Football Nostalgia: National Daily Express 5-A-Side Competition

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Daily Express 5-A-Side - 1981 Man Utd v Celtic

5-A-Side football is often seen today as a training method, used by clubs to keep players fit and practicing moving the ball quickly. What is often forgotten is this form of the beautiful game once had its own special competition. Leading teams would compete on a knock out basis in single evening of five-a-side football for a converted indoor trophy. Sir Stanley Rous President of FIFA (1961-1974)  described the championship as ‘one of the great indoor sporting events of the year’.

Daily Express 5-A-Side Tournament

The main national competition known as The Daily Express five-a-side tournament, also contained invited Scottish clubs. Celtic winning the contest in 1981 with a young side that included Charlie Nicholas. Along the way they beat a Manchester United side (photo above) that boasted Lou Macari, Ray Wilkins (1956–2018) and Bryan Robson. They also brushed aside UEFA Cup holders Ipswich. In the final they won 1-0 against a Southampton quintet that contained World Cup winner Alan Ball (1945-2007) and twice European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan. No mean feat.

Charlie Nicholas (1981) the player of the night said of Celtic’s victory. ‘We decided to run at the English teams and try to shake them out of the possession game they prefer to play. I love Five a-sides. They really sharpen your reactions and give you the chance to show your skills’.

Great Managers Coaching Methods

Liverpool F.C. were a dominant force as a league side during the time of this competition. Much of their training was based around five-a-side football. The great Bill Shankly Liverpool’s manager (1959-1974) adored this form of the game often involving himself in the competitive training matches. ‘Fives’ as it was known fascinated Bill as an alternative to full scale matches. Because the game closely examines skill and encourages play at ground level. In the words of Brian Clough (1934-2004) ‘If God wanted us to play football in the clouds he would have put grass there’.

Photo’s of Winning Teams & Press Cuttings

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Media Impact

So popular was this annual event, played in November, it was covered by the BBC and highlighted on their Wednesday ‘Sportsnight’ programme. Showing the best of the action. Footballer Alan Brazil of Ipswich recalled watching the competition on television as a kid in Scotland. ‘I was glued to the set as magic players like Colin Bell, Franny Lee and George Best provided unforgettable moments of skill and finishing.’ Brazil known to many today as the breakfast voice on TalkSport radio. Where he has excelled as a Sports Broadcaster, played in the national event three times in the early eighties for Ipswich saying. ‘The game demands a high level of technique. Players are rarely given more than one chance to control the ball. I must admit I was amazed at first just how much physical energy is required.’

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5-A-Side Venue

The competition lasted for nearly twenty years in the 70’s & 80’s, with teams gathering at Wembley Arena to packed houses of 8,000-10,000 people, listening to the noise of squeaky Dunlop plimsols running up and down, smashing the ball against the side (no throw in’s) for wall passes. The game was fast and continuous.The tournament carried some prestige with teams often sending down senior players to compete, cheered on by the excited screams of teenage schoolboys. Charlie Nicholas (1981) commented ‘I could not believe the atmosphere that is generated in the arena. The noise is quite incredible. It really lifted me and the other lads.’

5-A-Side football Rules – Radio Times 1970

As a prelude to the 1970 tournament, Alan Oakes from the victorious Man City side in 1969 described the game in that weeks edition of the BBC’s Radio Times saying ‘One of the differences between five-a-side and the ordinary game is that you are allowed to use the board round the pitch, you keep looking for one two’s off it. But you can’t pass back to the goalkeeper. The ball can’t go above the shoulder so there’s no heading. It’s a quick game with a lot of first time passing.’

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Penalty Shoot-Out

Any drawn matches were quickly resolved by a penalty shoot-out, never ideal but it kept the evening moving. Indeed Crystal Palace beat Chelsea on spot kicks, after a 2-2 draw in the 1978 final. Although the timings slightly altered over the years, the games were often split into two four minute halves, with the time increasing to around six and seven minutes a half as a side progressed through the tournament.

5-A-Side Football Player Fitness

Any player who might be less than one hundred per cent fit is certain to be found out, especially if his team progresses to the semi-finals and final. George Best (1946-2005) made the point in 1971 ‘although these games are fairly short, they can be more hectic and tiring, than some 90-minute matches on full-size pitches. You are involved virtually non-stop from kick off to final whistle’. This intense pace can have a bearing on the players. Terry Butcher (Ipswich) a tall centre half recalled the hard wooden floor boards ‘which made my feet sore. It became really difficult.’

