They finished 13 points clear of the host nation, who had been hoping to win a fourth consecutive title on home soil, with Britain's women coming third behind Russia and Germany with Kelly Holmes, in the 1500 metres, matching Sally Gunnell's victory of the previous day.
On a rainswept day, what pushed the British men beyond the second place they have occupied on the last five occasions was the performance of their lesser known members. While Linford Christie, Jonathan Edwards, Roger Black and Steve Backley all delivered the expected maximum points from their events, the bonuses came from the likes of Robert Weir, who took second place in the discus, Mark Sesay, who marked his international debut with third place in a strong 800m field, and, most dramatically, Robert Hough, who won the 3,000m steeplechase.
Hough, like Sesay, making his British debut at the age of 25, turned overall victory into a probability rather than a possibility with his astounding effort, holding off Italy's Olympic bronze medallist Alessandro Lambruschini on the run-in to finish in 8min 35.03sec.
"If you had told me beforehand that I would beat Lambruschini to win it, I would have said you were barking mad," a dazed Hough said afterwards.
Asked to recall his previous best performance, Hough had to stop and think. It was, he said, winning the AAA under-20 title five years ago.
Having studied German at Sheffield University, Hough was entitled to feel more at home here than many of his team-mates. But he admitted that he had been nervous. He and Sesay had shared their anxieties beforehand. "We agreed we were not experienced athletes at this level and we were both nervous," Hough said. "I think I was only sixth on the projected scores. I can't believe the way things went."
He took the last water jump like a Kenyan, hurdling it rather than putting his foot down, but the Italian, who has won his previous four European Cups, was still at his side until the final hurdle. "I hit it with my wrong foot," Hough said. "But he did too, and he was stumbling about so I was able to take it."
Sesay, whose progress since a highly successful junior career has been impeded by illness and injury, chased home the Olympic champion Vebjorn Rodal and Nico Motchebon, the German who broke the world indoor 800m record belonging to the man with whom Sesay has been - unfairly - compared, Sebastian Coe.
"I was ranked seventh in the field, and I was a nervous wreck beforehand," Sesay said. "I am so happy it is unbelievable. I have never been in that company before and I've proved I can run with them. I have learned now that I am going to be a world class 800m runner."
The day was rounded off by an expected victory for Britain in the 400m relay, but such was the overall performance that their points were surplus to requirements. The cup was secured by Andrew Pearson, third in the penultimate event, the 5000m.
Pearson, who took time out from his honeymoon to run here after getting married last Saturday week, ran a personal best of 13min 40.16sec. One of five Yorkshiremen in the team, he reacted impassively when told he had just won the cup for Britain. "Oh aye?" he said. He and his wife, Helen, will now resume their nuptial stay in Bamburgh, Northumberland.
Britain's men had begun the second day in fourth place, two and a half points down on the joint leaders, Russia and Spain, and a point below Germany. Victory was possible, rather than probable.
The British women, for whom Gunnell and Holmes both put their traumas of last year behind them with relief-laden wins, also did better than expected, having come here with the main task of avoiding the bottom two relegation places. The first-day performances of Donna Fraser, who ran a personal best to take second place in the 400m, and Janine Whitlock, who added seven centimetres to her British pole vault record, helped them establish a safe overnight position.
Jonathan Edwards, who won his triple jump with 17.74m, summed up the overall performance. "A lot of the criticism we had after Atlanta was unfair," he said. "People have come here today and said, `We are right up there in terms of world athletics'."
His sentiments were echoed by Britain's chief coach, Malcolm Arnold, whose day was edged with sadness that John Akii-Bua, the Ugandan whom he coached to the Olympic 400m hurdles title in this stadium 25 years ago, had died after a short illness.
"The sport has had its detractors and its beatings, some of it unwarranted," he said. "But ours is still the best performing sport in the country."
The British athletic supporters, devoted but not always vocal, were left singing in the rain to "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life", waving their little Union Jacks. Happy.Reuse content