THE death of Pierino Prati will have been met with appropriate sadness in Milan and Rome, but outside of Italy, there’s probably a lot of football fans who have never heard of him. He is part of a list of players who were on target in crucial games but their place in history has largely been overlooked.
Prati was the last man to score a hat-trick in a UEFA European Cup/Champions League final, netting three against an emerging Ajax side in 1969 in Madrid. For that reason alone, Prati deserves the highest praise, but it should not be forgotten he was also a member of the 1970 Italian World Cup squad that finished runners-up to the mighty Brazil.
Prati never got to take the field in Mexico, Italy had some outstanding striking talent at the time in Luigi Riva and Roberto Boninsegna, but he would have received a runners-up medal all the same. Two years earlier, he was part of the Italy team that won the 1968 European Championship, playing in the semi-final against the Soviet Union and the drawn final with Yugoslavia.
Prati joined AC Milan in 1965-66 from Serie C side Salernitana and made his debut for the club before being sent out on loan to Serie B’s Savona in 1966-67. He returned to Milan and in 1967-68, had the season of his life. Milan won the Serie A title and Prati was top scorer in the league with 15 goals. They also won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1968 with Milan beating Hamburg in the final. Prati scored vital goals in both the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
Milan’s 4-1 win is one of the least remembered of finals (at least outside of Milan) and the game itself was watched by only 32,000 people in the Bernabéu stadium. Prati scored with two headers and a long range effort, linking-up nicely with Italian golden boy Gianni Rivera, who skippered the team that evening in Madrid.
Prati’s performances over two years earned him recognition in Europe and in 1969, he was placed ninth in the Balon d’Or voting. His team mate, Rivera, was named European Footballer of the Year.
Prati was scarcely heard of internationally again, although his Italy career didn’t end until 1974 and he left Milan in 1973 with an impressive goalscoring record of 102 goals in 207 games. He moved to Roma and later Fiorentina and Savona.
Prati was an excellent striker but it was his misfortune that Italy had Gigi Riva at the time. Nevertheless, the lad from Cinisello Balsamo, some 10 kilometres from the centre of Milan, deserves his place in history.
Prati is not the only European Cup hero that merits more praise than has been afforded to players who made their mark on the game’s heritage. Fernando Serena was Real Madrid’s matchwinner in May 1966 when the Spanish giants picked up their sixth European Cup by beating Partizan Belgrade 2-1 in Brussels.
Serena was a winger who worked his way through the Real Madrid system. He was not always a regular for Real and between 1961 and 1968 he made just 54 La Liga appearances. In 1965-66, he turned out just 12 times in the league and appeared in the semi-finals and final of the European Cup. Serena was playing alongside legendary figures like Gento, Amancio, Velázquez and Pirri, so it was perhaps easy to be classed as second choice. Serena’s winner in the Heysel stadium was his only European Cup goal, but it was truly memorable, a long range effort on the run with 14 minutes to go. Serena won just one cap for Spain and his Real career ended two years after his greatest moment when he signed for Elche. He died in 2018 in Pamplona.
Peter Withe, who scored Aston Villa’s European Cup winner in 1982, epitomised the term “journeyman” in his long and successful career. Withe was frequently underrated in his playing career, even though he was the archetypal big target man that many managers liked to use. In a 20-year career, he played for 11 Football League clubs, scoring 163 league goals in over 450 appearances.
Withe’s career hit a peak with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, where he was joint top scorer in the club’s 1977-78 league title win. But many people felt Withe was only a stop-gap and never gave him full credit for his part in Forest’s success. By the end of August 1978, Withe, who was only just 27, was sold to Newcastle United but two years later, he returned to the Midlands with Aston Villa.
Withe paired up with a young, whippet-like striker in Gary Shaw and the partnership worked a treat. In 1980-81, the duo scored over 40 times and Withe netted a career-best of 20 league goals as Villa won their first league title since 1910. At almost 30, Withe was capped by England for the first time and was part of the squad until 1984, earning a total of 11 caps.
Villa reached the European Cup final in 1982 against the odds. Nobody really predicted they would have an extended run in the competition and they were certainly underdogs in the final against Bayern Munich. Withe’s golden moment came halfway through the second half, a typical finish after Tony Morley had sent the ball across the area from the left flank.
Often overlooked when people talk about football in the 1970s and 1980s, Peter Withe had a fine career – two league title wins, the European Cup and capped by his country. More celebrated players have certainly ended their playing days with far less.
Football is that type of game – George Best never played in a FA Cup final or World Cup, Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews and Steven Gerrard failed to win a league title, Zlatan has never won the UEFA Champions League. As a manager, Brian Clough never lifted the FA Cup. The most decorated players are often the unsung heroes – take Phil Neal as an example – eight league titles, four European Cups and four Football League Cups.
For players like Prati, Serena and With, their names may never have appeared in lights or rolled off the tongue, but in classic manager speak, they “did the business” when it mattered. When Milan mourns their hero of 1969, they will certainly remember the deeds of Pierino Prati on that night in Madrid.