The Trophy That Nobody Wanted: The Screen Sports Super Cup

If you think the EFL Cup or the Checkatrade Trophy induce an air of apathy and general uninterest then think again, because when the Screen Sports Super Cup was introduced to fill the void created by a lack of European football for English clubs in 1985, it really was the cup that nobody was up for.

With all the talk recently about the top clubs in the Premier League breaking away and forming their own elite competition, the best-of-the-best, casting the rest aside and fighting it out amongst themselves for ultimate supremacy, it’s easy to forget that something similar actually happened some 30 years ago; the difference was, nobody was the slightest bit interested.

Following the tragic scenes at Heysel before the 1985 Cup final, which resulted in the deaths of 39 people, the football authorities in Europe had simply had enough. English football supporters had been a stain on the continental game for a number of years, as fighting and rioting had become commonplace before and after games and it appeared to be getting worse.

So when the world watched-on in horror as pictures of the pitch battle between Liverpool and Juventus fans were beamed into millions of living rooms across the globe it was the last straw for English clubs, who were subsequently banned indefinitely from competing in European competitions.

Some argued the punishment was harsh, while others thought it was well deserved, but what it did mean was that the Football League faced a huge vacuum when it came to how to replace the annual battle for those much sought after qualification places for the European Cup, UEFA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup.

English football was already in a terrible place by the mid-1980s. As well as the tragedy at Heysel 56 fans had also died at Bradford’s Valley Parade stadium just days before and a fan had also been killed on the same day after trouble broke out between Birmingham and Leeds fans at St Andrews – the European ban was seen by many as the final blow for a game that was already on its knees.

In total six clubs had qualified for Europe going into the 1985-86 season, but the ban meant their efforts were very much in vain. Everton, who had been outstanding in the league the previous season were the league champions, though their deserved place in the 1986 European Cup would be denied; to say they weren't best pleased would be an understatement.

Liverpool lift the Screen Sports Super Cup

Manchester United would not be able to take their place in the European Cup Winners’ Cup either having won at Wembley the previous May, while Tottenham, Southampton and League Cup Winners Norwich would also be denied the chance to play against Europe’s elite.

But the Football League had a plan. Instead of the likes of Everton facing the prospect of travelling to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona or the opportunity of hosting Real Madrid or AC Milan in front of their home fans, the six teams that qualified for Europe would face-off against each other in what could only be described as a consolation cup at best.

Christened the Screen Sports Super Cup, thanks to a cable TV broadcaster who actually thought it was a good idea to sponsor such a low-profile tournament, it was seriously considered that this round-robin competition could replace those heady European nights under the floodlights that football fans across the land regularly thrived on.  

The Screen Sport channel had been launched in 1984 and was purchased by WH Smith in three years later, before eventually being renamed as The European Sports Network. It eventually became Eurosport, in 1993, just as Sky were becoming the dominant cable broadcaster in the UK when it came to football.

The format would see the six clubs split into two groups with each side playing the other two clubs in their group twice. The top two would then meet in a semi-final and final stage played over two legs – to win it teams would have to play eight matches in total if they were to earn the right to call themselves champions.

In the days when teams didn’t entertain the notion of squad-rotation and a league season consisted of 42 games, not to mention FA Cup and League Cup campaigns that still had multiple replays, to say this latest addition to the calendar was looked-upon as a distraction would be something of a massive understatement.

Everton and Liverpool fans gathered together before Saturday's FA Charity Shield match.

A general apathy towards the competition wasn’t helped by a number of other issues either; firstly there was the ongoing dispute between the Football League and broadcasters over TV rights issues, a row which had seen a total black-out of live televised games until Christmas. The enthralling title race which was unfolding that season also didn’t help the competition as a number of sides battled it out in a contest which would go right to the wire.

When it finally got underway in the autumn of 1985 the two groups consisted of Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton in Group One, and Everton, Norwich City and Manchester United in Group Two.  There were rumours the two biggest clubs in the country at the time, Liverpool and Everton, were kept apart deliberately in a bid to give the competition some credence and try to keep the interest through to the final.

The competition kicked off on 17th September at Anfield as Liverpool, who had won all their home games, took on Southampton who were yet to win away.  All the goals came in the first half with Jan Molby giving the home side an early lead while Danny Wallace equalised for the Saints, only for Kenny Dalglish to put Liverpool back in front almost immediately.  A decent match but the biggest concern for the organisers was that fewer than 17,000 turned out to watch it.

The following night Manchester United, who had won every one of their league games to that point, faced Champions Everton, who were eight points behind them in the table. Just under 34,000 turned up for the game which Everton bossed 4-2 and although that was more than at Anfield, it was still down on the regular 50,000 or so who had been watching league games at Old Trafford.

