Words by Stuart Steelyard
On the 29th May 1985, the Heysel Stadium disaster changed the immediate future of English football. Pressure mounted on UEFA to do something drastic, and just two days later the governing body banned English clubs from European competition for ‘an indeterminate period of time’. This period would end up being 5 years for all English clubs and 6 years for Liverpool. So with the Champions League and Europa League both starting back up next week, it got me thinking; Who exactly missed out on European competition during that 5 year period and how far could they have gone? Prior to the ban, England were ranked first in the UEFA coefficient ranking because of the performances of English clubs over the five previous seasons. This meant that England were always guaranteed one place in the European Cup (League champions), one place in the European Cup-Winners Cup (FA Cup winners), and at least 4 places in the UEFA Cup (3 next highest positions in the League and 1 for the League Cup winners). It’s an incredible ‘what if?’ spell for English clubs as some of the best and most random sides were denied the European dream. One of the greatest Liverpool teams ever in the late 80s may have added to their 4 European Cup triumphs. Everton could well have won the European Cup themselves. Oxford United, Luton Town and Wimbledon were all refused their one and only chance of continental football. So season by season, here’s a look at those clubs and many more who had to stay in England during that period…
Competition: English representatives (Qualification)
European Cup: Everton (League champions)
European Cup Winners’ Cup: Manchester United (FA Cup winners)
UEFA Cup: Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton (all League), Norwich City (League Cup winners)
The 1985 Division One champions, Everton, were a fantastically balanced side under Howard Kendall. Not only did they win the title that year, but they were close to their first ever league and FA Cup double, unfortunately losing 1-0 to Man Utd in the cup final. They did however, also win the Cup Winners’ Cup in ’85, proving that they were more than capable of going all the way in European competitions. Star forward Andy Gray was replaced at the beginning of the 1985/86 campaign by Leicester City’s Gary Lineker and what an impact the new £800,000 signing made. Thirty-eight goals in all competitions (30 in the league) is nothing to be sniffed at, so it’s hard to imagine anything else but Lineker thriving in a European Cup campaign that year with Everton. The Toffees scored 87 goals in the league and accumulated 86 points, finishing just behind the double-winning Liverpool of Kenny Dalglish. So when you consider that it was only Steaua Bucharest who won the European Cup that year – beating Barcelona 2-0 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw – this would have been a great opportunity for Everton to win Europe’s premier trophy for the first time. Indeed following that final, Barcelona manager Terry Venables saw the potential in Lineker and duly signed him in the summer of 1986, to insure that at least one Englishman wasn’t missing out on European football.
Ron Atkinson never finished any lower than 4th in the league during his time at Manchester Utd, and at the start of the 1985/86 season his side won their first ten matches, before eventually finishing 4th again. This would have been interesting form to have during a Cup Winners’ Cup campaign. That early season success should have steered them through the early rounds quite comfortably, but the Red Devils’ poor second half of the season surely would have ruined any chance of them getting past one of the strongest sides of the 80s, Dynamo Kiev, who went on to win the trophy. Although many people would still point to the brilliant Cup Winners’ Cup campaign United had enjoyed under Atkinson in the 1983/84 season, where they made the semi-finals before going out to Juventus. The quarter-final that year was one of the great English comebacks, beating Diego Maradona’s Barcelona 3-0 at home after losing 2-0 in the Nou Camp. That home leg is still spoken by fans as one of the best atmospheres ever heard at Old Trafford.
In the UEFA Cup, you can’t look any further than double-winning Liverpool for the best chance of an English team overcoming the eventual winners, Real Madrid. Especially as Liverpool were seasoned campaigners in Europe before that, winning their fourth European Cup in 1984 and getting to the final at Heysel. With league finishes of 10th and 14th for Tottenham and Southampton respectively, it’s difficult to imagine the impact either club would’ve had in the competition. The 1985 League Cup winners Norwich City were now playing in Division Two and would surely have just been grateful for the trip out of Norfolk.
