Football: The cup that overflowed for Britain

European football: Tonight's final final of the Cup-Winners' Cup should live up to a legacy of exciting past games
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FROM THE first final, staged in the Scots' second city of Glasgow 38 years ago, to the last, in its English equivalent of Birmingham tonight, the European Cup-Winners' Cup has had an image problem. Yet, for the British at least, a supposedly second-rate competition has provided a fund of first-class memories.

There is an argument which says the Cup-Winners' Cup came to these shores so often only because it is the easiest of the three major Continental prizes to win. Valid as that may be, Alex Ferguson leads the roll-call of those with reason to lament the tournament's passing.

Ten of the 17 sides from England and Scotland who reached the final won it - and two were managed by Ferguson. Indeed, it is possible that Govan's granite man might never have graduated beyond the Scottish scene and led Manchester United from the wilderness had he not masterminded Aberdeen's eye-catching victory over Real Madrid in 1983.

For every high-profile figure like Ferguson there is a comparative journeyman with whom the trophy will forever be linked. Individuals such as Terry Dyson, Alan Sealey and John Hewitt; teams like Slovan Bratislava, Magdeburg and Mechelen, final winners all.

The competition was launched in 1960, in the same autumn as that other unloved irrelevance (unless you win it), the League Cup. Rangers, who defeated Wolves in a "Battle of Britain" semi-final, ultimately fell to Fiorentina, 80,000 massing at Ibrox for their half of the only two-leg final.

The 1962-63 campaign brought the first British victory in a European final - at the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam that was to become central to the Cup-Winners' Cup story - when Tottenham crushed Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the last stand of the Double-winning side. Terry Dyson, a hat-trick scorer, was told by Bobby Smith: "You'd better retire now. You'll never play better."

Earlier that season, Bangor City, the Welsh Cup holders and members of the Cheshire County League, recorded a dazzling 2-0 win over Napoli. "See Naples and Dai" quipped one headline as the part-timers prepared for the anticipated drubbing in Italy. Napoli won 3-1, a scoreline which in later years would have put Bangor through on the away goal. In a Highbury play- off, the Serie A side won 2-1.

Bangor's heroics started a Welsh tradition of upsets. Cardiff City almost reached the 1968 final, drawing 1-1 at Hamburg in the first leg of the semi-final only to lose at home to a freakish goal by Uwe Seeler.

West Germany, in the form of TSV Munich 1860, had provided the opposition for England's second final flourish, by West Ham at Wembley in 1965. The late "Sammy" Sealey, married four days earlier to a former Miss Dagenham, scored twice late on to settle a memorable contest. His first goal would feature on television in an Oxo advert; after the second he did a somersault, demonstrating that Martin Peters was not the only Hammer ahead of his time.

The Germans turned the tables in the next two finals, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich overcoming Liverpool and Rangers respectively. Not until 1970, two years after Malcolm Allison promised his team would "scare Europe to death", did Manchester City reclaim the Cup after squeezing past Poland's Gornik Zabrze in a Viennese deluge.

The following year Chelsea won a replayed final against Real Madrid in Athens, John Dempsey becoming the latest improbable hero with a rare goal. Ron Harris told the throng who welcomed them home: "We're the kings of Europe now!" Within four years Chelsea had been relegated.

Twelve months later, Rangers' thrilling 3-2 win over Moscow Dynamo in Barcelona - a provocative cocktail of Communists and Catholics to some of their followers - was tarnished by a pitch invasion. Police overreacted, wading in with batons, and John Greig had to be presented with the trophy in the dressing-room.

In 1973 Leeds succumbed to a fourth-minute Milan goal in Salonika. Gianni Rivera cut down Norman Hunter - the leg-biter bit in a bizarre reversal of roles - and the ensuing fracas produced the first dismissals in a European final, Hunter being joined by Riccardo Sogliano.

After another defeat, for West Ham against Anderlecht in 1976, it was 1980 before an English club made the final. A goalless draw between Arsenal and Valencia in Brussels was followed by another slice of history: the first European final decided on penalties. The crucial miss was by Graham Rix; those who consoled the now-imprisoned Chelsea coach by saying "worse things happen" proved painfully prescient.

Three years on, Aberdeen's glory came when John Hewitt, 20, bulged Real Madrid's net in extra time. Apart from bringing "Fergie" to a wider audience, the final is remembered for the sight of hundreds of Scots, already drenched by incessant rain, frolicking in Gothenburg's fountains.

When the showpiece returned to Rotterdam, in 1985, Everton added to their newly won League title by beating Rapid Vienna 3-1. The deaths of 40 Juventus fans in Brussels a fortnight later meant Howard Kendall's team were never able to test the contention of the Austrians' scorer, Hans Krankl, that they were the best in Europe.

Since the post-Heysel ban was lifted in 1990, England's only European successes have come in the Cup- Winners' Cup. Two goals by Mark Hughes against his previous club, Barcelona, gave Manchester United the prize in dear old Rotterdam at the end of the first campaign back.

Three years on, Alan Smith brought Arsenal the scoreline with which they are synonymous against Parma in Copenhagen. But in Paris the next May, Arsenal lost to a 120th-minute wonder goal for Zaragoza by an ex-Spur, Nayim, sparking a summer of smutty jokes about "lobbing Seaman from 50 yards".

While no club ever retained the trophy - not even the four-time winners Barcelona - Chelsea regained it against VfB Stuttgart 12 months ago. Gianfranco Zola struck a spectacular winner 20 seconds after the same Graham Rix sent him on as a late substitute.

The competition's weakness was inbuilt. A side from Serie B or one finishing fifth in Luxembourg could enter Europe on the back of a few wins in unimportant domestic games, leading to some uneven quality in the opening rounds. The final analysis, however, reflects favourably on the Cup-Winners' Cup.