Tuesday, November 03, 2015

An Anglo-Italian Love Affair

The Anglo-Italian Cup of 1973 featured; Manchester United, Luton Town, Hull City, Crystal Palace, Bari, Fiorentina, Lazio, Verona, Newcastle United, Fulham, Oxford United, Blackpool, Bologna, Como, Roma, and Torino. Image from here.

In the early nineties, many football fans were unknowingly taken on the perfect blind date. Upon first impressions, it didn't appear like a date at all. For starters, it was a somewhat low-key daytime affair. No alcohol, just a picturesque cafe terrace and a cappuccino. Over the course of the relationship, we were read the news, shown all around Italy, and introduced to friends such as; Vialli, Baggio, Maldini, Zola, and Gascoigne. Everyone has a friend like Gascoigne. In our heart of hearts, we all knew the offering was way out of our league - all foreign flair and bilingual intelligence - but it didn't matter. We were captivated. James Richardson had set us all up with Italian football, and we were very quickly head over heels. By the mid nineties, Italian teams and players were household names, and grown men up and down the country were reciting Channel Four's theme song.

However, there was a another Anglo-Italian love affair long before 1992. Much like a forgettable first encounter, it is recalled by very few, and cast in a haze when its discussed. Thankfully, it didn't involve any household names, and, for the most part, wasn't broadcast on television. It was, of course, the Anglo-Italian Cup, or Coppa Anglo-Italiana in Italy. The competition for second, third, and even non-league teams of England and Italy to come together and share their own hot and steamy European nights. 

Surely, no other club competition in the world could throw together potential couples such as; Pisa v Middlesborough, Portsmouth v Fiorentina, and Blackpool v AS Roma. Not to mention; Monza v Wimbledon, Sutton United v Cheiti, and Genoa v Port Vale. While at first impression they seem wrong and mismatched, lingering thoughts provide an excited curiosity.
Cremonese and West Ham United face their 'Cilla Black moment' before a 1992 date night. Image from here.

For what essentially became a clumsily organised, and unloved football competition, it may come as a surprise to know the Anglo-Italian Cup was first played in 1970. The roots of the competition stem from the success of third-tier English League Cup winners, Queens Park Rangers, in the late sixties. At the time UEFA forbid third tier clubs to compete in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the UEFA Cup fore-runner, which left QPR without the promised land of European football.

When third tier Swindon Town won the League Cup two years later, they were due to suffer the same fate as QPR. However, the ever-opportunistic Gigi Peronace seized the moment, and arranged the cup winners a taste of Europe, in the shape of a two-legged 'Anglo-Italian League Cup Final' in the summer of 1969. An end-of-season English-Italian Charity Shield, if you will. Swindon's opposition came in the shape of Coppa Italia winners, AS Roma, and the Robins stormed to a memorable 5-2 aggregate win.

As a founding father, history presents Gigi Peronace as something of a calcio-loving Del Boy figure. Native of Calabria, and regularly referred to as 'football's first real agent', he was an English-speaking goalkeeper during his playing days. When British troops moved into the area during World War Two, Peronace regularly organised matches for them against local opposition. By the late forties, Peronace had ventured north to study engineering in Turin, and a chance encounter saw him appointed as interpreter for Juventus' Scottish manager, Billy Chalmers. Peronace was kept on in a similar role for Chalmers' successor, the English Jesse Carver who led Juve to the 1949/50 Scudetto. After a brief separation, Carver and Peronace were reunited at Torino, where the latter was employed as Business Manager. As contacts and opportunity came knocking, the late fifties and early sixties saw Peronace largely responsible for many high profile player transfers between Britain and Italy, most notably; John Charles (Leeds Utd to Juventus), Jimmy Greaves (Chelsea to AC Milan), Denis Law (Manchester City to Torino), manager Alec Stock (Leyton Orient to AS Roma), and Denis Law (Torino to Manchester Utd).
Luigi 'Gigi' Peronace. Image from here.

By the late sixties, Peronace, had come to moving and shaking clubs aswell as players, and wasn't the only one pleased with the relative success of the 'Anglo-Italian League Cup'. In 1970, his fledgling competition became, simply, 'The Anglo-Italian Cup', and was immediately expanded to include twelve teams, six from England and six from Italy. Once divided into three groups, each including two English and two Italian teams, the English teams would play the Italian teams, home and away. Based on those results, an English league and an Italian league would be calculated, and the best performing English and Italian clubs would face each other in the final. Peronace's stroke of genius came in the way points were totted up. 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. 

As you might expect, this provided the spark for many a high scoring match, thus adding a slightly comical element to all the romance and randomness of fixtures like Blackpool v Roma.

Napoli and Swindon Town contested the first Anglo-Italian final on 28th May 1970, and regrettably, it set something of a trend for the football being overshadowed by violence on the terraces. With Swindon leading 3-0 in the sixty-fifth minute, the match was abandoned as a heavy shower of wooden blocks, concrete, and bottles rained down, and victory awarded to the English club.
Swindon Town boss, Fred Ford, bravely parades the trophy in Naples 1970. Image from here.

The 1971 and 1972 editions followed the same format, and heralded one winner from each country. Blackpool were 2-1 winners against Bologna in 1971, and were runners-up the following year, losing 3-1 against Roma. Clubs from both countries were making full use of Peronace's points system, with notable and quite frankly, mad, games such as; Swindon Town 4-0 Juventus, Blackpool 10-0 Vicenza, Leicester City 6-0 Atalanta, Atlanta 5-3 Leicester City, and Sheffield Wednesday 4-3 SSC Napoli.