European Cup: Liverpool (League champions)
European Cup Winners’ Cup: Everton (FA Cup runners-up)
UEFA Cup: West Ham United, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday (all League), Oxford United (League Cup winners)
Liverpool’s old guard were in need of freshening up during the 1986/87 campaign and manager Kenny Dalglish knew it. By their high standards, it was a mediocre season, finishing runners-up in the Football League to Merseyside rivals Everton, losing in the final of the League Cup to Arsenal and being knocked out of the FA Cup by Luton in the third-round. In fact it was to be only their second trophyless year during the whole of the 1980s – the other being 1985. The Reds definitely had some experience still in their squad from previous European triumphs, although it’s unlikely that would have been enough against some of the best young teams on the continent playing in the European Cup that season. Portuguese champions Porto (eventual winners), Bayern Munich, Dynamo Kiev and Real Madrid all made the last four, in probably the strongest field in the competition during the five year absence of English clubs.
The Cup Winners’ Cup was seen as the second most important European competition back then, so Everton would have qualified by losing to Liverpool in the 1986 FA Cup final, despite finishing second in the league. In the 1986/87 season however, Howard Kendall’s side won the Division One title with relative ease, finishing 9 points above neighbours Liverpool. The problem Everton will have had during that campaign would’ve been facing an exciting Ajax side featuring youngsters, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. The Dutch side went on to win the trophy, beating Lokomotive Leipzeg in the final. But having said that, this was an Everton team that only two years previously had won the Football League and the Cup Winners’ Cup in the same season. You’d have been a brave man to bet against them doing that again.
The strongest chance of English success in the UEFA Cup would have usually been from Manchester United, but after a terrible start, manager Ron Atkinson was sacked and replaced by Aberdeen’s Alex Ferguson, who spent the remainder of the season steadying the ship to finish in 11th place. West Ham United ended the campaign in 15th and Sheffield Wednesday in 13th – the South Yorkshire club denied a first venture into Europe in over 20 years. Speaking of firsts, Oxford United would have been enjoying a first ever campaign with European football. How far they may have got is another question, as the U’s only just survived relegation. The frustrating thing for all four of these teams was this was a wide open competition. Not only did Dundee United get to the final in 1987, but Swedish minnows IFK Gothenburg were the surprise winners of the UEFA Cup that season.
European Cup: Everton (League champions)
European Cup Winners’ Cup: Coventry City (FA Cup winners)
UEFA Cup: Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City (all League), Arsenal (League Cup winners)
Following Everton’s First Division title win of 1987, manager Howard Kendall left for Athletic Bilbao in the summer, signalling the end of an era at Goodison Park. He was replaced by one of his former teammates, Colin Harvey, who together with Kendall and Alan Ball, were known as the ‘Holy Trinity’ – a trio regarded as the best midfield in England during the late 60s and early 70s. Unfortunately, Harvey didn’t have the same impact as Kendall and the champions finished in fourth place in 1987/88 Football League. It also seems unlikely that this change of manager would have helped the team to get past Spanish giants Real Madrid, the Maradona influenced Napoli or eventual winners PSV Eindhoven; who included five Dutch players in their side that would go on to win the 1988 European Championships later that year.
Surprise 1987 FA Cup final winners Coventry City were denied only their second European adventure, the first being in 1970/71. With a comfortable 10th place finish in the league, the Sky Blues would have been able to concentrate on the Cup Winners’ Cup and put together a decent run, with only really a depleted Ajax team and winners Mechelen from Belgium standing in their way.
The 1987/88 season was when Liverpool were back on track as the best side in the country. Out went top scorer Ian Rush to Juventus and in came John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton to revitalise the side. That showed in the league as the Reds stormed to the title by nine points. With new depth to the squad and their magnificent form, Kenny Dalglish’s side would have been hard to beat in the UEFA Cup. You’d have put money on them beating eventual winners Bayer Leverkusen. George Graham’s Arsenal might have also made an impact, with youngsters Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Paul Merson all becoming first-team regulars. Other qualifiers Tottenham and Norwich struggled to bottom half finishes in the league that year.
