Calcio Retro – Anglo-Italian jousts

There is a rich history of English and Italian clubs doing battle in European competition. As you follow the timeline, the pendulum has swung in one direction and then the other, with periods of dominance for both nations in the continental format. However, a much-forgotten competition is one in which only English and Italian clubs entered, and the 1990s incarnation which is memorable to most readers ended with a full-time score of England 1 Italy 3 when the Anglo-Italian Cup was disbanded in 1996.

The Coppa Ottorino Barassi (named after the long-serving president of the Italian Football Federation) had been formed in 1968 as a competition played between the winners of the FA Amateur Cup in England and the Coppa Italia Dilettanti, a trophy played for by clubs at levels Serie C downwards on the peninsula. This was played out on nine successive occasions and of the first eight finals, seven were won by English teams (such as Enfield and Skelmersdale United) and one was never played because it could not be organised. In 1976, Sorinese broke the Italian duck in the final year of the competition in this format, holding their nerve to beat Tilbury on a penalty shootout after two 1-1 draws . In 1974, the FA Amateur Cup had been disbanded, with its participants split into the two competitions we now know, the FA Trophy and the FA Vase, so the English participants in 1975 and 1976 had been the winners of the Isthmian League (now the Ryman League). When in 1976, the Italian SemiProfessional Cup was created, the Anglo-Italian trophy continued with separate English and Italian groups followed by a meeting in Italy between the two sides who prevailed. Monza were the winners of the first of these tournaments, defeating the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon 1-0 in the final. The semi-professional competition continued until 1986, with notable winners including Udinese, who were in something of a relative slump when they found themselves in Serie C in the 1970’s. The trophy incurred three different names in a decade – The AlItaila Challenge Cup, The Talbot Challenge Cup and the Gigi Peronace Memorial. A change to a smaller, straight-knockout format in 1982 meant that the last four finals in this competition were all-Italian affairs and finals contained some clubs whose subsequent rise up the calcio pyramid will be well-known to Italian football aficionados. Cosenza now spend as much time in Serie B as they do anywhere else, while Livorno Padova, Modena and Piacenza have had some 20 Serie A seasons since between them.

Also in the 1970’s a one-off competition had emerged between winners of the Coppa Italia and the English League Cup. This had come to pass in 1969, when Swindon Town, with two goals from Don Rogers, shocked Arsenal to win the trophy 3-1 at Wembley. However, a quirk of the football rules meant that although the League Cup winners had recently been granted a place in the Fairs Cup, this did not apply to those outside the top tier of the English League. The possibility of forming the tournament was pushed through by the FA with the Robins in mind, and they caused another surprise by beating Roma to win the first Anglo-Italian League Cup. Rogers and an Arthur Horsfield hat-trick overturned a first-leg deficit to triumph over a Roma side whose midfield included a 23-year old named Fabio Capello. This two-legged fixture would continue until 1975/76, when the FA Cup winners Southampton stood in after showing more interest than the League Cup winners Aston Villa. In the early 1970’s a third competition had run on something of an open-entry basis. The professional version of the Anglo-Italian Cup contained six English and six Italian sides who were split into three groups of four teams. The best side from each nation over the six-game series would progress to a two-legged Anglo-Italian final. Swindon also won this trophy in 1970 when their match was abandoned after crowd trouble while 3-0 up. Then Blackpool, featuring a young John Burridge in goal, won an extra-time epic in Bologna to win the trophy before Roma proved too strong for them the following year. Newcastle’s 2-1 win in Florence in 1973 was the last time this professional format of the trophy would be at stake for almost twenty years, while the one-off tie was not continued after Napoli had beaten the Saints 4-1 on aggregate in 1976.

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While the Italian League has always kept an eye on the number of games it asks its participants to play, there is some urban myth that only recently have English League clubs had a fixture pile-up to contend with. Remember tournaments that bordered on useless like the Full Members Cup or The Zenith Data Trophy/Simod Cup? When they were done away with in the early 1990’s clubs in the second tier of English football found they had free slots in the calendar, so it seemed a natural step at the time to fill them. Serie B and what would become Division One in 1992 revived the Anglo-Italian format, with the two domestic leagues having their own group stage before an international round, English and Italian semi-finals and thus, a guaranteed Anglo-Italian match at Wembley. Cremonese won this competition in its comeback year with a 3-1 win over Derby County on 27th March 1993. Among the goalscorers that day were Riccardo Maspero and Andrea Tentoni, with Slovenian wideman Matjaz Florijancic top scorer in the tournament with seven. All three would make an impact as Grigiorossi won promotion in the same season and had a subsequent three-year spell in Serie A. Italian dominance was continued when Brescia repeated the trick, capping promotion when they defeated Notts County in the 1994 final. Their side included the Romanian pair of Gheorge Hagi and Ioan Sabau and the only goal was scored by a very young Gabriele Ambrosetti, who English fans will know from his brief spell with Chelsea.

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The first English success in the second-tier shoot out came when goals from Notts County’s Tony Agana and Devon White were enough to overcome an Ascoli side that contained a German striker named Oliver Bierhoff. By this time, many of the same problems that had befallen previous attempts to raise the competition’s profile were surfacing. Some sides were taking it more seriously than others, meaning the showpiece event was perhaps not reflecting what was intended. Wolves vs Udinese had a certain appeal to it that Notts County vs Ascoli did not. Also, attendances at games were dwindling given the strain put on away supporters in particular. This reduced travelling contingents to a mix of hardened anorak supporters and troublemakers. However, not all of the violence was confined to the crowd. Terrible scenes on the pitch and after the game occurred when Ancona and Birmingham City played out an ill-tempered match in November 1995. Ancona coach Massimo Cacciatori claimed to have been attacked and head-butted, while Birmingham players and coaches claimed that Cacciatori and some of his players had angrily chased them back towards the dressing room after the game. The competition earned the unfortunate nickname, ‘the Agro-Italian’ Cup as a result and this would be the final season in which it was played. The final of 17th March 1996 saw a Gennaro Ruotolo hat-trick and a goal for Vincenzo Montella as Genoa overcame Port Vale 5-2.

There are occasional and far from widespread calls for an Anglo-Italian tournament to be restored to the calendar in some format. However, with English league seasons more crammed than ever, it is hard to envisage where the time and space would be created to make anything beyond a one-off fixture happen. It is a competition which Genoa and their supporters can rightly claim to be the current holders of, and it is likely this will permanently remain the case.

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