An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Exeter City on Tuesday, 22 August 2018.
Cambridge United are unbeaten in European competition, which is more than you can say for so-called giants like Manchester United, Arsenal, The New Saints and Wrexham.
Point out if you like that United’s involvement in contests beyond these shores is limited to two fixtures. Mention if you must that we didn’t actually play any foreign teams. Draw all the attention you want to the paltry attendances at the two competitive international matches the U’s did play – a total of 5,301.
I don’t care: the record stands. We didn’t lose either fixture.
Our club’s potential passport to worldwide fame came in the form of the 1992/93 Anglo-Italian Cup. This competition effectively replaced the late and wholly unlamented Full Members’ Cup, which had run its course by 1992 despite the support of Simod and Zenith Data Systems (whoever they were).
But the Anglo-Italian already had history. First established in 1970, it ran for four seasons before petering out because no one was very interested in it.
The words ‘dead horse’ and ‘flogging’, or ‘cavallo morto’ and ‘fustigare’, spring to mind.
For the first round, the English clubs competed in eight groups of three; the group winners would go on to play four matches against Italian teams.
United were drawn with Sunderland and Birmingham and, as Euro-frenzy stalked the streets of Fowlmere, prepared to play the former at the Abbey on September 1.
In the end, the match attracted a mere 2,199 punters, but it was memorable for two reasons.
First, supporters were flabbergasted to see U’s players making the kind of runs that were usually strictly forbidden under manager John Beck’s rigid system. Second, they witnessed Lee Philpott scoring with his right foot.
After a 1-1 draw, the players left the field to a standing ovation and Beck revealed that he had bowed to their request that the straitjacket of his method be loosened a little.
Defender Phil Chapple explained to the press: ‘We still got the ball forward quickly, but varied it in the final third. Everybody thought it went well.’
Birmingham then won at Roker Park, so United approached their game at St Andrew’s on September 29 knowing they had to win if they were to progress.
And when they went ahead after 19 seconds – Devon White crossing for Philpott to nod in – they started to look forward to sampling Italian hospitality.
Brum soon equalised but Paul Raynor restored the lead before half-time and White knocked in his first goal in amber after an hour. John Frain pulled one back with a long-ranger, but the U’s looked bound for la dolce vita until two minutes from time.
Enter Mark Sale. The striker rammed home a rebound with his first touch, four minutes after coming on as a sub, to make it 3-3 and end United’s first foray into international competition.
Sale, who had been far from gruntled during a brief spell at the Abbey the previous season, graciously commented: ‘I was glad the goal put Cambridge out, because I didn’t particularly enjoy the five weeks training I did with them.’
What he didn’t mention was that United exited the competition despite not losing. All together now: ‘We’ve never lost in Europe.’