Then came Arsenal's stirring triumph against Sampdoria in Genoa on Thursday night, and the English football garden suddenly looked much rosier.
But, while Arsenal have still not been knocked out of European competition by an Italian club, almost everyone else has. When English clubs were banned from Europe after the Heysel tragedy they were the dominant force in Europe. One of the reasons "You'll never walk alone" and "Now you're gonna believe us" have become staples of Europe's Kops and Curva Suds is that they spent years listening to English supporters singing them.
In the five years before Heysel every other final featured an English club. In the five years since they have reached three of 15 (Arsenal twice, and Manchester United once). Most countries have maintained steady figures but the Italian contribution has more than trebled: this season's Cup- Winners' Cup final, between Arsenal and Real Zaragoza, is only the second European climax without an Italian club in four years and 12 finals.
One reason, as English clubs once found, is that success breeds success through producing more income, attracting better players, and earning more places in Europe. Had Milan not been both domestic and European champions there would have been eight Italian clubs in Europe this season. England, boosted by Arsenal's inclusion as holders, had six, Scotland four.
If Arsenal win in Paris on 10 May, England will have seven sides in Europe next season (plus, possibly, another through the Inter-Toto Cup). But in the major competition, the Champions' Cup, there will only be one side. This is where England's European record has really declined: eight finalists and seven winners in the nine finals before Heysel, not a sniff since. It may not be a coincidence that Arsenal and Manchester United have both prospered in the European Cup-Winners' Cup, a competition which lacks the quality of the Champions' Cup and the depth of the Uefa Cup.
The difference between the competitions has been underlined in the last few days. On Wednesday Milan brushed aside a Paris St-Germain team which had themselves cruised past Barcelona, 4-0 destroyers of Manchester United earlier this season.
Such a string of results can be misleading but, judging by the evidence of Arsenal's Super Cup matches with Milan earlier this year, that is not the case. Milan, showing the surer touch and awareness of movement that often characterises matches between European and English teams, were demonstrably superior. The almost friendly nature of the trophy meant Arsenal's renowned resilience was not at full throttle but neither was Milan's explosive verve.
It is no shame to lose to Milan, but it is a measure of how far we have slipped behind. What is encouraging about Milan is their continued demonstration of how the staple 4-4-2 (so English we named a magazine after it) can be a platform for brilliance.
Terry Venables, the England coach, promotes the Christmas Tree formation as the way to play the international game but Milan have shown that, with the right players, 4-4-2 is full of potential. Since this is the way Premiership teams from Norwich to Blackburn play, more consideration might be given to utilising it for England. We are blessed with more bright young forwards than for years, yet the national team has scored four goals in its last five-and- a-bit games.
The odd thing is that relegation-bound Norwich play more like Milan than Blackburn, the champions-elect. Short-passing, notably between defenders, is the rule. Unfortunately for Norwich they do not have the same calibre of player (and would probably sell them if they did). Not many teams do. The Montenegrin Dejan Savicevic, more a Peter Beardsley with added goals than an Alan Shearer, would be a favourite as European player of the year if he was able to find a wider stage in international football.
At the back the flexibility and comfort on the ball so common to foreign defenders is also evident. When Mauro Tassotti was injured after 13 minutes on Wednesday the reorganisation required Christian Panucci to go from left-back to right-back, Paolo Maldini to switch from the centre to the left, and Franco Baresi to accommodate a new partner in the middle. Yet the marking, pressing, and offside trap remained as effective as ever. How many English full-backs can play in the centre? How many full-backs can switch flanks? One England player simply refused to do so in the last European Championship.
In Henning Berg, Chris Sutton, Graeme Le Saux and Jeff Kenna Blackburn do have unusually flexible English League - if not all English - players. It would seem they will represent England in the Champions' League next year though, unlike Manchester United, they may have to negotiate a preliminary round tie to get there.
Judged on their Continental experience so far - the ignominious defeat to part-time Trelleborgs - Blackburn might not even reach the league stage. Many of their domestic performances suggest they have neither the wit nor the nerve needed to succeed in Europe.
But there is hope. Richard Witschge is a significant signing. The Dutch midfielder is yet to play since signing on loan but his experience could be invaluable. In Europe they may be best served by playing Kevin Gallacher, should he recover from the broken leg sustained on Thursday, with Shearer, and Chris Sutton at the back.
Of the likely English competitors Nottingham Forest, if they can retain Stan Collymore, look the best equipped, though Manchester United would do well if they end up in the Cup-Winners' Cup.
Experience is crucial at this level. On Wednesday one journalist recalled seeing Liverpool outwitted by Internazionale at the San Siro in 1965 by Giacinto Facchetti stepping up from the back. Liverpool, only recently emerged from the Second Division, did not know how to cope and lost a 3-1 first-leg lead. But, in time, they learned.
That experience, and a belief in one another, is what got Milan through the Champions' League when they were suffering their World Cup hangover in the autumn. The same qualities helped carry Arsenal past Auxerre and Sampdoria.
Their supporters, too, showed the same fibre. Many of them were cooped in their coaches for three hours before the game, others endured an additional three-hour journey after poor weather diverted flights via Milan. After the game there was more waiting, suffocating policing meant none left Genoa until at least one in the morning, two hours after David Seaman had sent them into raptures. They appeared to behave impeccably throughout.
When they arrived at Stansted in the early hours of yesterday morning, Stewart Houston was one of the first people they thanked. The caretaker- manager has carried himself through a trying two months with great dignity. It is to be hoped none of the directors were flying back thinking: "How can we sack him after that?"Reuse content