The Lads will almost inexplicably play three fully-competitive fixtures in 2018/19 against youth teams, after drawing Manchester City U21’s in the latest round of the Checkatrade EFL Trophy. Of course, the last round will live long in memory for all fans (for both right an wrong reasons), and this cup competition is utterly glorious, genuinely horrific and downright bizarre all at the same time.
Despite this, it is far from the strangest competition a Sunderland side has ever played in, and some older ones are so weird and wonderful, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was made up.
United Soccer Association League
Bear with me on this one, it gets weird.
This was a competition played in the summer of 1967 featuring teams from the across the United States and Canada, but (and here’s the twist) these teams were actually represented by a team imported from Europe or South America that used a name from the native teams to compete with. Still with me?!
So, Sunderland represented the Vancouver Royal Canadians where the players were Sunderland, but the name was Vancouver Royal Canadians. Hope that clears things up.
The format saw the 12 teams split across two groups then the winner from each group play in the final. We finished fifth in our group that was won by the Los Angeles Wolves who were represented by Wolverhampton Wanderers - the eventual winners after beating the Washington Whips, who were in actual fact Aberdeen.
The only logical part of the whole competition from a Sunderland perspective was that our only player who made the “All-Star Team” for the tournament was none other than Jim Baxter.
It’s best we leave this one here.
The mere mention of this competition brings back almost zero memories of two midweek games that I actually attended. Recall exists merely in the form of a matchday programme signed by Mickey Gray and John Byrne.
It also reminds me of the disappointment I felt as a nine-year-old that we didn’t get past the groups stages in either 1992/93 or 1993/94 and see Sunderland play Italian opposition.
Four games (Cambridge United, Birmingham City, Tranmere Rovers & Bolton Wanderers) across the two years yielded one win, one draw and two defeats and not a sniff of any Italian opposition.
In these two seasons all the clubs in the First Division (Championship in new money) participated in the competition, but in the following two seasons only eight clubs represented England and Italy from their countries respective second tiers before the competition was then abolished.
What I didn’t know as a disappointed nine-year-old was that the appearance of the competition for four years in the 90s was actually a revival of the competition from the early 70s. This was re-introduced in response to the feeling that a replacement was needed to the loss of the Full Members Cup (see below).
The competiton was first introduced in 1969 and was born out of a two legged play-off between Swindon Town and Roma to play in the Fairs Cup in the late 60s when QPR could not take their place as UEFA did not allow third-tier teams to compete.
We played in the original version twice in 1969/70 and 1971/72. As in the 90s we didn’t get past the initial group stage but due to the original format, we had Italian opposition in every game. Lazio, Fiorentina, Atalanta and Cagliari were our opponents across the two years.
Texaco Cup/Anglo-Scottish Cup
The Texaco Cup was a competition formulated in 1970 to include teams from England, Scotland and Ireland. This was essentially the precursor to the Anglo-Scottish Cup, which was a natural progression when Irish and Northern Irish teams withdrew from the 1971/72 season under immense political pressure. Only a handful of teams appeared in the competition each year and our involvement began in 1974/75.
As in the Anglo-Italian cup, we did not progress from the initial group stage and did not get close to any Scottish opposition. Our first year in the competition included a home win over the mags, followed by a home defeat to Boro and a draw away at Carlisle.
The following season in 1975/76, the competition lost the sponsorship from Texaco but became an expanded and re-branded competition simply known as the Anglo-Scottish cup.
This didn’t make a difference to our involvement of course, as we matched the previous season of not progressing past the initial group stage containing the same teams.
Due to promotion we didn’t appear in the competition again until 1978/79 & then 1979/80 where we matched our previous failures in not progressing from the first group stage. On the first occasion our progress was blocked by Bolton Wanderers, Oldham Athletic and Sheffield United and at the second attempt faced Bury, Bolton Wanderers and Oldham Athletic.
Promotion meant we did not participate in the competition again before it was abolished the following season in 1980/81, probably for the best considering our previous form.
Full Members Cup
For me this will always be the Zenith Data Systems Cup, to others it might be the Simod Cup, but it was first introduced as the Full Members Cup without sponsorship in 1985.
This was created when clubs felt the need to create an additional competition to compete in following the Heysel stadium disaster that resulted in English clubs being banned from European competition. In the original football league structure the teams in the top two tiers were full members that held full voting rights which gave the competition its name as the invite only stretched to full members to compete.
The lower two divisions were Associate Members and played in the Associate Members Cup that became the EFL Trophy in 1992 when those clubs became full members of the Football League.
Performance throughout the lifespan of the competition was pretty woeful, at best winning the first round game but suffering defeat in the second if we reached that far.
We didn’t compete in 1987/88 due to being an Associate Member of the Football League after dropping into the third tier and the final year in 1991/92 where, for some reason that seems to be unexplained anywhere, we were the only team from the second tier not to compete… probably for the best.
The Football League Centenary Tournament
Also known as the Mercantile Credit Football Festival, this was played over a weekend in April in 1988 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Football League.
16 teams competed – Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Crystal Palace, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Luton Town, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland, Tranmere Rovers, Wigan Athletic, Wimbledon and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Despite fielding an almost full strength side that were demolishing the old Third Division, we crashed out in the first round on penalties to Wigan Athletic.
Nottingham Forest eventually took the title on finals day where just 17,000 people bothered to turn up to Wembley (dropping from 40,000 the previous day) to wish the Football League a happy 100th birthday.
Daily Express Five-a-Side Tournament
Forget your Masters or Star Sixes, this was the best players in the land playing for five-a-side glory for the top teams in the country between 1968 and 1986.
Our 1984 squad included Chris Turner, Barry Venison, Shaun Elliott, Clive Walker and Gary Bennett.
In the same tournament Paul Gascoigne was in the Newcastle United squad, John Barnes played for Watford and Ossie Ardilles featured for Spurs, showing that teams did send quality line-ups to represent them even in the declining years of the competition.
It’s surprisingly difficult to get much information on the tournament but there is some footage on the internet knocking about if you look hard enough. There is little on our overall performance across the almost 20 years of the tournament, but we did win it once in 1979.
It would be great to see this revived, although I think we should resign ourselves to watching over the hill, overweight ex-players play the five-a-sides for now.