When Milan went to the Midlands: 40 years on from Athlone Town v AC Milan

When Milan went to the Midlands: 40 years on from Athlone Town v AC Milan

ON FRIDAY, November 6, a group of men will attend a reunion event in the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the most remarkable stories in Irish soccer history.

The men in question were members of the Athlone Town squad, who 40 years ago this week took on the might of Italian giants AC Milan in a UEFA Cup tie, and after a 0-0 draw at the old St Mel’s Park, Athlone then held out for 63 minutes in the second leg at the San Siro Stadium before eventually losing 3-0.

Tom Burke, spokesman for the Friends of Athlone Town FC, who have organised the reunion evening, believes that players and supporters alike will enjoy the opportunity to share their memories of the Milan games this week.

"All of the historic members have been invited back to be guests of honour at this event. This is the first time that these players have been together since that fateful day 40 years ago.

"(It) is sure to be a wonderful night of good food, music and reminiscing".

Looking back at the tale of Athlone's exploits, it seems even more incredible now than it did back then, and with a list of cast members including Brian Clough’s best man, a goat, a goalkeeper who played in a World Cup final and actor Omar Sharif, it's a story worth retelling.

The foundations for the European adventure in the autumn of 1975 were laid around a year earlier, when Amby Fogarty was appointed manager. A Dubliner, Fogarty crossed the Irish Sea in 1957 to join Sunderland, where he spent six years and won 11 of his 12 caps for the Republic of Ireland. During his spell at Roker Park, one of Fogarty’s team-mates was a certain Brian Clough, and the pair formed a firm friendship that continued for many years afterwards, with Fogarty being best man at Clough’s wedding.

When Clough’s playing career was ended by injury, he took his first step into management at Hartlepool in 1965, where one of his first signings was Fogarty, but after a year playing under his good friend and winning one more international cap, Fogarty returned to Ireland to begin his own managerial career, and took over as manager of Athlone Town in November 1974.

Speaking on RTÉ last week, one of the squad members, Paul Martin, recalled Fogarty's management style.

"He was in the Bill Shankly mould, a great motivator and he instilled great confidence in the side,” said Martin. “He liked to keep you on your toes, you never took for granted you were playing. He was a wonderful motivator and a really great guy."

Operating from his native Dublin, Fogarty used his formidable man-management skills to gather a squad of players from all over the country and shape them into a well-organised unit. Some lived locally, others came from as far away as Derry and Cork, and another group lived and trained in Dublin under the eye of the manager.

In an era when league games were played on a Sunday afternoon, the players would gather all together in Athlone late on Saturday mornings, train in the afternoon, stay over on the Saturday night and then after a brief Sunday morning run through set plays, would play the game in the afternoon.

It doesn't sound like a modern day recipe for success, but it worked for Fogarty and his team, and they ended the 1974-75 season in second place in the league, earning them a place in the UEFA Cup for the first time in the club's history.

The draw for the first round paired Athlone with Norwegian side Valerengen, perhaps not the glamour opposition everyone had envisaged, but it always looked a winnable tie with the promise of better to come in the next round.

The first leg at St Mel's Park was actually played on a Thursday afternoon, with Athlone's directors successfully appealing to have the game moved from the original Wednesday date to coincide with half day closing in Athlone and the surrounding areas, in the hope of maximising the attendance. A crowd of around 4,000 turned up to witness a 3-1 win for Town, which was widely acclaimed at the time as being a thoroughly deserved and convincing one.

The away leg in Oslo, played at the Bislet Stadion which hosted the 1952 Winter Olympics, ended in a 1-1 draw, earning Athlone a place in the last 32 alongside the likes of Ajax, Barcelona, Liverpool and Roma, and after the disappointment of being drawn against unknown opponents in the previous round, Town were paired with one of the biggest footballing names of all – AC Milan.

The Italians had knocked Everton out the competition in the previous round and their squad included big name Italian internationals such as Gianni Rivera, the European Footballer of the Year in 1969, Enrico Albertosi, Italy's goalkeeper in the 1970 World Cup final against Brazil, and midfielder Romeo Bennetti, a renowned hard man.

On the bench, manager Nereo Rocca had a coaching team that included future Italy manager, Cesare Maldini – father of Paulo – and also a certain Giovanni Trappatoni. When asked for his memories of his visit to Athlone after his appointment as Republic of Ireland manager, Trappatoni commented: "I remember the pitch. There weren't many stands. All the people were in a line along the side of the pitch. The day was a very beautiful experience".

Trappatoni's recollection of the modest surroundings were an accurate and succinct summary, and as Fogarty prepared his side for the challenge ahead, an army of volunteers worked long hours against the clock to bring St Mel's Park up to the standard required to host the game, and increase the capacity up to around 10,000.

Trapattoni is presented with a photograph by Tadhg Carey of himself and then AC Milan manager Nereo Rocco in Athlone [Picture: Inpho] Trapattoni is presented with a photograph by Tadhg Carey of himself and then AC Milan manager Nereo Rocco in Athlone [Picture: Inpho]

Traditionally, for European games of this magnitude, League of Ireland clubs moved the game to Lansdowne Road, but Athlone's officials were determined not to concede any home advantage, so they set about the considerable task of making the ground fit to host their illustrious visitors.

