From the Essex Professional Cup to the American Challenge Cup; How many do you remember?

We’ve played in a good number of now defunct tournaments that were designed to generate extra revenue

Floodlights at the West Ham United v Liverpool EPL match, at the London Stadium, London, UK on 27th April, 2024.

Almost a quarter of a century into the new millennium and it seems obvious what the most important competitions are on planet football. A useful rule of thumb might be anything suffixed by the word ‘league’. So naturally the Premier League, Champions League, Europa League and the Europa Conference League would all fall neatly into that category.

Anything with ‘cup’ in the title is sadly relegated to the margins. ‘League’ means lots of games for TV companies to sell. ‘Cup’ is sudden death and makes for a much less attractive product. But what about the defunct tournaments designed to generate extra revenue but ultimately died a death?

West Ham have played in a fair number of ‘fillers’ over the years with varying degrees of success. With one notable exception, they were all cups as opposed to leagues. The first competition to appear on our radar of mediocrity is the Essex Professional Cup (EPC), which the Hammers first entered in the 1950/51 season.

A count of professional football clubs in Essex revealed a fairly narrow membership. Leyton Orient, Southend and Colchester were our usual opponents in this short lived jape. West Ham presumably got the invite to make up the numbers, a bit like Mexico competing in Copa America.

We won the EPC in 1951 beating Leyton Orient in the semis and Southend in the final. The next eight seasons produced one further win in 1959 when the Hammers beat Leyton Orient in the final.

It proved to be our swansong in a competition that still gets a mention in the majority of ‘complete record’ publications. It’s difficult to understand why time and effort was expended on the Essex Professional Cup. Games were played during the season and attendances never exceeded 6,000. Usually, the Hammers fielded a full strength lineup and risked injuries to key players.

The Southern Floodlight Cup (SFC) was another regional competition that briefly flourished in the 1950s. Whilst floodlights at football grounds had been used intermittently since the late 19th century the FA didn’t sanction their regular use until the 1950s.

So, it was a means of shaping fans’ habits and getting them used to the idea of watching football in the evening. In 1955/56 West Ham won the SFC overcoming Aldershot in the final 2-1.

Crowds drew in excess of 14,000 when Arsenal provided the opposition. In 1960 the Hammers were defeated in the final by Coventry City. It proved to be the end game and was replaced by the fledgling League Cup.

The close season of 1963 represented a change of tack for the Hammers as they entered the International Soccer League (ISL). It was the brainchild of entrepreneur William D. Cox and staged in Chicago, Detroit and New York. West Ham were one of 14 clubs split into two groups.

Teams would meet on a round robin basis and the champions would play each other in the grand final. The Hammers faced teams from Italy, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, France and Scotland. West Ham performed admirably and finished top of their group with three wins; two draws and just one defeat.

The Championship Play-off final was against Gornik Zarbrze of Poland. Strong and well organised the Poles were formidable opponents. Among their ranks was the prodigiously talented Wlodek Lubanski who made his full international debut as a sixteen year old. Over two legs the Hammers emerged victorious winning 2-1 on aggregate.

Geoff Hurst scored the crucial goal in the second leg and was our top scorer on eight goals. Both games were played at the Polo Grounds, former home of the New York Yankees. West Ham also qualified for the American Challenge Cup where they played Dukla Prague – the previous year’s winners. However, it was the Czechs who prevailed, winning 2-1 on aggregate.

Dukla provided five members of the Czech side that reached the World Cup Final in 1962. Manager Ron Greenwood happily conceded they provided the toughest test. It had nevertheless been a highly productive tournament for the Hammers, who were crowned ISL Champions and saw Bobby Moore voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP).

The American experience was invaluable for the players who cut their teeth against quality opposition. For the tactically astute Greenwood it laid the foundation for European glory that followed within two years.

By the 1970s corporate sponsors were beginning to edge their way into the game. The Watney Cup was the first competition to secure commercial sponsorship in England. Watney Mann Breweries created a tournament with a delightfully convoluted rulebook.

