The oldest club in the League of Ireland, Athlone Town, is not having the best of times as of late. The Town has a proud football tradition that stretches all the way back to 1887, and it was the first non-Dublin club to compete in the League of Ireland. The current strife that the club is stricken with – mysterious owners taking over, bringing their own players and staff in and losing matches under suspicious circumstances, thus leading to two players being found guilty of match-fixing – is gut-wrenching for fans. The escapism involved with supporters casting their minds back to headier times is irresistible and one of the greatest results in the club’s (and more widely the League’s) history was when Athlone Town held the Italian giants AC Milan to a 0-0 draw in the 1975/76 UEFA Cup.
At the best of times, League of Ireland clubs operate within very tight margins. This fact is further accentuated with clubs from regional towns because it makes it infinitely harder to attract players from the large footballing areas like Dublin, Cork, and Sligo, and in the north, Derry and Belfast. Despite their proud tradition, Athlone Town usually wasn’t an exception to the rule. Amby Fogarty, who had played alongside Brian Clough and Charlie Hurley for Sunderland, was drafted in as manager for the 1974/75 season.
By all accounts, Fogarty was a fantastic man manager and his players were all prepared to run through the proverbial brick wall for him. Fogarty overcame the restrictions upon Athlone Town to piece together a squad of players from Dublin, Cork and Derry along with local players – because they all wanted to play for him. That season Athlone Town finished runners-up to Bohemians and won a place in the UEFA Cup for 1975/76. It was the first time Athlone Town had ever qualified for European football.
At the time, Irish sides that qualified for Europe generally had the attitude that they harboured no real ambitions of competing in Europe. They just hoped for a glamour tie for a quick payday and for a piss-up on the away leg.
When The Town discovered they had drawn Vålerenga of Norway in the first round, they were left with red eyes. The usual attitude needed to be revisited. The Athlone Town directors began petitioning UEFA to have the time and day of the game changed in hopes of securing a larger crowd, to try to make it to next round for another chance at a glamour tie. It paid off and the first leg was changed to a Thursday afternoon to attract spectators on their half-day in work. A crowd of about 4,000 fans made it to the match and Athlone ran out convincing 3-1 winners on the day. The return leg in Oslo ended 1-1 (4-2 on aggregate) and booked The Town’s place in the second round.
The hopes of drawing a big name in the second round looked significantly better with clubs of the prestige of Liverpool, Roma, Ajax, Barcelona and AC Milan making it to the next round – all clubs that operated in a different dimension compared to Athlone Town.
The Town drew AC Milan, double (at the time) European Cup winners and two-time conquerors of the Cup Winners Cup. Suddenly the hottest ticket in Ireland was to see one of the most renowned and revered teams in world football take on, not a club from Dublin or Cork, but a team from a regional Irish town in the midlands – Athlone Town.
Usual procedure meant that when an Irish team drew a colossus from Britain or the continent they would move the match from their small home ground to one of the larger stadiums – Dalymount Park, Lansdowne Road or Tolka Park – to maximise gate receipts. The Athlone directors didn’t want to fall into the trap of conceding home advantage because there was the hope that the small, tight and decrepit St. Mel’s Park, with a peak capacity of 5,000 spectators, would unsettle the Italian goliaths. Getting St. Mel’s up to an acceptable standard became something approaching folklore around Athlone. An old corrugated fence was taken down and replaced with a stone wall, which was then partially knocked down when a bulldozer was levelling out 100 tonnes of sand and gravel used to create embankments for supporters to stand on. Athlone Town, however, left the pitch in the state it was in and when I say pitch, I actually mean bog. For Milan, coming down from their ivory tower that is the San Siro, St. Mel’s Park would have been close to their definition of hell.
Milan was thorough in their preparation for the tie, treating Athlone with respect despite their status as minnows by sending a scout to watch them in their final league game before the first leg. Late on in a 1-1 draw with Cork Hibs, Athlone won a penalty. Joe Minnock, who was The Town’s penalty taker, slotted the ball to his left, the goalkeeper’s right and scored to win the match. With the Milan scout in attendance, this would prove fateful.
When the Milan players arrived in Athlone they stayed in the Hodson Bay Hotel, a luxury hotel and spa resort on the shore of Lough Ree on the outskirts of Athlone. Contrast that to the Athlone Town squad, who only came together the night before the biggest match of their careers because they only played part-time and had to work their day jobs.
A famous picture from the match shows the moment the AC Milan squad arrived at St. Mel’s Park and realised what they were, quite literally, stepping into. Dressed in their loafers and slacks, they were made to wade through vast puddles of muck to get to their dressing room – if that’s even the right word for it. The crowd of 9,000 fans was enhanced by the large portion of Italian chip shop owners coming to see Milan and were entertained prior to kick-off by the Athlone Pipe Band and their mascot – a goat! Trust me, your eyes weren’t deceiving you when read that, mine didn’t believe it at first either – so I did some digging! The Supplement reached out to the Athlone Pipe Band who, rather disappointingly being honest, revealed that this part of the story was an urban legend that gained legs. Whoever let the facts get in the way of a tall tale? When the players entered the tunnel, they were then led onto the pitch by the (goat-less) Athlone Pipe Band. Despite losing the Bovidae angle to the event, the rustic nature of the spectacle still ruffled the feathers of the Milan players and gave The Town somewhat of an edge.
Everywhere you looked, Milan were dripping with quality and international experience. They had future Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni coaching them, as well as Enrico Albertosi, who played in goal for Italy in the 1970 World Cup final, the infamous hard man Romeo Benetti, and future Parma manager Nevio Scala. The most important of these would prove to be Albertosi. Athlone Town put it up to Milan, under the pressure and riding their luck on occasion but never being totally outplayed. Just after the half-hour mark, The Town had their chance – a penalty. Joe Minnock stepped up to take the spot-kick. Usually choosing the left side for his penalties, he later admitted to considering changing where to put it but in the end went with his favourite corner. Albertosi, who had read the scout’s report, was practically waiting for the ball and saved comfortably. The match finished 0-0.
The return leg in Milan gave The Town players a brief glimpse at what it was like to play football at the elite level. They didn’t get lost in the dream and kept Milan scoreless for another 60 minutes. Unfortunately, however, they gave away a soft goal just 3 minutes later and by the end of the match, Milan won 3-0 – a score line that flattered the home side.
The pivotal moment in the tie was decided because AC Milan could afford to send a scout to anywhere in the world, the Italians prepared for Joe Minnock going to left with his penalties. Despite this, Athlone Town is forever etched in with the triumphs of League of Ireland clubs in Europe.
This match symbolises perfectly what the League of Ireland is for so many supporters around the country: local community clubs going up against the world, with all the odds stacked against them, and coming away triumphant with their heads held high. Get out and experience that for yourself, because you never will through a television screen.