Main image via Footysphere
Should AS Roma and Swindon Town ever be mentioned in the same breath? After all, the Robins are 28-time winners of the Wiltshire Premier Shield, while Roma have a paltry three Serie A titles and nine Coppa Italias in their trophy cabinet. It's hardly a fair fight.
And yet there is something that links them. Like several other clubs – ranging from non-league Sutton United to Serie A side Udinese – they are past winners of the Anglo-Italian Cup.
At a time when fixture build up has seen clubs call for FA Cup replays to be scrapped, it's hard to believe that another competition – pitting English sides against their Italian counterparts – ran during the season.
But, following a pair of games between Swindon and Roma in 1969, a new cup was created for 1970 that did just that. It ran intermittently and in various forms until what we must assume was its final demise 20 years ago this week, in March 1996.
Its story actually begins in 1967, when Queens Park Rangers beat West Brom in the League Cup final. This should have qualified the London club for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a forerunner of the UEFA Cup (and therefore the grandfather of the Europa League if you want to get into family trees). At the time, however, UEFA only allowed top-tier sides to compete; QPR missed out.
The same problem occurred in 1969. In the League Cup final, top-tier side Arsenal collapsed to a 3-1 defeat against third-tier Swindon Town (if that sounds familiar, it's also worth pointing out that the Gunners finished fourth that year).
This time, an alternative was devised. To compensate the Robins, a two-legged match was arranged against Coppa Italia winners Roma. Remarkably, the English side won a two-legged contest 5–2 on aggregate, which included a 4-0 win at the County Ground against a side that featured future England boss Fabio Capello (Fab probably should have seen it as a bad omen). The success of this – or perhaps the promise of new revenue streams – led to the creation of the Anglo-Italian Cup.
Football's greatest attraction is its incredible simplicity, but this was not on the minds of the new cup's organisers. For 1970, teams were split into three four-club groups consisting of two English and two Italian sides each. They then played their foreign rivals home and away, but did not play the team from their nation. Two points were awarded for a win, one for a draw, and one for each goal scored; these tallies were used to decide a pair of six-team domestic tables, with the winner of each progressing to a grand final. Napoli emerged from the Italian side, and Anglo-Italian superpower Swindon sealed English honours.
The final took place at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, but it did not go the distance. Swindon ran riot on the pitch, taking the lead on 24 minutes and adding a second in the 58th. When Arthur Horsfield scored a third just a few minutes later, the Napoli fans conspired to create a riot of their own. They hurled stones and bottles, with one striking a linesman. The referee called the game off 11 minutes from time, with Swindon declared winners.
A similar format was retained for the next three years, albeit without the same chaos at the final. Blackpool beat Bologna 2-1 in 1971, before Roma restored Italian pride by overcoming the Tangerines 3-1 the following year. In 1973 – when there were also domestic semi-finals, but no points for goals scored – Newcastle brought the trophy back to England by beating Fiorentina 2-1.
By this time interest had dwindled, and the tournament did not return in 1974. It was revived in 1976, but had now become a semi-pro affair. The final that year saw Monza (better known for Formula One) beat Wimbledon (better known for tennis) by a goal to nil. Over the next decade Italian sides were dominant: Sutton United's triumph over Chieti in 1979 was the only English win among 10 for Italy's entrants. For the final four editions of the semi-pro contest that was an inevitability, with all-Italian finals between 1983 and '86 rather diminishing the 'Anglo' aspect of the name. At this point, the competition disappeared again.
Having died out twice it might have been best to let the Anglo-Italian cup lie, but it was revived yet again in the early nineties. There was some reasoning behind this. The new version ostensibly replaced the Full Members Cup (which, for some of us, will always be better known by its sexy sponsored name: the Zenith Data Systems Cup). This tournament had been contested by sides from England's top two tiers while they were banned from European competition following the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster.
English teams returned to Europe in 1992 and so the Full Members Cup became unnecessary and was scrapped. But – for reasons that are not wholly clear, but are no doubt money-related – the Anglo-Italian Cup was re-introduced for clubs from the two nations' second tiers. And so it followed that Cremonese beat Derby County at Wembley in 1993, while Brescia overcame Notts County the next year. The Magpies then sealed the last English success in the tournament, beating Ascoli in 1995.
The 1995-96 season would see the last edition of the cup. Following the traditionally confusing group system and regional semis, the English final saw a 3-1 aggregate win for Port Vale, while Genoa eased through the Italian decider by beating Cesena 4-0 away and 1-0 at home.
The final was played at Wembley on 17 March 1996. And, while aspects of the tournament might have been dubious, you can't diminish the experience Vale fans enjoyed at the home of English football, playing an Italian side when the country's football was at its popularity peak in the UK (thanks in no small part to Football Italia). The Valiants were led out by John Rudge, their manager of 13 years (and a further three after this game, making him their longest-serving boss), with Steve Guppy – who would go on to play Premier League football for Leicester City, and earned an England cap in 1999 – among their starting 11.
But Genoa could boast a more impressive young talent in 21-year-old striker Vincenzo Montella. This was his sole season at the club, and saw Montella score 21 times in Serie B. (He soon moved to Sampdoria and later Roma, winning the Serie A title with the latter in 2001 and earning 20 caps for Italy).
Despite home advantage, the English side could offer little resistance. Genoa were 2-0 up shortly after the 20-minute mark, Gennaro Ruotolo and then Fabio Galante scoring the goals, before Montella effectively killed off the game with a third before half-time. Ruotolo scored twice more after the break to complete his hat-trick and give the Italians a 5-0 lead. A brace of consolation goals from Martin Foyle restored some dignity for Vale, but their day at Wembley had nevertheless ended in a 5-2 drubbing.
It would be fair to call that Vale side average – not least because they finished 12th of 24 teams in Division 1 that year. Their Italian cousins were not much more successful on the domestic front though, finishing eighth in Serie B, closer to the relegation zone than a promotion spot.
Such mediocrity sums up the Anglo-Italian Cup. It was a second-tier tournament even at its peak, and in the 21st century football landscape seems like a strange folly. Yet if you were a Swindon Town fan who saw your side sweep past mighty Roma, it was probably a bloody good laugh on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday in Wiltshire. That's not a bad legacy for any football tournament.
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