Chris Darwen

Four decades of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the surprise British success rate

Chris Darwen
Four decades of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the surprise British success rate

BY CRAIG STEPHEN

The European Cup Winners’ Cup reached its expiry date in 1999, with the roll call of champions a varied mix that included luminaries such as Barcelona and Juventus as well as KV Mechelen, FC Magdeburg, Dinamo Tbilisi, Slovan Bratislava and Rangers.

If evidence of the egalitarian nature of the champions and its merger into the UEFA Cup is evidence of its minor status, then I proffer an alternative diagnosis, a eulogy to the cosmopolitan nature of the former trophy in an age of mind-numbing and frustrating strangulation of the Champions League by a clique of nations and their profligate antics.

How, after all, could anyone resist watching the 1981 final in its entirety featuring a Georgian side that broke the stranglehold of Russian and Ukraininan teams in the Soviet Union era – Dinamo Tbilisi – and Carl Zeiss Jena of the former East Germany (DDR).

But, perhaps forgotten over the years, is the fact that the Cup Winners’ Cup was, for decades, regarded in a higher circle than the UEFA Cup, with the annual winners awarded with an appearance in the Super Cup against the winners of the European Cup.

Barcelona were the most succesful team with four wins, while AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal, Chelsea, Ajax, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund all claimed the trophy, and in 1991 it launched England’s return to the top of European football following the six-year ban over the Heysel disaster, with Alex Ferguson’s first continental success with Manchester United.

Acorns

The European Cup Winners’ Cup was established in 1960 with limited interest: just 10 teams entered, including league runners-up as the cup was finding its feet. It should be noted that the European Cup failed to attract much interest in its formative years. 

The first-ever tie was Rangers’ 4-2 win over Ferencvaros at Ibrox with the Scots progressing 5-4 on aggregate. Rangers then recorded a remarkable 11-0 win over two legs (3-0 away) over Borussia Monchengladbach (later to be immortalised in a Half Man Half Biscuit song), which they followed by defeating Wolves 3-1 on aggregate.

Italians Fiorentina awaited them in the 1961 final and were a class above, doing the damage in Glasgow in the first leg with a 2-0 win to silence the 80,000 crowd in what would be the only final to be held over two legs.

Given the long history of both the FA Cup and the Scottish equivalent this would be a tournament that would be highly productive for the British sides.

Embed from Getty Images

After a further final defeat in 1967, Rangers lifted the tournament in 1972, defeating Rennes, Sporting Lisbon, Torino and Bayern Munich on the way to a final in Barcelona where they streaked to a shock 3-0 lead over Dynamo Moscow who made a late fightback with two late but ultimately ineffective goals. Rangers’ fans celebrated in a manner that resulted in the club being barred from European competition the following season, the only champions to ever suffer such ignominy.

In 1983, Aberdeen, with Ferguson in the hotseat, matched that feat with victories over Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and Real Madrid in the final. Plus, the Aberdeen fans behaved themselves in Gothenburg. It was the culmination of the trip up Success Road for one half of the so-called New Firm (Dundee United being the other) that broke the dominance of Scottish football by Celtic and Rangers for a decade, and proved that ‘other’ Scottish sides could succeed on the continent. 

England’s success includes victories for Tottenham Hostpur in 1963, West Ham United in 1965, Manchester City in 1970, Chelsea in 1971, Everton in 1985, Manchester United in 1991, Arsenal in 1994 and Chelsea for a second time in the penultimate competiton in 1998. Those eight titles beat Spain and Italy’s seven.

Of those a couple stand out.

A hammering

Even now it is hard to fathom how perennial welterweights West Ham lifted a continental trophy but they did so in style, against a very strong German side – 1860 Munich – at Wembley.

Ron Greenwood’s side had overcome Gent, Spartak Prague, Lausanne and Real Zaragoza to get there.

The Hammers lined up with Martin Peters, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, who would all lift another famous trophy in that same arena a year later. The Germans had several internationals such as Alfred Heiss, Hans Kuppers, Rudi Brunnenmeier and Peter Grosser, though none played more than 10 times for the national side.

Two goals within three minutes in the second half from Alan Sealey gave the Londoners a famous 2-0 victory.

Two and a half decades later it was a more famous English side that gave the country its sixth success in the competition.

Embed from Getty Images

Sir Alex Ferguson had endured a torrid beginning to his tenure at Old Trafford and would almost certainly have been given the boot in the modern era. He turned around a dismal period with victory in the 1990 FA Cup and in the Cup Winners’ Cup a year later. Manchester United defeated Hungarians Pecsi Munkas, Welsh Cup winners Wrexham, Montpellier and Legia Warsaw in the semi-finals.

Mark Hughes was the hero in the final in Rotterdam against Barcelona, scoring twice in the second half against his former club for a famous 2-1 victory that not only gave the Red Devils their second European title, but England’s first since the Heysel ban expired.

