Gigi Peronace was a charismatic and influential man. Born in the town of Soverato in Calabria, the region that makes up the toe of Italy’s boot, Peronace was an important figure in the world of Italian football despite never playing the game professionally.
Fluent in English, he became one of the first modern-day agents on the continent, negotiating player transfers and manager contracts for some of Britain and Italy’s top stars. On top of that, Peronace was also the brains behind one of the most absurd, thrilling and unique tournaments the sport has ever seen.
The Anglo-Italian Cup was created in 1970 after the success of the similarly named Anglo-Italian League Cup the previous year. That competition, which also ran in 1970, ’71, ’75 and ’76, was established in 1969 to compensate Swindon Town for UEFA’s refusal to allow them to enter the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which they were entitled to do having just triumphed in the Football League Cup.
Their status as a Division Three outfit was what prevented them from doing so, prompting the FA –who were unimpressed with the decision of European football’s governing body – to arrange for the Robins to take on Coppa Italia winners Roma instead. The Giallorossi probably shouldn’t have bothered: despite having just finished eighth in Serie A, they were comprehensively beaten 5-2 on aggregate.
It’s unlikely that Peronace personally attended either legs of that tie, but he was almost certainly keeping an eye on events from afar. The then 43-year-old had always been something of an Anglophile, using his fluent English language skills to arrange games between Italian locals and British soldiers in the Second World War, in which the enthusiastic goalkeeper probably took up a role between the sticks.
His professional life allowed him to become good friends with Matt Busby and Denis Follows, the Secretary of the Football Association between 1962 and 1975, while he also worked on the deals that took Jimmy Greaves from Chelsea to Milan, John Charles from Leeds United to Juventus, Denis Law from Manchester City to Torino, Liam Brady from Arsenal to Juventus, and Joe Baker from Hibernian to Torino. Juventus had previously employed him as a translator for their English bosses Billy Chalmers and Jesse Carver, and he spent some time as Lazio’s ‘transfer manager’ before becoming an agent in 1957.
“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 wrote in his autobiography. “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.”
Never one to miss an opportunity, Swindon’s clash with Roma alerted Peronace to the potential popularity of a regular tournament pitting Italian outfits against their English counterparts. The inaugural edition of the Anglo-Italian Cup began just six months after the second leg at the County Ground, with Peronace one of the chief organisers.
He may not have been directly responsible for it, but the tournament’s unusual format certainly reflected the Italian’s maverick personality. In the early years, the competition began with three groups of four teams – two from each country – with each side playing home and away matches against the two other teams who weren’t from their nation.
Rather than a rankings table for each individual group as would ordinarily be expected, clubs were again divided by their country of origin into two overall standings, with the two English sides with the most overall points going through to face the two highest-ranked Italian teams in the semi-finals. In 1970, for instance, Sunderland played twice against Lazio and Fiorentina but were graded against the points obtained by Wolves, Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday, Swindon and West Brom in their matches against Italian opposition.
Even more unusually, points weren’t awarded in the normal way: while it remained two for a win and one for a draw as was customary at the time, sides received an additional point for every goal they scored, which in theory could have led to an Italian team topping their country’s group with zero victories and zero draws and an English outfit finishing bottom of theirs despite winning every game.
The rulebook tampering did not end there: offside was adapted so that it only came into effect inside the penalty area, while five substitutes could be named and two used for the first time, which gave managers the freedom to make changes based on tactics as well as injuries. All of the alterations were made with the intention of encouraging attacking football, but many had been abandoned by 1973.
There was something of a discrepancy between the representatives of the two nations in the 1970s – whereas Serie A heavyweights Roma, Juventus and Inter represented Italy, England tended to send second tier or unfashionable top-flight teams – but that merely added to the mystique. It’s hard not to chuckle when glancing at some of the results from the first four editions from 1970 onwards: Sheffield Wednesday 4-3 Napoli, Juventus 0-1 Swindon, Sampdoria 2-3 Huddersfield, Inter 1-2 Crystal Palace, Roma 1-2 Blackpool, Luton 1-0 Fiorentina, Roma 2-3 Carlisle, Napoli 0-1 Swindon and Sampdoria 1-4 Blackpool, to name but a few.
