Increased player fatigue and injury has led to calls for domestic cup competitions to be scrapped, as managers believe there are too many games, particularly in English football. In France, it was agreed that the Coupe de la Ligue (League Cup) would be scrapped from 2020. The tournament had been run since 1994, but the French Football Federation announced it would be suspended indefinitely to reduce the congestion in the season schedule.
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It is the norm for English clubs to make wholesale changes to their squad for any FA Cup or EFL (Carabao) Cup game. This is not just for the so called ‘bigger’ clubs. Throughout all the divisions it is seen as a time to rest players or give squad and youth players a chance to play. This is something that happens across most of the footballing world, particularly within the big five European leagues.
This is because the teams in these leagues are often fighting for multiple trophies each season. Therefore, they have to prioritise certain competitions over others in order to achieve as much success as possible, so that they either receive the most prestige or provide the most financial gain for their club. The best current example of this is Liverpool.
After winning the Champions League in 2018-19 and finishing second in the Premier League, Liverpool established themselves as one of the best teams in Europe. The reward for that success was the chance to compete in seven tournaments in 2019-20. These were: The FA Community Shield, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, Carabao Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Champions League and the Premier League.
Having to compete in so many different competitions led to a fixture pile up, particularly during the festive period. This saw Liverpool play nine games, in five competitions, in three different countries, across two continents, in just 26 days. Jürgen Klopp attracted some criticism for not attending one of the games (vs Aston Villa away in the Carabao Cup), as it was on the eve of the club’s first game in the Club World Cup in Qatar (vs CF Monterrey in December 2019).
Not only did Klopp not appear, but most of the squad were in Qatar too. These wholesale changes on and off the pitch meant that the Aston Villa game saw many records broken for the club: youngest average starting line-up (19.5 years), fewest combined appearances for the club for all involved (16) and most debuts in a single game (8). They lost the game 5-0.
The final game of the congested run saw many changes in the FA Cup tie against Merseyside rivals Everton in January 2020. This time Klopp was in attendance as 18-year-old Curtis Jones scored the winner. The bulk of the squad rotation during the hectic period was focussed on the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, which highlighted the lack of importance to Klopp and the club for the smaller financial benefit of competing in these competitions.
Klopp gained more criticism as he failed to attend the FA Cup replay against Shrewsbury Town in February 2020. Klopp refused to attend as the game was scheduled to take place during the Premier League’s first ever mid-season break, he had already promised all members of the first-team squad a rest and so ensured they were all (except James Milner who watched from the bench) absent for the Shrewsbury game. Again, his young side rewarded his rotation tactics and came out on top in the FA Cup.
This may seem a convoluted link into the topic of this article, however, it is to be used as an example of how the biggest clubs, particularly those in England who compete in European competitions, no longer value the domestic cup competitions in the same way. Liverpool are the perfect example of this, not just because of their actions and stature in today’s game, but also because of their participation in a certain 1997 mid-season 6-a-side competition.
Liverpool entered the new year of 1997, top of the Premier League with a serious chance of ending their seven-year drought of winning the league. However, instead of recuperating from a usual hectic English festive fixture pile-up, they boarded a plane to Amsterdam for the Sony MiniDisc Euro Sixes.
The brainchild of Dutch football legend and then recently sacked Barcelona manager, Johan Cruyff, the tournament was as unusual as it was intriguing. Four European juggernauts of football, Liverpool, Rangers, AC Milan and Ajax, met in the Amsterdam Arena for a six-a-side tournament. The games were split into four eight-minute quarters in a round-robin format, with a third-fourth place play off and then the final to finish the tournament off.
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The pitch was of a poor quality, carpet like green AstroTurf was laid on a quarter size pitch. The penalty area was not far off full size, with full size goals to boot. There were also linesmen for offside decisions and a countdown buzzer system used instead of added time and the referees whistle. Time had clearly been devoted to making the rules and adapting the stadium for a very unique tournament.
The Sony sponsorship illustrates the gravitas of the event and why such big teams and influential players were in attendance. It is quoted that each team received £120,000 for taking part, under the presumption that the biggest players would be involved throughout and with extra performance-based bonuses in place for the position each team finished in the tournament. Teams all had large squads on hand with constant roll-on/roll-off substitutions allowed.