Football Speakers

Comicus provides several footballers & commentators such as Chris Kamara, Glenn Hoddle, Sir Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking, Harry Redknapp, Alan Mullery, Lou Macari, Kevin Keegan, Sammy McIlroy, Teddy Sheringham, Jim Rosenthal among many others for speaking engagements who played in these competitions and recall their playing days not only indoors but out on the pitch.

5 A Side Match Programmes

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Star Players

Although there were plenty star players on view, not every club entered a full team of senior pro’s. Some used it as an opportunity to blood their younger talent against more experienced footballers. Others were reluctant to send important players as they might have had a European game that week or an important match to look forward to.

Manchester United

However, those teams that did field a strong line up often reaped the benefits. Manchester United triumphed in 1970 bringing down to Wembley a side featuring four top players from their 1968 European Cup win.  Namely Bobby Charlton, George Best (1946-2005), Alex Stepney and David Sadler. Best who scored both goals in the final for United in their 2-1 win over Spurs, said years later ‘It wasn’t easy to win’ as the competition grew in importance. He recalled leaving the arena exhausted. ‘My feet were killing me’. But what a  scintillating performance he put in.

Video – George Best’s performance in Man Utd’s victory over Spurs 1970

Stories Behind The Scenes

George Best

George Best also featured in United’s 1973 Daily Express 5-A-Side football team after recently returning from a self inflicted absence from playing for the side. He was sharing a room with Lou Macari in the teams London Hotel, they both checked in then George decided to go out. He was due to meet some Far East executives in reception, from a Japanese clothing company a deal worth £100,000 to Best. A considerable amount then. He asked Lou to tell them he wouldn’t be back, he couldn’t be bothered to meet them. Macari said ‘I couldn’t get my head around it, but that was George’. Only six weeks later Best walked out on the club for the last time.

Colin Bell

The gifted Colin Bell of Manchester City remarkably played for England in Amsterdam only the night before the 1969 tournament. He recalled City’s win in his autobiography ‘Reluctant Hero’ saying ‘when we were invited to play in the Daily Express five a side Tournament at Wembley Arena, we went there to win. Eight of us made the trip, including Oakey, Doyley, Glyn and Neil Young with Dave Ewing as our coach. 

After our first couple of games Dave came into the dressing room with a fistful of fivers “Here you are lads, here’s your payment for that victory,” he proclaimed and handed us all a share. None of us realised we’d be rewarded financially for progressing further, so suddenly there was even more of a spring in our step; we couldn’t wait for the next game. We won the competition by beating Spurs (it was actually Swindon) 2-1 in the final, receiving several more cash payments along the way. We shared the money we made from winning that first national five a side tournament with the rest of the City players when we returned to Manchester the following day. It was the right thing to do’.

5 A Side Odds On

It was also rumoured by a Daily Express journalist that one side in the competition had backed themselves to win the tournament at odds of 10-1. The team’s husky trainer and kitty holder left Wembley with a sizable bundle of fivers. And the team, which incidentally won the Daily Express trophy in the middle of a spectacular success streak, took the West End by storm. Such goings on if true would be illegal today and certainly looked down upon then.

Photo’s of Winning Teams & Press Cuttings

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Successful 5-A-Side Football Teams


A fine Wolves side in the mid-seventies won back to back victories. Their team included Mike Bailey, Kenny Hibbitt and Steve Daley who played in the tournament three times for the club. Steve said ‘I really enjoyed the competition’, wining two titles in 1975 & 76, which he described as ‘brilliant’. Daley believes to be a good 5-a-side player you needed to have ‘quick feet’ and ‘pass the ball well’. He went on ‘all the teams respected the event and wanted to win it’. Wolves were a top side then. But the bigger clubs did not have it their own way with other less fashionable sides showing their plimsol skills were better than their studded boots. In particular Leyton Orient, Sunderland and Charlton all taking on the larger clubs and succeeding.


Southampton won the competition twice. First in 1971 with internationals Terry Paine (captain) and Mick Channon in the side. Then again in 1983 which is best remembered for a thrilling semi-final against West Ham who they were trailing 2-1. In the last minute the saints scored two goals from Steve Williams and Danny Wallace to give them victory. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton said.‘The semi final was something special, even though we were 2-1 down we had the sort of five-a-side team that can score three goals in 10 seconds.’ In the final the Southerners out fought a very good Aston Villa side 3-0 to lift the trophy.

