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Bolton Wanderers in the Anglo Italian Cup - Golden Games remembered

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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Before Big Sam led the Whites into the UEFA Cup, Bolton’s European adventures had been consigned to a hair-brained competition riddled with crowd violence, demotivated teams and an over-complicated schedule. So why then do we remember the Anglo Italian Cup so fondly?

Back in 1992, English football was undergoing its own renaissance, inspired by their Italian cousins.

The Premier League and BSkyB promised a ‘Whole New Ball Game,’ fans hadn’t forgotten entirely about Italia 90 despite Graham Taylor’s best efforts and a young James Richardson brought us news from the Corriere dello Sport on a Saturday morning, accompanied by a humorous vignette of Gazza playing golf and Ken Wolstenholme voicing over highlights of Foggia v Genoa.

Football on these shores hadn’t yet lost its wide-eyed innocence and Euro 92 was arguably the last televised competition in which watching fans didn’t know most of the players taking part.

English clubs were only just being allowed back into Europe, Arsenal leading the charge as champions in 1991/92 and the newfound clamour for all things continental prompted the revival of a competition which had been beset with issues since the early 1970s.

The origins of the Anglo Italian Cup extend back to 1969 when Swindon Town shocked Arsenal in the League Cup final but were unable to take their place in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup because they were a third-tier team.

The same fate had befell QPR a couple of years later and prompted an angry reaction from supporters at the time – so Italian agent Luigi Peronace came up with the idea of pitting the Robins against Italian Cup winners Roma, in a two-legged ‘international charity shield’.

From there, the Anglo Italian Cup was born. Initially played with six teams from England and six from Italy, the competition adopted a quirky set of rules in which points were awarded not only for a win or draw but also on goals scored.

But while the thought of Swindon beating Juventus 4-0 at the County Ground may raise a smile, many of the pan-European trips were marred by violence on the pitch and hooligans off it. The 1970 final – watched by some 55,000 in the San Siro – was abandoned after 79 minutes because of fighting on the terraces.

Swindon were crowned champions, followed by Blackpool the following year. But by the time Newcastle became the third English side to lift the trophy in 1974, interest had waned and the respective football associations couldn’t agree when to play it.

Absurdly, the Anglo Italian Cup was revived for non-league teams under a series of different names in 1976. The likes of Sutton United, Wimbledon and Bath City competed against third-tier Italian sides until, once again, it was mothballed post-Heysel in 1985.

As English teams were banned from Europe, the FA came up with the idea of the Full Members Cup as a makeweight – although it was never really given any credence by the top clubs, with Manchester United, Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool refusing to enter.

Then in 1992, after the Gunners became the first English club back in Europe, that plucky Anglo Italian Cup raised its hand once more.

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The relaunched competition began as Bruce Rioch succeeded Phil Neal as manager at Burnden and as Wanderers gained promotion to the second tier, Cremonese swept past Derby County in the 1993 final.

Wanderers got their chance the following season but would have to negotiate a three-team group of English clubs to dip their toe into the continent.

So, in the least-romantic game it is perhaps possible to have on these shores, Wanderers’ European adventure started at Tranmere. John McGinlay and Owen Coyle put the Whites ahead and Aidan Davison performed heroics in the Bolton goal, beaten only by a late goal from Rovers’ play-off villain of a few years earlier, Chris Malkin.

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Qualification for the international stage was secured at Burnden – Coyle heading home twice in the last 15 minutes in front of 3,460 fans.

Ancona would technically be Bolton’s first-ever competitive European opponent, although in simpler times they would arrive at Burnden as complete unknowns.

“There may be a future Vialli or Baggio in there,” reasoned Rioch, who gave his opponents due credit by naming an unchanged line-up.

Phil Brown also summed up life in the early nineties, a time when the football world felt so much larger.

“It’s into the unknown but as my old schoolteacher used to say, they don’t have three heads so there’s nothing to be frightened of.

“Some of their players are probably household names in Italy but we don’t know them. Although I gather I’ll have to watch the striker Agostini.”

The aforementioned striker, Massimo Agostini, had played for AC Milan and Parma in the two seasons prior, lifting both the European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup. But Brown need not have worried, as he was rested for the following weekend’s game at Venezia and watched the game from the press box.

Pedigree striker or not, Ancona provided very little resistance. McGinlay scored twice with Jason McAteer, Alan Thompson and Jimmy Phillips also on target in a 5-0 rout, made easier because the Serie B side had Felice Centorfanti sent off for a cynical challenge on McAteer.

