The first of a four-part series, focusing on the beginnings of a passionate and, at times, violent competition between two great footballing nations.
Fifty years ago this month, Swindon Town faced AS Roma in the inaugural Anglo-Italian League Cup. If the match-up sounds unlikely, even more improbable was Swindon’s 5-2 victory over the reigning Coppa Italia champions.
The competition had been born out of a sense of injustice. As the winners of the English League Cup Swindon had been barred from competing in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a pre-cursor to the modern Europa League, by virtue of an obscure rule which prevented third tier teams from entering. The newly-created Anglo-Italian League Cup granted Swindon their moment in the sun and gave rise to a new competition that would be repeated four times between 1971 and 1976.
The concept had also caught the eye of a dynamic administrator within the Italian game, named Gigi Peronace. In 1948, Peronace had begun life in football as an interpreter to Juventus’s Scottish manager Billy Chalmers. By 1954, he had become sufficiently immersed in the Italian game that he was appointed to a General Manager’s role at Lazio. Still not yet 30 years of age, Peronace was given responsibility for the Biancocelesti’s transfer dealings. Within a few short years he had established a reputation as a skilled negotiator and fixer, effectively becoming football’s first super-agent.
The charismatic Peronace was a fluent English speaker, having honed his skills through conversation with Allied soldiers in his native Calabria in the aftermath of the war. His linguistic competence, combined with his knowledge and standing within the Italian game, made him the ideal intermediary to work on the transfers of British stars John Charles, Jimmy Greaves, Joe Baker and Denis Law to the peninsula in the 1950s and 1960s.
“If a crocodile could talk it would sound like Gigi Peronace. He was an imposing figure, one to be wary of, yet he could charm a bracelet. To look at him you were immediately wary of the man…but as his conversation unfolded he displayed great charisma and charm, and you ended up being enchanted by the man.”
The 1969 Anglo-Italian contest gave Peronace the idea for a larger format tournament between English and Italian teams. Though, rather confusingly, the early season two-legged Anglo-Italian League Cup ran in parallel with Peronace’s more substantive late-season Anglo-Italian Cup for much of the early 1970s.
Peronace’s ambition was to create an exciting and innovative competition that pitted the best of Italy and England against one another. The competition comprised half a dozen teams from each nation. In the initial ‘group’ phase, each team would play four matches; home and away against two teams from the other country.
In a move to encourage more adventurous attacking football at the end of a long season, points were awarded not only for wins and draws, but also for goals scored. Meanwhile, the offside rule was dis-applied outside of the penalty area. With this augmentation of the usual rules in place, the outcomes of those group games were then assembled into respective English and Italian ‘league’ tables to identify the club from each country that would go through to the final.
Swindon Town once again demonstrated their proficiency in cup competitions by finishing as the top English qualifier as the tournament got underway in May 1970. They would go on to meet Napoli in the inaugural final in the cauldron of Stadio San Paolo. The baying 55,000 crowd must have seemed a world apart from the sedentary surrounds of the County Ground. On paper, Napoli were vastly superior, despite the absence of Dino Zoff and captain and playmaker Antonio Juliano who were on World Cup duty with Italy at the 1970 World Cup.
But Swindon were undaunted by the calibre of their opponents or the hostile reception, playing the kind of fearless attacking football that Peronace had imagined at the tournament’s outset. Swindon raced into a first half lead. Further goals for the visitors either side of the hour mark caused tensions in the stadium to escalate. Fighting broke out in the stands and missiles rained down onto the field of play. Eventually riot police moved in and the ensuing conflict led to 100 casualties.
With a swirl of tear gas in the air, the referee called a halt to proceedings after 79 minutes and the tie was awarded by default to valiant Swindon. The Robins became the inaugural winners and concurrent holders of both the Anglo-Italian League Cup and Anglo-Italian Cup. Meanwhile, Napoli received a two-year ban from European competition for their troubles.
“I was playing out wide on the left and suddenly saw this block on concrete at my feet. I’ve never moved so quick in all my life. Suddenly, I was playing more like an inside left, just to avoid all this stuff that was being thrown!”
Don Rogers, Swindon Town
Unfortunately, the disorder seen in the final had not been an isolated incident. The competition provided a battleground upon which footballing cultures collided. The group match between Lanerossi Vicenza and West Brom had also been abandoned after a robust challenge from Asa Hartford led to a mass brawl, which spread from the pitch to the stands. This lapse of discipline resulted in both teams being awarded a 2-0 loss by the organisers.
Notwithstanding, the competition had given rise to some memorable moments on the pitch, such as Swindon’s home and away victories over Juventus and West Brom’s 4-0 drubbing of AS Roma. And, as a rudimentary precursor to modern end-of-season exhibition matches, the competition provided a valuable source of off-season income for participating clubs. Undeterred by those disciplinary problems, the organisers decided the competition would be played again in the same format.
The following season saw the beginning of a remarkable run for Blackpool. They finished bottom of the First Division in 1970/71, yet managed to topple Bologna in the final to win that year’s Anglo-Italian Cup. The next season they were invited back as reigning champions, defeating Lanerossi Vicenza 10-0 in the group stage on route to another final, where they were narrowly defeated by AS Roma.
The fantasy scorelines continued to flow as Crystal Palace defeated Inter at the San Siro (1971) and Carlisle got the better of AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico (1972). The incentive of a bonus point for goals scored was working its magic too in a competition that was proving nightmarish for leggy defenders at the end of a long season. The 1972 tournament saw 66 goals across 25 matches with Atalanta memorably beating Leicester 5-3 in Bergamo, only for Leicester to overturn the deficit at Filbert Street a week later with a 6-0 humbling.
Notwithstanding, there was something of an imbalance between the stature of the representatives sent by the respective football associations. Whilst the Italians had initially fielded their best and most successful teams, such as Juventus, Inter and Roma, the powerhouses of English football were notably absent, with the numbers being made by clubs such as Huddersfield and Stoke.
By 1972/73, the spectacle was beginning to lose its appeal with the paying public and attendances declined. In a last throw of the dice, the tournament was expanded to eight teams from each country, and a domestic semi-final stage was introduced. However, it became increasingly difficult to strike a balance between quality and quantity of competition, and the calibre of participants from both countries declined further with clubs such as Como, Bari, Hull and Luton taking part.
Ultimately, a format could not be found that satisfied both the sporting and commercial objectives of the tournament and the 1973 final would be the last in its current form. Newcastle’s 2-1 victory over Fiorentina was the curtain call for a bloody and fleetingly brilliant competition. Whilst the loss of the tournament would be mourned by few outside the provincial towns of Swindon and Blackpool, it would not be gone forever.
Throughout the month of September Calcio England ran #AngloItalianCupMonth with photos, anecdotes and curiosities on Twitter (@CalcioEngland) and further blog posts:
Part II: The Farcical Mismatches of the Anglo-Italian Cup: the Semi-Professional Years 1976-86
Part III: The Tempestuous Curtain Call of a Tournament Destined to Fail: the Anglo-Italian Cup 1992-96
Part IV: Pirlo, Vieri, Batistuta & the Glorious Alumni of the Anglo-Italian Cup 1992-96