Long before ‘It’s grim up north’ became an accepted maxim in British disposition, Blackpool was a rich tapestry for creative arts. There were the piers that brooded arcades and fairground marvels, beaches lined with gilded sand, and ludicrously more-ish Indian follies where entertainers from Charlie Chaplin to Frank Sinatra delighted the crowds. In its pomp, the pie-and-mash Paris was everything a mill worker or clerk could wish for in a holiday resort.
Distinctly, in the swinging 60s, the city was a coruscating rendezvous of the masses. From the working class to the prosperous, the historic seaside town, burrowed next to the Irish sea, ascended to dizzying heights. The apogee of an era that thrived was matched only by Charles Tuke and James Maxwell’s response to the Eiffel Tower. Featuring a ballroom that still dazzles with a famous performance from the Wurlitzer, the only threat to life on Broadway was the influx of mass tourism at the turn of the decade.
When the 70s arrived, Brit’s insatiable hunger for more reared its ugly head. As cheaper flights and package holidays became more readily available than ever before, the steel city began its steady fade into the ghost town it has become today. Though renovations through the years curbed defacement, Spanish grass appeared progressively greener.
Its tourists were the first to flee, and Blackpool’s creative arts heeded soon after, whilst the city’s football club also found itself in transition. From 1939 onwards, The Tangerines had established themselves as a First Division backbone, but come the first season of the 70s, their status dropped to Division Two.
Up until that point, the club had never stepped outside of the realms of the United Kingdom competitively. Their most historic moment was their 4-3 FA Cup final victory over Bolton Wanderers after the 1952/53 season, in which winger Sir Stanley Matthews graced the Wembley pitch with a performance etched into the history books.
But before they’d step down from the glitz and glamour of the old top-flight, they’d follow the example of their fans and the rest of the country in taking a trip to foreign domain. European football was and still is something only the best teams can savour, but in a period where experiments were plentiful, a window of opportunity flung open in the way of the Anglo-Italian Cup.
1971 was a good year for tourism. Many went to Spain, and others – like Blackpool Football Club – conquered Italy. It’s a world away from contemporary life in the place that Harry Hill sarcastically called ‘The city of a thousand dreams”. But, indeed, The Tangerines had their own European tour back in the day – this is their story.
What was the Anglo-Italian Cup?
Gigi Peronace was one of the great innovators of world football. A charismatic and influential figure, born in the town of Soverato in Calabria, he became well-known for his career in agency, despite never playing professionally – a blot on his timeline that failed to thwart him.
Negotiating player transfers and manager contracts for some of Britain and Italy’s top stars was Peronace’s alimentation – but he was also the brains behind one of the sport’s more absurd tournaments. The Anglo-Italian Cup, or Coppa Anglo-Italiana, was set up in 1970 as a sequel to the similarly-named Anglo-Italian League Cup the previous year.
From 1967, a place in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup was awarded to the Football League Cup winners. But, that season’s winners, QPR, could not take up their place because UEFA did not yet allow third-tier sides to compete in Europe. When the same situation arose two years later, with Swindon Town, a two-legged match against that year’s Coppa Italia winners, AS Roma, was organised as compensation.
The event’s popularity overperformed, not only from a spectatorship attitude but also from a hierarchical view that the competition was a way to generate income to pay players’ wages during the extended close season rendered by the 1970 FIFA World Cup. It was a success that allowed unlikely English clubs to experience their own unique tidbit of European football.
Clubs that participated were chosen by the countries. In standard British fashion, they chose to send lowly outfits such as Sheffield Wednesday, Luton Town, and Huddersfield Town. Meanwhile, Italia’s finest squads would bless the tournament, with Napoli, Juventus, Inter, and Sampdoria all starring.
For the first competition, six English teams and six Italian teams were split into three groups of two English and two Italian teams each. Two points were rewarded for a win, one point for a draw, and more curiously, a point for every goal scored. The oddities of it all were emphasised by rules that included offside being adapted so that it only came into effect inside the penalty area
During the inaugural final, between Swindon Town and Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo in 1970, the match was ditched after 79 minutes when brutality tore through the stands. Luckily for The Robins, they were already 3-0 to the good, so victory was handed to them without inquiry. But as the tensions between Italian and English cultures came to a violent head, the future of the tournament was dubious.