In October, Everton made it two wins out of two when they beat Norwich 1-0 in front of just just over then thousand people at Goodison Park, though the poor attendance was hardly a shock. Allegedly their side's manager, Howard Kendall, told his players “What a waste of time this is – out you go,” in one of the most un-inspiring team-talks of all time prior to the match.

Two months had elapsed between United's first game in the tournament and their next, thanks to the strange format and against Norwich, they decided against giving Bryan Robson a run-out after injury, relying on a Norman Whiteside penalty to earn them a point after falling behind early on.

Meanwhile, at Carrow Road, 15,449 fans saw Norwich play a Manchester United reserve side as they continued to be plagued by injuries and their lead at the top of the First Division had been reduced to just two points after they had gone without defeat in their first 15 matches. A 1-1 draw saw United crash out of the tournament with just two points in total – in the scheme of things this wouldn’t be their biggest disappointment that season.

There wasn’t much interest in the tournament in the capital either with just 11,549 watching Spurs defeat Southampton 2-1 at White Hart Lane, thanks to a couple of goals from Mark Falco. It was Tottenham's lowest home crowd in any competition for 39 years. But when Liverpool were the visitors in a game that would ultimately decide the group winners the gate was even lower as just 10,078 made the effort.

As Manchester United were left to concentrate on their faltering title bid  the semi-final draw pitted Spurs against Everton and Liverpool against Norwich with the two-legged ties to be played in the New Year. However, the fixture schedule after Christmas would mean that only one of the semi-finals could be played before the end of the season when Everton hosted Spurs.

If Howard Kendall thought the whole competition a waste of time, his players, who were three points ahead of Liverpool at the top of the First Division and unbeaten in eleven, were obviously a little more keen as they swept Tottenham aside, winning the second leg 3-1 after a goalless draw at White Hart Lane.

Manchester United's Norman Whiteside

For the Toffees the identity of their opponents in the final was not to be decided for almost three weeks as Liverpool were chasing trophies on three fronts. A late goal against QPR knocked them out in the Semis of the League Cup, while in the FA Cup they overcame Watford in a replay of their 6th round encounter in a run which would see them reach the final at Wembley; not to mention being in the middle of an incredible streak which saw them win 11 games out of 12 therefore clinching the First Division title with a 1-0 win at Chelsea on the final Saturday of the season.

In fairness to Liverpool, amidst this gargantuan trophy chase they remained professional as they prepared to face Norwich City in the semi-final of a trophy which could be described as small beer at best compared to what they had experienced in recent weeks.

Incredibly, just four days before they met Everton in the FA Cup Final Liverpool lined up at Anfield for the visit of Norwich City, if nothing else it was also a chance for them to parade the First Division trophy in front of some of their fans at least. The tie was balanced at 1-1 after the first leg at Carrow Road some two months ago, but a 3-1 victory set up yet another all Merseyside cup final. The only problem now was when to play it.

If the tournament wasn’t farcical enough, fixture congestion and the season finishing early due to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the final of the Screen Sports Super Cup would have to be played a full 12 months after it had started.

Having competed with each other for the league championship, done battle in the FA Cup final and tussled for the Charity Shield in August, the nation would be offered yet another helping of red against blue, not that anybody seemed interested this time around though.

By the time the first leg took place on September 16th 1986 the two clubs were again in the top three of the League, with Everton unbeaten, though it was Liverpool who would take the initiative.

Ian Rush put Liverpool in front after just six minutes before Kevin Sheedy equalised five minutes before half time.  After the break Steve McMahon restored Liverpool’s lead and then midway through the half, Ian Rush scored his second and Liverpool had a useful 3-1 lead to take into the second leg.

Two weeks later in front of 26,068 fans at Goodison Park Liverpool were rampant, Rush scoring a hat-trick while Steve Nicol got Liverpool's third and although Everton weren't terrible, the 7-2 aggregate score was as emphatic as it was bewildering in a tournament which had taken almost a season and a half to complete.

In his programme notes prior to Manchester United’s first game in the Screen Sports Super Cup back in September 1985 Chairman Martin Edwards said he’d hoped it would “only last for a year”, due to a naive belief that the ban on English clubs may soon be lifted. He got his wish, but not for the reasons he gave, as the unloved trophy that nobody wanted was consigned to the dustbin of history, never to be seen again.

English clubs were eventually reinstated into European competitions in 1990, with Liverpool serving a further 12 month ban and despite recent murmurings about a possible shake-up of the Champions League and something of a negative attitude towards the Europa League in recent years, what is for sure is that nobody is clamouring for the return of the Screen Sports Super Cup anytime soon.