The phrase ‘Rovers in Europe’ tends to conjure up images of a boozy pre-season trip to Spain or Holland, ending in a continental friendly against a local side. But in 1992, Rovers came within a coin-toss of actually playing a competitive European match.
This is the story of Rovers’ Anglo-Italian Cup campaign, of triumph and adversity in a difficult season.
What the hell is the Anglo-Italian Cup?
The Anglo-Italian Cup (or Coppa Anglo-Italiana) was a tournament played sporadically from 1970 to 1996. Founded when air travel had begun to make Europe accessible to the masses, the tournament pitted teams from England and Italy against each other, if that wasn’t obvious enough already. It was created after UEFA had refused to allow teams from outside of the first division who had won cup tournaments (namely QPR and Swindon) into the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, and this was a nice alternative.
Teams from the English second division (modern day Championship) would play Italian sides from the middle of the Serie A table. After initial excitement, teams quickly lost interest in the tournament due to violent clashes and shrinking crowds, with the tournament ending for 2nd division sides in 1973. It did however live on as a semi-professional tournament for 10 years between 1976 and 1986, with our friends at Twerton Park contesting two finals.
Following the end of ban on English clubs competing in Europe, the tournament was revived for the 1992-93 season, replacing the now defunct (and always pointless) Full-Members Cup.
The 1992-93 season’s format
The new format differed significantly from the old one. Italy contributed 8 teams to the tournament, namely the four teams who had been relegated from Serie A the season prior, and the four sides who had finished highest in Serie B without being promoted. England on the other hand went for a more complex format. All 24 teams in the second tier (then known as the first division) were divided up into 8 groups of three.
The teams in each group would play each other once, with the highest placed team going on to play in the international stage. Here the tournament got even more confusing. Two groups were drawn, each containing 4 English and 4 Italian clubs. Each English club in the group would play the four Italian clubs, and vice versa.
At the end of this a table ranked the four English and Italian clubs separately by results, with the highest place club from the two respective countries going into the semis.
The semi finals saw the highest placed English club from group one play the highest ranked English club from group two, with the Italian sides doing the same.
The final was then contested between the English and Italian winners of the semis at Wembley stadium. If that seems unduly complicated then that’s because it most definitely was.
The 24 first division sides were split in half on a north/south divide to ensure reduced travel for the (already fairly bloated) tournament. Rovers were drawn with West Ham United and Southend United. Each team would play each other once, making for three games in total.
Match #1 would be West Ham vs Rovers at Upton Park, Match #2 would be Rovers vs Southend at Twerton, and the third and final match would be Southend vs West Ham at Roots Hall.
Match #1 – West Ham vs Rovers
The Gas’ first match was away at Upton Park against a West Ham side who just 26 years previous had won the World Cup. West Ham took the lead early on as their Captain Julian Dicks volleyed a rebound past Brian Parkin in the Rovers goal. Marcus Stewart equalised in the second half, chipping the onrushing keeper.
Dicks scored again later on, thumping a header into the Rovers net. Marcus Stewart again provided an equaliser, scoring after West Ham’s Goalie decided to drop the ball at Stewart’s feet. The match ended 2-2 meaning it was all to play for in the matches against Southend.
Match #2 – Rovers vs Southend
Rovers second match of the tournament offered a chance to set the benchmark for West Ham to beat. Rovers played at home to Southend and took the lead in the first half, with Marcus Stewart dispatching a penalty after he was brought down in the box.
In the second half Geoff Twentyman provided a lovely assist from his own half to Carl Saunders, whose looping volley found the back of the net from just outside the box. Rovers left-back Paul Hardyman rounded off the match when he netted from six yards out on the second attempt after receiving a cross from Marcus Stewart.
Rovers won out 3-0, meaning that West Ham would have to match or beat Rovers score to deprive the Gas of the international stage. Pretty unlikely, right?
Match #3 – Southend vs West Ham
Julian Dicks, Marty Holmes and Trevor Morley score. West Ham win 3-0. Bugger.
So now what happens? Not only had Rovers and West Ham finished on the same points, they’d also finished on the same goal difference, goals scored and head to head score. By the rules of the most recent World Cup, the next deciding factor would be fair play, which is calculated based on number of yellow and red cards received.
Now I’ve done a fair bit of looking and I cannot find the number of cards Rovers and West Ham got across their games. Had Rovers and West Ham played each other as the final game, perhaps a penalty shootout would have sufficed. But instead it was decided that a coin-toss was the most effective way of deciding the winner.
Interestingly this was how Italy got to the final of Euro 1968, beating the Soviet Union on the flip of a coin. The toss was done over the phone. Despite a lot of research I cannot find out for definite who made the call. I can’t find if the guess was correct. I can’t even find the type of coin used. Either way the result was the same:
West Ham went through, and Rovers didn’t.
For Rovers, the season continued to decline from here. We finished the season rock bottom of the table with a dismal 41 points, 9 points and 18 goals from safety. It remains Rovers last season in the second tier of English football.
Southend, who had been beaten by six goals across the group stage went on to finish 18th in the division, 11 points above Rovers. As for West Ham, they lost their first group match 2-0 to Cremonese (no I hadn’t heard of them prior to writing this either). They won their next two games against Reggiana (2-0) and Cosenza (0-1). West Ham drew their final game against Pisa (0-0) which saw West Ham finish 3rd in their group, below Derby County and Tranmere Rovers but above our friends south of the river, so small victories.
West Ham would finish 2nd in the league that year, returning to the top flight ahead of Portsmouth on goal difference. As for the Anglo-Italian cup, it was won by Cremonese, who beat Derby County in the final. The tournament itself would last until 1996, when disagreements over the scheduling of fixtures, combined with an increase in violent clashes as matches saw the competition abandoned.
The legacy of the Anglo-Italian cup remains divisive, and whilst many argue it was a distraction rather than a real tournament, one is left to wonder how would such a tournament be treated by fans now.