Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Seemed like a good idea at the time...

If you think the game of football suffers from fixture congestion these days, think again. Once upon a time, football’s stuffed shirts were practically falling over themselves to organise a whole range of competitions to appeal to the great and the good.

It all started in earnest way back in 1938 with the Empire Exhibition Trophy. This was a one-off competition that invited four English and four Scottish teams to compete in an unofficial ‘Battle of Britain’. The idea was an appealing one at a time when European tournaments were still a long way off and there was no way to test your might against foreign opposition.

Fifteen years later, the format was repeated in the similarly popular Coronation Cup. In the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, eight teams gathered in Glasgow for the competition which culminated in Celtic winning outright, just as they’d done in 1938.

These were exploratory attempts at creating competitions with a commemorative bent, but the 1970’s would see a whole raft of imaginative contests that varied in necessity and significance.

The Watney Cup ran from 1970 to 1973 and was a knockout competition for the two highest-scoring teams from each division in England. As competitions go, this one was undeniably different to anything else that preceded it. For a start, some of the games in the Watney Cup were televised live, something of a rarity back in the early-1970s. Secondly, tied matches were decided by a penalty shoot-out - the first time the method had been used in a major competition anywhere in the world. And just to be even more different, the Final of the competition was staged at the ground of one of the competing teams, not at a neutral venue as is normally the case.

The Watney Cup also led the way in being one of the first competitions to be corporately sponsored. Another was the Texaco Cup, in which teams from the UK and Ireland that hadn’t qualified for Europe got the chance to play each other. Sadly, after a reasonable start that saw Wolves, Derby and Ipswich win the first few tournaments, interest waned and Texaco eventually withdrew their sponsorship.

The competition changed form slightly to become the Anglo-Scottish Cup in 1976, and was played pre-season between sides on either side of the border. Like the Texaco Cup before it, the Anglo-Scottish Cup also had a distinctive feature to help it stand out from other competitions, namely its scoring system. In addition to the ‘two points for a win, one for a draw’ way that was standard back then, English teams in the first round were also awarded three points if they scored three or more goals in a game. Something that would encourage livelier matches in the modern era, perhaps?

And if you think the habit of putting out weaker teams for low-priority tournaments is the scourge of the modern game, you’d be wrong again. In the 1977 Anglo-Scottish Cup, Newcastle United were expelled from the competition for doing just that. It wasn't long, though, before other clubs were losing interest in the Cup as the early 80’s saw more and more lower-league English teams being drafted in to make up the numbers. With only one Scottish winner of the competition - St.Mirren in 1980 - its days seemed numbered and in 1982, the competition was forced to change once again.

The Football League Group Trophy picked up where the Anglo-Scottish Cup had left off, and now it was just English teams involved from the bottom two divisions. The competition still runs to this day, however you may know it better by one of the six names that its adopted since 1984, i.e. The Freight Rover Trophy, The Sherpa Vans Trophy, The Leyland DAF Cup, The Autoglass Trophy, The Autowindscreens Shield or The LDV Vans Trophy. For good measure, the competition will take on another corporate sponsorship transformation in 2006/07 when it becomes the Jonhstone’s Paint Trophy.

Whatever you choose to call it, the competition has less interest in it these days than ever, despite offering lower-league teams the chance to play in a Millennium Stadium Final (or Wembley, as once was).

It takes a lot to persuade clubs that a new competition is worth its salt and this was never more evident than in the case of the ScreenSport Super Cup. After the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, six English clubs - Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham, Southampton and Norwich - were denied the chance to compete in Europe the following season.

As a form of sporting and financial recompense, satellite TV broadcasters ScreenSport proposed a tournament where all six teams could prove their worth against each other to fill the yawning gap in their match schedules. With the best will in the world, none of the clubs taking part could muster much enthusiasm, and when Liverpool defeated Everton in the two-legged Final, Ian Rush handed the trophy to an Everton ball-boy as he left the field, advising him to ‘put it in his bedroom’. So much for that, then.

Europe has been the focus for numerous competitions in the past, beginning in 1969 when Swindon Town, then in the Third Division, won the Football League Cup. UEFA rules dictated that no team from outside the top league of any competing country could qualify for their competitions, so in 1970 the Anglo-Italian Cup was born.

Running for just four seasons, the Anglo-Italian Cup gave lesser sides in England and Italy the chance to enjoy a modicum of European competition and in its brief history it was the English sides that tended to come out on top. Swindon, Blackpool and Newcastle all got their hands on the silverware, but in addition there was also an Anglo-Italian League Cup running in parallel which lasted until 1976. Spurs and Swindon (again) can claim to have reaped the rewards of that contest in its day.

Although the Anglo-Italian Cup made a brief comeback in the early-1990’s, it never caught the imagination and soon returned to take its place in footballing history as one of those competitions that never quite went ‘big time’. It goes to prove that for every FA Cup there’s always a Full Members Cup vying for our attention and for every Home International Championship there’s a Rous Cup skulking away in the corner.

Do we need so many tournaments in the modern game? Maybe not, but it’s fair to say that all those that have tried and failed have at least livened things up for a while. They’ve not all been worthless, especially those that tried to pioneer new developments. Just think - if the Ford Sporting League had lasted more than one season (1970-71), we could all be seeing teams getting deducted a point for unsportsmanlike behaviour these days. I wonder if anyone would have finished the season with a points total higher than zero?

1 comment:

Smart said...

Amazing how in those days, they loved an excuse for another trophy for the sake of raising money.

Nowadays, with so much money about, some quarters are asking for LESS competitions and matches.


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