Heroes and humblings: The story of English clubs in the Uefa Super Cup

English clubs have competed for the Uefa Super Cup 16 times - with mixed results
English clubs have competed for the Uefa Super Cup 16 times - with mixed results

No fewer than 16 times have English clubs found themselves in the dubiously prestigious position of competing for the Uefa Super Cup. Founded, like most good footballing ideas, by a Dutchman in the 1970s, the competition has quietly pitted together the European Cup winners and the holders of the Cup Winners’ Cup (1972-1999) or Uefa Cup/Europa League (2000-present) without much in the way of an enduring legacy.

The Super Cup has retained the feel of a ceremonial afterthought rather than a clash of continental titans, which perhaps explains why little has ever been made of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest silencing 80,000 Barcelona fans at the Nou Camp in the 1979 edition or the 1994 novelty of George Graham’s Arsenal versus Fabio Capello’s AC Milan.

Liverpool vs Hamburg, 1977

Two of the first three Uefa-recognised Super Cups were decided by emphatic home-leg turnarounds (the showpiece was largely a two-legged affair until 1998). Ajax put six past AC Milan in Amsterdam in 1973, before Anderlecht stunned the three-in-a-row European champions Bayern Munich in Brussels three years later.

The same would unfold at Anfield, but there was already a narrative arc in place: Kevin Keegan had left Liverpool for Hamburg that summer to “better himself” and - after a 1-1 draw in Germany - returned to face a second-leg chorus of boos. To compound the misery, Terry McDermott belted home a superb 17-minute hat-trick on the way to a 6-0 win, which was capped in the 88th minute with a goal from the newly-signed Kenny Dalglish.

“Keegan! What’s the score?” sang the Kop, as Terry McDermott clutched his man-of-the-match trophy, suggesting he might “melt it down or something” because there was no space left on his mantelpiece.

Aston Villa vs Barcelona, 1982

Liverpool’s barnstorming Super Cup win in 1977 rubberstamped the start of an era of English dominance in Europe. Two further European Cups in 1978 and 1981, sandwiching the astonishing back-to-back triumphs for Nottingham Forest, were followed by Aston Villa toppling Bayern Munich in 1982. 

The Super Cup defied the form book, however. Defeats for Liverpool to Anderlecht in 1978 and for Forest against Valencia in 1980 were followed by a literal non-event in 1981: Liverpool simply couldn’t find a convenient date, let alone two, to face Dinamo Tbilisi.

If that suggested the Super Cup wasn’t quite at the top of everyone’s To Do list, the 1982 edition (held the following January) brought it kicking and screaming into significance. Early 1980s Barcelona were an almost cartoonishly cynical outfit, even with the world’s most expensive player Diego Maradona (who missed both games through illness), and their 1-0 first-leg lead guaranteed a tense return at Villa Park.

Barca held firm for an hour before Julio Alberto, already on a booking, caught a lofted ball forward with both hands and threw it into the crowd. Villa levelled the tie with ten minutes left - Peter Withe elbowing a Barcelona defender in the face before Gary Shaw swept the ball home - and Barcelona’s implosion began. 

Ten minutes into extra time, Villa won a penalty, the referee was surrounded, Gordon Cowans’ effort was saved, he tucked home the rebound and thumped the ball back into the net with glee, before himself being booted into the air by goalkeeper Urruti, who then stalked the penalty area looking for someone to fight.

A diving header from Ken McNaught made it 3-0 and settled matters for sure, but there was still time for Marcos Alonso (father to the Chelsea defender of the same name) to be given his marching orders. Barcelona ended up with eight yellow cards, two reds and Urruti banned for five matches for reportedly dropping his shorts and mooning the referee in disgust. What more could you possibly want?

Manchester United vs Red Star Belgrade, 1991

Nearly a decade on from their golden era on the Continent, English clubs were playing a desperate game of catch-up. The five-year ban from European competition following the Heysel disaster had successfully brought about a cultural footballing deficit that would only finally be bridged by Manchester United’s Treble winners at the end of the 1990s.

Still, United had seen off a talented Barcelona side to win the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup in Rotterdam, and the Alex Ferguson era was starting to gather serious pace. A one-off tie with Red Star Belgrade (the away leg was deemed too risky in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars) was therefore a decent yardstick by which to measure the sophistication (or not) of English football.

