Remembering the Anglo-Italian Cup - the quirky and controversial tournament that pitted Sunderland against Europe's best
As we approach the 2020/21 season, a long-standing debate rages again - do we really need this many competitions?
Sunderland will be competing on four fronts this season and, in a campaign where schedules will be more congested than ever before, question marks have been raised over the merits (or otherwise) of some of the tournaments
But this is nothing new. Football has long been a game of my competitions - some prestigious, some quirky, many of which have fallen by the wayside.
And one which falls into the latter two categories is the Anglo-Italian Cup - a concept which, by my modern standards, would seem bizarre.
It was, however, a competition which included Sunderland for several years - including in its maiden season.
So what exactly was it?
The origins of the Anglo-Italian Cup can be traced back to 1969, when Swindon Town - a third division side - earned a place in Inter-Cities Fairs Cup having won the League Cup.
UEFA, however, were having none of it, concerned that the Robins’ lowly status in the English pyramid would taint their competition.
So in stepped one of the first ‘super agents’ of the 1970s, Gigi Peronace - a charismatic Italian who arranged for Swindon to face Roma in lieu of their European adventure.
From there, an idea was conceived.
What if English and Italian sides who didn’t qualify for UEFA’s competitions were pitted against each other in a continental tournament?
And so, the Anglo-Italian Cup was born - and among its first invitees were Sunderland.
The opening year
The first tournament was held at the end of the 1969/70 season; a campaign in which the Black Cats had finished second bottom of the First Division and were relegated to the second tier.
They were, however, viewed as a marquee team for the first edition of the competition.
A fairly simple format was adopted. There were three groups of four teams, two of which came from England and another two from Italy. Each team played those from the other country twice, once at home and once away.
In 1970, Sunderland were grouped with Lazio, Fiorentina and Wolves.
A team including the likes of Jimmy Montgomery, Cecil Irwin, Bobby Kerr and a number of other names who would go on to play their part in the 1973 FA Cup triumph started the tournament brightly - beating Lazio 3-1 at home.
A 2-2 draw with Fiorentina at Roker Park followed, putting the Black Cats in a good position to qualify as they headed to Italy.
But that’s where things unravelled, with Lazio and Fiorentina winning 2-1 and 3-0 respectively on their own patch to send the Black Cats out the competition.
Sunderland would be invited back at the end of the 1971/72 season, this time grouped with Atalanta, Cagliari and Leicester City.
This time around, however, the Black Cats would travel to Italy first.
They lost 3-2 to Atalanta before beating Cagliari 3-1 at the Stadio Sant’Elia.
Back on Wearside, Sunderland drew 0-0 against Atalanta before another stalemate - this time a 3-3 tie with Cagliari - saw them out of the competition.
And before long, the competition would be scrapped. In the summer of 1973, it was decided that English clubs already had too many fixtures to contend with - and as such, the Anglo-Italian Cup was scrapped.
It was later reinstated as a semi-professional competition but, as with all great nostalgia, it wasn’t long until a full return was on the cards...
In 1992, with the Full Members Cup discarded from the calendar, there was a gap to be filled.
In stepped the Anglo-Italian Cup, back once again to give English sides a taste of European action.
And once again, Sunderland were among the early participants in the competition.
One of the big differences in the rebooted version was the fact that the competition was played during the 1992/93 season, rather than at the end of it.
This led to some clubs fielding weakened sides as they sought to navigate a fixture programme that was already becoming more and more congested.
Another major change was the introduction of a preliminary round, where English clubs would battle it out in a miniature group to gain qualification to the main tournament - where the Italians would be waiting.
In 1992, Sunderland were paired with Cambridge United and Birmingham City.
They were held to a 1-1 draw with the U’s before losing to Birmingham, exiting the competition before it had even started.
The same fate befell the Black Cats when they entered the competition the following season. They beat Tranmere 2-0 at home before losing away to Bolton, meaning there would be no trips to the continent this time around.
The final curtain
This proved to be Sunderland’s final foray into the competition, with the full-time whistle blown on the Anglo-Italian Cup at the end of the 1995/96 season.
The decision came as a result of fixture congestion - with the EFL Trophy (or AutoWindscreens Shield, as it was then) coming into play.
Attendances were on the fall, too - Sunderland averaged crowds of around 5,000 at Roker Park for their home fixtures in the latter years of the competition - but the Anglo-Italian Cup is still looked back upon fondly.
It gave clubs the chance to play European football, to face-off against exotic sides who they may not have otherwise had the chance to play, and to venture into the continent.
And for Sunderland, that’s an opportunity which sadly hasn’t presented itself on a regular basis.