The Teams That Competed in Europe Whilst Playing in Lower Leagues

Teams outside the top flight usually get so little attention that many of their stories go unnoticed and uncelebrated. Many of these stories involve unlikely European adventures, the most well-known amongst them being Wigan’s 2013-14 Europa League campaign. After defeating Manchester City in the final of the 2013 FA Cup, Wigan were relegated three days later. Plucked from the Championship and placed in a group with Rubin Kazan, Maribor and Zulte Waregem, the Latics would take five points from their first three, beating Maribor 3-1 via a Nick Powell brace and a goal from Ben Watson, only to lose their final three matches and finish bottom.


Portsmouth’s tumultuous story in the late 2000s saw them reach the 2010 FA Cup final where they lost to Chelsea. Since the London club had already qualified for the Champions League, Portsmouth were to receive a place in next season’s Europa League, but were denied a license due to their financial issues.


One year later, Birmingham City won the League Cup against Arsenal, only to go down at the end of the season. After beating Nacional to reach the group stage, nearly made it out of their group containing Club Brugge, Braga and Maribor, missing out by just one point and beating Maribor (twice) and Club Brugge.


Long before the achievements mentioned above, Sunderland experienced their only European season to date from the second tier of English football in 1974. They had won the previous season’s FA Cup whilst still playing in the second tier, beating Don Revie’s Leeds, and would be eliminated from the second round of the Cup Winner’s Cup by Sporting.


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Our last English inclusion is the most hated club in England, or at least that’s what their fans maintain. Millwall became the first team outside the Premier League to play an FA Cup Final in 2004, which they lost to Manchester United, in a game where the Blues were missing 16 players due to suspension or injury. Since United would already play in next season’s Champions League Millwall received a spot in the UEFA Cup qualifiers but lost to Ferencvaros in the first round.


And now on to Germany, where Alemannia Aachen lost the 2004 DFB Pokal final to Werder Bremen. Since the Werderaner qualified for the Champions League, Alemannia received a UEFA Cup Spot. They gave a great account of themselves, despite being a second-tier side, reaching the round of 32.


With most of the stories so far unfolding in similar ways you might be wondering which second-tier teams came the farthest in European competition. Well two of them managed to reach the semifinals, both in the Cup Winner’s Cup. Cardiff were regulars both in the lower tiers of English football and Europe since the Welsh Cup awarded a spot in the Cup Winner’s Cup. In the 1967-68 season they dispatched Shamrock Rovers, NAC Breda and Torpedo Moscow to play Hamburg in the semis. The German giants did not have an easy time, the tie being decided by just one goal.


Ten years later, Atalanta, who had managed to reach the Coppa Italia final the previous season also qualified for the Cup Winner’s Cup, courtesy of the fact that Napoli were Scudetto winners and would head to the European Cup. After easy ties against Welsh side Merthr Tydfil and OFI Crete the quarter-finals lined them up against Sporting. Undaunted La Dea won 3-1 on aggregate, but KV Mechelen, who would beat Ajax in the final, proved too much for the Italians.


So far the UEFA Cup, the Europa League and the Cup Winner’s Cup are covered. But what about the Champions League? Surely this seems impossible, as the European Cup only allowed league winners or last season’s champions and the Champions League is usually reserved for the top teams and the winners of the previous year. Well, one of these winners, the first one in the modern Champions League in fact, nearly had this honour. After winning the 1993 edition, Marseille were relegated due to a bribery scandal and since UEFA did not want me to have a grand finale for my list, they disqualified the French champions for the 1994 season.


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By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Joe Giddens – PA Images