Nothing beats a European night game. The floodlights burn brightly with the lush green pitch looking bright that it is like watching a game from another world. Equally there is a sense of adventure as you get ready to pit your wits against the best of Europe.
Welsh football clubs may not be mentioned in the same breadth as Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan or Liverpool but they certainly have had their moments of glory. The now defunct European cup winners cup was the opportunity for the Welsh cup winners to test their mettle against the best of Europe.
True they may not have lifted a European trophy but the likes of Newport, Bangor City, and even Merthyr Tydfil had their moments of glory. Sometimes football is not necessarily about winning the trophies but enjoying the moment especially when the nose of a bigger club has been bloodied.
For Newport County they were a crossbar away from making the 1980-81 semi-finals of the Cup winners Cup and earning a place to play Benfica. It was a remarkable achievement for the third division side as five years earlier Newport were in danger of going bankrupt. Matters were not great on the pitch as the team finished 22nd in the 24 fourth division and had to seek re-election.
The following year a 1-0 win against Workington saved Newport having to go through the ordeal of re-election again. Les Ashurst a former Liverpool youth team player took over from Colin Addison in 1978 as he went to West Bromwich Albion. It was to be one of the more successful periods for Newport with the 1979-80 season seeing the club finish third and earn promotion to the third division.
Newport also added a bit of silverware to their trophy cabinet after beating Shrewsbury Town 5-1 over two legs. A 2-1 win at Somerton Park followed by an empathic 3-0 win away at Gay Meadow saw Newport lift the Welsh cup. As a result it also gave them the opportunity to test themselves in the European cup winners cup.
Newport’s European adventure was to start against Northern Ireland’s Crusader’s who consisted of the usual part-timers of shipyard, building site and office workers. Indeed the Crusaders Manager Ian Russell had to take four days unpaid leave from his teaching job.
The first leg at Somerton Park was a 4-0 win with a certain John Aldridge scoring in the victory. Although the return leg finished 0-0 and in the words of Ashurst was ‘just about the worst game that I’ve seen.’ No matter, Newport were in the next round were they drew Norwegian cup winners Haugar who had beaten Swiss side Basle 3-1 over the two legs.
It seemed that the game might have to be moved ten miles away to Kopervik due to torrential heavy rain. However to what sounds similar to a classic FA cup third round non-league pitch, the Norwegian’s dropped tonnes of sawdust on the surface for the match to take place. Not surprisingly it was difficult to play on but Newport managed to get a 0-0 draw confident that they could win the game at Somerton Park. Ashurst’s confidence was well founded as Newport beat Haugar out of sight with a 6-0 victory.
The quarter-finals now beckoned and although Newport avoided the heavyweight’s of Benfica and Feyernoord by drawing East Germany’s Carl Zeiss Jena, it was a game that many felt would be a game too far for Newport. After all Jena had beaten Roma and the Cup winners cup holder’s Valencia in the earlier rounds.
Despite talks of it being a formality for Jena it was to be a game that would live long in the memory for Newport fans. A tie that would still bring hushed, excited tones of how Newport outplayed the East Germans and almost booked a place in the semi-final. They were also without their star players John Aldridge and Alan Waddle the former through injury whilst the latter was ineligible.
Arriving during Fasching a pre-lent festival there was a carnival atmosphere with Jena fans confident that they could put the game to bed in the first leg with an emphatic victory. Newport though had different ideas as they took the game to Jena who managed absorb the pressure before exerting their own influence in the game and taking the lead in the 22nd minute.
Rather than it turning into a rout for Jena the Welsh side managed to hold their own as they then suddenly grabbed an important away goal in the 39th minute with Tynan equalising for Newport.
The second half continued in the same vein although when Jena scored five minutes from time from a corner it seemed that the East Germans would take an important win for the second leg. Newport though were undeterred as Gwyther raced down the right and passed the ball into the box. This was then returned to Gwyther who passed to Tynan who then promptly knocked the ball past Jena’s goalkeeper. Grapenthin should have done better as he allowed it slip through his hands but that didn’t diminish the performance and result for Newport. Indeed Jana’s coach Mayer admitted that ‘Newport are holding all the trumps.’
Back home the press declared it a fantastic performance with the Times headlines declaring ‘Newport, the minnows who played like giants.’
As the date of the second leg approached, cup fever engulfed Newport with tickets becoming like gold dust. It was certainly a game to be remembered as Newport swamped Jena with Oakes seeing two efforts cleared off the line. Newport was convinced that they had scored from a corner when they thought Gwyther’s header had crossed the line.
The pressure from Newport did not stop with more shots but it was to be Jena that took advantage by scoring through a gap in the wall after a well struck free kick. Nevertheless Newport cheered on loudly by the Somerton Park faithful knew that another goal would take them through on away goals providing they didn’t concede any further.
Once again the Jena goal was under siege with Lowndes seeing a shot being deflected over, Grapenthin keeping out a close range header, another goal line clearance and Tynan hitting the crossbar that ensured Jena still had the advantage.
It was to be a game were nothing would go in and in stoppage time Grapenthin pulled off a dramatic save to keep Moore’s header out that would have booked Newport a semi-final place. Once the final whistle blew nobody could fathom how Newport did not score.
The players and supporters although proud of their performance were stunned with the loss feeling raw. After all they were a crossbar, goal line, and a fine save away from getting that goal that would have seen Newport earn that semi-final place and seeing if they could do do the unthinkable and book a place in the final. As it was Jena scraped through more relieved than they would have thought prior to when the draw was made.
