Tranmere Rovers in Europe: A tribute to the Anglo-Italian Cup
Though long forgotten in most circles, the Anglo-Italian Cup occupies a special place in the history of Tranmere Rovers. Many considered it an unnecessary drain on funds and time, with fixture congestion its only real impact, but to look that deep is to neglect the mysterious romance that bloomed from a competition between second tier outfits from England and Italy.
Sparse crowds at crumbling stadiums would suggest otherwise, but from a wider viewpoint, the Anglo-Italian Cup had a unique magnetism. The competition was eventually curtailed due to increased disorder on the terraces and in the boardrooms, but it provided an exciting adventure for teams that never could have envisaged competing overseas.
No matter what happens in the future, I can always say that my club has played in Europe. Regardless of the competition, that’s not to be discredited. Without the Anglo-Italian Cup, in all its dysfunctionality, such a statement would be impossible.
What was the Anglo-Italian Cup, and how did teams qualify?
The competition enjoyed its pomp in the 1970s and was resurrected to replace the Full Members Cup in 1992. That year, Tranmere advanced to the international stage by winning a domestic qualifying group containing Peterborough and Wolves. Two groups were further split between English and Italian qualifiers, with clubs only competing against their foreign counterparts in the first phase but the semi-finals being played between teams from the same country.
For instance, Tranmere were drawn into Group B along with West Ham, Derby and Bristol City from England, and Cremonese, Pisa, Reggiana and Cosenza from Italy. Rovers played each of the Italian teams once, but those points were tallied in a table alongside their English counterparts. Derby eventually won the English section and advanced to play Brentford from the other group, while Cremonese were victorious on the Italian side and ultimately faced Bari in the semi-finals. Though painfully convoluted, the system guaranteed an Anglo-Italian final, held at Wembley.
How Tranmere Rovers fans fell in love with the Anglo-Italian Cup
Tranmere fans didn’t care much about the format. Many embraced the competition simply as a route into European football, so long enjoyed by fans of rival clubs across the Mersey. The new-fangled Champions League dominated the global game, but this was something for the minnows to savour. It was a chance to travel, to watch humble clubs play in exotic locales, and to get a small taste of the floodlit majesty of continental calcio.
Rovers’ first match was away to AC Reggiana, a club from the quaint cathedral city of Reggio Emilia, equidistant from Milan and Florence in northern Italy. A plane carrying players, staff and 120 supporters flew from Manchester to Bologna, while other fans reached the Stadio Mirabello via cars and buses.
The game took place on 11th November 1992 before a crowd of 2,251. The first starting eleven ever to represent Tranmere Rovers in a competitive European game was as follows: Nixon, Higgins, Brannan, Irons, Mungall, Vickers, Morrissey, Aldridge, Malkin, McNab and Nevin.
Both sides struggled for rhythm and the match fizzled out to a goalless draw. Nevertheless, the Reggiana ultras, known as the Ghetto Boys, provided a fine spectacle with flares and incessant chanting. Members even shook hands and swapped scarves with Tranmere fans after the final whistle. A bond was formed between certain sections of the support, and many Rovers fans were happy to see Reggiana win the Serie B championship a few months later.
Two weeks after the expedition to Italy, Tranmere held their first Anglo-Italian home game, with US Cremonese becoming the first foreign club to play at Prenton Park since Viktoria Berlin in 1959.
Chris Malkin scored Rovers’ first ever competitive European goal, notching an early lead, before the visitors scored two unanswered goals to snatch a victory. The game was played in a rather cynical manner as the rugged virtues of European football were displayed in Birkenhead. Cremonese had a man sent off and controversy arose when Aldridge was forced to retake a penalty only to miss the second attempt after initially scoring. A crowd of 5,727 howled at rather suspicious refereeing throughout as Rovers faced an uphill battle to reach the semi-finals.
A tale of Vieri, beer and the Leaning Tower - when Tranmere played Pisa in the Anglo-Italian Cup
A trip to Pisa two weeks later created a buzz amongst diehard fans. More than two hundred made the trip from Merseyside, only to discover a rain-soaked pitch at the Arena Garibaldi. According to legend, the game was close to being postponed, but referee Ian Borritt was gently cajoled by the travelling Rovers fans into playing regardless.
Prior to the match, many of the Wirral contingent, including several players, visited the famous Leaning Tower, which made for an iconic image in the history books. On the field, Tranmere finally registered their first European win courtesy of a goal from Kenny Irons, who rounded the keeper before slotting home.