Regrettably, violence on both the pitch and the terraces marred multiple matches in the first four years. Swindon stormed into a 3-0 lead against Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo in the 1970 final, but the 90 minutes were not completed as home supporters intervened by throwing objects onto the pitch and at the opposition dugout, leading to 30 arrests and over 100 injuries. Three years later, Hull’s 2-1 defeat of Lazio “deteriorated into a rough and tumble that twice threatened to develop into a wholesale punch-up,” wrote Brian Taylor in the Hull Daily Mail, with police ultimately forced to intervene after a fight broke out between a steward and Lazio physio Tomasso Mastrelli.
Dwindling interest and concerns over fixture congestion led to the Anglo-Italian Cup being abandoned in 1973, although it was opened again to Italian third tier and English fifth division outfits between 1976 and 1986. Teams from the peninsula dominated this period of its history, with Sutton United – who beat Chieti 2-1 in 1979 – the only English side to be crowned champions despite appearances in the final from Wimbledon, Bath City and Poole Town.
The thirst to see professional English and Italian clubs go head-to-head clearly hadn’t completely died, though, for the initial tournament was brought back in 1992 as a replacement for the Full Members Cup, which itself was created to fill the post-Heysel gap when English sides were banned from European competition. There were fewer games between teams from the same country than before as all-English qualifiers were held, with Cremonese going on to seal the trophy with a 3-1 win over Derby County at Wembley. Brescia, Notts County and Genoa then triumphed in the subsequent three years, before the competition folded for good in 1996 as the FA and the FIGC disagreed over when the fixtures should be played.
One of the most memorable matches in the Anglo-Italian Cup’s third incarnation was a clash between Ancona and Birmingham in 1995-96. The Blues stormed into a 2-0 lead in front of 800 supporters – 92 of whom had made the trip from the West Midlands – which seemed to anger the Ancona players, who reacted with some forceful challenges on their opponents. Things boiled over when Paul Tait reacted badly to a foul by Marco Sesia, with almost every player on the pitch piling in and the Italians’ manager Massimo Cacciatori entering the field of play and grabbing Ricky Otto by the throat.
There were more flare-ups involving Paolo Orlandoni and Steve Castle, Jonathan Hunt and Vincenzo Esposito, and Francisco Tomei and Sigurd Rushfeldt, with Ancona defender Davide Tentoni even striking out at Birmingham physio Neil McDiarmid. The final whistle ended the game but not the trouble, Cacciatori suffering a fractured cheekbone and referee John Lloyd breaking a finger as the fighting intensified.
Italian police were called and reacted by confiscating the passports of the Birmingham travelling party, with Michael Johnson, Liam Daish and coach David Howell formally charged. The trio refused to attend court hearings in Italy, however, and rumour has it that they still risk arrest by returning to the peninsula today.
Despite being plagued at various times by violence, disinterest and frankly absurd organisation, it’s easy to see why such a wonderfully weird and whacky tournament is still looked backed on with fondness 20 years after its abolition.
There was a real exoticism to the Anglo-Italian Cup; English sides had the chance to face glamorous opponents they’d probably never met before and haven’t met since, which must have been an extremely exciting prospect in the days in which it wasn’t possible to watch teams like Fiorentina and Inter on television every week. Swindon fans who were present to see their side beat Juventus in Italy will never forget those memories, nor the travelling supporters who watched Carlisle defeat Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.
It was bonkers and bizarre and it’s not hard to understand why it was ultimately cancelled in 1996, but its imperfections were a big part of what made the Anglo-Italian Cup so romantic.
By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball