Merthyr Tydfil vs. Atalanta: The story of an unforgettable upset

Wales is a country where the oval ball dominates, yet there is one town in mid-Glamorgan where football is a religion and eclipses everything else. Merthyr Tydfil does not roll off the tongue and will mean nothing to most fans, but they have a pedigree to match any non-league side.

Formed in the summer of 1908, the side donned their famous red and green shirts for the first time and never looked back. Just 12 years later and the club was elected into the newly formed Football League. Yet it was in the aftermath of the Second World War when Merthyr really made a name for themselves. By the end of the 1940s, they had won both the Southern League title and the Welsh Cup for the first time.

Four consecutive titles followed between 1950 and 1954 as well as another cup triumph, this time with a dramatic 3-2 final victory over Cardiff City. But, just as everything appeared to be going so well for the Glamorgan club, they were dealt a blow which would take decades to recover from.

Given their success around the time, Merthyr were one of the best non-league sides in the UK. Inevitably calls for their inclusion in the revamped Football League grew and grew. However, despite a proud tradition, the club were unable to gain election.

It is still unclear exactly why the Welsh club were refused entry but many believe the greyhound track around their home at Penydarren Park ultimately cost them. Ran like a Football League club, Merthyr struggle to cope with playing at the lower level. A period of decline took hold.

Summing up the mess that followed at Merthyr, chairman Maldwyn Davies declared himself manager in the early part of the 1970s, even though he had never played football. Unsurprisingly results slumped and gates fell to as low as 196. It looked as if the glory days at Penydarren Park had gone forever.

What Merthyr needed was strong leadership and in John Reddy they found a saviour. He took over the club at its lowest ebb in the early 1980s. Debts had mounted up and the club lacked any kind of infrastructure. But under Reddy, Merthyr re-found its identity. Crucial to this was the continued role played by club legend Ken Tucker. Having played and managed the club before, in his new position as club secretary Tucker was the man on the ground Reddy needed to implement his masterplan.

The revival was underway and a clear plan was in place. What was missing was a man on the sidelines to oversee an upturn in the fortunes on the pitch. The brief for new manager Lyn Jones in April 1985 was therefore simple: improve team performances.

A 3-1 win in the South Wales Cup final against Barry Town was a fitting start for the new man in charge and in Jones’ first full season Merthyr narrowly missed out on promotion having finished third. The following campaign saw more success at the club as they won the Southern League Merit Cup, awarded to the side who scored the most goals in the three leagues below the conference, due mainly to the goals scoring ability of Dai Webley, who netted 59 in all competitions.

A season of highs was capped by an appearance in the Welsh Cup final, following a dramatic penalty shootout triumph in the semi-final against Bangor City. “We’ve had a good side at the Park for a number of seasons, but now we have the right balance,” captain Chris Holvey, who was a lifelong Merthyr fan, said of the team Jones had put together.

After the first match at Ninian Park in Cardiff had finished 2-2, Newport County and Merthyr faced off again days later in the replay. “It was a real battle, the replay. Newport were scared of us for sure,” Holvey reminisced about his finest hour. A true captain’s display would inspire his side to a 1-0 win and the picture of Holvey lifting the trophy with a bulging black eye remains one of the most iconic images in the club’s history.

The Upset

Jones had ended Merthyr’s long wait for a Welsh Cup in the competition’s centenary edition. He had also guided the club to Europe for the first time. The town and the area were gripped by Euro fever — fans dreamt of watching their team face giants of the European game like Ajax, Sporting Lisbon and Marseille, who were also in the Cup Winners’ Cup. As a reward for their domestic cup triumph, Merthyr were drawn against Atalanta from the mighty Serie A.

At this time, Serie A was on the verge of becoming the best league in football. Arrigo Sacchi had just joined AC Milan, while Diego Maradona was delighting fans at the San Paolo following his move from Barcelona. Atalanta were considered one of the best teams in Italy, under president Cesare Bortolotti and manager Nedo Sonetti, who guided the club from Serie B to a ninth-place finish in the top flight within the space of three seasons.

Yet while the 1986-87 season was historic for Merthyr, it was dreadful for the Bergamo outfit. Despite being led by iconic captain and Swedish international Glenn Strömberg, Atalanta struggled and were relegated on the final day of the season having collected just 21 points from 30 games. Sonetti was sacked but not before guiding the club to a Coppa Italia final, the only shining light of a terrible campaign.

In the final, a Napoli side inspired by Maradona made light work of Sonetti’s men, beating them 4-0 over two legs. With the Partenopei claiming a historic league and cup double, Atalanta were given the consolation of a place in the Cup Winners’ Cup as they began life back in Serie B.

