The Intertoto Cup was never anything other than a bizarre wee competition. Set up in 1961, partly as a way of giving football pools some fodder for their most ardent gamblers during the summer (the word “Toto” comes from the German for football pools), the cup billed itself as providing an opportunity for clubs who were not otherwise able to enter European Competition. It was dubbed ‘The Cup for the Cupless’ – although at one stage it was awarding trophies to three different “winners” per season!
In the nigh on 50 years the Intertoto was in existence (it was disbanded in 2008), Scottish clubs showed very little interest in it, entering a total of five times between them. This might seem strange to the modern reader; after all, in an era where only Rangers and Celtic have been able to make any sustained dent on European competition, this outcast trophy might appear a perfect fit for some of Scotland’s lesser lights.
But that attitude fails to recognise Scotland’s incredible status in the earlier days of UEFA’s competitions. From Hibs’ participation in the inaugural European Cup in 1955, to Rangers and Aberdeen’s victories in the Cup Winners’ Cup, Dundee United’s incredible record against Barcelona, and of course Celtic’s famous 1967 European Cup victory (before any team from south of the border had managed the feat) – it is fair to say that this small nation has a long history of mixing it with the very best the continent had to offer. Whisper it, but for a long time the teams of Scotland probably saw the Intertoto Cup as beneath them.
Then there is the establishment, blazer heavy streak that runs (or certainly ran) through Scottish football. The Intertoto Cup was run outside of UEFA’s auspices for the first 34 years of its existence, and perhaps this pirate element put off those in charge of Caledonia’s grand old footballing institutions.
Over land and sea – Partick Thistle (1995)
It was UEFA’s takeover of the competition in 1995 that seemed to spark Scottish interest, with the successful teams in the Intertoto being granted entry into the UEFA Cup. Qualification went to the highest placed team not to qualify for UEFA’s other competitions – or, more accurately, the highest placed team who could be bothered. At the end of the 1994-95 season, the league had to go all the way down to 8th place (out of 10 teams) before a team could be sourced who fancied a crack at it. That team was Partick Thistle.
Thistle may be a grand old name in Scottish football, but their European experience up to that point had been limited to two rounds of the Fairs Cup in 1963/64, and a first round defeat to Hungarians Honvéd in the UEFA Cup in 1972-73. In 1995, they found themselves in a cosmopolitan Intertoto group alongside LASK Linz (Austria), Metz (France), NK Zagreb (Croatia) and Keflavik (Iceland), with their campaign starting in June. Thistle would play each team once, either home or away.
The first match was away to LASK. Thistle could have been forgiven for deciding international travel wasn’t for them after their kit was lost in transit – not something they had to worry when they had their usual away trips to Motherwell or Falkirk! On the pitch, facing LASK was a daunting enough prospect – and one that looked even more formidable when the Austrians raced into an early two goal lead. Thistle fought back, however, scoring two goals of their own to take a point. Not a bad result for their first European tie in 23 years.
Thistle’s home stadium of Firhill got to sample European football the following week, with Iceland’s Keflavik coming to town. A 3-1 win sent the large home crowd home happy, with the strange midsummer timing of the tie reflected in the fact that Tom Smith, the scorer of two of Thistle’s goals that day, had just returned from a two week holiday in Magaluf!
Next up was Metz away, something of a glamour tie for the Jags faithful as they got to play against a team from one of Europe’s big leagues, and a chance for the fans to show they were true to their oft-sung commitment to “follow Thistle, over land and sea“. Anyone who has been on a big international away trip, whether that is a Tartan Army jaunt to Dortmund or a Champions League match in Barcelona, will recognise the scenes of pre- and post-match merriment that inevitably ensue, the excitement and colour of your group of fans fanning out across the city for good-natured merriment. That’s what the Partick Thistle fans experienced in Metz, the kind of atmosphere in which the result doesn’t overly matter (and many will need reminded of it the following day). Just as well, as Thistle lost 1-0 in Metz, despite a creditable performance.
The final game was something of an anticlimax, NK Zagreb taking a 2-1 victory from Firhill and ending Thistle’s chances of qualification for the next round. But it didn’t matter, the Intertoto Cup had given the Glasgow side plenty – European football at Firhill, a couple of cracking away days, plenty of colour and a chance to play someone other than Hamilton Accies! 25 years on, that campaign is still fondly remembered by Partick Thistle fans.
A brief and joyless sojourn – Dundee (2001)
Dundee might not remember the Intertoto Cup quite so positively. Unlike Thistle, this was a club with some real European pedigree, having competed in the semi-finals of the European Cup (losing to AC Milan) and the Fairs Cup (losing out to Leeds) during its 1960s heyday.
Against that backdrop, an Intertoto Cup first round tie against provincial Serbian side FK Sartid Smederevo might not seem overly glamorous, and indeed so it proved in the summer of 2001. Dundee were in the middle of an experimental period under manager Ivano Bonetti – an experiment that would ultimately cripple the club financially. Whilst the previous summer’s statement signing Claudio Cannigia had since moved on to Rangers, the Dees were able to field a team with some quality players. Homegrown talent such as Lee Wilkie and Gavin Rae rubbed shoulders with imports such as Juan Sara and Fabian Caballero. When taken into account alongside Dundee’s European pedigree (and Sartid’s lack thereof), you could have forgiven the Scottish team for thinking they were too good for their Serbian opponents.
