*Now known as, UEFA Champions League

Europe’s premier club competition was conceived in 1955 by Gabriel Hanot, editor of the influential French sports newspaper, L’Équipe. Hanot had been irritated by British newspapers’ proclamation of Wolverhampton Wanderers as ‘European Champions’ on account of their victories over the mighty Spartak Moscow and Honvéd at Molineux in exhibition games in late 1954.

THE IDEA THAT English newspapers raised – that Wolves were best, simply on the back of two friendly wins – was seen as wearingly typical of a country oblivious to its true standing in European football. ‘We had better wait until the Wolves travel to Moscow and Budapest to proclaim their invincibility,’ he wrote in his editorial a few days after Wolves’ win over Spartak. ‘But if the English are so sure about their hegemony in football, this is the time to create a European tournament.’

Hanot was more than just a man of words, however. Within days he had drafted a plan for a ‘European Champions Cup’ based around 16 participants, who would contest a knockout competition. Games would be played in midweek and in the evenings (still a rarity in the 1950s) and be sponsored by a television station or newspaper of the participating country. When the proposals were put to UEFA the following March, European football’s recently created governing body were hesitant in their support, but a month later, at a meeting convened by L’Équipe in Paris, consisting of the chairmen and presidents of Europe’s leading clubs, the plan met enthusiastic backing.

When L’Équipe held another meeting with UEFA in May 1955, this time their proposals met greater support, and UEFA agreed to organise the competition and respect all the decisions already approved.

On 4 September 1955, in Lisbon, the European Champions Cup kicked off with a match between Sporting Lisbon and Yugoslavia’s FK Partizan. Real Madrid won the inaugural competition – as they did in each of its first five seasons – beating Stade Reims 4-3 in the first final in Paris.

The first round was expanded to include 32 teams from 1962/63 (a preliminary round restricted clubs from footballing backwaters) and remained virtually unchanged for the next 30 years.

FROM THE 1991/92 season, the European Cup incorporated a group stage. This took several formats. Initially it replaced the quarter-final stage, with two mini-leagues of four teams, from which the top team in each group progressed to the final. From 1993/94 the top two teams from the groups qualified for semi- finals; and from 1994/95 16 teams partook in the group stage with the top two teams from the four groups progressing to the quarter-finals. Several variations on this format have since taken place, but have remained largely true to the 1994/95 format.

The competition was renamed the Champions League from the 1992/93 season, although the historic trophy was retained. Backed by massive television and sponsorship rights it became football’s ultimate cash cow. From 1997/98 runners-up from top European leagues were permitted to enter; from the 1999/2000 season this was extended to four clubs.

Although Newcastle United and Leeds United competed in the first years of the expanded competition, the revised Champions League ultimately led to the creation of a so-called ‘Big Four’ in English football, consisting of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. The extra revenue derived from the competition gave them vast spending power enabling them to bring their squads to such a standard that they were virtually untouchable in the league. Everton were one of the few teams to break this clique in 2004/05, and Tottenham Hotspur and the petro-dollar-subsidised Manchester City have done so since.

EVERTON’S HISTORY in the competition, while not entirely inauspicious, is nevertheless defined by controversy. In particular the fact that the post-Heysel ban on English clubs in Europe meant they were not allowed to compete in it during the mid-1980s – at a time when they were favourites – still rankles more than a quarter of a century later.

EVERTON’S European Cup debut came following their 1963 League Championship success. In an unseeded first round draw they could have drawn Real Madrid, who had already won it five times, or Benfica, European champions in 1961 and 1962, but escaped such a fate. Instead, they got Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan, who were at the start of one of the greatest periods in Inter’s history and possessing such illustrious names as Sandro Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti, Luis Suarez and the Brazilian winger, Jair.

The first leg was played at Goodison – 62,000 turned up, despite increased prices – and after being slightly overawed by their opponents in a goalless first half, Everton stepped up the pressure in the second. The game’s crucial moment came in the 80th minute when Roy Vernon latched onto a Dennis Stevens pass and prodded home; the goal was disallowed for offside, a decision Brian Labone insisted was wrong until his dying day.

In the second leg at the San Siro a week later, Everton largely held their own in a game notable for Colin Harvey’s debut. A minute after the interval Jair caught a glimmer of Gordon West’s goal and fired a shot into the top corner from a tight angle. ‘Everton were bound to play this game defensively as we did at Goodison Park and until the interval I wasn’t sure whether they were going to succeed or not,’ said Herrera afterwards. Inter went on to beat the Real Madrid of Puskas and Di Stefano in the final in Austria, and ended the year World Club Champions after beating Argentina’s Independiente.

Seven years later, the European Cup’s first round was expanded to include 32 teams, giving Everton a somewhat easier start to the 1970/71 campaign. This time they played the Icelandic part-timers Keflavik. A nervy opening to the Goodison leg saw Everton fall behind after a Gordon West own goal (West then reacted to crowd barracking by flicking a V-sign; Harry Catterick took a dim view and dropped him for Everton’s next game), but recovered to win 6-2. The away leg was a 3-0 stroll

Next were Bundesliga champions, Borussia Monchengladbach, who included the likes of Bertie Vogts and Gunter Netzer among their number. In the away leg, Everton fell behind to a first-half Vogts goal and struggled at times to control their opponents. They got back into the game through bizarre circumstances. Fans had lobbed toilet rolls onto the pitch, and the German goalkeeper, Wolfgang Kleff, was clearing his goalmouth when caught unawares by a Kendall shot.

