Last Cup Of Sorrow – The Story Of The Anglo-Italian Cup

The arrival of the 1990s provided something of a watershed for English football. The national side had shone at Italia ‘90, club sides were once again able to compete in Europe after a five-year ban, and Channel 4’s live Italian football coverage beamed a host of new names and faces into our living rooms for the first time; not to mention the introduction of the Premier League, which promised us a whole new ball game.

However, as Genoa defeated Port Vale on March 17th, 1996 it also brought the curtain down on one of the most poorly organised and shambolic tournaments in the history of the game, often remembered more for its violence and chaotic nature than its football; the short-lived and often un-loved Anglo-Italian Cup.

When Arsenal’s Ian Ure played a suicidal back-pass to Bob Wilson on a pudding of a pitch at Wembley against Swindon in the 1969 League Cup final, not only did he help to gift the Third Division side the trophy, he also set off a chain of events that brought about the introduction of one of the most ridiculed and derided competitions ever.

As winners of the League Cup that year, Swindon should have progressed to the following season’s Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the precursor to the UEFA Cup, but their lower league status meant that, like QPR two years previously, they would miss out on trips to glamorous and far flung places like Milan and Rome. Or would they?

Aware of the public outrage that had greeted the decision to deny QPR a European place the Football League were forced into something of a compromise and set-about devising what can only be described as a less attractive alternative, which would ultimately last for the next quarter of a century or so. The trophy was the brainchild of Calabria-born Luigi Peronace, an Italian based in London who had made his name as a football super-agent before anyone really knew what an agent was. As a teenager, Peronace had arranged football games between British troops based in Italy during the war before going on to study engineering in Turin.

Gigi Peronace with Jimmy Greaves

It was while at University that he first became involved in professional football, when Juventus offered him the role of translator for their Scottish manager William Chalmers, before Lazio offered him the position of Head of Transfer Dealings. He would go on to broker deals that took Jimmy Greaves from Chelsea to AC Milan, John Charles to Juventus and Denis Law to Torino.

Having long campaigned for some kind of inter-continental competition between Italian and English teams, often to no avail, the Football League were now willing to listen as they looked to solve the problem of a team who had qualified for Europe but were not allowed to actually play with the big boys.

The solution resembled an international Charity Shield as Swindon played Coppa Italia winners Roma in a two-legged affair. Fresh from their Wembley triumph and promotion to the Second Division, the Robins comfortably saw off their more glamorous opponents; and in the process brought about the creation of what was to ultimately become known as the Anglo-Italian Cup.

Roma v Swindon Town, Anglo-Italian Cup 1969

The tournament was quickly expanded to include twelve teams, six from England and six from Italy, divided into three groups, each with two English and two Italian teams who would play each other home and away. Based on those results, an English league and an Italian league would be calculated, and the best performing clubs would face each other in the final.

It wasn’t just the format that was revolutionary as a number of key rule changes would ensure the competition would be quirky if nothing else. The offside rule was adapted so that it only came into effect inside the penalty area, while five substitutes could be named and squad numbers were introduced, long before the Premier League followed suit.

But Peronace’s masterstroke came in the way that points were allocated. As was the norm at the time, two points were awarded for a win, but a bonus point would also be added for each goal scored, win, lose or draw. Not surprisingly the move sparked many a high scoring match, while also adding something of a comical element to all the romance that surrounded fixtures like Blackpool vs. Bologna.

In its infancy, the tournament appeared to be incredibly one sided as the big guns of Serie A were matched up with the likes of Swindon, West Bromwich Albion and Wolves. However, a combination of apathy from many of the Italian participants and an eagerness from the English contingent to make a name for themselves on the continent meant that many more than held their own.

In the very first Anglo-Italian Cup, Swindon Town carried on where they had left off by beating Juventus 4-0 in Wiltshire and 1-0 in the return in Turin, Sheffield Wednesday defeated Napoli 4-3 in a thriller that was witnessed by over 10,000 people at Hillsborough, while West Brom hammered Roma 4-0 in one of the results of the season.

