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'It came on BBC News: 'In Ireland today, a team of postmen, butchers and bakers drew 0-0 with AC Milan''

Athlone Town earned a famous draw when the Italians played them at St Mel’s Park in 1975.

File pic.
File pic.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THEY MAY HAVE fallen on harder times recently, but in 1975, AC Milan were renowned as one of the top club sides in the world.

Just six years previously, they had been crowned champions of Europe for the second time.

In 1973 and ’74, they reached two consecutive Cup Winners’ Cup finals, triumphing on the former occasion.

Their squad was filled with illustrious names, including Romeo Benetti, Enrico Albertosi and Gianni Rivera, with the latter two featuring in one of the most famous World Cup finals ever played, against Brazil, five years previously.

But while the Serie A outfit had travelled extensively, they had never seen anything quite like St Mel’s Park.

Having finished second in the previous year’s League of Ireland, Athlone entered the Uefa Cup for the 1975-76 season. 

In the first round, they overcame Vålerengen of Norway, winning 3-1 at home and securing their aggregate victory with a 1-1 draw out in Oslo.

Subsequently, they were handed a dream tie with the Italian giants, who had earned a slender 1-0 victory over Everton in the previous round.

A fella called Aidan Lee was the chairman at the time and Milan had sent somebody over to look at the hotels and the pitch and whatever,” Eugene Davis, who featured for Athlone in both legs, tells The42.

“This fella came over and Aidan brought him down to the ground. They got out of the car and looked around the ground and he said to the chairman: ‘We’re not training here.’ Aidan turned around and said: ‘I know you’re not training here, yis are playing here instead.’

“Your man couldn’t believe it, because it was completely different to the San Siro, as you can imagine.”

Davis continues: “On the day of the game it was crazy. Me living in Dún Laoghaire, the whole of Dún Laoghaire and its surroundings, Ballybrack, and the places around the borough, they just have so many stories of lads going down. They more or less went to their bosses and said: ‘We’re going to Athlone.’

“All the chip shops and all around Blackrock, everywhere, there were all the Italians going down as well. There were people getting lifts, everything like that, it was amazing.

“We were just a crowd of butchers and postmen. There were no big names or anything there.”

For Athlone’s players, it was the stuff of dreams. Kevin Smith had signed professionally for Shamrock Rovers at 17. However, within two years, the set-up had changed and he was let go by Liam Tuohy. That setback prompted him to quit football for a short period before a family friend convinced him to get back playing with boyhood club St Francis (who he is the chairman of these days). Having helped his new club win the league, Smith was promptly signed by Athlone under Amby Fogarty. And so incredibly, within the space of a few months, Smith went from playing junior football to competing against World Cup finalists in the San Siro.

“It was like a fairytale to be honest,” he says.

“My memories from the day were phenomenal. The crowd was massive. The late Amby Fogarty, God bless him, he really had us psyched up. What a manager for motivating you before the game. He had us believing we were 10 or 20 times better than what we were. We went out with a lot of self-belief.

“We gave a very good account of ourselves. The crowd helped us tremendously. The atmosphere was phenomenal. Each individual player was mentored and driven. We worked and trained hard, and we were up against the giants of Italy.”

Reports from Irish newspapers at the time back up Smith’s words, suggesting Athlone had the better of the first half in particular.

According to Bill George in The Irish Examiner, the Italians “despite their obvious superiority in technique, physical development and fitness… were overshadowed by Athlone. They could not match the attitude of Athlone, who were more adventurous in their tactics.”

The Irish side were nearly rewarded for their positive approach on the half-hour mark. Davis played a pass through for Terry Daly, who was taken down in the box. Most of 9,000 that were reportedly crammed into St Mel’s Park were sent into raptures. However, their joy would prove short-lived, as Albertosi guessed correctly, diving to his right to save John Minnock’s penalty.

“We can thank John Minnock for that penalty miss,” Smith jokes. “Poor old Minnock, he’s a great character, I see him every now and again in Tullamore.

“I think it was £25 [bonus] for a draw and £50 for a win, so John cost us £25 each. It was a lot of money then, even though it’s only peanuts now.”

The game was not for the faint-hearted, with the Italians receiving plenty of criticism for their aggressive approach.

“I was never reckoned to be an angel in my own playing career and I have been back in the dressing rooms a few times before the game was over,” Fogarty was quoted as saying afterwards. “But I am altar boy compared to what these boys were doing.”

Davis was one of those on the receiving end of the Serie A outfit’s rough tactics.

“I had a couple of run-ins with Romeo Benetti,” he recalls. “He was a hard man. He destroyed England at Wembley in one of the World Cup qualifiers. 

I got booked after about 10 minutes. I came in behind Benetti from a throw-in. He got me down in Athlone, he put a gash down my shin. It was pouring blood. Amby Fogarty was shouting at me: ‘You’re alright, you’re alright.’ [Athlone assistant boss] Joe Haverty turned to me and said ‘that’s one of the worst tackles I’ve ever seen.’”

Smith adds: “[Benetti] was captain of the Italian national team as well as AC Milan. He was a giant of a man. Amby says to Eugene Davis: ‘If you don’t get the first tackle in in the first five minutes, I’m taking you off.’

“He had Eugene terrorised. Eugene wouldn’t be great at making tackles, though he was a great goalscorer. But Eugene was taking the threat seriously from Amby, he didn’t want to be taken off.