When Bangor took on Napoli
A slow black and white shot carefully scans over the town of Bangor before it takes in a small football ground. There is nothing spectacular about it in the same sense of the Camp Nou or the Bernabeu but this was to be the background for when Bangor took on Serie A club Napoli.
Despite this being both clubs first foray into Europe (Bangor had beaten North Wales rivals Wrexham 5-0 on aggregate, whilst Napoli had beaten SPAL 2-1) the gulf between the two was of Grand Canyon proportions. True Napoli had just been promoted to the top flight but Bangor were playing in the not so giddy heights of the Cheshire league.
Consequently and despite Napoli being short of match fitness due to their season starting two weeks later it was still a tie that was meant to be a formality for the Italian cup holders. After all their two Argentinian forwards Rosa and Tacchi had cost more than Bangor’s entire income since the war.
Nobody though gave Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky a chance against Apollo Creed but like Stallone’s plucky underdog it was Bangor who was to put Napoli on the canvas. Right from the off they had put the Italian’s under pressure and consequently it was no surprise when Matthew’s scored from a cross from Hunter. Delirium broke out as fans invaded the pitch before the Police cleared the pitch as the referee gave the crowd a stern warning about any further pitch invasions.
The Italians had a couple of break away chances hitting the bar and the Bangor keeper saving with his legs. However Bangor were the dominant team and had chances to extend their lead as McAllister, Matthews, and Hunter stretched Napoli. Indeed Ellis hit the bar when it seemed easier to score whilst Pontel pulled off a number of top saves to keep Napoli in it.
It was no surprise when Birch made it 2-0 from the spot after Corelli was adjudged to have fouled Brown. Matthews could have made it three but put his header from close range into the keeper’s hands.
If Napoli thought that this was just to be a minor set back it wasn’t as Bangor continued to give as good as they got during the ninety minutes of the second leg in Naples. Napoli had pulled one back sixteen minutes before half time with Tacchi levelling matters on aggregate. Bangor though were not be deterred as McAllister stunned the San Paolo into silence as he pulled one back and now made it 3-2 to Bangor on aggregate.
Six minutes before time Fanello saved Napoli’s blushes as he scored and made it 3-3 on aggregate. Luckily for Napoli the away goals rule had not yet been introduced with a playoff match arranged at Arsenal’s Highbury.
Yet again Bangor were to give another good account of themselves. Rosa had given Napoli the lead before half time but it was to be McAllister who equalised for Bangor. With the clock ticking down, Napoli managed to get the winner five minutes from time but like Rocky the plaudits were for Bangor considering the different levels and resources that both teams operated on.
Such was the embarrassment for Napoli that the club disguised Bangor’s lowly status only for an Italian journalist to spill the beans with mayhem ensuing. It was said that it cost Napoli’s club President Achille Lauro his position in the Mayor elections. What cannot be denied was that it was another game that would live long in the memory for Bangor and Welsh football.
Merthyr Tydfil v Atalanta
Back when Italian football attracted the world’s best players, nobody gave Beazer Homes League (Southern league) Merthyr Tydfil a chance when they were drawn to play Atlanta in the Cup winners Cup in 1987. True Atalanta had been relegated the season before to Serie B but there was still an alleged chasm between the two sides.
Merthyr Tydfil had earned their European spot after beating Newport in the Welsh Cup whereas Atalanta were there as runner’s up after Napoli had won the double. Even so Atalanta still had some big names to call on such as the Swedish captain Glenn Stromberg.
A sense of anticipation had engulfed the town as Merthyr Tydfil prepared themselves for their biggest night in football. The official attendance was 8,000 but reports suggested that it was at least 14,000 fans who managed to cram into Penydarren Park.
The electric atmosphere crackled with the noise that it seemed to charge the Merthyr Tydfil players who started fast from the blocks. With the fans cheering every touch as Merthyr Tydfil put Atalanta under pressure the roof was blown off after Kevin Rodgers gave Tydfil the lead.
Atalanta managed to temporally silent the crowd as they equalised before half time but they were unable to take control of the match for the second half. It was Merthyr Tydfil who at times outplayed Atalanta who pressed to score another. The goal came from Ceri Williams who worked in the tarmac trade whose contract was £10 and two pints of lager per game. Bedlam ensued after the final whistle with the players enjoying a lap of honour as they earned immortality in the club’s history books. The result was also enough for them to earn a spot on the legendary Saint and Greavsie football show.
Unfortunately Merthyr Tydfil were unable to match their first leg performance. Atalanta had taken no chances with the Atalanta fans turning up in huge numbers setting off flares and banners. Despite the intimidating atmosphere it was still an experience that none of Merthyr Tydfil players and those fans that travelled over would experience again.
This time Atalanta dominated the game and despite the fighting spirit of Merthyr Tydfil’s player’s it was to be the Italian side who won the game 2-0 to ensure that Atalanta won 3-2 on aggregate.
Despite being knocked out it was Merthyr Tydfil who earned the plaudits’ and legendary status. They were to cap a fine season as they secured promotion to the Conference league. Atalanta reached the semi-finals and secured a place back into Serie A.
Sometimes football isn’t just about winning trophies but making memories especially when the odds are stacked against you. The Welsh cup provided many clubs and fans memorable nights that will live long on amongst those who still have a footballing soul and sense of adventure.