In the third of a four-part series, we relive the curiosities of a tournament that sent Gabriel Batistuta to Stoke on a cold Wednesday night.
In 1992, after a hiatus of almost a decade, the Anglo-Italian Cup was reborn. The competition had seen previous unsuccessful incarnations as both an elite- level and semi-professional tournament. This latest and final throw of the dice pitched second tier English (Division 1) clubs against their counterparts from Italy’s Serie B.
The organisers hoped the competition’s new design would address the problems that had led to its demise previously. The top-flight version rapidly lost both its novelty value with supporters and the interest of participating clubs, who set their sights on more conventional forms of European competition. Subsequently, the semi-professional version enjoyed a longer run, but the dominance of the Italian teams and the heavy financial burden of participation ultimately contributed to its downfall.
As a tournament, the Anglo-Italian Cup had a bewildering history of curiosities and contradictions. But the 1990s incarnation was perhaps the most intriguing of them all. The competition was reinvigorated at a time when Italy represented the frontier of global football; Serie A was without doubt the strongest league in the world and the country had just hosted a successful World Cup. By contrast, England were coming off the back of a ban on participation in international club competitions following the Heysel disaster.
Ultimately, the tournament’s comeback proved to be short-lived. However, amongst the shambolic organisation and on-field mediocrity it produced some fleeting moments of unbridled joy for participating clubs and their supporters.
Empty stadia, squad rotation and dead rubbers…
On paper, there could not have been a better time for this latest Anglo-Italian venture. Riding on the wave of Paul Gascoigne’s move to Lazio, Football Italia had just begun to air on Channel 4 and interest in the UK was high. But from the beginning, the competition struggled to attract paying customers, with attendances well down on league averages.
A number of the World Cup 1990 stadia were called into Anglo-Italian Cup action; the Luigi Ferraris (Genoa), San Nicola (Bari), Artemio Franchi (Fiorentina) and Stadio Friuli (Udinese) provided glamorous platforms for some perplexing fixtures. Yet, in the same competition, games were also hosted on cold winter’s nights at Ayresome Park, Boundary Park and Roots Hall. The contrast between these venues could not have been greater, though the theme of public apathy transcended such differences.
The weak public interest was particularly stark for games played in Italy where there was a more limited culture of midweek matches; a substantial number of games failed to break four figures. The lowly attendance of 311 for the Ancona v Oldham fixture in 1995 only reached those heights due to the presence of around 100 Royal Navy sailors form HMS Glasgow, who were docked in the port city as the Balkans conflict escalated on the other side of the Adriatic.
Even the showpiece final was not immune to such problems. Whilst the 1993 final between Derby and Cremonese attracted a crowd of over 37,000 to Wembley, this figure tumbled to 11,000 for the final between Notts County and Ascoli just two years later.
The clubs themselves approached the competition with varying degrees of indifference. Many used it as an opportunity to allow fringe players to stretch their legs, particularly when it became clear that a team would not progress to the next stage. The chosen format of one qualifier from each group of four ensured the competition had more than its fair share of dead rubbers, which inevitably diminished the attraction of many fixtures.
“The club has lost £20,000 in the tournament – and gained nothing”
Lennie Lawrence, Middlesbrough manager
“I can’t see why we’re playing the Anglo-Italian Cup. I can’t see the sense in it”
Mark Lawrenson, TV pundit
Violence and disorder – old habits die hard…
The aggression and indiscipline that marred the original incarnation of the tournament in the 1970s resurfaced again two decades later. The clash of playing and officiating styles seemed to bring out the worst in players during a spate of bad-tempered exchanges. The 1992/93 tournament featured a concerning tally of 18 red cards in 32 games, this in an era where dismissals were far less common.
The most notorious encounter took place between Birmingham City and Ancona in what later became known as the “Battle of Ancona”. What started on the pitch, with a series of aggressive tackles and off-the-ball incidents escalated sharply as players left the field at the end of the game. Out of view of the cameras a full-scale brawl erupted in the tunnel, the exact nature of which remains a mystery. But it is clear that Ancona manager Massimo Cacciatori sustained a fractured cheekbone in the melee and was taken away by ambulance.
The Birmingham payers initially had their passports confiscated by gun-toting police, who barged into the Blues’ dressing room. The team were able to flee the country, but legal proceedings rumbled on for many years, with the threat of extradition and jail hanging over those involved. In 2000, Liam Daish, Michael Johnson and coach David Howell were formally charged in relation to the incident, though the rearguard action of the Blues’ lawyers and the trio’s flat refusal to attend an Italian court eventually led to some form of closure.
“[Our players] had been kicked, punched and spat at throughout the whole game.”
Barry Fry, Birmingham City manager
“Some of the most amazing scenes I have ever seen on a football field”
Colin Tattum, Birmingham Evening Post on the “Battle of Ancona”
Fixture congestion, coin tosses and wasted journeys…
The 1992/93 competition included an additional, and somewhat unnecessary, domestic qualifying round. The twenty-four teams from Endsleigh Division 1 were divided into eight “round robin” groups, with each club playing once at home and once away to determine who would participate in the international phase. This led to a farcical situation where Bristol Rovers forfeited probably their best ever opportunity to compete internationally, by virtue of a coin toss (reportedly conducted over the telephone), after they finished their mini league with an identical record to West Ham. This, and the sheer task of fitting matches into an already busy schedule, was enough to convince the organisers to do away with this stage in future editions.
