West Ham’s forgotten 1975 meetings with Fiorentina

WEST HAM UNITED recently won through to their first European final since 1976 and have the chance to pick up their first piece of silverware since 1980’s FA Cup triumph against Arsenal at Wembley. Their opponents, Fiorentina, will be looking for their first major prize since 2001. Both clubs have won in Europe before, Fiorentina in 1961 when they lifted the now defunct Cup-Winners’ Cup, West Ham four years later in the same competition.

In 1975, the two clubs met in a two-legged challenge between the domestic cup winners of England and Italy. Like other footballing goodwill ventures between the two countries, this was the brainchild of Gigi Peronace, the smiling Italian wheeler-dealer who brokered the big cross-border transfers involving Denis Law, Jimmy Greaves, John Charles and Joe Baker as Italian football developed a taste for British players.

The move to create a credible tournament involving clubs from England and Italy began with the creation of the Anglo-Italian League Cup, which was more or less invented to reward Swindon Town, the 1969 Football League Cup winners, with European football after being barred from entering the Fairs Cup due to their third tier status. Swindon then went on to win the inaugural Anglo-Italian Cup in 1970, a summer competition that saw them beat Napoli 3-0 in a game that was abandoned due to crowd problems. Blackpool and Newcastle United won the 1971 and 1973 editions with Fiorentina finishing runners-up in the latter.

As for the Anglo-Italian League Cup, this was played in 1970 and 1971 with Bologna and Tottenham emerging as winners, but it was put into cold storage in 1972, 1973 and 1974. In 1975, it was rekindled but with the FA Cup and Coppa Italia winners contesting the two-legged match. In 1974-75, West Ham United won the FA Cup for the second time in their history, beating Fulham 2-0 –  Bobby Moore et al – in the final. In Italy, Fiorentina won the Coppa Italia, overcoming AC Milan 3-2. Both the Hammers and I Viola (the violets) would play in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, so there was every chance they could come up against each other in the serious stuff.

Nevertheless, the two games with Fiorentina would give West Ham valuable experience that could be drawn on in their Cup-Winners’ Cup campaign. Winning the FA Cup gave West Ham added impetus for the 1975-76 season and they started enthusiastically well, playing some adventurous football and going unbeaten in their first nine games. In the first few months of the league programme, they beat fading London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, drew with title contenders Queens Park Rangers and won 2-1 at Upton Park against Tommy Docherty’s resurgent Manchester United.

Fiorentina had a young player who would later become part of Italy’s World Cup winning side of 1982, Giancarlo Antognoni, an elegant midfielder who had a touch of “fantasy” about the way he performed. The 21 year-old had already been capped by Italy and would go on to play 73 times for the Azzurri. 

The first leg of the challenge was on September 3, 1975 in the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence. The Italian league season had not started yet, but West Ham were unbeaten and second in the table after drawing 1-1 at QPR. A healthy 30,000 crowd turned up to see the game and witness a 19th minute error by West Ham’s keeper, Mervyn Day. The youngster let a tame shot by Vincenzo Guerini pass through his hands to give Fiorentina a 19th minute lead. It was the only goal of the game and the home fans were not convinced by their team’s performance. Day, meanwhile, admitted to his error, which had come shortly after two blunders in games against Burnley and QPR. “If I am going to make mistakes, it is better they come this early in the season rather than later,” he said. West Ham manager John Lyall, was philosophical about the defeat: “We did what you must never do against an Italian side – let them score first.” He added that Fiorentina had been very frustrating to play against. How many managers in the late 1960s and early 1970s complained about the negativity of Italian football?

By the time the second leg arrived in December, the situation had changed for West Ham. Their league form had started to deteriorate but they had won through to the last eight of the Cup-Winners’ Cup after beating Reipas Lahti of Finland and the Armenian side Ararat Yerevan of the USSR (second leg pictured). Their quarter-final would be against Den Haag of the Netherlands. Fiorentina had lost half of their eight Serie A games but went into the second leg following a 2-0 victory over Roma. They were still two places off the bottom and not playing especially well. Their European run was over after losing on penalties to East Germany’s Sachsenring Zwickau in the seconds round.

The game didn’t capture the imagination of the east London public and the crowd was a disappointing 14,699 at Upton Park. But among the spectators was new England manager Don Revie who was watching the Italians with one eye on the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers. 

West Ham huffed and puffed and worked themselves into the ground, but Fiorentina demonstrated great economy of effort and allowed the ball to do their work for them. Once again, they scored in the 19th minute, a left foot shot by Walter Speggiorin. Although Trevor Brooking performed well in midfield and matched the Italian cup holders, many of his team-mates struggled and the best player on the pitch was clearly Antognoni.

The press concluded that West Ham’s hopes of winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup could depend on the lessons learned from Fiorentina. In the second half of the league season, they declined terribly and ended in 18th place, just six points off of relegation, but they pulled off two exciting comebacks in Europe, overcoming Den Haag and Eintracht Frankfurt, to reach the final. They were eventually beaten by Anderlecht in Brussels by 4-2.

