The Farcical Mismatches of the Anglo-Italian Cup: the Semi-Professional Years 1976-86

This is the second of a four-part series, exploring a befuddling tournament that gave us Udinese v Minehead and saw Marcello Lippi mastermind a victory over Merthyr Tydfil…

The original incarnation of the Anglo-Italian Cup had been a bold, but ultimately unsuccessful experiment. By 1973, the tournament involving top-flight teams had succumbed to waning public interest and persistent disorder both on and off the field. Seemingly, the curiosities of the short-lived competition had been consigned to the history books.

Yet, in 1976, the Anglo-Italian was granted a new lease of life. Albeit with a more modest format, bringing together semi-professional teams from the respective countries. The original competition had become regarded as a distraction by professional teams, particularly those vying to achieve competitive European football through a more conventional route. It was hoped that the prestige of an international competition at this lower level would make for a more sustainable proposition.

The revamped tournament provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for semi-professional footballers to travel and play internationally. It was an ambitious plan, but certainly not uncharted territory. The competition built on the precedent of the Ottorino Barassi Cup, which had been contested by the winners of the Amateur Cup in the respective countries since 1968. Surely, an expanded semi-professional tournament would be coveted by the participating clubs?

The 1976 Anglo-Italian Cup comprised six teams from each nation. In an initial ‘group’ stage, each team played four matches against opposition from the other country. Points were then aggregated to identify the top-ranked English and Italian teams who would meet in a one-off final in Italy.

The new tournament pitted teams from England’s non-league hierarchy against opposition from Italy’s Serie C. These were the highest tiers of semi-professional football in each country and, on paper at least, provided equivalence. However, the rising tide of professionalism in Italy’s third tier increasingly led to a competitive imbalance over time. This, along with some more practical difficulties, would eventually contribute to the demise of the tournament.

Poole Town v Modena 1981

The cultural and footballing mismatches which had surfaced during the initial incarnation of the Anglo-Italian Cup were further accentuated when viewed through a semi-professional prism. The sights, sounds and smells of English non-league football frequently had a disorientating effect on the visitors.

Lecco arrived at Redditch for their 1977 tie an hour and a half before kick-off to find the lights out and the ground locked up. They waited patiently outside, eventually for their opponents to turn up shortly before kick-off with boots tucked under their arms and cigarettes hanging from their mouths. The ramshackle surroundings and level of disorganisation had taken Lecco by surprise and they found themselves 2-0 down within quarter of an hour.

One of the hallmarks of the original tournament had been a raft of ill-tempered and occasionally violent matches. And that tradition was continued under the new format. Enfield’s 1976 match at Pistoiese was abandoned in the second half as the visitors’ manager Fred Callaghan ordered his players off the pitch in protest at the barrage of dangerous tackles, gamesmanship and abuse directed at his team. Far from calming the situation, this move sparked further chaos. It took Enfield, along with their four supporters who had been shepherded into the changing rooms for their own safety, several hours to escape the stadium after their team bus was surrounded by a mob of irate supporters.

But the exchanges did not always end this way. The 1977 final contested between Lecco and Bath led to an enduring friendship between the two teams, that would be rekindled four decades later.  In 2017 a group of Lecco fans reached out to their counterparts ahead of planned celebrations marking 40 years since Lecco’s triumph. This in turn led to a Bath City supporters team travelling to Italy to participate in a friendly match, played out in Lecco’s picturesque stadium, against the backdrop of a spectacular pyrotechnic display.

Lecco celebrations 1977 and 2017

The tournament also gave rise to some improbable contests that have become ingrained in the history of participating clubs. In 1978, sleeping giants Udinese thrashed Minehead 4-0 on route to winning the Anglo-Italian Cup. A little over 12 months after that fixture, following back-to-back domestic promotions, Udinese found themselves back in Serie A. Within five years they had signed Zico; one of the greatest players of all time. The tournament also threw up novelties such as Northwich Victoria v Parma (1977), Livorno v Bognor Regis Town (1985) and Piacenza v Woodford Town (1986)

The competition provided a platform for several young players who would go on to have illustrious careers in Italian football. An 18 year-old Carlo Ancelotti made a substitute appearance for Parma as they were held to a 0-0 draw by Yeovil Town in 1977. His accomplishments on the pitch with Milan, Roma and Italy in the 1980s would only be surpassed by his success in the dugout across Europe. Satisfyingly, his first step on the coaching ladder began with a stint leading Reggiana in the 1995/96 Anglo-Italian Cup.

The Cremonese team which faced Redditch, Northwich and Chelmsford in 1977 featured Cesare Prandelli. The 20 year-old midfielder went on to win three scudetti and a European Cup with Juventus, and had a successful coaching career that included four years in charge of the Italian national team. His Cremonese team-mate Emiliano Mondonico was coming to the end of his playing days, but he also went on to have a distinguished managerial career with Atalanta, Napoli, Fiorentina and Torino, with whom he lifted the Coppa Italia in 1993.

The 1970s/80s competition featured some eminent figures, not just on the field, but in the dugouts too. England’s World Cup-winning captain, Bobby Moore took his Oxford City team to face Civitanovese and Francavilla in the 1981 edition, ably assisted by his right-hand man Harry Redknapp. However, the most famous coach was a World Cup-winner in waiting. As part of his first senior coaching assignment at Pontedera in 1986, Marcello Lippi defeated Merthyr Tydfil 6-1 in the semi-final, going on to finish as runners up to Piacenza. In stark contrast to Moore, the chain-smoking tactician’s career progressed rapidly over the next two decades, encompassing spells with Juventus, Inter, Napoli, culminating in the most coveted prize of all; World Cup victory with Italy in 2006.

However, the semi-professional Anglo-Italian Cup faced a number of headwinds from the beginning. Competing in the tournament was a costly pursuit for the teams involved and proved to be beyond the means of many of England’s strongest non-league clubs. Being semi-professional, some of the players too faced difficulties in arranging time away from their day-jobs as roofers, postmen and clerks to compete abroad.

Over the life of the tournament a gulf in quality had opened up between the English and Italian participants. Only one English team enjoyed any real success in the competition. Sutton United defeated Chieti to win the competition in 1979 and finished as runners up in both 1980 and 1982. However, a lack of effective competition acted a serious hindrance on the tournament.

The organisers tinkered with the format in an attempt to sustain it, becoming decreasingly ambitious each time. In 1979 it was reduced from six to four teams from each country. In 1982 the group stage was done away with altogether, with two clubs from each nation participating directly in a semi-final. At this point, the tournament lost much of its remaining prestige and the calibre of the English participants declined further. Where once non-league giants such as Wimbledon had competed, the latter tournaments were contested by Woodford Town and the now-defunct RS Southampton.

This last move proved to be the death knell for the competition. No English team even made it through to the final between 1983 and 1986, rather undermining the premise of an international tournament. After an honourable eleven-year run, the Anglo-Italian Cup was put out of its misery. The semi-professional format had addressed some of the problems that dogged the original tournament, but had encountered new challenges along the way.

However, the authorities were not prepared to give up on the tournament just yet, and it would rise again, one last time in the 1990s.

Throughout the month of September Calcio England will be running #AngloItalianCupMonth with photos, anecdotes and curiosities on Twitter (@CalcioEngland) and further articles to come in this series:

Part I: The Brutality and Romance of the Anglo-Italian Cup 1970-73

Part IIIThe Tempestuous Curtain Call of a Tournament Destined to Fail: the Anglo-Italian Cup 1992-96

Part IV: Pirlo, Vieri, Batistuta & the Glorious Alumni of the Anglo-Italian Cup 1992-96

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