“That was the type of hype that was there and we grew in confidence as the match went on. We held them scoreless in the first half, we were getting more confidence along with the occasion.”

giovanni-trapattoni-is-presented-with-a-photograph Giovanni Trapattoni is presented with a photograph of himself and then AC Milan manager Nereo Rocco from their Uefa Cup game against Athlone Town in 1975. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

One of the most animated figures on the sideline was a young coach by the name of Giovanni Trapattoni, who had only retired from playing three years previously. Trap, of course, would go on to establish himself as one of the most successful managers in footballing history, while becoming increasingly familiar to Irish fans after he agreed to take charge of the national team 33 years later.

“He was down in the little dugout, it must have been the smallest he was ever in, down in Mel’s,” Davis remembers.

“John Duffy was left-back. Their right winger was going down the line, just outside the dugout. John was a hard man, he went for the ball, but he caught him around the midriff. Trapattoni and the whole bench jumped up out of the box and onto the pitch and there was a bit of pushing going on.”

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The 0-0 outcome stands as one of the best performances by an Irish team in Europe to this day. And it wasn’t just on these shores that the result made headlines, with the New York Herald Tribune and the BBC among those reporting on it.

“The day of the match, we went up to Molloys, the pub, when we were finished, for a few drinks,” Davis remembers.

It came on the six o’clock news in England. They were saying: ‘In Ireland today, there was a team of postmen, butchers and bakers that drew 0-0 with the mighty AC Milan.’ They would have been more famous then than they actually are now.

“‘They drew 0-0 and they missed a penalty,’ so it was great to hear that on BBC News.”

The trip to Milan was similarly memorable. It included an improbable encounter with a Hollywood superstar in Omar Sharif, whose best-known films include include Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Funny Girl.

“Myself and Terry Daly were there,” Smith explains. “The hotel was that big it had a massive auditorium in the basement downstairs. There was a bridge tournament on and out of boredom on the Tuesday, we were walking around. There was an intermission at this bridge tournament.

“We were standing there and out comes the famous Omar Sharif with this fantastic lady on his arm. So myself, Terry Daly and Eugene Davis [approached him]. Eugene, being a Sallynoggin lad, said: ‘How’s it going Omar?’ Omar just looked at him in shock. ‘This is Eugene Davis from Dublin, we’re playing a match.’

“Mick O’Brien came down then — word got back that he was downstairs with his camera and we all got photographs with Omar.”

The match itself was a spectacle unlike anything the Athlone players had ever experienced. Somewhere between 40-60,000 were in the San Siro that day depending on which report you believe. 

Part of the reason for the considerable level of interest was the return to the Milan team of Gianni Rivera — widely considered one of Italy’s greatest ever players — after a long spell out injured.

soccer-world-cup-qualifier-group-two-italy-v-switzerland The legendary Gianni Rivera was one of the players who Athlone came up against. Source: EMPICS Sport

Yet in spite of the added star power, Athlone again held their own for much of the contest.

“The memories will live with us forever,” says Smith. “When we went to Italy, we had our blazers and the light grey trousers et cetera and we stood out like a sore thumb. But we couldn’t believe their fans over there and their passion for football. We thought we were superstars with the amount of spectators looking for autographs. We were mesmerised when we got to Milan, just taking it all in, it was incredible.

“Amby said: ‘There’s no reason why you can’t get a result here.’ Amby was the eternal optimist.”

“There were so many people around,” Davis adds. “They were banging on the side of the bus and the window. It was good, but it was a little bit frightening.”

The hosts struggled to break down their diligent opponents at first, with fans at the stadium vocally expressing their displeasure as a result.

“Carl Humphries, a Cork lad, was a great footballer and he used to go out to the corner flag like they do now,” Davis recalls.

“He was doing that back then and the crowd were booing and whistling him. He would have been doing that early in the game, never mind the last few minutes.”

After just over an hour of play, Milan finally broke the deadlock, as Francesco Vincenzi converted a Duino Gorin cross.

Against full-time opposition and on a bigger pitch than they were accustomed to playing on, Athlone gradually tired. Two more late goals, a free kick and a penalty, both scored by Benetti, sealed the Italians’ passage through to the next round.

“3-0 was a little bit of an injustice, but the wheels came off from the fitness point of view,” Smith admits.

It was still 0-0 with about 60 minutes gone,” Davis continues. “I remember [hearing about] St Joseph’s down in Sallynoggin where I played — it was on the radio and all the players came in from their training and were listening to the last 30 minutes.

“At the end of the game, we were trying to swap jerseys with them. They wouldn’t swap jerseys out on the pitch, because we were wearing the black and blue stripes of Athlone — the same colours that Inter Milan are.

“They couldn’t be seen to be taking a jersey, the same colour as Inter Milan, so they said we’d swap the jerseys inside.

“I was living in Blackrock at the time. I gave my [Milan] jersey to an Italian fella in Blackrock, he owned the chipper.

“I had promised him the jersey and after that, I was getting free chips for as long as I lived down there.”

Source: LUCIO Celletti archeosport/YouTube

Despite the loss, the consensus back home was that Athlone had done the League of Ireland proud.

“Until that moment [where Milan opened the scoring] Irish football was the talk of Europe, because of a performance of a team who must now surely be regarded as our greatest ever ambassadors at club level,” wrote Mel Moffat in The Irish Press at the time.

Moreover, Smith and Davis agree that the experience stood to them in the long run. Both players were involved as Athlone won the league title for the first time ever six years later, with the latter finishing that season as the Premier Division’s top scorer.

And the Milan matches remain legendary to this day.

“With the Rovers game coming up, everyone is talking about it: ‘Didn’t you play against AC Milan?’” Davis says.

‘You drew with them 0-0 and missed a penalty.’ It’s big news alright for the people who didn’t really know about it too much.”

And Davis believes the current Shamrock Rovers team are capable of producing a similarly impressive performance, when they face Milan in the Europa League this evening.

“There’s no reason why they can’t get a similar result to us. Anything can happen in football.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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