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?

A reminder of the glory of Italian football 

MOST people expect the winners of the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Manchester City to be the ultimate victors in the competition this season. There was no shortage of experts tagging the first leg in Madrid as “the proper final”, almost dismissing AC Milan and Inter Milan as also-rans. It is undoubtedly good to see the Rossoneri and Nerazzuri in the latter stages of the Champions League once more and it is encouraging to find five Italian clubs in the semi-finals of Europe’s top three bunfights. But in reality, the co-tenants of the San Siro will not be worrying either City or Real too much.

Quite simply, they have both recovered their poise, winning the scudetto in the past two years, but Serie A remains a long way behind the Premier League and La Liga. One of them will be in the final, which will be good for Italy and for the prestige of the Champions League. Although Inter and Milan are far off their finest days, the road back has started and at least they know the challenge is very clear – somehow, compete with the financial muscle of the Premier League. Five out of 12 teams in the last four will do Italian football no harm at all, making the league more attractive to sponsors, which in turn might close the gap between Italian football and its peer group. A little.

Inter were undoubtedly the better of the two teams in the first leg, by some distance. Milan were surprisingly poor and might have lost by more than two goals. In fact, such was Inter’s superiority, Milan must be relieved they got out of the first leg in anything like one piece. If the suspect penalty hadn’t been overturned, the result might have been worse and the tie well and truly over.

Both teams have not had the best domestic campaigns. After winning Serie A in 2022, Milan have been inconsistent and are currently in fifth place. They went out of the Coppa Italia early and in the Champions League, finished second in a group that included Chelsea, Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb. They disposed of Tottenham and Napoli in the knockout phase. Inter were fancied to recapture the scudetto in 2022-23 but they have underperformed at times. Napoli were by far the best side in Serie A, hence their big margin of success. Inter had a tough Champions League group that included Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Viktoria Plzen. They eliminated Portugal’s finest in Porto and Benfica in the round of 16 and quarter-finals respectively. Inter have also made the final of the Coppa and face Fiorentina on May 24 in Rome.

The Milanese duo are among the best supported teams in Europe and average over 72,000 at their San Siro home. The derby always brings out the partisan in the locals and the atmosphere for the Champions League tie was a reminder of the importance, heritage and passion of Italian football. 

Inter’s two goals came from the impressive Edin Džeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose combined ages total 71. Inter also have Francesco Acerbi and Matteo Darmian who are in their mid-30s. The average age of Inter’s line-ups is 29.2 which is one of the oldest in Europe. Milan’s team is younger (average 26.4), although Olivier Giroud, who has had a new lease of life since joining the club, is 36 years old. 

As it stands, Manchester City and Real Madrid are among the richest clubs, each generating over € 700 million in revenues per season (source: Deloitte), while Inter’s income was around € 308 million and AC Milan’s € 265 million in 2021-22. Little wonder City and Real have squads with more depth, higher wage bills and have the ability to attract the young and up-and-coming talent of world football. And yet, one of the Milan giants will definitely be in the final and will be reviving memories of when they were truly the kings of European football. It is often forgotten that Milan won the Champions League in 2007 and Inter, under José Mourinho, lifted that rather outsized trophy in 2010. It’s not that long ago, but how the game (indeed, the world) has changed since then.