The demise of the Cup-Winners Cup means there are some European ties destined never to be repeated and Bangor City v Napoli is one of them. A shame, since the first meeting was very close. Cris Freddi looks back
This was the first European match played by either side, but no prizes for realising the comparisons end there. One of the big names of Serie A against something from the Cheshire League emerging blinking into the light. The two Argentinian forwards, Rosa and Tacchi, had cost more than Bangor’s entire income since the war. One team looked set for 90 minutes with their backs to the wall.
nd sure enough, Bangor attacked from start to finish. Brown’s back-header came close to giving them an early lead, and when they did go in front it was long overdue, Hunter’s cross reaching the 19-year-old Matthews on the edge of the area. Cue police action to clear crowd from pitch, followed by stiff warning from ref. Stay put or the game’s off.
In the first half, some classic Italian breakaways had come close to giving Napoli the lead: Fraschini hitting the bar, Davis saving with his legs from Tomeazzi. In the second, even these openings disappeared, while at the other end they were stretched by McAllister’s nous and the energy of Matthews and Hunter on the wings. Matthews missed a header, Ellis hit the bar when it looked easier to score, and “only a memorable performance by Pontel kept the score down”.
Eventually, Gianni Corelli was judged to have fouled Brown, and the Bangor captain put away the penalty. Napoli approached the referee mob-handed, which made more sense than doing it one at a time – he was well over six feet tall.
When the smoke cleared, Bangor had time to put the tie beyond doubt, but Matthews fluffed another header, only more so, putting the ball in the keeper’s hands from close range. It eventually made all the difference, but for the moment the non-League side could enjoy their achievement to the full. The first Welsh club to win a match in European competition – and simply one of the great football nights.
It’s true that under closer scrutiny the Dai and Goliath theme doesn’t hold up too well. Bangor had a clever manager in Tommy (TG) Jones, the former Wales centre-half – and some recent cup pedigree. After reaching the Welsh Cup final in 1960-61, they won it the following year by beating Cardiff and Wrexham – and Napoli weren’t much better. This was their first season back in the top division. They had won the cup while spending a single season in Serie B, and only Mariani and Ronzon ever played for Italy at senior level, winning a combined total of five caps.
Also, the team hadn’t actually played in Serie A yet. They met Bangor a fortnight before the start of their season, seriously short of match practice and time to bed in their new signings. The pitch was a traditional British mudheap, made interesting by overnight rain, so any counter-attacks were not going to be quick ones.
Nevertheless, none of this detracts very much, mainly because it wasn’t a one-off. In the second leg, played when the Italian season was well under way, Bangor had the nerve to attack at the San Paolo, scoring a late goal from a throw-in and not conceding a third until six minutes from time.
In today’s money, that 3-1 defeat would have put Bangor through on away goals. As it was, the third match, held at Highbury, seemed to give them a good chance (they had also won the Welsh Cup in a play-off), especially when Rivellino had to leave the pitch after a clash of heads. Although Napoli played better this time, again they didn’t score the winner until the last few minutes, this time when a dipping shot came back off the keeper, who had made a similar error in the second leg but earned his keep in between. Elimination with full honours.
Napoli had apparently disguised Bangor’s status from their supporters (hard to believe, this). The following day an Italian journalist spilled the beans, and all hell broke loose. It’s said that it cost their age-old president Achille Lauro his position as mayor in the next city elections. In the later rounds of the Cup-Winners Cup Napoli had to take part in two more play-offs, losing the second to OFK Belgrade, after which the rest of their season was a nightmare. Some of their players were fined after allegations of drug taking, the stadium was closed after a riot and they were relegated straight back to Serie B.
So this could be about the folly of trying to buy success, contrasting with the integrity of a small club that nearly beat them. It can’t really be about the strength of football in Wales: there were only three Welsh players in Bangor’s team. If it’s about anything, it’s the relative oomph of British football at the time, at least in some cup competitions. After Napoli went out, Tottenham went on to win the trophy – but even that’s not what we’re talking about. Nor the relative stamina of British and Italian players. It’s more to do with the way small British clubs raise their game in cup matches.
Domestic knockout competitions have simply never had the same weight of tradition in Italy. Although Fiorentina won the first Cup-Winners Cup in 1961 and reached the final the following year, they gave the impression they were taking part in Europe’s No 3 competition. To qualify, you had to win the Italian Cup, which the big clubs weren’t taking seriously at the time, witness second division Napoli win- ning the final against Spal, who finished one place above the relegation zone. As for clubs from Serie C and below – well, the idea that a non-League club could raise their game enough to win a match at European level has always been something from another planet.
Bangor never won the Welsh Cup again, despite reaching the final four more times, the last in 1985. Four years after that, Napoli finally won a European trophy for the first and only time, but only with the help of a Maradona handball that won them a penalty. And, of course, some more big spending.
From WSC 168 February 2001. What was happening this month