In normal times, those with a footballing affliction would be starting to think about pre-season in June and July, looking forward to the announcement of the new fixtures, cup draws, new signings, and preparing for pre-season games. It seems strange to think about preparations for a new football season right now, when the previous one is yet to be completed.
One of the things that has become a staple of pre-season football in more recent times is the pre-season tournament, and these have become particularly prevalent during the Premier League era. Those that immediately spring to mind include the Audi Cup, the Emirates Cup, and the Premier League Asia Trophy, and tend to be mini-competitions that ride on the coat-tails of Europe’s big leagues, and are often designed to sell their ‘product’ to ‘new markets’, which has given rise to football tourism and the growth of foreign supporters’ clubs.
Although the pre-season tournament is a recent growth phenomenon, it does have a bit of history, and this summer marks the 50th anniversary of one of this country’s first major pre-season jamborees.
In the summer of 1970, the Watney Mann Invitation Cup – though it was known simply as the Watney Cup – was launched and was the first domestic cup competition to bear the name of a sponsor, Watney Mann being a brewer of popular beer. The competition ran for four years from 1970 until 1973, and was held before the start of the season, featuring the two clubs from each of the four divisions that had scored the most goals the previous season who had not been promoted or qualified for European football.
The tournament was of interest as it provided the opportunity for upsets – and these happened; witness Fourth Division Colchester United beating First Division West Bromwich Albion to lift the trophy in 1971 – and experimentation with new rules: the Watney Cup saw England’s first ever penalty shootout, and in the competition’s second season, the offside rule was changes whereby you could only be flagged offside beyond the edge of the penalty area.
The first winners of the Watney Cup were First Division Derby County, who beat Manchester United 4-1 in the final held at the Baseball Ground. It was notable in that it was Brian Clough’s first trophy as a manager, while the Red Devils reached the final following a penalty shootout win over Hull City – England’s first – in which George Best became the first player to take a shootout kick, and Denis Law became the first player to miss one.
1971’s tournament saw less goals, but it wasn’t short on drama and upsets. Manchester United had entered for a second successive year but fell to a shock 2-1 defeat away to Halifax Town of the Third Division in front of around 20,000 fans. But perhaps the biggest shock was reserved for the final. Fourth Division Colchester United had beaten Carlisle United and Luton Town, both of the Second Division, to set-up a clash with West Bromwich Albion of the First Division at the Hawthorns. The tie went to a penalty shootout after a thrilling 4-4 draw, and the Us came out on top, winning the shootout 4-3.
1972 saw another lower league winner, with Third Division Bristol Rovers lifting the trophy, beating both top-flight entrants along the way, Wolves, and Sheffield United who they beat in the final 7-6 on penalties following a goalless draw. The 1972 tournament was also remarkable in that Manchester United declined their invitation to enter, choosing to focus on a “more structured pre-season” instead, though a cynic may say that it had more to do with their humiliation at the hands of Halifax Town the previous summer.
The 1973 tournament proved to be the final one, and was won by my team, First Division Stoke City, featuring the likes of Terry Conroy, Geoff Hurst, and Denis Smith. Fellow top-flight side West Ham United were the favourites but were dumped out by holders Bristol Rovers in the First Round. The Potters went on to comfortably beat Bristol City 4-1 in the Semi-Finals, before another comfortable win in the Final, where Second Division Hull City were beaten 2-0 at the Victoria Ground, meaning that Stoke City were the final winners of the Watney Cup.
While the Watney Cup was a lucrative competition due to the sponsorship deal struck by the FA and the Football League with the brewers, and thus was an attractive proposition for the clubs, it quickly declined in popularity with supporters. The first tournament was watched by an average of 21,000 supporters, the second just 12,000. The average fell again in the third year to 11,500 but picked up again to 13,000 in the fourth. It was the fall in attendances that convinced the authorities to scrap the Watney Cup in 1973.
As I started to take an interest in football, and watch Stoke with my dad, I remember asking him what trophies that we’d won. Given the stories he used to tell me, particularly to do with the club’s early to mid-70s glory days, I expected to hear that we’d won a few. But his response was a short one: “we won the League Cup in 1972…but we also won the Watney Cup in 1973”.
That meant little to me, of course. I understood the League Cup, but what was a Watney? “It’s like the Milk Cup”, dad said to me – we were in the temperance era of cup sponsorship – which just confused the conversation more. “But that’s the League Cup dad”, came my response. And that was my dad’s point of course, Watney was a sponsor. This was the early 1980s, and I couldn’t type ‘Watney Cup’ into Google, and I had to rely on what dad and my Uncle John could tell me.
Dad’s view was always “a trophy is a trophy”, and that’s why Stoke’s Watney Cup win was important to him, and I guess I carry a little bit of that in me. I celebrated Stoke’s triumphs in the Autoglass Trophy and Auto Windscreens Shield as hard as I would if we’d have managed to beat Manchester City in the 2011 FA Cup Final.
And it wasn’t just my dad that saw the Watney Cup as important. Brian Clough always stressed the importance of his Derby side’s triumph in 1970. It turned his players into winners; it helped them to believe that they could challenge for trophies.
But despite Stoke being the last winner of the Watney Cup, it doesn’t reside in the trophy cabinet at the bet365 Stadium, where it should be. Instead, it can be found thirty-five miles down the A50 at Derby County’s Pride Park. There’s always a bit of sport between the two clubs, but this is unacceptable. We want out trophy back!
Although Shamrock Rovers were unable to topple Zlatan Ibrahimovic's AC Milan side in the UEFA Europa League, it was...