The past two seasons have seen West Ham come up against old rivals Anderlecht and Eintracht Frankfurt and now they face Fiorentina in Prague. It has been a long time, but surely, the Hammers owe the Italians one?

Manchester City were utterly superb, but we should worry

THE last time the football world eulogised so enthusiastically about the single performance of a team was when Barcelona were at their 2011 peak in the Champions League final against Manchester United. There have been other occasions when perfection has been on the pitch, but the way Manchester City tore apart Real Madrid, the reigning and ageing European champions, was so compelling that even the club’s detractors were purring with delight. It was, in all probability, a signal for their rivals; having conquered English football, City are now moving on to the next phase of the project. It’s called, Ladies and Gentleman, “Europe”.

City have, since Pep Guardiola became coach, won nine major trophies and a 10th is likely going to be secured by the end of the coming weekend. In that time, they have kicked Chelsea and Manchester United into touch, finished ahead of an excellent Liverpool side and have been too good for the north London duo of Tottenham and Arsenal. This season, Arsenal’s young team have overperformed and made the title challenge real, but they could yet finish seven points behind City. In other words, even the best of the other “big six” clubs cannot compete on a consistent basis with City.

Already, Arsenal’s empty tank is being explained as an inevitable consequence of trying to keep pace with a state-owned club. That they did is to the credit of Mikel Arteta’s team, but the “collapse” was really in a string of draws and finally, a 3-0 home defeat at the hands of Brighton. Arsenal, like Liverpool in recent years, have had to be at their absolute best to seriously trouble City. City’s wealth is one thing, but wealth doesn’t guarantee success, you have to spend your money well and City, generally, do just that. The wealth also enables them to concentrate on quality rather than squad fillers, but essentially, their game-plan and their coach is what creates the gap between them and their opponents.

The bad news is, the gap between City and at least 14 clubs in the Premier is vast: in the five years between 2017-18 and 2021-22, they averaged 91.6 points per season. Liverpool had the second best average (86.4) but after that, no other side managed to break the 70 mark. Chelsea, who were the most successful team in the seven years prior to Guardiola’s arrival, won nine trophies in that period but since Pep turned up, they have won just four. Liverpool, by contrast, have risen to the challenge and have won four prizes in the Guardiola era, three more in the previous seven years. Tottenham have been potless since 2008 and Arsenal’s haul has been five FA Cup wins from 2014 to 2020. Manchester United’s ability to win major prizes has, in comparison to the days of Sir Alex, fallen off a cliff. United’s dominance was stymied by Abramovich’s Chelsea, but Abu Dhabi-owned City are now standing astride football and Chelsea are struggling to keep in the top half of the Premier League. It’s not that they don’t have money, because they have spent heavily, but they haven’t been smart.

Questions have been asked, and will continue to be asked, about Abu Dhabi and City Football Group, but they are the same concerns that have clouded Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of Newcastle United and Qatar’s ownership of Paris Saint-Germain. It is possible Manchester United will be in the hands of Qatar in the near future. We have seen, all too vividly, that football will forget its values when the stakes are at their highest – hence FIFA’s love affair with Qatar and the scenes in Newcastle when the plane from Riyadh landed and brought an end to the Mike Ashley years. Hypocrisy is everywhere in football: if it suits our club, we’ll look the other way.

The trend of state-connected clubs is not at an end yet and for every big takeover that takes place, there will be clubs who start to seek-out a new owner who can keep them competitive. In other words, there will be a certain amount of pressure to follow the oil.

Manchester City could be on the brink of all-out control of English football. When they clinch the Premier League in the next few days, it will be their third consecutive title and the fifth under Guardiola. They could win the FA Cup against Manchester United on June 3 and a week later, will be favourites to complete a treble against Inter Milan in the Champions League final. Who is to say they cannot repeat this stellar performance in 2023-24? Liverpool will be in transition (with or without Klopp), Chelsea are in a complete mess and Arsenal may have trouble motivating themselves after going so close. Tottenham are Tottenham and are still grappling with an identity crisis. Manchester United could be City’s main rival next season, although Newcastle’s evolution may make them into more robust contenders.

The Premier League is said to be the strongest and most exciting league in the world, but it is a two-speed competition with six or seven clubs battling for the top four and the rest hoping to steer clear of relegation. Most have no chance of winning anything other than maintaining Premier status. At some point, this model will surely become stale and crowds will start to tail off, although it may take a while yet. If City and other state-funded clubs begin to make the differential into an impossible chasm, there may come a time when these clubs become too big and their stable mates will be consigned to a level of mediocrity that will be quite unattractive. This won’t be good for profitability, investment or sponsorship. It is absolutely a “gorilla in the room” discussion, but would football actually benefit from taking the giants out of the equation to introduce more competitiveness to legacy structures?

There would be many considerations and lots of hurdles, but the football world has to ask itself if the current aristocracy – Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and others – are ever likely to be anything other than richer than the rest. The answer is no, because it is not in their interest to shrink and in modern business, continual growth is the name of the game. That’s why there is a danger to the rest of football that these clubs will forever be in control and the chances of anyone else getting even a sniff of glory is more unlikely than it has ever been. Unless they can find an owner that becomes a king-maker, of course.