To kick-off a new series about trophies that are no longer with us Peter Collins recalls the distinctly lukewarm appeal of the Full Members Cup
Football chairmen abhor a vacuum. So when English clubs were thrown out of European competition for an indefinite period after the Heysel disaster in 1985, it didn’t take long for someone to come up with the idea of a domestic cup competition that would make up for the lost glory and, most importantly, the lost revenue from all those European nights.
Running for seven seasons between 1985 and 1992, the Full Members Cup turned out to be so pointless that even Mickey Mouse thought it too vulgar to allow an association with his name. Sponsorship was left to the lesser lights of Simod (something to do with training shoes) for the 1988 and 1989 competitions and then to Zenith Data Systems (something to do with data systems) for the final three.
As the cumbersome name suggests, it was open only to full members of the League – that is, those in the top two divisions. It was modelled on the Associate Members Cup, launched the previous year for clubs in the lower two divisions, which we know today as the LDV Vans Trophy. However, the Full Members Cup’s credibility was severely hamstrung from the off by the refusal of four of the alleged “big five” – Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham – to enter, even though they were the most likely to suffer from the Euro ban. The fifth, Everton, deigned to take part three times and were twice beaten finalists.
In practice, then, the most regular participants in the FMC were actually Euro-wannabes whose European credentials were hardly convincing at the time (Chelsea, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester City and West Ham) or lesser lights who recognised an opportunity for matches against their larger brethren and a good chance of the Wembley glory so often denied them in more established competitions.
A reduction in the size of the First Division from 22 teams to 20 between 1986 and 1988 may also have helped persuade a number of First Division clubs that they needed another competition to make up for two lost home league games. Curiously, they seemed less concerned in those hard-up days about the effect of too many matches on their players’ well-being.
A prime mover behind the cup was Chelsea’s Ken Bates, whose programme notes for the club’s first FMC game, against Portsmouth, were either typically bullish or beguilingly defensive, depending on your point of view. “It is an innovation, just as the League Cup was a little while ago and, no doubt, the FA Cup was back in 1872 – and look how successful these competitions have become,” Bates wrote. With uncanny foresight, he added: “If the Football League is one day restructured, as some people insist is necessary, then there is little doubt that a Members Cup such as the present one will be part of the overall plan.” Hmm...
Like the League Cup, the Full Members was slow to get started, attracting just 21 entries in its first year, rising to 41 in its final season. Unlike the League Cup, however, it never caught the football public’s imagination. Even though the first incarnation was run on a rough north-south basis, with regional semi-finals and finals before the big one at Wembley, increasing the potential for local derbies, crowds stayed low, averaging fewer than 8,000 over the seven years.
The regional structure was abandoned for the next three competitions in favour of a straight knockout system, only to be reintroduced in 1990. However, no amount of fiddling could disguise the fact that few were really interested. In the one season for which the average crowd crept slightly above 10,000, 1989-90, that figure was skewed by a relatively whopping 30,464 for a then rare Sheffield derby at Hillsborough.
Only three other non-final matches in the competition’s history attracted more than 20,000 fans and most were played out in front of four-figure crowds. The attendances of 817 and 821 that Charlton brought in for their “home” ties with Bradford and Birmingham in 1986-87 would have looked awesomely bad on the sweeping terraces of the old Valley but the fact that the club was by now sharing at Selhurst Park gives some idea of how far the paying public was prepared to be moved by Full Members Cup fever – not across south London during the rush hour, anyway.
It would be churlish to forget that all seven finals attracted very respectable crowds. Indeed, in 1990, the FMC drew more than the League Cup final. Nor was there a lack of excitement. Chelsea beat Manchester City 5-4 in the 1986 final having been 5-1 up with six minutes left. That match also saw the first Wembley hat-trick since Geoff Hurst in 1966 – from David Speedie. Two years later, Reading beat Luton 4-1 in front of 61,740 fans and in 1989 Nottingham Forest edged Everton in a seven-goal thriller after extra time.
The make-do-and-mend nature of the tournament was apparent from the start, however, and was never really shaken off. The day before the 1986 final, played on a Sunday, both Chelsea and Man City had come through tough League encounters. City were mid-table at the time, but Chelsea were then just four points shy of league leaders Everton with games in hand – only a traumatic Easter hit their chances of taking the title. Surely an extra competition with two games in two days in March did not help the club’s cause.
This ad hoc style was re-emphasised when Chelsea lined up against Middlesbrough four years later and the teams were introduced before kick-off not to royalty or a football bureaucrat, but to a lowly member of the ZDS staff – an admirably democratic gesture and perhaps the one innovation of the FMC from which other competitions could learn.
When English clubs were readmitted to Europe in 1990 the writing was on the wall and the FMC bowed out two years later, when the ZDS sponsorship expired. Football League chairman Jack Dunnett perhaps revealed more than he intended in his notes for the first FMC final programme by suggesting that “football requires a greater number of incentives in order that a larger number of clubs and, more importantly, their supporters are able to enjoy a real sense of achievement at the end of a long season”.
No one has ever been able to explain satisfactorily why that should be the case. The joy of winning a trophy or qualifying for something surely lies in it being a difficult and rare thing to do. As we look forward to a Champions League with four Premiership qualifiers, however, and my own Chelsea huff and puff to get into the Intertoto, one wonders if the lessons of the Full Members Cup have been learned.
From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month