Europe proved to have ideal conditions for the English disease. Hooliganism and a continental tour for Britons went hand in hand. Luckily for The Tangerine army, the tournament didn’t flatline, and their likelihood of claiming European kingship was handed a boost ahead of the 1970-71 season.
The Italian Job – Blackpool’s Italian takeover
Just two years after Michael Caine found himself stuck in Italy with a heist plan to steal some gold, Blackpool, with the help of John Burridge and Tommy Hutchison, who were at the start of their long-enduring football careers, returned to repeat the tour de force.
Goalkeeper Burridge was at 29 clubs between 1967 and 1997, while Winger Hutchison remained at Blackpool until 1972, became a Scottish international while at Coventry and famously scored for both sides in the 1981 FA Cup Final, by then a Manchester City player.
Their talents would go rather unrecognised in 1971, however, as they’d play their football in the second division, with Italian opposition in the Anglo-Italian Cup – Bologna, Verona, Sampdoria, Roma, Inter Milan, Cagliari – all looking far too strong to surpass.
But while a 3-3 draw against Verona on the opening day at a 9,917-strong Bloomfield Road felt unrepeatable, and a 3-1 home loss to Roma in the second match of Group two all but confirmed those sentiments, their final two group games invalidated the public opinion.
As authoritative and unexpected a 1-4 win over Verona was, it got emphatically swept aside when The Tangerine tourists made headlines for their 2-1 away victory in the Italian capital, against 1968/69 Italian Cup victors Roma. With the format leading to a final between the best club from each country, Blackpool finished top of the English rankings. Because of their 10 goals, they finished above Swindon Town and Stoke City, despite an identical record and goal difference.
In the Italian rankings, Bologna went unbeaten, leading to a Blackpool/Bologna final in front of 40,000 home supporters as fanatical as any in Europe, with just a smattering of Blackpool fans hidden away in one corner.
Blackpool conquer Italy
It is rightly regarded as the finest moment in Blackpool’s history since the Matthews Final in 1953. The Tangerines came to Italy, saw and conquered, beating Bologna on their own patch in the second official Anglo-Italian Cup.
At the start of the night, not too much hinted at an English victory. The Italians, so dangerous and individually brilliant, created most of the openings in the first exchanges and 19-year-old Burridge was called on to make agile saves from Marino Perani, Giuseppe Savoldi and Bruno Pace.
The latter of the three, Pace, was able to find the first goal of the night in 32 minutes, but a late comeback from Blackpool turned the contest on its head, giving the Pie-and-mash Paris its moment of European glory.
A pivotal point was John Craven’s 62nd-minute equaliser, hit beautifully into the corner of the net from just inside the box after a quick one-two with Bill Bentley. As penalties loomed large, extra time brought the match’s conclusion. Dennis Wann, brought on as a substitute for exhausted teenager Alan Ainscow, swept a pinpoint 30-yard pass up the left wing. Micky Burns cut inside and unleashed a tremendous 25-yard strike that swerved out of reach for Giuseppe Vavasorri.
The conquering heroes of Blackpool – every one of them who took part in the Anglo-Italian League tournament, but particularly the 13 who won the memorable final against Bologna – should get the freedom of the borough.
1971 was a year where English clubs collectively lifted three European trophies, and Blackpool carried Saint George’s flag in Northern Italy just as proudly as Leeds United and Chelsea in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. The Tangerines roared to success in the Italian heat, combatting all obstacles to re-roll the dice that had originally loaded in favour of the home team.
Seven-times Italian Champions, Bologna were a force in Serie A, with their last title coming in 1964. They were regulars in European competition, lifting the Coppa Italia in 1970 (and again in 1974) and then winning the Anglo-Italian League Cup against Manchester City over two legs. However, the unity and will of Blackpool prevailed.
Dwindling interest and concerns over fixture congestion led to the Anglo-Italian Cup being abandoned in 1973, although it was opened again to Italian third-tier and English fifth division outfits between 1976 and 1986. Teams from the peninsula dominated this period of its history, with Sutton United – who beat Chieti 2-1 in 1979 – the only English side to be crowned champions despite appearances in the final from Wimbledon, Bath City and Poole Town.
For Blackpool, Stokoe again took them to the Anglo-Italian Cup Final in 1972, where they were runners-up to Roma. Along the way, they registered a record win, 10-0 over Lanerossi Vicenza. Eventually, the club was relegated to the Third Division in 1978, only returning to the second tier in 2007 and spending a single season (2010-11) in the Premier League before falling back down the divisions.