People in Merthyr Tydfil did not care about the struggles of their first European opponents. They had been handed a glorious tie and even with Atalanta falling to the second tier, the Welsh side from the seventh level of British football still claimed the mantle of huge underdogs. The tie also drew memories of Merthyr’s most famous player.

John Charles, who had made his name as a star at Juventus, ended his career as player-manager of the Glamorgan side. Joining in 1972, he was given the almost impossible task of the turning the club’s fortunes around at a time when the club couldn’t even afford to turn the floodlights on for its evening training sessions. Despite loving his time at Penydarren Park, Charles oversaw his first and only relegation in his career.

Memories of the ‘Gentle Giant’ were not the only reasons why the fixture took on extra significance for the Merthyr fans. Following the tragic events at Heysel, English clubs were banned from Europe, meaning the Glamorgan side were the only representative in European football from either Wales or England for the 1987-88 campaign. There was a feeling that the Martyrs faithful had to rebuild the reputation of British fans abroad. They did not disappoint.

As soon as the draw was made, the town became a sea of Italian flags. Tickets were like gold dust as the club prepared itself for the biggest night in its history. Chairman Reddy invested heavily (£150,000, to be precise) to make sure the stadium was ready. Everything seemed right and fittingly on the night before the match, Welsh hero Ian Rush rang up the manager Lyn Jones to wish the side all the best. They’d need it.

The Merthyr fans made the usual trip to Penydarren Park more in hope than expectation. New Atalanta coach Emiliano Mondonico brought his side to Wales on the back of a bright start to the Serie B campaign with forward Oliviero Garlini in particularly good form. What the Welsh fans saw was the game of a lifetime.

“There were as many people as you could squeeze into the stadium. The atmosphere was magical, absolutely electric,” Merthyr captain Andrew Beattie declared. The match was sell-out with an official attendance 8,000 but reports suggested as many as 14,000 fans were crammed in. Just before the game kicked off an Italian journalist was so confident he proclaimed: “If it isn’t 5-1 by half-time it would be a farce.”

Merthyr started the game at a hell of tempo. As the home faithful roared on every touch the non-league side made, Atalanta’s players looked shell-shocked. As the pressure mounted, the Italian visitors buckled. Kevin Rodgers, who would go on to play for both Aston Villa and Birmingham, drilled home a well-worked set piece move to open the scoring on 34 minutes. Penydarren Park was bouncing.

However, just before half-time and against the run of play, Merthyr conceded. Domenico Progna, Atalanta’s record appearance holder in European competitions, steered the ball home from close range after a stunning move. As the players headed into the dressing rooms, the Merthyr players were cheered off the pitch by a vocal home support.

Despite levelling the game, Atalanta failed to take control after the restart. “The pitch was not in the best of conditions, which probably helped us,” Beattie later admitted but even so, the Welsh minnows out-thought and out-battled their illustrious opponents. As the match entered the final stages it looked as if Atalanta would escape with a draw and an important away goal. But Merthyr were not to be denied.

Ceri Williams was one of Lyn Jones’ first signings at the club and turned out to be his best. After impressing at Cardiff-based side Blaenrhondda, he joined Merthyr in 1985 on a deal which saw him paid £10 and two pints a game, while he worked during the day in the tarmac trade. With just three minutes to go against Atalanta, he found space in the box following a corner and rifled home from close range, albeit thanks to a heavy deflection.

Penydarren Park erupted for the second time and Atalanta had no time to recover. As the final whistle blew, the celebrations commenced. While the home players went on a lap of honour, Atalanta’s stars left the pitch with their heads down. On 16 September 1987, 11 players and their manger earned themselves immortality.

“We became instant heroes and partied all night, into the morning,” Beattie recollected. Merthyr were the talk of British football. Following his winning goal, Williams topped the bill on ITV’s famous football programme Saint and Greavsie, hosted by Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves. While his players partied and lapped up the attention, Lyn Jones already had his focus on the return leg in Italy.

Merthyr’s preparations for the game in Bergamo were dealt a cruel blow just before kick-off. Former England international Bob Latchford had missed the first leg with a groin strain but was expected to make the return match. Yet he failed a late pre-game fitness test and watched the game from the stands, after playing such a crucial role in the Welsh Cup triumph. He was joined by a notable travelling Welsh contingent.