A young striker by the name of Christian Vieri played for Pisa, early in a career that would see him become the world’s most expensive footballer. The future star was nullified by a solid Tranmere defence, which preserved a clean sheet masterfully. A meagre attendance of just 700 was announced, but even that couldn’t dampen Rovers’ enthusiasm.
Did the Anglo-Italian Cup become a distraction for Johnny King and Tranmere Rovers?
In their final game of the 1992-93 competition, Tranmere hosted Cosenza. Though significantly larger than the gates in Italy, a crowd of just 3,659 enjoyed a 2-1 win at Prenton Park. This suggested that interest in the Anglo-Italian Cup was on the wane. Irons scored another before Johnny Morrissey added a sublime individual effort. Both sides were reduced to ten men as Neil McNab became the first and thus far only Tranmere player to be sent off in a European game. Cosenza couldn’t add to a late strike, but even the victory wasn’t enough to see Rovers advance.
Tranmere didn’t qualify for the 1993-94 tournament, and the break was welcomed by some supporters who wanted to concentrate on a push for the Premier League. However, Tranmere missed out on a potential tie with Fiorentina, a massive club then coached by Claudio Ranieri and featuring Gabriel Batistuta, a future hero of Argentina.
On the domestic scene, Rovers eventually lost in the playoffs to Leicester City as Prenton Park held its final games in terrace form. By the time Tranmere returned to the Anglo-Italian Cup in 1994-95, a new all-seater stadium was rising around the hallowed pitch. It did little to boost attendances, however, as the novelty of rudimentary European football wore off.
How the Anglo-Italian Cup fell apart
Rovers’ first game of the 1994-95 competition was against Venezia. Unfortunately, the fixture was played in Birkenhead rather than Venice, which would have been a tremendous experience for all involved.
Vieri resurfaced with the former Coppa Italia winners, only to be stifled yet again by smart Tranmere defending. Aldridge and Malkin shot Rovers into a 2-0 lead but the visitors fought back to rob a point at the death.
This edition of the competition was blighted by disagreements over fixture scheduling, while many of Tranmere’s games coincided with international matches, meaning Johnny King had a depleted squad from which to fashion his starting eleven.
A 2-0 defeat to Atalanta in the 32,000-seat Stadio Comunale started a downward trend, before Rovers lost 1-0 to an Ascoli side featuring Oliver Bierhoff.
That game was played on 4th October 1994, the day I was born. It’s fun to know that, just as I entered the world, a future leader of the German national team was playing at Prenton Park, against my beloved Tranmere Rovers. How times change. How the mighty fall.
Tranmere’s final group game came away to Lecce in mid-November 1994. A crowd of just 286, in a stadium capable of holding 55,000, was a sad indictment of a competition on life support. That figure did include 120 Tranmere fans, though, in yet another display of unwavering loyalty. Rovers eventually lost 3-0 and were dumped out of the Anglo-Italian Cup for good. They are still awaiting their next taste of European football.
What happened to the clubs Tranmere played in the Anglo-Italian Cup?
A lot has happened in the ensuing years. Reggiana went on to enjoy three seasons in Serie A and helped launch the coaching career of Carlo Ancelotti before returning to earth in the Lega Pro, Italy’s third division. They are joined at that level by Cremonese, who won the Anglo-Italian Cup in the year Rovers played them, and Lecce, who were recently demoted due to involvement in a betting scandal.
Financial issues ravaged Cosenza, Venezia, Ascoli and Pisa. Each club has suffered bankruptcy before reforming. Venezia have been declared insolvent on three separate occasions and are currently owned by Joe Tacopina, a US-based lawyer. All of these resurrected clubs can be found in the Lega Pro, except Ascoli, who have climbed back to Serie B.
Without doubt, the most successful Italian club Tranmere played was Atalanta, who reached the European Cup-Winners’ Cup semi-final in 1988 and returned to Serie A in 2011. They’ve stayed there ever since, finishing 13th this season. Coaching superstar Antonio Conte spent time at the club, which continues to harbour a highly respectable pedigree.
As for Tranmere? Well, you know that story. Since its fleeting moments in the European sun, our club has suffered tough times, just like many of the Italian teams with which it shared a pitch in the 1990s. Yet even as non-league football becomes the new norm for Rovers fans, and the future looks uncertain, the beguiling history of our club can never be altered.
It may not be much, but Tranmere is one of just 41 English clubs to have competed in the Anglo-Italian Cup. And while outsiders may ridicule it, the competition helped form a small but unique part of our club’s heritage.