Somewhat regrettably, the points-for-goals rule was scrapped in 1973, but the competition was expanded to sixteen teams. This meant four groups in the original format, but also meant additional knock-out rounds; an English Semi-Final, and an Italian Semi-Final. After beating Bologna and Crystal Palace in their respective semi-finals, Newcastle United and Fiorentina contested the final. The English club prevailed, a 2-1 victory, in what looked like the only the fourth but last ever Anglo-Italian Cup.

It's worth remembering these early competitions were played in the summer months, straight after a full domestic season. The cause of this was related to the re-scheduling of 1970's FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Presented with a longer summer break due to a slightly earlier World Cup, English and Italian clubs jumped at the chance for extra club competition to simply make a lira, a pound, or two. Just three years later, and the Anglo-Italian Cup had become more fuss than it was worth. Players were tired, fans were tired of tired players, and for Italian clubs, the Intertoto Cup was seen as more meaningful and time worthy.

However, after a three year hiatus, the Anglo-Italian Cup was back in 1976. Well, sort of. The name was the same, but something was different. Like an ageing rock band, dragged dazed and confused back to the stage, the magic was gone. The football was slower, clumsy even. The stadiums were smaller, and still only half full. From 1976, and for a whole decade, the Anglo-Italian Cup was to be strictly a non-league affair. 

At this point, its worth noting there was similar tournament pre-dating the Anglo-Italian Cup. The Coppa Ottorino Barassi was another non-league Anglo-Italian affair. Named after the Italian who played a big part in organising the first FIFA World Cup in 1934, and hid the Jules Rimet trophy in a shoebox under his bed when the nazi's came calling, the Coppa Ottorino Barassi was a one-match 'final' played annually between the English FA Amateur Trophy winners, and the winners of the Italian equivalent, the Coppa Italia Dilettanti, it had been played since 1968. The 1976 final between Tilbury and Soresinesi, was the last before the competition was abandoned, and thus paving the way for non-league teams to enter the Anglo-Italian Cup. Incidentally, Soresinesi won 5-3 on penalties after a 2-2 aggregate final score, and became the first Italian amateur team to beat their English counterparts.

Between 1976 and 1986, the Anglo-Italian Cup had four different names; The Alitalia Challenge Cup, The Talbot Cup, and the Gigi Peronace Memorial Trophy, following Peronace's death in 1981. He died of a heart attack in December 1980. Steadily, the number of participating teams dropped to four, and in 1981 saw the format adapted to just two anglo-italian semi-finals, and a final. Only Poole Town and Sutton United recorded semi-final victories, and were both defeated by Modena in their respective finals. Modena becoming the only team to win consecutive Anglo-Italian Cups. 1983 and beyond saw all Italian finals. Sutton United were the only English winners during the decade, beating Cheiti 2-1 in 1979. Other English runners-up include; Bath City (1977 and 1978), and Wimbledon (1976).
Lecco celebrate in 1977. Image from here.

Interest dwindled, non-league teams struggled with logistics, and again, the tournament again hit pause, and duly hibernated for six years.

Fast forward to the 1992/93 season. The FA Premier League's maiden voyage, Football Italia first hit Channel Four screens, and The Sun launched it's campaign to get poor old Graham Taylor the sack. Football and its media circus would never be the same again. 

Behind all those headlines, quietly and unceremoniously, the Anglo-Italian Cup rose from the ashes. Strictly professional, and open to clubs of Serie B, and the Endsleigh Insurance Football League Division One, usually the clubs relegated the previous season, and a few who narrowly missed out on promotion.  Suddenly, reverted back to it's original name and format, and scheduled to be played throughout the domestic season, it felt like a proper cup competition. 

Following a slightly odd English-only preliminary round, the traditional fixtures between two groups of four, an English semi-final, Italian semi-final, and Anglo-Italian final, March 27th 1993 saw Derby County outclassed by Cremonese at Wembley Stadium. An impressive crowd of 37,024 saw the Italians prevail 3-1. The Anglo-Italian Cup was back.
Cremonese celebrate their Anglo-Italian Cup final victory at Wembley. Image from here.

In one of his last games before leaving for Barcelona, George Hagi lazily and somewhat reluctantly helped Brescia dispose of Notts County in the 1993/94 final. In front of just over 17,000 fans at Wembley, under half of the previous years attendance, interest appeared to be waining again. 

While attendance figures were down again, more worryingly, the number of headlines reporting Anglo-Italian crowd violence were up. With the Hillsborough disaster and the tragic events at Heysel painfully fresh in the memory, crowd control and crowd behaviour were under scrutiny. Away from the cameras and spotlight of top-flight fixtures, too many fans were using the Anglo-Italian Cup as an excuse to release some birra-fueled anger and aggression. Also hampering the competitions existence, were a number of clubs complaining at the number of fixtures.

In what was a second to last throw of the Anglo-Italian dice, Notts County went one better in the 1994/95, defeating an Ascoli side including Oliver Bierhoff, 2-1. 
Notts County taste European glory in 1995. Image from here.

1995/96 proved to be the last episode. Genoa triumphed 5-2 in a Wembley final against Port Vale. Across the course of the group fixtures, both Brescia and Salernitana did it on a cold, wet night in Stoke, Southend Utd went as far south as Salernitana, Ipswich Town rolled back the European glory years as they hosted Reggiana, and Luton Town were thrashed by Perugia and Genoa. Nonsensical, naughty, and yet oddly captivating all at once.

As a football competition it was a little bit clumsy, a logistical nightmare, and marred by violence aswell as the occasional moment of genuine romance. As a juvenile love affair before James Richardson came along, it was beautiful. 

Forza la Coppa anglo-italiana, forza!

No comments: