European football is currently in the midst of its annual winter break from the Champions League and Europa League as its nation members concentrate on domestic matters. It, therefore, seems as good a time as any to have a quick peep back into the troves of history and look at what became of Europe’s third major club competition, the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
The last ECWC was played more than twenty years ago now and, to tell the truth, is probably amongst the least lamented of now-defunct tournaments.
That is a bit of a shame considering in its hey-day it was a prestigious competition second in standing only to its more illustrious big brother, the European Cup slash Champions League.
During its near-forty year existence, the ECWC was won by no less than 33 different teams representing 11 different countries, with 52 different sides competing in the 39 finals played.
As tournaments go, it proved a surprisingly difficult one to win with no side being able to successfully retain it and only one side, Barcelona, winning the competition more than twice.
Motivated by the success of the European Cup and then the Inter-City Fairs Cup that would eventually morph into the UEFA Cup, ideas were mooted initially by several football journalists for a third major European competition.
The idea proposed was that winners of Europe’s domestic cups would enter a competition run along the same lines as the two other competitions. However, the initial problem was that many of Europe’s major nations either had no domestic cup competition at all or if one did exist then it was given scant importance.
The inaugural competition ran in the 1960-61 season and was only competed for by ten clubs, with Fiorentina of Italy defeating Glasgow Rangers in what would prove to be the competition’s only two-legged final.
The tournament was deemed a success in terms of interest from supporters, however, and so the 1961-62 season saw a much higher number of participants with the result that the competition went from strength to strength for much of the next three decades or so.
In 1962, Fiorentina became the first of many defending champions to reach the final again only to fall at the last hurdle. They fell 3-0 to Atletico Madrid in the competition’s first one-off final, played in Stuttgart, West Germany.
1963 and English sides’ first success in Europe came the way of Tottenham Hotspur’s 5-1 victory over Atletico in Rotterdam. This paved the way for English sides to start to gain a foothold in Europe and the next few seasons would see successes for English sides in all three major competitions.
As far as the ECWC was concerned, West Ham won the trophy at Wembley in 1965, beating 1860 Munich in the final, Manchester City were successful in 1970 with a 2-1 victory over Górnik Zabrze, and Chelsea famously beat Real Madrid 2-1 after a replay in the final of the 1971 version.
As the competition progressed, English teams were to prove more successful than any other nation with a total of eight victories shared amongst seven clubs. Added into the mix were a further five losing appearances in finals by England’s finest.
London sides fared particularly well, with West Ham, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal all getting their mitts on the trophy. Both Manchester sides followed suit, with United’s 1991 win in Rotterdam over Barcelona being one of six final appearances made by the Catalans.
Both Merseyside giants appeared in one final apiece, with Everton also prevailing in Rotterdam in 1985 courtesy of a 3-1 victory over Rapid Vienna. Near-neighbours Liverpool, however, fell at the last hurdle in their only final appearance when they were beaten 2-1 by Borussia Dortmund after extra-time in the 1966 final at a rain-sodden Hampden Park.
Scottish sides made a total of four ECWC appearances, with three of them coming by way of Glasgow Rangers. Defeats in the inaugural competition in 1961 and again in 1967 were partly avenged by lifting the cup in 1972 at the Camp Nou following a 3-2 victory over Dynamo Moscow.
Although no side managed to retain the trophy, on no less than six occasions the holders made it back to the final only to be defeated, while on two other occasions the previous year’s beaten finalists were back to make amends. No side was ever defeated in two successive finals.
Although the ECWC was ranked as the second-most prestigious European competition, it was often thought that it was in fact the least demanding of the three.
A train of thought went that the UEFA Cup with its multiple entrants from Europe’s major footballing nations, and extra round, was considerably more difficult to prevail from, while the European Cup was, of course, number one on both scores.
Maybe a little surprisingly, the side with the most appearances in the competition was no European giant, and was in fact none other than Welsh Wizards, Cardiff City who qualified for the competition 14 times by way of winning the Welsh Cup. This was a feat achieved eight times by Wrexham.
The Welsh Cup was responsible for the anomaly of seeing non-league sides play in Europe as sides such as Bangor City, Merthyr Tydfil and Borough United competed in the ECWC following Welsh domestic cup success.
The fact that the ECWC was behind the European Cup in importance was further accentuated by the fact that on occasions it was competed for by sides that had won nothing domestically the season before.
In the event of a side winning ‘the double’ of league and cup, they would spend the next season competing in the European Cup and their place in the ECWC would be taken by the beaten domestic cup finalists.
In the 1980-81 season, this rule even led to Real Madrid’s reserve side competing in the competition. In Spain, the bigger sides are eligible to enter reserve teams in the league and in 1980 Real Madrid’s reserve side, then named Castilla FC, reached the Spanish Cup final where they met the Real Madrid first team and promptly lost 6-1. As Real Madrid also won La Liga that season, Castilla FC entered the ECWC where they were eliminated 6-4 on aggregate by West Ham in the first round.
The ECWC continued in a strong vein until the expansion of the European Champions League in the mid-to-late 1990s. As more sides from the major nations were admitted to Europe’s premier competition, so it was that more teams were entering the ECWC despite not winning their domestic cup.
In the 1994-95 season, for example, England had two representatives in the competition yet neither were FA Cup holders at the time. Arsenal were defending holders of the ECWC, while Chelsea qualified for the competition having been beaten in the FA Cup Final by double-winners Manchester United.
The same scenario occurred in 1998-99 when Chelsea appeared in the competition as defending holders of the ECWC, while Newcastle made it courtesy of losing the FA Cup Final to double-winning Arsenal.
In 1999 the decision was taken to discontinue the competition and it was merged with the UEFA Cup which in turn morphed into the Europa League. Winners of the domestic cup in the European Leagues who do not otherwise qualify for the Champions League hence now play in the Europa League.
In many ways, the demise of the competition was a shame as there were many outstanding matches and moments in the original competition. Examples that spring to mind from a British viewpoint include Aberdeen’s famous victory in the 1983 final against the legendary Real Madrid and Manchester United’s equally renown victory eight years later at the expense of Barcelona. Both victories, of course, being masterminded by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Other highlights include Everton’s 1985 victory, Arsenal’s various battles in 1980 (penalty shoot-out defeat), 1994 (victory over Parma) and 1995 (Neymar from the half-way line).
However, perhaps one of the competition’s greatest stories took place in the 1980-81 season. Qualifying for the competition as Welsh FA Cup winners were Third Division Newport County. Drawn to play Crusaders of Northern Ireland in the first round, the Welsh side progressed 4-0 on aggregate. Next up were Hauger of Norway and a similar drubbing took place as Newport progressed to the quarter-finals 6-0 on aggregate.
In the last eight, Newport were drawn against Carl Zeiss Jena of East Germany who had overturned a 3-0 deficit against Roma in the first round. Any signs regarding feelings of inferiority were kept hidden out of sight as Newport battled to a 2-2 draw away from home in the first leg.
Needing just a low-scoring draw at home to progress to the semi-finals, Newport gave it their all but couldn’t quite hang on and went down to the only goal of the game.
Football, like life in general, has moved on from those heady days of almost forty years ago but those of us old enough to remember the European Cup Winners’ Cup do so with a nostalgic smile.