As we all struggle to come to terms with the lack of football to capture our imaginations at present, football’s law-makers are struggling to find solutions to satisfactorily get football back on its feet post-lock-down.

Back in the late-’60s, law-makers faced a different conundrum. This time, how to allow League Cup winners from outside of the top division of English football a place in European competition. Welcome to the Anglo-Italian cup.

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF QPR

The FA must have been hoping that lightning couldn’t strike twice when third-division Swindon lined up against Arsenal on 15 March 1969. Just two years earlier, they changed the rules of the League Cup to award the winner a place in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, considered the predecessor for the UEFA Cup and latterly the Europe League.

No sooner had the door to Europe been opened, it was immediately slammed shut in the face of Queens Park Rangers and their supporters. Their hard-fought 3-2 win over West Brom, coming back from 2-0 down at half-time, was a day of jubilation for the fans, however, that jubilation did not extend to a jaunt into Europe the following season. UEFA did not allow third-division sides from any country to compete in the Fairs Cup. Their place was taken by 5th place first division side Liverpool, whatever happened to them…?

Sadly for the FA, if not for the travelling Robins, Swindon did triumph that day. Two years on from QPR’s first and only major trophy to date, Swindon was to taste the same success on Wembley’s hallowed turf, recently dug up by the Horse of the Year show, 3-1 against the mighty Arsenal in front of nearly 99,000 supporters.

MORE AN UNDERPASS THAN A ROAD TO GLORY

There was no way around the rules. Swindon, despite their glorious triumph over the odds that fateful day at Wembley, were not allowed to enter the traditional European competitions. They were simply too lowly to be permitted.

When QPR won the cup two years previous, it was deemed a fluke, unlikely to happen again, and just gosh darn bad luck that they were not able to compete in European competition as their victory should have guaranteed. When it happened again, it was getting embarrassing for the FA. Something had to be done.

In order to appease and compensate The Robins for not being able to compete in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a one-off, two-legged tie against that season’s Coppa Italia winners, Roma, was organised and named the Anglo-Italian League Cup, or the International League Cup Winners Cup, although that name didn’t catch on so well. It wasn’t quite the reward of playing against the likes of Sporting, Barcelona, Ajax or Juventus, all of whom were appearing in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, but the two-legged tie guaranteed a nice trip to Italy’s capital, and the opportunity to see some top quality European football back at the County Ground, so wasn’t too bad.

The first leg was to be played at the Stadio Olympico at the end of August and, perhaps somewhat predictably, Roma triumphed, although a 2-1 defeat was something to be proud of for a Third Division side.

Two weeks later, Swindon played host, probably expecting a similar result at best. What was to happen would be beyond the wildest dream of any Town fan as they went to sleep the night before. 

An early goal from Arthur Horsfield set the game up nicely, and although it took until the 70th minute for any further goals, in those last 20 minutes of the game, Swindon blew Roma away, eventually winning 4-0 on the night, with a hat-trick from Horsfield, winning the inaugural cup 5-2 on aggregate.

Playing for Roma that night was a young Fabio Capello. Watching England at World Cup 2010, I think he must have been inspired to watch a lot more of Swindon Town over the years.

THE HARDEST CHALLENGE IS TO GO AGAIN

Evidently deemed a success, the Anglo-Italian League Cup continued the next year, this time pitting Bologna against Manchester City, with the trophy returning to Italy 3-2 on aggregate. However, that wasn’t the only Anglo-Italian competition held that year.

Evidently impressing the Italian FA with their performances, they quickly moved to set up the Anglo-Italian Cup, not confusing at all, at the end of that season’s campaign. Consisting of six teams from England and six from Italy, with Swindon amongst the English teams, given the opportunity to defend their European crown.

Looking with modern football eyes, it has to be said that the teams Italy put forward were a lot stronger than what England could muster. Fiorentina, Juventus, Lazio, Napoli, Roma and the somewhat less glamorous Lanerossi Vicenza against Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland, West Brom, Wolves and of course Swindon Town.

Two groups, consisting of two sides from each country, would compete against each other, and the team with the best record from each country would compete in the final. That rule may seem strange now, but it seems positively every day compared to the way you accumulated points. Each win would still earn you two-points, as was customary in 1970, however, you also earned an extra point for every goal you scored.

With Swindon pitted against both Juventus and Napoli in the group stage, the chances of qualification seemed slim. At least they did until the opening matchday when Swindon thumped Juventus 4-0 at the County Ground. A scoreline that will almost certainly never be repeated. A defeat to Napoli in their next home game against their continental opponents seemed to signal the end of Swindon’s hopes of qualification. 

It must be remembered that as well as being a side outside of the top division, this competition was being held at the end of the domestic campaign. Swindon had already played 42 league games, as well as reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup that season. To then be expected to go to Italy and compete against Juventus and Napoli away from home and try and achieve a result was a big ask.

But that is exactly what they did. Winning both games 1-0, the final win against Napoli, courtesy of a Don Rogers goal, would ultimately be the game that sealed Swindon’s place in the final on the curious ‘top performer’ rule mentioned above.

The other twist of fate would be that the top-performing Italian team in that competition was Napoli. The two teams would renew their acquaintances at the San Paolo just 5 days later on the 28th May.

A EUROPEAN FINAL, BUT NOT EXACTLY AS THEY HAD PLANNED

Played in front of a crowd of 55,000 people, it’s fair to say that this game would have been beyond the wildest dream of any Swindon Town player. They were able to come into the game in high spirits though given the victory earlier that week against the same opposition.

If the 1-0 win in the final group stage sounds like a close contest, the final was to be anything but. 

No one quite knows why, but Napoli barely turned up for the game. Playing in front of their own crowd in a cup final should have been enough to raise the players, but whether it was fatigue, over-confidence or divine intervention, Swindon took hold of the game from almost the first minute and didn’t let go.

Taking the lead halfway through the first half, Swindon were in complete control by half-time. By 63 minutes, Town had a solid 3-0 lead and were incredibly comfortable controlling the game. This is when the trouble started.

The home fans began to get restless at the poor performance of their team and were not afraid to show their displeasure. The chants started to become angrier and louder towards their own team and the atmosphere would eventually turn further against the Napoli players.

Supporters began to break off parts of the stadium and throw them onto the pitch to vent their anger. The missiles eventually became so large and dangerous, that the game had to be abandoned on 79 minutes as there was a very serious threat to the lives of the players. By the end of the game, 30 arrests had been made and over 100 injuries being reported.

The match, and the trophy, was awarded to Swindon Town. The result wasn’t really in doubt by the time of the abandonment, but I’m sure any player and fan would tell you, it’s not the most ideal way to celebrate a famous European triumph, as Juventus was to go on and find out in another Anglo-Italian final in Heysel.

NOT BUILT FOR LONGLASTING SUCCESS

Whilst both Anglo-Italian competitions were to continue in some shape or form for a few years, the longer format competition was actually brought back in the ’90s with the last ever final featuring Port Vale, it can’t really be considered a huge success in either country.

The expansion of other European competitions to allow more teams from the leading countries entry meant there was no need for smaller competitions like this, clogging up the end of an increasing longer domestic campaign.

What it did do however was give some smaller teams, especially in England, their chance at glory and the fans the opportunity to see their teams in European competition. For the likes of Notts County, Blackpool and of course Swindon Town fans, this is invaluable and the memories live long for those there to witness this triumph.

Swindon have never returned to European competition, and in fact, never won a major trophy since, but for one glorious year, their supporters witnessed them winning three trophies: the League Cup, Anglo-Italian League Cup and the Anglo-Italian Cup. No-one can ever put a price on that.