The inaugural final would be contested between Swindon and Napoli, a side they had already beaten earlier in the tournament, and despite several of the Italian’s key players being away on international duty a crowd of 55,000 turned up at the Stadio San Paolo on May 28th, 1970. Swindon were 3–0 up after 63 minutes, when violence started to break out on the terraces; the match had to be abandoned after 79 minutes, with Swindon being declared as the first winners of the tournament.

Ultimately, 40 police officers and 60 fans were hurt in the violence with dozens arrested, leading to Napoli being banned from European football for a further two years. Swindon, though, had been crowned champions, an honour that still fills those who took part with pride. “It was a nice cup, I’ll give them that,” beamed Town striker and club legend Don Rogers some years later. “I got given a lovely gold medal, which is now on my wife’s bracelet.”

English success didn’t end there as Blackpool brought the trophy back to the Lancashire seaside the following year after a successful campaign that had seen them beat Bologna in the final. In his autobiography, former Blackpool goalkeeper John Burridge points out that, in its infancy, the tournament was regarded as something of a major honour; waxing lyrical about the competition, “Budgie” talks of his triumph with Blackpool as one of the greatest moments in his career.

Blackpool made the final again in 1972, losing the final to Roma but by 1973 interest had begun to wane. The one point per goal system had been scrapped and a general lack of appetite for more football, other than the usual league and cup offerings meant that attendances began to fall. With qualification for the 1974 World Cup finals under way, the Football League decided that enough was enough and pulled the plug just after Newcastle United had beaten Fiorentina 2-1 in Florence to claim the trophy.

In its early years, the competition had been played in the summer months, straight after a full domestic season due to the re-scheduling of 1970 World Cup in Mexico. With a longer summer break on their hands English and Italian clubs had seen the opportunity for an extra club competition which they hoped would generate more income, with little regard for the welfare of the players or the financial limitations of the fans.

But after just three years the Anglo-Italian Cup had become more trouble than it was worth. Players were exhausted, fans were bored, not to mention pretty hard-up after a long campaign following their team, and for Italian clubs there was little benefit compared to the Intertoto Cup – which at least offered the reward of a place in Europe.

Strangely, though, despite this apparent lack of interest, after a three-year hiatus, the Anglo-Italian Cup was back, but even though the name was the same, something was very different. It was now strictly an amateur affair and if the authorities were looking to inject a little enthusiasm into a tournament that had struggled to capture the public’s imagination, they had gone a funny way about it.

Only one English team would win the cup again, Sutton United in 1979, and after something of a farcical decade which saw the trophy contested by the likes of Wimbledon, Bath City, Chieti and Triestina, the Anglo-Italian Cup ran into trouble once again. Between 1976 and 1986, the cup had four different names; The Alitalia Challenge Cup, The Talbot Cup, and the Gigi Peronace Memorial Trophy, following his death in 1980. Steadily, the number of teams dropped to four, and in 1981 the format was changed to incorporate just two semi-finals and a final.

If the writing wasn’t already on the wall, the ban on English clubs entering European competition following the tragic scenes at the Heysel Stadium prior to the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus on May 29th, 1985 which led to the deaths of 39 people, would prove to be the last straw. With no English involvement the tournament was, unsurprisingly, scrapped once again.

But as the game’s popularity rose to levels previously unknown in the early 1990s, mostly due to the England national side’s decent showing at the World Cup in Italy, the introduction of the FA Premier League and also a new interest in Italian football thanks to Channel 4’s Gazzetta Football Italia, the Anglo-Italian Cup climbed back up off the canvas, like a prize fighter that just won’t stay down, as the 1992-1993 season dawned.

Admittedly, football was now in a very different place from when the competition got its first run out. The game was cuddlier, more fan-friendly and there was an air of optimism surrounding the sport, so it was only natural that fans wanted the opportunity to see their side compete against overseas opposition after being in the wilderness for so long.