Legend has it that builders removed an old iron fence and built a stone wall, before hundreds of tonnes of clay and gravel were shipped in to create banking for spectators to stand on, along the sides of the pitch. A bulldozer arrived to level the clay and gravel – and accidently knocked down the new stone wall.

On the Sunday before the first leg, Cork Hibs came to St Mel's Park on league business, and with the score tied at 1-1 in the dying moments, Athlone won a penalty that John Minnock converted to secure a last-gasp 2-1 win. The significance of the manner of victory would become more apparent 72 hours later, as a Milan scout watching the game noted with interest that Minnock's penalty kick had been directed into the bottom left hand corner of the net.

When the Italian party arrived in Ireland, they were taken to their headquarters in Athlone's Hodson Bay Hotel to prepare for the game. In the meantime, Athlone's part-time players went about their day jobs and assembled on the night before the game, with the exception of defender Doug Wood, who joined up with his team-mates at breakfast the following morning as his employers would only allow him time off on the day of the game.

These days, if a League of Ireland team was about to go head-to-head with one of the top teams in European football, the impending experience might be viewed with an air of trepidation rather than excitement.

But Fogarty had instilled a confidence and a will-to-win in his Athlone side that many of his players have spoken about subsequently, and the knowledge that the Italians had been taken aback at the standard of the facilities that awaited them at St Mel's Park gave the Athlone players hope that the basic and idiosyncratic nature of the surroundings would work in their favour in the first leg.

A photo that first appeared in the Athlone Voice, and reproduced many times since, shows the Milan players stepping off the team bus outside St Mel's Park, picking their way carefully through pools of mud and puddles as they headed for the entrance, and they completed the journey from team coach to pitch after lining up in the tunnel behind the Athlone Pipe Band and their mascot, a goat, who led the teams out onto the field before the game.

AC Milan players arriving at Athlone's old ground, St Mel’s Park [Picture: Athlone Independent via JP Murray] AC Milan players arriving at Athlone's old ground, St Mel’s Park [Picture: Athlone Independent via JP Murray]

After a slightly nervy start, Athlone adapted to the heavy conditions and started to get their passing game together, and after half-an-hour, one of the most talked about incidents in Irish soccer history arrived.

Eugene Davis sent Terry Daly off down the left wing with a through ball, and as Daly turned into the penalty area he tumbled to the ground under a clumsy challenge by Nevio Scala, and the referee pointed to the penalty spot.

After his success the previous Sunday in the league, John Minnock was on penalty kick duty once more, and again went to place the ball down low to the keeper's right. But Albertosi in the Milan goal, having been tipped off about which way to dive, got down low and pushed the ball away, collecting at the second attempt.

Interviewed numerous times over the years about the penalty, Minnock always reflects ruefully on how he is remembered. In 2005, on the 30th anniversary of the game, he said: "I had a habit, I always put it to my left, the goalkeeper's right, and it was going through my head should I change.

But I hit it to my left and his right and Albertosi was down waiting on it, he only had to come out to collect it. "It made me famous for the wrong reasons, for missing the penalty. People still chat about it."

Silence descended over the ground after Minnock's miss, but the crowd soon regained their voices and cheered their team on once more. Good defending, a bit of luck, and some wild finishing on Milan's part saved Athlone as the afternoon wore on and the game ended goalless, although soon after the final whistle and in the days after the game, both sides accused each other of an over physical approach, and reports from the time suggest the claims were not without foundation.

Prior to the second leg, the Athlone squad were based in the Leonardo Da Vinci hotel on the outskirts of Milan, where they found they were sharing a base with actor Omar Sharif, a keen player of the card game Bridge, who was taking part in a tournament.

The era of "selfies" was many years away, but the Athlone players took the opportunity to collect Sharif's autograph, have pictures taken, and spent time chatting to him in the bar.

The glamorous build-up for a game at the famous San Siro Stadium was matched by an Athlone performance that for a long time was just as impressive as the one they delivered in the first leg. In front of a crowd of 42,500, they incredibly kept Milan at bay until the 63rd minute, and when the defence was eventually breached, it was a through a horribly soft goal.

A misunderstanding between left-back Kevin Smith and goalkeeper Mick O'Brien allowed Gorin to pinch the ball and square to Vincenzi, who fired in the opener from six yards.

Six minutes later Romeo Benetti doubled Milan's advantage with a 25-yard free kick, and with 10 minutes to go he added a third from the penalty spot. Athlone's European dream was over.

In many ways, the postscript to the game is both sad and at the same time surprising. Athlone never built on the confidence that must have been gained from going toe-to-toe with such high profile opponents, and the whole experience seemed to have taken its toll.

Within four months of the game at the San Siro, Amby Fogarty had left the club, citing a dispute with the board as the reason for his departure, a move that led to several other players in the squad leaving in the weeks that followed.

But Fogarty and his players had enjoyed a short spell in the limelight that will never be forgotten, and midfielder Eugene 'Pooch' Davis told RTÉ last week that his memories of the games have stayed with him to this day.

"It comes back to me all the time", he said. "I can be lying there going to sleep at night, and a few thoughts wander back to then, and the people of Athlone were absolutely fabulous.

"It was a great experience and I loved every minute of it".