Sligo Rovers third-place finish in the 2021 Premier Division ensured their return to the Europa Conference League. 25 years prior, that same finish led Rovers into a different competition and a (mostly unnoticed) 22-day European summer adventure. 

The Intertoto Cup was dreamed up in 1961 as a summer tournament designed to help quench the thirst of the gambling community. Needing their ‘pools’ fix (‘toto’ in German) after the regular season finished, they now had a way to lose money while the sun was shining.

It was a largely ignored concept until UEFA elected to get on board in 1995. They decided to rebrand it as an unnecessarily complex and longwinded UEFA Cup qualifier. The competition was instantly ridiculed by fans due to its origins, lengthy format, and mid-June start date.

In Ireland, Bohemians were the competition’s inaugural victim before Sligo Rovers unfortunately qualified for the sophomoric season. The rules of their punishment were simple – 60 teams would be drawn into 12 groups of five and every side plays each other once.

Each team in the group stage was guaranteed two home and two away games. The 12 group winners would advance to six two-legged semi-finals. The six winners of those would move on to three two-legged finals to crown the three winners. The three winners.

Rovers were drawn in Group 5 alongside FBK Kaunas, Heerenveen, Lillestrom and Nantes. 

Heerenveen

The group opened at The Showgrounds on June 22nd as Rovers drew 0-0 with the seventh best team in the Netherlands. The weak turnout, just 616 spectators, emphasised the insignificance people placed on the competition.

European football wasn’t exactly an annual occurrence for Sligo – Rovers had only played four home games in their entire history up to that point. For comparison; over 5,000 people watched Rovers beat Maltese side Floriana FC in the first round of the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup.

And yet bizarrely, despite all the fan apathy, a lot of teams fielded strong sides. And many future famous faces faced Rovers that summer.

43 times capped South African goalkeeper Hans Vonk denied Rovers’ front two of Ian Gilzean and Padraig Moran. Vonk played over 400 times in the Eredivisie for Ajax, Heerenveen and Waalwijk and he started every game for his country at the World Cup in 1998. At the other end, Nicky Broujos kept out the future AC Milan striker Jon Dahl Tomasson.

Tomasson had just finished the season with 14 league goals and would go on to hit 18 more the following season. That form would earn him a move to Newcastle United in 1997. He was voted ‘Best talent in Dutch football 1996’ ahead of Bolo Zenden and Patrick Kluivert and would go on to win the UEFA Cup and the Champions League.

But he couldn’t score against Rovers. At the back for Heerenveen that day was Ola Tobiasen – one year shy of his transfer to Ajax and subsequent debut for Denmark. 

Lillestrom

Stale Solbakken, the current manager of Norway, scored the equaliser in Lillestrom’s 4-1 win against Kaunas on matchday one. Rovers travelled to the Vikin country eight days later to meet the group leaders expecting to be beaten. They were. 4-0. Only 440 people bothered to show up. 

One of those who did show up was Frode Grodas. He kept a clean sheet for the Norwegians and clearly impressed one of those 440 – A few weeks later he moved to Chelsea as competition for Dutch number one Ed de Goey.

Two years on from his heroics against the Bit O’ Red and he was wearing the captain’s armband facing Denilson, Bebeto, Rivaldo and Ronaldo at World Cup ‘98. Rovers failed to score against him. Brazil could only manage one. Grodas’ Norway beat the World Champions 2-1 to advance to the knockout stage.

Nantes

On July 6th Rovers welcomed Nantes to Sligo for a must-win game, well, in theory. Nantes aren’t a very big name in European football in 2022. But when they walked out at The Showgrounds, they were exactly 80 days removed from beating Juventus 3-2 in the Champions League semi-final.

Nantes were eliminated 4-3 on aggregate and Juventus went on to beat Ajax in the final on penalties. The actual Champions League semi-finalists were playing Sligo Rovers in a competitive European game!

And only 1,055 people came to see it.

(The most recent defeated Champions League semi-finalists are PSG and Real Madrid. If either were to just play a friendly against Sligo Rovers tomorrow it would sell out the Aviva)

Nantes were busy selling Claude Makelele to Marseille while Benoit Cauet was moving to Inter Milan. Despite that, they still started with six players who played in the semi-final against Juventus. Japhet N’Doram scored an equaliser to make it 2-2 against the Old Lady back in April. He repeated the trick in Sligo.

Rovers had raced into a 2-0 lead on 20 minutes before Jocelyn Gourvennec, the current manager of reigning French league champions Lille, immediately pulled one back. N’Doram struck 120 seconds later. Nothing of note happened for the next 45 minutes until Aidan Rooney put Rovers 3-2 up with 20 to play. Nantes levelled from the penalty spot six minutes after and the game ended 3-3. The result eliminated Rovers and sent Nantes to the top of the table.

Kaunas

Rovers ended the campaign bottom after a 1-0 defeat in the final game at Kaunas (another penalty). Nantes would get beaten home and away by Standard Liege in one of the many semi-finals. The whole process rendered meaningless for the inhabitants of Group 5.  

Incidentally, Naglis Miknevicius was the man who scored the winner from the spot against Rovers in Lithuania. But really, what more can I say about that man that hasn’t already been said? Nothing actually, he played 11 times for his country and has no Wikipedia page.

The Intertoto Cup was laid to rest in 2008, approximately seven years later than anyone remembers.

Richard Mullan