“It sounded as though half the people in Merthyr had travelled to Italy for the second leg,” Beattie proudly boasted. A once in a lifetime trip was made by Merthyr fans who could never have dreamt of such an away game. Journalists as well made the journey to northern Italy hoping to report on the biggest cup upset in Welsh club football history.

They were greeted by an intimidating atmosphere. The Atalanta fans turned up in huge numbers as flares and banners welcomed the players onto the pitch, in an environment the Merthyr players had and would never again play in.

For Mondonico, the pressure was on. Following the shock defeat in Wales, his job had come under scrutiny and nothing but a win would save him. Fortunately for him, his players delivered.

In a role reversal of the first game, it was Atalanta who imposed themselves on the match. Merthyr struggled to live with the quality of their opponents who looked at ease in familiar surroundings. Just 18 minutes in and Atalanta made the breakthrough thanks to goal machine Garlini. Before half-time, the Italians gained a firm grip on the tie as Aldo Cantarutti made it 2-0 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.

Merthyr came out for the second half with typical fighting spirit, but they lacked the quality to create any real chances as Atalanta saw the match out. The European adventure was over for the Welsh minnows.

There was an air of relief around the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia as Atalanta had squeezed through while the Merthyr players were devastated. Yet, just as in the first leg, Merthyr’s fans gave their side a warm and vocal send-off knowing they had given their all. After the game, players and fans alike went to a pub near the stadium to celebrate their remarkable European journey.

“It took us 10 games to win the Welsh Cup and then we ran a great team incredibly close. We won the first leg and I believe we should have won the tie over the two legs,” Jones insisted in the aftermath.

Changing Fortunes

Despite the unconvincing nature of the victory, Mondonico kept his job and used the result as a stepping stone. La Dea went on to reach the semi-finals, beating Sporting Lisbon along the way before losing to shock winners KV Mechelen from Belgium. It remains to this day the best European run by a second-tier outfit and the best in the club’s history.

A fourth-place finish in Serie B sealed promotion with Garlini’s 17 goals proving crucial. The club and Mondonico built on the success and with the signing of Argentine World Cup star Claudio Caniggia and Atalanta made consecutive appearances in the UEFA Cup in 1989-1990 and in 1990-91, where they reached the quarter-finals. Fittingly, in both of those years the final was an all-Italian affair.

Likewise, Merthyr went from strength to strength following the remarkable European tie. In their first game back in domestic competition after their exploits aboard, Williams’ six goals helped them thrash Rushden 11-0. Promotion to the Conference was secured in the same season with a 3-1 win over Crawley in front of over 3,000 home supporters, sealing Jones’ place as the club’s best manager of all time.

Within four years, the Welsh side had established themselves as a force at their new level, finishing as high as fourth in 1992. Yet history repeated itself. Just as Merthyr looked destined to enter the Football League, the club struggled to take the next step. Relegated in 1995, the Glamorgan side never recovered.

The turn of the century saw Merthyr struggle off the field and tread water on it. A televised FA Cup game against Walsall in 2005 was supposed to ensure the club’s future but it only delayed the inevitable. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs grew tired of unpaid debts and in the summer of 2010, Merthyr Tydfil FC was liquidated. A famous club was lost. Ironically, at the same time Atalanta were relegated to Serie B.

Yet just like after they met back in 1987, both teams have seen an upturn in their fortunes. The Italian side made an instant return to Serie A under Stefano Colantuono and have stayed ever since. They are currently enjoying one of their best ever starts to a top-flight campaign and with the continuing success of their famed academy, the future looks bright in Bergamo.

The same can be said for Merthyr. Straight after the high court decision which saw the end of Merthyr Tydfil FC, a supporters group, Martyrs to the cause, resurrected the club. They emerged as Merthyr Town in reference to the original name of the town’s football club. Plying their trade in the lower leagues of Welsh football, the football-crazy town once again has a club to be proud of and are even back at Penydarren Park after life 20 miles away in Taffs Well.

Even with a different name, Merthyr’s footballing history is still at the centre of the club and the town itself, and one match in particular stands out.

“It was the best game of my life … I still watch the highlights on YouTube,” goalscoring hero Ceri Williams admits. Williams works in the tarmac trade but his name is written into Merthyr’s footballing history. His and the other ‘Martyrs of ‘87’s’ famous win over Atalanta will never be forgotten in the small town in rural Wales which shocked European football.

Words by Richard Hinman @RichardHinman

Richard has been an avid follower of Italian football since the turn of the century and in particular Roma’s dramatic final day Scudetto triumph. A Yorkshire man with Calabrian roots, he is passionate about writing on all things calcio, from its historic players to current issues.