However, that wasn’t to prove the case. After just eight day’s training for the off-season clash, Dundee found themselves struggling to keep up with the sharper Serbs in the first leg match at Dens Park, which ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw.
The second leg in Serbia was even worse, Dundee losing 5-2 amid controversy after the referee awarded two dubious penalties against them. It was an unsatisfactory end to a short and altogether forgettable European campaign for the Dees.
Unrequited love – Hibernian (2004, 2006, 2008)
Hibernian are another team with a proud European history, having reached the semi-finals of the first ever edition of the European Cup in 1955 and been regular European participants throughout the 60s and 70s. However, despite that proud history, the Hibees clearly did not see themselves as being too grand for the Intertoto Cup, with the Leith side having entered the competition on no less than three occasions.
The first of these came in 2004, a summer of transformation in Leith. With the underperforming Bobby Williamson having departed the club, the board took a chance on the unproven Tony Mowbray. It was the former Ipswich, Celtic and Middlesbrough defender’s first foray into management, and it was to prove a sensational success. Mowbray cleared the decks at the underperforming Leith team, placing huge faith in the youngsters that Williamson had previously blooded in the League Cup and putting together a side that breathed fresh life into Scottish football. The alumni from Mowbray’s Hibs’ era are spectacular: Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Stephen Whittaker and Garry O’Connor amongst those who ultimately moved on for seven figure transfer fees.
However, just two weeks into Mowbray’s first pre-season, he was faced with an Intertoto Cup tie against now-defunct Lithuanian side FK Vėtra. Like Thistle 9 years previously, Hibs had volunteered to enter the Intertoto Cup despite having finished in the bottom half of the previous season’s SPL. With Mowbray’s squad rebuilding only at its very early stages, Hibs had a skeleton squad to choose from for the two-legged tie, and that lack of resources ultimately costs them. The first leg, played in “farcical conditions after a thunderstorm” at Hibs’ Easter Road Ground, finished in a 1-1 draw, with future Birmingham and Lokomotiv Moscow striker Garry O’Connor getting the Leith side’s goal. The second leg was even worse, a narrow 1-0 defeat after an error from young goalkeeper Alistair Brown (Hibs’ previous number 1 Daniel Andersson having left for Helsingborgs that summer, and his replacement not yet having been signed) seeing Hibernian crash out of the competition in miserable fashion.
Hibs clearly haven’t heard the phrase “once bitten, twice shy”, though. Fast forward to the summer of 2006, and the end of Mowbray’s impressive Hibs tenure was approaching (he would leave for West Brom that October). After having finished 3rd and 4th in the SPL in the previous two seasons, and having tasted UEFA Cup action against Dnipro, Hibs found themselves once more back in the Intertoto, parachuted straight into the second round.
The fans might have had a shiver when they were again drawn against a little known Baltic side – this time Dinaburg of Latvia. But Mowbray’s slick Hibees were a different beast from the skeleton crew who had succumbed to Vetra, and outclassed their opponents with an 8-0 aggregate victory (with six different scorers over the two legs).
The third and final round saw Hibs face off against Odense of Denmark for the chance to qualify for the first round of the UEFA Cup – the closest any Scottish side ever came to “success” in UEFA’s bizarre tertiary competition. A tight 1-0 loss in Denmark was followed by a 2-1 win at Easter Road, which saw the Scots crash out on away goals.
In the Intertoto cup’s final season, in the summer of 2008, Hibernian just couldn’t help themselves, signing up for one last crack at the soon-to-be-discontinued competition. By now Mowbray (and his successor John Collins) were long gone, as were the majority of the exciting players who had made the previous few seasons so memorable. Mixu Paatelainen was in charge of a watered-down Hibs side, albeit one which still contained talented players such as a young Steven Fletcher, a returning Derek Riordan and Northern Ireland internationalist Dean Shiels.
Hibs again went straight into the second round, and again found themselves drawn against Scandinavian opposition – this time in the shape of Swedes Elfsborg. Unlike in 2006, however, there was no sense of “what might have been” about the Hibees’ elimination after consecutive 2-0 defeats home and away.
Hibs are arguably the only Scottish team to have made any sustained effort to fall in love with the Intertoto Cup, entering it three times in the space of four years. However, any feelings were very much unrequited as the competition left the Hibees with only one victory from four low-glamour ties in that time. The best that could be said is that the Intertoto Cup served as a useful pre-season competition in an era of relative domestic success for the men from Leith.
A missed opportunity for two footballing underdogs
The Intertoto Cup was always Europe’s ugly duckling competition, and at first glance it may have seemed a perfect fit for the mid-ranking Scottish clubs who found themselves being left behind as football grew ever more wealthy in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the limited experience of Caledonian sides in the competition proved mostly awkward and unconvincing, a low-income opportunity to slip on some fairly obscure banana skins.
That being said, it seems a shame that more Scottish clubs didn’t take the plunge, robbing us of the chance to see Kilmarnock take on Inter Turku or Falkirk versus Beitar Jerusalem. As fans of Partick Thistle will testify, in the right circumstances the journey through this bargain bin of European football could be one hell of a ride.