For the clubs and their supporters alike, travelling the breadth of Europe, mid-week and mid-winter presented certain logistical challenges. Indeed, the cost and complexity of rearranging matches was prohibitive. Keen not to have a wasted journey, matches often went ahead in absurd conditions. This gave rise to instances such as the snow-bound farce in Brescia, when the English referee allowed the game versus West Brom to proceed. Not only did the Baggies faithful get to watch their team that night, but they were rewarded with an 87th minute winner amidst the white-out.
On another occasion Stoke travelled all the way to Reggio-Emilia only to find the pitch unplayable for their match against Reggiana following heavy snowfall. The snow hadn’t cleared in time for the rescheduled match the following morning, so Stoke returned home without kicking a ball. The match was never re-arranged as results elsewhere that evening meant both teams were by then mathematically eliminated from the tournament – so they called it quits.
Over land and sea…
For some fans the competition provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel with their team overseas. In an era that pre-dated budget airlines and city breaks, the Anglo-Italian Cup provided a motive and a means to travel. Ironically, had Easyjet existed back then, they would have taken fans to the doorstep of many of the provincial teams participating in the competition. But prior to their advent supporters typically had two options for making the journey.
Clubs would sell any spare seats on their charter flights to help cover the costs. This was the deluxe option. The standard option typically involved a gruelling and beery 24-hour coach journey over the Alps to get to Italy.
As if that wasn’t squalid enough, the voyages themselves were not always smooth. On the return journey from a 2-0 defeat to Cremonese, a coachload of West Ham fans became stranded on the Swiss border when their vehicle broke down. They had to wait for a replacement vehicle to be dispatched from London to fetch them. Thoughts must also go to the Notts County supporters who traversed the wintery Alps on a windowless coach, after an unfortunate run-in with Brescia’s ultras in 1993.
Understandably, the reputation of English fans abroad proceeded them and they were commonly treated with caution by the locals. Upon arrival in Italy they were often greeted by a police presence and escorted to the ground, limiting the opportunity for mischief involving plastic furniture in the piazzas. There were inevitably clashes between fan groups, of course, but there were many more stories of shared beers and scarf-swapping between opposing fans.
These pilgrimages provided great fayre for regional TV news outlets, in search of light-hearted content for their final slot. HTV revelled in the exoticism of Swindon’s vaporetto ride to their match at Venezia. The coverage of travelling fans has a certain innocent charm, and provides a fascinating commentary on British society and fashion in the early 1990s. The news segment featuring Marco Gabbiadini introducing Paul Simpson to the delights of Parmesan and Mortadella in Reggio Emilia is a particular delight, as is the extended feature on Middlesbrough’s travelling army in Pisa.
An alternative reality…In the early 1990s, the dilapidated stadia of England’s second tier provided a bleak setting for the uncomplicated football of the day. The Anglo-Italian Cup gave fans a glimpse of the exotic, and a taste of what was to come for a number of clubs that would go on to reach the Premier League and experience the full-bodied version of European football.
The ding-dong 3-3 draw between Bolton and Brescia at Burnden Park in 1993 should have whet the appetite for more nights of continental grandeur. If not for the Gheorghe Hagi goal at the fabled supermarket end, then for Pierluigi Collina officiating the game. So too should the 0-0 draw between Stoke and Fiorentina at the Victoria Ground. The match itself was not a classic, but Claudio Ranieri’s La Viola turned up with full strength team including Francesco Toldo, Stefan Effenberg and Gabriel Batistuta.
For teams that never made it to the promised land of the top flight, the memories will be even more cherished. The fans of Tranmere might tell you with a perverse sense of pride about the night that Oliver Bierhoff scored the only goal of the game at Prenton Park. Likewise, Bristol City’s travelling contingent will recall the evening that a Christian Vieri goal proved decisive in their 4-3 defeat at Pisa. And Port Vale’s disappointment in losing the 1996 final will have been mitigated in some small part by the subsequent emergence of goal scorer Vincenzo Montella as player of international renown.
The final chapter…
With weak and declining public interest, the tournament was always living precariously. The growth in popularity of televised Champions League football that was freely available on terrestrial channels dealt a further blow to the competition. Ultimately, it was one of modern football’s other pre-occupations – fixture congestion – that spelt the end of the tournament. So in 1996, with Genoa lifting the trophy at Wembley, the curtain came down for the final time.
The competition came in for its fair share of scorn from supporters and the media, much of it warranted. But it undoubtedly created some treasured moments of joy for supporters of smaller clubs who will never again have the opportunity the follow their team overseas.
With domestic football having changed beyond recognition in the last two decades it seems improbable that there could ever be appetite for such a tournament again. So the future generations will be left dining off YouTube clips and message board war stories of those who were lucky enough to be there.
Also in the Anglo-Italian Cup series:
Part I: The Brutality and Romance of the Anglo-Italian Cup 1970-73
Part II: The Farcical Mismatches of the Anglo-Italian Cup: the Semi-Professional Years 1976-86
Part IV: Pirlo, Vieri, Batistuta & the Glorious Alumni of the Anglo-Italian Cup