The 1-1 draw gave Everton a crucial away goal, and in the second leg they were a side transformed. Johnny Morrissey opened the scoring and they were at times rampant, with only Kleff’s heroics keeping the Germans in it. The balance of the game changed, however, when Herbert Laumen equalised and both teams became more cautious. Extra time followed, then penalties – a new concept in European competition. Joe Royle missed Everton’s first spot kick, but Laumen missed for the Germans. The scores were level at 3-3 with one penalty remaining. Sandy Brown made it 4-3, and up stepped the veteran defender Ludwig Muller. He hit it sweetly, but Andy Rankin – in for the out-of-favour West – swooped acrobatically to his right, palming it away and igniting the Goodison crowd.

FOUR MONTHS later, in the quarter-finals, Everton met Panathinaikos of Greece at Goodison on 9 March 1971. The Greeks were considered the easiest of the eight quarter- finalists. Managed by Ferenc Puskas they mixed a well-organised defence with a touch of gamesmanship and were aided against Everton by great luck. Royle had a header cleared off the line, Tommy Wright’s header hit the bar and Alan Ball missed an easy chance. The onslaught went on, and Rankin was not called upon until the 66th minute. A quarter of an hour later, with only their second shot of the night, and entirely against the run of play, the Greeks went in front through Antoniadis. Everton laid siege to the Greek goal and the breakthrough came in the final minute from Everton’s 17th corner of the night, when David Johnson slammed the ball past the Panathinaikos goalkeeper. Catterick, who had earlier spoken of the necessity of taking a three-goal lead to Greece said,

We played all the football. We created sufficient chances to have won easily – but we didn’t stick them in the net.

Two weeks later, Everton travelled to Greece. Like the England team in the previous summer’s World Cup, they were plagued by bad fortune and intimidation: the plane was not able to land until the early hours of the morning; the hotel was circled by cars beeping their horns well into the following night; and the Everton secretary, Bill Dickinson, received a death threat before the game. Once play eventually began things got little better.

On a rock-hard, bumpy pitch the Greeks closed Everton out by fair means and foul – ‘They were spitting in our faces and gouging at our eyes by sticking their fingers into them,’ complained Catterick – holding on for a 0-0 draw and progression to the next round via away goals. Everton’s European dream was over.

There followed a 34-year-long hiatus from the European Cup, through no fault of anyone connected to Everton FC. Then in the 2004/05 season a miracle occurred: upsetting all predictions, including those of its own fans, Everton finished fourth in the Premier League. It put them through to the Champions League third qualifying round ahead of Liverpool.

But even this happy event was overshadowed by Liverpool’s unexpected Champions League final victory over AC Milan. All summer the FA and UEFA procrastinated over which Merseyside team should be entered, even though the rules were clear that it should be Everton. Eventually both started in the Champions League qualifying round – Liverpool so they could defend the trophy they had just won – but the suspicion remained that UEFA were deeply unhappy at the arrangement and would like to see at least one English team eliminated at the earliest possibility.

The subsequent draw prompted immediate whisperings of conspiracy. While Everton were drawn against the previous season’s La Liga runners-up, Villarreal – virtually the hardest opponents they could have faced – the other English entrants, Manchester United and Liverpool, faced Hungarians Debreceni and CSKA Sofia respectively.

Villarreal took the first leg at Goodison 2-1, where Everton looked nervy in their first European match in a decade. But it was in Spain where controversy dominated. Everton fell further behind after a first-half shot cruelly deflected off David Weir, but they needed two goals anyway.

For a long time this seemed a distant prospect, but on 69 minutes Mikel Arteta’s brilliantly executed free kick made it 1-1 on the night and Everton were suddenly in the ascendancy. Soon after a corner was curled in and Duncan Ferguson rose to plant a textbook header into the back of the Villarreal net.

2-1 Everton on the night, 3-3 on aggregate and suddenly all to play for. But there was no goal. Pierluigi Collina, previously a World Cup final referee and reputedly the best in the world, had blown for a foul, even though it was clear that there had been no infringement. The Everton players were incandescent, but Collina merely ushered them away, allegedly telling them not to question ‘the best referee in the world’.

The incident – which bore echoes of Bryan Hamilton’s ghost goal against Liverpool a generation earlier – took the momentum from Everton and they were finished off by Diego Forlan’s last-gasp goal.

Afterwards the only talk was of Collina’s decision. ‘I am so frustrated with him,’ said Mikel Arteta. ‘Duncan did nothing wrong. I asked him why he had disallowed the goal but he just said: “Walk away, walk away”. Afterwards he said he spotted a foul before the corner, but then why didn’t he blow before I took the corner? We feel we should be in the group stages but we need to get over the fact that we are not very quickly and start again.’

It was to prove not only Everton’s last action in the Champions League, but Collina’s final act as a referee. Four days later he announced his shock retirement as a referee, fanning another generation of conspiracy theories.