A Toto waste of time

Steve Tongue reports from Hove where Wimbledon's awayday was spoilt
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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN football - or something masquerading under that name - came to Hove yesterday and found the resort a tad underwhelmed as a collection of reserves and players on loan in Wimbledon shirts lost 4- 0 to Bursaspor.

So, 13 days after England closed the 1994-95 season against Brazil, a new one began with a competition involving five British clubs that one tabloid newspaper is listing as The Inter Two Bob Cup.

The reward for England's trio is actually closer to pounds 250,000 each, plus the Football Association's eternal gratitude for extricating it from a deep hole.

A crowd of 1,789 turned up yesterday, some 500 of them noisily supporting the Turkish side, who once knocked Dundee United out of the European Cup Winners Cup.

Wimbledon bussed in three Manchester United youth team players, as well as a goalkeeper from Colchester and Northampton Town's player-coach, to reinforce their virgin soldiers. Arsenal's Paul Davis had been expected to play but has gone to a Norwegian club instead, and his experience was badly missed against a much more worldly-wise and physically stronger team, who scored twice in each half.

For all the brave words of Wimbledon's owner, Sam Hammam, about David facing Goliath, results in their other group matches may prove rather more predictable than the biblical contest.

The Intertoto Cup is, in fact, over 40 years old. It was introduced in the early 1950s for the benefit of European pools punters - surely a magnificent example of putting the cart before the horse. Only Germany of the major nations have taken part normally, because it happens to fit in with the country's pattern of a mid-winter break and short summer close season.

Though Italy and Spain continued to treat the tournament with disdain this year, the home countries were initially seduced by the prospect of four Uefa Cup places being available to the semi-finalists.

Only when clubs studied the small print, realising they would have to keep a full playing staff in training from mid-June onwards, did all enthusiasm evaporate.

Exactly how much arm- twisting subsequently took place is a matter of dispute. The Football Association chairman, Sir Bert Millichip, returned from a Uefa executive committee meeting before the European Cup final last month convinced that English clubs would be banned from all European football in the 1996-97 season if no entries were forthcoming.

This draconian (and rather improbable) threat was subsequently denied by Uefa, but had the desired effect when, just after 5pm on the day of the deadline, the Premier League came up with the names of Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham and Wimbledon.

The League and the Football Association were adamant that this was not done on the old army principle of three volunteers - you, you and you. "All three clubs have made it clear that they are entering the competition in a positive frame of mind," declared a statement from Lancaster Gate.

Just how positive is evident from the number of first team players still on the beach this weekend. Not Brighton beach, for Tottenham, like Wimbledon, will field a team stuffed with youngsters and ringers against Luzern as the Goldstone Ground continues its Eurofest today. Caught short of English- born players to meet eligibility rules, they have recruited from Barnet, Charlton, Northampton and, even more confusingly, St Mirren.

Sheffield Wednesday took two first-teamers (Graham Hyde and Michael Williams) to Switzerland for last night's game against Basle.

Wednesday's participation does at least offer one item for trivia quizzes in years to come - which club sacked the manager who got them into Europe?

Partick Thistle, touchingly, are taking the whole thing comparatively seriously - or as seriously as they ever take anything. A full squad has been dispatched to Austria for today's match against ASK Linz, despite the difficulties in finding accommodation there - the local Mozart Festival is apparently proving a greater attraction.

But Ton Pentre's attempts to restore the battered sporting reputation of Wales must wait until next weekend's battle of the Titans against Heerenveen of Holland.

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