There are various times of the year that I cannot help but link back to sporting events in my childhood. The New Year means Eric Bristow winning another World Darts Championship; freshly cut grass in April equates to FA Cup semi-finals; Easter equals the US Masters; and oddly, December often transports me to the G-Mex Centre in Manchester.
Six-a-side indoor football had been launched by the Football League in May 1982, with eight Midlands clubs contesting the Austin Rover tournament at the Birmingham NEC. “We think we have developed a game which will bring back the fans and attract a far wider audience, we hope to get the family back to watch football,” League spokesman Graham Walker announced.
Played on a skin-burning artificial surface, Birmingham City would win the first event, and they successfully defended their crown a year later, when the tournament was expanded to include teams outside the Midlands.
Arsenal and Tottenham would win the next two editions, with Oxford winning the inaugural tournament at the G-Mex Centre in 1986, now sponsored by Guinness (both Atari and Courage had been sponsors post-1982). A year later Nottingham Forest would triumph, and along with Liverpool and Wimbledon (League and FA Cup holders respectively), they would be seeded for the 1988 event.
The seeded teams automatically qualified for finals night on Wednesday December 7, and would be joined by three winners of the play-offs played in consecutive days before the main event. Tickets for the play-offs ranged between £3.50-£5.50, with an extra pound added on for finals night, and fans attending were provided with constant commentary from Radio One DJ Andy Peebles.
Matches were played over fifteen minutes, with roll-on roll-off substitutions allowed throughout. Watching the matches on Sportsnight was so exciting, and so different. Sin-bins added to the distinct nature of the tournament, and other rules added to this; for example, teams had to keep at least one player in the attacking half of the pitch.
With English teams banned from Europe, some clubs took the opportunity to take strong ten-man squads to Manchester. A look at Everton’s personnel highlights how seriously they were taking the tournament; Southall, Ratcliffe, Van Den Hauwe, Watson, Reid, Steven, Cottee, Sharp. Others were not so willing to risk key players.
Indeed, after the tournament, the Football League threatened to withhold the appearance money, believed to be £7,000, of Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham. In general, clubs did send strong teams; after all, squads were not big enough to consider rotation. But it wasn’t hard to see why some used fringe and youth players – Jim Leighton would later miss Scotland’s friendly with Italy due to an elbow injury picked up in the tournament.
The first team to qualify was Charlton Athletic. Struggling in Division One, Lennie Lawrence’s side were probably happy for the distraction. Knocking out Coventry and Newcastle in the group stage, a 2-0 win over Aston Villa saw Charlton make the finals night and win £21,000 in the process. A highlight of the evening was Coventry’s David Speedie taking over in goal from the injured Steve Ogrizovic and scoring against Newcastle.
If Charlton’s success had been a slight surprise, the same could not be said of Norwich. Leading Division One, the likes of Ruel Fox and Andy Townsend swept all before them on the Monday. Hammering Manchester City (the only Second Division representative) 4-0, the Canaries also defeated QPR 4-2 and Luton 5-1 to stroll into finals night.
The final play-off evening was all about the reunion between Arsenal’s Paul Davis and Southampton’s Glenn Cockerill. Davis had recently completed a nine-match ban after he had been caught on camera breaking Cockerill’s jaw in a League match at Highbury. “We wouldn’t really avoid each other,” Davis admitted. “I asked Glenn how he was and wished him the best of luck in the future.”
Arsenal would win that particular match 1-0, before going on to lose to West Ham in the final. Soon the focus would shift on to another midfielder; Liverpool’s Jan Molby, recently released from a six-week spell in prison for reckless driving, was making his return to football. It was a useful exercise for the slimmed-down Molby, yet Liverpool would be on the receiving end of a stunning comeback in the first match of the evening.
In truth, one look at the Liverpool squad indicated that the club had bigger fish to fry. Once Ray Houghton and John Aldridge pulled out through injury, the team had a raw look to it, with Nicky Tanner, John Jeffers, Charlie Boyd, Alex Watson, Jim Magilton, Mike Marsh, and John Durnin included. Nevertheless, they still managed to race into a 3-0 lead over Charlton.
However, goals from Mickey Bennett, John Humphrey, Carl Leaburn, Steve Gritt, and David Campbell, plus a Bruce Grobbelaar own goal, completed a remarkable turnaround, Charlton’s 6-3 win followed up with an equally impressive 6-2 victory over West Ham, which booked their place in the final.
There they would meet holders Nottingham Forest, who included England internationals Stuart Pearce and Neil Webb in their ranks. Paul Mortimer put Charlton in front, before a Franz Carr strike just two seconds before the end of the first half levelled matters. The winning goal would come from Peter Shirtliff, who would later collect £1,000 for winning the Player of the Tournament.
“I just hope that it will boost our confidence for the fight in the League, which is always going to be a battle for a club like ours,” Shirtliff said after lifting the trophy. The club benefitted financially, collecting £51,000 in total, or three times the gate receipts they received for the recent “home” match against Forest at Selhurst Park.
“The players and our loyal supporters need a boost,” Lawrence commented. “This is the ideal thing.” Charlton were popular winners, in an event that had attracted decent crowds, and was a definite ratings winner judging by the conversations I had at school with other football nuts.
Trevor Phillips, the Football League Commercial Director reflected the popularity of the event as the decade ended. “There is a growing belief that indoor Soccer Six could well prove to be the growth sport of the 1990s.” Alas, that statement would end up looking as wise as declaring that Crystal Palace were going to be the team of the eighties.
By 1991 the tournament had been consigned to the rubbish bin. With the European ban lifted, and clubs pushing for more money through TV deals and ultimately the Premier League, there was never going to be room for something like the Soccer Sixes.
If you had told me in 1988 that there would only be two more Guinness Soccer Six tournaments, I would have been shocked and saddened. It is a part of my childhood that I look back on with great fondness. That green carpet, the boards and Plexiglass, those goals, Sportsnight, and the countdown to Christmas. Happy days.