Farewell to the Fairs Cup

This was written for Motherwell FC’s match magazine for their Europa League tie against Levante.  It’s not really related to Scottish football, but I might as well share it.


The Europa League is UEFA’s secondary club competition and is one which, despite regular unflattering comparisons to the Champions League, still has a worthwhile place in the European football calendar. The tournament provides an opportunity for clubs outside the Champions League elite to experience European football, and can also provide a springboard to Champions League success in future seasons.

The tournament is actually slightly older than the Champions League/European Cup, having kicked off a couple of months earlier. The first incarnation of what is now the Europa League was the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which started in June 1955. The tournament was created to coincide with international trade fairs in various European cities, and the tournament was stretched out over 3 years, meaning the trophy wasn’t handed out until May 1958! Initially the tournament was organised independently of UEFA, meaning that none of the trophies from 1955-1971 are officially recognised.

It’s tempting to think of group stages in Europe as a modern invention, but in actual fact they had them way back in that initial tournament in 1955. The12 participants were divided into 4 groups of 3, with the group winners making the semi-finals. Many of the cities involved sent select XIs rather than an individual club side – the London XI which reached the final fielded players from Arsenal, Chelsea, Leyton Orient, Tottenham and West Ham. Even with a mix of London’s best players, they were no match for Barcelona in the final, going down 8-2 on aggregate to the Catalan side after suffering a 6-0 defeat in the Nou Camp.

The next attempt at the tournament took just 2 years – running from 1958-60 – and a straight knockout format was adopted along with an expansion to 16 teams. It would be nearly 50 years before the tournament featured a group stage again. Barcelona successfully defended their trophy, beating Birmingham City 4-1 on aggregate in the final to confirm Spain’s dominance of European club football (Real Madrid won the first 5 European Cups over the same period).

It was a Scottish side who ended Barcelona’s reign at the top the following season – a 3-2 loss to Hibs at Easter Road consigned the Catalans to a 7-6 aggregate defeat in the quarter-final. Hibs were the first Scottish side to participate in the tournament, just as they were in the European Cup. The Hibees faced Roma in the semi-final, drawing 2-2 at home and 3-3 away to set up a play-off match – had away goals been in use at that point, Hibs would have reached the final. The play-off was held in the less than neutral venue of Rome, and the Italians took full advantage, winning 6-0. They went on to defeat Birmingham City in the final. The whole tournament took place within the 1960/61 season – and it would continue annually from that point forward.

Over the next few seasons, the tournament moved away from the original idea of involving cities with trade fairs, and moved towards the current notion of having the “best of the rest” from each league across Europe. The introduction of the Cup Winners Cup meant that the Fairs Cup – which generally featured clubs who hadn’t won anything domestically – became the third tier competition, but in the days where only national champions entered the European Cup, there were still plenty of big teams involved. Indeed, Barcelona and Valencia won 3 of the next 5 trophies, with Real Zaragoza and Ferencvaros winning the others.

The first decade of the tournament had been dominated by Spanish sides, but they would soon be usurped by English opposition. The first clue came when Don Revie’s Leeds United (who had beaten Kilmarnock in the semi-final) made it to the final in 1967, losing to Dinamo Zagreb. Leeds would make amends the following year, knocking out Hibs, Rangers and Dundee on their way to the final, where they narrowly defeated Ferencvaros to record the first English success in the tournament. The next three seasons saw three more English successes, with Newcastle, Arsenal and then Leeds (again) keeping the trophy south of the border.

That second Leeds success would mark the end of the Fairs Cup era. In 1971, UEFA took over the tournament and rebranded it as the UEFA Cup. They also introduced a new trophy, which is still in use today, meaning that the old Fairs Cup trophy was up for grabs. It was decided that a trophy play-off should be held between the two most successful clubs in the history of the tournament, with the winners keeping the trophy. Three time winners Barcelona hosted two-time winners (and holders) Leeds United in a one-off match in the Nou Camp, and the Catalan side won 2-1 to secure the rights to the trophy, which remains on display in the Nou Camp museum.

The rebranded UEFA Cup started where the Fairs Cup had left off as Tottenham and Liverpool won the first two trophies. The run of 6 consecutive titles for English clubs was ended by Feyenoord in 1974, as the Dutch side beat Tottenham in the final. The remainder of the 1970s saw some famous winners in Borussia Monchengladbach (twice), Liverpool, Juventus, PSV and Eintracht Frankfurt, but in 1981 the trophy would go to a less glamorous location. Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, inspired by 14 goals from John Wark, secured a memorable success by beating AZ Alkmaar in the final. Robson went on to become England manager soon after, and a year later another future England manager won the trophy, as Sven Goran Eriksson guided IFK Gothenburg to victory over Hamburg.

IFK would go on to win the trophy again 5 years later, defeating Jim McLean’s Dundee United in the 1987 final. United had famously won home and away against Barcelona in the quarter-finals that year, but came up just short in the final. That would be the first of three defeats for Scottish clubs in the UEFA Cup final, and it remains the only European trophy which hasn’t been won by a side from this country.