European Cup: Liverpool (League champions)
European Cup Winners’ Cup: Wimbledon (FA Cup winners)
UEFA Cup: Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Everton (all League), Luton Town (League Cup winners)
Liverpool’s 1988/89 season was understandably overshadowed by the Hillsbororugh tragedy. However, they were still just seconds away from winning the First Division title that year, before Arsenal’s Michael Thomas scored the most dramatic goal in Football League history to snatch away the trophy at Anfield on the final day. The week before Liverpool had won the FA Cup final in an emotional all-Merseyside affair at Wembley, where the whole city came together for the families of the Hillsborough victims. So it’s hard to say how the Kenny Dalglish’s side would have done in the European Cup in 1989. Especially when you see that the winners were Italy’s top side AC Milan, who made the final of Europe’s top prize five times over the next seven seasons – winning it on three of those occasions. What a great battle it could have been though; Dalglish vs Saachi, Rush vs Van Basten, Barnes vs Maldini, Liverpool vs Milan. It’s quite ironic that we never got to see one of the great head-to-heads of the 80s, but the next time Liverpool played in a European Cup final was in 2005 against… AC Milan.
I must admit, out of all the teams on here, it’s Wimbledon who I’d have been most intrigued about seeing on a European tour. The Dons delivered the biggest shock in FA Cup final history the season before, with a 1-0 victory over league champions Liverpool coming just 11 years after first being promoted to the Football League. Would European football have been able to cope with the ‘Crazy Gang?’ Their long ball tactics were basic but effective. Wimbledon’s physical style, with players such as Vinnie Jones, John Fashanu, Dennis Wise and Lawrie Sanchez, often intimidating opponents, would have certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons on the continent. So it wouldn’t have been surprising at all if they’d managed a decent run in the Cup Winners’ Cup, as they were safe in the league too. However, coming up against eventual winners Barcelona at some stage would have surely derailed Wimbledon, as Johan Cruyff’s side were more than equipped to play their way out of any trouble caused by the south Londoners. Another great fantasy tie though.
Nottingham Forest probably had the best chance of success in the UEFA Cup. With Brian Clough still at the helm, Forest had a manager who had been there and done it in Europe and would definitely have been the team to keep an eye on. Everton’s 8th position in the league was poor in comparison to what their fans were used to. Alex Ferguson was under pressure at Manchester United after an underwhelming 11th place finish. Luton Town struggled in the league to 16th place, but did get to the final of the League Cup again, where they were unfortunately defeated by Forest. All four English sides would have done well to beat a strong Napoli team, who by now were consistently challenging for the Serie A title.
European Cup: Arsenal (League champions)
European Cup Winners’ Cup: Liverpool (FA Cup winners)
UEFA Cup: Norwich City, Derby County, Tottenham Hotspur (all League), Nottingham Forest (League Cup winners)
Following Arsenal’s last minute First Division title win in 1989, the Gunners were unable to regain that same league form and finished 4th in the 1989/90. They also went out of both domestic cup competitions very early on in the season, so you get the feeling Arsenal would have been very focused on a European Cup campaign – a trophy they still haven’t won to this day. Again the favourites and winners of the competition were AC Milan, who were just starting a decade of dominance in Italy’s top tier. In fact the Italian clubs in general were becoming the major force of European football once again, winning all 3 continental trophies in 1990. You’d have to say that they probably wouldn’t have had it all their own way if English clubs had been involved, but the teams from Serie A were certainly moving away from the rest of Europe with their standards of football. Which means it would have been very unlikely to hear the famous ‘1-0 to the Arsenal chant’ on the continent that year.
The League Championship came back to Anfield in the 1989/90 season and it’s well known that it has not been back there since, 29 years on! Even though they were back on top of English football, Liverpool would have more than likely come across similar problems to Arsenal in Europe, as Sampdoria won the Cup Winners’ Cup, with the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and Attilio Lombardo starring in the final. By now Liverpool didn’t have many players left in their squad who had been involved in their European triumphs from the early 80s. So with no experience playing abroad apart from with their respected international teams, it may have been shock to the system to play a side of Sampdoria’s calibre.
New signing Gary Lineker would surely have made a difference to Tottenham Hotspur’s venture in the UEFA Cup following his three seasons at Barcelona. They finished 3rd in the league that year too, and with their cup pedigree and Paul Gascoigne having the season of his life, Spurs might have been able to break into the all Italian final of Juventus and Fiorentina. Similar standard were a good Nottingham Forest side, captained by Stuart Pearce, which had won back to back League Cups, giving Brian Clough silverware for the first time in 10 years. Norwich and Derby would have struggled, despite both being one-city clubs who could pack their grounds for those European nights.
