The forgotten trip - by Chairman Mao
The Anglo-Italian competition had been played in different formats between 1970 and 1996 between clubs from England and Italy. It was founded by Gigi Peronace, the Italian super-agent who had sorted the transfer of John Charles from Leeds United to Juventus in 1957.The first final in 1970 was abandoned early due to violence and Swindon Town declared the winners. The Cup limped on until 1973 when it was dropped through lack of interest. The much-maligned tournament returned as a semi-professional tournament from 1976 before it was abolished again in 1986 but in that final year the usual format was interrupted as a Welsh club was invited to participate (via the Southern League) – Merthyr Tydfil AFC.
Our club played a masterstroke before even leaving Wales as the Board acting upon a suggestion by club secretary Ken Tucker invited John Charles to accompany the team on the trip to Italy. Charlo, as Terry affectionately called him through the interview, accepted on the condition that the club pay for his wife Glenda to go too.
Mansel Williams and Terry Collins accompanied the team as club directors and we caught up with Terry during the recent Chesham United game to find out more about this “forgotten” match which occurred just over a year before the famous Atalanta games.
Terry’s main memory of the trip is the reception given to John Charles wherever he went with the team; “I remember the press following us everywhere and there was even a back-page article in one of the big daily newspapers which I brought home with me. I had to get Tony Viazzani in the Station Café to translate it for me.”
“I remember between games one night we went for a stroll, me, John, Lyn and I think Frankie. We came across this restaurant or bar and it was empty. We’ve gone in and within seconds the owner has recognized John, we didn’t pay for anything and he was bowing to John all the time, he went on the phone chattering away and it’s no exaggeration to say that within a quarter of an hour the place was absolutely heaving!”
“Another story from that trip was that I wanted to go to church on the Sunday and Glenda offered to come along too so we asked the guy in the hotel how far was the church and he said about a mile, not too far to walk so the following morning it was raining heavily so we weren’t going to bother but a car turned up for us. I asked about the return journey and was told that the driver would wait for us. We were treated like royalty!”
The team had travelled out from Heathrow and the hosts had sorted the hotel for the visiting clubs. The other Southern League club invited for the tournament was Woodford Town from London.
“Wayne Jones, the goalkeeper, had never flown before and I’m sat behind him on the plane, especially when we took off his knuckles were white, he spent the flight with his head inside his sweater, I was thinking he’s the goalkeeper and supposed to be brave but oh no!”
It’s intrigued me to research this tournament as no one seems to remember the team’s visit to Italy. Terry agreed that the whole event had been very low key which was in stark contrast to the visit to Bergamo a year or so later with virtually the same team.
The team had specially embroidered sweaters for the journey. The badge being the flags of Wales and Italy.
The team stayed in Italy for a week, the tournament was played in April. Terry mentioned that we played three games although I’ve only managed to find the details v Pontedera and Woodford.
“We ended up winning two Cups, but don’t ask me what that was about” added Terry.
Carl Lewis had been playing in the Welsh League team when he got a surprise call up from Lyn Jones for the trip, he also remembers John Charles’s contribution to the trip’s success; “We played the first game in unbelievable heat and Pontedera were running rings around u so Lyn decided to put Roger Mullen on in the second half and as soon as he got on the pitch he took out the home team winger with a waist high challenge. John Charles was on the bench, smoking a cigarette without a word until that incident and then he just said “should have done that a hour ago!””
Carl also confirmed that we only played the two matches.
The abiding memory for anyone in the Merthyr Tydfil party on the trip was obviously the reception given to John Charles more than twenty-five years after he had left Juventus. We should also consider that this tournament was being held not even twelve months after the Heysel Stadium Disaster so again we were one of the first British teams to play Italian opposition after that appalling evening in Brussels.
The local currency was a source of amusement for the players especially with the high lira notes in circulation; “Ceri Williams kept on saying, lads I’m down to my last thousand, which of course was worth about 40p but that was his thing throughout the trip”
“No matter where we went though, in any bar, we never had to put our hand in our pocket.”
The Italian job for Merthyr may have been limited in success - but nevertheless rated as very enjoyable by everyone.
Manager Lyn Jones said "It was very enjoyable, but hard going because of the travelling involved. Apart from the soccer, we got in a bit of sight-seeing including Pisa and Venice."
Ceri Williams was sent off in the 6-1 defeat against Pontedera who were managed by Marcello Lippi at the very start of his coaching career, in the Martyrs first game. Ironically it was Georgie who scored our lone goal.
Jones added "Our defence was absolutely shocking. It was a very disappointing performance and result."
Defeat meant that Merthyr played the other losing side, Woodford to decide third and fourth position. They defeated Woodford, from the Southern Division of the Southern league, 3-2. Andy Beattie (2) and Chris Baird scored for Merthyr ensuring they finish in third place.
Piacenza went onto beat Pontedera 5-1 to win the tournament.
The next year we were back in Italy but maybe the first steps in that epic Welsh Cup season were made in Tuscany with a football legend as an inspiration.