With the score deadlocked, Athlone Town forward John Minnock steps up to take the free-kick. With so much at stake the responsibility to qualify for next season’s UEFA Cup falls upon Donegal-born John Minnock. The opposition are Cork Hibernian and a goal would more or less guarantee Athlone’s first ever European outing. Thing is, neither the players nor the coaches nor the fans knew how legendary this adventure was destined to soon become.
Minnock scored. Athlone would hold out to win the game 1-0. Cork Hibernian – now defunct – failed to find a way to break down the resolute Athlone defence and so, they had secured their inaugural appearance in Europe for the 1974/75 season. The man who orchestrated this rise to prominence was Ireland’s very own Brian Clough – Athlone Town manager Ambrose Fogarty.
From the late 50’s to the early 60’s, Fogarty had plied his trade alongside Clough at Sunderland. The two had struck up a great friendship whilst at the club – they were “great friends” according to former teammate Jimmy Nelson – and remained in touch long after they parted ways. While Clough was flexing his managerial muscles at lowly Derby County – soon to become second division and first division League champions – Fogarty retreated to Ireland to take the reins of Athlone Town.
Prior to his arrival, Athlone had been exiled from the League of Ireland for the better part of forty years but a group of club officials finally persuaded the LOI authorities to let them back in in 1969. Thanks to the reinstatement Athlone Town were finally back where they belonged. They proceeded to fly through managers á la Roman Abramovich – four in five years back in Ireland’s top tier – but it was with Fogarty coming towards the end of 1974 that Athlone really transpired to become one of the League of Ireland’s best clubs for the short time he was there.
In Fogarty’s first season Athlone jumped to second in the table – an improvement by nine positions on the previous season, which was a testament to just how effective Fogarty’s was in those early days. It was Minnock’s free-kick in that penultimate game that had effectively earned Athlone a place in next season’s UEFA Cup for the first time in their history.
Upon qualifying, players and managers alike rejoiced in ecstasy and Pauric Nicholson, who now works as Regional Development Officer in the midlands, failed to get his head around it. Speaking in 2010 he said: “we could hardly grasp it. Milan were as big as they are now and, in many ways, they were even bigger then because Italian clubs were the top clubs in Europe at the time. English clubs have taken over now with the money they have but, at the time, Milan and Inter and teams like that, Juventus, they were really the top teams. So, for us to be drawn against them was an amazing thing”.
The first leg of qualification pitted them against Norwegian outfit Valerengen. Valerengen had endured a similar fortune to Athlone as it was their close-fought 2-1 victory against Hamarkam on the final day of the season that ensured they’d be taking their place in Europe for the subsequent season. Athlone played the hosts role for the first game and duly won at a comfortable scoreline of three goals to one. They travelled to Norway knowing that a goal meant Scandinavian side needed three but “it was hard to see them doing that” as Paul Martin put it, quoted by Paul Keane. The return leg in Valerengen ended 1-1, so Athlone progressed on aggregate 4-2.
In that next round Athlone could have been pitted against teams like Roma, Liverpool, Barcelona, Lazio, Porto or Ajax. Instead, they drew the mighty and fearless Milan. What already looked a lucrative tie swayed slightly more so in Athlone’s favour after it was revealed that Gina Rivera, who had iced his retirement plans, would not feature in the first leg as he would be making his comeback for the second leg, in front of the Milan faithful. Luciano Chiarugi and Franco Vincenzi were also out, which gave Athlone a small glimmer of hope.
The Athlone team however, were not looking forward to the prospect of going toe-to-toe with Romeo Benetti, as nineteen-year-old Cyril Barnicle remarked: “Benetti was a rough nut, a physically very strong man, very muscular, like Gattuso all right but physically much stronger and much more dangerous. If he hit you with his strength he could break you. Gattuso, now, is tigerish but hasn’t the same physical presence whereas this lad was very, very strong, like a little bull”.
