Last Orders, Please: The Brief Shelf-Life of the Watney Cup

by | Mar 17, 2016

In amongst the fretting over the formation of the pre-season jamboree that is the International Champions Cup and the talk of a breakaway European Super League, it seems to have largely passed without comment that, in terms of bolt-on tournaments running adjacent to the domestic football calendar, we have definitely been here before. If there’s one thing that football clubs love more than anything else – including, it can often feel, football – it’s money, and since the game in England first became truly became industrialised there have been no shortage of individuals and companies prepared to throw money at it in return for the exposure that they can get in return. The bulwarks against the game’s headlong hurtle towards commercialism were, for many years, the starched collars of the Football Association and the Football League, but the abolition of the maximum wage led to a gradual defrosting of attitudes towards increasing revenues, and one of the more successful – if somewhat short-lived – prototypes for the money-raising pre-season tournaments that are so commonplace these days was the Watney Cup.

The summer of 1970 was a febrile time for professional football in England. On the one hand, the national football team had lost its grip on the World Cup in the sweltering Mexican city of Leon at the hands of West Germany in June. On the other, however, that year’s FA Cup Final replay between Chelsea and Leeds United had attracted a record television audience of 28.6m viewers, proving once and for all that, despite the continuing tetchiness towards the medium on the part of the game’s authorities and no small number of club owners, perhaps football and the small screen could be happy bedfellows after all. It was with this in mind that the Watney-Mann Invitational Trophy was conceived as an eight team knock-out tournament featuring the two teams from each division of the Football League who had scored the most goals without being promoted (or, in the case of First Division clubs, having qualified to play in Europe), with the tournament to be played as a curtain-raiser to the domestic season.

With broadcasters on board – ITV had the pick of the quarter-final matches for the first tournament and went, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the match between Reading and a full-strength Manchester United team – clubs needed little persuading to take part. They received a share of gate receipts and TV income, but each participating side also received £4,000 just for entering in the first place, whilst a further £500 went to each of the winners of the four quarter-final matches, with £500 more being paid for a victory in the semi-finals and £1,000 being on offer for the overall winners of the competition. In addition to this – and, we might well assume, to keep them sweet and on board with it all – The Football League and Football Association shared £50,000 from the sponsors. As well as these financial inducements, those clubs that were invited to enter got the opportunity to play some competitive football to get in the mood of the start of the league season rather than lethargic friendly matches, whilst the matches themselves were capped at ninety minutes, with no replays and no extra-time, just a brand new initiative to decide tied matches which had only just been ratified by FIFA itself: the penalty shoot-out.

The exact origins of the penalty shoot-out are somewhat disputed, with examples of them being used unofficially to decide matches found across the world going back to the early 1950s. What we know for certain, however, is that the penalty shoot-out was first discussed on the 20th February 1970 by a working party of FIFA’s International Football Association Board – the committee which ultimately decides the laws of the game – and formally adopted on the 27th June of the same year. We also know for certain that the first such shoot-out between two professional clubs came at Boothferry Park in Hull on the 5th August 1970, after Hull City and Manchester United had played out a one-all draw in front of a crowd of just over 34,000 people.

George Best became the first player to take a penalty kick under such circumstances and it was another Manchester United player, Denis Law, who suffered the ignominy of becoming the first player to miss one, when his kick was saved by the Hull goalkeeper Ian McKechnie. Any joy that McKechnie might have felt over this, however, was most likely fairly short-lived. He opted to take a kick for Hull as well and missed, sending United through to the first ever final of the competition, where they beaten by four goals to one by Brian Clough’s Derby County at The Baseball Ground. The final, as with all stages of the competition, was not played at a neutral venue – the identity of the home team was decided by the toss of a coin.

Manchester United were back the following season, but this time around their involvement in the Watney Cup was somewhat more short-lived and ended in a considerably more ignominious exit. Drawn to play Halifax Town of the Third Division in the quarter-finals of the 1971 competition, a virtually full-strength team was beaten by two goals to one in front of a crowd of almost 20,000 people at The Shay. That summer’s competition also ended with a surprise. First Division West Bromwich Albion should have comfortably seen off Fourth Division Colchester United at The Hawthorns in the final, but instead the two teams played out a four-all draw and it was Colchester who won the resulting shoot-out, by four kicks to three. Perhaps humbled by their experience in West Yorkshire, Manchester United became the first – and, as things would turn out, only – club to turn down an invitation to play in the competition the following year.

The tournament organisers had a further trick up their sleeves, though, and in 1972 they agreed to trial an experiment by which offside would only apply to players caught in such a position inside the opposition’s penalty area. Whether this experiment was particularly successful in terms of the Watney Cup we may never know – we do know that parallel experiments in a local league in London and in the Anglo-Italian Cup were dropped at Christmas in 1972 after having been described by the Sunday People newspaper as a “flop” – but we do know that the 1972 Watney Cup provided the only two goalless draws that the competition ever saw, one of which was that year’s final between Bristol Rovers of the Third Division and First Division Sheffield United at Eastville. Rovers, who’d beaten First Division Wolverhampton Wanderers and Second Division Burnley to get to the final, won the resultant penalty shootout by seven kicks to six in front of another crowd of almost 20,000 people.

By this time, however, the Watney Cup’s days were numbered. The problem with tournaments that are based so centrally around the involvement of sponsors is that they become difficult to maintain should the paymasters lose interest, and advertising revenues across the board slumped as the UK economy contracted throughout the early part of the decade. Watney-Mann were not interested in renewing their contract and the competition was laid to rest after the 1973 tournament, which was won by Stoke City thanks to two Jimmy Greenhoff goals in the final against Hull City at The Victoria Ground. To the end, however, the competition did continue to receive widespread television coverage, with the last tournament being shown by the BBC.

The amounts of money involved have obviously changed, but the principles remain broadly the same. A combination of the pull of money and the interest of broadcasters was enough to persuade clubs that the Watney Cup was worthwhile, and for a short period of time it probably was. Those differing amounts of money, however, cast an extremely long shadow and it’s unlikely that the International Champions Cup will be pulled after four seasons because of a lack of interest from sponsors. On those balmy afternoons at the start of the season in the early 1970s, though, it might just have felt to supporters in their shirt-sleeves as if they were witnessing the beginning of a brave new world for professional football. They couldn’t have understood the extent of the ways in which they were right.

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