Innovation at its finest: The Watney Cup

Watney Cup

Today’s Tuesday Throwback featured on our sister site Tale of Two Halves back in July 2018.

When filling the gap between the football seasons held marginally less excitement than this summer did – but innovation took centre stage.

As Manchester United prepare for the new football season with trips to the USA and Germany to play the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, I can’t help thinking back to when times seemed so much simpler. Until the innovative and ground-breaking Watney Cup broke into the football fans’ consciousness.

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In a list of dubious, forgotten football competitions, The Watney Mann Invitation Cup stands with the best of them. It was also responsible for many innovative and significant firsts. No flying halfway across the world to play in money-spinning matches in those days but the first-ever sponsorship deal made it attractive enough for clubs to want to take part. Part of a slippery slope? Maybe, but ground-breaking it was. The other first was for ties to be decided on the day, with a penalty shoot-out at the end of extra time after agreement with FIFA and UEFA. It was even considered big enough for the TV cameras to broadcast games live. The final was played the same day as that season’s Charity Shield game between Champions Everton and FA Cup Winners Chelsea.

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The competition was introduced in 1970 to increase sales of Watney’s Pale Ale and inject some meaningful fixtures to the pre-season schedule. Eight teams were invited to play, two from each division of the Football League. Take away the European qualifiers and promoted teams, it was the two top goal scorers in the previous seasons’ competition that secured entry. That first season, Derby County (4th with 64 goals) and Manchester United (8th with 66 goals) qualified from the First Division. They were alongside Sheffield United and Hull City (2nd Division); Reading and Fulham (3rd Division) and Peterborough and Aldershot (4th Division).

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Prize money

Each team would share £4,000 in sponsorship money with the rest, £50,000 split between the FA and Football League. Clubs also received £500 per win and £1,000 for winning the competition. It doesn’t seem so much now but the average house price was just under £5,000 and the latest Range Rover was just Under £2,000 in 1970. The average First Division footballer earned around £75 per week, the UK average wage was about £32. I can’t find information on image rights in 1970 and I’m sure I won’t.

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The first competition

After beating Fulham (5-3) and Sheffield Utd (1-0), Derby County came up against Manchester United in the final, who had beaten Reading (3-2) and significantly, Hull City. Significant because it was the nation’s first-ever match to be decided by a penalty shoot-out in front of a healthy attendance of 34,000. It also threw up a number of other firsts. George Best was the first footballer to take a shootout penalty in the UK; Denis Law, the first to miss his penalty, saved by Hull keeper Ian McKechnie, who himself became the first player to miss a deciding kick; Manchester United becoming the first side to win a match on penalties.

In the first final, Bobby Charlton took to the field a matter of weeks after his final appearance for England. England’s 3-2 defeat to West Germany in the World Cup still fresh in the memory. Alongside him, Pat Crerand, Nobby Stiles, Brian Kidd, Denis Law and George Best took to the field in what was like a who’s who of football royalty. Their opponents in the final, Derby County were led by Brian Clough and fielded such household names as Dave Mackay, Roy McFarland, John McGovern, Kevin Hector and Alan Hinton. The game took place at The Baseball Ground, Derby, which was decided by the toss of a coin. A healthy attendance of 32,000 enjoyed an impressive Derby performance, winning 4-1 giving Brian Clough his first-ever trophy, presented by Sir Stanley Rous. The only downside was the report of football hooliganism outside the ground following the game.


The competition carried on for a further three years before being ditched. The firsts continued with changes to the offside rule. In the 1971 competition, offside was brought back from the halfway line to the penalty box in order to create more goals. That season’s competition produced a shock winner with 4th Division Colchester United beating West Brom 4-3 on penalties. The 1972 competition ditched the offside rule experiment but saw Manchester United become the first side to refuse the invitation to enter. (It wouldn’t be the last time they pulled out of a cup competition). Having been on the end of a shock defeat to Halifax the year before, they wanted a more secure pre-season fixture list. Bristol Rovers won that year beating Sheffield United, again on penalties. Stoke City were the competition’s last winners, defeating Hull City 2-0 in 1973.

The end…

Dwindling attendances and the ever-increasing backdrop of hooliganism saw the competition grind to a halt. Although the idea of inviting the leading goal scorers in the league made for an attractive product on paper, it couldn’t stop The Watney Cup going the same way as the Texaco Cup and Anglo-Italian Cup. Over the following years, there have been other attempts to introduce ultimately doomed competitions. The Full Members Cup, FA Cup 3rd place play off and the disastrous and completely pointless ScreenSport Super Cup immediately spring to mind.

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It’s hard to see anything like this tournament taking off if it was to be instigated or resurrected today. It’s of its time and there are plenty of meaningless pre-season friendly tournaments already taking place around the world making much more money for its competitors. Based on last season’s tables, a competition this year would involve Leicester City, West Ham, Aston Villa, Hull City, Peterborough Utd, Scunthorpe Utd, Notts Co and Mansfield Town. I wonder how their fans would feel if the competition was still running. In the days of clubs even resting players in the FA Cup it’s hard to see how it would be accommodated by fans.

Not quite as famous as the FA Cup and probably forgotten by most who ever saw it, it did leave its legacy. Remembered for the first penalty shoot-out; the first in a long line of sponsorship deals and significantly, Brian Clough’s first trophy as a manager. Manchester United to go to the USA to play Real Madrid or Glanford Park to play Scunthorpe United? The Watney Mann Invitation Cup 1970-1973, innovative but ultimately doomed.