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Crystal palace

      Palace in Milan: When Tambling and co. conquered the San Siro


      When Inter Milan lined up against Crystal Palace on this day (4th June) in 1971, there was a fair amount of confidence coursing through their veins. The Italians were high on their status as Serie A champions, viewed as world-beaters after roaring success in the 1960s, and their league season had ended with a 23-game unbeaten run.

      By contrast, their English adversaries were pleased to have avoided relegation from the top-flight, having just finished their second-ever season at such a level. While Palace were no team to be scoffed at, the difference between them and the then-two time European Cup winners was incomparable.

      In ordinary circumstances, the two teams would never meet, but the circumstances were far from ordinary in 1971.

      The Anglo-Italian Cup was a wonderful idea, but when you look back on it today it seems remarkably quaint. Played from 1970-1973, eight English teams and eight Italian sides would compete for the title. It gave rise to wonderful match-ups: Roma against Blackpool; Lazio against Middlesbrough; Verona against Stoke City.

      It was the brainchild of Gigi Peronace, one of the first modern-day football agents. Friends with Sir Matt Busby, he facilitated Jimmy Greaves’ move from Chelsea to AC Milan.

      “In 1961, Mario Puzo was in the process of writing The Godfather, which, looking back, is somehow appropriate because Gigi Peronace looked as if he could have stepped from the pages of Puzo’s novel of Mafia family life,” Greaves later wrote of him.

      Gigi Peronace with Jimmy Greaves and Alan Mullery
      Gigi Peronace with Jimmy Greaves and Alan Mullery

      “If a crocodile could talk it would sound like Gigi Peronace. He was an imposing figure, one to be wary of, yet he could charm a bracelet.”

      The tournament’s rules were complex and erratic, with teams split into three groups: two Italian sides and two English sides forming each. Every club would face the two foreign outfits home and away and their points would go towards an overall mini-league, again split by country.

      Once these groups were completed and two final tables were formed, one English side would take on one Italian side in the final, with the winner named champion.

      To further complicate matters, points were awarded not only by result, but by goals scored, too. It meant, in theory, a team who finished their mini-league without a single win could top the group by scoring the most goals, should they be prolific enough.

      Quaint idea maybe, but the reality was quite different. The first final – Swindon Town taking on Napoli – was abandoned after 79 minutes due to fan violence. Two pitch invasions and a barrage of missiles saw the referee call the contest up with the English side three goals to the good, and the trophy was awarded before the game could be concluded.

      “Disgruntled fans, angered at the home side's failure to check brilliant Swindon, hurled a fusillade of rocks and bottles on the field, prompting the police to retaliate with teargas,” wrote one reporter “Groups of youngsters then started breaking up stones and wooden benches and hurling them over the wide moat and onto the pitch.”

      The Swindon Advertiser even lauded Napoli’s ‘inability to match the craft and finishing of Swindon Town’. Some change of fortunes since.

      When Crystal Palace took part in the second year, 1971, they joined the likes of Blackpool, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City from England and Italy provided clubs such as Roma, Bologna and, of course, Inter Milan.

      Palace were placed in what was fast dubbed ‘the group of death’, drawn against Inter, West Brom and World Cup finalist Luigi Riva’s Cagliari.

      The then-Glaziers kick-started their participation well, with a single Bobby Tambling goal defeating Cagliari and a single Alan Birchenall effort drawing with Inter - both games at Selhurst Park.

      With their matches in England completed to a degree of success, Palace prepared for a trip to Italy.

      “I remember, we stopped at an exclusive, five-star training hotel,” midfielder Birchenall later recalled of the trip to face Cagliari in Sardinia. “I remember going to the ground and the thing that amazed me: the turf was like the pitches today.

      “Back in the day, Selhurst Park was like the Somme at times… But when we went onto the pitch to have a look and walk out, there were about two dozen people on their hands and knees, cutting the bloody turf and pulling any weeds out. It was perfect.”

      The perfect pitch lent itself to Cagliari’s football and, as Selhurst had benefitted its usual occupants the week before, the Italians ran out victors over the south Londoners.

      With a record of one win, one draw and one loss behind them, Palace prepared to take on Inter Milan for the second time in the tournament.

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      Back in the day, Selhurst Park was like the Somme at times…

      Alan Birchenall

      Birchenall recalls a unique pre-match build-up: “I remember being in the same hotel as Inter and we had to pass them in the dining room. They were having a pre-match lunch, they went in first and we had an annex. We had to go past them to get to the annex and we were playing them later on.

      “I remember walking past and I went: ‘Have a look, each player has a glass of wine!’ I found out it was just common for Italian players in that era to have a glass of wine. We thought it was bloody fruit juice but they’re allowed to have a glass of wine about midday. Italians love it – so they had a glass and we had a frickin’ lemonade.”

      Lemonades finished, Palace travelled to the San Siro – with Inter the brimming defenders of a near-impenetrable fortress.

      “It was like a theatre,” Birchenall describes his feelings before kick-off. “I remember walking out and the fans were on top of you – they went vertically up about three levels. Then we looked at their teamsheet...”

      The Inter team included too many icons to list, but those that stood out included Jair da Costa, Tarcisio Burgnich, Mario Corso, Sandro Mazzola, Luis Suarez and Giacinto Facchetti – all club legends in their own right.

      Dave McClelland from the Croydon Advertiser described the following exchanges in a commending match report.

      "In 90 minutes in the great San Siro Stadium on Friday evening Crystal Palace revealed stature that marked their real breakthrough into European soccer," he wrote.

      "Inter Milan, the new Italian League champions, studded with internationals and unbeaten on their own ground for seven months, shrunk from the arena to the tune of 28,000 whistling fans who knew they had been painfully whipped.

      "And Palace’s prestige-winning performance brought this comment from Inter: 'It’s the best display we have seen from a British side for years'."

      Palace’s performance so highly praised by McClelland saw them run-out as 2-1 victors thanks to a smart Tambling brace.

      But, McClelland wrote, Tambling’s honours could so easily have gone to Terry Wharton, Jim Scott or Alan Birchenall, such was Palace’s finishing power which faced Inter’s unhappy goal-keeper Ivan Bordon.

      Palace ended the ‘71 Anglo-Italian Cup with two memorable wins over both Italian opponents alongside a draw and a loss, but staggeringly still finished their group fifth out of sixth with nine points. The south Londoners had the exact same record (W2 D1 L1) as three of the teams above them and could boast of a better record than Huddersfield Town, who still sat in front with two losses and two wins.

      But such was their goal haul – just four from four games – Tambling, Birchenall and co. had to contend with a harsh-looking finish.

      Still, for Palace it was a summer of La Dolce Vita. They had beaten Inter Milan on their own turf.

      How many teams can say that?