Upset of the decade

And while such successes were perhaps expected, it is the more modest achievements of two teams from Wales and Northern Ireland that show how the Cup could be an orchard to the weaker European nations.

Wrexham, who despite playing in England, qualified through the Welsh Cup, recorded a fine win over FC Zurich and lost on away goals to Hajduk Split in the 1972-73 campaign. This was eclipsed in 1975-76 season when they reached the quarter-finals defeating Swedes Djurgården and Poles Stal Rzeszow before coming up against Belgian giants Anderlecht in the quarters, losing only to a 76th minute goal by Dutch legend Rob Rensenbrink.

The Welsh side would go onto record one of the biggest upsets in the competition in 1984, three goals in Portugal giving them a 4-4 aggregate win over Porto, and victory on the away goals rule.

It was a truly remarkable result. Wrexham had suffered successive relegations, to drop into the Fourth Division. They had just 14 professionals on their books and filled out the squad with teenagers who were taken on through the Youth Training Scheme because the club could not afford to pay them. They had just lost to Peterborough United at home and were in the bottom half of their division.

Embed from Getty Images

They were up against a Porto side that featured an array of Portugese internationalists, including a young Paolo Futre.

Wrexham’s success was subsequently curtailed by an AS Roma side that included the likes of Franco Tancredi, Carlo Ancelotti and Bruno Conti.

Northern Irish side Glentoran had an ignominuous history in Europe, losing all ten ties in the first round prior to the 1973-74 season. That changed when they were paired with Romania’s Chimia Ramnicu Valcea. Facing a 2-0 deficit early in the Balkans they heroically fought back to draw 2-2 and won 2-0 at home in Belfast. Norwegians Brann were overcome 3-2 on aggregate but the weight divide was too large when they faced Borussia Monchengladbach in the last eight, shipping seven goals over the two legs. Glentoran’s line-up included John Hill, who a year later moved to New Zealand, made the national team and appeared in the 1982 World Cup in Spain for the All Whites

The southern upstarts

Georgia’s Dinamo Tbilisi is a great example of the little man come good. And they beat another supposed lesser light to do it.

As its name suggests, Dinamo was formed when the republic’s police, navy and army teams were merged in 1936. The club was sponsored by the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs on the basis that improved fitness would benefit the secret police. So, while the club had the might of the USSR regime behind it, Georgia was nothing more than a small blip on the map of the massive land mass that formed the bloc with a tiny proportion of the population. In a way it was the equivalent of a team from Rutland becoming a giant of the English league.

On their unlikely run, the Georgians put out Greek Cup winners Kastoria, trounced Irish champions Waterford, and eliminated West Ham in the quarter-finals, shocking the Londoners 4-1 at Upton Park in the first leg, with Georgian and Soviet great Ramaz Shengalia bagging two.

If Dutch giants Feyenoord weren’t watching they should have been. In the Georgian capital, the Dutch were outclassed 3-0 and a 2-0 home win wasn’t enough.

East German factory club Carl Zeiss Jena, meanwhile, were doing some giant killing of their own against AS Roma in the first round. The Italians won the first leg 3-0 but fell apart in Jena, losing 4-0 with Andreas Beilau scoring the winner in the 87th minute. Three goals in 31 minutes of the first leg at home was effectively enough to see off fancied Valencia. They sneaked past Newport County and upset former European Cup winners Benfica in the semi-final.

A Benfica-Feyenooord final would have been UEFA and the TV broadcasters’ choice of final, but they had to make do with what they got – a battle of two hitherto unknown eastern European teams. Less than 5,000 bothered to watch the final in Dusseldorf, where Vitaly Daraselia struck in the 87th minute for a 2-1 victory for Dinamo.    

Decline and fall

After the European Cup became the Champions League, the prestige of the Cup Winners' Cup began to decline, and the final nail in the coffin came when the Champions League was expanded in 1997, taking away some of the trophy winners from the competition.  Barcelona, for example, won the Spanish Cup and also finished second in La Liga and therefore were included in the Champions League.

Initially, UEFA considered expanding the Cup Winners' Cup as well, allowing a second team from each nation to enter – presumably the losing cup finalists. But ultimately UEFA opted to drop it altogether. There wasn’t a great deal of resistance to this, and most football fans seemed to accept that its glory days were in the past.

Embed from Getty Images

In May 1999, Lazio won the final Cup Winners' Cup at Villa Park by defeating Real Mallorca 2-1 courtesy of goals by Christian Vieri and Pavel Nedvěd.

UEFA has now approved a third competition for those whom the Champions League is beyond them: but it won’t be a revival of the Cup Winners’ Cup, there’s little appetite for that. Instead, it will mirror the two existing competitions with 32 teams in a group stage and will feature drop-outs from the equivalent stage of the Europa League. I don’t expect you to get terribly excited about that prospect.