlit pavement, I ran, mortar-board in one hand, gown flapping out behind, adrenaline providing a tremendous sense of release as I crossed High Street, ducked down by the Radcliffe Camera, and sped up Broad Street and into college. I could, I suppose, have used the door of the TV room, but that seemed anticlimactic, so I jumped through the open window and skidded to a halt among those sitting on the floor. Still 0-0 and not quite half an hour played, I was told as somebody shoved a beer into my hand.

That was the start of the best summer of my life – and not just in retrospect; it felt brilliant at the time. Part of it was Euro 96 of course. Part of it was finishing my first year at university. Part of it was being young and fit and having no responsibilities. Part of it was being in England, which was undergoing an unexpected – and, in retrospect, in parts faintly embarrassing – cultural renaissance thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst and Danny Boyle (although in all honesty, of those three, I only really cared about Boyle).

Later that afternoon, after England had won 2-0 and Gazza had scored that final totem of his talent, flicking the ball over Colin Hendry and volleying it in from the edge of the box, I fell asleep playing in goal during a kickabout on the Master’s Field, overcome by the adrenaline comedown and a sudden intake of alcohol. The day England beat the Netherlands 4-1, I’d fallen in the river trying to manoeuvre a punt after a long boozy picnic lunch in the botanical gardens. 

Part of it was getting drunk and having fun, but it was more than that. Maybe we’re all daft and optimistic at that stage of life, but that really felt like a golden age. The Conservative government that had been in power since 1979 had a year left to run but was clearly on its last legs. We all had a profound hope that Tony Blair had found a way to be both electable and left-wing(ish), an optimism that perhaps was never wholly justified.

It just seemed like the world was becoming a better place. The Cold War was over and democracy had come to eastern Europe. The economic outlook was good. The internet had just been invented. Even when an IRA bomb exploded in Manchester on the morning of that England-Scotland game, there was a sense that it was a last desperate flail by hardliners as the peace process went on.

As it turned out, there would only be one further bombing – at the Thiepval barracks in Lisburn that October – by the Provisional IRA; the few attacks that came after – Omagh most notably – were carried out by splinter groups. (It’s says much for the fallibility of memory that, checking the newspapers for that day for a piece in 2006, I was stunned to learn the Manchester bombing had been on that day.)

And football, without doubt, was a better place. Frustration at an economic model that meant only the very richest had a chance of winning anything hadn’t set in and the memory of crumbling terraces and the three great tragedies of the eighties was fresh enough that few were too upset by move to modern all-seater stadiums.

Symbolically, of course, it was Gazza’s tears at Italia 90 that washed away the sins of English football. Red-faced, plump and prone to scabrous outbursts, he was the footballer as one of us. You could have taken him off the pitch at Italia 90 and dumped him with the fans in a Cagliari bar and he’d have blended in seamlessly. To the romantics, Gazza represented a new Englishness. After the years of hooliganism and misery, of joyless football, here was somebody of almost stereotypical English appearance who stood not for violence, but for beauty. And here he was, denied his coronation, reacting not with fury, not by cursing or by lashing out, but by weeping. “If you believe football is a noble pursuit,” the Independent reported, “Gascoigne, in that moment, was noble.” At another time, it would have seemed a childish act – as indeed it was, for Gascoigne was nothing if not a man-child – but at the time it felt redemptive.

And football needed redemption. In its darkest hour of 1985, after the very different tragedies of Bradford and Heysel, it felt like just another cornerstone of working-class life that was disappearing. Manufacturing was in decline, the mines were as good as finished, and shipbuilding was following them. Militancy and discontent were universal. The miners’ strike had come to an end, but the printers’ strike was brewing. The inner cities were volatile, erupting into riots in Handsworth, Brixton and Tottenham. Yet somehow, despite the misery and the anger, a Labour Party riddled by in-fighting failed seriously to threaten Margaret Thatcher.

But as the eighties went on, a different sort of fan was emerging, and making himself heard through fanzines, which mushroomed from just a handful in 1985 to over two hundred by the end of the decade. The author James Corbett suggests the birth of the acid-house scene and the widespread use of hallucinogens played a part in offering an alternative to those who would previously have got their kicks through violence. And perhaps it was simply the case that by the late eighties, Britain had become a less angry, less violent place. If you weren’t fighting police on the picket-lines, why would you fight them on the terraces?

