Thursday, 21 September 2017

1986: Full Members' Cup

Chelsea and Manchester City are now contesting for major honours domestically and in Europe, but in 1986 things were a lot different.

English football in 1985 was constantly hitting new levels of rock bottom. Violence and decaying stadia combined to make the match day experience an often unpleasant occasion, and with deaths at Birmingham, Bradford, and Brussels in May, the sport had seemingly reached the point of no return. It was little wonder that attendances were dropping across the country, and you didn't need to be Bergerac to deduce that Margaret Thatcher and her Government would have been quite happy if the problem child faded into obscurity.

The European ban imposed on English clubs was the inevitable conclusion to the spreading English disease that had swept the Continent, although many wondered if slightly less football during the 1985/86 season might not be a bad thing. But the Football League and club chairmen had different ideas; greed was good, so two new competitions were introduced to the English football calendar, that quite frankly proved to be as big a waste of time as everyone had predicted.

Step forward the Screen Sport Super Cup and Full Members' Cup. The former was set up as a consolation competition for the six teams that had qualified for Europe, but could not participate due to the ban. Look deep enough, and you can see some logic in offering an alternative event for European qualifiers. But the Full Members' Cup was a complete mystery. Sir Norman Chester, a man who had been asked by the Government and Football League to investigate English football in 1968 and 1983, summed things up nicely when interviewed by the Times in September, 1985.

"What is this Full Members' Cup? Like that Freight Train thing but for bigger clubs, is it? How absurd." You couldn't argue with Chester's concerns. In his previous recommendations, Chester had proposed to cut fixtures in order to improve the quality of the product, and unsurprisingly his suggestions fell upon deaf ears. Now, more matches were being added to the domestic season, a move that left Bobby Robson "sad and bitterly disappointed" in the year leading up to the Mexico World Cup.

It soon became apparent, though, that not many clubs were embracing the exciting new competition. Originally opened up to 32 teams in the top two divisions, invites were declined at an alarming rate. Just Say No might have been a hit for the Grange Hill kids in April 1986, but it could well have been the motto for the Full Members' Cup in August and September of 1985.

Arsenal, Watford, and West Ham were amongst the first to politely reject the chance of adding the Full Members' Cup to their trophy cabinets, and as more and more teams fell by the wayside, the Football League were facing the prospect of a humiliating U-turn. With only 24 teams accepting the invite, the tournament lurched from one PR disaster to the next.

The draw was delayed after Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades complained to the Football League, relating to their insistence that all fixtures, bar the final, had to be completed by Christmas. When the competition got under way, there were only 21 participants. Club secretary Andrew Waterhouse, explained the withdrawal of Birmingham City on the day of their match against Bradford: "When three more clubs pulled out, we felt the competition had been devalued even further and was no longer an attractive proposition for our supporters."

"At this late stage it is undesirable that clubs should pull out," a League spokesman said. "But as long as there are enough to form a meaningful competition, it will go ahead." Yet as the tournament kicked off on September 17, with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever, the Full Members' Cup was roundly being mocked. Given the title of the Few Members' Cup, or the Fools Members' Cup as Emlyn Hughes called it in his Daily Mirror column, fans of those teams involved certainly made their feelings known.

Even in an era of declining attendances, some of the gates for the Full Members' Cup games were staggering. Some teams set unwanted records for their lowest ever attendances in competitive matches; Manchester City (4,029 v Leeds United), Coventry (1,066 v Millwall), Fulham (2,022 v Oxford). The Daily Express reported that just 12 Shrewsbury supporters made the midweek trip to Oxford, in a crowd of just 1,898, the away fans outnumbered by the nine policemen and four stewards looking after them.

The odd number of teams did little to help the format of the competition. Three northern groups contained just two teams, and confusingly there was some variation on how the group winners were decided. Sunderland progressed to the area semi-finals by defeating Grimsby over two legs, yet Middlesbrough and Hull knocked out Carlisle and Bradford respectively over a one-off match played at their own grounds.

Manchester City qualified after thrashing Leeds 6-1 - with new signing Gordon Davies claiming a hat-trick in his second match - and then winning 2-1 away at Sheffield United with a last minute Graham Baker goal sealing the deal. The fact that only 3,420 had turned up for the group decider told you everything you needed to know about the competition, though.

Attendances were just as poor down south. In Group Two, Oxford qualified ahead of Shrewsbury and Fulham, the three matches in the group attracting a combined crowd of just 5,260, with only 6,323 attending the matches played between Stoke, Coventry, and Millwall, as the former made it through to the semis. In comparison, the 10,620 that made it to the Group Four matches involving Brighton, Crystal Palace, and West Brom, made the tournament look like a rip-roaring success.

The group involving Chelsea, Portsmouth, and Charlton saw the most people through the gates, albeit the combined figure of 13,621 was put into context when you consider that 11,571 turned up at Roker Park to watch Sunderland v Grimsby (the highest attendance before the final). Chelsea's 3-0 win over Portsmouth - goals from John Bumstead, Micky Hazard, and the prolific Kerry Dixon - and three goals in the last 12 minutes against Charlton - two from Pat Nevin, and the other from David Speedie - saw Chelsea, one of only five top flight teams to enter the competition, make it to the regional semi-finals.