Back in the mid 70’s, Milan were in the midst of a lean spell. Having last won a scudetto the year before their second European Cup triumph, Nereo Rocco and his Milan side soon became restless after a series of three consecutive second-placed finishes, including the season prior to their journey to Athlone. On top of their domestic shortcomings, the Milan hierarchy also wanted the ‘Golden Boy’, Gianni Rivera, out of the club, but ultimately failed as he later staged a comeback for the home tie against Athlone.
There’s a picture that was published as part of the thirtieth anniversary of the game in 2005 that sees Milan players carefully measuring their steps disembarking from the team bus in order to avoid the mud-soaked ground that surrounded them. Upon arriving, Milan coaches were a bit taken a back at how dire the training complex seemed to them (it was actually the match pitch that they had seen. The actual training complex was situated at a nearby rugby pitch which facilitated the Milan players prior to the encounter).
Three days prior to the fixture, Athlone were competing in a League of Ireland game against none other than Cork Hibs – the team that had paved the way for Athlone in qualifying for Europe – a game which they subsequently won thanks to a late flurry of goals. However, what was interesting to note was that a Milan spy had been among the crowd during the game. When Athlone had the fortune of winning a penalty in the dying stages the spy had taken particular notice of penalty taker John Minnock’s habits. He scored, but would ultimately pay the price in the coming days in what could have secured Athlone’s most famous result in their history.
By the time October 22nd rolled around, both teams were raring to go in what was to prove a hugely historic and eventful day. El Parón – the boss – and his team of coaches, including current Irish manager Giovanni Trappatoni, took their seats for what they perceived an easy enough game for the Rossoneri. Thing is, it wasn’t.
Athlone knew that Milan’s approach very much verged on the physical – Nereo Rocco apparently advised his players throughout his time “kick everything that moves, if it is the ball, all the better” – and so they set up in a similar manner, and were lucky not to have their skipper John Duffy sent off as one of his tackles had caught an opponent “around the chest with a boot”. Nigel De Jong and himself could probably relate.
Although Athlone had begun nervously with careless, wayward passes and concession of soft free-kicks, they soon settled into the game and gave Milan a run for their money. Just after the half-hour mark they were handed a glorious chance to take the lead. Terry Daly was set free having made some leeway and cut inside onto his right for a split moment. With only one man to aim for in the box Daly feigned to head right, then dropped his left shoulder and raced into the box. Milan defender Nevia Scala was seemingly flat-footed by Daly’s acceleration and it was his clumsiness that brought Daly crashing to the earth. Referee Sorenson duly pointed to the spot. Minnock stepped up. Referring to the incident thirty-odd years later he exclaimed: “I just went with what I was used to. I felt confident enough.”
As he readied himself, Milan keeper Enrico Albertosi, the man who had kept the famous Dino Zoff at bay during the 1970 World Cup for Italy, already had a fair idea of where he’d be shooting, thanks to the eye in the sky – spy in the crowd, rather – those few days prior. Minnock’s tame effort was saved easily by Albertosi as he had dived to his right, as suggested, and clawed away Minnock’s poor attempt at a penalty.
With their penalty chance scrapped, ‘the Shepherds’, as they were humorously dubbed by sportswriters in Italy due to the fact that they were perceived as being farmers, never truly looked like threatening thereafter. The only chance they could muster for the rest of the game was a cross-cum-shot from Noel Larkin which could find nobody bar a Milan defender in the box. Milan soon began to assert their superiority and as the game tore into its latter stages they slowly dominated but the Athlone defence stood firm and ended up holding the Rossoneri to a hugely noteworthy 0-0 draw.
The event was subsequently labelled “a piece of life stranger than fiction” by Con Houlihan and the BBC news at six led with the headline “the Mighty Milan have been held”. And, of course, John Minnock’s penalty miss soon became the talk of the town. A funny anecdote from Minnock decades after explained how he was in a bar one night with a mate when he popped on his glasses to read the horse’s name his friend had pointed out. Minnock went on to note that two army men were sitting at the counter, observing him apply the glasses. “It’s a pity he hadn’t the glasses on when he took the penalty against Milan,” remarked one.
By Dylan O’Neill
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona