Back in the mid-eighties, Merseyside clubs Liverpool and Everton were the dominant forces in English football, challenging for the old First Division title, along with more silverware in the shape of the FA Cup and League Cup. This era, prior to the rise of the Premier League, brings fond recollections for fans of both sides in domestic competitions, however, few will likely remember the ill-fated Football League Super Cup, which featured the two rivals in the final.
Replacing European competition
The Heysel Stadium disaster prior to the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, in which 39 fans were killed and 600 were injured, resulted in an indefinite ban of all English teams from European competition, and is still regarded as the darkest hour in UEFA competitions. Concerned that their member clubs were set to lose a significant amount of revenue, the Football League sought to substitute European competition at the start of the 1985-86 season with an additional domestic trophy, which brought about the Football League Super Cup, featuring six clubs that would otherwise have been competing in the European Cup, Cup Winners Cup, and UEFA Cup.
However, the format and scheduling of fixtures, all of which was very hastily planned and arranged, arguably doomed the viability of the Football League Super Cup right from the start. The six competing teams were split into two groups. Everton, Norwich City and Manchester United were drawn in Group 1, whilst Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton were drawn in Group 2. Fixtures would consist of home and away matches between the teams in each group, with the top two progressing to the semi-finals after a total of four matches.
Fixture congestion and frustration
Everton and Norwich City progressed from Group 1, along with Liverpool and Tottenham from Group 2, but the semi-finals started to show how poorly organised the new competition really was. The first legs of each semi-final were played in February, and whilst Everton and Tottenham played their second legs in March, fixture congestion posed problems for Liverpool, who were heading for a league and FA Cup double, and had also reached the semi-finals of the League Cup. This meant their second leg encounter with Norwich was delayed until May and at the end of the season.
Given that in 1986 there was also the World Cup in Mexico, international players were required to report for their national teams, leaving no time available for the two-leg final of the Football League Super Cup to be scheduled. The two-legged final wasn’t played until early the following season, with Liverpool beating Merseyside rivals Everton, who fielded much-weakened sides in both games, 4-2 on aggregate. In the end, the whole competition had turned into nothing but a farce, and anecdotally, it is said that Liverpool striker Ian Rush even handed the trophy to a ball-boy, suggesting it would look better in his bedroom at home than the Anfield trophy cabinet.
The legacy of a failed competition
It’s not without some irony that Martin Edwards, the chairman of Manchester United at the time, speculated in match programme notes that the Football League Super Cup would only last for one season. His prediction came true, because neither the fans or the clubs showed enough interest in the competition’s longevity. However, this ill-fated experiment did eventually spawn other similar competitions whilst English clubs remained banned from Europe, such as the Full Members’ Cup that ran until 1992, and the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy, celebrating the 100th year of the Football League during the 1988-89 campaign.
In the end, thankfully, English clubs were allowed back into European competitions for the 1990-91 season, which brought about the demise of these unwanted additional domestic cups. These days, it’s hard to imagine such competitions ever returning, because there simply wouldn’t be any interest from Premier League clubs already playing in three domestic competitions, or those who are additionally competing in the Champions League or Europa League.