But what was on offer resembled more of a sweetener in a bitter divorce settlement and it seemed the tournament was only really revived in order to offer hope to second-flight sides who were about to see those in the league above them ride off into the sunset on a wave of optimism and television money.

Mirroring the original tournament, it again became a professional set-up, open only to teams in England and Italy’s second tier. The format would switch dramatically as a preliminary tournament was also created; all 24 English First Division teams were divided into eight groups, playing each other twice with the top team advancing with two groups of four, leaving a mixture of Italian and English teams remaining.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, after each team played its opposing nation’s teams, the best English team in each group faced off in the semi-final with the best Italian sides, with the winners enjoying a day out at Wembley for the final. With the competition now running alongside the regular league season it finally had the feel of a proper tournament about it and after the slightly stagnated preliminary round the first final at Wembley would be played on March 27, 1993, and saw Derby County outclassed by Cremonese as an impressive crowd of 37,024 saw the Italians prevail 3-1.

The Anglo-Italian Cup was back and was even able to boast such names as Gabriel Batistuta, Oliver Bierhoff and Gheorghe Hagi along with huge clubs like Genoa and Fiorentina, but the honeymoon period didn’t last. In one of his final appearances before leaving for Barcelona, Hagi helped Brescia dispose of Notts County in the 1994 final in front of just over 17,000 fans at Wembley, under half the previous year’s attendance, as interest appeared to be on the slide once again.

Not only were attendances down but those who did bother to turn out were now using the tournament as a place to let off steam at a time when top-flight football was accused of pandering to the middle-classes and pricing out its traditional core support.

Away from the cameras and spotlight of top-flight fixtures, too many fans now saw the Anglo-Italian Cup as a battleground where they could release some pent-up anger and aggression with much of what press coverage there was focusing on the number of arrests and injuries in the stands rather than results on the field of play.

It wasn’t just off the pitch that trouble flared either. One of the most memorable matches in the Anglo-Italian Cup’s third incarnation was a clash between Ancona and Birmingham in 1995. The Blues stormed into a 2-0 lead, which angered the opposition, but things really boiled over when Paul Tait reacted badly to a foul by Marco Sesia, with almost every player on the pitch, not to mention the Italians’ manager, becoming involved in a huge brawl.

The final whistle ended the game but not the trouble as the fighting intensified after the game. The police were called and several City players and staff were arrested before fleeing the country. Despite the “Battle of Ancona” it wasn’t all bad with Notts County winning the trophy after defeating Ascoli 2-1 at Wembley that year; though it was to be the last hurrah for an English side in the ill-fated tournament as the Anglo-Italian Cup took its final bow in 1996.

Genoa triumphed 5-2 against Port Vale at Wembley that year after the group stages had thrown up some truly unique and farcical match-ups in which both Brescia and Salernitana won at Stoke, Southend travelled to Salernitana, Ipswich Town rolled back their European glory years by hosting Reggiana and Luton were thrashed by Perugia.

In truth, the Anglo-Italian Cup might have been revived at a time of huge popularity for the game but, ironically, it was football’s incredible success during that period that proved to be the death knell for the tournament as the newly created Champions League and FA Premier League swept all before it. Put simply, it just couldn’t compete.

Over the course of the competition’s various forms, the Anglo-Italian Cup was the subject of ridicule and bemusement thanks to its seemingly nonsensical format; but that doesn’t mean it should be derided entirely. If nothing else it gave English sides and their fans the chance to face glamorous opponents they’d probably never met before at a time when it wasn’t possible to watch the likes of Roma, Genoa and Inter every week.

Swindon supporters who saw their side beat Juventus in Italy will never forget those scenes, nor those who watched Carlisle defeat Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, and for anyone else who remembers a competition that was a little bit clumsy at best, that still provided the odd moment of genuine romance, there will always be an element of fondness for the Anglo-Italian Cup.

MATTHEW CRIST – @Matthewjcrist

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