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The visit of Brescia in November 1993 would be the game most Wanderers fans would recall from the Anglo Italian adventure, due in the main to the appearance of two global superstars.

Italian Pierluigi Collina, who was on his way to becoming the top referee on the planet, would take the whistle. And Brescia’s midfield boasted the mercurial talents of Gheorge Hagi, who had come to the attention of casual TV football viewers in a talented Romania side at Italia 90 - but would really get his chance to shine a couple of years later in the US.

Had it not been for the Communist government denying him a chance to play abroad in the late eighties, Hagi would surely have been a star at a bigger Italian side.

He was approaching his thirties by the time he came to Burnden, along with fellow Romania international and Italia 90 alumni Ion Sabau, to take centre stage in an entertaining 3-3 draw.

“I remember Hagi being just unbelievable,” said Mark Winstanley, one of the Bolton players who featured in all the Anglo Italian squads. “Jason McAteer was a very good player and he had a great career with Liverpool and Ireland – but on that night he just couldn’t get near him.

“I think Hagi was coming to the latter end of his career – he certainly wasn’t a spring chicken – but he gave us the runaround. We got a proper lesson but sometimes you come up against the classiest players and you can’t help but learn from them and think ‘yeah, this is how you play’. He was amazing.”

A tempestuous game swung back and forth to the end. Gabrielle Ambrosetti – who would later work at Swansea as a coach – scored either side of a sublime Hagi free-kick but Coyle and McGinlay kept Bolton in touch. A point was saved with 16 minutes left as Scott Green fired home.

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The first European trip saw Bolton go to Pisa. More than 500 fans packed on to club tours to see Jimmy Phillips score a memorable goal in a 1-1 draw.

A good-tempered night is also fondly remembered for the terrace chant, “We Are the One And Only Wanderers,” which was sung ad-infinitum, capturing Italian imaginations to the degree it was splashed on the front page in the following day’s newspapers.

Their second game in Italy proved a much less enjoyable affair. Ascoli led 1-0 through Pedro Troglio and the atmosphere inside the inhospitable Stadio Cino e Lillo Del Duca turned nastier when German striker Oliver Bierhoff – who would later score the winner for his country in the Euro 96 final – had a second goal disallowed by an English referee for offside five minutes before the end.

A couple of years later, Peter Foakes would referee his final game in England at Wembley as Bolton beat Reading in the play-off final. Here, he needed a police escort from the pitch as Mark Seagraves grabbed a late equaliser.

Bolton players reported the Italians spitting at the Clacton official and Rioch later remarked: “When he allowed himself to be pushed in the way he did, you could see he was going to have problems. I am sure he wouldn’t have stood for that at home.”

As angry as the players were, the scenes were more volatile among a few hundred Ascoli fans who had gathered outside the ground.

“We got back into the dressing room and knew we had to be quick because we were due back home on a plane the same night,” Winstanley remembered. “But they wouldn’t let us out of there.

“We’re all locked inside and apparently outside the ground fans were kicking off, there was police, and it’s a mad panic.

“It’s alright having passion but it’s a game at the end of the day and I think a few of their fans took things a bit too seriously.”

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Despite remaining unbeaten, Wanderers were denied a place in the final by Notts County.

The Anglo Italian Cup limped on until 1996 but would be continually blighted by misbehaviour on and off the pitch as an unsavoury element sought to revel in football played away from the cameras and safety measures which had started to become commonplace in England.

The chance to play against continental opposition was one that Winstanley will never forget, however, and he looks back at the time fondly.

“Realistically, if you were a lower league player at that time you weren’t going to play against clubs like that unless it was on pre-season tour, or something like that.

“To test yourself against a different style of football and give a very good account of ourselves. Not many players can say they have played for Bolton Wanderers in Europe but we went over there twice and didn’t get beat.”

But not everything about the Italians impressed Winstanley, and as a centre-half he was sad to see that some of the darker arts began to bleed into the English game as the continental influence continued through the nineties.

“I think you could see when you came up against the Italian sides, any nudge and they were on the floor,” he said. “It is the one thing that really annoys me about modern football – people go down like they have been shot and it means the art of defending as I knew it was dying.

“We certainly saw it back then, I think we thought it was quite embarrassing. But they could definitely dish it out when they wanted to.”

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