If there were mixed feelings when we heard of our first European opponents, the same could not be said when we came out of the hat first, followed by world class side AC Milan, for our second taste of the big time.
Eddie Rogers, staff reporter with the "Westmeath Independent" gave a marvellous account of the history of this famous club from which i select a few of the highlights.
Won Italian League, Championship nine times, Italian Cup once, European Cup twice, European Cup Winners Cup once, World Club Championship in 1969, beating Estudiantes (Argentina) 4-2 on aggregate. Founded 1899. Ground San Siro Stadium (Capacity 90,000), colours, red and black striped shirts, white shorts. The team and officials were accorded a civic reception by Athlone UDC and they had a short training spin at the Rugby grounds. Admission charges were Adults, £2; Youths, £1; Children, 50p.
This is how Mel Moffat of the Irish Press saw the game:
League of Ireland football reached a milestone, at little St. Mel's Park yesterday when Athlone Town came within an ace of beating former world club champions AC Milan, in the stirring first leg of a second round UEFA Cup tie. They gave Irish soccer a "million dollar" boost by humbling the millionaires from Italy and only an atrocious penalty miss from John Minnock, prevented them from sending an even bigger shock through Europe. It was Minnock's second missed penalty in his last four attempts and the fifth Athlone have failed to convert in their last seven spot kicks.
The 27-year-old mid-fielder, whose explosive shooting has been a feature of his club's fine football this season, surprisingly weakly prodded the ball straight at giant goalkeeper Albertosi, who had no problem in stunning the 10,000 crowd into open mouthed disbelief. The first hour of the game saw a lot of sizzling action by Athlone, who showed that they did'nt give a damn about reputations.
They had bravely attacked a defence, that played like a pack of hungry tigers. Some of the tackling was so severe at times, that you could almost hear the crackling of the bones, above the angry crowd. Referee Sorensen booked two Italians, Scala and Gorin and the Milan captain Bennetti was a lucky man not to get a yelloe card. But the referee who appeared at times amused by the "scything" that was taking place, never really got an authoritative grip ont the game. He allowed the Italians get away with virtually everything short of murder. He had no option but to look the other way when Athlone were goaded into retaliation. That Milan weren't interested in just playing football, was illustrated several times and Dougie Wood, who excelled as sweeper, once almost had the hair pulled off his head. Perhaps this was their punishment for making the Italians look very ordinary and at times a very nervous side.
Several times the ball was pumped deep into the crowd , as Milan hastily averted dangerous situations. Daly gave them a king-size headache in the first-half, with many exciting an d promising wing flourishes, while the powerful bursts of Davis and Larkin also had them worried. But for my money the man who worked himself almost to a standstill was skipper John Duffy, who was crunchingly rock solid in defence and often started dangerous right wing moves, Duffy in fact went desperately close to puncturing the Italian "Iron Curtain" in 44 minutes, when he found the ball at his toes six yards out, after Larkin had nodded down a free kick. But his shot on the turn carried very little power and Albertosi saved easily. The Milan keeper tasted a fair bit of action in that first half.
After only five minutes he got down to cut a cross from Larkin with martin steaming in and later he did well to stop a Minnock pile driver, that came through a defensive wall after a short free from Humphries. The crowd were rubbing their hands in anticipation of what Athlone were going to put together, with a swirling wind behind them after the interval.
But it was an anti-climax. Although they chased every ball, they never succeeded in creating the same clear cut chances. Mick O'Brien had probably the quietest afternoon of his 10-years with the club. Regardless of how Athlone fare in the second leg in Milan's giant San Siro Stadium and the Italians must now be odds-on to advane, they can look back on this day with pride for years to come.