England games still attracted trouble, and the 1988 European Championship in Germany was marred by rioting involving England fans, but there was a growing sense that, inexcusable as most of the violence was, at least some of it was provoked by opposing fans and nervous foreign police – and, moreover, that much of what did happen was misrepresented by newspapers eager for easy news.

At club level, though, football seemed slowly to be rallying. A 1989 survey by the Football Supporters Association showed that 77% of fans believed hooliganism was down on five years earlier. Then came Hillsborough, the worst of all England’s football disasters caused, at least in part, by the measures taken to combat hooliganism. This time, it really couldn’t get any worse.

Lord Justice Taylor’s report into that tragedy, published in January 1990, recommended the move to all-seater stadiums and demanded the removal of security fences, which he said effectively treated fans as “prisoners-of-war”. Although clubs quibbled over the cost, the report was instrumental in making stadiums places people actually wanted to visit, and as such was a major contributory factor in the nineties boom.

But the green shoots were also visible on the pitch. Three months before Gazza’s tears, on Palm Sunday, April 8, English football enjoyed a rare festival day, as the two FA Cup semi-finals were, for the first time, both shown live on television. The FA had previously rejected all calls for the semis to be staggered, insisting that the spirit of the Cup demanded teams should not go into a game knowing who they would face in the final, but the disaster at Hillsborough the previous season persuaded them at last to give in to the demands of television. It was lucky: they were two brilliant games, Crystal Palace beating Liverpool 4-3 and Oldham drawing 3-3 with Manchester United. “Palm Sunday,” David Lacey wrote in the Guardian, “has witnessed the rebirth… For the past year memories of Hillsborough have hung over the English game like a shroud…. Take a brilliantly sunny if chilly day, four sets of enthusiastic and well-behaved supporters, attacking football on all sides and one shock with maybe another to come, and all seems right with the world of football.”

Television proved the greatest driving force behind reform. The formation of the Premier League, that divide that was placed between the elite and the rest, was initially planned with the backing of the commercial terrestrial station ITV. In the end it was the satellite channel BSkyB who funded it and from 1992 there has been no live top-flight football on free-to-air television. 

The revenues that generated – and the recommendations of the Taylor Report – led to investment in stadiums and gradually in playing staff, increasingly from overseas, the beginning of the movement towards the situation we see today, with only around a third of players in the Premier League being qualified to play for England while the likes of Swansea and Stoke can sign players from Marseille and Bayern Munich. 

Did we recognise then what the consequences may be, the sapping of atmosphere and the sense that a tiny elite existed that the vast majority of the 92 league clubs couldn’t hope to aspire to be among? Probably not, but even if we had I suspect many may have welcomed the move away from the days when watching football meant living always amid the stench of urine, stale beer and potential danger. 

And at Euro 96, it all came together. Terry Venables’s England played – at least for two and a half games – exciting, fluid, modern football. It was sunny. Stadiums became a place of excitement and wonder, not of threat. Everybody had fun (or at least that was the perception; the rioting after the semi-final tended to be conveniently overlooked). England may have been awful at Euro 92 and have failed to qualify for the 94 World Cup, but this was the harvest of Italia 90. Thirty years from the last tournament England had hosted and won, here, perhaps, was another.

I watched the quarter-final win over Spain in the TV room at university, joining the mass sigh of relief as Stuart Pearce scored his redemptive penalty in the shoot-out victory. By the time of the semi-final, I was back home in Sunderland. The endless summer of books and booze and picnics and football, that gilded time from the end of exams till the restart of reality, lasted 10 days. I watched that game in the living room with my dad. Alan Shearer headed in a corner after three minutes. At college, there’d have been a melee of ecstasy. My dad glanced up from the paper he always put between himself and televised football and muttered, “Too early.” And of course he was right. He’d long since put aside any belief that football could bring joy.

Perhaps the death of optimism is just what happens when you reach middle age, that you recognise how cruel and capricious the world can be, how the brightest dreams are sullied and perverted, and so cynicism becomes the natural mode. But in the summer of 1996, it felt like everything was moving in the right direction. Perhaps every generation goes through this, but looking back, two decades on, it’s hard to escape the thought that we blew it. 

It’s seems incredible now that that was half my lifetime ago. There’s still an irrational part of me that assumes that at some point the legacy of 96 will be built upon. It won’t, of course, and so for now Euro 96 stands as the centre-piece of a rare period of hope. That, perhaps, as much as the football, is why people of my generation remember it with such fondness.

This article appeared on Episode Forty One of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.