European Cup: Liverpool (League champions)
In April 1990, UEFA confirmed the reintroduction of English clubs (with the exception of Liverpool) into its competitions from the 1990–91 season onward. Then in April 1991 UEFA’s Executive Committee voted to allow Liverpool back into European competition from the 1991–92 season onward, a year later than their compatriots, but two years earlier than initially foreseen. This meant that Liverpool were still banned from competing in the European Cup during the 1990/91 season. Holders AC Milan, went out in the quarter-final stage to a Marseille side heavily influenced by Chris Waddle, who in turn lost the final to Red Star Belgrade on penalties. The competition was certainly more open than previous years, but there was a twist to come at Anfield. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish (still struggling with the trauma of Hillsborough), shocked the football world by resigning in February 1991, which surely would have finished off any European hopes that the Merseysiders had.
Elsewhere, England only had two representatives in Europe for their first season back; First Division runners-up Aston Villa in the UEFA Cup and FA Cup winners Manchester United in the Cup Winners’ Cup. The gradual re-introduction was because England had no UEFA coefficient points, due to being out of European competition for so long. Basically every other country had overtaken them. This meant that in 1990/91, 3rd and 4th placed Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal missed out on UEFA Cup qualification, along with League Cup winners Nottingham Forest. For the same reason, in 1991/92, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and League Cup winners Sheffield Wednesday missed out. In 1992/93, the League Cup winners got their spot back in the UEFA Cup, but two more still missed out in the league, in Arsenal and Manchester City. Same again in 1993/94, with Blackburn Rovers and QPR not making it. In 1994/95, another place was gained in the league which meant just Leeds were denied UEFA Cup football. By 1995/96, European qualification was back to normal in England for the first time in ten seasons.
Historical & Financial Impact
There’s no doubt about it, the impact on these sides who missed out on European football was massive. Liverpool were probably the hardest hit in the trophy cabinet. Nearly every year that they were banned from Europe, the Reds would have had a shot of winning the competition they were in. Three times they should’ve been in the European Cup. Not to mention the fact that if you won the cup back then, you were automatically entered back into the competition for the following season. It’s incredible to think that we could be here in 2019 looking at Liverpool’s European Cup/Champions League trophy wins actually being close to double figures. Throw in a couple more UEFA Cup triumphs or their first Cup Winners’ Cup and they’d be close to Real Madrid as the most successful team in European history. Imagine taking that momentum into the new Premier League in 1992? Maybe then Liverpool fans wouldn’t still be waiting for a league title 29 years later.
Everton were probably the second most affected team. It’s very likely that they would have come close to a first European Cup in their history during either of the two campaigns in the competition. Winning the league championship twice in the 80s was no mean feat in itself and lifting Europe’s top prize might just have taken Everton to Liverpool’s level. But since the 1987 First Division title win, the Toffees have not finished higher than 4th, and they’ve only done that twice, in 1988 and 2005. A sole FA Cup win in 1995 has also been their only silverware since. Unfortunately, the Premier League era at Goodison Park has never lived up to their 1980s success.
For teams such as Oxford United, Coventry City, Wimbledon and Luton Town, the exposure and financial reward would have been invaluable for their future. Instead, each club has gone through some tough times since. Oxford and Luton dropped through the divisions and were eventually relegated to non-league football in the Conference – thankfully both are now comfortably back in the football league. Coventry have suffered administration, relocation and relegations right down to League Two; they are currently playing in League One. Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes to become the MK Dons, with former Wimbledon fans moving their support to non-league AFC Wimbledon, spurring them to successive promotions all the way through the football tiers to League One. These dramatic changes would have been unimaginable back in the 80s. I can’t help thinking that something as simple as a good run in a European competition might have changed the future for any of those clubs.
Let’s just hope that English fans are never caught up in such a disastrous event overseas again.
In the 10 years that England were not fully represented in Europe, a total of 20 teams missed out on at least one European campaign. Ranked by the amount of seasons missed in Europe, these read:
6 – Liverpool.
4 – Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur.
3 – Manchester United, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest.
2 – Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday.
1 – Blackburn Rovers, Coventry City, Crystal Palace, Derby County, Luton Town, Manchester City, Oxford United, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton, West Ham United, Wimbledon.
Paul Gascoigne never played for an Enlgish club in Europe.
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