Most of the clubs were firmly in the middle of their seasons, Liverpool and AC Milan travelled the day after competitive matches, Rangers had an extra day’s rest, but Ajax were in the midst of their winter break. The hosts clearly had spent the most time practicing and preparing which is understandable as they had the most to lose. With a longer period to prepare than the opposition, partnered with a strong and passionate attendances and the stadium being predominately Ajax supporters, pressure was on the hosts. Their extra preparation for the event is perhaps best illustrated when they put defender Frank de Boer in goal when chasing one game. Although this may seem ill advised, it shows that Louis van Gaal’s side had spent time planning different tactics for the competition.
In truth, the tournament has been somewhat lost in time. Many scores, events and footage either is from Italian television or it has become completely unavailable. The matches weren’t even broadcast in Britain, so many supporters were not even aware of the event taking place. However, one man who was involved in the tournament was happy to shed some light on the events that took place. Derek McInnes, current Aberdeen manager and Rangers player during the Sony MiniDisc Euro Sixes tournament, was kind enough to provide a first-hand account of his experience of the competition.
Peter Jones: What were your main memories of the tournament?
Derek McInnes: The tournament came about as a bit of a surprise. There was some trepidation over whether we (the players and club) should agree to do it in the middle of the campaign, but with Sony on board it looked like it would be quite prestigious and we were interested to see what other clubs would take part. From our point of view, as players, we were really looking forward to it. From the club’s point of view and Walter Smith’s (Rangers manager at the time), they were probably thinking it was the last thing we should be doing but it was a great opportunity for the club to show that they were in the company of Liverpool, AC Milan and Ajax.
Peter Jones: When you think of today with managers complaining about fixture congestion, do you think it was strange that a ‘meaningless’ 6-a-side tournament went ahead?
Derek McInnes: On a commercial basis, it was an opportunity to play clubs from all over the world and obviously for financial and commercial gain. It was a bit unusual for us (the players) and I don’t actually know the ins and outs for the club in terms of what they received, but it must have been enough to convince them to go and do it mid-season.
I think the main reason Rangers took part was to show that they were of the same calibre as Ajax, AC Milan and Liverpool as well as the financial benefit for the club and players to take part. Another reason was that it was effectively one night in Holland and then straight back, all done in one night with 20-minute games and we had a big squad, so everyone got a fair few minutes. Although it was only six-a-side, a lot of the squad got a good amount of minutes played.
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I don’t think that would have a big impact on the rest of the season, we all had a good time and played some football.
Peter Jones: How serious did the players take the tournament?
Derek McInnes: In the terms of how serious we the squad took it; it didn’t feel as seriously as we would take a normal competitive game, but I think it was about pride of going on to the pitch and playing to your best. Once you go over there, you want to make sure that you’re in the game.
Peter Jones: What was the financial gain for the players involved?
Derek McInnes: I don’t think we ever got paid out. I don’t think the club ever got the money; you know. I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure there were more benefits for where you finished in the tournament and then the club worked out how much that would be per player in the squad and divided it up. So, I think there was a financial gain, but I don’t think we ever got it, I think that was because the Cup ran out of money, but I don’t know what happened. It was strange because the company you were in, AC Milan, Ajax and Liverpool – all massive clubs, you would think there’d be considerable financial benefit. They did say the tournament would be back the next year but it fell through so there must have been a financial issue.
Peter Jones: How seriously did the other clubs take it, do you think?
Derek McInnes: I remember, and I don’t want to be too disparaging on any Liverpool players, that Rangers were the first game and we were playing Ajax and we were still a bit unsure of one or two of the rules. We just seemed to get off the plane and get thrown into a game. It was clear that Ajax had been practicing and I think the result was 6-2. We were caught short and didn’t seem ready before the game.
In the Amsterdam Arena, the dressing rooms were below pitch level. So, you’d go down the steps and as you’re walking along the tunnel area the warmup area is below view as well, they’re indoor warm up areas. I’ll always remember, we’ve just been beaten 6-2 and Liverpool are set to face AC Milan next and there’s twenty minutes between each game. So, if you’re walking along to your dressing room you see Arrigo Sacchi blowing his whistle and the AC Milan players are all well drilled. Whenever he blew the whistle, they’re touching right and touching left, doing little shuttles and just everything was in unison, so regimented, so professional and ready to play. Ajax had just shown us that they were taking it seriously too. I don’t think that we or the Liverpool players were as regimented in our build up.
