Calcio Retro – When Cymru met Italia, nearly a Napoli nightmare

Something that gets exaggerated a great deal is the widening gap between the haves and have-nots of European football. Those who talk about the disparity between the footballing powerhouses and relative minnows would do well to look at some of the cricket scores posted in European ties back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The gap may have been down to expertise and know-how rather than hard currency, but it was just as big then as it is now.

Shocks in team sports are on the whole less frequent and dramatic than in those that involve one-on-one competition. For the truly unthinkable to become possible, enough of one side needs to have a bad night while a similar number of the opposition exceed themselves for a brief and glorious period. One instance of this occurred in the autumn of 1962.

Napoli had come into the 1962/63 season as something of a side on the up. As well as being promoted from Serie B the previous season, the Partenopei had won the Coppa Italia, beating SPAL 2-1 in the final. Though it was lightly regarded by Serie A’s major players, victory in the competition guaranteed entry to the European Cup Winners Cup, a competition in its infancy, having been launched in 1960.

Bangor had seen an unspectacular season in the Cheshire League overshadowed by the success of winning the Welsh Cup. Beating football league clubs Cardiff and Wrexham in the semis and final respectively was some achievement for a club who played in the English non-league pyramid. This of course, was twenty years before the formation of the Alliance League, now the Conference.

Both would have welcomed the two sides being drawn together in the Preliminary Round. For Napoli, it was a side you would expect to beat comfortably in a draw that could have pit them against (on paper, anyway) more difficult opposition. For the Citizens of North Wales, this represented the sort of glamour tie that smaller clubs anticipate on third round day in either Coppa Italia or the FA Cup.

September 5, 1962 saw 8 000 squeeze into Bangor’s Farrar Road ground. Bruno Pesaola, a nationalised Argentinian who had played once for the Azzurri, would expect his team to weather an early storm and then let their class show. The former happened, the latter did not. Bangor, coached by former Everton and Wales star Tommy Jones, tore into their more illustrious opponents with a direct bombardment connoisseurs of Calcio would not have recognised. Rare breaks from the Partenopei were met with rugged defence and inspired goalkeeping from Len Davies. At the other end, pressure was building and when Hunter’s cross was finished by Roy Matthews it was no more than the hosts deserved. The second-half continued in much the same vein and not even hearing their woodwork clattered twice could awake the visitors. Eddie Brown tumbled in the box and the Danish referee was unhesitant – Ken Birch’s penalty was equally so.

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This set up an intriguing second leg in Naples on the 27th, with the Neopolitan tifosi not hoodwinked by attempts to overplay the status of the side that had comprehensively beaten them. Far from happy, they expected a response and got one. This time, Bangor’s early assaults were snuffed out and when Amos Mariani fired home from the edge of the box on the half-hour, it was game on again. Juan Tacchi’s second just after half-time appeared to have restored the footballing order to its axis. Cue Ken Birch, whose early take on the long-throw caused pandemonium in the home penalty area. Jimmy McAllister’s anticipation was better than anyone’s and with 20 minutes to play, Napoli was out. Under the current away goals rule, two would have been necessary. As it was, Giovanni Fanello’s strike six minutes from the end was enough to earn them a replay they barely deserved.

Having originally objected to playing the game at Highbury for reasons of proximity, the decider went ahead on 10 October, 1962. Over the three games, the Partenopei had become accustomed to what their underdog opponents would throw at them. In an end-to-end opening stanza, Napoli carried the greater menace and Humberto Rosa’s daisy-cutter from 25 yards gave them the lead just before the interval. The Citizens were never going to lie down and after Hunter went close at the start of the second half, Brian Wilkison fed McAllister, whose precision finish must have given him nemesis status in Naples. Ultimately, however, class told. It is unfortunate that in a series of inspired performances, the Welsh goalkeeper Davies would make a decisive error. Failure to hold a shot from range led to a bout of penalty-box-pinball and Rosa would not be denied.

Sometimes a close brush with a horror story can galvanise a team to greater things. However, Napoli would need another playoff to beat Ujpest of Hungary in the next round, before their luck in the sudden death format ran out – OFK Belgrade were the victors in Marseille. To add insult to injury, they were relegated back to Serie B at the end of the 1962/63 season.

Bangor would reach the Welsh Cup final again in 1985, losing to Shrewsbury Town, but qualifying for the Cup Winners Cup again, where they would defeat Fredrikstad of Norway before losing to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. These days a big fish in the smallish pond that is the League of Wales, they make frequent and usually brief forays into European competition. Napoli, of course, would become the dominant Serie A team of the late 1980s – their double of 1987 being followed by the UEFA Cup in 1989 and another Scudetto in 1990. That team has unfairly being tagged as ‘Diego and ten others’ by some who overlook the contributions of great players like Ciro Ferrara, Bruno Giordano and Careca. It takes a team of good players, all performing at a high level, to stand any chance of real success. Too many weak links or players simply having an off day can spell disaster.

Their team of a generation earlier would surely have concurred.

Calcio Retro

Castel di Sangro and the 1990s miracle

Piacenza – The Serie A years 1993-2003

When Cymru met Italia, nearly a Napoli nightmare

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