The Anglo-Italian Cup: Romantic, Violent, Ridiculous Nonsense (But I Miss It Dearly)

Remembered for its violence more than its football but the short-live and short-loved Anglo-Italian Cup will always live on for those involved...
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Remembered for its violence more than its football but the short-live and short-loved Anglo-Italian Cup will always live on for those involved...

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Back in 1995 I spent whole days and weeks of my life lost in the wonder of the computer game Championship Manager. Many nights were spent starting a season as a lower division team, normally my hometown Watford FC and gradually turning them into a world-beating force, achieved by some shrewd transfer signings (and a few glitches or ‘cheats’ in the game that allowed you to pick up stars for nothing). Soon we were battling with the big boys and my dreams of competing in Europe would be realised, but not as I imagined. Suddenly we were playing on the continent against Italian opposition. The Anglo-Italian Cup had entered my life. And disappeared as fast as it had arrived. Those nostalgic memories would not resurface again until recently reading the autobiography of goalkeeping legend, eccentric and Anglo-Italian Cup winner John Burridge. They were made for each other. A section of his book waxes lyrical about the equally eccentric competition formed by a colorful Italian. Despite its quirks, Burridge talks of his 1970 competition win with Blackpool as one of his greatest career moments.

The trophy was the brainchild of Calabria-born Luigi “Gigi” Peronace. As a teenager Gigi’s passion for football was at its peak; during World War Two when British troops arrived on his home island he persuaded them to play in organised fixtures that he facilitated. An academic career studying engineering followed and while at a university in Turin he gained his first taste of the world of professional football. Juventus offered Gigi the role of interpreter to their Scottish manager William Chalmers and after a Business Manager role across town at Torino, his boyhood heroes Lazio came calling to offer him a revolutionary position as head of transfer dealings. Jack of all trades, Gigi would soon become one of the world’s first football agents and as well as persuading giants A.S. Roma they needed to take on the Leyton Orient manager Alec Stock, he was responsible for taking Juventus, Leeds and Wales legend John Charles to Italy, Jimmy Greaves from Chelsea to AC Milan and Denis Law back to Manchester United (having previously sent him to Torino from Manchester City).

Gigi had gained an enviable reputation and would move to his second home London in the 1970s to further his career on the continent. After a successful Anglo-Italian League Cup in 1969 he somehow dreamt up the intriguing Anglo Italian Cup. The premise was simple, ok, it wasn’t, it was downright bloody ridiculous. 12 teams competed in the first year, six from England and six from Italy, including Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesborough, Sunderland and the might of Juventus, Roma and Lazio. An abundance of Italian World Cup stars gave the competition some real star-quality. With two teams from each country split into three groups, they would only play against the clubs from the other nation. The two-legged games were split between the nations and rewards came in the form of two points for a win (the traditional amount of the day), a point for a draw and perhaps the most striking decision, one point for every time they scored. With no subsequent knockout games, the next game was the final and would bring together the team from each nation with the highest points. As John Burridge would point out in his book, this made for some entertaining, open and attacking football with high-scoring games as teams looked to gain extra points, especially in Blackpool’s 1972 campaign when they beat Vicenza 10-0 in a group game. If this would not create enough excitement curiously the offside rule was doctored to ensure it was only restricted to the penalty box. Innovation was clearly the buzzword of the day as for the first time five substitutes were named and two could be used in an era where just one emergency sub was usually named. Furthermore position numbering of shirts from 1-11 was boycotted in favour of a modern squad system.

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The first final in 1970 would be remembered not for the football but for the crowd violence that forced its stoppage on 79 minutes. Napoli were up against Swindon and fuelled by their anger at being 3-0 down and starring at a humiliating defeat, their fans hurled stones, wooden benches and bottles onto the pitch hitting opposing fans, the linesman and even Swindon’s winning goal scorer Arthur Horsfield. Just a year later the trophy would return to England when Blackpool scored an extra-time winner but in 1972 they were denied a consecutive trophy as Roma beat them in the final. Under criticism from purist football fans and experts, in 1973 teams could no longer gain points from goals scored but this did not affect Newcastle United’s efforts as they beat Fiorentina 2-1 in the final. The competition was short-lived and short-loved as clubs lost interest, as did sponsors resulting its temporary coma until 1976.

The tournament limped back with a whimper just two years later, this time with semi-professional teams from each nation. It would enjoy a longer shelf life this time around and saw 11 seasons of football until 1986. Remarkably only one England team would win in this period, Sutton United in 1979, with the Italians victors ten times. Modena won in consecutive seasons in 1981 and 1982 and would cement their place as the most successful team ever in the competition, with two titles. Name changes occurred in 1978 and 1981 to the Alitalia Challenge Cup and Talbot Challenge Cup respectively. In 1981 it would be renamed again, but this time for a good reason, to the Gigi Peronace Memorial. After becoming Italy’s General Manager across the 1978 World Cup and 1980 European Championship, Gigi would succumb to a heart attack in December of the same year aged just 55 while on tour with Italy in Uruguay. His legacy remained but the rules of the Cup changed, as two Anglo-Italian semi-finals now meant the final would not always pit Italian versus English. Curiously this change did exactly that as the next four years consisted of all Italian finals, contributing once again to its demise in 1986.

The Phoenix would rise for one final throw of the dice to coincide with the 1992-1993 season to provide some comfort from the breakaway of the newly formed Premier Division. Once again it was a professional set-up and was purely open to teams in either the First Division (now The Championship) and Serie B. The format would switch dramatically again and expand as a preliminary tournament was born; on the English side of the draw all 24 First Division teams split into eight groups, playing each other twice with the top team advancing. This gruelling schedule left two groups of four, a mixture of Italian and English teams. The Cup had decided it was not complicated enough and after each team played only its opposing nation’s teams, the best English team in each group faced off in the semi-final with the same occurring for the Italians. Over four seasons the Italians continued their domination with a solitary English Notts County victory in 1994-1995. The competition was finally euthanised, due to increased crowd violence and disagreement on fixture dates at the end of the 1995-1996 season.

Over the course of the competition in its various forms, the Anglo-Italian Cup was the subject of ridicule and bemusement at its nonsensical format that needed a mathematician at its helm. As memories fade so does its legacy born from Gigi’s imagination. Teams from Manchester United to Sutton United and Roma to Francavilla all competed at one time and as crazy as it may seem the likes of Swindon, Blackpool and Notts County still treasure the memories of those steamy Italian nights.

Follow Terry on Twitter, @TelTheTourist