Shilton (Leicester City & Southampton) alongside some others were fortunate to play in the event more than once and for different teams during their football career. England full back Kenny Sansom has two winners medals with Arsenal in 1982 and was part of the Crystal Palace side that won the tournament in 1978.

Beginning Of The End

The event began to lose its appeal in the mid-eighties. When after the 1983 tournament the BBC, which had covered the competition since its inception, decided to pull out.  Harry Pearson explained ‘without TV exposure to make it attractive to sponsors the competition quickly shriveled and died, the situation not helped by the announcement of the new Atari-sponsored Soccer Sixes competition that would be held at the NEC in Birmingham.  The last hurrah for the national five-a-side competition was in 1986 when Norwich City – with Dean Gordon outstanding – beat Man City 5-0 in the final’.

Although this event was seen by some as the premier 5-a-side competition, mainly as it was national. London had been enjoying its own professional 5-a-side event for a lot longer, made up of the capital’s top teams – Evening Standard 5-a-side tournament

National Daily Express Five A Side Winners

  • 1968 Charlton Athletic
  • 1969 Manchester City
  • 1970 Manchester United
  • 1971 Southampton
  • 1972 Tottenham Hotspur
  • 1973 Derby County
  • 1974 Leyton Orient
  • 1975 Wolves
  • 1976 Wolves
  • 1977 Ipswich Town
  • 1978 Crystal Palace
  • 1979 Sunderland
  • 1980 Aston Villa
  • 1981 Celtic
  • 1982 Arsenal
  • 1983 Southampton (last year the competition was televised)
  • 1984 Watford
  • 1985 Oxford Utd
  • 1986 Norwich City

Pioneering Women’s Football

This national five-a-side event can be seen as pioneering. In the fact it showcased each year female football. This was seen more of a novelty in the early years of the tournament, even though it was well organised through the women’s governing bodies. But steadily it grew. During the interval an exhibition Ladies game was played.  This was often home international sides as well as clubs. A  page in the official programme was dedicated to updating the crowd on the female games progress. Derby County captain John McGovern (won the competition in 1973) recalled how impressed he was with the females exhibition match. ‘I could not believe how skillful they were.’ He said. John went across to speak to some of the female players, commending their style of play. This led to the other Derby County players jeering him as they thought he’d gone over to chat them up.

Indeed, outside this ‘fives’ tournament the first official women’s international in Britain took place at Greenock in November 1972. England beat Scotland 3-2.

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Carol Thomas

Featuring more than once for both country and club, in this five-a-side exhibition match was Carol Thomas who is the most successful captain of the England women’s national team in terms of tournament successes. This sturdy Yorkshire defender is recognised as one of the genuine but unsung pioneers of the modern women’s game. She won 53 caps for her country retiring in 1985. Thomas was a right-sided defender, who refused offers of professionalism from Italy and New Zealand in order to maintain the strict amateur status which was enforced by the Women’s Football Association (WFA) at that time. 

Women’s Game

In 1983 the Women’s Football Association (WFA) was affiliated to the Football Association. Women’s football continued to grow in popularity, this strength was represented each year with this skilful exhibition game at the men’s national five-a-sides, with the standard of play getting better and better. In 1984 a flyer put into the Daily Express 5-a-side programme by WFA encouraged other females to get involved in football.

By September 1991 the WFA established a national league with 24 clubs. The number of women’s teams playing in Britain has increased from around 500 in 1993 to about 4,500 in 2000. There are also over 6,500 women coaches in Britain. In 2002 the Football Association published figures to suggest that football has become the top sport for girls and women in Britain. The recent growth of the game was further helped by professional clubs running female sides. Plus the regular TV exposure and England’s excellent third place finish in the 2015 World Cup.

Video: Ray Wilkins Fantasy Five-a-Side Team

Video: Sven Goran Eriksson Fantasy Five-a-Side Team

Video: Paul Gascoigne Fantasy Five-a-Side team


A big thank you to those players who gave exclusive interviews for this article Steve Daley, Terry Butcher and John McGovern

3 Responses

  1. Tim Clark says:

    I used to love this! Brilliant article that brought back loads of memories!

  2. We found your articles fascinating, Matthew. We’ve recently been cleaning the trophy won at the Daily Express 1968 five a side tournament. Have you or anyone more Charlton specific photos, programmes or press cutting we could see about both the Express and Standard tournaments in 1968 ?

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