Football

Balls Remembers: When Athlone Town Matched The Mighty AC Milan

Balls Remembers: When Athlone Town Matched The Mighty AC Milan

AC Milan are a true giant of European football. Only Real Madrid can better their tally of seven European Cup wins, with the Italian side boasting some of the biggest names in world football amongst their ranks over the past few decades.

The news that they were drawn against Shamrock Rovers in this afternoon's Europa League qualifiers draw was unsurprisingly met with huge excitement in Irish footballing circles.

Ties such as this one do not come along too often. In fact, AC Milan have only played a competitive game in Ireland on one previous occasion. That came 45 years ago, when the Serie A side made their way to this country for a UEFA Cup tie. It was not against one of the current powerhouses of Irish football.

Athlone Town may be a bottom half First Division club these day, but the Midlands side enjoyed a very fruitful spell in the 1970s and 1980s. They would win two League of Ireland titles in the 80s, but it was a second placed finish in the 1974/75 season that ensured their first venture into European football.

After dispatching of Norwegian side Vålerengen over two legs in the UEFA Cup first round, the club knew a glamour tie could be on the horizon in the last 32 of the competition. The likes of Liverpool and Ajax were potential opponents, but AC Milan was ultimately the name that was drawn out.

Athlone insisted that the game be played St Mel's Park, where alterations quickly took place to increase the ground's capacity to almost 10,000 people.

This was not an AC Milan team short on quality. They had won the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner's Cup in the couple of seasons before this, as well as finishing second in Serie A on a number of occasions. They also boasted stars such as Gianni Rivera, who had won the Ballon d'Or in 1969.

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Arriving in Ireland accompanied by their own personal chef, food, and supply of wine, it's safe to say Milan probably weren't prepared for the conditions at St. Mel's Park.

Pulling up in their team bus dressed in the type of style you would expect from a suave Italian outfit, they were greeted by what could be described as testing conditions under foot.

Speaking to RTÉ a number of years ago, Eugene Davis, a member of Athlone Town's squad that day, recalled the visiting side's shock at the conditions they had arrived in:

I actually saw them stepping out of the bus. I saw all these guys getting off in their lovely Armani suits and shoes, then stepping off into puddles of water before they came over to the dressing room.

I can't imagine what they thought when they saw what the dressing rooms were like!

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Athlone entered the tie with the belief that they could pull of the upset to end all upsets. Manager Amby Fogarty had given the confidence that the Italians were there for the taking.

To the surprise of many, that actually seemed to be the case.

Athlone could have won the game. It was a battle befitting of the occasion, in a literal and figurative sense. AC Milan were a team who were familiar with the dark arts, with striker Paul Martin requiring three stitches at halftime after being on the end of a stray elbow from an opposition defender.

The deciding moment of the game came and went on the half hour mark. It is an incident that Athlone's John Minnock is still known for to this day.

The home side were awarded a penalty, with allocated taker Minnock stepping up to face Italy international Enrico Albertosi.

He told RTÉ how the fact that he had recently scored two penalties for the club was playing on his mind. Ultimately, he failed to commit and his tame effort was easily saved.

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(AC Milan) had two scouts over, they watched watched us against Shamrock Rovers and Cork Hibs. We got two penalties and I put them in the same corner.

Some supporters didn't let you forget about it. If we got a penalty they would be shouting 'keep Minno away from it'.

We were in Nut's Corner (local pub), I was down for a funeral and my friend came running into the pub and said 'Minno, I've got a great tip for a horse'. I told him to wait until I put on my glasses.

There were two army boys in the corner and one said to the other 'it's a pity he didn't have them on when he took the penalty'.

The game would finish in a 0-0 draw.

Amby Fogarty said he was disappointed his side didn't win the game, while AC Milan manager Nereo Rocco claimed: "I said I would be happy with a draw. I still am.”

It could have been a famous win, but the draw still lives on in Athlone Town's history.

The second leg was almost as glorious. In front of a crowd of nearly 70,000 people at the San Siro, Athlone were still on level terms with 25 minutes to go. A defensive error allowed Milan to open the scoring, with a free-kick and penalty following soon after to secure a 3-0 win for the home side.

We will all be hoping for a similar result when AC Milan return to these shores next month.

SEE ALSO: Shamrock Rovers May Not Receive Huge Payday From AC Milan Tie

Gary Connaughton

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