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I think that, from our point of view, we flew in the day of the tournament played the games and flew home. I think Liverpool flew the night before and may have stayed until the day after. Ajax and AC Milan treated it a bit more seriously.
Peter Jones: How was the rest of the tournament?
Derek McInnes: We played AC Milan next, I think it was a draw 3-3. Liverpool were battered by Milan and then I think they drew 0-0 with Ajax. So, going into the last game, we were facing Liverpool and effectively playing for 3rd and 4th place. I remember John Barnes coming into our dressing room and jokingly saying; “Why don’t we just have a kickabout, nothing on it and shall we just split the cash between the two squads?”. I think teams had been promised x amount for 3rd place and x amount for 4th place. John Barnes wasn’t doing it officially or anything like that, it was just a bit of craic.
Ally McCoist, I will always remember says, “I’ll speak to the boys and come back to you”. I’ll always remember Coisty, as soon as John Barnes shut the door said, “They’re fucking shite by the way, we’ll fucking batter them. They’ve all been on the lash for 24 hours!”. I remember Ian Durrant saying, “Tell them to shove their offer up their arse!”. So, Coisty goes into the Liverpool dressing room and says, “Shove your offer up your arse, we’re coming for you!”, all just as a bit of pre-match banter, once we were on the pitch you could tell everyone wanted to win.
I think the game itself was a draw and Michael Owen equalised. Then, for added entertainment, they did a thing where two players ran from the half-way line and had 5 or 6 seconds to score a goal. This was instead of a draw and to ensure there would be a winner, it would be a one-on-one to decide a winner.
Peter Jones: From what you’re saying, Rangers probably saw it as a financial and PR event?
Derek McInnes: I can’t say for definite, but I can imagine that would be the thought. It wasn’t too much of a risk for the team as we were only there one night and got paid well for going.
Peter Jones: Did you get any mementoes from the tournament?
Derek McInnes: In terms of match shirts and swapping, I got Roberto Baggio’s, from AC Milan, which is pretty good. But I didn’t get any Ajax ones. The Baggio one is still up in the loft somewhere in a case which the kids sometimes go and have a look at.
I do remember thinking that it will be great to tell my kids that I’ve shared a pitch with Maldini, Baresi and Seedorf and all the guys who have a lot of stature in the game. Playing against Liverpool was obviously a big thing too, but to play against those guys was pretty special.
Peter Jones: Would you have played in the tournament again if they asked you back?
Derek McInnes: Yes, I don’t ever recall us getting a bonus or a payment, but if they’d paid us then probably yeah. It was sponsored by Sony and you wouldn’t be able to get those four clubs involved for nothing. I don’t know what happened and there must have been issues but I don’t think we ever got any money. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to convince us all to play. I did enjoy the novelty of it, it was something different and good to get some game time. We drew the next league game which I’m sure would have attracted some headlines. There would have been criticism, any type of draw would have been criticised at that time.
The discussion with McInnes was certainly beneficial to help paint a picture of what the tournament must have been like to play in. The wonderful oddities of the tournament help to make it something that certainly deserved to be revisited, some of the game’s great players of the time meeting for an ultimately pointless event in the middle of a hectic schedule is remarkable and would certainly not happen today. However, the fact that it never returned may be for the best.
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Although many football fans would be foaming at the mouth at the thought of this returning, perhaps it’s best that this type of tournament is left to the retired players. Tournaments such as Sky Sports’ Masters Football and the recent Star Sixes are great to watch, and the light-hearted manner of the game is great for supporters.
The Sony MiniDisc Euro Sixes would need monumental financial backing to go ahead today and I’m sure supporters would be outraged if one of their star players, such as Paul Gascoigne for Rangers, was injured in these games. And so, it’s probably best that this is left in the annals of football history, souvenirs remaining in the loft of Derek McInnes and in the minds of all involved. A weird and wonderful event that it is hard to believe didn’t attract more attention and hasn’t lasted long in the memories of football supporters.
*Special thanks to Derek McInnes for his help with this article.