The next two seasons were notable for different reasons. The 1988 final saw Espanyol defeat Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 in the first leg in Barcelona, only to crash to a 3-0 defeat in the second leg then suffer defeat on penalties. The following year, Napoli defeated Stuttgart 5-4 on aggregate as Diego Maradona won the only European trophy of his career.

The 1990s saw Italian domination, with 7 titles being divided between Inter (3), Juventus (2) and Parma (2). Bayern Munich’s win over Bordeaux in 1996 was the only final which didn’t feature an Italian side. There were also a few tweaks to the tournament format in the 1990s. 1996/97 was the first season where eliminated clubs from the Champions League dropped down into the UEFA Cup. In that first season, Brondby were the side who made it furthest after dropping down – reaching the quarter-finals. The two-legged final was ditched in 1998 in favour of one-off match at a neutral venue. The first of these finals saw an Inter side containing Ronaldo, Zamorano and Djorkaeff defeat Lazio 3-0 in Paris. Javier Zanetti also started that final for Inter, and at the age of 39 he is playing in this season’s Europa League for the same club.

The Cup Winners Cup was scrapped in 1999, meaning that the UEFA Cup expanded to include cup winners from across Europe for the 1999/2000 season. That season’s final featured a couple of other firsts. Galatasaray became the first Turkish side to win a European trophy, and they also became the first team to win the UEFA Cup after dropping down from the Champions League. To date, 5 clubs have won the UEFA Cup/Europa League after dropping down from the Champions League – the others being Feyenoord (2002), CSKA Moscow (2005), Shakhtar Donetsk (2009), Atletico Madrid (2010).

Interest in the UEFA Cup gradually dwindled in the late 1990s and early 2000s as more and more clubs were granted entry to the Champions League. The tournament still had its fair share of excitement – such as Liverpool’s 5-4 win over Alaves in the 2001 Final and Henrik Larsson dragging Celtic to the final in 2003 – but the Champions League was in danger of becoming the only show in town.

UEFA’s first response was to introduce group stages for the 2004/05 season. The last 40 teams were put into 8 groups of 5, with the top 3 in each group joining 8 Champions League failures in the last 32. The first tournament under this format saw CSKA Moscow beat Sporting Lisbon 3-1 in the final to become the first Russian side to lift a European trophy.

2005/06 was memorable for Middlesbrough’s remarkable run to the final. In the quarter-final against FC Basel, they were 3-0 down on aggregate with an hour remaining in the tie, but scored 4 times to progress to the semis, with Massimo Maccarone scoring the winning goal in stoppage time. The semi-final against Steaua Bucharest saw them yet again trailing 3-0 on aggregate with an hour to go, but yet again they scored 4 times to progress, with Maccarone again scoring the vital goal late on. Their luck ran out in the final, with Sevilla thrashing them 4-0.

The following season, Hampden hosted its first (and so far only) UEFA Cup final, with holders Sevilla beating Espanyol on penalties after a 2-2 draw. There was Scottish interest again in the next year’s final, as Walter Smith’s Rangers side scrapped their way through to the final in Manchester. They lost 2-0 to a Zenit St Petersburg side inspired by Andrei Arshavin, but events on the field were overshadowed by supporters rioting in Manchester city centre.

The 2008/09 UEFA Cup would prove to be the final tournament under that name. The 5 team group format had proved unpopular because teams had free weeks as a result of the uneven numbers, and because clubs only met each other once, rather than the usual home and away format. UEFA decided that the only way to raise the profile of the tournament was to overhaul it completely, including a change of name to the Europa League. Shakhtar Donetsk brought the curtain down on the UEFA Cup, beating Werder Bremen 2-1 in the final after extra time.

The renaming of the tournament brought a move towards Champions League-style groups. The last 48 teams are now divided into 12 groups of 4, with the top 2 from each group joining 8 Champions League failures in the last 32. The surprise package of the first Europa League season were Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, who beat Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg on their way to the final. Atletico Madrid would prove just too strong for them in the final, with Diego Forlan scoring twice to secure a 2-1 win after extra time.

The most recent two seasons have been dominated by sides from the Iberian Peninsula. In 2010/11 the semi-finals consisted of 3 teams from Portugal and 1 from Spain. The final was an all-Portuguese affair, with Andre Villas-Boas leading his side to a 1-0 victory over Braga thanks to a goal from Falcao. Last season, the roles were reversed, with 3 Spanish and 1 Portuguese in the semi-finals, and there was an all-Spanish final between Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid. Bilbao’s exciting young side had impressed on the way to the final, but froze on the big occasion. Falcao was again on target in the final, scoring twice as his Atletico Madrid side won 3-0.

The new Europa League format makes the incentive for reaching the group stage even higher. Clubs in the group stage receive substantial prize money plus a share of pooled TV money and 3 guaranteed home matches. If Motherwell can overcome the odds to defeat Levante over two legs, the club could reap the rewards for years to come.


About SPLstats
Providing statistics and trivia about Scottish football. Main focus is the Scottish Premiership, but all Scottish football will be covered. Not affiliated to the SPFL.

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