Blast from the Past no.37: The Zenith Data Systems Cup

The term “football hipster” has become a badge of pride for those discerning aficionados of the sport who eschew the mainstream appeal of the cash-obsessed Premier League in favour of lesser known aspects of the beautiful game.

But even this group of pretentious purists would baulk at the Zenith Data Systems Cup, a deformed, snarling goth of a competition from football’s darkest underbelly that would smash through the doors of the pub where the hipsters are sipping Quilmes lager and send them screaming into the cobbled back alleys of football’s soul.

England’s third domestic cup for top tier clubs, if you can imagine such a preposterous thing, was a trophy designed not so much for hip football fans as demented ones. Those who lap up football for football’s sake without even knowing why. The people who will stand alone on a freezing terrace and not even pretend that they are getting anything out of it.

A tournament inferior in every way to the league cup, played on freezing winter nights at virtually empty stadiums by confused players in honour of a sponsor that nobody has heard of, it existed for a hazy seven-year period at the tail end of the last century just before the Premier League botoxed the face of the national game.

Conceived in 1986 as the Full Members Cup, partly to fill the void created by English clubs’ ban from Europe following the Heysel disaster, the trophy spent three subsequent seasons as the Simod Cup before the guys and gals from Zenith Data Systems saw it through to the end of its short life.

It has been rarely eulogised since, especially not by the collection of multi-millionaires that run football today, but this trio of words will still spark a rush of incomparable nostalgic joy but for a minority of football goths - most of them from Reading.

Oddly enough, the inaugural Full Members Cup final was contested by Chelsea and Manchester City - two teams who today would never deign to play their first teams in such a competition, or probably even their youth teams. They’d be more inclined to send onto the field 11 robot footballer prototypes from their lab, or failing that some dogs wearing club kits.

But the world was a different place in 1986. So different that the Blues and the Citizens met at Wembley Stadium just one day after they had played First Division league matches. ONE DAY! Chelsea used nine of the same starting line-up, while City picked 10 players that had faced United in the Manchester derby 24 hours earlier. Perhaps that goes some way to explain the 5-4 scoreline.

“It felt like a really big thing as we hadn’t won anything for so many years,” said a Chelsea fan from a bygone age on the Shed End forum. For City, the wait went on a few more years (25, to be precise).

Despite a decent attendance for the Wembley final, barely anyone watched the early rounds of the competition. Only 6,833 people turned up to see Chelsea’s first round match, for instance, while City’s drew just 4,029.

Some clubs deemed themselves above the trophy altogether. Of the so-called ‘Big Five’, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham opted out, with only Everton taking part - only to lose in the final twice.

“The defeat against Palace (1991) was the first time I remember Everton causing me actual pain,” said one Toffee on the GrandOldTeam forum, while another Blue dismissed it as a “waste of time competition”.

However, it appears fans’ fondness for the trophy is directly related to how well they performed in it.

Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest won the trophy twice, with one member of the Forest Fans Network pointing out, “A cup final is a cup final and a trophy at Wembley is worth winning,” even though another confessed they “didn’t really care about the result beforehand”.

But while the achievement may seem negligible to a team with a couple of European Cups under its belt, for others it is far more momentous.

The 1991 Zenith Data Systems Cup final between Crystal Palace and Everton will be remembered by few who didn’t witness it first-hand. Even most Everton fans would be hard-pressed to recall it - they shifted less than half their allocation for the Wembley showpiece. But for the Eagles, the 4-1 (AET) win will never be forgotten.

“The best Palace day I have experienced,” declared one attendee on the Holmesdale fan forum.

“It felt unbelievable when we won it and at the time nobody felt it was 'Mickey Mouse’”, gushed a fellow Eagle.

The previous year, Palace had been beaten by Manchester United in the FA Cup final, and the ZDS helped ease the pain. A bit.

“A year after that bitter disappointment, it was so good to finally win at Wembley,” said one Eagles fan.

But there always seems to be a caveat, as another Palace supporter explained, “The celebrations were great, but they weren’t anything like the feeling we’d have had if we’d we won the real Cup.”

Try telling that to a Reading fan though.

If it achieved nothing else, the Full Members/Simod/Zenith Data Systems Cup or whatever you want to call it at least served to ensure that thousands of Royals fans will die happy.

“It might only have been the Simod Cup, and a few weeks later we were relegated to the third tier, but that day back in March 1988 will live in the memory forever,” said one supporter on the Hob Nob Anyone forum.

“It was the happiest I ever left a match,” beamed another.

On the day in question, Reading beat Luton 4-1 at Wembley. The Berkshire club has only won one cup competition in its entire 145-year history, and that trophy will be cherished whatever its name is.

“I think the whole of Reading went to that match,” said another crowd member.

“The Simod Cup final is Reading’s equivalent to "where were you when JFK got shot” or “when man landed on the Moon” for a certain generation of people.“

Another described it simply as "the best day in the club’s history”.

“Yes it was bit of a Mickey Mouse cup, but for us it was like winning the Champions League.”

And there you have it. It may have been an extinct competition named after a defunct computer company that barely anyone attended and some clubs didn’t even bother entering, but for some fans the Zenith Data Systems Cup was the greatest invention in the history of football.

Maybe they should bring it back?

Follow @darlingkevin on Twitter


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