Manchester City made it through to Wembley via a 4-3 penalty win against Sunderland at Maine Road - goalkeeper Eric Nixon proving the hero - and a narrow win over Hull in the Northern Final. Losing the first leg 2-1, a bumper crowd of 10,108 turned up at Maine Road, and witnessed a dramatic 2-0 win, the 3-2 aggregate victory secured in the very last minute by Jim Melrose. "Our fans deserve a Wembley occasion," City manager Billy McNeill said. "It will be a great occasion for our fans."

Chelsea would also need penalties to win their regional semi-final. Coming from 2-0 down, goals from Speedie and Kevin McAllister forced the match into extra-time, with West Brom's Garth Crooks the only man to miss from the spot in the shootout. Manager John Hollins was forced to do without the services of Dixon for the West Brom match, and Speedie for the Southern Final first leg against Oxford, both due to international call-ups. But it didn't stop the club making it to their first Wembley final in 14 years.

Despite having Keith Jones sent off after 27 minutes, Dixon netted a hat-trick in a thumping 4-1 win at Oxford in the first leg of the final, making Oxford's 1-0 win in the return match irrelevant. The star of Hollins seemed to be shining very brightly at this point in his reign - second in the League, into the last eight of the Milk Cup, and a Wembley final to look forward to - and it was no surprise when he was named Bell's Scotch Manager of the Month for December.

With the finalists decided before Christmas, both clubs could at least now look forward to a special day out at the home of football. But it seemed that the road to Wembley would be far from smooth. The final was originally scheduled for Saturday March 1, although a spanner was put in the works when Oxford complained that their League fixture at Manchester City on this date should not be cancelled. When the League appeals committee upheld Oxford's protest, the Full Members' Cup was yet again thrown into turmoil.

Manchester City chairman Peter Swales expressed his anger at the verdict. "I am amazed and shattered by the decision, more so as both the League and FA said we could go ahead on March 1." With the finalists promising to underwrite the Wembley costs at £150,000, the news that the match may be switched to Wednesday March 19 was a crushing blow.

"By playing on a Wednesday evening it will make a difference of some 20,000 on the gate, from about 60,000 to 40,000," Swales complained. All of a sudden, passions started running high. Police were called to Oxford after a brick was delivered to the ground, wrapped in a note stating that the offices "would be burned to the ground", and there were a number of violent threats made against Robert Maxwell, left by angry individuals on Oxford's answerphone.

A solution was reached, although it was not entirely satisfactory. The final would be played on Sunday March 23, which on the plus side would boost the attendance. However, both teams would be involved in League action the day before the Wembley date; and for City, this meant playing a Wembley final 24 hours after the small matter of a Manchester derby.

Both teams would come out of Saturday's matches in good shape - Chelsea won 1-0 at Southampton to stay in the title race, and City came from two down to draw at Old Trafford - yet for Kerry Dixon the visit to the South Coast would bring pain and disappointment. After aggravating a groin injury, the England centre forward would miss out on a chance to play for his club side at Wembley.

Unlike a lot of what had gone before, the final proved to be a rare success. A healthy crowd of 67,236, bringing in receipts of £508,000, enjoyed an exciting final, with Chelsea coming out on top in a nine-goal thriller. City took the lead after Steve Kinsey deflected a Mick McCarthy shot past Steve Francis (deputising for the injured Eddie Niedzwiecki), but from this point on it was the David Speedie and Colin Lee show.

A Nevin cross allowed Speedie to head home the equaliser, with Dixon's replacement Lee putting Chelsea ahead before the break. Speedie would go on to complete a Wembley final hat trick - twenty years on from a slightly more significant one scored by Geoff Hurst - and a long range effort from Lee put Chelsea 5-1 up and seemingly out of sight.

City went down fighting, though. A Mark Lillis double, sandwiched either side of a Doug Rougvie own goal, gave the scoreline a more respectable look. But it would be Chelsea skipper Colin Pates who would climb the Wembley steps to pick up the Full Members' Cup. Many journalists wondered if Pates would be the first and last man to do so.

Somehow the competition managed to limp on for another six seasons, earning sponsorship deals with Simod and Zenith Data Systems along the way. But as soon as the sparkling new Premier League came along, there was no room for an ugly relative like the ZDS Cup. Yet search down the bottom of Chelsea's trophy cabinet web page, and you can still a mention of their 1986 triumph.

Nowadays, Chelsea and Manchester City dine at the top table of European football, so it is probably hard for many to imagine them fighting over the scraps in the 1980s. Times change, though. Just a year after the 1986 final, City were relegated from the top flight, followed the season after by the victors. I wonder how many of the supporters who lived through those times could ever have envisaged the feast of silverware that has been delivered to their door by Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour?

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