The top two scoring clubs in each of the four divisions would be invited to compete – provided they hadn’t been promoted or qualified for European competition. The organisers fiddled with the offside rule and also introduced the first penalty shoot-out. Manchester United were the first beneficiaries who beat Hull City in the 1970 semi-final.

George Best and Denis Law became history makers as the first players to score and miss a penalty in a shoot-out. In 1973 West Ham qualified for the tournament alongside Stoke City. But it was no substitute for the exotica of nights in Europe. The Hammers were distinctly mediocre and checked out in first round, defeated by third division Bristol Rovers on penalties.

In 1974 the Hammers were invited to participate in the Texaco Cup. Established in 1970, it was designed to promote Texaco’s purchase of the Regent filling station chain. It originally consisted of teams from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The only proviso was that teams had not qualified for Europe. In the group stages we were drawn with Leyton Orient, Luton and Southampton. One win and two defeats halted any further progress.

The Hammers’ FA Cup victory in 1975 gained entry to the Anglo Italian Cup Winners Cup. Conveniently a competition with just two teams and a reasonable chance of landing another trophy. Fiorentina were the opponents in a two legged tie. The Hammers were disappointingly beaten by a single goal in both legs.

The Full Members Cup aimed to fill the gap left by the European ban imposed after the Hysel tragedy. It was a half-baked, half-hearted effort that failed to stir the pulse. Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United didn’t even bother entering.

Sponsorship eventually had its wicked way as it morphed into the Simod Cup and then the Zenith Data Systems Cup. The only real joy came in 1992 when West Ham lost in the semi-final to Southampton.

The Anglo Italian Cup was a strange beast that existed in various guises over a 26 year period until the mid-1990s. It featured mid-table teams from England and Italy and was dogged by violence both on and off the pitch.

Swindon Town won the first final in 1970 by three goals and a pitch invasion. The Robins were unfazed by 55,000 hostile fans in the Stadio San Paolo at Naples. They raced into a 2-0 lead against Napoli with a brace from Peter Noble. A third goal scored by Arthus Horsfield was the signal for a barrage of rocks and bottles.

Swindon were quite rightly awarded the game. West Ham’s only appearance was in 1992/93, by which time it was restricted to second tier clubs from the two countries. We overcame Bristol Rovers and Southend to qualify for the group stages. Two wins, one draw and a defeat were however not enough to progress any further.

No forgotten cups feature would be complete without reference to the much maligned and universally-hated Intertoto Cup. Unlike the aforementioned tin pots, it amounted to something tangible. The ‘winners’, or more precisely the finalists, progressed to a place in the UEFA Cup (now called the Europa League).

West Ham’s only appearance was in 1999 when they won through and qualified for the said competition. A misfit that endured many changes during its 47 year history was finally put out of its misery in 2008.

The Betway Cup was created as a commercial tie-in for the club’s shirt sponsors. An annual contest staged from 2015-2021 which pitted West Ham against invited opposition. These one-off pre-season challenges came and went without much incident.

West Ham won the Cup twice, but the highlight was the visit of Juventus for the official opening of the London Stadium in 2016. We were defeated 3-2 in an exciting game against star-studded opposition that included Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala.

The forgotten cups are a well-meaning attempt to generate additional income for the underachievers who missed the boat. A consultation prize for the fans and the chance to see their players lift a trophy like the big boys.

But it just isn’t the same and will never be mentioned in the same breath as a European title or the FA Cup. It will rarely be listed in the club’s honours section, nor will it ever appear on the perimeter banners of the stadium.

No matter how handsome the trophy is, it will be no more than a footnote. Only the Texaco Cup, a beautifully designed gold trophy on a black plinth makes an appearance online. With the voracious appetite for more games in Europe, they are neither wanted nor needed; but remain a pleasant reminder of when there was space on the football calendar.

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