EuroNET ’97 took place at the Wilf Mannion sports centre in the depressed heart of Middlesbrough. The full squad was Aidy, Simon, Pete, Dr Dave, Mowen, Miles, Ian Grant, Ian Lay, Mike & Keith Scofield, Andy Woodard, Dan Exeter, Andy Cotton, Karim Eljanfali and Gary Petley, while Dave Edwards and Don ‘Sticks’ Fraser came to support. Following a photo-shoot with a very young Paul Robinson at Vicarage Road and in what was to become traditional style in later years, WIFC turned up on Friday night for the traditional team sing song. “We actually crashed on the floor of the clubhouse. No hotels in those days! I ended up going to sleep under a snooker table” recalled Devon of that first drunken WIFC night away.
The next morning dawned with biblical rain lashing down on the venue. “It felt like November, and was not helped by the ICI chemical works over the road releasing all sorts of toxins and smoke over the pitches” said Devon. “The pitches were ankle deep in mud before the first ball as kicked”. The first game was due to be against Manchester United, but they hadn’t shown up so they merged with Man City to form ‘Denis Law FC’. Next up were Huddersfield, goals from Keith Scofield and Cotton and an overhead goal-line clearance from Woodard secured a 2-0 win, and a third group game with Birmingham ended goal-less.
Mannion, a former Middlesbrough and England player, was also in attendance. “At one point I saw what a thought was a random old bloke in the corner of the bar and it turned out to be the great Wilf Mannion himself” said Devon. “I had a chat with the old chap and found him quite funny! He didn’t like modern players at all”. Pete Fincham’s memory of a man who once went on strike to try and force a move from Middlesbrough is less kind. “79 year old Mannion showed up on the Saturday afternoon looking totally unsure what was going on” says WIFC’s first skipper. “I have a photo of me and his “mate” who seemed to be the guy who looked after Wilf, but was equally confused and aged”
Back in the clubhouse, and with the kit looking particularly distressed after the rainy, muddy onslaught, a plan was hatched to ensure WIFC could take the field in clean kit for the Sunday. “Andy C and Karim decided to wash the kits in the showers. It was a bad move, as the facilities were cold water and a heater in the room we were all sleeping in. The kit barely got clean and the entire room, which we were sharing with Villa and whoever else was there, smelt of wet muddy kit while it (sort of) dried” explains Fincham. Simon Devon goes a stage further “They left it to dry in one big heap on the floor making all the colours run, so giving the kit a curious Thai dye pattern. I took mine back to the Hornet shop and they replaced it, the fools!”
In musty kit, WIFC took to the field on Sunday where they met Bradford. After a goalless half hour, WIFC took part in their first ever penalty shoot-out. “The shoot-out was silly” recalls Fincham. “We celebrated Dr Dave’s save of their 4th pen like we had won the tournament, before Aidy went and missed and they scored. We went out. Bradford won the tournament, scoring their only tournament goal in the 2nd half of the final!” Defeat to the eventual winners wasn’t WIFC’s only contribution to the Sunday. Unfortunately for all that witnessed, another WIFC tradition was born – the Fincham streak. “After the Bradford defeat, I decided to streak a WBA game, which can be seen on the video of the event. Not sure why. But I did it every year until 2003 when I was married and had made a promise not to do it anymore!”
Following the success of the EuroNET tournaments, and with the expansion of the Internet, more and more teams came forward and began to play games against like-minded groups of supporters from all backgrounds and walks of life, who communicated via message boards and email lists across the UK. The 1997/98 season saw League and Cup formats introduced and the IFA as we know it was born to run these competitions. The IFA was about to take off, and WIFC, having had a fantastic weekend and excited at the prospect of the league, were to be in the vanguard.