When I was growing up in the 1970s, it was always the UEFA Cup, of the three European club competitions, which caught my imagination. This was mainly, but not exclusively, because my team at the time, Tottenham, were winners, beaten semi-finalists and beaten finalists during my first three years following the game. It was never properly explained to me why the unlamented Cup Winners’ Cup remained officially regarded as Europe’s second tournament behind the old-fashioned Champions’ Cup (the historical reasons I’ll touch on below). It wasn’t just in England that some dippy teams won the Cup.
West Ham summed up for me all that was wrong with the Cup Winners’ Cup. The Hammers simply not very good in 1975/6, the season they got to the Cup Winners’ Cup final. They finished in the bottom six that year and the next, and were relegated in 1977/8. And when they got back to the competition in 1980/81, their first round opponents were Castilla – Real Madrid’s reserves. The Champions’ Cup during the first half of the 70s was just that bit beyond the English champions. And if the English champions (or Celtic) weren’t involved, neither was Sportsnight, then the home of European ties, with the distorted commentaries, loud horns in the crowd and that “continental” match ball with the black pentagons, which was simply exotic compared to the all-white English ball. We saw the 1975 final because Leeds were in it (and robbed in it), and we saw Bayern Munich’s three-in-a-row because the 1976 final was at Hampden. But Bayern Munich’s first win, in 1974, may as well not have happened. There was some coverage of the first game. But the replay didn’t make any of the newspapers in our house.
The UEFA Cup, though, was different – there was one round extra for a start. You only needed to win two ties to get to the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, hardly a competition at all. Winning three ties before the last eight wasn’t logically a huge difference, not when the FA Cup quarter-finals were the sixth round (and even though old First and Second division teams also only needed three wins to get there). But the UEFA Cup felt like the real thing. The competition evolved from the slightly weird European Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the “Fairs” in question actually being “fairs” – trade fairs which were all the rage, relatively, in the immediate post-war decade of European rebuilding. The holding of a trade fair was the initial qualifying criteria – “London” lost the first final to Barcelona, after a three-year long competition, as matches were held to coincide with said trade fairs.
Even when the competition became normal (-ish) in the mid-60s only one team per city was allowed to compete. And even in the countries where league positions were part of the qualifying process this rule led to some lowly teams appearing. Newcastle once qualified despite finishing only tenth in the first division… and went on to win it. Indeed, if the Fairs Cup is remembered at all, it is for being Newcastle’s last “major” trophy. And indeed it was becoming a “major” trophy by the time UEFA took over its administration in 1971/72 and league position became the over-riding qualification criteria.
English clubs pre-dated their European Cup dominance a decade later by winning the last four Fairs Cups and the first two UEFA Cups (known as the “EUFA Cup” in English newspapers as UEFA was a French acronym, happy days, eh?). The competition introduced Europe to Don Revie’s Leeds and all the cynicism that entailed, the Yorkshire club winning the two-legged finals of 1968 and 1971. Newcastle’s 1969 success, beating Hungarians Ujpest Dozsa in the final, was also a forerunner of sorts. Their first round win introduced English audiences to an early prototype of Dutch football as Feyenoord, European Cup winners 18 months later, found Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson too hot to handle. Arsenal beat an early working model of Ajax Amsterdam, European Cup winners 12, 24 and 36 months later, in the 1970 final. And the first UEFA Cup Final was the all-English affair the first Europa League final threatened to be, Spurs clinching the trophy thanks to victory in the away leg at… Molineux.
The All-England show came at the semi-final stage in 1973, with Liverpool squeaking past Spurs before, sort of, fluking victory against Borussia ‘give us a B’ Moenchengladbach in the final (more forerunning here, as the two met in the 1977 European Cup Final). Two-nil down from the first leg, Liverpool were floundering at a wet Anfield in the return, before the referee deemed it too wet an Anfield. And, so the story goes, Bill Shankly changed his team for the restarted second leg, later that week, replacing the diminutive Brian Hall with the gargantuan John Toshack, who inspired the Reds to a “they don’t like it up ‘em” display which overturned the first-leg deficit and won the tie 3-2 on aggregate.
Spurs were a shadow of their former selves by 1974, with Europe providing welcome relief from a dismal league campaign until the second leg of the final in Rotterdam, when fans rioted after Spurs fell behind on aggregate to Newcastle’s whipping boys Feyenoord. Spurs manager Bill Nicholson eschewed a much-needed team-talk to his outplayed charges, in favour of a vain plea to the fighting fans, who made him “ashamed to be English.” A sorrowful end to the fine football career of a fine football man. 1975 was a blip, Stoke City’s first-round tie with Ajax being one of European club football’ more incongruous match-ups (Stoke lost…on away goals…it was not thought a “classic” Ajax line-up).
