This article first appeared in issue 262 of The Gooner
There have been a number of awful football competitions organised throughout the history of the sport, from the Anglo-Scottish Cup to the Zenith Data Systems, taking in such delights as the Texaco Cup, ScreenSport Super Cup, and Watney Cup along the way. Fortunately my club, Arsenal, have managed to steer clear of most of these, but in 1988 the club qualified for a cup competition that was organised by the Football League 100 years of the governing body.
The Football League were naturally eager to celebrate their 100th year as the 1987/88 campaign kicked off. In August 1987, a Football League Representative side defeated a World XI 3-0 at Wembley, Maradona roundly booed every time he touched the ball, with the majority of the 61,000 crowd unable to forgive or forget his Hand of God incident. But this would not be the only occasion to mark the Football League centenary.
In April 1988, a whole set of League fixtures were cancelled in order to allow the staging of the Mercantile Credit Football Festival, which turned out to be as naff as it sounded. Hosted at Wembley and contested by 16 teams that had qualified through a pre-defined set of matches, attendances were low; 41,500 on the Saturday and only 17,000 for the Sunday. Matches played between 40 and 60 minute periods resulted in nine of the fifteen contests going to penalties, as the party fell flat in a big way.
The Football League were determined to stretch out their landmark anniversary, though, and as the 1988/89 season commenced, there was one final tournament to mark the occasion. The Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy, involving the top eight Division One clubs from the previous season, would bring the curtain down on the underwhelming centenary bash.
Stuart Jones was pretty accurate when he wrote in The Times that the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy was "the closing debacle of the embarrassing League centenary celebrations." Arsenal may have gone on to win the tournament, beating Liverpool and Manchester United along the way, but the fact that it isn't listed on the club website honours page says a lot.
Arsenal's first match would be the quarter final clash away at Queens Park Rangers. Fortunately Rangers had ripped up their skin-shredding artificial pitch at the end of 1987/88, and although they had finished as London's top club the year before, Arsenal had just won 5-1 at Wimbledon on the opening day of the campaign, and were favourites to join Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester United in the semis.
QPR boss Jim Smith may have claimed that this was a good tournament to be in, but the "vast sea of upturned blue seats," to quote Jones again, told a different story. Just 10,019 people attended the match - won 2-0 by Arsenal, with goals from Tony Adams and Brian Marwood - and this lack of interest remained a constant throughout the tournament.
It wasn't that teams didn't take the competition seriously. Squad rotation was still a distant concept back in 1988, and there was no European football to overload the players, so strong teams were fielded. Nevertheless, fans voted with their feet. When attendances at Old Trafford were recorded of 16,439 and 14,968, you were given a fair indication of how the fans felt about the tournament.
The Arsenal-Liverpool semi-final did attract the highest gate of the tournament, with 29,135 coming through the turnstiles. In truth, Liverpool were massively weakened by injuries - Grobbelaar, Hansen, Aldridge, Barnes, McMahon, Molby, Spackman, and Venison all missing - but in a season that would see the two clubs battle it out for the biggest prize of all, Arsenal took the opportunity to score the first blow.
Both Arsenal goals would involve key components of the glorious season ahead. A near post flick-on from a corner resulted in the opener for Perry Groves, and a Marwood volley saw Arsenal reach the final, the little winger notching many important goals throughout the campaign. It may not have been the most significant Arsenal victory ever, but any win over Liverpool was not to be sniffed at back then.
Despite their small crowds, Manchester United had reached the final, and with memories of the feisty FA Cup Fifth Round encounter at Highbury still in the memory banks of many, the contest would develop into a committed and sometimes bruising affair. This was the case off the pitch too, with many fans informing me via Twitter that the day involved a number of running battles in and around the stadium, as Andy Townsend may have put it.
United originally wanted the final played at either Highbury or Old Trafford, yet Villa Park was chosen as the neutral venue. "The whole point is that William McGregor, of Villa, was the instigator of the Football League, which is the reason for the competition," George Graham pointed out prior to the match. It wasn't as if the stadium was ill-equipped to deal with the final on Sunday October 9; the match would be watched by just 22,182 spectators.
Watching the YouTube highlights, it impossible to ignore the empty terraces, although the atmosphere inside the ground still sounds better than any stadium you will visit up and down the country now. Played in wet conditions, the match was ultimately settled by two contributions from Paul Davis. For a man who entered the match heavily under the media spotlight, the final proved a welcome positive.
A few weeks before, Davis had been caught on ITN News footage punching Southampton midfielder Glenn Cockerill squarely on the jaw, breaking it in the process, and earning a nine match ban for his troubles. Davis signed off in style, though. Volleying home a Marwood cross after 36 minutes, Davis then spotted Michael Thomas charging through the midfield just four minutes later. Thomas' goal may not have been as important as May 26, 1989, but his flip celebration was a lot better on this wet Sunday in Birmingham.
In fairness, United had the better of the second half, Clayton Blackmore halving the deficit after 84 minutes, but Arsenal held on to win an exhilarating match. Tony Adams may have climbed up what looked like temporary scaffolding to lift the strange trophy, and the players might have looked slightly embarrassed passing it around, yet the Daily Express' Steve Curry was spot-on in his assessment: "The League's centenary celebrations have, overall, been a shambles, but this rousing finale at least left one worthwhile memory."
Arsenal gained £50,000 in prize money, but perhaps the biggest bonus was that it kept the winning habit going. "I know it's been criticised. But if you're going to enter a competition, win it," Graham stated firmly. Very true. Brian Clough credited the Anglo-Scottish Cup triumph of Nottingham Forest in 1976-77 as the start of something big at the club. The Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy was not as important to Graham's Arsenal, but winning the competition certainly didn't hurt.
I've done a couple of stadium tours in recent years, and can't recall seeing the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy in the trophy cabinet. Maybe I'll take my son again, and see if we can spot it. He's bound to ask me a few questions about the competition, and I can proudly state that this is a trophy that cannot be taken off us. However, I think I might be able to stop myself singing the following to celebrate the win: "We've won it one time, we've won it one time, the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy, we've won it one time."