BY Vince Cooper

CONTESTED between 1970 and 1973, the Watney Cup (full title Watney Mann Invitation Cup) is fondly remembered as a contest where upsets could, and indeed often did, take place.

The competition was played prior to the start of the season (with all matches taking place within eight days) between the two highest-scoring teams from each of the four divisions. Eliminated from entry were teams who were competing in Europe and those who had been promoted. This made it, in effect, a consolation event for those who had scored lots, but failed. Home teams were simply decided by the toss of a coin.

One major innovation was brought in for the tournament which has stood the test of time. It was decided that there would be no replays. If matches were drawn they would go straight to extra-time and then penalties. Thus, Manchester United’s semi-final penalty shoot-out win over Hull City became the first tie to be decided in this way in English football. George Best took the first-ever penalty shootout kick – and scored. Denis Law saw his effort saved by Ian McKechnie for the first miss but McKechnie later blotted his copybook by missing the vital kick that saw United progress to the final

Year one went pretty much to plan. The division three and four teams were beaten in the first round, then the first division sides beat those from division two in the semis.

Derby County had overcome Fulham 5-3 after extra-time in the 1st Round before beating Sheffield United in the semi-final thanks to a solitary John McGovern strike which was described at the time as ‘a peach’.

Meanwhile United edged past Reading, winning 3-2 at Elm Park prior to the penalty shootout win over Hull which came about after the teams finished all square at 1-1.

The final saw Brian Clough’s Derby romp to an a 4-1 win with goals from Roy McFarland, Alan Hinton, Alan Durban and skipper Dave Mackay. George Best got a consolation for United but it Mackay who lifted the huge trophy in front of a crowd of just over 32,000.

Derby with the trophy

As far as goals were concerned the first tournament lived up to expectations. Seven games saw a total of 31 goals scored (and in fact, in the whole history of the tournament there were only two goalless draws).

The Halifax ruse of putting numbers on the front of their shirts seemed to work against George Best and Manchester United

On to year two and whilst goal totals were down, upsets came to the fore. Manchester United who had entered for a second time, fell to a shock 2-1 defeat against Halifax Town as Bill Atkins and Bob Wallace struck for the Shaymen in front of almost 20,000 fans at The Shay in round one.

Meanwhile Colchester United of the Fourth Division followed up their shock win over Leeds United in the previous year’s FA Cup with more giant killing antics. They knocked out both Second Division teams, Carlisle United and Luton Town, to set up a final against top flight West Bromwich Albion (who had downed Halifax in the semis).

Colchester lift the trophy (Asa Hartford doesn’t look too pleased)

The final, played at The Hawthorns in front of just under 19,000 fans (with an estimated 12 million watching on TV) was a thriller.

Mick Mahon struck first for Colchester after eight minutes but Len Cantello levelled for the Baggies who then took the lead through Jeff Astle. United’s Dave Simmons restored parity but almost immediately Colin Suggett put West Brom back in front before the break.

Colchester boss Dick Graham with the trophy

Halfway through the second period Mahon hit an unstoppable drive to make it 3-3 and with just four minutes remaining the same player was pulled down in the area. Brian Lewis sent Jimmy Cumbes the wrong way from the resulting spot kick but a last-gasp Astle effort – which went in off his knee – saw the match finish at 4-4.

So it came down to a penalty shootout which the minnows of Colchester won 4-3 thanks to inexperienced midfielder Phil Bloss who scored with the crucial last kick.

The following year began with another innovation being trialled, and ended with another upset.

The innovation was an experiment whereby players were only given offside if inside (or in line with) the opposition penalty area.

The upsets came when Third Division Bristol Rovers saw off top-flight Wolves in the opening round and got the better of second-tier Burnley in the semis, both without conceding a goal.

The Rovers run continued in the final when they fought out a goalless draw with First Division Sheffield United before running out 7-6 winners in a tense penalty shootout in front of 19,768 fans at Eastville.

Bristol,Rovers celebrate

Rovers ‘keeper Dick Sheppard was the hero and was chaired off the pitch after saving from Ted Helmsley to give his side the win.

And so to ‘73 and the final year of the event. And the shocks continued in Round One. Holders Rovers saw off top flight West Ham but then succumbed to Hull City in the last four. Stoke City had seen off City, the other Bristol team, in the other semi to set up a home final against Hull. And it was Stoke (led by skipper Jimmy Greenhoff, pictured below with Denis Smith and John Marsh) who ran out winners of the fourth – and last – staging of the event, seeing off their Yorkshire visitors 2-0 thanks to a brace from Greenhoff.

And then, it was gone. Four stagings after starting the tournament was discontinued, after Watney’s involvement ended and a new backer couldn’t be found.. Could it come back? With the majority of top-flight teams now involved in prestigious and lucrative pre-season tours there sadly seems to be no room for it in the calendar anymore. So we’ll have to settle for memories of those four exciting years – and two major upsets – and that massive trophy which I hear is still safely ensconced in Stoke’s trophy room (* I’ve just been informed by reader Andy Ellis that the Watney Cup resides at Derby’s Pride Park).