Liverpool overcame Club Brugge the following season, in a competition which saw Athlone Town and Milan surpass Stoke and Ajax for incongruity, especially with the aggregate score still being 0-0 after an hour of the second leg at the Giuseppe Meazza. It was not thought a “classic” Milan line-up. Liverpool avenged the earlier defeat by Club Brugge of Ipswich Town, who became UEFA Cup stalwarts under Bobby Robson’s tutelage. Ipswich had surrendered a three-goal first leg lead to lose in Belgium in extra-time. Liverpool, by contrast, overcame a drastic first fifteen minutes in the Anfield first leg of the final before winning 3-2 on the night and hanging on for the requisite draw in the second leg. Club Brugge and Liverpool, naturally, were European Champions Cup finalists two years later.
The UEFA Cup was Ipswich’s only trophy in 1981, in a year which many fans outside certain areas of Birmingham believed Bobby Robson’s team were better than the eventual league champions Aston Villa and only lost out domestically because of fixture congestion. Ipswich were the neutrals’ favourite every bit as much as Fulham are now. And their UEFA Cup success over Holland’s AZ67 Alkmaar proved lucrative for a number of the squad, who formed the backbone of the cast of the “classic” football film “Escape to Victory,” described by no-one as “Russell Osman’s finest hour.” Three years later, Spurs goalkeeper Tony Parks was the hero, saving bravely at the feet of any number of Anderlecht penalty takers in a memorable, if leniently officiated, shoot-out win at White Hart Lane, a feat on which he appears to have dined out often in the intervening years.
But England’s fine record in the competition was coming to an end. The Heysel tragedy saw English clubs banned from Europe indefinitely, with the qualifiers fighting out the domestic Screensport Super Cup with all the intensity of a July pre-season friendly against a coastal non-league team, but without the good weather. Coverage of European club football on English TV was limited to breakthroughs in the Champions Cup by “Chris Waddle’s Marseille” and the Cup Winners’ Cup by “Gary Lineker’s Barcelona.” Dundee United’s magnificent charge to the 1987 final was shown scant regard south of the border.
Upon the return of English clubs in 1991, they were found wanting in the UEFA Cup. The competition was just too strong for the pre- and fledgling Premier League era teams (Sheffield Wednesday, for example). Even Norwich’s memorable biffing of Bayern Munich in 1994 only got them to the third round and defeat to Internazionale’s Dennis Bergkamp. The quarter-final was the limit for most of the decade, although “England’s Roy Hodgson’s Inter” got to the 1997 final, the last two-legged affair. Inter won the first one-legged affair the following year. But by then Hodgson was gone, never to be heard from again.
By the time Arsenal reached the 2000 final, the UEFA Cup had long since ceased to be the “runners-up Cup” of its halcyon days. Middle and Eastern European politics had expanded the number of teams – three rounds to the quarter-final had also long ceased to be. But it was shorn of many of its better teams by the expansion of the Champions League and the number of double figure aggregate wins in the qualifying round was a testament to the poor quality of some of the teams who came in at the other end.
Everything about European football was that bit less exotic by the turn of the century and we only gazed in wonder during Liverpool’s 2001 victory over Spanish yo-yo club Deportivo Alaves at how bad the defending was. 2002/3 was Fulham’s warm-up in Europe – Croatia, mostly – moving from the midsummer madness of the Inter-Toto Cup to the third round of the tournament itself, although European viewers were denied a glimpse of the Cottage as Fulham were temporarily ensconced at Loftus Road, itself a memorable UEFA Cup venue in the 70s, when Gerry Francis’ sideburns entered the psyche of a continent.
Fulham apart, England’s challenge was dismantled by Celtic’s unbeaten “Battle of Britain” record, before they – Henrik Larsson, mostly – succumbed to a Porto side managed by a mouthy native called Jose, for whom oblivion soon awaited. If only. Newcastle’s run to a semi-final against Marseille in 2004 introduced us to a powerful young West African striker called Drogba, and, two years later, Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough produced two stunning comebacks against Basle and Steaua Bucaresti to earn the right to be gubbed by Sevilla in the final, a run that also earned McClaren the England job, where he successfully replicated the going behind bit, but overlooked the comebacks. By now, the UEFA Cup was the behemoth we know today. And frankly, Fulham’s run to the final has sprinkled fairy dust on an otherwise simply dusty old competition. Rangers charmed a continent with their two victories in 11 games on the way to the 2008 final. And those of us, like myself, who had to report on Liverpool games in the competition this season found less in the all-new Europa League about which to be affectionate.
So it is that the “Thursday night Cup” has replaced the “runners-up Cup” in those affections. Purely down to Fulham’s thrilling (bar Hamburg away) run. I personally don’t buy the “little West Londoners” shtick – Fulham have been financed by debt, however soft it might be, and they are not and never will be my “second team.” But they have been brilliant. They deserve to be where they are. And people in this country will care about the Europa League at all because of them. It is only because of them, though. It is easy to get nostalgic about the UEFA Cup in its heyday because it was a fine competition. And without Fulham, the contrast with what we have now would be very difficult to bear.