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A tribute to Europe’s strangest continental competition…

I found myself even more appalled than usual by the shabby nature of Channel Five’s UEFA Cup coverage last night. I mean, awful commentary and even worse punditry are a given on any match covered by Five, but what really struck a nerve was the apparent inability of the summarising commentators during the Portsmouth and Everton games to understand the away goals rule. After Portsmouth had brought the score back to 2-2 during extra time (which put them 4-2 up on aggregate) the summariser, whose name I can’t remember, declared that it was looking good for Portsmouth because now Guimaraes had to score twice in less than 10 minutes if they wanted to take the game to penalties. At the start of the Everton game (which was 2-2 on aggregate at the start of the night) the summariser was suggesting that Everton might employ cautious tactics in an effort to suffocate Standard Liege’s high tempo game and play for penalties. I have to assume that these two summarisers were once footballers themselves and so must have come across the away goals rule at some point in their careers, but even if they haven’t this is an awful gaffe for anyone to make, let alone two people on the same night who are supposed to know a thing or two about the game. Truly astonishing.

Anyway, enough of that. Something else which caught my attention last night was the revelation that Guimaraes did not represent Portsmouth’s first European opponents. That honour it so happens went to those giants of continental club football, Charlton Athletic in the first round of the 1992-93 Anglo-Italian Cup, perhaps the most pointless and ridiculous European competition ever created. Try to imagine the Intertoto Cup being played mid-season and without the prize of a place in the UEFA cup for the winners and you’d be on the right track. However, the mention of a tournament that everyone seems to have forgotten about but which provided European competition for such unglamorous clubs as Tranmere Rovers, Notts County and Port Vale has inspired me to take a closer look at this competition, hoping to discover why it came about and why it no longer exists.

The inaugural Anglo-Italian Cup was actually contested as far back as 1970. The competition came about as a result of a disagreement between the English Football Association and UEFA over the European governing body’s refusal to allow Swindon Town, winners of the 1969 Football League Cup, into the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (now the UEFA Cup) because they were in England’s Third Division. The FA soon stuck a deal with their Italian counterparts to stage an annual competition between the teams from outside both country’s top divisions. The competition ran for four seasons before it was abandoned in 1973 with Swindon Town, Blackpool, AS Roma and Newcastle United (See! They have won a trophy during the era of colour television! They truly are a massive club!) winning one tournament each.

So marked the end of the first Anglo-Italian Cup. However, the tournament was to be resurrected in 1975 as a competition for English and Italian semi-professional teams. Running until 1987 this competition was dominated by the Italians, with Sutton United in 1979 providing the only English winners. An interesting side note to this competition should be that the inaugural final in 1976 featured Wimbledon, who only 12 years later would be winning the FA Cup against a Liverpool team many considered to be among the best teams in Europe. A remarkable rise indeed.

The professional Anglo-Italian Cup was to make a return in 1992 as a replacement for the Full Members Cup, a competition for the teams in the top two divisions of the Football League, which had been wound up after the formation of the Premiership had seen England’s top division break away from the Football League. The new Anglo-Italian Cup was to be contested by the teams from England’s First Division and Italy’s Serie B. The competition began with a preliminary group stage after which 8 English teams and 8 Italian teams would remain. Four groups of four teams, all comprising entirely of clubs from one country, would then be drawn with the English and Italian teams competing home and away in a round-robin style tournament with the eventual top team in each group advancing to the semi finals. Clubs from the same country played against each other in the semi finals in order to guarantee an international final, which was always held at Wembley. Again, the Italian clubs were to dominate with Notts County in 1994-95 providing England’s only winners. However, the competition was only to last for four years. A general indifference towards the competition existed between the clubs in both countries, who viewed it as a time consuming distraction from the domestic leagues and cup competitions. Fans also criticised the pointlessness of the competition, with no major prize awaiting the victors, and were put off by the violence that often accompanied the fixtures. The subsequent poor crowds for all but the final stages of the competition and the fact that it was not covered on any major television network meant that the tournament was not cost effective and was abandoned for good in 1996. While it was a commercial failure, the Anglo-Italian Cup did provide the opportunity for many clubs who would otherwise not have had the chance; to test themselves against continental opposition and provided Portsmouth with their first “European” tie, a 3-1 win over Charlton Athletic, more than 15 years before last night’s terribly analysed tussle with Guimaraes, something which the club and its fans should never forget.

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