To Old Trafford came the last remaining gems of Yugoslavian football: the mischievous Dejan Savicevic, set-piece perfectionist Sinisa Mihajlovic, the emerging Vladimir Jugovic and European Golden Boot winner Darko Pancev. Over two legs, this would have been quite something, but a dreadful mid-November pitch in Manchester didn’t lend itself to a classic. One man, though, didn't care about that.

The records might show that a single, scrappy Brian McClair goal decided matters, but the match is largely remembered for one of those semi-mythical performances that get even better with every re-telling, and perhaps belong in half-forgotten games like this.

Savicevic had just turned 25 - already sporting the Platini-esque hairline of a twilight-years playmaker - and clearly considered his Red Star schooling complete. To confirm he was ready to take a step up to an elite league, he gave future Serie A adversary Paul Ince a thorough chasing, six months before AC Milan paid £9m to bring him fully into the mainstream.

Liverpool vs Bayern Munich, 2001

Michael Owen steers a shot past Oliver Kahn in 2001 Credit: GETTY IMAGES

In three decades of Super Cup history to this point, German sides boasted a proud record: six appearances, six defeats. In 2001, having avenged their Champions League heartbreak of That Night in Barcelona two years before, Bayern Munich were back for a third bite at the Super Cup cherry.

By now, Uefa had acknowledged the game’s place in the European football food chain and made it a one-off affair held in Monaco. Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool were developing a taste for alternative silverware - having won the FA Cup, League Cup and Uefa Cup for a small-t treble in 2000/01 - and some of the squad had some extra motivation. Eight days later, England would be in Munich for a vital World Cup qualifier.

Cue the Telegraph’s match report:

Liverpool served up the sight all England want to see next Saturday: Michael Owen, sharpness and speed, and Emile Heskey darting through to beat Oliver Kahn, the esteemed captain and goalkeeper of Germany.

England will find Germany a far more difficult proposition in a World Cup qualifier than Liverpool found Bayern. Yet strikers thrive on confidence as well as the knowledge that they have scored against certain keepers in the past.

Owen, although starting to fill out from the under-11s physique that made his World Cup ‘98 breakthrough look even more like comic-book stuff, was electric. Midway through the first half, he raced behind the Bayern defence into acres of Monte Carlo real estate and squared for John Arne Riise to crash home from four yards. 

Then, just before the break, Heskey exploded into life too: picking the ball up 40 yards out, he cruised between Robert Kovac and Thomas Linke like an Olympic champion negotiating the early rounds of the 100 metres, and then clipped a left-foot finish over the world’s best goalkeeper.

Whatever their coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said at half-time had only 12 seconds to sink in before Liverpool were 3-0 up. A long Jamie Carragher ball over the top from left-back - potentially the least glamorous thing Monaco had ever witnessed - was chased by Owen, Bayern’s new Guinean defender Pablo Thiam found himself hopelessly stranded, and the ball was swiftly tucked beyond Kahn and into the far corner.

Bayern pulled two goals back, and Kahn ventured upfield for a last-gasp corner, but the rare German losing streak was to be extended again. A week later, Owen and Heskey ran riot against him again on home turf.

Atletico Madrid vs Chelsea, 2012

If anyone had made a modern art of footballing hangovers, it is Chelsea. Three years before their post-title annus horribilis under Jose Mourinho, they set the bar high in following up their holy grail moment of winning the Champions League in 2012.

Roberto Di Matteo, who had steadied the leaking, rocking ship of Andre Villas-Boas the previous March to sail to glory against Bayern Munich, now had a two-year contract as permanent manager. Over £50m was spent on fresh attacking blood in the form of Oscar and Eden Hazard, but pre-season was a mess: six defeats out of eight, 22 goals conceded (12 of them to reigning Premier League champions Manchester City, including the Community Shield).

Meanwhile, their owner was locked in a $6.5bn legal battle with his former mentor and business partner Boris Berezovsky, the biggest private court case in British legal history.

Falcao tore Chelsea apart in Monaco in 2012 Credit: AFP

“Roman Abramovich had a more successful defence than his team did”, wheezed the Telegraph’s match report/post mortem. Tormentor-in-chief was Atletico’s all-round striking specimen Radamel Falcao, three years before he turned up at Stamford Bridge looking like a shell of a footballer, who could have had a hat-trick within the first 20 minutes. In the end, he settled on the first 45.

Atletico ran out 4-1 winners, and for Chelsea - just three months after finally arriving at the summit of European football - it stung. The Super Cup can be a harsh early reminder that it’s one thing to get to the top, quite another to stay there.